Tag Archives: Christianity

Life in the New World, 20 Years after a Death

img_205020 years ago on this day, February 8, 1997, my fiancée Diane Michelle Thompson died in a car accident while driving to work. It was in the early morning, and the roads were icy. Diane lost control of her car when she slipped on a patch of black ice. Her car crossed the road and slammed into a telephone pole killing her instantly. She was just 22-years-old. I was a month away from my 23rd birthday.

Diane and I had been engaged for almost 2 years and were 4 months away from our wedding day. In fact, we were just about to start addressing our wedding invitations when she died. We had already purchased our wedding rings.

I distinctly remember that morning. At around 8 AM, Diane’s work called to see if I knew where she was. (She sometimes went to work from my house, and I was an emergency contact for her.) That call concerned me a little, but then again, Diane was never known for her promptness to much of anything. Still that was late, even for her. I told them I hadn’t heard from Diane, but to please have her check in with me when she got there.

A little while later, the phone rang again. It was Diane’s father.

“Chris,” he said. “It’s Mike. Listen, I’ve got some really bad news.”

“Really? What’s wrong?” I asked. Mike had a stoic, matter-of-fact way of talking about most things, but I could sense tension in his voice. This call was for something quite different.

“Chris, listen… Diane was on her way to work. Her car slipped on the ice and she got into an accident. She didn’t make it,” he said.

I paused a moment, not sure how to gauge what he just said. “Didn’t make it? Well, what do you mean? Is she alright?”

“No, no, you don’t understand,” he said. “She. Didn’t. Make it.” Suddenly the ominous weight of what Mike just said sunk right into my skull.

“You mean… She’s dead?” I asked. Those words fell out of my mouth lingering there in a vacuum of disembodied space.

“Yeah…” he mumbled. I closed my eyes. I don’t remember the rest of the conversation.

The life I had known up until that moment quickly vanished. When I opened my eyes again, it was like I found myself vaulted into an alternate universe. I had no idea where I was or what to do. The same people and surroundings were still there, but with Diane suddenly gone, it was all a mere shell of what used to be. I was scared, paralyzed, lost. Before me was a dark, murky future I didn’t know and didn’t want. I was taken captive into a whole New World, and at first, I did all I could to break free from it. It was a world without Diane, without all my hopes, dreams, and plans. It felt like a barren wasteland of vague memories and shattered expectations.

I wanted to wake up and go home.

†††††††

20 years later, I find myself in this same New World. I have since learned to embrace it and thrive in it, and I’ve received the unique gifts it has offered me, most especially its lessons about life and death. This New World reminds me how fragile our existence is and how uncertain our tomorrow is, if it even exists at all. This New World insists on doing whatever is most important Today, while it is still Today.

And like the cherubim who guard the way into Eden with flaming swords, my New World doesn’t let me enter the Old World gardens of What If, Should Have Been, and Could Have Been. Once in a while I find myself wandering over to see if I can catch a glimpse into those Old World gardens. I think about where Diane and I would be if she were still alive. What would she look like now? What would our children be like? What memories would we have made together?

But then the phone rings. I get a text. My wife or one of my children calls my name, and just as quickly, I find myself back in the New World where I belong. It’s certainly not perfect or ideal. (Then again, taking off my rosy lenses of reminiscence, the Old World with Diane wasn’t exactly perfection, either- far from it.) 20 years ago, I wanted nothing to do with this New World, but now, I can’t fathom my life without all that God has given me since. I have a beautiful wife, companion and partner named Blairlee. I have three beautiful children- Kathryn, Grace Elizabeth and Jacob, all gifts from God in this world into which God had a hand in bringing me.

With that said, I have a strange confession: in a way, I will always love and miss Diane. At first glance, that may seem scandalous, even pathetic. How could I love and miss a person who is dead while being a happily married husband and father?

