Sunday, October 11, 2020

How Conservative Christians Should Treat LGBTQIA+ Folks

"Dad, I'm bisexual."  "Mom, I'm a lesbian."  "Pastor, I'm gay."  "Boss, I'm transgender."  "Friend, I'm questioning my sexual identity."  What can you, as a conservative Christian, do when someone comes out to you?  October 11 is National Coming-Out Day--so this issue may hit home sooner than you think.

I hope you'll keep reading, because I'm not going to try to convince you to believe anything different than you already do.  Plenty of books and articles exist, making theological arguments on both sides.  If you have religious or other convictions about the morality of queer folks, I'm not going to debate that.  The question isn't whether you approve or disapprove--the question is how should a conservative Christian respond, when someone they love or respect comes out.

Philip's encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8:26-40 tells us a lot about how to treat people who are different.  I invite you to read the whole story for yourself.  God led Philip into friendship with a person who was as different as could be from the evangelist.  Here was someone from a different nation, race, native language, religion, and a nonbinary gender expression.  In biblical times, being a eunuch was the same as being a transgender person today.  This was as much gender-reassignment surgery as  ancient technology would allow.  So, how did Philip treat this person?

First, he followed the Holy Spirit's lead.  When the Spirit told him to go, he went.  He didn't shrink from conversation, or act upon his prejudices or biases as a cisgender Jewish male.  Philip probably shared the cultural perspective that eunuchs were perpetually unclean--but he refused to treat him this way.  He allowed the Spirit to direct him toward relationship, contrary to his own personal feelings.

Second, Philip sat and had conversation with the eunuch.  In a day when eunuchs were shunned like lepers, Philip not only ran alongside the chariot, shouting at a distance--he sat next to this person, close enough that their bodies touched.  They breathed the same air, and talked about the same things.  This wasn't just tolerating another person's existence--this was Philip being willing to share his life and heart with someone, as an equal.

Third, Philip embraced the eunuch in baptism.  Having baptized countless people by immersion, as was done in Philip's day, I can tell you that it can get a little--er--intimate.  You're in the water together, your hands are on that person in a way they might not normally be.  I'm not saying it's sexual--it's just--very personal.  Philip symbolized his welcome of the eunuch by embracing him in baptism--again, recognizing him as an equal in his own eyes and God's.  He wasn't afraid that the gay would rub off on him in the water.  |He baptized him, just as the eunuch was--without asking him to be anything but the eunuch that he'd been made to be.  

This was a thing unheard of in Philip's day.  But, though most of the Hebrew scriptures condemned eunuchs as unclean, Philip knew that Isaiah's scroll that they'd been reading from also said:
For this is what the Lord says:
“To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths,
    who choose what pleases me
    and hold fast to my covenant—
to them I will give within my temple and its walls
    a memorial and a name
    better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name
    that will endure forever (Isaiah 56:4-5)."

So, Philip believed that even though most of his Bible condemned eunuchs as sexually and spiritually unclean, there was hope in the prophet's words that he might emrace this person of a different race, nationality, language, and gender identity.  He could not just embrace them, but he could welcome them in the faith as an equal.

I'm sure that you already have an opinion about the theology surrouding the LGBTQIA+ issue.  So, instead of getting into that, let me simply remind you that these dear folks are not issues to be debated, but people to be loved and respected as God's children.  Treat them as Philip would--love them as Jesus does.

So, what can Christians do when a lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning/queer, inersex, or asexual (LGBTQIA) person comes out to you?

Here's What Not to Do:

  • Don't quote Scripture to them.  They've undoubtably had people do that to them before, and probably know these "clobber passages" better than you do.  They're coming out to you because they're hoping you're a safe person, and they don't need a lecture right now.

  • Don't tell them it's a sin or that you'll pray for their soul.  If this is what you believe, that's fine.  But now is not the time to tell them that.  Right now, they need to feel embraced.  They need you to give them the same grace God has given you.

  • Don't shut them down, or stop them from telling you everything.  They've spent a long time trying to muster the courage to tell you this.  Please let them get it all out, in their own words and their own way.  Even if they tell you things that you don't want to know, please let them do so, for their sake.

  • Don't ask invasive questions.  It's none of your business to ask about the specifics of what people do in the bedroom, or what type of surgeries people will have, or have had.  If you want to learn more, do some research of your own--otherwise, wait until they volunteer information.  Asking invasive questions just makes people feel uncomfortable.

  • Don't "out" them to other people, after they've come out to you.  This is their story to tell, not yours.  Even if you're dying to share this news with someone, please respect their privacy.  They trusted you to keep their confidence.

Here's What to Do:
  • Listen to them.  James 1:26 says, "If anyone thinks he is religious and does not bridle his tongue but deceives his heart, this person's religion is worthless."  When a person comes out, it's their moment--not yours.  Don't make it all about you, how you feel, or about your opinions.  If you have an interest in this person at all, then try to understand their perspective before you form your own.
  • Remember that God hasn't called you to judge--God has called you to love.  Yes, I know you know what the Bible says.  But you are not the Holy Spirit who either convicts people of sin or leads them in righteousness.  You are the person this person needs right now, to simply love them and accept them as they are.  If there's sin in their life, God will deal with it.  That's not your job.

