The Temptation of Jesus

In the rock opera Jesus Christ Superstar – which feels like the soundtrack to my life sometimes – there’s big number where Simon the Zealot is dancing around with a bunch of people singing, “Christ, you know I love you!” (It’s actually my least favorite song in the opera.) But, there’s a moment that I’ve been reflecting on this morning.

Simon sings, “There must be over 50,000/Screaming love and more for you!/And every one of 50,000/ Would do whatever you asked them to.”

He then leans in conspiratorially to Jesus, and sings, “Keep them yelling their devotion/But add a touch of hate at Rome./You will rise to greater power/We will win ourselves a home!”

It’s pretty well accepted, both historically and as an article of faith in Christianity, that the term Messiah was used for someone who was going to deliver the Jews from Roman oppression. It wasn’t a term that invoked images of lions lying down with lambs or a “suffering servant.”

There’s also a story of Jesus being tempted in the desert, before beginning His public ministry. Satan comes to Him, and the third temptation is, “I will give you all the Kingdoms of this world, if you will only bow down and worship me.”

Of course, Jesus refuses. And, all my life, I have assumed that the refusal to lead the Jewish people in violent revolution was just as easy as refusing Satan’s offer of power.

But, what if it wasn’t?

 

Words have always been my most powerful tool. Even as a kid, I always seemed to know just how to say something to get my point across. It’s why I take so much pleasure in blogging, or writing on social media: there’s such a feeling of triumph when your words turn someone’s head or change someone’s mind on an important issue. The greatest words that I’ve ever heard or read after I’ve written something is, “I’ve never thought about it that way.”

Lately, my words have been turning ugly. The election of Donald Trump and the ugly, public hatred that led to it and has followed from it has put me in a state of constant anger. And, my words have turned from a tool into a weapon. Instead of preaching love and forgiveness, compassion even for our enemies, I’m advocating punching Nazis. Instead of praying for those who curse and hurt me – and those I love – I’m lashing out, calling names, even going so far as wishing for their deaths.

It’s like I’ve become all the worst parts of the Old Testament, a copy of the vengeful God that commanded the Israelites to pillage every village and kill every foreigner in their path to the Promised Land.

It feels so damn right, though. I mean, I’m on the side of justice. My anger is righteous. I’m advocating punching Nazis… because they’re fucking Nazis who publicly talk about black genocide and follow a man who killed 6 million Jews. I’m wishing for the death of people who would leave refugees out in the cold, detain and handcuff old people and children because of their country of origin.

These are truly bad, awful people, and I feel so good and right about hating them.

But, then I reflect on this moment in Jesus Christ Superstar. Even though it’s a fictionalized account, I imagine that this was a constant temptation for Jesus. He might have easily said “no” to Satan’s offer of power… but, how easy was it to say “no” to the endless crowds who wanted Him to deliver them from injustice. How hard was it to refuse that power to bring righteous anger onto the people who were oppressing his followers and countrymen? It wouldn’t have taken much. All He had to do was change the tone a little, stop speaking against violence and loving enemies, let His rhetoric stir up just a little bit of that anger that was simmering beneath the system. It would have all been for a good cause.

But, He wouldn’t. He still taught that we need to love our enemies, to not resist evil with evil methods… because He knew that we become that evil. He knew that the slide from righteous anger to outright, blind hatred was quick and steep. He told Peter to put away his sword because He knew how easy it was to take it out and keep it out.

I would have rejoiced at Peter cutting off that Roman toady’s ear. I would have burned with righteous fury.

But, Jesus didn’t. He kept feeling that compassion, that love for the people who were ready to kill him. Somehow, Jesus resisted both the narrow-minded, bigoted, moralistic religion of His detractors and the militant, violent, revolutionary spirit of some of His followers.

I don’t know how He did it. I’m stuck on that steep slide into hatred. But, I want to get back up it. I’m trying to.

And that’s more than I could say yesterday.

The Revolution Begins

The Christian faith is about revolutionary spirit.

I’ve been thinking the past few weeks about the “language of faith.” Since the election last month… actually, it’s not just the election. Since I heard the first name in the long list of unarmed (mostly) black (mostly) men that have been shot by police, since I first heard the acronym ISIS and witnessed their takeover of places in Iraq that my friends died in an effort to make and keep safe… since I heard about a school named Sandy Hook… since I watched my own denomination stall and drag their feet in recognizing that Confessing and practicing Christians are actually Confessing and practicing Christian (no matter their sexuality) and then watched the larger American church enthusiastically approve an vile and evil man (and a vile and evil administration, by all accounts) to the leadership of our country…

In light of all of this, I have grown increasingly resistant and sometimes even hostile to the language that people of my faith have chosen to use to counter these very difficult times in our nation and world.

