Why THIS Church Matters

Our church is going through a season where we are facing difficult budgetary constraints for the first time in our history. And so we’ve been talking a lot about “why does this church matter?” This is (one) of my answers to that question:

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Last week I got briefly distracted on Facebook by a Washington Post article about the Noah’s Ark replica that creationist Ken Ham built in Kentucky. While the article was mostly about Ham’s intention to build more theme-park style Bible attractions, the article also reported that the “single largest source of funding was actually $62 million in junk bonds floated by the town of Willamstown [sic]…”

Groups like the ACLU have been critical of the project, specifically the organization’s discriminatory hiring practices that should render it ineligible for state funding.

“As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply.”

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Yes, I read the entire statement of faith. And yes, it represents a very conservative evangelical view of Scripture, theology and the world. I think most of you who would read this post probably aren’t that conservative.

However, it’s a loud view. It’s a definition of Christianity that gets a lot of airtime both because of media interest and also because part of what makes evangelicals “evangelical” is their boldness about their faith, their willingness to “stand on street corners” and wear their faith on their collective sleeve.

But this is what concerns me: many modern people are rejecting Christianity because “Christian” to some has become synonymous with a strictly literal reading of the Bible, rejecting evolution and judging homosexuality (their word, not mine) to be a sin (among other things).

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This is why I believe the progressive evangelical church matters, and specifically why I believe that my church – Imago Dei in Peoria, IL – matters.

Listen, I’m not going to throw stones here. If you know me, you know I disagree with a lot of things in the Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith. I think some of their beliefs are harmful and unhealthy. But I don’t feel compelled to call them “heretics” or anything like that.

But I do hope to offer a counter-narrative. I do hope to say to everyone, “there are many ways of being ‘Christian.’” What makes us “Christian” is that we’re all followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We believe his words, his teachings, his “way” matters, and it’s still worth following, 2,000 years later. It’s worth talking about, it’s worth arguing about, it’s worth orienting our lives around.

We don’t agree on lots and lots of things. But even though we disagree, we can still worship together, we can still argue together, we can still serve the poor and take communion together. THIS is what I think Jesus means when he says, “ that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

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So here’s why I think my church matters. In the midst of an increasingly polarized culture where being “right” is more important than being loving, kind or civil, our church insists on 3 things….

The unity that Jesus is talking about in John 17 as the most significant form of witness.

That how we treat those at the margins is central to the “gospel.”

God loves everyone just as much as he loves Jesus. Everyone.

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Making Things Right

Last Friday night, I spoke at our church’s Celebrate Recovery ministry. I gotta say, I love this community of people. There’s something refreshing about meeting with a group of people that starts with “I’m a mess,” rather than, “let me pretend that I’m all put together.” This is a rough sketch of some of the things I said.

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Step 8 (Alcoholics Anonymous): We made a list of all people we had harmed and became willing to make amends to them all.

Principle 6 (Celebrate Recovery): Evaluate all my relationships. Offer forgiveness to those who have hurt me and make amends for harm I have done to others except when to do so would harm others.

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I remember being taught growing up that all sin was a sin against God, that ultimately it wasn’t really about the “other,” but rather that I had offended a “thrice-Holy God” who couldn’t stomach my sin. There wasn’t much teaching that I remember from my childhood about making amends. There was a whole lot more about making sure we had squared up with God than making amends to people.

Since then I’ve talked to Catholics and learned that there’s more language in Catholicism about making amends – about doing penance for our sin. But again, saying “Hail Marys” or “Our Fathers” is more about shoring up one’s relationship with God than about making amends with a fellow human being.

But the geometry of the cross hints at something more. Of course there’s a vertical axis – but there’s also a horizontal one as well. To put a finer point on it, my sin hurts the people I love. Left unchecked, unamended, ignored, my sin erodes my relationships with people.

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The famous story of the Lilliputian Zacchaeus is particularly instructive here. In response to Jesus calling out his name in the midst of the crowd, of inviting himself to dinner at the house of a known “sinner,” Zacchaeus offers to give away half his wealth and four times whatever he has cheated anyone out of.

A simple “sorry, my bad,” doesn’t suffice.

Feeling bad about it doesn’t do anything either.

Nor does confessing it to God and saying special prayers.

The story of Zacchaeus is that when he is confronted by love (more on that in a minute), he responds by making things right with the people he’s hurt, to the best of his ability. Yes, the vertical is important — and Jesus declares Zaccheaus to be a “true child of Abraham” — but Jesus’ declaration is in response to Zaccheaus making amends.