  • If you've been supporting them financially, continue to do so.  Maybe they're a college student that you've been helping, or they own a business you support with your purchases, or they're a service provider you've been utilizing.  You may be tempted to stop your support, thinking that if they receive money from you then you must be condoning their behavior/identity.  But what you'll really be communicating is that you hope they starve or get evicted or withdraw from school or just cease to exist.  Your money doesn't mean you agree--it means you respect that person as a fellow human being who's worthy of existence.  If you disagree with them on this, that's okay.  You can still affirm the person financially--your dollars don't mean you confirm your agreement.  Remember, 1 Samuel 13:20 says that the Israelites took their garden tools to the Philistines to be sharpened--this doesn't mean they condoned something they didn't believe in.  It does mean that they didn't believe in boycotting everybody who was different from them.
  • Call them by the name/pronoun they want you to use.  Transgender people call their old name their "dead name," because they feel like the old person they used to be has died, and a new person is born.  Please--don't call the person by their dead name or call them by their old gender.  This is simply following the Golden Rule, and doing to them what you'd want done to you.  Sarai was glad when they started calling her Sarah, and people respected Abram's transition to Abraham.  But imagine how Destiny feels when you keep calling her Sam!  Calling a person by their preferred name/pronoun shows that you respect them.  Even if you don't understand the new pronoun (they, them / sie, zie / hir, zir / hirs, zirs), try to respect them enough to learn it and use it.
  • Tell them you're proud of them.  You don't have to agree with everything that another person does, in order to be proud of them.  Focus on the things that you do admire about that person, the areas where you can see God working in their life.  This dear person's whole life isn't encapsulated by their gender identity or sexual orientation--there is so much more to them that you aren't seeing, if all you can focus on is this one thing.

If you've made it this far in the article, I'm grateful to you for sticking with me.  I hope you'll also stick with those special people in your life who come out to you as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, intersex, asexual, two-spirit, or nobinary.  These folks need you to be sanctuaries, safe people, in their lives.  They've made a choice to come out of hiding, to be authentic to who they are.  They've honored you by becoming vulnerable enough to tell you.  Whatever you believe about it can wait.  Now is the time to embrace.  Now is the time to love.  Now is the time to act like Jesus, and treat these dear folks with the same compassion you had for them before they decided to trust you.  Because, now that they have trusted you, why would that change?

Monday, October 5, 2020

The Idol of Americianity

In church, "I pledge allegiance" sounds an awful lot like "Hail Caesar!"  The American church has forgotten its anti-nationalist roots, and exchanged the cross for the flag.  In nearly every congregation I served over 26 years of ministry, I've fought the false gospel of Americianity, and lost the war every time.  They say you've got to pick your battles--but this IS a hill to die on.  Americianity has become a cult, and its followers don't even know they're in it.

From its beginning, the Church has been anti-nationalist.  Jesus' message was so anti-imperial that he was executed on a Roman cross for treason.  In the early generations, church leaders forbade Christians from becoming soldiers, because Roman troops were forced to take an oath of allegiance to Casear, who was revered as a god.  Believers were called to have one sole allegiance, and one proclamation, that Christ is Lord.  For this reason, many were persecuted by Rome, and died as martyrs.  For some reason, American Christians have decided it's okay to have dual allegiance.  

You may ask, "What's wrong with being patriotic?  Shouldn't churches teach that Christians should be good citizens?  Don't you love our country?"  Simply put--there's a difference between loving your country, and making it an idol.  Let me give you some examples of this weird mixture of Americanism and Christianity, that has become an idolatrous descaration of both church and state:

The American Flag in Church.  In most of the churches I've served, the central pulpit was flanked by the U.S. flag on its own right, and the Christian flag on its own left (from the perspective of the pulpit, not the perspective of the congregation).  Yes--this follows flag ettiquette , a topic in which my veteran father would be happy to instuct you.  But it doesn't follow the principle of putting loyalty to God first, above loyalty to state.  If you're going to have an American flag in church at all, the theologically proper position for it would be to the left of the Christian flag, not to the right (or beneath the Christian flag if they're flying on one staff).  But just try doing this, and see how fast you get all the military people angry with you.  I knew one pastor who literally lost his job because he stopped a procession with the U.S. flag from happening every week, and because he removed it from its undue place of prominence in the sanctuary.

Pledging to the American Flag in Church.  At one church I served, our senior adult Sunday school class stood each week before they began, placed their hands over their hearts, and pledged allegiance to the U.S. flag.  Don't get me wrong--I'm not opposed to pledging to the flag at baseball games, in school, or at other civic events.  But church isn't a civic event.  It's church.  It's a place where people of all nations can find, well, sanctuary--not a place where we make people who aren't U.S. citizens feel like outsiders.

