Inviting doesn’t mean you have to like it

I don’t understand it when perfectly good-hearted people say things like “Well we couldn’t invite this drunk homeless man in to our church on Sunday because we don’t know what he’s capable of.”  Really?

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that there are valid safety concerns and it certainly wouldn’t be one of those things where you let the person wander around un-escorted.  But why wouldn’t you invite the person in, let them get warm, offer them coffee or something warm to drink?

I guess for me it comes from having spent the last decade or so working in (and for some years, pastoring) a congregation that welcomed in people exactly like that to our Sunday morning services…still do.  It’s disruptive, it wasn’t what we planned on doing.  It hasn’t always been easy or comfortable.  We’ve had to call the police sometimes, but we keep doing it.  Because it’s Christ’s mission, it’s our mission.  To reach out to those most desperately in need of hope and reconciliation to the community.

When our congregation started, we spent time in groups determining what our mission, focus and name would be.  We thought we knew what we were doing and our name came from the neighborhood we lived in – Open Arms.  But living out the mission contained within that name has proven to be anything but comfortable or easy.

Living Open Arms, being a representative of the body of Christ means welcoming in those you would just as soon leave outside your doors.  It means welcoming the felon, the drunk, the homeless and more.  It means welcoming those who have never been to church before, who disrupt the service (either knowingly or unknowingly).  It means dealing with crisis, with people who have mental illness challenges.  It means not getting to sit in a pew, listening to the service for sometimes months on end as you visit and mentor and just sit with people for whom Christ is known more as a curse-word than a friend.   It means being around people who smell, who make you uncomfortable, that drive you nuts.  It’s draining and it hurts…and it asks a lot of you.

But if we are true to our calling, Christ didn’t call us to follow him to make it easy.  He didn’t say that come to church on Sunday, accept me and then you’re off the hook for doing anything else.  He lived an example that says we HAVE to do more than this.  We MUST do more than this.

Christ’s mission was to a world in need.  A world hungering for positive news of hope, renewal, a re-connecting.  That hasn’t changed.  We are still called to reach out, with Open Arms, to those who most need our love and support.  LGBT, bikers, homeless, addicts, abusers and abused, people in poverty, felons… people for whom whatever reason, society says are “less than,” these are our brothers and sisters.  These too are God’s sheep.

Dare to reach out.  Dare to invite in.  Dare to be vulnerable to Divine Grace and then let the Spirit breathe.

Taking a breather

I have decided to ban myself from Facebook for a few days.  Despite what I am sure it may feel like to some of my friends, it was not a hasty decision or even prompted by any specific incident.  It was rather a culmination of things that just became too much in the wake of the Paris attack and our conversations about it.  Although admittedly I’m not sure conversations is even the right word for what was happening.  Demonizing might be a better word.

The Left was dehumanizing the opposite side by calling them racist, xenophobic, challenging their beliefs, ignoring their valid concerns and engaging in name-calling.  The Right was dehumanizing the opposite side by making crude comparisons, ignoring their valid concerns, refusing to see any side but their own and engaging in slander against a whole group of people, innocent and not.  I am not proud of the fact that I was one of these voices at times.

It just got to be too much.  Too much negativity, too much anger, too much hurt.  Everywhere I turned people that I know and love and respect (whether I agree with them or not) were posting things that vilified one group or the other, were arguing with people that I know they also love and respect in ways that frankly bothered me.  It was like someone has tossed a grenade of fear into social media and we were using the shockwave to reinforce our worst perceptions about each other.  Whether “pointy-headed, naïve commie liberal” or “racist, ignorant conservative”, the discussions were less about sharing ideas and finding ways to build common ground and more about pitting “my” version of reality against “yours” and proving my way is the only right way to see things.  And I engaged.  I did it to… and for that I am truly sorry.

As a minister in a faith community that claims the name of Christ, I feel like this last week was not one of my better weeks.