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When I teach, I prefer to dialogue with my audience. I just don’t believe that I’m the full embodiment of wisdom on any given passage or that the Holy Spirit speaks exclusively to me. So, on Friday night, I opened up the floor and we had a conversation. And one of the attendees pointed out this startling realization: Zaccheaus doesn’t make amends because Jesus confronts him. Jesus doesn’t demand that Zaccheaus make amends. Rather, Jesus simply moves toward Zaccheaus in love. He calls him by name, invites himself to Zacchaeus’ home (a BIG deal in a hospitality-conscious, honor society), and Zacchaeus responds to love.

We think the we get the right behaviour out of people when we shame them, make them feel guilty, harangue them, yell at them, and put pressure on them to do the right thing. But Zacchaeus does the “right thing” when he’s confronted by the love of Jesus, the acceptance of Jesus just as he is.

We’re loved, then we change.

Too often — especially in religious institutions — we want change first, then we’ll offer love, which is just the opposite of how Jesus interacts with people throughout the gospels.

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Hmmm. Good stuff to think about, I think.

I walked away from Friday night surprisingly challenged and moved. It’s funny sometimes — when you’re “the speaker” and you open up the floor, you end up getting more from it than the people you’re speaking to, I think.

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Jesus on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for a class at Illinois State University on interfaith dialogue. I sat on the panel with an Imam and Rabbi from Peoria. The question we were each asked for our opening remarks was something like this: what in your religious tradition draws you to interfaith dialogue? Here’s what I said:

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I need to start by owning my story. I grew up in a very xenophobic religious context. For example, I remember religious tracts from my youth that depicted the pope burning in hell. While we didn’t strictly believe we were the ONLY faithful remnant, we sure were wary, even of those in other Protestant traditions. But as I grew up, went to a more broadly evangelical seminary, and got to know people in other faith traditions, my horizons expanded.

I’m just saying, I’ve grown in my understanding of things, and I’m sure I will continue to grow. So these thoughts are still being formed. But to answer the question, I think there are generally three theological camps when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and Jesus has something to say to each.

The first is that “they” are our enemies. A Presidential candidate who says, “I think Islam hates us,” is choosing to propagate a narrative that says “they” are our enemies. When I wrote a post about the open house at one of the mosques here in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I had a couple different people contact me with questions out of this perspective. And one of the things I heard is a common Christian idea about Islam, that “Muslims may say they are peaceful, but they’re just saying it to get power, and once they do, they’ll implement Sharia law.”

Even if this is in fact reality, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love and pray for our enemies. And if, for the sake of argument, I grant the premise, it just feels like an excuse not to love. And yes, what it means to love and pray for ISIS is super complicated. But it’s much less complicated to love and pray for our Muslim neighbors in the Midwest.

So, even if you believe that Muslims are your enemy, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, then you are compelled to find ways to show love to Muslims in our community.

A second theological idea is that those of other faiths are not enemies but, rather, are just misguided. For example, many people I know are able to look past the rhetoric of conservative media and understand that Muslims and ISIS are not one and the same (just like Christians and the KKK are not one and the same). Many Christians believes Muslims (and those of other traditions/religions) are wonderful people who are simply on the wrong path.

I would suggest then, that our theological compulsion in such cases should be driven by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If we believe someone is misguided, don’t we have a Christian responsibility to reach out and care for them, even at personal cost?

FInally, I believe there’s yet another way to view interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I was thinking the other day about these verses in the Gospel of Luke:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 10:49-50

Whatever you may think about demons, can we all at least agree that in the context Luke is written, driving out demons is a good thing? So, Jesus seems to be saying that anyone doing good things is “for you.”

I was thinking about the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. If the local Imam is doing something to promote peace, isn’t he then my co-laborer as a peacemaker? If the Rabbi is doing something good in the community, isn’t he “with us”? It seems Jesus is pushing his disciples to think of “us” as a much bigger concept than “those with whom we agree.”

I know it’s challenging for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of “our group is right” to think this way. But I’m challenged by Jesus’ words. I think our mentality most of the time is “If you’re not with us somewhere close to 100%, then you’re against us.” But Jesus said almost exactly the opposite.

Hmmmmmm.

So what do you think? Does your theology drive you toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation? Why or why not?

 

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They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love (by our love)

We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord.

