Tag Archives: Church

Arguments in a Vacuum

I was sitting in the back seat of my sister’s car and saw the oncoming vehicle quickly pull out into the intersection in front of us. There was no way to avoid hitting that car. All I could do was close my eyes and brace for the inevitable. CRASH! Even with my futile efforts to brace myself, I got pretty banged up and took an ambulance ride to the hospital. (My sister’s car was totaled, but thank God, no one in either car was seriously hurt.)

Last Tuesday I published a blog post giving my support to a sister-in-Christ, Tara “T.C.” Morrow, a woman married to another woman, who is seeking ordination as a Deacon in our United Methodist Church. I have not publicly shared my views on LGBTQI+ issues for at least four years, opting instead to be a voice for dialogue, mutual respect, and a way forward– work to which I am still strongly committed. But I felt a firm push from Holy Spirit to speak out for T.C., and so I did.

Then I braced myself for the inevitable crash. But then again, why put myself in this position at all?

After watching T.C. Morrow denied commissioning as a Provisional Deacon simply because she is a lesbian, I could not remain silent anymore. To block her path to fulfilling God’s call upon her life as a servant of the church is to depreciate her Christian character, her gifts, graces, her place in the church, and even the integrity of her relationship with Jesus Christ. That is a travesty which damages her and the whole Body of Christ, and it was time for me to say something about it.

In so doing, I knew there would be backlash. It didn’t come at first. In fact I was surprised by all the overwhelmingly positive feedback, especially from folks I didn’t expect to hear from. But then like a tsunami wave, the backlash hit. I’m sure there will be more surges to come.

In writing this post, I went back to re-read some of the comments from my conservative siblings in Christ. Here’s how they reacted to my post:

“…bending Scripture to suit… [your] desires”

“Pastors and church leaders will be held accountable for preaching false doctrine and misleading their ‘flocks'”.

“You are building a house on sand.”

“…teaching that lust is not a sin.”

“…calling sin something else and refusing to call people to holiness – that’s a serious problem.”

“May it never be said of me that I affirmed anyone in their sin. Do not be deceived.”

“There is no love in this. This is nothing but eisegesis.” [Eisegesis is expressing one’s own personal ideas instead of lifting up the meaning of the biblical text.]

And there have been other comments and inferences to the effect that I’ve thrown out, ignored, or perverted Scripture, that I’m accommodating societal sin, that I don’t understand true love, that I’ve been led astray, that I’m turning a blind eye to sin, calling evil good, blah, blah, blah…

Nobody has explicitly accused me of apostasy yet, but I’m sure it’s coming.

IMG_1437What gets to me about all the criticism, however, is that much of it is arguments in a vacuum. Folks are thinking and arguing for principles that do not intersect reality. Yet when confronted with reality, they hot-skip through it like bare feet on hot coals in order to stay put in their disembodied principle bubbles. This occurred to me after I read and re-read many carefully articulated arguments about how sinful homosexuality is, and about how folks like me are supposedly bending the Bible and church law to accommodate our agendas.

So let’s talk about accommodating agendas. That’s the first argument in a vacuum. It’s clear that at present the only agenda the United Methodist Church is accommodating is the conservative majority’s on this issue. Their attitude that ordaining someone like T.C. Morrow would be “accommodating” sin tragically misses the point. It ignores all of the gifts that people like her bring to the church. Anyone who does not know, refuses to know, or refuses to see all the blessings, gifts and graces that people like T.C. bring to the Christ’s Body, opting instead to throw her and other gifted and grace-filled gay and lesbian Christians into a garbage can category of “sexually sinful,” demonstrate the principle vacuum they choose to indwell.