“God is in control.” (Or “Christ is on the throne”, or other dull variations.)

“Pray for our nation/world.”

“Love trumps hate.”

It’s not that the sentiments are bad. It’s certainly not that the people are bad. But, when we live in a time where very real and explicit evil and injustice are openly approved of and practiced, the language of faith seems inadequate. And, people of faith seem irrelevant.

I have sat in despair over the past month, mostly unable to even attend church, unable to pray, unable to read and meditate on the Scriptures. I have lamented that we seem to have no more Amoses or Moseses. No John the Baptists. No Samuels or Nathans. No Esthers, no Deborahs, no Miriams.

I know that they are there. I see them in the pulpits and the protest lines. But, they seem so few, when those who confess Christ are so many.

As I sit in my cave, I have had an opportunity to help some folks closer to home. Most of the time, I don’t even see those small things as ministry. They fall into the category of “Stuff that I do because I can.” But, I realized this morning (after getting an unexpected hug from one of these folks) that this “stuff” is revolutionary.

It is an incredible act of resistance – in a world that has declared its approval of avarice, infidelity, and hate – to live your life believing that you are not the most important person around. It is an act of upheaval to place the needs of others above your own needs or comforts.

The revolution really does begin in love.

But, it’s not the soft and safe love that so many churches try to sell – the kind of love that makes nice and whispers dull and useless platitudes to hurting and needy people.

It is not a love that just prays for those in need. It is a love that aggressively pursues the hurting, helpless, and hopeless.

It is not a love that soft-pedals on topics of grace and forgiveness. It is a love that is militant in its pursuit of reconciliation, justice, and peace.

It is not a love that simply “trumps” hate, or a love that passively “wins” against hate. It is a love that rebukes hate.

I believe that more prophets will rise up in the coming days, that the Spirit of the Lord will fall upon many, and that we will once again speak the unvarnished and unapologetic truth to the principalities and powers that threaten the fundamentals of our confession of Christ as Lord.

But, I also see the unlikely prophets that are already in the streets. They are feeding, clothing, and sheltering the homeless. They are welcoming the refugees and the immigrants. They are protecting – with their very bodies – the bodies of protestors and victims of police violence. They are speaking out and writing on opinion sites and columns. William Barber II, Tony Campolo, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Sarah Bessey… the “lesser knowns”, like my friend the local campus minister and my Quaker cousin.

When I started this blog, I named it “The Unlikely Evangelist”, because I felt that “evangelism” was so far outside my calling that I was an unlikely person to spread the Good News (also, it’s catchy.) But, I realized today that it’s not me that’s “unlikely”. The Bible is full of men – flawed, reluctant men – just like me, just as unlikely. What the name really means to me today, right now is that the Good News is so damn unlikely. We live in a world that is so harsh, so hostile, so self-centered, so violent, so unjust… that it is nearly inconceivable that a Prince of Peace, a Lord that comes explicitly for the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, that Lord is the physical expression of the Creator of the Universe.

As I am fond of saying, it’s a dangerous Gospel. It’s a radical Gospel. It’s a Gospel that leaves no prisoners, that demands revolution and does not allow for stagnation. It’s a Gospel that requires such a drastic and dramatic upheaval of the established social order, of the status quo, that the faint of heart shouldn’t even approach it.

It’s a Gospel that can only be told, retold, and described using dangerous, revolutionary language.

I leave you with a passage of Scripture that spoke volumes to me this morning, especially in the season of Advent. It uses the kind of language that we so desperately need to reclaim: the Scriptural, the prophetic, and the revolutionary.

“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the nations, by the Way of the Sea, beyond the Jordan–The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at the harvest, as warriors rejoice when dividing the plunder. For as in the day of Midian’s defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

The revolution begins in love. The revolution begins in peace. The revolution begins in justice.

 

How To Be Peacemakers (Without Being Wimps)

I have a framed copy of the Beatitudes above my computer screen. I put it there when I started writing on a regular basis, to remind me of Jesus’ most important commandments to anyone who would be His follower.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

It’s being called a son of God that’s been sitting with me this week.

How can we be a peacemaker in a time that calls so loudly for resistance? Does peacemaking mean passivity? Does loving our enemies mean singing Kumbaya while they burn the house down around us?

As a Christian, a follower of Jesus and someone who tries daily to live by that example, it is my highest calling and my most important commitment to love everyone around me. I am to love the oppressor as much as I love the oppressed. I am to love the abuser as much as the abused. I am to love the murderer as much as the victim.

I am to love those people. But, that love does not look the same in all cases.

Let me say it again: love does not look the same in all cases.

Loving an oppressed person or people looks like support and solidarity.

Loving an oppressor must look like resistance.

