Category Archives: Preaching

Doubt, Reason, and a Bag of Chips!

I got to preach this morning and it was glorious!

Let me explain. I may be a minister in the Methodist Church but I am not your garden-variety minister. (They grow ministers in the garden?)  Anyway…I am an ordained Deacon. We are ‘specialist’ ministers, meaning that we have education in a specialty area, like Christian education, or music, or youth leadership, or counseling.  This enables us to do ministry in a specialized field while the ordained Elders in the church are there to run the church, preach and teach, attend a million committee meetings, and do way too much work in general.  My ministry is in counseling—I have a private practice—and when the Elders in my church need a little vacation or just some assistance, they’ll ask me to preach for the week.

So I got to preach this morning and it was glorious!

I preached on Doubting Thomas, which is the traditional scripture for the Sunday after Easter.  We read this scripture after Easter for two reasons: 1) it is the first appearance of Jesus to his disciples after his resurrection, and 2) so that we can exhort people to believe in the resurrection instead of being a ‘Doubting Thomas’.  Doubting Thomas, bad!  Believing, good!

Can you tell just how much I dislike the traditional interpretation of this passage of scripture?

Thomas always gets a bad rap, and it just isn’t fair.  If you read the passage carefully (which you can do here) you will notice that Jesus almost immediately shows the other disciples the wounds in his hands and in his side, presumably to prove that the person who hung on the cross is the same person who is standing in front of them at that moment. So why does Thomas get such a bad reputation for wanting to see those same wounds before he believes that Jesus lives? It makes no sense.

I think part of the reason that I want to defend Thomas is because I relate to his wariness.  It comes from my upbringing.

I grew up in a fundamentalist evangelical non-denomination church. That is a lot to type, so for short, I’ll just call them fundamentalist.  The people in that church believed…we firmly believed, and firm is the key word there. We knew what we believed and we could state it clearly, and we did state it…often. We were certain in our faith because anything less than certainty in that church was considered tantamount to saying that God wasn’t all that and a bag of chips…and if you are fundamentalist and evangelical, too, God is most certainly all that and a bag of chips and a couple of chocolate cookies on the side, and don’t you forget it!

And for lots of years that worked for me, until I got into college.  And then I started encountering things that directly contradicted what I had been taught in church.

You see, the church I was raised in believed that all the mainline denominations were filled with ‘carnal’ Christians, meaning fake Christians who didn’t really believe the way they were supposed to. Basically, think “Christian in name only.”  My church believed that every person who attended one of those mainline Churches was going to Hell…and of all the mainline denominations, my church thought the Catholics were the worst.

The problem for me was that I had become good friends with several Catholics during my freshman year of college. We talked about our faith quite a bit and I had learned a lot about what they believed and about Catholicism in general.  After getting to know them, I found that I couldn’t go on believing that being Catholic was a bad thing…nor could I believe that my friends were going to Hell for being Catholic.  It just made no sense.

And this put me at odds with my church. My very firm believing, enthusiastic, certain church who wasn’t going to be okay with me suddenly doubting their doctrines. Is God still all that and a bag of chips!  You BET God is all that and a bag of chips!

I started reading my Bible, because I needed some answers.  No matter how much I read (and I read a lot!) I wasn’t able to find anything that said “If you don’t believe in the exact right way or if you attend the wrong church, you are going to Hell.” That wasn’t in the Bible…anywhere. And of course, that made me start questioning a whole bunch of other stuff I’d been taught at church. For many people, this kind of questioning becomes the moment where they lose their faith. Thank God I didn’t lose my faith…but I definitely lost my faith in the church of my childhood.  I began to question everything and where I had previously had a firm faith, suddenly all I had was doubt.

And this is where I get where Thomas is coming from when he refuses to believe the disciples.