That leads to the second argument vacuum of my critics- that all gays and lesbians in committed relationships are living in sin. I’ve tried to make the biblical argument that folks like T.C. Morrow are not “living in sin,” but let’s also look at the fruit of their lives, which is something my critics at times blatantly ignore. Living in sin blunts a person’s entire existence. Jesus said, “A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit” (Matthew 7:18). I think we would all agree that sexual sin is so fundamentally damaging because sexuality is a key aspect of our humanity. Sexual sin or any other deeply ingrained sin affects the quality of our relationships with God and others and mars our psychological and emotional well-being, our self-worth, and our judgment. Denial and lies become second nature. Live with a lie long enough, and our whole lives become a deception designed to keep the lie of sin in darkness.

It’s hard to say emphatically enough that this does not at all describe so many gay and lesbian Christians I know! They are powerful disciples of Jesus, whole, emotionally and spiritually healthy, balanced, everyday people. Their lives exhibit the fruit of the Holy Spirit. There is no lie or denial. Granted, many have had to grapple with the emotional and spiritual pain of coming to grips with their sexuality, but that stems from being gay and lesbian in a larger world and church culture that is hostile to them. Aside from this very real struggle, gay and lesbian people are just as whole and healthy in Christ as straight people. To then turn around and say that these same folks are broken in sexual sin is a statement made from ignorance, plain and simple.

*******

In my Facebook feed, one friend, a gay man in a committed relationship, went through great pains to share how balanced, happy, healthy and fulfilled he is, especially in how he applies Christ-like principles to his life and relationships. (I’m sure that’s not the first or the last time this man has had to prove that he’s “normal”- something us straight people will never have to experience.)

In response, one of my conservative friends replied, “This conversation isn’t about you. It’s about what the church teaches,” as in church law and doctrine. Say what??

I was totally flabbergasted by that comment! Is not the church a people of God? Is not the church called to be in ministry and community with real, live people? This rather callous response is a perfectly unfortunate example of someone choosing to insulate themselves within an impermeable principle bubble. No worthwhile missiology and ecclesiology can ignore the real life stories of everyday people, or write them off as rubbish. But for folks arguing in a principle vacuum, real people, their lives and experiences don’t matter as much as the convictions they desperately cling to, in this case their badly misinformed “biblical” belief that– despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary!– all gay and lesbian people in committed relationships are lost in sexual sin.

In closing, let me say that not all my critics are making arguments in a vacuum. Several have the humility and decency to remain open and to keep wrestling. I join them in their struggle, all the while striving to avoid my own potential argument vacuums, too. I want to join those who remain teachable, moldable, and open to the Holy Spirit. This same Holy Spirit keeps us alive to the realities of our mission field while keeping us tightly tethered to the anchor of our faith, the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ.

 

 

 

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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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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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Why Christians Have a Hard Time with Satire

Yesterday I published a blog post about a fictional visit from Jesus to Liberty University. I was exposing the absurdity of asking Christian students to purchase guns for self-defense by presenting a Jesus who retracts his teachings on non-violence and promotes the “kill them before they kill you and others” attitude we heard from Jerry Falwell, Jr. I was trying to create a Jesus who would affirm Falwell’s thinking and take it to its logical conclusion.

The conclusion: if Jesus adopted Falwell’s approach, he probably would have bypassed the cross. Jesus would have destroyed the people trying to kill him and established a new political dynasty which would not differ too much from any other regime of his day or ours.

obs_20110726001I tried to use humor, wit, and biblical theology to create a satirical response to Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s reprehensible call to action, exposing how unfaithful it is to the teachings and example of Jesus. And yes, it was a lot of fun to do.

But the response was rather… muted. Maybe my post wasn’t all that good. That’s always a distinct possibility. Or maybe I offended people into stunned silence. But that hardly happens on social media these days.

In the meantime I’ve been waiting for angry people and church members to call or email me, complaining about how blasphemous I was. How dare I mock Jesus like that?? That’s usually the response to satire that involves some aspect of our faith.

When Monty Python’s Life of Brian was released, it created a massive firestorm of protest from Christian groups who lambasted it as anti-Christian blasphemy. Bring it up today, and it still gets the ire of many. It was satire! And it wasn’t mocking Christian faith or Jesus. It wasn’t even mocking religion in general, although some used it as such. Life of Brian was a satire of the sorry state of organized religion and how we often (mis)represent the gospel.