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The featured image is of Confessing Church protestors in 1933 Germany. (Note: the image is difficult to translate. “…church remains. …: Gospel and Church” is all I got from it.) For anyone unfamiliar with the Confessing Church: it was a movement that grew in resistance to continued Nazi interference in Church affairs. It was primarily a movement dedicated to State non-interference, but many of its leaders (including Karl Barth, Martin Niemoller, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer) spoke out eloquently against the social injustices of the Nazi regime.

Many leaders of the Confessing Church were arrested, imprisoned, and even executed in concentration camps.

They were subjected to arrest, imprisonment, torture, and execution because of their resistance to an unjust society.

Not all Christians followed the example of the Confessing Church in resistance. Many Christians in Nazi Germany were committed to a passive form of peacemaking – a preservation of status quo. No matter that they objected to State interference – they were unwilling to commit to resistance, to protest. No doubt, they wished for the unity of the German Church and the German State.

Now, it’s been very fashionable to compare the rise of Donald Trump with the rise of Hitler, and I had a tendency to roll my eyes quite a bit every time I saw a meme that suggested similarities.

But, after the last week, I’m seeing those similarities. Attacks on scapegoated minorities. Calls for unity. A church that is passive at best and complicit at worst.

Donald Trump might not be Hitler, but 2016 America looks a lot like 1933 Germany.

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This is a moment for the Church. This is a moment for us to be peacemakers, to love both our enemies and the most vulnerable… and to reclaim our militant, non-violent spirit of protest against injustice. The time for nicety and passive peacemaking is over.

We have to be willing to love the vulnerable, the oppressed, the harassed, the insulted, and the assaulted. We have to be willing to love them in a sacrificial way, in a way that makes us into the body and blood of Christ – broken and poured out for the world and her sins.

We have to be willing to love the abusers, the oppressors, the harassers, the crass, the bullies, and the brutalizers. We have to be willing to love them by standing in their way, between them and those that they would hurt, and saying “Only through me.”

We have to resist the easy, comfortable path of unity and status quo – the path that makes us into mewling theological wimps instead of the cubs of the Lion of Judah.

Karl Barth said in 1935: “For the millions that suffer unjustly, the Confessing Church does not yet have a heart.”

Berlin Deaconess Marga Meusel said, of the Confessing Church’s timidity to directly protest the social injustices of the Nazis: “Why does the church do nothing? Why does it allow unspeakable injustice to occur? … What shall we one day answer to the question, where is thy brother Abel? The only answer that will be left to us, as well as to the Confessing Church, is the answer of Cain.”

Think on that: the greatest regret of the leaders of the Confessing Church – the Church that placed itself in direct opposition to the Nazis – is that they didn’t speak firmly enough against injustice.

May we never be so timid, or so passive. Let us take our peacemaking into the streets.

 

When the World Hurts Too Much (Part 2)

I wrote part 1 of this blog back in March (you can read it here.) I never anticipated writing a Part 2, yet here I find myself.

Just as with Part 1, I’m having a really difficult time finding the words for this. I’ve written a paragraph, backspaced the entire thing, then written two more paragraphs – only to then cut those out too. Everything seems either too much or not enough this morning.

I feel a little like lamenting this morning, but I mostly just feel really, really angry. And, I think that this is a perfect mood in which to write this Part 2.

When I was in my very early 20s, I was in a really bad romantic relationship. We were living together, with her infant child, and I was absolutely miserable. But, I didn’t know what to do. I was hurt, and that hurt was turning to anger.

My father told me that “anger is the emotion of self-defense.” Anger is what happens when you’re finally tired of being hurt.

There are a lot of conciliatory sentiments out there on social media this morning. Lots of unity posts. Lots of “Christ is King” and “God is in control” posts. And, I appreciate the sentiments, I appreciate the way that we’re already trying to heal.

But, we don’t need it. We don’t need to heal. We need to keep this wound open. We need to get angry.

In order for there to be unity, there first has to be common ground. And I refuse – I absolutely, vehemently refuse – to have any common ground with the kind of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, homophobia, and outright hatred that drove the Trump campaign. I don’t care that not all of his supporters held those qualities. I care that it was those qualities, on very public display, that led directly to his victory. And, if some of his supporters didn’t share those horrendous values, then they at least declared their implicit tolerance of those values.

I refuse to have any common ground with Christians who claim that their vote for Trump was a moral one, who claim that somehow a man who embodies every single thing that Jesus ever taught against could be God’s great champion in America. Because, their Jesus doesn’t exist anywhere except their minds and their dangerous misreading of the overall message of justice in the Bible.

I refuse to have common ground with people who think that shock therapy is an appropriate response to being LGBT.

Or, that being black in certain neighborhoods is reason enough to get stopped by police.

Or that anyone shot by police is guilty until proven innocent – ESPECIALLY if it’s a person of color.