And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love (by our love).

This dirge of a song – written almost entirely in minor chords – was penned in the 1960s by a parish priest in Chicago’s south side. Peter Scholtes wrote it for his youth choir for a series of ecumenical, interracial gatherings when he couldn’t find an existing song to express the unity of the groups gathering.

Somehow, I’m pretty sure when we sang it in my church youth groups and at Sunday night church (where we got to wear jeans and sing “casual songs”… gasp!) we didn’t sing it in the spirit in which it was written.

Speaking only for myself, I think I meant it exclusively in the context of the room where I was singing it. What I meant was something sort of like this:

We (young, white, middle class, conservative Baptists) are one in our beliefs about the Bible and probably some other stuff, including the Spirit (who, by the way, does NOT cause people to speak in tongues!).”

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I’m a Protestant. At the root of our identity as Protestants is Martin Luther standing at the Diet of Worms declaring, “On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And while historically, I don’t believe Martin Luther exactly intended for the fractures that ensued, protesting, splitting off, starting over, creating one’s own thing based upon one’s ideas about God, church, etc. became the calling card of Protestants. (If you want to get overwhelmed, go check out the Wikipedia entry of “List of Christian Denominations.” YIKES!)

Occasionally, a denomination starts out of geographical convenience or a sense of community and fellowship that emerges amongst friends. Most often though, new denominations start when our beliefs about God convince us that we can no longer worship or partner with our fellow believers. And sometimes this is true. Several years ago, I was meeting with a monk and we talked about the eucharist and worship and how we would each be welcome in each other’s’ church and how praying together seemed right and good, but neither one could take the eucharist in each other’s church because of our theological differences.

This is fair. Some differences really are so significant that they get in the way of worshipping together. But, even in this conversation where we respected each other’s differences, we looked for our unity in Jesus. (And, I’m completely comfortable going to mass and receiving a blessing from the priest, rather than the Eucharist. I wouldn’t want that to be my experience every week, but I’m cool with it when the occasion arises.)

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But can I be a bit ornery? Can I play devil’s advocate for just a minute?

Isn’t our unity as believers supposed to be found in Jesus? Isn’t our unity supposed to be found in the eucharist, no matter what we believe happens to the bread & wine? Isn’t it possible to say, “we might have different ideas about God, but we agree that Jesus is the center of our unity”?

Sometimes I feel like we’ve bought into the whole stupid enlightenment idea that we are defined by our thoughts about God. But it seems like Jesus is more concerned with our posture in relation to God – that we live in a posture of following after him.

And following Jesus looks like this: love.

“Hey, Jesus. You say a lot of great things, tell a lot of perplexing stories, but boil it down for us to a headline: what’s the greatest commandment?”

“Love God,” Jesus replied, then continued, “And the second command is like the first. Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself. Everything else hangs on these two.”

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I’d like to imagine Mr. Peter Scholtes sitting at his keyboard trying out lyrics…

“They will know we are Christians by our right beliefs about God.” I hope not, because we’re all wrong somehow.

“They will know we are Christians by our stance on abortion/gay marriage/health care/political affiliations.” The church can’t even get anywhere close to a unanimous answer on these!

“They will know we are Christians by our morality.” Dear, God, if this is the case, we are screwed. Even our clergy have a hard time keeping themselves pure!

“They will know we are Christians by how great our band sounds and how much fog the machine rolls out onto the stage.” <facepalm> I hope no one actually says this.

“They will know we are Christians by the wittiness of our t-shirts and/or bumpers stickers.” “Faithbook: Jesus wants to put you in His Book. Do you accept?” (Here’s a pinterest board of the Christian t-shirts…again, YIKES!)

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“They will know we are Christians by our love (by our love).”

So simple and so difficult at the same time. I think this is the problem. Understanding what Jesus is saying is simple but it’s really, really hard to love well. Especially, when the standard is my own love of self. And so, we opt for the easier pathway: t-shirts, morals crusades, and intellectual positions about God.

Yes, I know this whole choosing to love, choosing to do the hard thing, choosing to stay in it (whatever “it” is), when what you really want to do is run away is hard and messy and not always clear. But this is the pathway of Jesus.

“They will know we are Christians by our love (by our love).”

(the photo is of Sarah Bessey’s book Out of Sorts)

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Jesus at the National Prayer Breakfast

Sorry I haven’t posted recently. I’ve had lots of things I’ve wanted to write about, but frankly I’ve just been super busy and then last week I was away at The National Prayer Breakfast in Washington D.C. And while I had good intentions to write some posts between meetings, there was so much going on, and I got a cold, and when I had downtime, I slept.