I was not a presence of his love, peace and justice among the world in which I live.  I did not lift people up, care for their wounds, or listen to their concerns in the ways that I probably should have.  I struggled to show love to my neighbors.  I questioned whether I even wanted to remain known as a “Christian.”  But I believe God is real.  I trust in the experiences that I have had and others have shared with me throughout my life.  I trust that Christ is love and calls us to live a better life than we see is possible now.  I hope for and have faith that the world can be a better place.  But I can’t build that world, which we call Zion, if I do not walk the walk as well as talk the talk.  And this week I hurt people.  Whether I meant to or not is irrelevant.  I showed people a caricature of a Christian who says one thing but does another.  I screwed up.

So I am taking a break.

I hope to spend the next few days with God.  As Christ showed us, sometimes we need that break.  To pray with Him, to be with Him… to recharge so that when we reenter the world we are not over-come by it.  I pray for all those affected by the Paris attacks, and yes, that includes the killers and more importantly, their families.  I pray for the thousands of refugees around the world who will suffer needlessly because of the actions of a few.  I pray for me, that I will be a better mirror of Christ’s love to the world I live in.  And I pray for us all, that as God promises, Love will overcome Fear and Division.

See you in a few…

Faith in difficult times…

I have seen a lot of posts since Friday about the attacks in Paris. Some I agree with some I very much do not agree with. But as I have expressed myself, through memes and comments, I have found myself having people question why I do feel or believe what I do, especially as it relates to the ISIS terrorists (not just Muslims in general). So this is sort of an explanation of my beliefs, not a competition or critique of anyone else’s beliefs. I have many friends and family members who disagree with me and that is okay. I love them anyway and in some ways, because of their beliefs. I don’t judge them for it and I certainly do not claim my way is the only truth or true way to believe. I am not so arrogant as to think I have it all right. This is simply the best I can do as I understand it. So, to return to my thoughts….

I understand that for many people the attacks highlight and underscore concerns they already have about Islamic faith and people from the Middle-East. I understand that the attacks are scary in that they remind us how familiar, formerly safe places can become deadly and dangerous experiences with little or no warning. I understand that those who carried out those attacks will most likely not stop until either those who disagree with them are either converted or dead or they themselves are dead. I understand that for many people there is a righteous indignation that calls for vengeance and justice in the same breath.

But I cannot get on board with such understanding. And even though I understand it, I do not agree with it.

As a friend of mine put it, I was welcome to put my family in harms way but they weren’t [going to]. I am not actively advocating for throwing my family and children onto a battlefield in Syria. But what about those who don’t have that luxury? I am not saying we cannot screen those who come to this country as refugees, but to deny them entry entirely because somewhere, somehow, there might be a danger to us lurking in their midst? I believe in a faith that is judged especially on how we treat our enemies, the stranger, and the refugee. My faith would be poor indeed if I only prayed for the victims of Paris and not also the families of the aggressors.

It is easy in some ways to forget exactly how radical Jesus’ message was at the time he was giving it to his listeners. For his fellow Jews, his call to the promise of God being for Romans and Greeks and others was as radical and troubling as me saying we should accept all the refugees from Syria that want to come. His lack of concern with overthrowing the Roman overlords in Israel was in some ways as crazy as the idea that we don’t need to respond militarily to ISIS in Syria. The way people felt about “the other” whether it was fellow Jews who collaborated with the Romans, the Romans themselves, the Samaritans and more, are no different than how many people, including a number of public and prominent self-proclaimed Christians, are talking about the immigrant, Muslims and others.

As a Christian, I believe with all my heart that I am called to be a bridge to bring together the “others” of the world. I am not naïve enough to assume this would be without cost. Early Christians understood that their ministry might call for their martyrdom. In places where Christianity is the dominant religion we no longer have to worry about such concerns, and in some ways I think, forget about what Christ says about there being a cost to following Him. I realize this could mean my family is at risk, could be put in harms way. But we are everyday anyway. Look at Charleston, look at the school shootings, drunk drivers, robberies. It is not a matter of whether we are safe or not, it’s a matter of how much risk are we willing to tolerate. And if my faith in God’s promise is of any consequence, I have to believe that no matter what happens to me in this life, if I love my neighbor as myself and love my God with all my heart, might, mind and strength then it will all be well. If not for me, than perhaps for those who come after, either my children or your children. I am not willing to give up the future because change in the present is too dangerous or costly. I am not promised that life will be easy or that things will always go the way I think they should.