Pledging to the Bible and Christian Flag.  At the beginning of Vacation Bible school, children march forward as if they were in the military, carrying the American flag, the Christian flag, and the Bible.  Maybe you remember the drill: "Attention, salute, pledge!"  After the Pledge of Allegiance ot the American flag comes the parallel: "I pledge allegiance to the Christian flag, and to the Savior for whose kingdom it stands: One brotherhood, uniting all mankind, in service, and in love."  Then, "I pledge allegiance to the Bible, God's holy word.  I will make it a lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.  I will hide its words in my heart, that I may not sin against God." 

It's hard to know where to get started as to why this is wrong.  Maybe I'll start with the militarization of the church--"Onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war" has nothing to do with the peaceful kingdom of Christ.  Or I could discuss the problem with having a Christian flag at all, since flags are  national symbols and Christianity isn't a nationality.  Or maybe I'll point out the difficulty with pledging allegiance to symbols of God, rather than to Actual God.  Or I might highlight that making these pledges to the Christian flag and the Bible, at the same time as the American flag, elevates the national symbol to the same level as the symbols of faith.  Christians have always been called to be anti-nationalists--but if you can't do that, you should at least put God first.

Patriotic Songs in Church.  Many musicians I have worked with have balked at my objection to patriotic songs in church.  I mean, who doesn't love a rousing rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner" on the Sunday before Independence Day, in place of the hymn of worship?  Or maybe substitue "I'm Proud to Be an American" where the offertory used to be.  I mean, doesn't "This is My Country" make a great invitation song?  The truth is--while these may be great for a high school marching band, most patriotic songs have no place in church.  And they certainly shouldn't be sung instead of songs of faith.  I admit, I've caved a little bit with this point, because nobody in church understands.  Remove their patriotic songs, and they think you hate America.  So instead, I've encouraged one, or two at most, songs that still have some reference to God.  "God Bless America," and "My Country 'Tis of Thee" are good compromises.  I'd rather we left all patriotic songs out of church services, because church is about Jesus, not the red, white, and blue--but you've got to throw people a bone somewhere.  But once you start singing nationalistic songs, try explaining why some are acceptable and others aren't.  Plus, they'll want to sing them every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Patriot Day, and Veteran's Day.  We don't have enough songs for all those days, without recycling some of them.

Nationalistic Prayers.  I can't tell you the number of times I've heard people publicly pray, "Lord, we thank you that we were born in the greatest nation on earth!"  Now, this is a tough one--because I love the country where I was born.  But all too often, remembering how free we are sounds like nationalistic egotism.  Our prayer turns into a chest-thumping, "God I thank you that I'm not a sinner like these (Luke 18.9-14)!"  And claiming to be the best--that's just outright arrogance.  Why can't we be grateful that America is a good country to live in, without proclaiming in a prayer that we're better than everybody else?  Boasting that you're the best certainly isn't what prayer is for.  And, what happens when visitors from other countries are present at such a swaggering prayer?  They feel unwelcome, put off, and actually insulted that when the praying person called America the best, they are calling the visitor's home country the worst--or at least second rate.

Freedom in Christ.  Another misguided prayer is, "We thank you for all the freedom we have in Christ!"  That's well and good, if the praying person is thanking God for freedom from sin, from guilt, from estrangement from God.  This also works if "freedom in Christ" means we're free to help our neighbors in need, free from malice and therefore free to love our enemies, or free from oppressive worry and fear.  But if the praying person means free to be as capitalistic as we want to be without regard for the poor or the environment, this isn't "freedom in Christ."  If they mean free to vote for our leaders rather than having monarchs or dictators or other forms of government, this isn't "freedom in Christ."  It's not even "fredom in Christ" to be able to worship free from persecution or harm.  This is political freedom, which is NOT something for which Jesus lived or died.  American Christians need to understand the difference between those two things.

Legislating Morality.  For as long as I can remember, growing up in southern evangelical churches, I heard people saying, "If only we'd overturn Roe v. Wade," or "If only we'd bring back prayer in schools," or "If only stores and restaurants were still closed on Sundays..."  In all these things, what they're really saying is, "If only we could return to the days when Christians were in such a majority that we could legislate morality for everyone else."  Don't get me wrong--I think abortion is tragic, and I believe there's a proper place for voluntary, student-led prayer in schools, and I personally practice at least one day of rest per week.  But Americianity is this weird mixture of faith and flag-waving that insists on cultural and political dominance, and making the rules for everyone else.  This has nothing to do with the spirit of Jesus Christ.

Manifest Destiny.  In my high school U.S. history class, we learned that American leaders believed their nation had a heavenly mandate to reach from Atlantic to Pacific, to be a beacon of light to all nations.  Many proponents believed that the United States was a new Christian replacement of Israel as God's chosen people.  As such, they had the prerogative to murder, subdue, "civilize," and Christianize indiginous peoples.  Likewise, they believed that they had done enslaved Africans a service by bringing them to America so they could learn the Christian religion and participate in helping to make America great.  At some point, many citizens became disenchanted with this colonizing brand of Christian empire-making.  This is the reason for the decentralizing of the church in American life--because society at large has seen that the emperor has no clothes.  Yet Americianity has heard the emperor's call to "make America great again," and white evangelicals have rallied to the call.

