The Dangerous Gospel of Good Friday

What follows is the text of the sermon I gave for our Good Friday service, only an hour ago.

Today is Good Friday, the day that we commemorate the death of our Lord, Jesus of Nazareth, who is the Christ.

On Sunday, we will have Easter. Easter is one of those times of year where many people that we would not normally see in church will come. They will come, because Easter Sunday is a day of hope. It’s the day that we celebrate the new life that comes with resurrection. It’s a wonderful day to start a Christian journey, or to reaffirm a journey that we’ve gone astray from. New life is something that we always seek; every year, every month, every day, we seek to “wipe the slate clean” to “start fresh.” And so, we all come on Easter Sunday, to celebrate the chance at new, abundant life that Jesus gave us when He walked out of the tomb. And we call Good Friday “good”, because we believe that Jesus took our old lives to the cross, so that we could have this new life on Sunday.

But, today is not Sunday. Today is Friday. And, while the Gospel of Easter Sunday is affirming, and joyful, and comfortable, the Gospel of Good Friday is dangerous, controversial, and solemn. Yet, we ignore this Gospel at our own peril.
This dangerous Gospel begins in the Garden, when Jesus says, “Not my will, but yours be done.” It continues when Jesus tells His disciples to “put away their swords” in defense of their lives and His. It reaches a climax when Jesus, accused before the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate, answers the charges laid before Him with a simple, “It is as you say.” And, it culminates with Jesus looking at His enemies, the ones who had nailed Him to the cross, and saying, “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”

This dangerous Gospel demands more than it gives. It calls us to death, rather than new life. It strips us of our rights, our privileges, our pride and our freedom, and gives us a cross. Resurrection Sunday offers us a crown of glory, but all that Good Friday has to offer is a crown of thorns. Easter gives us clean and shining white robes, but Good Friday divides our garments and strips us naked.

What will we do with this dangerous, perilous Gospel? Will we run and hide, in fear of our lives, as most of the disciples did? Will we deny that we know Jesus, as Peter did? Will we stand helplessly at the foot of the cross, as Mary and John did? Will we recognize the innocence of the Son of God, as the murderer next to Jesus did? Will we help Him carry the cross, as Simon of Cyrene did? Or, will we stand and mock him for His impotence, as the Roman soldiers did?

The call to follow Jesus on Good Friday is a call to die “to” and to die “for”. When Jesus told His disciples, “Whoever would come after me must take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life, will lose it. But, whoever will lose his life, for my sake, will find it”, He was not using a spiritual metaphor. They lived under a brutal occupation by the most powerful empire in the world, and the message that they spread would have dire consequences for them. We can see the evidence for the literal meaning of Jesus’ call in the way that so many of His disciples died in the same way that He did.
So, the first and most important lesson that we can learn from this dangerous Gospel, is that the call to die may very well be literal. Many Christians around the world understand this. As we sit, comfortably, in this church, there are thousands across the world who live in fear of a very physical death, such as the university students in Kenya, who were dragged out of a worship service and killed just this week. Christians in Iraq and Syria live in fear of extremists who drag them into the streets and behead them, regularly. Christians in Communist regimes worship in secret, for fear of a State that will not tolerate any form of religious expression. For these Followers of Jesus, the decision to follow Jesus is a literal laying down of their lives.

But, as Americans, we do not understand this as fully as we should. We have always lived in a country where the greatest persecution we suffer is the insults of those who do not share our faith. In our country, we worship in public. We have prayer breakfasts in government buildings, we have churches on every street corner, the words “Under God” are enshrined in our pledge of allegiance, the words “In God We Trust” printed on every dollar bill that comes into circulation. For us, the idea of death in the name of Jesus is an abstract, a hypothetical. We may boldly proclaim that we are willing, but would we still proclaim as boldly if our faith was put to the test, if our lives were truly threatened?

In this culture, the things that we have to die to are much more subtle. When we Christians talk of dying, we often talk of dying to our sin, dying to the world. But, there are things that we must die to that we would balk at. Dying to our sin is easy, compared to the cross that Jesus would have us bear. Dying to “the world” is a cop-out, when we see the Savior inviting us to share in His suffering. Jesus tells us that we must die to ourselves: everything that comprises ourselves. We must die to our pride. We must die to our concept of freedom, of liberty, of rights. We must die to our families: our parents, spouses, children, friends.

We must die to our responsibilities. I heard a tragic story recently of a young man. This young man went to a Chrysalis retreat, and he came back full of fire, passion and zeal. He literally wanted to leave everything that he had behind, and go and use the skills that he had cultivated as a carpenter to build houses in third-world countries. He was committed to this course, until a very well-meaning relative said, “You can’t do that. You have to get a job, you have to go to college, you have responsibilities.”