I know that the scripture passage says that the disciples came to Thomas saying “We have seen the Lord” but I don’t think that’s how it went down, not really. That just seems too calm to me.  If I just found out that my friend, the one I thought was dead, was actually alive, I’d be ecstatic, bouncing around the room, overflowing with joy.  That’s why I am betting that the disciples were much more enthusiastic than that…somewhere along the lines of 10 guys, gesturing wildly, all talking at once, looking a little like a basketball team that just won the championship.  I think all that enthusiasm and excitement was what made Thomas so wary.

It’s that funny feeling you get when someone is all wrapped up in their belief and they are so enthusiastic and so very certain and they want you to be so very certain too. They want you to jump into their belief like you would jump in a pool.  Just immerse yourself totally and buy into whatever they are selling.

It reminds me of the church I grew up in, and it sets off all of my alarms every time I encounter it.

There is nothing wrong with being enthusiastic about your faith, and there is nothing wrong with being certain that what you believe about God is true.  Just remember that strong faith and certainty don’t develop overnight. They develop slowly, and usually there’s a good deal of questioning that goes on before anything gets strong or certain. Sometimes there is a good deal of questioning that goes on even after things are strong and certain…and that’s a good thing.

I’m a Methodist for a reason. In the Methodist Church, we lean on John Wesley for theological guidance…meaning that Wesley informs the way we think about God. The first thing you need to know about John Wesley is that he was not a fan of blind faith. While Wesley wouldn’t quite say it this way, I will: DON’T EVER TURN OFF YOUR BRAIN.

You see, faith isn’t about believing whatever you’re told by your pastor, or your teacher, or the televangelist.  Faith is about reading the Word—not just a verse or two for inspiration. Read whole passages, whole books, maybe even the whole Bible.  While you are reading the Bible, let yourself be informed by the Church and its teachings and its traditions, and then feed all of that through your own experiences and your reason…your brain…and then decide what you believe to be true.*  And if you’re really smart, you’ll leave space for questions and doubt even after you’ve decided what you believe to be true.  Faith built with room for doubt is a solid foundation for spiritual growth—a foundation that is firm but flexible enough to withstand serious testing. Anything else is like building your faith out of cotton candy where somebody else spins the tale and you just swallow it whole.

Doubt gets a bad rap, but the truth is that doubt can be one of the best things that happens to your faith.

Doubt is useful, not just because it slows you down and encourages you to question what you are being told, but also because it causes you to seek until you find the truth.  Doubt will lead you on a search for God—one that might lead you away from the obvious places, if you let it.  Doubt also turns out to be the biggest evangelism tool you have.  You see, doubt isn’t an instance or a singular experience.  People who create space for doubt within their faith discover that doubt is a kind of journey, a journey towards greater faith, and along that journey is where you’ll find the Seekers…the people who are still questioning if Jesus is the real thing, the people who are questioning if they can ever be Christian at all.  There are folks who try to bring the message of Jesus Christ to Seekers by bringing them a shiny package of faith all sewn up and nicely decorated because they think that’s what the Seekers need.  And I don’t know what’s worse: that the Seekers might run away from that shiny package and maybe end up running away from the church entirely, or that they might buy into it that shiny package, hook, line, and sinker!  I know that this is probably not a very good thing for a pastor to say, but I don’t want people coming to my church looking to buy into a pre-packaged faith with all the accessories, because I can’t deliver that!

The funny thing is that God doesn’t deliver that either. God created you with a brain for a reason…and the reason is that God is really fond of reason. God created reason…and questions…and God created doubt, too.  The world is littered with folks who used to believe and USED to have faith who lost their faith when their shiny, stiff, pre-packaged beliefs didn’t actually function in the day to day world, not in the long term. They thought that a nice stiff, strong faith would give them backbone and strength…when all it did was make them inflexible and prone to breaking when life got heavy.  Faith that is able to accommodate doubt isn’t very shiny and it’s definitely not very stiff—in fact, it’s downright wiggly—but doubt blesses us with the flexibility to bend when life gets challenging. Doubt gives us space in our faith to accommodate new experiences, to struggle with horrible tragedies that make no sense, and to stand stunned in the face of unexpected discoveries and find our faith still intact…changed, but intact.