I refuse to find common ground with people who think that those who are struggling to eat, those who cannot afford to even sleep in a bed, those who are disabled… that those people are inherently lazy or criminal and don’t deserve assistance from our society.

There are times when compromise and common ground is important. In fact, most times require those qualities, and zealots are rightly given a wide berth.

But, today – November 9th, 2016 – is not a day when I’m willing to concede a middle ground between basic human rights and oppression.

I’m not willing to concede that the Jesus that I follow, whose teachings I try so desperately to let transform me, has anything in common with the Jesus of the so-called “Religious Right.”

I’m not willing to concede that there is any value – at all – to these dangerous and self-destructive viewpoints. I’m not going to wring my hands about the plight of the ignored white supremacist or the overlooked homophobe.

I’m not even going to tell you that “Christ is King” or that “God is in control” – not because I don’t believe those things, but because those things are such useless things to say right now. The terrified people of color who are my friends and family – who now have a President-elect who thinks it’s okay that they be beaten and forcibly ejected from a political rally, a President who talks about “law and order” when black men and women are being killed in police custody with impunity – those people might not feel like God is in control. (If they feel that He is, they might question His plan right about now.)

I’m not going to pontificate about God being in control when my friends who are women – who know someone who has been or have been themselves sexually abused or assaulted – now have a President-elect who brags about doing those things, and then brags about getting away with it.

I’m not going to tell my LGBT friends that “God is in control” when their President-elect chose a VP that supports dangerous conversion therapy, who believes that everything about them is an abomination.

What I am going to tell them is that anger is the emotion of self-defense, and that it’s high time that we stopped being nice about this.

We can tolerate disagreement, but we can’t tolerate disenfranchisement.

We can tolerate differences of opinion, but not differences of treatment by the police and in the court system.

We can celebrate religious freedom, but not the lordship of one sect of Christianity over the entire nation.

We can celebrate the freedom of expression, but we cannot tolerate violence and abuse against the vulnerable.

I don’t know how we do this. It still hurts too much. But, I have two more things to say.

Americans of all faiths, creeds, ethnic backgrounds, economic backgrounds, sexuality, gender orientation… all Americans who make America a land of such promise: we are not as good as we thought we were.

We’re not better than this. This is exactly who we are.

Time to change it.

To Christians who still meditate on the Beatitudes daily, who believe that Jesus came to seek and save that which was lost, to heal a broken world, to lift up the humble and cast down the proud….

Our Temple is filthy. Let’s clean it out.

 

Here I Am, Lord

I had a health scare a few weeks ago. It’s the sort of thing that I have been waiting for – waiting for the other shoe to drop, as the saying goes. When you’ve been where I and many of my friends have been, your expectation of your own life expectancy drops dramatically. You don’t expect to really survive the war. When you do, you think about all the things that might kill you later.

It’s actually one of the things that psychologists look for in returning soldiers: that sense that we won’t live long.

For me, it’s been my breathing that concerns me. They’re finding out all sorts of things about what the burn pits did to our lungs while we were in Iraq and Afghanistan, and none of it is good. I was around a lot of burning waste: whether that was “natural” body waste or more man-made waste like plastics. So, any time I hear a wheeze or a whistle when I breathe, it concerns me.

I was at the VA for my yearly physical, which is normally a very rote process. But, as my new provider listened to my lungs, she paused. She told me to take a couple of deep breaths, and then cough. After she finished listening, she said, “You have a crackle.”

A crackle.

A crackle is a big deal. The least that a crackle can signal is pneumonia. It can also signal a whole host of other bad, chronic, sometimes fatal breathing issues.

At 34, a normal person wouldn’t worry about this. But, a 34-year-old who has spent years of his life breathing in some of the worst air on the planet does worry.

Once again, I’m confronted with the fact that I won’t be around forever. But, instead of worrying that it will be a bullet or a bomb that gets me, I’m suddenly concerned that my body is going to betray me – that the final wound that I take from combat will be in the form of COPD or emphysema. And I’m 34.

10 years ago, thoughts of my own mortality would have triggered me agonizing over whether I would go to heaven or hell when I died. But, as I sat considering this a few weeks ago, it was a different thought that came to me.

Have I done enough, Lord? Am I doing enough?

Have I written the right words? Have I been bold enough in my convictions?

Have I helped those in need, or have I turned my face away?

Have I comforted the hurting, or made their pain worse?

Have I loved my own children, my own family, enough? Have I made others feel a part of my family?

The truth is that no number of encouraging words, no amount of affirmation, can ever convince me that I’ve done enough. I feel as though I have just begun to live as the person that I was always meant to be. I feel as though I have finally figured out what it is that I am for, what my purpose really is.