In my own lifetime I have seen the Berlin Wall come down, peace in North Ireland and more. Places and situations that people thought would never heal were not corrected by war or violence, but through peace and perseverance in faith that things could be better. It involved cost, loss and time. These are things I think we sometimes forget in a society in which so much is at our fingertips. Am I willing to let the possibility of harm come to my family if it means standing up for what I believe in? Yes. Do I want it to happen? No. I’m not dumb.

D_Boo Library 1

But I have faith. I don’t need to believe in the scriptures as literal history to believe in God’s promise. I don’t need archaeological evidence to “prove” that things happened in the Bible to see how Christ’s love can make a difference in someone’s life.  I can be just me and still influence those I am around and those I come into contact with thanks to the Holy Spirit and the power of Christ’s love.  I am called to be a peacemaker, not a warrior. And if that involves my death or the death of my loved ones, I can hold true to the lessons of Job and give thanks to the Lord even in the midst of loss and turmoil.

That is why I say the things I do and why I believe the way I do. No, it’s not easy and no it’s not naïve. So please don’t think I am. It’s scary and challenging and pulls me into places I don’t want to go. But as Christ reminded us in the Garden of Gestheme, “Not my will, but thine oh Lord be done.” Sometimes we just need to believe.

Religious Liberty vs The Law

This probably isn’t news anymore, but here’s a little secret that many in ministry don’t like to discuss openly…we struggle too.  We struggle everyday with feelings of inadequacy, failure, anger, hurt.  We wrestle with the big questions, wonder if our faith is big enough, strong enough.  We worry about all the answers we don’t have, about the answers we do.  And these are on top of all the things that we face just because we’re human just like you and we have lives and jobs and families and responsibilities that weigh on us.

Some of these struggles are caused by internal things.  But others are caused by external stimuli; things that happen that we feel like we have to react to, or not react to as the case may be.  For me one of the most difficult struggles recently has been Ms. Davis’ stand against issuing marriage licenses in KY lately.  Well, I suppose in many ways that’s not entirely true.  It’s not so much her stand as it is all of the noise out of both sides of the issue that I think are obscuring the most important issues at play here.

The first is that these are people involved in this standoff.  Real people, who have family, people who love them, both the couples trying to get married and Ms. Davis herself.  These people have hopes, desires, beliefs; they get hurt, they are struggling with the situation that they find themselves in and they are both being held up as something larger than themselves by activists on both the Right and the Left.  It magnifies and intensifies every aspect of what is already a painful and stressful situation.

The second can best be summed up by the meme below:


However, it’s not entirely that simple either.  (And please note, I am NOT comparing Ms. Davis’ stand to Osama’s murders, but to the rationale behind each one’s stance)

Saying that religious beliefs should be protected and promoted above the law of the land is great if it’s a belief that you agree with.  At that point, sure, what’s the harm in making MY thoughts and MY beliefs that supreme figure of our nation…except that not everyone shares those same thoughts and same beliefs.  What if the religious beliefs being supported are for a religion you disagree with, or are afraid of?  Will you still support those decisions?  And at what point can and should the government intervene?  Be very careful with how much intervention you ask for.  It opens the door to many many unintended consequences…just talk to Hobby Lobby and the Satanic Temple in Detroit.  Pretty sure those two groups never thought they’d have something in common until after Hobby Lobby won their lawsuit in the Supreme Court.

I am not saying that I agree with Ms. Davis, because I don’t.  But I don’t want to dismiss her thoughts and beliefs out of hand either.  As a believer, even one with different beliefs than Ms. Davis, how much do I want the government to force me to do something against my religion?  Because that’s what we’re talking about here.  Personally I think she should just resign.  Or barring that, reassign her to another position and give her duties to someone who can fully carry out the responsibilities of that office.

But to see my first point above, Ms. Davis is a person.  She may be biased against full LGBT rights, but does demonizing her or sending death threats to her house and family make the position of those who disagree with her any stronger?  One of the most powerful forces of the Civil Rights Movement was that it was the persecuted being arrested, not those doing the persecuting.  I fear that this request of gov’t involvement will reframe the discussion in a way that is harmful to the LGBT community for decades to come.