Better still, faith that can accommodate doubt can discover that Jesus lives in ways that we cannot yet imagine, in places that we thought that God would never go, to bring life in abundance to all the wrong people—sinners just like you and me—people who want to believe but who still have that one nagging doubt.  God is fine with our doubt and it doesn’t scare Him at all, because doubt is the space where God likes to hide so that He can surprise us.  God is good like that.

May you find your doubts like Easter eggs hidden in the grass, and when you open them, I pray that you find Jesus hiding inside.  Just when you thought Easter was over…the resurrection goes on, and on, and on…

* We call this method the Wesleyan Quadrilateral: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, and Reason.

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The Economy of Lent

Matthew 20:1-16  1 “For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard. “About nine in the morning he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ So they went. “He went out again about noon and about three in the afternoon and did the same thing. About five in the afternoon he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’  “‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ “When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’ “The workers who were hired about five in the afternoon came and each received a denarius. 10 So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11 When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12 ‘These who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13 “But he answered one of them, ‘I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14 Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15 Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’   16 “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

A couple of weeks ago my pastor preached on Matthew 20:1-16, the parable of the Vineyard. She did a great job, but I cannot say that for some of the other preachers I’ve heard tackle this passage.   This is one of those passages that is really hard to preach because if you are not really careful, you risk endorsing things that are horrifying, or making God seem like a jerk who rewards laziness.

If you just preach it straight from the text, no implications, you can end up with a God who doesn’t seem to reward hard work. Let’s admit it: we are all tired of dealing with the coworker who barely works at all and yet gets paid the same wage that we do. And it’s really hard to read this passage and not bristle at the vineyard owner’s ‘generosity’ because what the vineyard owner seems to reward is laziness. God endorsing this kind of behavior doesn’t work very well with our middle-class sensibilities.  But God is not interested in our middle-class sensibilities, and our work ethic is not the point of this passage of Scripture.

I’ve also heard this passage preached in ways that not-so-subtley encourage oppression. I’ve heard it preached where the point is to “Be a servant here so that you can be first in Heaven!”  I’ve also heard a few preachers add insult to injury by implying that this passage is God’s way of evening up the score for those who end up on wrong end of the social stick. In other words, God is going to make it better for the impoverished and those who are oppressed when they get to Heaven. This encourages the idea that lack of equality on earth is ‘just the way it is’ and we can count of God to set it straight in the afterlife, so we don’t really have to do anything to overcome inequality and injustice now.  God’s got it handled.

(Yes indeed, God does have it handled, but we’ll get to that later.)

Neither one of these interpretations work for me.

Seriously?  Be a servant now so that you can the first guy later?  It makes it sound like we’re in a competition to see who can impress God the most and therefore score the good seats at the Heavenly banquet.  Faith is not a competition, and our good works are supposed to spring from the depths of our faith…they should not be some showy way of impressing the Lord so that He thinks more highly of us.  Trust me, God already likes us.  If you need evidence…Jesus is evidence.

The second interpretation is even more egregious, because that kind of thinking has been used to justify the oppression of women and people of color for centuries.  This was an awesome way for the preacher to tell those who were oppressed be good little servants and willfully participate in their own oppression…and God would reward them later after they were dead…as long as right now they shut up and did what they were told like a good servant should.  The funny thing is that you can bet the person preaching the sermon didn’t think that they personally were going to be last in line in Heaven since they had given up a potentially lucrative salary to be a lowly preacher and servant of God…despite that preacher’s elevated social standing and overt power over their parishioners.  It’s just oppression with a clergy collar on it, and that doesn’t fly with me. Not. So. Much.

The funny thing is that God isn’t buying into our ‘best servant’ competition, nor is God willing to endorse our oppressive behaviors.

