Tag Archives: religion

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.

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Rants

Why I Stand with T.C. Morrow

Tara “T.C.” Morrow is a Certified Candidate for Deacon in the United Methodist Church, and for the last two annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference, our clergy session has considered her candidacy. In 2016, T.C. did not receive the required vote majority of our clergy session to be elected into provisional membership as a Provisional Deacon. This year, our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry did not forward her candidacy to our clergy session for consideration. Still, her candidacy was a central topic of discussion, even with no formal vote taken.

Why all the fuss? What’s so terribly wrong with T.C. Morrow?

In the past, I served on our Conference’s Board of Ordained Ministry, and in that time I considered many candidates for ministry. T.C. stands out as a uniquely qualified, exemplary candidate for Deacon. She has demonstrated outstanding Christian character. She is deeply committed to Jesus Christ and his church. T. C. is already a model of what Deacon ministry is all about while serving as a leader in her local church and working for the National Religious Campaign Against Torture in Washington, D.C. T.C. graduated from seminary and passed through the rigorous District and Conference candidacy process with flying colors. As a Deacon, she would continue in the call God has already given her.

Ordinarily, T.C. Morrow would be a person any Annual Conference would enthusiastically commission and ordain into ministry.

But there’s just one thing…

T.C. is a woman married to another woman. And in our Book of Discipline, recently clarified by Judicial Council decisions, this one thing disqualifies her from candidacy, commissioning, or ordination as a clergyperson in the United Methodist Church. This one thing. If we were to put aside T.C.’s sexual orientation for just a moment, I would be writing about the Rev. T.C. Morrow. Yet church law has made this impossible. To quote the former Rev. J. Phillip Wogaman, it’s “bad church law.”

Our inability and unwillingness to commission and ordain someone like T.C. Morrow is a glaring example of an entrenched injustice propped up by poor biblical theology.

Now before I go on to explain my claim, let me say that I have traditionally stood right of center on the issues surrounding gay and lesbian people. This is for no other reason than the fact that I take the Bible– the whole Bible– seriously. I do not dismiss scriptures that make me uneasy or challenge my assumptions. It’s all God’s inspired Word to be read, believed, and lived out. That said, the few times that the Bible does mention homosexuality, it’s always a condemnation. Meanwhile, the Bible consistently lifts up heterosexuality as the established norm.

I have spent countless hours reading and rereading the Bible to understand what it has to say about homosexuality. I have spent many hours in dialogue with others whose views are different from my own. I have spent time getting to know people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians. The overwhelming conclusion I come to is that the kind of sexual deviancy the Bible describes and at times calls homosexuality does not reflect the character and life of people like T.C. Morrow and others who are gay and lesbian Christians.

Case in point: let’s take another look at one of the strongest biblical condemnations of homosexual sex in the Bible.

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural sexual relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed shameful acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their error.

Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

Romans‬ ‭1:18-32‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

Writing to the church in Rome, Paul was describing the full impact of turning away from God to engage in idol worship. God’s wrath against idolaters is to “give them over” to the worst aspects of human depravity. Among the worst examples of human depravity was men and women, inflamed with lust, who exchanged natural sexual relations with one another to engage in “shameful acts” of orgiastic sex with people of the same gender. Most likely, Paul was referencing Greek and Roman temple prostitution in which it was not uncommon for visitors to engage in cultic sexual acts. It was another form of leisurely entertainment.

Then Paul lists off a whole litany of acts resulting from a depraved mind void of “the knowledge of God.”

I fully agree with Paul’s assessment. Any people or society who abandons God and God’s ways devolves into the worst of sexual and moral depravity. They are allowed to ruin themselves, and we see clear examples of that all around us.

Back to T.C. Morrow and other lesbian and gay Christians. Only the worst of biblical hermeneutics would suggest that somehow they fit the mold of human depravity Paul was describing in Romans 1. T.C. is a worshipper and servant of God, a baptized member of the United Methodist Church and a disciple of Jesus Christ whose life emulates the best of Christ-like character. In terms of her sexual orientation, she is legally married. She and her wife foster children who otherwise would not have a home. In the midst of the controversy surrounding her candidacy, T.C. has carried herself with a gracious courage embodying the very character of Jesus when he faced opposition and persecution.