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I had no expectations of the trip. I went because our best friends asked us to go. His family had been involved with the breakfast for a long time. And while I had heard of the breakfast in the news, I didn’t really know anything about it. In fact, prior to meeting Tim and his family, I probably assumed that if politicians were involved then it was probably a generic, watered-down “Christian” type of thing that wouldn’t be of much interest to me.

But last year I sat with Tim and Peggy just hours after they got home from the 2015 breakfast and heard all the things that excited them about the event. And it piqued my interest. (And when you have friends like these who are excited about something and really, really want you to be a part of it, you just go.) (Oh, and Tim doesn’t take “no” for as answer very graciously.) So, since the second week of February last year, the 2016 prayer breakfast has been on our calendar. My parents were good to watch our kids (thanks mom!), so we went. Follow your curiosity!

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There’s a lot I could tell you. I have notes and quotable lines from nearly every speaker. And it’s pretty cool to be in the same room as the President of the United States and hear how he commands a room. And between sessions, Tim’s mom set up great meetings with all kinds of interesting people. But if I had to condense it all into three paragraphs – and let’s be honest, I do need to do that here; you don’t want a novel – here it is:

At the closing dinner on Thursday night there was a comedian named Mike Ashburn. He had us all laughing, then told a beautiful story about his fictional grandma, then finished by having us all sing “Jesus Loves Me.” And as I sang, hot tears started running down my face.  I grabbed Peggy’s dinner napkin away from her, since mine had already been cleared, and wiped my tears. I wasn’t the only one crying, but it felt kind of ridiculous to cry during such a simple song that I’ve probably sung thousands of times in my life. For me, in that moment, I cried because I was reminded that the core of my faith is so simple. It felt like the simplicity that comes after complexity.

The church sometimes is so complicated.  There are organizational issues, leadership challenges, budget constraints, differences in belief, relational conflicts…ugh! Some days it’s just really, really complicated. But the message we heard at the prayer breakfast is that following Jesus simplifies things. Jesus’ message was super simple: love God by loving everyone as we love ourselves.  Yes, that’s sometimes difficult to do, but it’s not complicated.  We only complicate it because we don’t want to do it. We’d rather judge, condemn, distance and smugly assert our “truth.”

At the heart of the prayer breakfast is this fact: in our nation’s Capitol, there are people – namely congressmen and -women, senators, generals – who are so dedicated to Jesus that they’ll lay down all their differences to unite around Jesus in prayer. No, these people don’t wear their faith on their sleeves — you probably don’t even know who they are — and yes, they have a wide range of beliefs about what it means to be followers of Jesus. But following Jesus — doing their best to love God and love people — is at the center of why they gather.

“If a lefty Chicano democrat from Southern California and a conservative judge from Alabama can do it, why can’t you?” Co-host Rep. Juan Vargas (D – California) from the opening remarks with Rep. Robert Aderholt (R- Alabama), talking about joint prayer between republicans and democrats.

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This has been brewing for awhile inside of me, but this week put some things into words for me in my own journey. There’s a simplicity that’s slowly been emerging in my own mind when it comes to my own spiritual journey. Yes, I’m capable of reading thick, complicated tomes on theological nuance. And I’m more than capable of holding my own in a philosophical or theological discussion of many issues. And yet, for the last couple of years, the simplicity of following Jesus has been calling to me. I’m more interested these days in “how do I embrace Jesus’ love and how do I love others,” than I am in, say, theories of atonement. I have a growing conviction that there are no theological exams at the pearly gates, but rather there is only one question that matters: “Are you following Jesus?”

I’m so thankful that I got this opportunity. I’ll be chewing on this for awhile.

 

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From the Vault: Rhetoric Matters

On Mondays, I’m going into the vault, reworking an old post, and reposting it with some comments attached. This morning’s post comes from January 12, 2011. At the time I wrote it, I was writing about Sarah Palin and a shooting in Tucson, AZ. I’ve re-edited this post quite a bit to reflect more current realities, but I’ve kept the main point of the post the same.  I’ve added additional comments and a few questions at the end of the post.