So why do Christians have a hard time with satire these days, especially when it invokes Christian motifs and figures? I think there are several reasons, and I’m sure you could list off more:

  1. Being culturally marginalized has got us defensive. The church is in a tough spot. For 1,700 years, we found ourselves at the epicenter of culture and government. Now, we’re increasingly on the margins of both, and we don’t know how to handle that. Whenever the culture jabs us or we even perceive that they’re jabbing us, it rubs salt in our wounded pride.
  2. Humor and religion don’t often play well together. Let’s face it. Dealing with God is serious business. It requires our very best and our utmost devotion. Humor, however, is a distraction. The very nature of humor is to knock us down a peg, to enjoy our imperfections, our limitations, and the things that would normally shame us. In fact, humor is an antidote to shame. But… humor is also an antidote to pride. High-mindedness is a pathway to pride and arrogance. Humor- and yes the Bible contains humor!- has a humbling effect. It invites us to avoid the extreme of taking ourselves too seriously. So humor can and should play a role in our life of faith.
  3. People are hyper-sensitive these days. Sorry. I’m sure someone just got offended by that. It seems as if there’s a cultural weed infesting our First Amendment right of free speech: freedom from being offended. Very little can be openly discussed and debated without things devolving into ad hominem attacks. Disagreement is the new scandal. Words must be weighed very carefully to make sure some segment of an audience doesn’t feel belittled. (Warning: raising this point will garner a Scarlet I for being insensitive).It’s hard to say anything of consequence without issuing qualifying statements to soften the blow on people’s sensibilities. In this climate, humor and satire have become the greatest casualties.

Given all this, is it any wonder that Christians have a hard time recognizing and understanding satire? There’s a good deal of satire in the Bible, including from people like Jesus and Paul. It serves a purpose in getting our attention and encouraging us to think and do differently, more faithfully, more Christ-like.

So… on that note, fellow Christians: lighten up, will ya?

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How Does God Really See Us?

An Unlikely Encounter

Last year I received an unexpected phone call from a man I hadn’t heard from in several years. He just called me out of the blue. Of all people it was Rabbi Martin Siegel. He’s the most fascinating rabbi I have ever encountered and one of the most lovingly ecumenical people I’m privileged to know, too.

Rabbi SiegelSeveral years before that I had heard Rabbi Siegel give a lecture on Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. I would have thought that the teachings of Jesus are a rather taboo subject for a rabbi. But this rabbi found tremendous wisdom in Jesus’ teachings and wanted to show us Christians the underlying Jewish meaning of Jesus’ words in order to plumb down to the real powerful depth of what Jesus was saying. I later asked Rabbi Siegel why he was doing this. His simple answer: “I hope you’ll be a better disciple of Jesus.” Wow… (On a side note, Rabbi Siegel said that he very much respects Jesus as a teacher. “Talk about him as Lord and Savior, well… that’s above my pay grade.” Very nice.)

Several years later in the summer of last year, Rabbi called me. He wanted to check on how I was doing and to invite me on a retreat he was leading. I told him I was interested, but I would want to get together with him to get caught up and learn more about the retreat.

That began a new relationship I never would have expected. The day we got together changed everything. I began to study with him every week. And here’s the key. I wanted to be around him. I wanted to learn. I wanted to safely explore my own faith and questions with a man who could help me from his unique perspective. I wanted to grow closer to God and I knew this rabbi could help me. (And he did.)

How was a rabbi, a Jew, able to sway this Gentile Christian? It’s because he loved me. He was sincerely interested in me and in my wellbeing. He exuded patience, grace, and passion. Basically, he was and continues to be an embodiment of God’s grace and wisdom.

