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.

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Reflections on the odd…

I don’t know why I am such an oddball.

It may simply be a factor of my perception, but I look through my friends’ social media accounts, we visit in person, I watch tv and listen to the radio and people chatting in stores and I wonder, truly and often, “What on earth are they thinking?”  I am not saying this to come across as superior or condescending, while acknowledging that can certainly be how it is perceived.  It is more a matter of truly not understanding how people can hold some of the beliefs that they do.  I think that is one of the reasons I so enjoy honest, respectful debates with people who disagree with me.  I WANT to learn more about what makes them tick.  I WANT to try and understand why they think, feel and see the world the way they do.

One of the things that Bernie Sanders, currently running for president of the US, recently said to a respectful, if not exactly thrilled, arena of conservatives was that “It’s easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you, it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”  And I truly believe in this.  The ideals of community that my denomination feels that we are called to create are not communities of conformity.  They are communities that recognize the worth of all persons.  Communities that welcome everyone in.  Not just the ones who look, act and think like the majority.

It is helpful I suppose to explain that in my upbringing I think there were several factors that gave me a somewhat unique perspective of the world that do not allow me to easily integrate with my peers.  First off, I was raised in a denomination that if people had heard of it at all either thought it was a cult or part of a totally different church altogether.  We were emerging from a period in our history where we thought that as a church, we had the “one TRUTH” that all other churches were lacking.  It was a tumultuous time in our denomination’s history, full of excitement, hurt and change.  It also meant that I didn’t have a lot of friends to talk to about religion, in a place and time where religion WAS family (post-script, it is family again now after years of wandering).  Most of my neighbors were Catholic, Baptist and the occasional Lutheran or Methodist.  I was one of less than 5 Community of Christ kids in almost every town I grew up in.

I was also raised in a multi-faith extended family.  On my mother’s side, my aunt and cousins were Jewish, both by blood and by religion.  My Christmas for years consisted of playing Dreidel and lighting the Menorah candles, while one of my cousins told the story and then going in the other room to read the Christmas story from the scriptures and singing Christmas carols.  As an adult I find more and more that I miss that piece of my childhood.  Sharing in the different faiths that made up my family.  I also have cousins and other family who are Pagan and Agnostic.  But down deep we know that being family is what still connects us.  In many ways this is how I understand being a part of the family of God.

Both of my parents were ministers, as were all four of my grandparents.  I was also raised in a household of educators.  My father was an elementary teacher and principal for 35 years and my mother was a high-school and college instructor.  Knowledge and reason helped to provide the foundation for how we understood the world, how we found strength in our faith and what our part in taking care of the world was.

On the flip side I was also a theatre major and spent years finding a second home in the welcoming embrace of those gypsies, geeks, freaks and oddballs who made up the various theatre groups I was a part of over the years.  They are in many ways still some of my closest and best friends and family.  It was weird being an active and believing Christian surrounded by people whose view of faith tended to be extremely divergent from my own.  But it was also very humbling to be part of such a community of people whose own struggles had made them keen to accept anyone who wanted to truly join the community they had created.  While I may have attended church, they lived it, although I know a number of them who would shudder to think of it in those terms.  🙂

Additionally, I started working in social work at a very young age.  At 14 I began volunteering my summers at a Christian camp for children who had been victims of abuse.  The abuse could range from physical, mental, emotional, sexual to sometimes all of the above.  For a time, we would be paired one-on-one with these children as the camp provided a place of sanctuary for them.  Many of the children had been taken from their homes and placed with other relatives or in the foster program and over the years that I participated in the camps (about five years all told), I heard and saw many horrific examples of people’s inhumanity to the most vulnerable among us including in the lives of my nephews and sister.

But I also saw the incredible strength and resilience of these children as some came back years later to be counselors themselves and the power of love and acceptance in making a difference in these children’s lives.  Sitting on top of a 7-year-old boy and wrestling a stolen kitchen knife away from him, to keep him from stabbing one of the girls at 11pm is one of the most heartbreaking memories I have.  But seeing a child, so badly abused that he will never walk or talk normal again, raise his voice to share in front of the group his hopes and fears for the future, of having a family and wishing to somehow be normal…seeing the love of these kids as they gather around him to show him how much he is loved and accepted as he is, is one of the most cherished memories I have.

I worked in Domestic Violence shelters and Runaway programs for teens for years before finally hitting burnout.  The stress, frustrations and hurts that Social Service workers, Police and other emergency personnel experience is real and hard to explain to anyone who hasn’t gone through it.  But it cost me my first two marriages, lots of sleepless nights, struggles with alcohol and depression.  There is a reason that people in these professions are so hurt.  It’s not because we don’t care, but because we care so much and we see so much misery around us.  We share a common desire to help our fellow human beings and often get frustrated when we can’t “fix” the problems we see.