The most powerful lesson this New World has graciously taught me is this: love, true love, never ends. Love adapts and changes, as it should. Love brings about different ties and obligations over time. For example, I will always love my children, and I’m imagining that I will miss them when they venture out on their own to begin their adult lives. Yet my love for them, properly evolved, cannot keep them from living as full-fledged adults. In a similar vein, that’s where I find myself with Diane. I still love her for the woman she was and for the enormous impact she has had on my life, before and after her death. I miss that she’s still not here among us, most especially with her parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and cousins. And while not teetering too far into Old World longing, I recognize the truth that if Diane were still alive, we would be married, our lives looking quite differently than they do today.

But that’s where New World love and grief meet a healthy conclusion. I do not long for a ghost to jettison me from the life I have inherited as a result of her tragic death 20 years ago. (She wouldn’t tolerate that foolishness anyway.) As we say, “Life goes on.”  At times, it is a stoic determination to keep one foot in front of the other, and at best, a grand celebration that death has been swallowed up in the victory of life. Either way, as Peter Gabriel once wisely sang, “life carries on, and on, and on.” Indeed it does.

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Why Bother with Churches Full of Hypocrites?

(The following is adapted from a sermon I preached on Sunday January 22, 2017.)

“Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.

“Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have one Teacher, and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one Instructor, the Messiah. The greatest among you will be your servant. For those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You shut the door of the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when you have succeeded, you make them twice as much a child of hell as you are.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

‭Matthew‬ ‭23:1-13, 15, 23-28‬

As I thought about today’s topic- the claim made by many non-religious skeptics that the church is filled with hypocrites- I could not avoid this passage of scripture. It’s harsh. It’s very difficult to read, and believe me, it’s even more difficult to teach and preach. And yet, the jarring parts of the Bible which perplex and disturb us are most likely the things we need to hear the most.

The more I read today’s passage, the more I’m convinced that this body of Jesus’ teaching was preserved very intentionally to admonish the whole church. Jesus allows us no room to sit in idle condemnation of other people, whether it’s the Pharisees of yesterday or today. This passage stands as a mirror to the Pharisee ensconced in each of us. It’s a warning, a gut check, a spiritual reality check.

img_1185Even then, Jesus was not condemning or writing off these fellow Jews. Of the major Jewish sects in his time, Jesus was most at home with the Pharisees. Jesus shared the Pharisees’ commitment to faithfully live out Torah in the world. Jesus shared their theology, especially the Jewish belief in the resurrection and the kingdom to come. So Jesus was not addressing the Pharisees as an outsider rebel rouser railing against an evil establishment, but as a likeminded Jew. This was very much an in-house confrontation.

As Jesus confronted the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, I don’t hear stern anger or harsh pulpit pounding. I hear despair and deep disappointment. I do see anger in Jesus’ words, too, but it was anger from a broken heart rather than righteous indignation.

Hypocrisy…  In essence, hypocrisy is claiming to be something I’m not. It’s a deception, a living lie. I become a hypocrite when I insist on a virtue I do not possess while hiding behind a plastic mask of righteousness.

Hypocrisy is driven by one thing: fear. It’s the fear of confronting my  whole self- both the good and bad, my angels and my demons, my purity and my impurity. It’s the fear of others seeing and confronting the real me. It’s the fear of being unloved, under-valued, and under-appreciated.

And when it comes to the world of spirituality and religion, hypocrisy is particularly ugly and all too easy to find. It’s our most costly liability. We people of faith hold up very high standards of values, virtue, and righteousness. At times we prophetically challenge evil and unrighteousness in our world. So when we act in contradiction to the life of faith and righteousness we profess, especially when our duplicity wounds other people, our hypocrisy becomes terribly egregious.

When Jesus called out the egregious hypocrisy of the Pharisees, he pulled no punches. He accused the Pharisees of showboating their religious practices and adornments to impress the masses. He chastised their scrupulous interpretations of religious law while flatly ignoring more pressing issues of justice and mercy.  Jesus called out their painstaking efforts to fulfill every public religious obligation while blinding themselves to their inner corruption.