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If you ask people what they’re afraid of, public speaking is high on their lists. So apparently, I’m a freak. Almost every week I stand up in front of room full of adults and speak publicly for somewhere between 30 and 45 minutes. I’ve spoken to large crowds and to the shower wall, both having a certain allure. (My ego loves the crowds, but to the shower wall I’m brilliant and brave.) Our church podcasts my teachings every week, and so what I say is available to anyone on the planet with an internet connection. And this blog, like all others big and small, is also accessible to anyone on planet Earth with an internet connection.

Why do I make such an effort to say what I’m thinking?  Because words matter. What I say on a Sunday morning, or what I write on my blog or what I say to a friend or parishioner just might challenge someone to think or live differently for the sake of a better world. That gets me out of bed in the morning.

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That’s why all the Jerry Falwell, Jr. and Donald Trump stuff that’s littered my Facebook feed these last weeks bothers me so much. Rhetoric matters; how you say something is as important as what you say; and the venom and hate spewing forth, masked as political rhetoric, is contributing to the feeling that the world is dark, scary and tense.

Most of the time – especially when it comes to political stuff – I choose to stay silent. It seems not many people are interested in civil political discourse these days. The partisans drape themselves in vague, ad hominem attacks, asserting the other side “is out to destroy America.” And they’ve retreated to their Fox News and MSNBC. (I had a friend tell me once how he stopped listening to Rush Limbaugh and found he was happier, less cynical, more open. Hmmmm. Makes me wonder about how the rhetoric we choose to let into our minds affects our outlook, but that’s another post sometime.)

But last week, I couldn’t stay silent. The politics were about religious things. And even though I got a fair amount of good feedback, both online and in conversation, I still felt conflicted. I still don’t always know the right answer to the question, “When should one speak up and when should one stay silent?”

Or to ask the question in a more Biblical fashion, when do I choose to take the advice of Proverbs 26:4: “Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you yourself will be just like him.” Or, when do I choose to take the advice of the very next verse that says exactly the opposite, “Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.”

How do I take seriously the idea of being a peacemaker, but at the same time say my truth, say to the world, “Jerry Falwell Jr., while he may be a godly man in a thousand ways, doesn’t represent me when it comes to how he talks about Muslims and guns in America. I don’t think we’re following the same Jesus.”

There are plenty of people out there who have written excellent articles denouncing Falwell’s or Trump’s rhetoric in a balanced way, fairly critiquing the rhetoric without impugning the person, without making sweeping generalizations about people or ideas, so I won’t spend time doing that here. (While you may not agree with his points, I think Brian McLaren modeled this well on The Huffington Post last week.) But I’ve been thinking about myself and the responsibility I have of speaking in public. And if I could have Falwell’s or Trump’s ear – or any of us who speak to a public audience – here’s what I might say:

Words are powerful things. With our words, we can make people laugh, cry, and consider what we want them to think about.  With our words, we can change people’s minds about even the biggest issues – faith, politics, and the meaning of the universe. So what you say, and the manner in which you say it, matters. It matters a lot. And at times, we’ve all erred. We’ve all over-exerted ourselves on a point we shouldn’t have pressed so hard, or we’ve done the opposite and chickened out, when the occasion called for more passion and elucidation than we gave it. And in those times, we need to use our words to put things right, to apologize and point to a better way.

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Three years ago I wrote this post, and it’s still true, still relevant. And I still don’t know the best answer to when to speak up. But I’m more convinced that I ought to speak up more.

Here’s an example: Last week, someone on my Facebook asserted that Jesus is a incomplete picture of God, because he only lived 33 years. If I understood correctly, his specific point was that we should minimize Jesus’ calls to pacifism and round out Jesus’ message with a strong dose of “wipe out all the Philistines.” I think, even in my conservative, evangelical seminary, I wouldn’t have passed my orals with this kind of hermeneutic.

But I didn’t respond, because I didn’t want to have a protracted argument on Facebook.  And part of me feels like to say nothing was a failure of my own nerve, a laziness on my part, that to stay silent was wrong.

So, my friends, help a brother out: how we respond matters, of course, but when should we speak up and when should we stay silent? When, at the family Christmas dinner do you just ignore what your drunk uncle says, when do you say what you really think, and when do you just play Adele and sing together?

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Peace in a World Gone Crazy

At church this past Sunday, we lit the second candle in the Advent Wreath – the one that represents peace. Ironically, peace seems fragile in the world right now. It feels like extremists of all types are hellbent on saber rattling, stereotyping and pandering to fear and violence.