I am also a believer in the building of community, not tearing it down.  And that means living with and dealing with people who agree with me AND people who do not agree with me.  I look at my Facebook wall and the many posts from members and other ministers in my denomination (and other denominations) about this and other decisive topics and I see so much hurt, anger and feelings that run so strongly there seems to be no way for us to hear each other…let alone manage to have a civil conversation about it or attempt to understand why the other person feels the way they do.

It may be a vain hope, but I will keep trying to get people to listen to each other.  Not to change their points of view, but perhaps to more fully see each other as someone of worth.  To understand that in order for our community to grow and be healthy we need ALL of us.  Not just the ones we like.

Christian Nation

I say this with all humility and love…  I don’t want to live in a “Christian” nation.
As a father, a husband, a son, a minister, a school counselor…  I want to be able to practice my faith, in the way I believe it should be practiced.  But even though I believe in Jesus Christ as the Son of God I don’t want to live in a nation where Christianity is the rule.  The reason for this, to me, is simple enough – Whose version of Christ is the law?  I am not Lutheran, Catholic, Baptist or Evangelical.  None of them represent my understanding of Christ.  I am not Mormon or Quaker or Mennonite.  They do not worship Christ as I do.  And for my friends and family who are Pagan, Wiccan, Agnostic, and Jewish, do I really want them to be unable to worship the Divine as they see fit (or not at all if that’s their choice)?   At what point do we start to have religious police?  When do we have morality boards coming in to our homes, our workplaces?  Many self-proclaimed Christians look at Iran today and say what a horrible state, a place where people are forced to worship only one way.  But in the same breath they call for a similar type state here in the US, without every really realizing the irony of their position.

With all that is going on with the SCOTUS ruling last Friday, I have seen hundreds of posts from both sides of the ruling.  I was one of the first of my friends to post about my Facebook feed looking like a battle between the Confederates and a Skittles factory.  For me, the ruling was a relief in many ways.  I am glad that the members of the LGBT community who want to marry a same-gender partner now have the opportunity to do so.  I am sorry that those who are against it feel like they have to demean and/or bemoan what is happening in such a way as to divide communities.  Personally, I’m ready to move on to something more pressing…poverty, genocide, pollution, etc.  Take your pick, there are a hundred more topics more important to me right now than who marries whom.  And honestly, I am glad to live in a country where we really are treated as equal under the law.  Where we can worship or not as we choose.  We need more rulings like this, in my opinion, not less.

My Sacred Space

sacred space,

n space—tangible or otherwise—that enables those who acknowledge and accept it to feelreverence and connection with the spiritual.

I had to wonder about this concept earlier this week.  A friend and co-worker of mine had sent several of us a picture of a fantastic house for sale in our city.  It was a 17 bedroom, 17 bathroom castle going at a bargain price of only $2 million.  Unfortunately we would need something like  51 people paying on the mortgage or so in order to even consider covering that sort of money.  But the address for this place was on a similarly named road to another house that actually is and was special to me.  First, a little backstory.

My father’s parents came from hard beginnings.  Grandma was abandoned by her parents and left with her grandparents when she was young.  Grandpa came from a homesteader family out west when his mother and the kids had to move back here when his father died of TB at a very early age.  Both suffered loss of parents and family and as a consequence family was always very important to them both.

They married and had three boys, the youngest of whom was my father.  When my dad was young they bought this house and my grandfather started work on it.  They bought it from the son of the original owner, who had been a doctor.  The house had a back party house, three garage/outbuildings plus the main house on about 6 acres of land most of which was forest.  The tennis court in the back eventually was taken over by the woods but the peacock pens provided feathers that I still have in my house to this day.

My grandfather worked, along with help from my uncles, father and cousins, over 50+ years on building, improving and adding onto the property.  And every year for as long as they were alive, at Easter, Thanksgiving, Christmas and other holidays and birthdays, our families would gather together at that house.  It passed from my grandparents to one of my uncles to one of his children, staying in the family for almost 70 years.  Memories of four generations of our family center on that house and that property.  Prayer meetings, fireworks, picnics, swim parties (after the pool was added), and more color the images of my childhood.  As a child who moved a lot growing up, it was one of a very very few places that I felt like was home, a place to connect with the land of my family in a way only farmers of old understand.