Look at that list. Little has changed!  Today’s people of faith can be just as showy and pompous with their religious practices while typifying that old adage of being “so heavenly minded that they’re no earthly good.” People of faith often excel in outward appearances of religious dedication while relegating the brokenness within them to the back closets of denial.

ghosts handWorse still, most people rarely own up to their hypocrisy. That’s because an honest confession of hypocrisy is an admission to living a lie. The illusion has been delusion. Feigned substance has been a wispy shadow. That’s why the typical reaction to a charge of hypocrisy is to lob the accusation right back at the accuser with an incensed retort of  “Who do you think you are to judge me?”

Other than a denial-infused response, how can we disciples of Jesus Christ best respond to the skeptics’ charge of hypocrisy? It’s very simple, actually: own it.

It’s been my experience that the harshest critics of the church, those who readily point out our hypocrisies, have been significantly wounded and deeply disappointed by the church. For many of them, I’m sure it’s cathartic. It’s also a way to mobilize a resistance against our malevolence.That said, we make matters worse when we respond to our critics by saying things like:

“That doesn’t describe me or my church.”

“That happened a long time ago.  It’s time to move on and get over it!”

“You are talking about those other Christians who give a bad name to good Christians like us.”

Those kinds of statements are simply other shades of denial.

Non-Christian skeptics keenly see something about us that we sometimes fail to see about ourselves. They know that Christians everywhere and from every era are bound together as the church. And they’re right. We would also say that each of us are a part of the living body of Christ, a body that encompasses everyone who has been baptized into the faith of Jesus. That would include saints and villains like St. Francis of Assisi and an American South slaveholder, Dorothy Day and Fred Phelps, Sojourner Truth and Pope Urban II (who called for the First Crusade), the many Christians who turned a blind eye to the Holocaust and the Venerable Andrey Sheptytsky, a Ukrainian Greek Catholic archbishop who risked his life housing hundreds of Jews escaping Nazi persecution. All of these Christians and all the rest of us share in one church, sharing both our great good and our terrible actions and inactions.

We must therefore listen to those who hold grievances against the church, acknowledge them, ask their forgiveness and God’s forgiveness, and commit ourselves even more fervently to be like Jesus.

In his book Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller writes about his experience of being a Christian campus minister at Reed College in Oregon, a liberal, humanist college whose faculty and student body by and large regard organized religion with a high degree of disdain.

Every year Reed College holds a weekend of unbridled revelry called Renn Fayre. On the last night, they lock out any authorities to spend the entire night partying, getting drunk and high with the option painting their naked bodies blue while running around campus.

Donald Miller and his friends decided to be there for that final night and set up a booth with a sign that said “Confess Your Sins”. There was a catch, however. If any students approached the booth, the participants inside the booth would spend time confessing their sins and the sins of the church to these students. A student named Jake gave into his curiosity and visited the booth. Donald Miller shared with him who they were and why they were there. Once Jake expressed an interest, Miller confessed his sins to Jake:

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short… Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across. There’s a lot more.”

“It’s all right, man,” Jake said, very tenderly. His eyes were starting to water.

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “I am sorry for all that.”

“I forgive you,” Jake said. And he meant it.

“Thanks,” I told him. (Miller, Blue Like Jazz, 123-4)

Miller recalled that most of these confessionals ended in tearful embraces. Indeed, God melted hearts, most especially those belonging to Donald Miller and his friends. That night was a major turning point in their lives.

img_1177This kind of humility and authenticity is the perfect antidote to the poison of hypocrisy. It is strikingly unusual. It’s an uncanny abasement of ego and arrogance that defies reason. But this is indeed the kind of selfless love- the only kind of love- that has the power to change hearts, beginning with our own.

It’s my prayer that we who claim the name of Jesus would be a people of his cross-shaped grace, that in the face of criticism, we would offer an attentive ear and an open mind. I want us to be a people who utterly reject pretentiousness and defensiveness to claim an honest heart that remains open and ready to offer God’s love and grace to anyone. I want us to be disciples of Jesus who, instead of merely wearing a cross, choose to bear his cross, thereby being transformed into a new creation of humble servants who love and bless all people with God’s uniquely selfless, self-giving love.