This morning, I’m little overwhelmed by everything in the news. The world seems to have gone crazy. It’s almost beyond belief. It’s almost beyond belief that there have been more shootings than days in America in 2015. It’s almost beyond belief that Christian leaders are calling for more guns in hopes they can “teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.” It’s almost beyond belief that the leading Republican candidate called for a ban on Muslims (both American and foreign) entering America. It’s almost beyond belief the comments and conversations on my newsfeed.

And so, on this second week of Advent, when the church calendar tells me that I’m supposed to be thinking about “Immanuel” – God with us – and peace, I’m struggling with how to live in the world and yet at the same time take Jesus seriously.

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I understand that the world is a complicated place. I understand that when it comes to political solutions, nothing is simple, especially when we’re talking about peace and safety and terrorism and the like. I understand that when it comes to gun ownership, there are devout, level-headed Christians who disagree. I’ve had deeply respectful, loving discussions with people all over the political spectrum.

In fact, I think the argument can be made that the only people who don’t see it as complicated are the extremists – the fundamentalists – on either side of any given debate. To the right wingers and left wingers, to the conservatives and the liberals, the solutions are general, sweeping and simple. But to the vast majority of us who don’t overly identify with either side, being peacemakers is complicated.

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What grieves me most this morning, as a pastor, is how we subvert or just ignore Jesus in all of this. You don’t really need to be all that religious or devout in order to say that Jesus is one of the most important ethical teachers in the history of the world. (I think he’s much more than that, but for this conversation, we don’t need to go any further.)

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” I wonder how you take that seriously and then talk with humor about “killing those Muslims.” Maybe you sincerely believe that you should defend yourself. We can debate that. (I’m actually not an all-the-way pacifist.) But there shouldn’t be a celebration of that harsh reality. There shouldn’t be joyful anticipation of the opportunity to kill someone to “teach them a lesson.” I believe if we are put in that situation, it should grieve us. It should trouble us to no end that we might be asked to violate “thou shalt not kill.”

Jesus also said, “Love your enemies. Pray for those who persecute you.” I wonder how we’re supposed to do this in reality. It is undoubtedly difficult, but that doesn’t mean I just get to ignore it. And I’m pretty sure praying for my enemies doesn’t mean killing them or stereotyping them.

This is a really small thing, but today I reached out to a local imam, just to say, “How do I bless you in a time where many want to persecute you? I don’t know what will come of this, but just maybe, in a small way, it will help foster peace in our community.

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I was arguing in my head with someone who wrote something on my Facebook page about how violent Jesus was, quoting the Hebrew Scriptures and Revelation 21 as justifications to set aside – or at least to minimize – the pacifist leanings of Jesus.  And I had this thought:

What if the disciples had their concealed carry permits? What if the disciples had defended Jesus with deadly force? Oh, wait. Peter did, and Jesus told him to put away his sword.

It’s really, really hard to read the gospels and ignore the non-violence of Jesus. My goal here isn’t to shame those who aren’t pacifists, or even to advocate for pacifism, really.  I understand that theology is complicated and people see it differently. I mainly want to say:  let’s keep it complicated.  Let’s keep going round and round with the hard stuff, even if we think we’ve landed on a position. I think the faithful response to Scripture and tradition is to keep talking, debating, arguing and loving each other the whole time.

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At the very minimum, and maybe especially when the world is as it is right now, we ought to daily pray the prayer of St. Francis:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.

Where there is hatred, let me sow love;

Where there is injury, pardon;

Where there is doubt, faith;

Where there is despair, hope;

Where there is darkness, light;

Where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek

To be consoled as to console,

To be understood as to understand,

To be loved as to love;

For it is in giving that we receive;

It is in pardoning that we are pardoned;

It is in dying to self that we are born to eternal life.”

AMEN?

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For These Things I’m Grateful

Here’s a smattering of loosely connected thoughts on Thanksgiving Week.

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I was telling someone the story of how in the first year of our marriage, Jennifer and I moved to Denver so I could attend graduate school. If we were making the same decision today, we’d never do it, because looking back it was completely irresponsible. There was simply no way that we had the finances to do it. But, young, naive, in love and a strong sense of Calvinistic Providence led us to move a thousand miles from home.

The first couple of months, I don’t even know how we managed to buy food. It was so very tight. And I remember how Jennifer’s grandma – who just passed away early this fall – not only paid our rent the first couple of months, but sent us a little money so we could go out on a date. All we could afford was to go to the double feature at a drive-in close to our apartment. I made carrot cake, popcorn and a portable thermos full of lemonade (we couldn’t even afford a couple beers!). Sigh.