God Encounter

Jesus looks called woman in the eyeI share this story because I wonder why more people don’t feel the same way about their Creator? For most people, God seems to be a mere afterthought rather than Someone in the forefront of their minds and hearts. We might turn to God if we need something- if we’re desperate enough!- or we invoke God’s name as an OMG (or far worse yet, OMFG, which I will not elaborate on!) But in terms of a desire to be around God, to walk with God, to listen and learn from God… I don’t hear too many people talk like that, even many fellow Christians.

What’s up with that? Two things: religion has certainly mucked up and overly-complicated how people approach God. But I also believe there is another, much darker reason. We project onto God our own distorted views of ourselves, parental figures, and religious authority figures.

So God becomes this fussy, distant, cranky, capricious, judgmental god who blesses us when we’re good little boys and girls but punishes us when we’re bad. Or, we image God as a cosmic Santa Claus who mysteriously gives us the stuff we want if we ask him and if we’re good- well, sometimes. But be on your guard. This same cosmic Santa Clause never fails to leave us coal and switches if we get on his naughty list. Either way, this fickle god is someone to be afraid of, a god we can never understand or hardly approach except when we’re truly needy.

I believe the way to look at God in a more biblically realistic way is to first look at how God really sees us. That’s where we begin. If we know what we mean to God, we would have more confidence to look back at God to see who he really is- as much of God as we could humanly comprehend, anyway. Then we could encounter God less encumbered by the distortions and falsities we have created to imagine God.

An Important Series of Messages

How Does God Really See Us?Starting this Sunday, I’m sharing one of the most important series of messages I have ever given. I’m calling the series “How Does God Really See Us?” No, I could ever fully answer that question, but I’ve found at least five biblical ways in which God regards us, his human creation. I’ve seen them biblically and have experienced them myself:

  1. God’s Special Creation
  2. Forgiven and Redeemed
  3. God’s Beloved
  4. Chosen and Called for God’s Purpose
  5. God’s Friends

These messages really tell a story of how God creates us in his image, forgives and redeems us when we fall, all through his Son Jesus, loves us as his precious children, purposes our lives to to be included within God’s divine plan of worldwide redemption, and ultimately calls us his friends.

Why are these messages so important? Because if we don’t get this right, we can never fully experience God for who God is. We would otherwise be forever distanced from God by our own limited, negative perceptions.

If you live near me in the greater Annapolis area, I hope you’ll come and experience these messages. I would to see you. And more importantly, I would love for you to encounter my master and friend Jesus who has made all the difference in my life. That’s not mere religion. It’s a relationship with a living God, something that blows apart religion. Come see what it’s all about!

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Getting New Church Members Is Like Dating

DatingFor you married folks, think back to your dating years. You may have rose-colored memories of being free and unencumbered (especially some of you guys out there), but take off those chintzy pink glasses for a minute and look again. Admit it. It was a messy time filled with losers, wannabes, some good people and your share of “what in the world was I thinking” moments. You had to figure out, sometimes the hard way, who your soul mate was and what it took find him or her.

For you single and dating people, you’ll know what I’m talking about. Laugh or cry.

For you contentedly single, i.e. non-dating, folks, just laugh.

With most churches, finding and keeping new people, especially those fabled young people, is near the top of our priority list. It’s really about relevance and survival. If we’re numerically growing, we’re on to something. We’re good. We’re cool. We’re making a difference. God is blessing us. The world could be crumbling and going to hell, but all is good with us, thank you very much.

But if we’re not growing or shrinking- and both are really the same thing- then we’ve lost it. We’ve gotta get cool again. We need more bells and whistles, better advertising campaigns, MUCH better preaching and music, have more events that will get people into our doors, and then… hope beyond hope that they’ll stay. Then we need to quickly encourage any new person to join and pay up. And once that happens, finally, happy days will be once more. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord and all that jazz.

Needless to say, this kind of approach for churches in numerical decline is doomed to fail. Even if it did work once upon a time, it doesn’t have any chance of working now. The only people who this might attract are Christian church shoppers who are surveying the greatest show in town. If you’re not it, they’ll pass you up every time. Sorry.