Americn Idols.  In truth, Americianity has become a false religion that exalts its own conservative colonialism over the loving Jesus who calls us to welcome the poor, the outcast, the stranger.  Nothing could illustrate this unholy mixture of church and state more than the recent prayer of Mike Pence:  

“Let’s run the race marked out for us. Let’s fix our eyes on Old Glory and all she represents. Let’s fix our eyes on this land of heroes and let their courage inspire. And let’s fix our eyes on the author and perfecter of our faith and freedom and never forget that where the spirit of the Lord is there is freedom — and that means freedom always wins.”

By misquoting scripture (2 Corinthians 3:17; Hebrews 12:1-2), the Vice President literally and literarily substituted the flag for Christ.  He misrepresented the freedom of the Holy Spirit as mere political privilege, entitlement born of empire, and the kind of selfish self-rule that can only be seen as satanic.  This is what Americianity does--it twists scripture to its own ends to deceive the faithful.  

In Matthew 24:23-24, Jesus warns of false Messiahs:

“Then if anyone tells you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah,’ or ‘There he is,’ don’t believe it.  For false messiahs and false prophets will rise up and perform great signs and wonders so as to deceive, if possible, even God’s chosen ones."

Jesus knows that people have a tendency to put their faith in human beings who rise up, claiming to be someone great.  Twisting people's faithful expectations, these false messiahs pretend to be political saviors.  They often get the support of Christian followers who want to bring back the good old days of Manifest Destiny and Christian dominance.  Biblical scholars have used the term "antichrist" to characterize such false messiahs who deceive God's people for political ends.  Americianity lends itself to idolizing politicians who say they will push the political agenda of evangelical conservativism, no matter how unchristlike they may be personally.  But Christians need to be careful, because they are the very ones the Bible says the antichrist will deceive.

Romano-Jewish historian Flavius Josephus reported the revolt of Judas the Galilean, in the year 4BC, about the time of Jesus' birth.  Rome had placed an eagle standard above the gate of the temple.  Calling it an idol due to it being a graven image that pointed to the cult of emperor-worship, two Jewish friends, Judas and Matthias, along with forty other men, invaded the temple to cleanse it.  Denying that Rome had any authority over the temple, they cut the image down with axes--for which they were executed to a man.  They are celebrated as martyrs and heroes to this day.

Yet, for some reason, American Christians are okay with the eagle presiding over their own sanctuaries, as long as it is festooned with stars and stripes.  They welcome the state's sovreignty over church proceedings, and use holy time to pledge allegiance to the emperial standard.  They long for the "good old days" when church and state were even more linked than they are today, when they could legislate morality and enforce that church doctrines be taught to unwilling audiences.  Mostly, good patriotic Christians don't recognize when their mixture of religion and nationalism has gotten out of hand.  And I've learned over the years that If I cut down their idols for them, I just get crucified for it.

The good news is that Americianity seems to be doing a pretty good job of imploding from the inside.  By following emperors who have no clothes, these gullible followers slit their own throats, then wonder why the world wants less and less to do with their brand of religion.  One by one, fundamentalist leaders fall, revealing that their house of cards was never built on solid rock.  

You may wonder--what's left for Jesus' followers after Americianity crumbles?  I'm hopeful enough to say that genuine faith will endure--and thrive--after the demise of a church that hanged itself like Iscariot.  Once that false church's betrayal is done, the true disciples will remain to do God's work.  Not by picking up the flag, but by taking up the cross, to follow Him.

Photo credit: "File:Flag map of the United States (Christian Flag).png" by DrRandomFactor is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Sunday, September 20, 2020

"If I Were a Rich Man"

One of my favourite movies of all time is Fiddler on the Roof.  I always wanted to play Tevye in a stage production, throwing my hands in the air and singing, "If I were a rich man."  Most of us can identify with the dreams of the poor milkman, who yearns to be be wealthy--because he doesn't believe he has enough.  "One day, I'll have more," we say, "and things will be better then."

But how would it be, if we were simply graeful for what we had?

As God's people wandered in the desert, they dined on manna every day--food that they didn't have to work for, that miraculously appeared each morning.  Much like Bubba Gump's shrimp, they could have it any way they wanted it.  Mana burgers, boiled manna, stewed manna, manna creole, fried manna, steamed manna--the list goes on.  But they weren't content with the menu that God provided.  They began to sing, "If I were a rich man."  "If I only had more, I'd be able to do so much more!"  But, because they didn't have what they wanted, they grumbled until God gave them what they asked for.  Meat on the menu.  Quail came down from the heavens, blanketing the earth and providing so much meat that the people never wanted to see another squab kebab.  God taught them to be grateful by giving them too much of a good thing.