But we were so grateful and so happy. Life was so very simple.

Obviously things have changed for us. On Friday night, we were sitting at a local wood-fired pizza place in Junction City (even given all my foodie tendencies, Jennifer and I will still always choose pizza (miss you, Mitchells!)) and we were talking about how, although we still have to mind our budget, life has changed and we have enough margin that we can go out on a Friday night.  But we aren’t any more or less grateful. Life isn’t simple anymore, but we still like each other a lot, and sitting at Brienzo’s for close to two hours talking, enjoying each other, we’re still young(ish), very in love, we don’t really believe in Providence in the same way, but we’re just very grateful for the life we have with each other.

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Two weeks ago, I had a good friend call me to tell me she was pissed at me. Frankly, I deserved her ire. Instead of being brave and wholehearted, I had played chickenshit and let my inner voices win the day, and in the process I hurt her feelings because of my actions. But she didn’t lead with “I’m pissed at you.”

She started with, “Help me understand why you made the decision you did.” And for about 45 minutes she listened and empathized and demonstrated to me in a powerful way that she loved me and valued our relationship and she was doing everything in her power to see the world through my eyes.

Then, she told me why she was pissed.

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so lovingly confronted by a friend. I called her the next day and told her how loved I felt.

I have a job where, in the course of events, people get pissed at me. Sometimes I deserve it. Sometimes my job is like walking through an emotional/relational minefield. Some days it feel like I’m skipping through, others it feel like I hit every mine on the field. And sometimes I’m just the “authority figure” who someone needs to rage against. And I’ve learned – mostly – to let those go.

And, in my job, I have plenty of people who are ready and willing to tell me what I “should” do in any given situation.

So, “confrontation” isn’t really all that unusual in my life. Emotional/relational messes are just the milieu of church work.

But, a “confrontation” that leaves me feeling all warm and fuzzy and loved?

That’s a gift. That’s the kind of interaction where I said to Jennifer afterwards, “I feel so loved because I talked to our friend and she told me off.”

Who ever gets to say those words?

I’m grateful for friends like her and others, who have lovingly walked beside me in my rumbling with stuff. And despite my prickliness at times, keep coming back.

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Jennifer pointed out to me the other day that in Matthew 25, where Jesus famously says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me,” Jesus is identifying himself as “one of the least of these.”

We talk a lot about “being Jesus’ hands and feet,” and how that means we ought to do good for other people. And that’s true too.

But, it’s also true that one of the hardest things for me to do is to receive someone else’s kindness and generosity. I am hell bent on keeping things “even-steven” in the scorecard of my mind. Actually, I’m hell bent on staying “one-up” whenever I can. It makes me feel strong, powerful and in control.

But the cross-shaped ministry of Jesus was about emptying, about choosing “one-down,” even to death on a cross.

I’m learning to be like Jesus in receiving things from others. I’m thankful for how – this year in particular – I’ve had to learn some hard things.

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And speaking of giving and receiving…Our culture is so uber-focused on material things. Verizon has a new ad campaign that is driving me batty right now. They’re calling it “Thanksgetting” and the tagline is “get into the spirit of getting.”

“Barf. O. Rama.” (To quote a friend of mine). As if Americans need any encouragement to “get into the spirit of getting.”

I think – especially as Americans – when we think gratitude, we think of the material things we’ve gotten. But, the most important things to me – the things that make me cry – aren’t material. They’re relational. It’s the ways people have given of themselves to me.

I have a long list of names that I’d love to put here, but I’m sure I’d leave somebody out and then I’d feel badly. But I’m very grateful this Thanksgiving for the people who have given of themselves to me, who have poured out their souls and who have sat with me and held my hand in one of the uglier years of my life.

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One final thought.

I think we over-assume that the people in our lives know how much we mean to them.

And, at the same time, I think we underestimate how much we mean to the people in our lives.

Don’t let Thanksgiving go by without saying some specific, heartfelt thank yous, like this one:

Peggy – thank you for editing pretty much everything I write on this blog and making me appear to be a stronger, more conscientious, more grammatically correcter version of myself. LOL! And thank you for the joy that you seem to take in doing so. I don’t understand how you love it so much, but I know you do. I thank you and everyone who reads this does too – even if they don’t know you!

 

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