In my years of pastoring and playing the game of attracting new people, I have finally discovered that finding and keeping new people is like dating, especially if you want to attract the right people or attract anyone at all!

How does this work? Put on your imagination cap for a minute and place yourselves in a singles party. You’re looking around the room and maybe people are looking at you. After a while, you realize that there are really five different kinds of people. I’m going to make an analogous leap and say that these also describe five types of churches. Let’s see who they are.

Specimen #1: The Midlife Crisis Dater

Midlife CrisisYou see him across the room and shudder- a pot-bellied middle age guy with combed over hair sporting a tight-fitting Aeropostale shirt. With his belly hanging over some Levis jeans he’s wearing a gold watch and matching chain necklace with an iPhone 4 in his hand. He saunters over and says, “Hey baby, what’s shaking with you? Can I get your digits because I’m a ratings machine and you’re a perfect 10. LOL, wasn’t that awesome? It’s a hashtag I’m cool!”

Most obviously, this guy is trying to be something he’s not because he’s not confident or content with who he is. He feels like he’s lost the cool factor he thinks he once had, and he needs it back. He’s seen the movies where the George Clooneys and Tom Cruises put on the charm and get any girl they want. But that’s not life and it is most definitely is not him.

Many churches attempt this only for it to be a tragicomic disaster. They think if they can put together a band, play hip music, buy and use a bunch of technology, and just try as hard as they can to be “culturally relevant” they’ll make it. More often than not it comes across as pathetically corny. But most of all, it’s not authentic or sincere. It’s more about trying to be something they’re not to get people they’re not so they can feel relevant and grow again.

I’ve seen this play out many times. Much to my chagrin I confess that I tried to get churches to do this. Never again.

Specimen #2: I’m Sexy and I Know It

Gaudy WomanYou walk over to her and get up the nerve to say something. She’s really flashy, super confident and has all the moves. Yet what you’re seeing doesn’t quite match what she thinks she is. She glances you over and with a wink and smile says, “You. Yes, you. Walk yourself over here and buy me a drink.” So you walk over and sit down next to her. She turns to you and turns it all on. She tells story after story of the high profile men she’s dated, the places she’s been, and her big-paying uptown job. An hour passes, and you haven’t spoken ten words! Then you realize that it’s all about her and hardly any about you… minus one exception: how much attention you can pay her.

A number of churches are like this, too. You go to visit and you’re immediately given a glossy folder outlining all their classes, ministry groups, mission groups, prayer groups, upcoming sermon series, and the women’s club bake sales. Their members come to you all aglow about this activity and that ministry they want you to come to. They clearly want to wow you with their stuff and their toys and their goings on. Surely, they got all the church goodies you could ever need.

There’s one problem. They have no idea who you are or what you need because in reality it’s all about them and how they can woo you into their club.

Specimen #3: The Exclusive Chatty Groups

Group PartyYou see them gathered in a small circle laughing it up, talking non-stop, and enthralled with each other, so you walk over to see what’s up. They seem like great people. You get over to their group hoping that they’ll introduce themselves, ask for your name, ask you a little about yourself and invite you to join in.

Fifteen minutes later, no one has said boo to you. It’s like you’re a ghost. They don’t even see you. Finally, one person glances at you and waves a little, but no more. Clearly, they’re happy with each other but that’s about it.

Every church I’ve met- seriously, every single church– says they are a friendly church. They’re the nicest, sweetest people they can be. I’ve never heard a church tell me that they are a nasty hive of judgmental curmudgeons. They’re friendly, of course! Translation: we’re friendly and nice to each other.

I wish I could say this did not happen more often, but many times I would visit a church, see a group of people who are obviously quite happy in each other’s presence but don’t even pause to notice or speak to me. It’s like they don’t know what to do with me, or they simply don’t care.

There is a big difference between a “friendly church” and a truly hospitable church. Think on that one a bit.