I have been held-up at gun point.  I have lost people close to me to violence.  I understand, at least on some level, what it is like to have your life threatened.  I don’t ever want to face those circumstances again, but I also know that should that happen I will do everything I can to save those I care about EXCEPT take another life.  In my understanding and belief I cannot do it, nor can I condone it, not even to “save” those I love the most.

This partly comes from my journey as I ran away from church, tried other religions and none and finally found my way back to my roots.  If I truly believe that God shelters and protects me, than it is not my place to save my life through violence.  Martin Luther King and Ghandi had a lot of influence on this as well and will probably be covered more in future posts.

I love to read, to learn and to experience new things.  I want to be challenged on my beliefs, so that I may reexamine them and ensure that they still fit my understanding of the world.  I want to share in the faiths of my friends, but more importantly I want to share in the LIVES of my friends.  Building relationships is so much more a part of what I feel called to do than building church buildings.

I have a dirty sense of humor sometimes.  I have learned to live with the desires of my previous addictions to alcohol, smoking and porn, without giving in to them.   I yell, I scream at people I love sometimes.  I’m not great with money.  I lie.

But I also work on being a better person each day.  One who can look upon each person I meet as an opportunity to build a better world.  To leave this place a little bit better than I found it.  I don’t do this by telling them that I know what it means to be a “sinner” and then shaming or demeaning them into believing like me.  I do it by telling them my own struggles, by empathizing with their questions and accepting their conclusions, giving them space to grown into the person they are meant to be.  I ask forgiveness for the mistakes I make, I strive to make peace with people I have hurt or angered.  I try to understand.

I don’t know why this is such a hard thing for other people to understand.  I only know it sometimes feels like there are only a handful of us out there trying to live this way, but we do it because for us the world could be such a beautiful place if we can get even another one or two to see it through our eyes.

I may be the oddball… but what if I wasn’t?

Foundations

For me these two documents – 1.) http://www.exponentialimprovement.com/cms/uploads/Einstein%20on%20Why%20Socialism.pdf
and
2.) http://www.cofchrist.org/common/cms/resources/Documents/Sharing-in-Community-of-Christ-3rd-edition.pdf

best lay out the foundations for why I believe what I do… about family, faith, community, politics and the world.

The first lays out an influential essay by Albert Einstein on why he supported (little-s) socialism versus the capitalism that currently drives our society.  It includes some additional thoughtful commentary and links afterwards that I think is well worth the read although the entire thing can be a little thick.

The second is a publication by my denomination, Community of Christ, and lays out the foundations of our faith.  We are a non-creedal church so belief in these ideas is not required for membership, but this is the official church policy and largely mirrors my own understanding and belief.

I share these out of a desire to help explain why I say and do the things I do, not necessarily out of a desire to change or convert you to my way of thinking.  I do this because, as Bernie Sanders said recently to a crown of students at Liberty University, “It’s easy to go out and talk to people who agree with you, it is harder, but not less important, for us to try and communicate with those who do not agree with us on every issue.”

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:

ReligiousLaw_meme

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.

To change or…what’s the alternative?

Change.

It is a hard thing to contemplate sometimes.  All too often it is associated with the loss of something or the lessoning of, rather than as an opportunity for.  Some change is beneficial, some is necessary, but then there is some change that just plain out sucks.  Currently my wife’s work is going through one of those periods of change that just plain suck.  One of the challenges of working for non-profits is that employment at them can, even during the best of times, be somewhat tenuous.  They are getting ready to announce a large number of layoffs, but only in terms of the number of people let go.  They are not announcing who is safe and who has to leave until August, which, as much as I don’t like, I understand why.  They are going through an entire reorganization for an international non-profit.  They have to work with other countries employment law as well as figure out what the remaining institution will look like once this happens.  These things do not happen overnight.  And this particular change was put off until everything else had been considered.  Position cuts, budget juggling, leaving positions unfilled… eventually though, there comes a time where there is nothing else to do but let people go.

I can only imagine the pain of those who have served and given of their passion and time and energy who are now facing the prospect of their position being eliminated.

Nobody gets into the non-profit world to make it big.  You do it because something about the mission of the place you work calls to something in you… at least that’s been the majority of my experience.  I too have worked in non-profits almost all my adult life and wouldn’t change it for the world.  I realized a long time ago I was going to be a part of what is sometimes referred to as “the working poor.”  I think I managed to scrape, claw and cling to the bottom rung of middle-class, but like many people I know, we are only a paycheck or two away from disaster.

I don’t envy any of us the upcoming months.  I know many people at my wife’s work, many of them life-long friends.  I am not looking forward to seeing the pain in their eyes when they have to start looking for new positions.  Nor the emotions that may come between those who get to stay and those who leave.  We’re only human, it will happen.  And that’s the part I think that we don’t talk about so much…  Change is either something bad to be avoided or change is something good that we must all do.  Personally I feel like it’s somewhere in-between.  Change may be necessary, but there needs to be acknowledgment of the pain that transformation entails.  Change can be fast or slow, big or small, but every change hurts… at least a little… even if it’s for the best, especially if it takes awhile…

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.