That young man was ready to die to everything that he had built and cultivated in his short life, and he was ready to die for a group of people that he had never met. But, someone told him that he couldn’t, that the call was too much, too foolish. And now, that young man drifts through life, unfulfilled, restless, because the call that he answered, the call to die, was also his hope of resurrection. It was denied to him, because he was told that the cross was too heavy, that he had another cross to bear, the false cross of responsibility.

How often do we, in this culture, chase these responsibilities, these activities, things to fill the emptiness, the lack of fulfillment? How many of us have burned in our hearts to do something radical, something dangerous, something so perilous and foolish that it can only be a call from Jesus? How many of us have quenched that fire in our hearts with the responsibilities that we have made an article of our faith?

If we are to follow Jesus on Good Friday, we must learn that our responsibilities are often nothing more than a well-dressed idol. They are an outgrowth of our pride, our need to be important to the world around us, our need to have purpose in a world that so often seems purposeless. Yet, Jesus demands only one purpose for us on Good Friday: a long road to a lonely hill, and a cross. He calls us to be despised by those for whom we wish to be so important, to surrender the rights and the earthly responsibilities that we have filled our lives with. He calls us to be fulfilled in death.

To follow Jesus on Good Friday, it is not enough to die “to”, we must also die “for.” We call this Friday “Good” because Jesus died “for” us. So, if we are to follow Jesus on this road, who do we die for? We die for the same ones that Jesus died for. We die for the poor, the helpless, the hopeless, the broken, the bloodied, the hungry, the sick, the imprisoned. We die for the young veteran in our congregation who can’t see a way to go on living. We die for the young mother who worries about how to pay the rent, how to put food on the table, how to raise children with a spouse who is either absent or non-existent. We die for the desperately drug addicted man, whose only hope lies in a needle in his arm. We die for the man on the side of the road, holding a cardboard sign, living without pride or dignity. We die for the senior citizen, who has to choose between buying food and buying medicine. We die for the parent of the adult child, who wonders day and night if their child still lives, after months and years of not hearing from them. We die for the thieves and the murders. We die for the prostitutes and the pimps. We die for the Muslim, for the black person, for the immigrant, for the terrorist, for the hypocrite. We die for them when we die to ourselves, when we make the task of being Jesus to them our only responsibility, our only purpose. We die for them when we give up our time, our energy, our money, to minister to their physical needs, as well as their spiritual.

In 2006, I went to Iraq for the first time. In 2008, I went for the second time. And, by June of 2012, I was only a shell of the person that I had once been. I had purpose, I had responsibilities, but it was all I was. I was crushed by all the things in my life that made me feel important, that made me feel useful. My family, my duty to my country, my responsibilities to the soldiers under my command, my responsibilities to the commander that I served… all of it made me popular in the eyes of those I worked with. It made me valuable to those that I served. And yet, for all the acclaim and value that I had cultivated, I could not see a way to go on living. And so, on a normal day in June, I woke up in the morning and decided to take my own life. I would leave no note: my life was my note. I simply decided to drive as fast as I could into a utility pole on Peacher’s Mill, which I drove down every day.

As I passed the stop light at the intersection of Peacher’s Mill and Creek Coyote, I saw a church sign. I had passed this church many times, but today was different. Today, I was ready to die. And, the sign said something simple, something like, “God loves you, and so do we.” That simple message, that profound statement, made me buckle my seatbelt, slow down my car, and find a new way to live.

But, I died that day. SGT Woywood, a man who was respected for all of the responsibilities that he was willing to undertake, ceased to be. And, over a period of months spent in this sacred space, that man was resurrected into the man you see here today, a man who tries so desperately to make his only responsibility that of following Jesus. A man who has died, but who has discovered that it was the only way to be reborn, the only way to find new life.

I want to die for each of you. I want to die for those that Jesus died for. I want to be like the young man who was willing to leave everything to die for those who live in desperate poverty and homelessness.

I want to be a Good Friday follower, not just an Easter Sunday follower. I want a dangerous Gospel, not a comfortable one. I want to die before I am resurrected.

Do we all want that? Or do we only want to worship the triumphant Jesus coming out of the tomb, and ignore the Jesus who willingly went to the cross?

Will we live for our rights, our freedoms, or will we die to them? Will we chase after our responsibilities, or will we carry them with us to the cross? Will we seek a crown of glory, or a crown of thorns? Will we accept only an easy path to new life, or will we desire the dangerous, but authentic, road to death?