Specimen #4: The Needy Dependent

lonely emo girlShe looks like Eeyore except her eyes never stop scanning the room. She’s kinda pretty so you walk on over. Delighted, she suddenly transforms before your eyes with a radiantly beaming smile, and she immediately engages you. It’s like you’re a cool drink in a barren desert. She wants to tell you everything, and wants to know your everything, too. She offers to buy you a drink and a snack. Flattered, you agree! “I am sooo glad we got to meet tonight. I think you’re the one person in this room I’ve been looking for, and now you’re here. I know it. I can see us together so perfectly. OMG, you are the man of my dreams. You complete me. Can I have your number?”

Suddenly you have to use the bathroom… downstairs at the end of the hall.

There are churches who are desperately lonely for new people, especially young people. They feel they need new, younger people to help them survive. So when a new person or a worse yet younger person ventures in, the church barrages them with, “It’s so wonderful to have you. Finally a new person! We really need someone like you to bring in more young people. I really do hope you come again. See you next Sunday, right?”

What do you think the chance of that person coming back is? Yup. You guessed it.

Specimen #5: The Happy and Fulfilled

After a long night of all the… interesting… people above, you finally see him. He’s sitting with a few people casually talking. He looks cheerful and content. He’s no Brad Pitt, but he seems like a decent person. So you walk over to say hello, and wow… he doesn’t ignore you. He doesn’t try to soak you up like a dry sponge. He isn’t trying hard to impress you. He just is. He’s very open to talking with you and is interested in hearing what you have to say. He isn’t trying to flirt or make moves, but he’s genuinely glad to have your company.

As you both talk, you can tell he’s very happy with his life and where he is. He’s got good friends and a supportive family. He knows who he is and spends his time with anyone who wants to come along for the ride. You can tell he likes you, but it’s free and easy. After a while, you sense that he would treat anyone who made the time and effort in the same way. He just seems whole.

Church serving a free Christmas meal

Church serving a free Christmas meal

This is an ideal church, too and one who grows. They don’t sit around worrying about their numbers, anxiously trying to “fix the problem.” They don’t try to be who they’re not. They don’t try to impress people. They don’t smother new people. They just get on with being the church God has called them to be. They worship joyfully, expecting God to show up. They are always learning and growing. They enjoy each others company and willingly involve new people into who they are. They love to get out into their neighborhoods to bless people with Jesus in real, practical ways. Are they the coolest, hippest group of people in town? Not at all. But they work hard at what they do. They believe that God is with them and that they are building Christ’s kingdom.They genuinely love God and people.

Yes, it’s that simple. Churches just need to get on with being the church, knowing who they are and what God has purposed them to be and do. Leave the dating game behind and God will grow the body of Christ in God’s way and in God’s time.

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What if Caitlyn Jenner Came to My Church?

Most all of us did a major double take at the cover of the latest Vanity Fair featuring Bruce Jenner- now asking to be called Caitlyn Jenner. I know I did. For months and months I had seen pictures of a noticeably different and sometimes distressed looking Bruce Jenner. To go from that to a senior citizen-aged bombshell… It leaves room for pause, doesn’t it?

Caitlyn JennerCaitlyn Jenner is the most visible face of a growing movement to accept and include transgender people into the mainstream of society. Multiple states are debating transgender rights laws, both in the workplace and in the community. There is increased awareness towards children who seem to be struggling with gender identity and intense conversations on how to care for them, i.e. do we allow for them to assume their preferred gender identity, including using the bathroom and locker room of their assumed gender? How would we guide their social interactions and confront bullying? And now with the full public emergence of Caitlyn Jenner, these topics will only get more airtime.

To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what to make of transgenderism. As a Christian, my primary lens to look at this or any other reality is Scripture aided by tradition, reason, and experience. But what in the Bible or Christian tradition addresses someone like Caitlyn Jenner?

When I search the Bible, I find occasional passages like Deuteronomy 22:5: “Women must not wear men’s clothes, and men must not wear women’s clothes. Everyone who does such things is detestable to the Lord your God” (CEB). Interestingly enough, this passage is not found among later passages in the same chapter about sexual immortality. It’s included in a set of laws which address doing right to your neighbor and not mixing things of unlike kind, like different kinds of fiber in the same cloth, different kinds of seeds in the same crop, or different animals tethered to the same plow.