But, what can I do? How can I reaffirm that purpose in a way that, at the end of my life – whether that be tomorrow or in 60 years – I will be able to look at the sum of my deeds and say, “I did the best that I could. I did the most that I could.”

I was 17 when I first heard the hymn, “Here I am, Lord”. It struck a powerful chord in me then, and I have read the story of Isaiah’s response to his vision many, many times since. And, interestingly enough, the Sunday after I got a clean bill of health from the doctor, we sang that hymn that has shaped so much of my Christian experience as an adult.

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.

I will go, Lord, if you lead me. I will hold your people in my heart.

If there is a God (which I believe that there is), and if He truly does hear His people cry (which I believe that He does), then what other response do I have for the question, “Whom shall I send?”

At the end, it won’t matter if I’ve done “enough” – because I won’t ever believe that it was enough. What will matter to me is if I answered, “Here I am, Lord” every single time.

When the poor are crying.

When the hungry need food.

When the oppressed cry out for liberation.

When the victims of violence cry out for peace.

I will hold them in my heart.

I will go, Lord.

Please, lead me.

Loving Yourself (As Much As Your Neighbor)

I have been struggling with a lot of self-doubt, mixed with an unhealthy dose of self-loathing. This is not a new struggle for me. I’ve been having these issues since I was a kid, and my time as a combat veteran has only multiplied the negativity.

“You’ll never be redeemed for the bad things you’ve done/thought/said.”

“You’re ineffective at everything that you do.”

“You’re a fraud.”

“People don’t love you. They tolerate you.”

And on, and on, and on.

This is pretty much a classic case of major depression, but there’s a spiritual component as well. It’s the spiritual component that I want to write about. Because this is a religion blog. And, because I take medication for the psychological part.

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No matter what else I have to say about my early years in church, one thing that I will always be thankful for is an early appreciation for Christian Scripture. From the time that I could read, I was encouraged to read kid’s versions of Bible stories. A few years later, when I could understand more of what I was reading, I was encouraged to read the Scriptures themselves – and to memorize those Scriptures, to recite them over and over. This has helped me immeasurably in my life as a lay minister. When asked by someone to pray – whether for them personally, or out loud at an event – I am consistently able to recall to mind a Scripture (or at least a Scriptural allusion) that is appropriate for the situation.

This is so important, because people who are immersed in Christian culture – regardless of how they feel about their “personal faith” – are almost always encouraged when something in the Bible relates to their own struggles or feelings. And, this is what has always impressed me about the Scripture – no matter its flaws, it is timeless. It has had something to say for millennia.

But, what about when it won’t speak to me? What happens when the Scripture that we use to encourage others can’t encourage us?

I think that we sometimes allow God to use us, even when we don’t feel worthy of being used. I know that’s true for me. When I was getting ready to leave the military – after almost 9 years and 2 combat tours – I determined that I was going to let God use me for peace and reconciliation, the way that I had let the Army use me for violence and oppression. It didn’t matter what my own opinion of myself was – I was ready to be used, ready to try and “balance the scales” of my life with positive action.

Most days, it works. Most days, I feel like I am doing some good. But, some days, the doubt takes over. I feel like the Psalmist, who goes from verses that sing praises to God for His presence and blessing to verses that ask God why he (the Psalmist) has been abandoned.

Some days, I love my neighbor far more than I love myself.

I’ve had flashes of insight into this. After a weekend at Walk to Emmaus, I realized that God’s love has to flow through us, not from us. While that’s a worthwhile revelation, it’s much harder to maintain in the day to day.

If God’s love is a river that flows through me, I feel like my self-loathing is constantly building up a dam. I know that it’s trying to get through, and I’m doing my best to use the trickle that I have to love others… but, I eventually run dry.

Even when I feel completely empty of God’s love, I try. I try to give what little love that I can manage to others. But, I can’t help but feel that the bitterness shines through. The anger, the grief, the things that I spend so much time trying to cover up and erase in myself are out there on full display.

Does anyone else feel this way? Does anyone else feel that, no matter how hard they try to do it right, they’re constantly doing it wrong?

Does anyone have a solution? Can we ever love ourselves as much as we (try to) love our neighbor?

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“The LORD your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.”

That verse is Zephaniah 3:17. It was given to me by a friend at Emmaus, someone who also struggled with depression. He told me to remember, no matter how down I felt, that when I lay down to sleep at night, “God is singing over you.”

The idea that the Creator of the Universe can “take great delight” in me is almost too much to bear. In me? In me?

Take great delight in the man who felt hate in his heart towards an entire nation?

Quiet with love the man who rejoiced in the deaths of people he didn’t know?

Rejoice with singing over the man who refused to treat a sick man because of his nationality?