Still, let’s say that the Bible does not outright condemn T.C.’s marriage, does it make room for gay and lesbian marriages, especially since the commended, normative form of human sexuality is heterosexual? My short answer is yes. First, there are many things we do and believe that the Bible does not specifically commend. Most Christians hold to creeds and traditions that are not commended in Scripture. For example, the Bible does not mention Lent, and yet most Christians adhere to that tradition. The Bible never mentions or spells out the Trinity, and yet where would our theology be today without the classic Christian doctrine of the Triune God?

Yet the Bible does commend faithfulness, loyalty, purity, and covenant- qualities which so many married gay and lesbian Christians uphold and model.

Furthermore, the overall trajectory of the Bible is towards an inclusive community, a community in which those who were previously denounced as unclean or unworthy are brought into the community of God’s people as valued equals. Jesus shared table fellowship with tax collectors and sinners. The Apostle Paul asks his friend Philemon to welcome back a runaway slave “no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother” (Philemon 16). In a beautiful passage from Isaiah,

Let no foreigner who is bound to the LORD say, “The LORD will surely exclude me from his people.” And let no eunuch complain, “I am only a dry tree.” For this is what the LORD says: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose what pleases me and hold fast to my covenant— to them I will give within my temple and its walls a memorial and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that will endure forever. And foreigners who bind themselves to the LORD to minister to him, to love the name of the LORD, and to be his servants, all who keep the Sabbath without desecrating it and who hold fast to my covenant— these I will bring to my holy mountain and give them joy in my house of prayer. Their burnt offerings and sacrifices will be accepted on my altar; for my house will be called a house of prayer for all nations.”

‭Isaiah‬ ‭56:3-7‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬‬

For someone like T.C., a woman in a married relationship with another woman, a disciple of Jesus who exudes Christ-like qualities, gifts, and graces, how could God not embrace her as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s church? Whether we acknowledge it or not, God already has.

And if God has accepted T.C. as an equal, fully valued part of Christ’s body, then let’s be done with bad church law and commission her as a Provisional Deacon in the United Methodist Church. Until that day, I stand with T.C. Morrow and others like her who are being unjustly barred from God’s call to a life of ordained ministry in Christ’s church.

 

15 Comments

Filed under Reflections, Uncategorized

Unity Can’t Be Manufactured

Unity! We are one! We are brothers and sisters! We are connected in covenant! We are connected in Christ! One God- one people!

These are some of the phrases from this year’s annual sessions of the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. Our theme this year is “We Are One: Connected in Covenant.” We have a great logo emblazoned on all of our Annual Conference stuff. Our worship has lifted up unity, at times more than God. Every speaker has dutifully used the unity tag-line in their presentations.

It’s usually an accurate assumption that when something is overemphasized to the fevered pitch of of cult-like refrains, that same something is glaringly absent. On the one hand, I get it. Our United Methodist Church’s near schism over the issue of human sexuality is something we must address. Most of us want to move through our impasse on whether or not to fully include LGBTQI+ persons while holding our church together. So let’s do all we can to lift up our desire for unity. But on the other hand, it all sounds so contrived. It’s manufactured unity. It has sounded and felt forced.

I’m saddened by the fact that we sing the songs of unity but so far have not adequately demonstrated that we know how to unify ourselves. We caucus ourselves based on ideology. We clothe ourselves based on ideology, i.e. wearing a rainbow-colored stole or not, and what it may mean if we wear one or refuse. In our huddles, we talk about “them” and what “they” are doing to the church. We have a hard time fully respecting those whose views are different from our own. Many are afraid to openly express their views for fear of social and even professional repercussions. Just in what I’ve observed over the last couple of days, I see and hear so many examples of folks writing off others, making snide remarks, or making disparaging comments about a speaker.