My cousin eventually got divorced and they lost the house to foreclosure.  It’s up for sale again and while I thought I had resolved myself of the idea that I would never own the place, the thought of it going up for sale to someone outside my kin brought a surprisingly strong sense of loss to me and has in general hung over me the last day or so.

It’s not that I want the place, I know it’s a bit of a financial deathtrap for anybody who’s not really well off, which is certainly not this lower-middle class family.  But the assurance that if I wanted, I could go over to visit, to walk the paths of my childhood and share the memories of climbing through the woods, the secret places in the garage attics, my first apartment…all of that is going away and it surprises me how much that still hurts.  But maybe it shouldn’t surprise me.  For me, family is spiritual, family is sacred.

Family is the filter through which I have always looked at life.  It is the foundation to my understanding of God, creation and my place in it.  It is how I describe my best friends, my church companions, they are also a part of my family.  And for me, at least on my father’s side, my best memories of family are from that house, that property and with my grandparents now long gone it is like losing that last touchstone with them even if the more grown-up part of me realizes that’s not the case.  But it was home for a time… in a very special and spiritual way, it WAS sacred space to me.  A place where I stayed while doing church mission work, a place where I would share in morning devotionals with my grandparents, where I really felt close to God looking out and walking through the woods.

My understanding and sense of the divine has grown since those days, but this was a special place to me, kept in the deep recesses of my soul.  It is time to say good-bye to the place and perhaps, write down the stories from our time there as family.  After all, my children are growing and they do not have the connection to the place that I do.  They are developing their own sense of sacred spaces.  For D it will be radically different than Boo given the 15 year difference in their ages.  But I want to help nurture and create that same sense of affection and importance for them as they look to ground their journey with the Divine (in whatever form it takes) as they grow older.  And to help them learn, through my modeling, what it means to truly let something go if you love it.

So good-bye and God-speed to whomever becomes the new owner.  Know that you have big shoes to fill, and numerous opportunities to be blessed.

Who do you trust?

It was the article’s title that caught my attention.  Given the controversy between conservative Christians and scientists over Global Warming, LGBT, evolution and the like, I was curious to see what the author’s point would be.  Would it be another Christian bashing post like I’d see elsewhere?  Or would it be a science denying post instead?

I was happily surprised by the fact that it was neither.

I also have discovered a new magazine publication to read.

I have never felt that science was ever in any way a threat to my understanding of God, the scriptures and my Christianity.  My grandfather once summed it up to me this way, “Science and Religion are not enemies.  They seek answers to different questions.  The problems come in when you try to use one to answer the other.”  This has been my touchstone ever since and the older I get the more true it seems.

Evolution is as good a way to me to describe in scientific terms as anything else I’ve seen.  It also matches up with what we can see/measure and demonstrate.  The fact that I am a part of this creation that I believe God made is a matter of more wonder and joy, not less.  The fact that the Earth is billions of years old rather than 6000 or so is also not a problem for me.  Saying God created the earth in 7 days, I personally doubt it was 7, 24 hour days as we measure it.  Especially considering that that sort of understanding of time was not in place when Genesis was written.  I’m not really sure I could wrap my head around billions anyway.  Saying 7 days is a wonderfully metaphoric way of describing a process that took years and years.

Global warming also fits with my denominations view of our interaction with the Earth.  We believe that we are the Stewards of the Earth, not Dominators.  See below:

Steward – def. (noun) a person who manages another’s property or financial affairs

Dominate – def. (verb) to rule over or exercise control of

There is major difference if you are taking care of someone else’s stuff than if you are doing what you want with your own.  As part of creation we have a responsibility to take care of it, nurture it and help to keep it healthy.  Waste and overuse are products of the mindset that we were given “dominion” over the Earth and all things in it.

By the same token, science cannot tell me what my purpose is here on Earth, nor can it completely describe the experiences I have had with the Divine.  It doesn’t need to.  Nor do I look to science to teach me morals or ethics, this again, for me, is the place of religion.