We see that love most perfectly in Jesus Christ. May others perfectly see him in us.

Amen.

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What Happened to the War on Christmas??

It just occurred to me that with the advent of Christmas, something has been conspicuously missing.

img_1131This year there are no angry warning blasts about the conspiratorial War on Christmas! Barely a peep. Every year we hear rants and laments about how our godless culture is removing any religious semblance of Christmas out of the mainstream, to the point that we can’t even mention the word “Christmas” anymore. We’re appalled at retail chains for their “holiday” sales and their “Happy Holidays” banners. We’ve been urged to boycott these stores. Schools and public places are taking down their nativity scenes and silencing Christmas songs, replacing them with paltry “Winter Holidays” political correctness. Christ has been Xed out with “Merry Xmas”. Santa has pushed Jesus aside, too.Heck, Starbucks doesn’t even mention holidays or snowflakes on their coffee cups! Poor Jesus.

What is the world coming to??

But this year, all those familiar gloom and doom refrains have been MIA. Why?

I’ve got a theory: there are weightier issues to fret about. The Middle East is edging towards the brink of explosion with Syria being the fuse. We’re on the other side of the most negative, bitterly divisive Presidential election we’ve ever faced in our lifetimes, leaving many people angry and scared. The EU is close to collapse. More of the world is opting for a nativist, nationalistic populism. Our economy is nowhere near stable. We’ve battled over marriage and bathrooms and sitting out the National Anthem.

When it comes down do it, we are so easily distractable. We talk, post, and tweet about whatever storm, real or fabricated, that happens to be raging in the news and social media. Meanwhile yesterday’s storm is long forgotten. (Ask someone now if the dress is blue or gold and watch how many confused responses you get!) Today, all it takes is a few prominent voices to broadcast a storm warning, i.e. “There’s a War on Christmas,” to get the masses debating the issue.

But this year other storms have taken center stage in our public debate, and no one has taken up the War on Christmas cause.

All in all, our distracted silence demonstrates what a silly issue the War on Christmas has been, and how ridiculously shrill the demonstrators have sounded.

Look, here are some basic facts:

  • I can politely wish someone a Merry Christmas and not worry about being condemned, arrested, or assaulted. If I’m extra polite, I can avoid doing that with folks I know don’t observe Christmas. (After all, who has ever come to Jesus after being plastered with “Merry Christmas” greetings?)
  • I can set up my Christmas tree and nativity scene, put lights on my house, and even set up Christmas stuff on my lawn without fear of the government charging me for religious expression.
  • I can freely go to church and celebrate Advent and Christ’s birth and Epiphany, knowing that my government protects my right to worship as I choose.
  • If it so offends me, I can choose not patronize stores or restaurants that refuse to acknowledge the word “Christmas”.
  • I can write any number of blog posts, columns, editorials and books, and organize demonstrations to end any War on Christmas. However, I cannot stop anyone from calling me an idiot. That’s their right, too.

Frankly, I’m relieved there’s no War on Christmas storm warning this year. That has given many of us tremendous freedom to simply tell and live the good news of Jesus’ birth without having to compete for bandwidth with the doomsdayers. Many of my fellow Christians undervalue the compelling message of Emmanuel, God with us in Jesus Christ, especially when it’s shared humbly, passionately, and in a way that connects with our lives as they are:

God is faithful to keep his promises. God loves us and comes to us just as we are. God was birthed right in the middle of our broken messes to bring us love, grace, forgiveness, and a renewed relationship with him. The greatest gift we’ll ever know is the friend, Savior, and Lord we can have in Jesus. The birth of Jesus is more powerful than any one religion because anyone, anywhere, of any race, culture, or belief can discover him.

Isn’t that awesome? Why rant about a so-called War on Christmas when we’ve got a living treasure that has captivated human hearts for nearly 2000 years?