Even still, the issue of cross dressing in this passage is contextually unclear. Were folks sometimes wearing other gendered clothes out of convenience or necessity? Was there some native pagan cultic practice requiring cross dressing? Since it’s not included in the list of laws addressing sexual deviances, it doesn’t appear to be sexual in nature. It stands out on its own.

Other Christian thinkers have turned to Genesis 1:27 in which God creates humanity as male and female. So, they argue, if we’re born a male or a female, that is what we are. To change that would violate what God has lovingly, sovereingly created us to be as a part of God’s very good creation.

In the face of that, we hear the voice of transgender people saying, “Yes, I was born with a female body. Genetically and physiologically I am a female. But my whole inner being tells me I’m a male.” What’s going on, psychologically, physiologically and spiritually?

I honestly have no idea. And there’s precious little in Scripture or Christian tradition that speaks to the experience of someone like Caitlyn Jenner and transgender people like her. If I or anyone else tries to speak definitively to the moral and spiritual implications of transgenderism, we’re speaking too loudly into a dark vacuum of the unknown. And even if I did know for absolute sure what was going on, so what? What does it really change in the grand scheme of things? If I was convinced that transgenderism is sinful, would I then urge a transgender person to change their clothes and get back into the operating room? (I wouldn’t put it past some prominent Christian voices to say that, sadly enough.) Would I condemn someone who is already struggling through the guilt and shame of a mismatched gender identity?

What do we do?

Well, a few years ago I got to find out first hand. One Sunday a couple visited a congregation I was serving. It was two women, and I think most people assumed they were lesbians. But when they asked to speak to me, they revealed that one of them is transgender. She began as a man and over time transitioned to a woman. They were married before the transition happened, and amazingly enough, stayed married.

I heard their story, especially the pained story of the man who transitioned to a woman. I heard her tell me how painful it was growing up and being an adult, looking in the mirror and seeing something she wasn’t. Any chance she got, she would wear women’s clothes just to feel more like herself. Meanwhile she hid in the shame of keeping it all a secret, for fear of misunderstanding and rejection. It was a terrible secret to hide. Then, with the help and support of her wife, the man slowly began to become the woman she knew herself to be. That’s what they told me.

They wanted to tell me their story to help me understand who I was dealing with. I appreciated that. But the larger question on their minds was whether or not the congregation and I would welcome and accept them. As a test run, they wanted to know what I thought of them.

Believe it or not, preachers can find themselves speechless! That was one of those rare occasions. After thinking a moment, still stunned at their revelation, I told them this:

“I really don’t know what to think. There’s virtually nothing in my knowledge of the Bible and theology that speaks to who and where you are. But I do want you to know that I am committing to loving you and including you into my life and into our church for as long as you like. I will be your pastor. You are children of God, too. We’ll learn and grow and figure all this stuff out together, as much as we can. And I will not tolerate anyone pushing you out or in any way making you feel unwelcomed or un-incuded. I got your back.”

We prayed together, and indeed they came around for a while until health and employment issues kept them away and forced them to move. Even then, I hope the lesson God was trying to teach wasn’t lost on us. So far, it’s stuck with me.

Issues of transgender aren’t going away, and the church is once again called to respond to a social reality that ultimately involves people- people made in the image of God and loved by God. Maybe one day we’ll have a better psychological and spiritual understanding of what’s happening within the heart, mind, and soul of a transgender person. Meanwhile, I’m committed to leading a church who will love and as much as possible include people like Caitlyn Jenner and the many who are like her. I don’t know how that will all unfold. I don’t really have to know. I just do my best to love and embrace people as God’s special creation, helping them to find their true identity as disciples of Jesus, called by God to usher in God’s kingdom.

Isn’t that what Jesus would do?

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