In the New Testament, Jesus tells the parable of a wealthy landowner who hired workers for his fields, some in the morning, some at midday, and some in the evening.  At the end of the day he paid them, and they were surprised that they each received a full day's wage.  Instead of being happy for those who received what seemed like charity, those who worked a full day grumbled at the unfairness of their pay.  What they probably failed to realize was that they were chosen in the morning due to their physical fitness to work a full day in the hot sun.  Those who were were hired in the evening were most likely disabled people waiting on the roadside for charity.  He hired them to spare their feelings by giving them the opportunity to do light work for a short time, for the same.  The employer decided to expect "from each, according to their ability," and pay "to each, according to their need."  But this seemed unfair to the more capable workers.  When they complained, their employer simply reminded them that it was his money, to give as he pleases.  Jesus told this story to illustrate that we don't always appreciate God's fairness, because our mindset has to do with merit, but God's big idea is grace.

Both of these stories focus on the ability to receive from God whatever blessings the Lord wants to provide, without grumbling that we don't have more.  Instead of singing Tevye's song, we might do better to live the apostle Paul's words to his young friend Timothy.  "Godliness with contentment is great gain (1 Tim 6.6)."  If you're curious what you'd do if you were rich, it's probably the same as you're doing now.  If you're stingy now, you'd probably hoard your wealth if you were rich.  If you're generous now with what you have, then if you were wealthy, you'd most likely be like the landowner who shared with those in need.  With contentment comes generosity, and the idea that people don't receive God's blessings because they deserve them, but because a gracious God wants to provide for people.

Today, I pray that you'll practice gratitude for the belessings you have received--not because you deserve them, but because God is good.  I pray, too, that you'll desire good things for others--not because they deserve them, but because a good God wants to provide for all.  And maybe ask yourself how you, who have been blessed, may share your manna, quail, and pay with those who are still waiting by the road.

Sunday, September 13, 2020

How "Getting Them Saved and Baptized" is Killing the Church

I'll always regret baptizing 10% of our kids in VBS that year.  Yes, that's right--keep reading.

That hot summer stands out to me in sharp relief, because in some ways, it represented the highlight of this evangelical (at the time) pastor's missionary fervor.  It ws my second summer at the church, and I'd been there long enough to make visits to most of the families, endear myself to the children, and begin to make a difference in their lives.  Ours was a patriotic small town, so on the Fourth of July we used our award-winning parade float to hand out candy and invitations to all the kids in town.  Since we planned our VBS for the week after this annual advertisement opportunity, we had a record number of kids at church that year.  

At VBS, we hit 'em hard with the gospel, which sounded good to the initiated at the time, but in retrospect has the wierd ring of: "For God so loved the world that he made a hell where he plans to burn most people in eternal conscious torment.  But God loves Christians best--so if only you'd become a Christian, you get to escape being tortured by the God who loves you."  This is not the article where I discuss a better view of heaven and hell--suffice it to say that whatever you believe about the afterlife, scare tactics with children are definitely not cool.

If we offered a terrifying message on the one side, we offered tremendous reward on the other side.  Every time a child prayed the Sinner's Prayer, we brought them to the front of the church and applauded.  They got a free gift award Bible.  And a couple months later, we had a big celebration where they all got to take a swim in the river and get baptized.  And they all knew how proud their families would be.

So that summer, fifteen children gave their lives to Jesus.  And the church celebrated.  But what happened next?

Well, some of those kids continued attending the church, were nurtured and discipled, and today are young men and women of faith.  I'm still pretty happy about that.  These defining moments of spiritual growth are so important--and in no way am I suggesting that the Sinners Prayer and baptism weren't meaningful in their lives.  But just like this article isn't about heaven and hell, this article also isn't about the ones who remained in church and practice their spirituality today.  This is about the other ones. 

The truth is, the majority of those kids are no longer attending that or any church at all.  One reason is that our church leaders never followed up.  We were more focused on the celebration, on the number of baptisms we could report to our denomination, than we were interested in fostering the spiritual growth of young people and their families.  It was all about "getting them saved and baptized" as the end goal, and not about discipling young believers.  It was all about making converts, because a pastor or a short-term VBS staff can do that--but it takes a long term commitment to make disciples.  And as one pastor, I couldn't keep up.  

You may ask why it didn't seem important to anyone else to do that followup work.  If you believe in individual salvation defined as going to heaven when you die, based on faith that's expressed when you pray the Sinner's Prayer and when you get baptized, and if you cling to "once saved, always saved," then you become obsessed with evangelism and tend to de-emphasize discipleship.  It's easy for church members to place all the responsibility for evangelism on their pastor (we pay him to preach, don't we?), without taking on the burden of teaching your children yourself.  So it's up to the pastor to evangelize them, but not up to the church as a whole to train young believers in their faith.  Oh sure, we had Sunday School, for those families that were proactive enough to bring their children. But those classes simply reinforce a teaching that all you need to do is "accept Jesus".  After that, you sit back, relax, and see how you can convince your pastor to preach more evangelistic sermons so others can join the club.  And when that's what it's all about, then once you get saved and baptized, there doesn't seem like a lot to keep you involved.  So you eventually outgrow the church.  Do that often enough, and the church begins to die.