If unity is going be a reality beyond a spiffy conference logo and lovey dovey liturgy, we need to change our behavior. I’d like to passionately suggest to my brothers and sisters of the Baltimore-Washington Conference that unity could look like this:

  • Respect one another. I know many people on either side of the full inclusion of LGBTQI+ people. They are deeply committed to Jesus. They champion his gospel. They are people of high integrity and deep theological, biblical understanding. They are worthy of my respect and the respect of those who differ with them. That said, if we truly respect them and at the same time desire unity, we must make room for these folks to be who they are in Christ and to be in ministry in the ways in which the Holy Spirit leads them.
  • Listen to one another. Listening springs from a desire to understand. A desire to understand comes from a place of humble love. And that leads to a third thing needed for unity…
  • Hold a humble love for all. When we choose to love in humility, we recognize that our side of the story is not the only side. We’re teachable and moldable. We’re flexible and practical, even when we stand on core principles. We desire to be servants, not victors in an ideological struggle. Even when we strive for justice and righteousness, we can do that with a desire to embrace our sisters and brothers whose vision of justice and righteousness is different from our own.

As I read what I just wrote, I’m struck by how unoriginal these ideas are. In fact, they sound like variations of lessons I learned in kindergarten. Treat others with respect. Be a good listener. Be a good learner. Learn how to get along with everyone. Don’t be a bully.

Yet somehow our adult big ideas and firm principles have mingled with unresolved fear and have overridden our childlike abilities to respect, listen, and humbly love.

So… what if we put aside our fears, took on Jesus’ heart, and build true, short bridges between one another? Then, we might have a unity worth celebrating and not just fabricating.

2 Comments

Filed under Rants, Uncategorized

A Gentile Goes to a Passover Seder

For almost two years now, I have spent my Thursday mornings at a local synagogue, joining them for Torah study. It’s been a wonderfully rich experience for me to study the Bible with my Jewish older cousins of the faith. Their wisdom steeped in centuries of ancient tradition has given me a whole other perspective from which to understand scriptures our two religions both revere as God’s Word to be read, trusted, and lived out. Just as important to me have been the new friendships I’ve made with my Jewish neighbors. I’ve come to admire their dedication to be faithful Jews within the framework of a religion that contains so much beauty, mystery, and meaning.

So a few weeks ago as I was walking out of Torah study, one of my classmates asked, “Chris, do you have someplace to go for the holidays?” He was asking about Passover. I loved the way he asked that. I’m a non-Jew– a Christian, a Gentile. Of course I’m homeless for the holidays! When I replied that I had no plans, he and his wife invited me to their Seder. I happily agreed.

IMG_0189

The Seder plate, place settings, and the cup of Elijah

As a Christian, I have been somewhat familiar with the Passover Seder. After all, our sacrament of Eucharist (The Lord’s Table), derives from the Seder celebrated by Jesus and his disciples. There are the scriptures from Exodus which lay out the requirement for Israel to observe the Festival of Passover with unleavened bread, bitter herbs, lamb, and a recollection of God’s deliverance of the Hebrews from their bondage in Egypt. Several years ago at a previous church, we put together and held a Seder meal, based on a Haggadah (the Seder ritual book) and experiences of members who have Jewish family members.

But I knew this would be different. This was the real deal- the Seder meal of a Jewish family, something which they have inherited and practiced over their lifetimes down through the lifetimes of countless generations. I was really looking forward to a treat like this.

My son Jacob and I ended up going together. I wasn’t sure how Jacob would do. He’s 8-years-old and has Down syndrome. There would be a lot of people, commotion, and food and rituals he didn’t know over a long, late night. For my son, that could very well have been a recipe for disaster.

The evening came and we arrived at my friends’ home to the rich smells of food cooking and the mirth of a house full of family and guests. Hor d’oeuvres, drinks, and conversation filled our first hour. Lots of last-minute cooking preparations were brewing in the kitchen with women rushing here and there to take food out of the oven and fill platters. Kids were hanging out together munching on vegetables, matzo, and various dips.