It’s tough, folks. Even as I read this verse, and meditate over it, I can’t help but feel that Zephaniah probably made a mistake in thinking that God actually said this.

Because, the chasm between my sin and His Grace seems too wide. The gap between who I know myself to be and who I want to be seems too far to be bridged by anything, even His love.

 

 

 

Jesus 2016

I’m sick to death of politicians, and it’s not even that close to November. I’ve allowed myself to get far too wrapped up in the Panic Button Politics that has characterized our 2016 Presidential election, and I’ve kind of lost sight of my initial attitude about this whole herd of cats.

It really doesn’t matter.

I once pledged allegiance to this nation. I put on a uniform, with a flag on my right shoulder, and pledged to defend the nation and the ideals that it embodied. And, you know what I ended up with? A long list of dead comrades to go to sleep with every night, and a sense that nothing I did in uniform really changed anything.

No, my allegiance is with the Kingdom of God. My vote for President is just one of the things that I “render unto Caesar.” And, lest you think that I’m sticking my head in the sand, waiting for some pie-in-the-sky Kingdom while the world that we live in goes to Hell… absolutely not.

The Kingdom of God might have Christ as its King, but it’s not Christ that builds the Kingdom – it’s those that have given their allegiance that build the Kingdom. And, if our hearts are truly with Him – if our lives have truly been transformed by His life, teachings, death, and resurrection – then we will keep building the Kingdom no matter who swears the oath of office in January.

I don’t think that either Trump or Clinton are really the devil, but I don’t believe that either of them will save us from anything. Followers of Jesus have already been taught how to save the world, and each other. I suggest we shut the hell up about Caesar’s candidates, and get to the business of saving each other.

If We Only Had The Nerve

I’ve been thinking a lot about courage this week. I’ve been thinking about it so much that I changed the lesson plan for my youth group to give a talk about it. Courage isn’t something that I think about in the context of my faith much – after all, we’re called to be humble and meek. Courage doesn’t call those qualities immediately to mind.

I think this is because we have, for too long, equated courage with bravado. When I was in the Army, “personal courage” was one of our core values. In fact, when I was asked at a promotion board which Army value I valued most, I chose personal courage. For me, it symbolized the ability to face consequences in the pursuit of right or honorable action.

When we send young men and women off to the military, we give them the idea that the very act of enlisting is an act of courage. I won’t dishonor their sense of duty, honor, or service by denying that enlisting in a dangerous profession is a form of courage. But, the courage that I am so often inspired by is not the kind that involves picking up a weapon and standing guard against enemies. The kind of courage that I’m inspired by is courage of the moral variety.

Earlier this week, in advance of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, 111 UMC clergy outed themselves as LGBT. Hundreds more have joined in support. Ministers are camping outside their churches, as a symbol of the idea that our doors are not open to everyone.

Now, this might not seem courageous to everyone. But, we’re in a time in the United Methodist Church where non-LGBT clergy are being punished simply for being vocal and practical allies to the LGBT community. Church trials have become a regular occurrence. Clergy have lost their credentials. Defying church law by marrying same-sex couples – a practice that is now legally allowed – results in harsh penalties, because of the exclusionary language of our Book of Discipline.

So, if heterosexual ministers are facing persecution within the church for their willingness to include LGBT persons in the sacrament of marriage, I can only imagine how much worse it might be for those clergy who have declared themselves to be the very people that the Book of Discipline excludes.

That’s courage to me, far more than I ever showed while patrolling the streets of Ramadi. I had a weapon and a platoon of 30 other men to keep me safe; these clergy have no cover, and they’ve given up their concealed positions. While public opinion can protect them to an extent, the denomination has shown no compunctions about ignoring the large segment of our Church that believes in inclusion. At the end of the day, the leaders of our denomination have been content to hide behind the Discipline rather than engage in a substantive debate. This is best evidenced by the current state of General Conference 2016, where they have spent 3 days debating a rule that would govern how they will even talk about inclusion.

The truth – the naked, shrill, dirty truth – is that the United Methodist Church has lost its courage. We’ve become the Cowardly Lion of the mainline Christian Church, willing to engage in “safe” Christian activities (important issues like homelessness and hunger, but still “safe”) but unwilling to even talk frankly about the exclusion of countless members of our Connection from worship, from leadership, from ordination.

The truth, stripped of pleasant Christian language and euphemism, is that our denomination is now more interested in being faithful to the rules of our Discipline, than we are in being faithful to the members of our Connection.

Tomorrow is Pentecost Sunday, in which we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit – the tongues of flame that appeared above the heads of the disciples, the boldness with which they spoke the Gospel to a crowd of thousands.