So… next year, can we make it two years in a row that we don’t bemoan the death of Christmas? Please? Instead, let’s learn and relearn how to tell the glad tidings of good news for a world longing for any kind of good news.

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After The Election, Will You Be a Divider or a Healer?

Barring an election night dispute, on Wednesday morning we will wake up to a world in which the 45th President of the United States will be President-elect Donald John Trump or President-elect Hillary Rodham Clinton. When we head out for the day, almost every person we meet will feel elated and optimistic or scared and angry. The rest will have slumped into an apathetic “whatever”.

We can also expect that the President-elect will have to work with a divided Congress, nation, and world.

The Senate will most likely revert to Democratic control while the House remains under Republican control, meaning that whoever is elected President will face the same potential for gridlock and who-will-blink-first-showdowns we’ve seen for the past six years.

Outside of the Washington, the President-elect will face an American population more bitterly divided than at any time in our history, second only to the tumult leading up to our Civil War.

Beyond our shores, he or she will face a Middle East on the brink of region-wide war and nuclear proliferation, a crumbling European Union, the continuing rise of China, a North Korea with expanding nuclear weaponry, and a growing Russian geopolitical domination that has been decisively anti-western.

During times of such peril and division, we look to our leaders to be the great problem solvers and peacemakers. Yet how many presidential and congressional candidates have we elected to “fix the mess in Washington” and provide leadership to the free world, only to find them mired and absorbed into the same messes? It proves that our leaders are a reflection of We the People, and if we are divided and unable to resolve our own conflicts, how can we reasonably expect the politicians we elect to do any better?

img_1030So no matter who becomes the next President-elect this week, you and I will have an equally critical choice to make. Will we be a divider or a healer? Will the things we say, the attitudes we harbor, and the way we treat our neighbors and our leaders stir up further division or offer a balm of healing? While our choice of the next President will be highly consequential to our country and world, the way you and I choose to carry on in the wake of this election will be even more consequential. It’s a choice each of us will make, intentionally or unintentionally, and our choices will reverberate for years to come.

I think we all know what divisive behavior and attitudes look like. So let me offer some ideas on what a healer looks like.

  • Healers carefully measure how they talk about leaders with whom they disagree and the folks who vote for them. Instead of launching ad hominem attacks, resorting to shrill cries that the sky is falling and the antichrist has arrived, or parading around unchecked, unsubstantiated statements about the other side, healers listen and then calmly share their views with the intention of establishing common ground.
  • Instead of looking at the other side with incredulity and spite, healers try very hard to understand what others are saying and what drives them to say those things. Healers empathize with what’s at stake within opposition voices, even when they disagree with how opposing voices see the challenges in our world and their proposed remedies.
  • Rather than taking to social media to spout off their political and social views, which really takes no discipline or real courage to do, healers think twice about what they post. Healers aim to share things that move their social network to think deeply and join in respectful conversation.
  • Instead of attacking the character, intelligence, and perceived motivations of leaders they disagree with, healers respect the office of that leader and offer alternative ideas, even passionately, with the motivation of reaching consensus, not victory over the opposition.
  • Rather than mocking and vilifying opposition voices, healers make every opportunity to engage in meaningful conversation based on respect for the other.

All of this points to a critical question: after this election, will you be a healer or a divider? If you say “neither” while complaining about our divisiveness, your abstention vote goes right to the dividers. Those who sit in apathy and quiet cynicism are just as deadly to our communal health as the ones who are actively dividing us. They simply add to the negativity.

So… in the post-election season, I’ve got several ideas for you to try.

First, if you can’t control your propensity to gloat or rant on social media, do the rest of a favor and go read a book, take a long walk, or sign out for a few weeks or months. Please.

Second, find someone who voted differently than you and have lunch. Make it your goal to learn more about their desires, fears, hopes and dreams. Then establish some places for you both to come together. Short of that, just listen to understand. It will be worth it.