I found a quote some time ago, and it so perfectly encapsulates what I’ve been trying to say tonight, that I must share it as I close.

“Religion seeks to transform a man; the Cross seeks to crucify him. Religion may fail to bring about the desired result, but the Cross never fails to achieve its end. Mankind will pursue morality, virtue, spirituality, even perform religious works and good deeds, in order to avoid death on a Cross. But there are no wounds, no scars, no evidence of having ever died and been made alive again unto God. Either a man has never died, or he has died and been raised again. You cannot fake a resurrection.” – Chip Brogden

Sisters and brothers, will we follow Jesus unto death? Will we follow Him, though it means scars? Will we follow Him, though it means death to everything that we hold dear? Will we follow Him, though it means giving our life for the least, the last and the lost? For it is only in dying with Him on Good Friday that we can ever have hope of a true, authentic resurrection on Easter Sunday. Because the straight and narrow that Jesus would have us walk is only as straight as the road to Golgotha, and exactly as narrow as the cross on which Jesus died for love.

‘Tis the Season (FOR WAR!)

It has been a long time since I had good Christmas cheer.

There are some fairly good reasons for it. The month of December in 2006-2008 was a parade of death for me and many of my friends who were deployed to Iraq with me, and these dates become rather grim anniversaries in the remaining years. I grew up as the child of divorced parents – and two families – which made most holidays uncomfortable and best and agonizing at worst. I’ve spent too many Christmas holidays away from my wife and kids, and that has made me a bit calloused and detached from the holidays that I have gotten to spend with them.

But, if there is one thing that consistently ruins my holiday season, it is The War on Christmas. Every year that I try to get into the mindset of peace on earth and good will to men, I’m told by many of my fellow Christians (and the media) to gird up my loins for battle. There is a pronounced uptick in the number of news stories that I see – both in casual browsing and linked in my Facebook feed – proclaiming the coming darkness of persecution against Christians. I cannot drive, walk or run anywhere without seeing signs, bumper stickers, and even billboards proclaiming: “JESUS is the reason for the season!” and “Keep CHRIST in Christmas.”

I agree with these sentiments on a philosophical level, and I would love to believe that we’re all just sharing our faith peacefully with these signs. It’s possible that many of these signs – at least the ones on private property, like on front lawns and church grounds – are just that. However, I know the real reason that I see so many of these signs coming out after Thanksgiving, and so do the thousands of people who display these signs in very visible places, even on public property.

These are the first shots fired in our yearly War.

As the weeks roll by, this Cold War will inevitably become a hot one. Someone will put a nativity scene up on the grounds of City Hall, or a courthouse, or a federal building, and the non-religious will cry, “Foul!” We Christians will say, as reasonably as we can, “We’re just celebrating our religious heritage? What can be wrong with that?” Harsh words will be said by both sides, cries of persecution will be issued, and we’ll soon be engaged in our yearly battle for the soul of Christmas.

Even as a Christian, I get irritated as soon as I see the signs, read the articles, see the memes about saying “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays.” I think I get irritated especially irritated as a Christian, because by fighting our war to keep Christ in Christmas, we have completely forgotten what the story of Christmas is about.

If you look in the Gospel of Luke, you’ll find the most complete of the two Christmas stories (though there is another in Matthew that serves as a complementary tale.) It tells the story of a young, teenaged girl who becomes pregnant in suspicious circumstances (though Christians believe that the pregnancy was the result of the Holy Spirit.) It tells the story of a man who determines not to shame her publicly (essentially saving her life), and decides to raise the illegitimate child as his own. It tells the story of being forced to travel a long distance at the behest of an unjust empire, of being denied basic hospitality as strangers. Finally, it tells the story of the King of Kings, the Son of God, being born in the humblest of all circumstances, in a cave surrounded by livestock and permeated by the smell of animal shit.

And who was in attendance at this grand event in history? Was it the teeming masses, everyone in the town and countryside? Nope, it was a group of dirty, tired shepherds and three magi, and they were only there (according to the story) because God personally invited them.

So, God didn’t force this event, this spectacle, on the masses. He didn’t forcefeed the coming of His son onto every passerby. He didn’t have the King of Kings born on the steps of the courthouse, or in a palace. The birth of Emmanuel (God with us) was a secret from everyone, except for the lowest of society and the highest.

Do we invite people to share in the joy of the birth of the Savior? Do we sing “Glory in the Highest! Peace on Earth and goodwill to all people!”, or do we demand that the rest of the world sing it with us?