Another reason "getting them saved and baptized" is killing the the church, is the extreme emphasis placed on personal salvation.  While Catholic, Orthodox, and mainline churches focus on salvation as part of a communal experience, evangelicals elevate personal salvation and personal relationship with God, over the communal experience.  The result can be deep spirituality, yes.  But The side effect is often a disconnect from community.  Personal faith is too easily divorced from believers seeking wisdom together, sharing the joy and pain of others, investing in the life of the larger body and those within it.  I'm not negating the need for personal faith, but with the way evangelicals often emphasize personal salvation as "getting saved and baptized," it becomes easy to say, "I can worship God just as well on my boat as in the church."  And it's even easier to abandon a church when things go wrong.  So while personal faith is good, when we define the end goal as "getting saved and baptized," we create a sense of been-there-done-that.

I can't tell you the number of times parents and grandparents have said to me, "Don't you think it's about time we got little Johnny done?"  And, by that, they mean that once the kid is baptized, they can quit worrying that their offspring might spend eternity burning in the lake of torment.  Getting them done means taking out a fire insurance policy.  And once they have that policy, neither Johnny nor his family really needs to be in church anymore.  And this is killing the church.

Still another reason why an emphasis on "getting them saved and baptized" is killing the church, is that there seems to be a disconnect between "being a Christian" and actually acting like Jesus.  Once you're saved and baptized, and you've got your ticket to heaven, then you can turn around and be a racist, sexist, ableist, who hates LGBTQIA+ folks.  You can who support putting children in cages because their parents are undocumented, and you can refuse to wear a mask because you care more about your convenience more than you love your neighbor.  You can do all these things because, as far as you're concerned, being a Christian is all about getting saved and baptized.  

The thing is, the younger generation sees this hypocrisy of white evangelicals, and has had their fill of it.  They're leaving the church in droves, because "getting them saved and baptized" requires nothing of a person, morally.  It was saved-and-baptized white evangelicals who enslaved Africans, who burned crosses on front lawns, and who uphold white supremacy today.  Saved-and-baptized Christians have contributed to the fact that LGBTQIA+ youth are 120% more likely to experience homelessness than other youth, and why 40% of LGBTQIA+ youth seriously considered suicide in the past year.  Saved-and-baptized Christians promoted the doctrine of expansionism which has killed and oppressed countless indiginous people.  These same saved-and-baptized people support politicians whose personal lives and political decisions are the OPPOSITE OF CHRISTLIKE.  They hail these politicians as heroes, simply because they support the political agenda of the elite.  And the world is catching on, that when the goal of religion is "getting them saved and baptized," you can do whatever you want and still call yourself a Christian.

This kind of evangelism is killing the church.  Unless we act like Jesus, we demonstrate to the world that our faith is useless.  Unless we vote for the things that our loving, embracing, healing Jesus would vote for, we show our young people that it's really all about power politics and not about caring for our neighbor.  We can have all the Vacation Bible Schools we want, lead them in the Sinner's Prayer, dunk them in the water--but if we don't lead by example and teach them to act like Jesus, they're going to see the church as meaningless, and they'll leave.  That's why I'll always regret baptizing so many kids that year--because we've failed to teach them to act like Jesus.

This generation is smart.  They know hypocrisy when they see it.  They can tell if you're trying to scare them out of hell and into heaven.  They can tell if your idea of God is a violent dictator in the sky who likes to torture his own creation.  They can tell if your life reflects the idea that religion is all about fire-insurance, and has nothing to do with living and voting as Jesus would.  So, Christian, if you don't want to kill the church, maybe it's time to de-emphasize "getting them saved and baptized," and start prioritizing Actual Jesus.  Because it'll kill the church if you keep talking like you're going to heaven, while you're making hell on earth for the "least of these."

Thursday, September 3, 2020

"Pain is Inevitible; Suffering is Optional"

"Pain is inevitable," the friend from A.A. said.  "But suffering is optional."  Perhaps you've heard this one before, but it was a new one for me.  I have a lot of family and friends who are in recovery, and I've learned that a lot of the slogans I took for granted actually come from program.  "One day at a time."  "Easy does it."  "Live and let live."  "First things first."  But this new one really haunted me...

"Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional."

Nobody gets through this life without pain.  Whether that's physical, psychological, spiritual, emotional or otherwise--pain comes to all.  From the moment we're slapped on the butt at our birth, everyone's life has some pain.

Pain warns us of danger to our bodies.  Without it, we could die.  The tallest person on earth (at one time) ended up dying from an injury to the sole of his foot.  Because of his immense height, he had circulation issues that prevented him from feeling the pain in his extremities.  The small injury turned to an infection that eventually killed him.  Pain could have informed him of the injury so that he could treat it and save himself from infection, and death.  Physical pain has its purpose.