I find myself in a strange place amongst most of my friends.  I have many who, taking the conservative bent, are inherently suspicious of anything scientific that challenges their beliefs.  By the same token, I have a number of more liberal friends who find comfort in science with no place for religion in their lives.  Not many seem to try to keep the balance and tension between the two like myself.  It makes for a lonely place on the knife’s edge.

So I am glad to find an entire community of people dedicated to the same principles and ideas, of allowing religion and science to co-exist peacefully in our lives.  And I am happy to remind folks that many of the most prominent early scientists where monks, willing to challenge their beliefs and the beliefs of those around them as they sought to understand our world more fully as part of the wonderful creation God made.  So can you trust anything written about Science and Faith by a Christian?  I think, for myself, the answer is yes.

Storytelling in the world

We are the sum of our stories.

I am a storyteller.  One of my hobbies is tabletop role-playing games.  Most of you have probably heard of D&D and know that there is a large network of nerds and geeks who get together in their parents basements, eat pizza, drink soda and do mysterious things with dice.  While this was more true when I was a teenager, the appeal of role-playing games as I get older is to spend time telling stories with my friends.  I don’t do it as often as I used to, what with work, kids, ministry and other responsibilities but the desire and memories are still there.  Role-playing includes fighting monsters and finding treasure for sure, that’s part of the payoff.  But good role-playing also uses puzzle-solving, forces characters to face complex moral or ethical choices, encourages collaboration and cooperation, mirrors real-life events in a setting far enough removed to explore with freedom and more.  There is a pay-off, emotional and mental, when telling such stories, both as a Story-teller and as a player.  For me, an additional benefit is creating a set of stories that my friends and I can share for years.  Funny quotes, embarrassing roles, challenges overcome and the like, it becomes our story, not just mine or yours.  How many other things in today’s world do this?

One of them I would argue, is religion.  And this is also the venue that I have used my storytelling to fullest effect.  Jesus was a storyteller.  We have a number of examples throughout the gospels.  They are called parables.  I find that the best sermons I deliver remember this, that Jesus told people stories in order to teach them.  He didn’t throw around his theological weight or try to convince them of the rightness of his position.  He didn’t argue or spend time telling people how wrong they were, he told stories.  If he is my guide on how I should be living my life, then I need to tell more stories, not less.  Stories can be what unite us, show us our common humanity, celebrate our shared heritage, lift us up and give us hope.  When we have a shared story it can help provide a vision of the future.  Without a unified story, we become just a collection of individuals wandering around.  I sometimes wonder if part of the reason the Jews had to wander the desert for 40 years was for God to give them time to find their unifying story as His people.

We all of us tell stories each and every day, from the clothes we wear, to the make-up we do or don’t put on, to the way we interact with the people around us.  Stories are more than words, they are the actions and decisions that express our worldview and influence our surroundings.  Role-playing has taught me that.  Religion has taught me that the stories we choose to tell can shape that world and those surroundings for either good or ill.  If our story is all about us or those like me, if my story is about us vs. the “other”, or if our story chooses to gloss over and ignore the consequences of our actions, then I will show you a story that is divisive, destructive and generally unhelpful to creating the peaceable kingdom of Zion.  If our story is about building relationships, reaching out to those around us, if my story is about love and helps to explain the consequence of my choices in a patient and respectful way, then I will show you a story that people will find compelling and want to be a part of.

As a father, as a Christian, as an American, I have numerous stories that live in the background of my life.  Sorting through them, retelling them and passing them on to my children as they determine their own part in this play, these are the decisions that impact not only my life, but the lives of everyone that we all come in contact with and the lives of everyone who comes after.  Just as our lives are affected by the stories of all of those who have come before.  When I read stories of the American gov’t taking land sacred to Native American tribes, the story of our country is that this happened a long time ago and is no longer an issue.  But the story of so many tribal members still tells a different story today:

When I talk to friends who are afraid of terrorists and Islam and think that all Muslims are terrorists, I hear in their story the hurts of past encounters, their desire for certainty and comfort.  But for myself, the stories that I cling to are ones like this:  The stories that you read, that you tell your friends, that surround your life, are the stories that determine the world you live in.  I used to tell my Sunday School high school class that every day, they are writing the scriptures of the next 2000 years, that sometime in the distant future, there may be people reading the Gospel of Mike, or the Gospel of Zach or the Gospel of Bethany.  It is now that our story is being told, shaped and shared.