Do we share in the rest of this story? Do we welcome the strangers, the travelers, the foreigners, into our hospitality, into our homes? Or, do we tell them that there’s no room for them? Do we force them into the dark, into our unused spaces?

Are we like Joseph? Will we bear the shame of whispers, of innuendos, in order to practice mercy over the Law?

Are we like Mary? Are we willing to bear the burden of bringing hope into the world quietly, in humble circumstances, and bear it with joy?

Are we like the shepherds, leaving our lives and livelihoods to come and welcome the Christ?

Are we like the Magi, humbling ourselves and kneeling in the filth of animals in order to welcome the King of All Kings?

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This year is particularly difficult for me, in terms of Christmas spirit. Because, while I’m seeing all the signs of “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Jesus Is The Reason For The Season”, I’m also seeing things like this:

http://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2014/12/04/pastor-calls-for-killing-gays-to-end-aids/19929973/

http://www.gaystarnews.com/article/new-zealand-pastor-tells-gay-author-kill-himself081214

http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/03/justice/new-york-grand-jury-chokehold/

http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/politics/2014/08/ferguson_protests_over_michael_brown_won_t_end_soon_the_black_community.html

http://www.cnn.com/2014/12/09/politics/cia-torture-report/

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It’s hard for me to feel joy at the coming of the Christ child, when this country feels more like pre-Messiah Israel. In our rush to start our War on Christmas every year, I think that we can often miss the importance of Advent. This year particularly, the weeks of Advent seem keenly appropriate.

We struggle under the harsh boot of injustice, both from Empire and from religious institutions.

We cry out for relief, for a Savior. We cry out for justice for the oppressed. We cry out for freedom for the captives.

As too many Christians seem to sing “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “His Truth is Marching On”, and rush to sing “Joy to the World”, some of us are singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel/And ransom captive Israel.” Far too many of us are weeping and wailing in anticipation of our deliverance, while our captors are telling us that everything is fine. Too many of us are desperate for a place to rest at the inn, while the Innkeepers of our society are smugly putting up gentle and sterile nativity scenes, assuring us that the cave is clean and warm, and it doesn’t really smell like ox shit.

Too many of us feel the fear of being strangers in our own hometowns.

Too many of us feel the sting of being forced out into the cold, while hearing the sounds of laughter and warmth in our ears.

Too many of us have become innocent victims in this perpetual War on Christmas, and we have learned that the aggressors in this war aren’t who we were always told they were – that is, the aggressors aren’t the atheists, or the humanists or the government. The aggressors in this War are the religious, who have forgotten that the Christ child comes into the world for all people, and that God invites us to share in this joy.

http://youtu.be/bPfdD3pBUig

“I Can’t Breathe”: A White Man’s Thoughts on Eric Garner, Ferguson and the Specter of Racial Injustice

“For me, this is a very religious thing. I don’t believe you can love your neighbor as yourself and then kill them. Police officers have to learn to love their neighbors as themselves. If we continue a situation where cops are allowed to continuously resort to lethal force, the cycle of violence will continue and death will continue to beget death. I think people of faith need to demonstrate. We have a fundamental responsibility to be in the streets, to be creating coalitions, to be building change.

I keep thinking about Eric Garner saying, ‘I can’t breathe.- It made me think — that’s what Jesus is saying in this culture. Jesus is fundamentally connected to the marginalized and right now Jesus is saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’ I think the church should be saying the same thing — that we can’t breathe in this culture and we have to change this culture in order for us to have breath and exist in this society.”

— Rev. Jeff Hood

I normally try to keep these blog posts confined to religious topics, and I do my best to avoid specifically political issues. I have not been perfect in this regard, because there are times when the weight of political/social events becomes so heavy that the religious community can no longer afford to sit back and try to be peacemakers.

This is one of those times.

As I sit here, my head is still reeling from the grand jury verdict of “no true bill” for Officer Darren Wilson in the shooting death of Michael Brown, Jr.. I have struggled since the announcement of the verdict to understand how we have come here, to this place in America where a professional with a firearm can be reasonably threatened by an unarmed civilian – at least to the point where lethal force is appropriate. That goes against my beliefs on non-violence, but it also goes against my training in escalation of force and rules of engagement. The addition of the fact that the officer in question was white and the victim/perpetrator was black, and the case takes a new dimension. Suddenly, we’re thrust into the world of racial injustice. We suddenly have to consider that a young black man is 21 times more likely (http://www.propublica.org/article/deadly-force-in-black-and-white) to be shot dead by police than their white counterparts (this study includes both white and non-white police officers.) We have to consider the racial injustice of the courtroom and prison, the fact that there are more black Americans in prison or on probation or parole than were enslaved in the year 1850 (http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/criminal-justice/locked-up-in-america/michelle-alexander-a-system-of-racial-and-social-control/).