Third, trust that no matter what happens, people are people, and so are you. If you can’t identify with other people- the “them” people- on some basic level, then make that a worthwhile goal. Listen and identify with people on their terms. Sure, if you do, the partisan dividers will call you weak-spined, unprincipled, a sell out, etc. Whatever. Any effort you make will bring healing to our nation and world.

And remember, anything we do to bring healing to our nation and our world, no matter how small or quiet, will indeed make a huge difference, mostly because there are so few healers out there. But you and I can be one of them, if we dare to have the love, courage, and grace to do it.

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.”
‭‭Matthew‬ ‭5:9‬

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Is It un-American to Sit Out the National Anthem?

There are very few things closer to the American spirit than football. If anybody wants to see quintessential Americanism, they need to hang around during football season. They’ll get a dose of American hyper-competitiveness, parties, wagers, fist pumps, plenty of yelling at the TV and just 60 minutes of the fun, fast brute violence of highly paid gladiators slamming, pushing and scraping for points on the gridiron. Now that’s America. (Oh yes… Go Skins!)

Equally American is a certain pre-game ritual at almost every sporting event. For a few moments there is absolute silence as a lone voice performs one of the most difficult songs for a vocalist to sing, our National Anthem. One is expected to stand, gentlemen to remove their hats, and face the flag while placing their right hand over the heart. That’s the standard thing for any American citizen to do. At the bare minimum, everyone in attendance is expected to stand as a sign of respect. Refusing to stand is often scorned as dishonorable and decisively un-American.

Or is it? Can we give that another look?

The American experiment has been a struggle between competing values. That has built our greatness and has continued to define American excellence. For example, at our founding, we made a radical declaration that all people are created equal with inalienable human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; meanwhile 20% of our population were forcibly enslaved. Even after the abolishment of slavery 151 years ago, we have still struggled ensure equality and dignity for all African-Americans. That struggle has pushed us to live into our credo.

Another example: We want and need efficient representative government, but there’s also this keen vigilance in the American spirit to be on guard against any governmental intrusion into our lives. We celebrate our freedom and rugged individualism while despising even a hint of tyranny. However we expect our government to protect those freedoms and “promote the general welfare”, with force if necessary. Just don’t tread on me.

Colin KaepernickRecently a national football player put himself into the middle of another clash of competing American values- American patriotism vs. our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Enter the San Fransisco 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a very talented athlete who at times has been no stranger to controversy.

During the playing of the National Anthem at a preseason game, Kaepernick refused to stand with everyone else. His sit out was widely noticed and roundly booed. Later he stated,

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

As expected Kaepernick has been fiercely criticized for his sit out of the National Anthem. People have accused him of being un-American and furthering disunity. We’ve heard the usual refrains of, “If he doesn’t like our flag, he’s free to leave.” “There are thousands of soldiers and sailors who have died under that flag protecting his freedoms. He’s dishonoring them!” And of course, the internet trolls came out en masse to graffiti his Twitter account with racial epithets.

Were Kaepernick’s actions and statements justified? Was his behavior un-American? Those are two separate questions.

Without commenting here on the justifiability of Kaepernick’s sit out, I do say this:

Colin Kaepernick’s conscientious sit out of the National Anthem demonstrates what is best about America.

There have been and continue to be kingdoms, empires, and nations who would have severely penalized Kaepernick’s behavior as disloyal and even treasonous.

But that would never happen in the United States. In fact, embedded in our founding documents are Kaepernick’s rights to freely speak, even against his own country. He can pontificate. He can refuse to participate in patriotic exercises. He can even burn the flag of the country who guarantees his right to do so. And while he does any of that, his country’s law enforcement and entire legal system stand by to arrest and prosecute anyone who threatens his wellbeing or his ability to speak freely.

As a Christian, I have had brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who been restricted by their government to assemble, worship, and speak out when necessary against the evils and injustices of that country. I am blessed to live in a nation that protects my right to conscience, even if my loyalty to Jesus ever kept me from participating in patriotic exercises.

That reality alone builds my pride in what is best about America.