And that’s the entire problem with this passage: we keep trying to interpret it according to how things work here on Earth instead of how things work when God is in charge.

My professors in seminary used to call this the difference between God’s economy and humanity’s economy.

We all think that if we are last in line, that we’re going to get screwed.  That’s the way it is on Earth. Last in line for tickets means you get the crappy seats.  Last in line at the church potluck means that you get the leftovers that are mostly cold by that point. Last in line on Black Friday means that the good merchandise is all gone.

Last in line sucks…in our human economy.  On earth, being last in line is no fun.

The thing about God’s economy is that it looks nothing like human economy.

In God’s economy, last in line for tickets gets great seats. Last in line for God’s potluck finds a table overflowing with piping hot food, looking like God saved the good stuff saved for last, even though the folks who ate first seemed to look like they got really good stuff too.  Last in line at God’s Black Friday sale means that you get the things you really need and you don’t have to fight for them as if your life depended on getting that last box…because there is always at least one more of whatever it is that you need.

God never runs out of anything. God never gives anyone the small portion. God does not hand out consolation prizes.

In God’s economy, everybody wins. In God’s economy, everyone gets the good stuff. In God’s economy we don’t have to worry about where we are in the line because there is an endless supply of everything we need, especially God’s love, time, and attention.

And how does this resolve our bad behaviors? How does this challenge our oppressiveness? How does this set right the poverty of the Third World nations, or violence, or terrorism, or war or human trafficking or…

Again…we’re trying to figure this out with a human economy.

We want God to punish the bad guys and reward the good guys.  We want God to declare somebody the winner.  We want God to make clear who was right and who was wrong.

In God’s economy, Jesus’ death saves ALL humanity.  Jesus saves the good and the bad, the right and the wrong, the winners and the losers. God saves the oppressed and their oppressors.

God redeems it ALL and that is what erases the human economy, because there are no winners and losers left in God’s economy. No one gets the small portion…not even the last guy in line.

As we walk the journey of Lent for the next six weeks, maybe the thing we should give up for lent is our human economy. Maybe we ought to try living by God’s economy and see what changes in our life.

It may be the closest we can get to finding Heaven on Earth.  Check in with me in six weeks and we’ll see what happened.

Are You Listening?

This election has been frustrating for me, mostly because of the rash of evangelical faith leaders who have spoken out in favor of Trump. Recent revelations about Trump’s behavior have caused a number of them to withdraw their support but there are a few, especially Jerry Falwell, Jr., who continue to endorse Trump, even to the point of saying the allegations don’t matter. If I think about it for very long I get so angry that I am almost boiling hot because I cannot understand how a faith leader can support anyone who openly admits to sexual misconduct, and when I say sexual misconduct, I mean sexual assault, unwelcome sexual contact, and voyeurism (Trump has admitted to walking in on Miss USA pageant contestants while they were changing clothes and partially or totally nude.)

While Trump’s behavior disgusts me, Jerry Falwell Jr’s continued endorsement of Trump infuriates me.  Does he not perceive how his continued support for Trump also endorses the idea that women are objects to be used? Does he not understand the message he sends to victims of sexual assault? Does Graham not perceive that God calls ministers and priests to be the protectors of the weak and defenseless, not the yes-men who kowtow to the rich and powerful?

The saddest part is that I know, intimately, the power of a preacher’s words. My own story and my recovery from sexual abuse was heavily impacted by the words of a preacher.  I want to share my story with you because I believe that we need to fully understand how our words (both spoken and unspoken) have a profound impact and the power to change lives.