These are uncomfortable statistics for white Americans, because they indicate an institutional racism that we have become complicit in. We are not racists on an interpersonal level, yet we continue to live in a privileged state compared to our dark-skinned brothers and sisters. Our sons are far less likely to be shot dead by police, or tried and imprisoned, for often minor crimes. We are not feared in large numbers. We are not a targeted population for stop and frisk laws. We are not as likely to lose our voting rights as a result of felony incarceration.

We are privileged, but we don’t want to admit that. We don’t want to acknowledge that America is an easier place to live when you’re white, because it would challenge the false narrative of racial harmony that we’ve been building for at least the last 40 years. White Americans now quote Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on non-violence (while conveniently ignoring his pleas for racial justice.) We lionize a dead civil rights champion, while we simultaneously demonize living ones (see: Jesse Jackson, Rev. Al Sharpton). We point to a black president as “proof” that we’re living in a “post-racial” society, yet we fail to see that the same President has been subject to racist campaigns to discredit his citizenship and a level of vitriol unheard of in my lifetime.

I have family and friends that feel strongly that the case of Ferguson, Missouri and the death of Michael Brown, Jr. is a case of “race-bating” and “fanning the flames” of racial division. But, they fail to see that we, as white Americans, have already done that. We have fanned these flames into a raging inferno, and then stood back and complained that it’s too hot. How have we done this? We have done this by ignoring a system of institutional racism that has existed, in some form, since the foundation of this country.

We owned slaves for 245 years in this country, from the first landing in 1620 until 1865. After the practice of slavery was abolished, we continued a system of legal segregation and discrimination for another century (the Civil Rights Act passed in 1964.) So, for 344 years, black Americans were either owned or legally prevented from going to the same schools as white Americans, working at the same jobs, living in the same neighborhoods, shopping at the same stores, eating from the same restaurants, etc. To put this into a different perspective: my father was born in 1962. He is now 52 years old. That means that the first black Americans to be born into a world without legal segregation and discrimination are just hitting what we would call “middle age.”

Is 50 years long enough, in the scope of cultural and institutional trends, to make up for three and a half centuries of hideous racial injustice?

Is 50 years long enough for the memory of those crimes to fade?

Is 50 years long enough for the children and grandchildren of slaves – the children and grandchildren of the legally disenfranchised, segregated and discriminated against – to “pull themselves up” out of the hole that white Americans dug for them and threw them in?

I’m using strong language for a reason. It’s time for us to acknowledge that we created the very cycles of crime that we turn our nose up at. We created the urban neighborhoods that we don’t feel safe driving through. We created the generational problems of incarceration that leave so many young black men fatherless. We created the poverty that forces so many black families onto federal assistance.

We created these problems, as a society and a culture, and now we wash our hands of it, we shake our heads disapprovingly, we protest innocence and say, “I didn’t do any of those things.”

Protestations of innocence do nothing to solve the problem of racial injustice.

Disapproval makes it worse.

Denial of privilege makes it worse.

This morning, I watched the video of Eric Garner being murdered by a NYC police officer. I listened as he cried out, “I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe. I can’t breathe.” over and over again. Unlike the tragic story of Michael Brown, Jr., there was on question of whether or not Eric Garner was an aggressor. He was well within his rights to tell police officers to leave him alone. He was committing no crime at the time of his arrest. From the words he said, this was not the first time he had been unjustly confronted by officers.

And they still confronted him.

They tackled him.

They choked him.

They killed him.

A grand jury failed – not refused, but failed – to bring back justice for Eric Garner. A police officer is clearly shown on video as an aggressor, is clearly shown to ignore the cries of a man who is in pain, and yet a grand jury said to the people of that neighborhood in New York City, “Eric Garner doesn’t matter.

Does this cast a different light on the “situation” in Ferguson, Missouri? Does this make riots and looting understandable? MLK Jr. referred to rioting as “the voice of the unheard.”

Can you hear that voice? Are you even listening? Do you even care?

That voice is the cry of the oppressed, the cry of the needy, and we are instructed clearly in the words of Jesus about what to do when we hear those cries. Those cries are His cries.

Where was Jesus in Ferguson, Missouri? He was bent and weeping over the slain body of Michael Brown.

Where was Jesus in NYC? He was crying out with Eric Garner.