So Colin, as a fellow American, I salute your right to sit out our National Anthem as a very American thing to do. For my own reasons I won’t be joining you, and later on I might share why. But in the meantime, you have my support to exercise your conscience. I will defend you for it, too. But far more importantly, the United States of America, including those who defend and uphold your liberty, stand behind you, too.

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An Open Letter from a LGBTQ Candidate for Ministry

imageAt this past Annual Conference of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, we had a very emotional debate about approving a woman married to another woman as a Provisional Deacon. (For my non-United Methodist friends, a Deacon in the UMC is a service-oriented kind of ordained ministry. Deacons are pastors who teach and preach with the church while dedicating their lives to a specific, specialized kind of service. Provisional status is the last step towards being fully ordained.) T.C. Morrow had passed through all the steps towards being commissioned, but failed to get the required two-thirds majority of our clergy.

Ms. Morrow was not commissioned. A long process including seminary and a rigorous ordination process has been halted for now.

As you can imagine, the reactions to T.C.’s denial of commissioning as a Provisional Deacon were quite emotional. Some rested assured that our denomination’s standards on human sexuality, specifically our ban on self-avowed practicing homosexuals from ordination, were upheld. Some saw this is a grave injustice, even an act of spiritual violence. Others were disheartened by the reminder that we are bitterly divided over how we understand and include people who are LGBTQ.

In the aftermath of all this, I received an unusual request. This past Thursday on the day after the vote was taken, I was given an anonymous letter to read to the entire Conference. The letter is from an LGBTQ candidate for ministry reacting to the news about T.C. Morrow. I was specifically asked to read it.

Keep in mind that I am not an active advocate for either side of the LGBTQ debate. My role has been to bring people together for dialogue and discernment about how we as the whole church can move forward together without suffering a devastating split over human sexuality matters. I have my own views, yes, which don’t fit neatly into either camp. I enjoy solid relationships and endure suspicious glances from both sides of the debate.

Unfortunately, I was not able to share this person’s letter due to time constraints. However, I am sharing it here on my blog. (I have all the time and space I want right here, and I can’t be ruled out of order.)

This is not necessarily a plea on this person’s behalf. However, I do believe that in a debate of this intensity, all voices must be heard and respected. I believe it an act of of grace and humility when we strive to understand and empathize with every voice, most especially when it’s a voice with which we do not agree. The later is truly Christ-like.

Dear Sisters and Brothers,

I am writing you today as one of your own. I am a pastor who is doing my best to faithfully serve the church and this conference and to live out the calling that God has placed on my life. It is our church that raised me in the faith from my birth to my baptism to my confirmation to the day I felt my heart warmed for the first time and I knew God in my life. I am writing you today because I love you church and I love in particular this the Baltimore Washington Annual Conference. I can remember the first time I attended annual conference and feeling like I had finally found my home, a place where I belonged, a place where I could bring all of me, a place where the spirit moved me to answer my call to ministry.

Sadly, I have begun to question whether I can continue to serve among you because, as a gay person, I am wondering whether the welcome I originally felt was intended for me. I am wondering because we seem to have mostly ignored that an injustice occurred right here on the floor of conference. We have denied a candidate approved by the BOOM her rightful place as a clergy member of this conference. We denied her because she happens to be married to another woman. In doing this, we have failed to recognize one of the most gifted persons for ministry I have ever met and we are lesser for it.

To be clear, however, I am not writing just about this one candidate. I am writing as one of you who is hurting because we did this terrible thing and then moved right along like nothing had happened. We have continued on with our business as if what we have done is ok. It is not. We have sinned and we need to seek forgiveness for the harm we have done, for the message we are sending to our LGBTQ sisters and brothers who are watching and who are gathered right in this room. The message that says you are a not really welcome here unless you are seated and quiet about who you are and who you love. We can do better. We must do better.

Signed,

Your gay sibling in Christ

Thank you for taking the time to read and truly listen to another voice. If you did, you have just made our church a little bit better, even if you don’t agree.