May your storytelling be blessed to be a blessing on all those you come in contact with.

Phones and little ones…and Christ?

So I had a bit of a misadventure yesterday.  I was coming back to my desk at the office and managed to somehow drop my phone just right, so that not only did the screen crack but the device itself ceased to be a functioning item.  I lost pictures, videos, contacts.  I wasn’t as devastated as I could’ve been, mostly because I upload stuff to Facebook or my desktop about as quickly as I can.  But it was still annoying.

I skipped the gym and went to the local Sprint store to see what options were available.  A buddy of mine is the store manager but he was out, so I chatted up one of his employees.  As we got to talking we discovered that a.) we both like to talk to people and b.) we both have daughters close to the same age.  We chatted about the fun stuff they do as they start walking & talking & developing that attitude that hopefully will take them far in life, and about the things that drive us nuts – teething, poopy diapers, picky eating.  It was an unlooked for moment of connection as we also discovered we had one other thing in common, a desire for ministry.

While I am already an ordained minister and co-pastor, this young man shared his desire of someday becoming a preacher for Christ as well.  It was a humbling experience to share with him and to talk about some of my own experiences as a minister.  It’s funny… so often we don’t pay attention beyond the superficial to the people around us.  But when we do, the connections we can make are amazing opportunities to share and to learn.  I am grateful for the opportunity to share with him.  Especially after Boo and N came back to the store to pick me up and I got to show her off a little.

Even if she did drive me a little nuts…

Thoughts on being Christian…

Okay, so this has also been a long time coming…  I am putting down some thoughts here after reading entirely too many political and news sites lately.  As 2016 gears up, I am concerned for the world my children will inherit.  But not everything looks bleak.

It is hard to be a Christian in today’s America.  Not in the sense that Huckabee and plenty of other commentators mean.  I am not worried about my religious beliefs being infringed upon to the point where I am unable to practice my faith.  But what makes it hard for me to say I am a Christian in today’s world is primarily… other Christians.

What I mean by this is derived in part from both personal and anecdotal experiences.  I don’t claim to have access to lots of data to explicitly back up my suppositions, but there are general trends we are aware of (or should be) in the public sphere that back up in broad strokes what I feel.

I should probably start with an explanation of what being Christian means to me.  Learning to refine one’s theology is a bit like self-reflection.  It’s often painful, full of surprising depths and turns, and at times contradicts itself.  But like in smithing, the refinement process can produce something of even great strength if handled well.

I call myself a Christian because I am a follower of Jesus Christ.  This person was, in my understanding, a historical figure who lived, acted and died in a specific place and a specific time with repercussions that have lasted for millennia.  But this person was also the incarnate persona of the infinite divine, God’s self, poured into human form, acting for a love beyond our understanding for a flawed and finite creation desperately in need of that love.

I believe that God has and can do miracles that are beyond our capacity to understand and that fly in the face of established scientific fact.  I also believe that God placed rules on creation that we can understand and explain.  As such, I have no problem believing in evolution as I consider myself a part of creation and being related in measurable ways to other creatures on this earth in no way threatens God’s love for me or the special place I have in God’s eyes.  If anything, evolution makes me appreciate the love God has for us even more.

I find comfort in the presence of an invisible spirit.  I believe that the Holy Spirit comforts me when I mourn, fills my heart with joy beyond my own capacity at times and helps to keep me connected with God when I feel most alone.  I believe best as Shakespeare put it, “There are more things Horatio, than are dreamed of in your books.”  Scripture is a tool that points us to God and shows us how to live through the life of Christ, but it is not infallible, nor should it be used as science to explain the world we live in… at least not in my opinion.