What we absolutely must remember as we celebrate Pentecost – what I desperately hope the General Conference will remember – is that the Day of Pentecost was a Day of Inclusion. It was a day in which a group of outcasts – a leaderless group of disciples – stood up and spoke in many tongues to a group of people who had no shared language. But, while they spoke in many tongues, they also spoke a shared language – the language of a common faith which they shared (Judaism.)

In our time, so far removed from that day, let us have the courage to speak the languages of all the different, unique members of our great Connection. And, may we have the courage to remember the shared language – whether LGBT or not – of our faith in and commitment to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Jesus Punched Up

There’s an old maxim in comedy: “Always punch up.” It refers to a comic’s responsibility to avoid jokes about people or groups who can’t defend themselves, who are vulnerable or already persecuted and oppressed. Because, it’s simply not funny to make fun of people who already face harassment.

I have been following a lot of the news stories surrounding efforts to keep transgender people out of bathrooms to which they do not biologically belong, regardless of how they identify. And, I have been having difficulty articulating my support of trans people from a Biblical standpoint. The truth is that I haven’t given it a lot of thought. Support for transgender folks has always been tied up in my support for the entire LGBT community, and I have never thought of them as an individual community – rather a part of a larger whole.

I think that my lack of specific support is really common among gender “normal” folks: I simply don’t get it. I can understand same-sex attraction, and I have personal experience with bisexuality. But, I was born male, and I have always felt male. Added to that, I have been raised in a subculture that is very suspicious of “effeminate” men or “masculine” women. (Several less kind words have been used, by me and others, to describe people who go outside what we believe to be gender norms.)

Even though I can intellectually accept that people have different gender identities than their biological sex, even though I can support people being their very best and truest selves, I have a hard time articulating that support in a way that other Christians can understand.

So, I’ve been giving it some thought. And, I’ve been reading Scripture, because I know that I’m not making this stuff up – I know that compassion is the highest Scriptural value, and that it’s always correct to choose compassion over exclusion. But, it wasn’t until I was teaching my Sunday School class this morning – we’re covering the Book of Acts – that I really understood what basis my support has.

Jesus always punched up.

Reading Acts again has brought back to the forefront of my mind what an antagonistic and adversarial relationship the early Church had with the religious and secular authorities. It wasn’t because they were intentionally antagonizing them, it was simply a virtue of who they were and Whom they followed. Those authorities had built their power base on their ability to exclude people from the Temple – because of “sin” or because they were “unclean.” And, as I read Acts 3 and 4 this morning – the story of Peter and John healing a man crippled from birth, and then answering to the Sanhedrin for the crime of compassion – I realized that the power of Jesus (and the early Church in His name) made sacred what the authorities, the “religious folks”, had judged unclean. He healed the sick, thereby pronouncing that their sins – that is, the sin that the current teaching held they inherited from their parents – were forgiven. He took the power to exclude away from the Temple, and He did it by pronouncing everyone included. The powerless became powerful, the least became greatest, the last became first.

The fact that those who were “added daily to their number” came from the ranks of the people who had been excluded, pronounced unclean, and persecuted by the religious authorities tells me that Jesus has a special regard for those people.

And the fact that He regards those people as worthy of the Kingdom is enough basis for me.

Make no mistake: the morality of support for oppressed, persecuted, and harassed communities – like the transgender community – requires no further study from me. This is a group of people who lives under constant threat of violence, who has a far higher suicide rate than most of the population, who are misunderstood and mislabeled by a large portion of society. That alone – the fact that they are being hurt, while not hurting anyone – is enough for me to declare my support for them. What the lessons of Jesus and the early Church give me is a way to articulate that support in the shared language of faith.

While I’m going to continue to try and understand the trans community, the fact is that my faith doesn’t require me to understand: it requires me to show compassion, to help, to protect when necessary, and to speak in support of. Even were I to believe that transgenderism was a horrendous mental illness – which I do not – I would still be required by my Christian discipleship to support and protect transgender persons, for as long as they were being threatened, oppressed, and harassed.

That’s what we do.

We don’t punch down, as Christians. We don’t become the agents of exclusion or condemnation. We don’t declare people unclean or sinful. That’s not our job.

We are Kingdom People, people who declare that everyone is included.

And, we don’t cozy up to the very authorities whose power is built around the exclusion of people they deem unworthy. That’s in direct opposition to what Jesus and the early Church stood for. That’s not Christian, it’s Anti-Christ.

Join me in helping those that are hurting, those that are excluded, those that are declared unclean and sinful.

Join me in following Jesus.

The Divine Absence

I was speaking to a very dear friend of mine a few days ago. She’s been reeling from a number of really awful things happening in her life, and she doesn’t feel particularly connected to a lot of people.

This woman has been a woman of faith for her entire life. She is what some old church folks might call a “Proverbs 31 Woman.” But, after so much struggle over so long a period, she’s beginning to question whether God is there – or, possibly worse, if God is there but doesn’t care about her.