About an hour later, folks started to gather around several tables pushed together to accommodate about 25 people for the Seder. Plates, silverware, napkins, glasses, platters and bowls with matzo, maror, charoset, and salt water were all meticulously arranged and set. Copies of the Haggadah were stacked on each end of the tables. Like typical families, there were intense negotiations around who would sit where and who was serving what. Once settled, the Passover candles were lit, and we began reading through the Haggadah.

Reading through the Seder Haggadah was unlike anything I’ve ever experienced as a Christian. It was highly scripted. Certain things are done and said at prescripted times. And yet, as with any family gathering, the kids got the giggles, sometimes we got confused about who was reading what, and the occasional, “Hey, you’re not supposed to drink your wine right then!” Yet the whole thing rolled along with a force and intentionality that had the weight of centuries behind us. It was the perfect blend of unmovable tradition with family dynamic eccentricities.

IMG_0187

Jacob at the Seder

It took about an hour to work our way through the Haggadah leading up to the meal. Jacob was doing amazingly well. Other than a soda, he hadn’t had a bite to eat. I couldn’t convince him to try any matza, and I didn’t even bother getting him to try bitter herbs or charoset! By this point we were well beyond our regular dinner time and even creeping past his bed time. I felt a melt-down on its way when finally we were served a very traditional hard-boiled egg which we were encouraged to eat with salt water. Jacob ate some of that. Then came the matzo ball soup. I wasn’t sure Jacob would eat it, and he wasn’t either, but by this time, rubbing his belly and beginning to cry, I think he would have tried just about anything. Jacob devoured the soup!

Then the meal proper was served. It was the largest family meal I have ever seen. Like any traditional family meal, every dish was a revered family recipe highly anticipated for Passover. There were four different meats, several traditional Jewish vegetable dishes, salads, plenty of wine, and deserts.

Following the meal there are traditionally many other prayers, including two more cups of wine, but this family typically doesn’t get around to that. No matter. Their obligation to keep the Passover- eating matza, maror, and offering the pesach- were kept and fulfilled. We remembered God’s faithfulness and God’s power to save his people time and again.

It was very late when Jacob I left. My friends’ house was still filled with family and guests eating desert and enjoying each others’ company. But the feelings from the deep impression that Seder made on my mind and heart still linger. It was a rich evening in every respect, and long into the night I kept thinking about how my son and I were swept up into a tradition that dates back to Moses and the Israelites in Egypt.

Much has changed with the Seder through the centuries, especially after the destruction of the Temple right before the turn of the first century C.E. Even as I try to imagine Jesus and his disciples having their Seder the night before he was crucified, I know that the ritual Jews follow today is substantially different from what first century Jews practiced. Some of the prayers and practices, the liturgy, and even the foods are different. One major difference is that Jews today rarely if ever use lamb for their Seder, even though the Bible commands it. With the exception of a roasted shank bone on the Seder plate, the absence of lamb is out of respect for the absence of the pascal sacrifices which discontinued after the destruction of the Temple.

Still, I sensed the emergence of a long, long tradition of prayer, questions, telling the story, eating unleavened bread and bitter herbs, psalms and songs, the strains of which stretch back through the millennia. The effort alone, based on the biblical obligation to keep the Passover festival and to keep it holy, which has been kept sacred through Israel’s long, long history, carried through times of peace, persecution, homecoming and exile, even the horrific devastation of the Holocaust- the holy commitment to keep the Passover has remained unchanged. The power of it surged to yet another incarnation with an annual Seder meal within one more Jewish home, a perpetual meal in which Jacob and I shared a taste, on that first night of Passover.

One last thought: at the great banquet table of God at the end of time, I would like to think that in addition to our celebration and singing, there would be plenty of wine, charoset, potato kugel, brisket, and my friend Joyce’s sweet potato tzimmes on the table. Short of that, their Seder was most definitely a slice of heaven.

6 Comments

Filed under Reflections

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.

2 Comments

Filed under Reflections

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.

5 Comments

Filed under Rants, Uncategorized

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Musings