I am leery of saying I am “saved” as I often hear it used by many people today.  I believe I am called by God’s Grace and great love to be in relationship with God through Christ.  Not by anything or any decision I have made, but because “God so loved the world, [s]He sent his only Begotten son, that all who believe on Him should have everlasting life.”  It is through Christ’s faithfulness that I am given new life and called to live a life that reflects that faithfulness even though I will often fall short.  And that new life is to be lived in community with others, believers and non-believers alike, living in such a way so that as the hymn states – “they will know we are Christians by our love.”

I suppose that hits the highlights: Creator/Divine being kicked it off – check, full humanity & divinity of Christ – check, importance of Scripture – check, importance of community – check

Now to the harder parts…why, in my mind, it is so hard to be Christian in today’s America.

As millions of young Americans begin to self-identify more and more as “Spiritual but not Religious” and as more and more are leaving the church, the answer for me is in part that same sense of alienation that these people report having.  Christ’s life, when I was a child, was how I viewed the whole world.  We were supposed to love everybody and welcome all to be with him.  There was nothing in that about refusing service to someone, turning people away, condemning people to Hell and more in my simple child-like understand of the greatest commandment – “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and strength…and love your neighbor as yourself, on this hangs all the laws and the prophets.”

Love.  First, last and always.  If we couldn’t get that part right, the rest of it didn’t matter.  And honestly, right now I think we are failing that part… miserably.  And, in my opinion, it’s why more and more people are finding it hard to be a Christian.

If being a Christian means that you have to support free trade, low taxes, conservative politicians, criminalize abortion, deny same-sex couples rights, ignore institutional racism and corporate greed under the umbrella of “tradition” and “job creators” then I am not Christian.

If being a Christian means that you have to deny scientific research because it threatens your belief in God, believing that poor people are just lazy, that we shouldn’t have to sacrifice anything to save those around us, that Scripture must be taken literally as history and the unchangeable word of God (until it doesn’t have to be), then I am not Christian.

If being a Christian means that people who disagree with us are the enemy, that illegal immigrants are not God’s children too, that Pagans/Hindu/Muslim/Jews are all going to Hell, that war is justifiable and violence is an acceptable means of solving problems, that the death penalty is okay, then I am not a Christian.

PLEASE NOTE: I am NOT saying that if you believe these things, you can’t be Christian.  I am simply saying that being Christian may be more than this list, at least to me… and that in my own head, I cannot reconcile these ideas with what I understand to be the mission of Christ.  If you can, more power to you, and may Christ’s Shalom bless you, but I can’t go there with you. 

I keep wondering, if we’re such a “Christian” nation, why cut the programs to feed and help the poor, the needy?  If our Savior is the Lord of Peace, why do we spend more than any other country in the world on our military?  Why do we take words like compromise and cooperation and turn them into imprecations?  When did the only way you win is by ensuring that I lose?  Have we forgotten what it is to really be a religion of the poor, the meek, the mourning, the sick?

All this and more is done by people who wrap themselves in the mantle of religion, specifically Christian religion, turning it more and more into something that not only do I not recognize, I no longer want to be a part of.

But I have seen God…and I have Hope.

Not that somehow everyone around us will suddenly turn into conservative evangelical Christians or be raptured or whatever.  My hope is that in big and small ways, people from all walks of life and yes, even of all faiths and none, are still coming together to work on bringing about the coming of Zion, the peaceable kingdom, however they understand and choose to define it.  People still love and are learning to love, in ways that challenge us, that push us forward.  We aren’t called to forget the traditions of our past or deny our heritage.  It is what shapes us and has formed us to where we are.  But we are not called to stay there either.  The past is gone, but maybe… just maybe, we might yet get this whole love thing down.

1 John 3:15-23 (NSRV) 15 All who hate a brother or sister[e] are murderers, and you know that murderers do not have eternal life abiding in them. 16 We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us—and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. 17 How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister[f] in need and yet refuses help?

18 Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. 19 And by this we will know that we are from the truth and will reassure our hearts before him 20 whenever our hearts condemn us; for God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. 21 Beloved, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have boldness before God; 22 and we receive from him whatever we ask, because we obey his commandments and do what pleases him.

23 And this is his commandment, that we should believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.