Where is Jesus every day when another young black boy loses his life to police bullets? Where is He when another black man is sent away from his community to rot in a for-profit prison system?

Jesus is always at the side of the oppressed.

But, that’s cold comfort to a community of people who are losing their sons, brothers, fathers, mothers, sisters and friends to a system that doesn’t care about them enough to stop it. They don’t need Jesus standing by their side.

They need us.

This isn’t a narrative about white superheroes and saviors swooping down to save poor black people. This is a narrative about average, everyday white Americans admitting their privilege and consciously ignoring it in favor of solidarity with the oppressed.

This is a narrative about white Americans speaking out in defense of the victims, rather than the aggressors.

This is a narrative about white Americans understanding, rather than judging.

This is a narrative about white Americans refusing to support acts of violence against the black community, regardless of who perpetrates it.

Finally, this is a narrative about white Americans recognizing that we exist in an unbalanced state of racial relations. It does no good to talk about how “colorblind” you are, while simultaneously benefiting from systems and institutions that favor one color of skin over another.

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I wanted so badly to be a peacemaker. I wanted my first blog post-Ferguson to be about our need for reconciliation, the need for both parties – offended and offender – to come together in unity. But, I no longer believe that this is anything but a white American problem. We have greatly wronged our brothers and sisters of color for centuries, and it is neither Christian nor American to expect them to come up with a solution. We have the only solution.

The only solution is justice.

And only we can deliver that.

Dear Hobby Lobby: God Does Not Care About Your Rights

Folks, this might be a long one. I’m a little angry.

It’s generally a good idea not to talk (or write, in this case) when you’re angry. I would agree, but this is not a hot anger, the kind of anger that makes you fly off the handle and say things you don’t mean. No, this is a cold anger, the kind of anger that has been building for months.

I’m not sure when it started. It might have been when notorious Christian politician Sarah Palin went on national television and proclaimed that “waterboarding is how we baptize terrorists.” It might have been when city ordinances started passing, designed to keep people who are homeless from sleeping outside buildings and in public parks. It might have been when I read about Christian citizens being harassed by law enforcement for feeding those same homeless persons.

Perhaps it was reading about Miriam Ibrahim, threatened with death for simply being a Christian, while people like Tony Perkins and Ralph Reed loudly proclaim that religious freedom in America is under attack. Or the constant barrage of environmental disasters that these same people blame on the fight for marriage equality.

In any case, this cold, building anger came to a head this morning. I woke up and read about the Supreme Court’s decision regarding Hobby Lobby’s legal mandate to provide health insurance to their employees that covers birth control. In case you don’t read the Internet, or haven’t been following this story, the owners of Hobby Lobby have erroneously claimed that some of the contraceptives that their health plans would cover for female employees were “abortifacient” – meaning that they prevent a fertilized embryo from implanting (scientifically false, if anyone is keeping score.) Hobby Lobby being a “Christian business”, claimed that they should have the right to exempt themselves from the law, because the 1st Amendment guarantees their right… to not give female employees birth control.

Let’s pause for a moment, and exam some things, before I move on to the more theological implications. First, let’s examine the idea that birth control somehow conflicts with Christian belief. There are certainly sects of Christianity that have maintained longstanding opposition to the idea of birth control, preferring to use what is called Natural Family Planning, or simply letting God decide how many kids they have. That’s wonderful, as an individual choice. However, a large (and I can’t statistically tell you how large) number of Christian women believe that birth control is a gift from God, a way to control the size of your family, so that we can properly feed and care for the children that we choose to have. In a country with untold thousands of abortions, children awaiting adoption, and other children living in absolute destitution, it would make a lot more sense (from a Christian standpoint) to support controlling the number of children actually conceived.

That’s only Christian women, though. There are also a lot of non-Christian women who consider it both their right and their responsibility to only bring life into the world on their terms. Again, from the standpoint of concern for abortion, adoption and poverty, Christians should be thankful that women are desiring to be responsible for their own reproductive decisions.

What happened today wasn’t a case of Christian rights being protected. Today was a case of Christian privilege being affirmed. The owners of Hobby Lobby – and, by association, every Christian in America – have been named a special class of citizen, untouchable by federal mandate because of their “rights”.

And it makes me so terribly angry.

Despite all claims to the contrary, Christians enjoy a tremendous amount of religious freedom in America. Not only do we enjoy religious freedom, we enjoy a ridiculous amount of influence in America. The 10 Commandments are on federal and state property. There are gigantic, tax-free churches on thousands of Main Streets in America. The words “In God We Trust” are enshrined on our currency. We open up every legislative session, high school graduation, and city council meeting with a public, Christian prayer. Chaplains (overwhelmingly Christian) are a paid and protected position in our Armed Forces. Christmas (one of our most sacred days) is a federal holiday.