Shortly after I found out that I was pregnant with my first child, I began to have memories of being sexually abused.  My abuser molested me sporadically from the time I was approximately 3 years old until I was 8 years old.  Trying to deal with the memories was very difficult because the emotions were overwhelming and the memories so disturbing that they impacted my ability to function on a daily basis.  I no longer felt safe in the world and every man (except my husband and my father) seemed threatening. I was always on the edge of tears and struggled to not fall back into the eating disorder that I had struggled with as a teenager.  I was so consumed with fear and overwhelmed emotionally that I had difficulty thinking clearly and focusing at my job became almost impossible.  Combine all that with the hormonal fluctuations that go with pregnancy and what you get is a hot mess, and let me tell you that I was a hot mess every day for months on end.

Despite the difficulty I had functioning, I did my best to maintain my routines and one of those routines was going to church on Sunday mornings. As worship began that particular Sunday morning, a woman in the back of the Sanctuary rang a hand bell.  The sound of the bell resonated through the room and then we stood for the call to worship.  I forgot all about the woman with the hand bell until she suddenly rang it again in the middle of the announcements, which was odd because she rang it while the pastor was speaking and the pastor didn’t seem to notice.  She continued randomly ringing the hand bell throughout the service: once during a hymn, once during the Scripture reading, and even several times during the pastor’s sermon.  It made no sense and I was rather jarred by the sound even though the sound of hand bells is normally soothing to me.

The pastor’s sermon was a bit odd as well.  He was preaching on a passage from the Old Testament: 2 Samuel 13:1-22, the story of the rape of Tamar.  Who preaches on that?  And considering the hot mess that I had been for several months by that point, I didn’t really want to hear about sexual violence against women. I had enough to deal with just trying to deal with the sexual violence done to me.

The sermon focused on Tamar’s rape for quite a while.  The preacher highlighted the ways that Amnon (the rapist) treated his sister Tamar as an object to be possessed and used for his needs and his pleasure without regard to the consequences for Tamar.  He stated that not much has changed since then and pointed out the ways that women are still objectified, possessed, and used by men. He preached about the ways that society devalues women and children, counting our lives and our experiences as less valid than those of men.  He especially focused on how society silences women and children when we speak up against the violence done to us because it’s just so unpleasant to hear…and then how they ask how we came to be alone with the man who abused us, as if his choices were our responsibility.   The whole time he spoke, the woman in the back of the sanctuary kept randomly ringing the bell.

The preacher highlighted to us the many ways that the Church has silenced victims of physical and sexual violence by insisting that we need to stop complaining and forgive our abusers, often before we have actually had a chance to recover from the abuse.  He became visibly angry as he spoke, accusing the church of refusing to be a refuge for victims because dealing with their suffering makes us uncomfortable and God forbid the Church should have to bear a little discomfort in the face of human suffering and exploitation. He reminded us that our demand for the victim’s silence was nothing more than another act of violence against the victim.  The bell rang again.

By this time, I could hardly contain myself.  I was doing everything I could to remain seated and hide my tears.  Then the preacher explained the bell ringing in the back of the room; it had rung every six minutes since the service had begun because every six minutes another woman or child in the USA becomes the victim of violence or exploitation.  He said that the worldwide statistics were much worse, and as he said that, the bell rang faster and faster…

I ran out of the room and into the church restroom where I hid in the stall sobbing and trying to breathe.  It was close to twenty minutes before I could calm down enough to sneak out of a side door and sprint to my car.

Later that day I called the preacher at home.  When he answered the phone all I could choke out was “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” and then I hung up.

Years later I found out that he was called before the leaders of the Church and heavily criticized for his sermon.  They told him that nobody needs to hear a sermon like that.

I did.  I needed to hear that what happened to me mattered, that it mattered to God and that God expected it to matter to the Church.  I needed to know that the Church was supposed to be a refuge for me, a place where I didn’t have to hide the mess I had become because of the abuse.

That day, that one sermon…that sermon saved me more than I can say, and I have never forgotten the power of the pulpit to welcome someone into the safety of the Sanctuary or to shackle them in silence and shame.  The words spoken in the pulpit are so powerful that they can even lock someone outside the door of the Church and make it clear that they will never be welcome.

Franklin Graham Jr, are you listening?