Mental, emotional, spiritual pain has its purpose as well.  It alerts us to injustice, offense, and tragedy--and prompts us to do something about it.

Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.

The difference is that while pain is from something done to me, suffering is from something I do to myself.  The difference is what I do with my pain, when it happens.  Women in childbirthing classes are taught breathing techniques so that they can let the pain go through their bodies, without holding onto it.  This works with physical pain, but it works with mental, spiritual, emotional pain as well.  When I meditate and pray, when I breathe, I acknowledge the pain and let it pass.  If I clench up, if I resist, if I allow the sensation to dominate me, then I turn my own pain into suffering.  In this way, suffering is defined not as a synonym for pain, but as an unhealthy focus on my pain.

You might say, "I can't simply detach from my pain and pretend it isn't there!"  Well, you're right--but you can detach from ownership of that pain, in some sense.  During the worst moments in my life, I could repeat a personal mantra like, "This pain isn't about me."  Or, "I'm not going to dwell on this."  Or, "Weeping may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning."  Or, "This too shall pass."  By detaching from pain, I don't deny its existence--I simply refuse to let it own, define, or control me. Romans 5:3-5 NLT says:

"We can rejoice, too, when we run into problems and trials, for we know that they help us develop endurance. And endurance develops strength of character, and character strengthens our confident hope of salvation. And this hope will not lead to disappointment. For we know how dearly God loves us, because he has given us the Holy Spirit to fill our hearts with his love."  

Because of God's love, we have the Holy Spirit to help us deal with our pain, and keep it from becoming suffering.  That same Spirit helps to transform pain into endurance, character, and hope.

Imagine Dragons' song, "Believer" begins with the A.A. slogan, "First things first," and continues to discuss the purpose of pain.  Addressing Pain as if Pain is a person, the song says, "Don't you tell me what you think that I could be/I'm the one at the sail, I'm the master of my sea."  In other words, pain doesn't get to define me.  The singer goes on to describe how he was broken from a young age, but he was able to sing his message to the masses--that pain made him a believer.  Pain may break him down, but it also builds him up, and calls him to prayer.  In this hateful process, his spirit is turned to a dove.  His pain caused him to choke, like breathing ashes, but instead of drowning, his spirit broke open and pain made him a believer.  In the end he says, "Oh, let the bullets fly, oh, let them rain/my life, my love, my drive, it came from/Pain."  For Imagine Dragons, pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.  

Suffering is what you do when you allow your pain to define you, when you allow it to rule you.  Suffering looks not to hope that a new birth will come through the pangs, but simply immerses itself in the current agony.  Suffering focuses on tragedy, instead of moving through the pain to the triumph on the other side.  Don't get me wrong--I'm not belittling your very legitimate pain.  But God's Spirit is there to lift you through that pain and turn your spirit to a dove.  I hope you're able to give God your pain and let that grace transform it--one day at a time.

Sunday, August 30, 2020

How I Got Myself in Trouble for Preaching the Wrong Gospel

My church member crossed her arms and said, "You're preaching the wrong gospel!"  For those who know me, that may come as a shock--because I was raised in a Southern Baptist church, went to a Baptist seminary, pastored evangelical churches for 26 years, and towed the line.  Except when I didn't.  

But when I didn't, it was never because I abandoned the Gospel of "How to Get to Heaven When You Die."  It was becuase I preached the FIRST Gospel first.  Oh, I believe the Gospel that talks about receiveing Jesus as your personal Lord and Savior.  I never gave up on that.  In fact, that was a highlight of my preaching (where, in a Baptist church, the pastor MUST include an invitation to the altar every Sunday morning).  But where I got myself in trouble, where I got accuesed of preaching the wrong gospel, was where I focused on Jesus' first priority--that of liberation.

When Jesus began his ministry, he didn't wander the country declaring himself to be the savior and the only means of reaching heaven.  Contrary to evangelical belief, that wasn't the primary focus of his ministry.  Instead, he primarily preached, "The kingdom of heaven is near!"  He taught his disciples to pray that God's will would be done on earth as perfectly as it's done in heaven.  In other words, Jesus' first focus was on transsforming people's lives TODAY and IN THIS PLACE, in such a way that life on earth resembles life in heaven.  

As long as I preached the gospel of "How to Get to Heaven When You Die," I did alright.  People came forward, gave their hearts to Jesus, got saved, and mostly went back to living the same as they did before.  But when I preached the first message of Jesus, two things happened.  First, people were challenged to live different.  Second, I got myself in trouble.  I learned that if I was going to preach like Jesus, I should be prepared to get crucified.

So...what was this dangerous message?  It was the same as the message that Jesus preached in the Nazareth synagogue, where he opened the scroll to Isaiah 61 (NIV) and read:

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me,

    because the Lord has anointed me

    to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted,

    to proclaim freedom for the captives

    and release from darkness for the prisoners,

2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor

    and the day of vengeance of our God,

to comfort all who mourn,

3     and provide for those who grieve in Zion—

to bestow on them a crown of beauty

    instead of ashes,

the oil of joy

    instead of mourning,

and a garment of praise

    instead of a spirit of despair.