Contrast that to Egypt, where Christians are being slaughtered by the hundreds. Or to the case of Miriam Ibrahim. Or to the Christians over the years in communist or Muslim countries, where every prayer uttered, every Bible verse read, every word spoken about Jesus is a death sentence waiting to be carried out.

Contrast that to 1st Century, Roman-occupied Israel, where the Jews were an oppressed class of people, where Jesus of Nazareth was brutally killed as a common criminal.

The story of Jesus means many things to many people, but here is a lesson that the owners of Hobby Lobby (and the rest of us) should draw from it:

God does not care about your rights.

I don’t mean to imply that God doesn’t care what happens to His children. On the contrary, I believe that God knows when a sparrow falls to the ground, and thus He weeps at the plight of Miriam Ibrahim, Martin Luther King, Jr., Christians in Egypt, Buddhists in Tibet, Sunni Muslims in Iraq and Syria, the homeless in America, the children who grow up without any hint of parental love, LGBT persons who are unceasingly discriminated against…

But I seriously doubt that God will shed one tear because a multi-billion dollar corporation is forced to pay for birth control for its female employees.

I’ve taken fire in the past for being “too negative” about the state of Christianity in America. I don’t want to suggest that all Christians in America are selfish, greedy, opportunistic, oppressive or whiny. What I do want to suggest is that when the name of Jesus gets dragged in front of the Supreme Court for selfish, greedy, opportunistic, oppressive and whiny reasons, the entire message of the Gospel gets lost in the process.

When a people who worship, revere and follow a man who was not only persecuted by killed by civil authorities for the very appearance of disobedience to civil law – when those same people demand special protections under the law for their faith, the word hypocrisy isn’t strong enough.

And the whole non-believing world sees this. Can we blame anyone for refusing to listen to our message, when our loudest and most oft-repeated message is that we deserve more rights than they do?

Federal, state and local authorities pass laws and ordinances that lessen aid to the poor, and we say nothing.

Those same authorities pass laws and ordinances that actively harm the poor, and we say nothing.

We demand the right to discriminate against people for their sexual orientation.

We demand the right to discriminate against women for daring to control their reproductive cycle.

We have become the oppressors, and yet claim to be oppressed.

I’m not calling for a boycott. Boycotts never punish the owners of a company, only the employees.

I’m calling for something far more radical.

Next time you shop at Hobby Lobby, if you are served by a female employee, give her money for her birth control.

Put it in an envelope, with a note explaining the gift.

Don’t make a scene.

Don’t try to score political points.

Just give, in a small effort to make right the terrible injustice that has been done to women in the name of Christianity.

Perhaps one day, we’ll learn that political power doesn’t equal moral authority.

Maybe one day, we’ll learn that sacrificial service is far more powerful than rights and privileges.

May we learn, on that day, to be like the Man who gave up His rights, so that we might be made whole.

My love to you, wherever you are,

Michael

Biblical Discomfort (Why I Think Jesus Taught in Parables)

“Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whiskey bottle in the hand of (another)… There are just some kind of men who – who’re so busy worrying about the next world they’ve never learned to live in this one, and you can look down the street and see the results.”  – Atticus Finch, To Kill a Mockingbird

Growing up in a Christian household, the Bible is something that I’ve known all my life. I was an AWANA kid; Scripture memorization was part of my life. It was the currency I used to buy approval; I could spout off entire passages, including chapter and verse references, to fit any occasion. (My greatest moment of achievement in those years was being named “Bible Quiz Champion” at our yearly event.) I loved Scripture – I’d read it all the time, Old Testament and New. I still sing the little song in my head about the books of the Bible when I’m looking up a verse (Genesis, Exodus, Levi-i-i-ticus!)

And, the uncomfortable truth is, I have grown to hate that same Bible that I memorized so diligently as a kid.

The reasons behind this turn around are probably more complex – or at least require a longer explanation – than I could give in just one, short blog. But, I think I can sum it up by using a familiar illustration:

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at your computer, browsing the Facebook, when you see a beautiful, well-worded status update by Your Liberal Christian Friend that is in support of gay marriage/reproductive freedom/evolution in science classrooms/whatever. Now, you might Like it, you might comment, you might Unfriend the person and immediately begin praying for them… whatever you do, I guarantee you that SOMEONE will post a comment that contains nothing but the text and reference for a Bible verse.
And that’s it. It’s like – Bible quote, mic drop.