I know this feeling all too well. It has been so long – SO LONG – since I have regularly felt Divine Presence in my life, at least in a direct way. I go through the motions of prayer, because I believe that it is required of my discipleship. I open my heart, even if I don’t always speak. But, as I’ve shared before, I don’t have those moments of religious ecstasy, those moments where I feel the presence of God in prayer or meditation.

My friend is experiencing this in the depths of her soul… and it hurts, like very few things can hurt. When you have lived your life believing that God exists, that God loves you, that God’s presence is a sign of His favor, the sinking feeling that God might not be there, or that you might not be in His favor… that feels a lot like dying.

It’s something that might be hard for a person who has no religion to understand, but I am sure that everyone has that place of surety, of certainty, in their life. And, when certainty becomes uncertainty, it feels like the floor has dropped out from under you.

When I was in my early 20s, I read several unpublished interviews and letters of Mother Theresa. In these letters, she spoke at great length about how she felt God’s absence far more often than she felt God’s presence. Even in the midst of all the good work that she did (and, despite her conservative theological views, she did do good work in feeding and caring for the poor), she had such difficulty feeling God’s Presence.

Naturally, the occasionally awful Protestant crowd cried out that this was a sure sign that Catholicism was not of God, that the reason she didn’t feel God’s Presence was because of her false religion. But, the more that I have thought about it, the more I have come to a completely opposite answer.

I think that her experience of Divine Absence was a sign that hers was a religion of the purest form. I believe that her experience was a greater sign of God’s favor than she could have imagined.

Granted, this is a fairly self-serving theology. I have already expressed my own experience of Divine Absence, so it seems very self-righteous to make this a sign that my religion is better than yours. If you’re willing to look past these implications and hear me out, then read on.

I have a couple of Youth Ministry Assistants that do all the grunt work on Sunday nights. They’re tasked with ensuring that everything behind the scenes remains working well, so that the rest of the Youth Ministry Team can focus on direct ministry. Now, these Assistants are early 20-somethings, and they need some supervision when they start working for the team. Admonitions are given often, reminders are put forth about what they need to be doing at any given time. And, one of the most wonderful compliments that I can give to one of these young assistants is to be absent while they go about their assigned tasks.

They certainly don’t take it to mean that I don’t care what they’re doing, or that their work isn’t important. They understand that trust has been placed in them to accomplish their work faithfully, even when I’m not standing over their shoulder observing. Sometimes, they’ll run into difficulties, and at any point they know that I will be willing to help them through a task that they deem too difficult. But, my presence encourages reliance on me. My absence encourages faithfulness and self-sufficiency.

I’m sure that there’s a relationship like that in all our lives. I’m equally positive that this is not a perfect analogy, and that it runs the risk of sounding calloused and insensitive. But, I really, really think that going about the work that we’re called to, even in the midst of Divine Absence, is the most faithful thing that we can do. It’s easy to do the work of the Kingdom when we’re full of assurance that God is with us. It takes a great deal more courage and will to do that work when we’re not sure if God cares or not.

I don’t judge those who can’t take that step. After all, it’s entirely possible to do good work without a belief in God. But, for me, there comes a point when we have to stop looking for God in the sky, or in our prayers, or inside the walls of a church. Sometimes, we even need to stop looking for God in our own hearts. Instead, we look for God in the faces of the people who love us, and in the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.

Let me say it again, for those in the back:

We look for, and find, God in the faces of the people who love us, and the people that we are dedicated to loving and caring for.

Jesus said that if we earnestly seek Him, we will find Him. Where would we be most likely to find Jesus, who died, was raised, and who ascended into Heaven?  Where would we find this Jesus who said, explicitly, “Whatever you did for the least of these, my brethren, you did for me”?

The woman that I spoke of at the beginning of this post does amazing work with people who desperately need the care and love that she gives. I have been a beneficiary of that care and love, and I knew from the moment that I met her that it was a ministry that she was giving. If God doesn’t care for this person, then I don’t think I could care much for God.

But, I believe that God does care for her – just as I believe that God cares for me, even though I can’t feel the Divine Presence every day. I believe that God cares for me because of the people that I help, that I minister to. I believe that God is in them, that Jesus is in their eyes, and that their gratitude and love is the gratitude, love, and favor of God Himself.

“To love another person is to see the face of God.” (That’s a bastardization of the actual Victor Hugo line from Les Miserables, but it will do for our purposes.)

May you always see God in the faces of those around you.

May you feel that Divine Absence keenly enough in your prayers and your heart to seek Presence in the lives of others.

May your religion be so pure and simple that you do the good work in all circumstances.

And, may you always have someone in your life that looks so much like Jesus to you that you may as well be face to face with Him.