After Jesus read that scripture, and declared that he had come to fulfill it, the good religious people in his hometown got so upset that they tried to throw him off a cliff.  What's so upsetting about these words?  Why did they get Jesus in so much trouble, and why did they get me crucified right along with him?

When I said that the poor couldn't afford healthcare, I got called a communist.  When I said that the captives and prisoners who needed to be freed might be children who are in cages, they said I was supporting illegal immigration.  When I said that the brokenhearted might be LGBTQ folks who have been hurt by the church, they said I didn't believe the Bible.  When I said strangers and foreigners (read "people of color" when the church is all white) should be welcome, they said I was just trying to change things.  When I said that the day of God's vengeance was more likely going to fall on religious people than the folks we hate, they said I was crazy.  They said I was preaching the wrong gospel.

The right gospel, according to the good religious folks, was "How to Get to Heaven When You Die."  And I didn't disagree with this message--so I preached that sometimes, too.  But it wasn't Jesus' primary point.  And it wasn't mine, either.  The problem with preaching ONLY the "salvation message" (as understood in the ticket to heaven way) is that it's too easy.  It doesn't involve doing anything but believing a doctrine, getting baptized, and trying your best to act as holy as the next guy.  It doesn't really demand any social change.  It certainly doesn't involve working to help the poor, the broken, the strangers, the foreigners, the outcast, the other.  

In contrast, Jesus' Gospel was mostly about that.  More than anything else, Jesus was about helping people.  He healed them.  He restored them socially.  He honored them when they had been ostracized by their neighbors.  He fed them when they were hungry and defended them when they were condemned.  He saved them, not just so they could go to heaven when they died, but so they could live a better life here and now.  And that's the tough gospel--because if I follow Jesus like that, it's going to cost me something.

In over a quarter century of church ministry, I can't tell you how many times I got in trouble for preaching the wrong gospel.  As long as I talked about Jesus' blood and streets of gold, they were happy.  As long as I told them how Jesus makes THEIR lives better, they were happy.  But when I told them that Jesus requires them to BE better, to DO better to their neighbors, strangers, and their enemies, it was the "wrong" gospel.

Jesus told his listeners, "Love God and love people.  If you do this, you've fulfilled the law and prophets."  In other words, if you do this, all the rest is commentary.  But if you really love God you'll show it by the way you love people.  Loving them isn't just an emotion--like the way you feel when you listen to a musical artist and say, "I just LOVE him!"  No, loving God means loving those who are made in the divine image.  And loving people means actively working for their good.  It means opposing injustice that stands against their good--especially those who are weakest.  And if that's the wrong gospel, I suppose I'm guilty.  But I don't mind.  Jesus was guilty, too.

Photo Credit: "Infrared All Saints church Sharrington Norfolk" by Brokentaco is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Autopsy of a Christian Leader

Another Christian leader has fallen.  Some will condemn.  Others will defend.  Still more will celebrate.  What's the best way that believers can respond when we witness moral failures among our leaders--among our members?  

Certainly, appropriate measures must be taken.  Decisions must be made about this leader's career.  Firing or resignation is inevitible--but that's not the point.  I want to talk about the possible stance that the average Christian is going to have, when news like this comes out.

One position is to attack.  Attackers will spotlight hypocrisy, point fingers, and gloat.  They will celebrate the downfall.  Attackers will outline faults and flaws and failings, because they take joy in watching the demise of someone they dislike.

Another position is to defend.  Defenders can take several approaches.  Some will make excuses for their beloved leader, explaining why it's somebody else's fault.  Others will downplay the offense, using the passive voice and saying, "mistakes were made."  Still other defenders will employ the counter-attack, biting at liberals and secular society like a dog in a corner.  

But, what if, instead of attacking or defending, we simply did an autopsy?  What if we drew a chalk line around the body, examined the evidence, cut open the remains and tried to determine what caused the downfall?  There's a way to both respect the body on the one hand, while pulling out the entrails with the other, eager to find the cause without either condemning or defending the man.  This is the way of love.

Yes, in an odd way, it can be said that a medical examiner loves the person they are examining.  They treat the body with utmost care, not wanting to damage anything that mustn't be touched except for the sake of finding the truth.  They search out the facts of the case, not only so that justice can be done, but so that those who grieve might have answers.  And in the hopes of learning something so that such falls might be avoided in days to come.  

In the days following a Christian leader's moral failure, attackers and defenders line up and spit at each other across social and theological lines.  But perhaps there's a third way--neither one of making excuses nor derisive comments.  The third way is to treat the fallen with care, treat the situation as the grave thing that it is, and respectfully make the first incision.  Because you won't find anything worthwhile in snide remarks or useless defenses.  But finding the truth might just set us free--so that this can be laid to rest, and so that the things we learn from this might shape a better future.

*Photo credit: "autopsy tables" by reallyboring is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0