And then, SOMEONE ELSE – normally with an opposing viewpoint – will quote another Bible verse to contradict the first Bible verse (or interpretation). Mic dropped again. This process of textual quotations and mic dropping continues between these two – sometimes involving a third or a fourth person – and before you know it, names are being called, stakes are being set up with kindling around them…Image

And the Gospel gets lost.

If there’s anything that will turn a non-believer (or even some believers) off a conversation with a group of Christians, it’s this never ending litany of Scripture quotations. The kinder folks will simply scroll past it. The less patient (I, unfortunately, include myself in this group) will eagerly reach for our Bibles (or Google) and maniacally cackle at the thought of taking the argument apart piece by piece.

I am so tired of this tactic that I’ve been completely turned off by the Bible for months at a time. It’s not because I don’t believe that the Bible has nothing good to say – on the contrary, I find much in the Bible to uplift, to edify, to encourage, to instruct… but that’s not the kind of quotations that I see used in arguments. The quotations I see are the slam verses, the passages that Christians quote when they want to tell other people how wrong they are.

And I just wish that we’d shut up about it once in a while.

Of course, generalities are much less valuable than specific situations. So, I’ll bring this home by referencing an issue that’s near to my heart and ALL OVER the Internet and other media.

The typical Christian response to the issue of LGBT rights has been a source of continuous frustration for me and many others. In case my own viewpoint on this issue isn’t clear, allow me a paragraph or two to clarify it. If you’re already very familiar with my stance (or you don’t care), feel free to skip over this next bit.

I think that the Bible has been given too much authority in a situation where it is unclear whether we’re dealing with ancient cultural bias or actual Divine Edict. As we begin to understand that same-sex attraction is something that is not chosen, we’re becoming less and less comfortable with the idea that God created a whole class of people who are doomed to live without the romantic love that heterosexuals have enjoyed by default. I don’t believe that the very small amount of Scripture dedicated to talking about same-sex attraction actually addresses the complex issues of human sexuality. I believe that same-sex Christian couples should hold their relationships to the same standard of purity that opposite-sex Christian couples do: keep the act of sex inside a committed relationship, one that is based on love and trust. More than that, I think that we should do same-sex Christian couples the same courtesy that we do opposite-sex couples; that is, we should allow the Holy Spirit to be God’s voice in their private lives, and keep our voices out of it.

Okay, so that was only one paragraph.

Now, how am I going to bring this issue back to my main point? I’m glad you asked.

Simply put, American culture (I would go so far as to say Western culture) is a culture that has been saturated in the language of Christianity for centuries. The Bible has been widely available in the English language for 500 years or more. Even non-believers in America have a certain degree of Biblical literacy. And, with the prominence of the issue of LGBT rights in the media over the past few years… everyone knows the Bible verses that say homosexuality is a sin.

Yet, everyone keeps quoting them. Why is this? Is it because we have no other good arguments? Is it because we’ve staked so much of our faith experience on the authority of every single verse of Scripture that we actually need it to be true? Are we lost without those verses?

I like to think that Jesus faced a similar problem – obviously, not with LGBT rights – with the Scriptures of His time. You see, the people of the first century had been burdened with the 650+ commandments of the Jewish Law for centuries. There was nothing to be done – everything you did, you were breaking one of those Laws. You could never be sanctified before God, never pure, never quite good enough under this Law.

If Jesus had been Just Another Jewish Rabbi, would He have reached the crowds in such numbers? If He had simply reminded everyone who listened to Him about the Law that they already knew, would He have become so popular as to become a threat to the religious authorities? I suspect that He would not have. The Jews of His time would have rolled their eyes, listened politely, and then gone back to living under religious oppression.

So, what did Jesus do? He taught in parables. He told stories. He spoke to the people where they were, giving them stories without explanations, trusting them to learn the meaning without being told. He spoke of God and the Kingdom in ways that fishermen, builders, and rich rulers could all understand.

In fact, He only really used Scripture when He was talking to the religious leaders – and those conversations were rarely pleasant for the other side.

Now, I value Scripture – it’s an important part of the language of the Church. And, as I said before, I find much in Scripture to admire and adhere to. And, I support the use of Scripture to edify, encourage and gently instruct.

But let’s stop using the words of the prophets and the saints to hit each other over the head.

And next time you feel moved to evangelize, or to try and teach the truth of God, skip the Scripture quoting and mic dropping. Try a parable instead. If it was good enough for the Savior, it should be good enough for us all.

My love to you, wherever you are.

Michael