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I Volunteer to Serve on the Council of Bishops’ Special Commission on Human Sexuality

HandsBy this act of presumption, I have probably just disqualified myself from consideration. Bishops generally frown upon clergy who attempt to appoint themselves to things- and for good reason. But since we find ourselves in unprecedented times, why not try an unorthodox approach and see what happens, especially as the fate of my beloved United Methodist Church hangs in the balance? Believe me, I will offer myself to anything that keeps us united and focused on our mission.

Yesterday, the General Conference voted to follow our Council of Bishops’ recommendation to select a special commission to review all of the language in our Book of Discipline dealing with human sexuality, and if necessary rewrite it all. The results of this commission’s work will come before a special gathering of General Conference for their vote in 2 to 3 years’ time.

Bishops, just in case you’re still reading, and aren’t totally put off by my effort to volunteer myself, let me tell you why someone like yours truly would be a good choice for such a commission.

For far too long, we have done the same thing over and over again, only to find ourselves in a worse predicament. Yesterday, Rev. Jeremy Smith reminded us that this would the the sixth attempt at a special commission or study on human sexuality. So while I applaud your leadership and the General Conference’s trust in your leadership, how would this latest go around finally do the trick?

Some have attempted to argue that this time, things are different. In America at least, we’re at a different ideological place than we were before. Same-sex marriage is the law of the land. Therefore, the circumstances for us are much more dire now. The stakes are higher. And this would be the most hands-on that our Bishops have ever been with a commission like this.

A whole new ball game? I’m not entirely convinced.

Undeniable fact: no matter what this commission comes up with, it will still have to survive an entrenched, bitterly divided General Conference who are not of one mind about even staying together!

The only variable that could make a difference- perhaps, and a long shot at that- would be the kinds of people the bishops select to be on this new commission. And that’s where someone like me comes in.

I’m new blood. I’m not a General Conference delegate. I have been spending 10 years attempting to mediate a solution that would include everyone at the same table of grace- no matter their views on what the Bible says or doesn’t say on human sexuality. I haven’t been elected as a delegate, but I certainly do all I can to voice my vision.

I have my own understandings, yes, but I’m not so entrenched that I can’t stretch to embrace a creative view or approach that could bridge a divide. I’m not in this thing to make sure my stance on human sexuality becomes the prevailing one. I’m in it to keep our church unified around Jesus Christ and his mission to advance the kingdom of God in the world.

So, Bishops of the United Methodist Church, if you’ve hung in here this long, but you’re still not accepting my offer to serve on your commission, let me offer some ideas on who would be the most ideal kinds of people to serve:

  • I fully trust that you’ll make the commission diverse. So there’s no need to say more on that.
  • Pick some new blood. If all you do is selected General Conference delegates, there is much higher risk of merely getting the same kinds of results. After all, we seem to be electing the same people or the same kinds of people to General Conference each quadenium. Shake things up. Get some fresh energy, creativity, and perspective in the mix.
  • Pick some younger people and give them leadership roles. Our LGBTQI members and our young people are the ones hurting the most from this debate. Young people see things differently than prior generations, so it is their kind of outlook and leadership we need to trust now if we expect to have a future with fruit and relevance.
  • Pick people who are moderate in their approach. I’m not saying that participants need to be moderate in their viewpoints. They can be passionately progressive or conservative. But one can also be moderate in how they live and advance their views. Moderate folks are open to listen, flexible, and don’t have to have everything their way or else. They are passionate, but not rigid.
  • Pick people who like to think and act in unorthodox ways. Alongside people who uphold and play by the rules, select a few mavericks. These are people who aren’t always bound to follow and uphold every rule. They like to push the envelope and chart new waters. They are entrepreneurs. They are apostles. They are the John Wesleys, Richard Strawbridges and Sojourner Truths of our time. Where would we be without faithful people like these?

Again, my offer is still there to serve, and I would do it gladly and faithfully. But just in case our bishops are not inclined to pick me, I have one request:

Please, for the sake of Christ and his church, fastidiously avoid any concession to make status quo choices.

Dare to be bold!

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