Calling It Like I See It

Today my colleagues and I were at an all-day meeting where we tried to discuss our differences and come to consensus in regard to ordaining LGBTQIA persons.

Say whatever you will about the church in general, or what you think of the church’s hang-ups about sexuality, or even what you think about LGBTQIA persons…you have to admit that this is a hot-button issue when it comes to church politics.

And of course, we didn’t really resolve anything or come to any stunning conclusions. I, however, came home having learned some things.  Take these for what they are worth—I’m not saying that there is any real wisdom here—but since I committed to honesty today, that’s what I’m going to put in my blog.

Our moderator for the day asked us to think about what we were willing to do to in order to bring more maturity and wisdom to the debate.   With the moderator’s encouragement, many of us chose to speak our “I will…” statements out loud to the entire group.  I’m not sure if we did that so that we could be held accountable for our commitment, or just so that it would be food for thought for the group.

Anyway, I committed to being “scarily honest.”  Shortly after making that commitment, we broke into small groups and began discussing what we personally needed to do in order to contribute to consensus and understanding (instead of increased conflict)…and I immediately started shutting down and refusing to be honest.  I realized that I was struggling to trust one of the members in my small group (I’ll call him ‘Bob’) who wasn’t joining the conversation except to make light jokes to break the tension. Bob appeared to be very closed off, as if he was hiding himself from the group. Being committed to honesty, I challenged Bob about it (poorly…I think I came across as judgmental and self-righteous instead of as honest and questioning) and discovered that I was right: he admitted he was purposely hiding himself from the group.  The thing is that Bob had a really good reason for not risking trust with us…and he chose to be scarily honest by telling us why.  Bob revealed that he had been badly burned when he reached out to several colleagues in ministry for advice and a listening ear. Bob asked them for confidentiality, only to have them break his confidentiality and cause him a great deal of emotional pain.  My heart broke for him. No wonder he didn’t trust us! I cannot imagine what it must be like to be so deeply betrayed by people you are supposed to be able to trust. The paradox of the moment was that Bob’s choice to share his pain with us broke down the wall of mistrust. I immediately felt comfortable trusting Bob, and he contributed a great deal to the conversation after that. For all my commitment to scary honesty, it didn’t take much to shut me down…luckily it didn’t take much to open me back up, either.  Again and again I learn that honesty pays off in the strangest and most amazing ways, even when your honesty is clumsy and unkind (as I think I was.)  My hope is that Bob found our small group to be trustworthy (and that’s why I’m not using his real name) and that he will continue to trust us, even if just a little.  Unconditional trust takes a while to earn, and we were only together for a few hours…but it is a great start!  Bob if you see this…you are one brave dude and I greatly appreciate the risk you took in telling us how badly you got hurt.  Hang in there man, because I think you are one great minister!

It turns out that the small group experience was the best part of the day. Once we reconvened as one large group, I found myself increasingly frustrated with what I’ll call ‘corporate happy crap’. I spent plenty of years in the corporate world before going into ministry, and I heard way too many of my managers say things that sounded decisive and committed but that actually meant very little and were frequently used to sidestep the commitment later on.  I thought I had escaped corporate happy crap when I went into ministry, but no.  Sadly, I heard a lot of corporate happy crap today.  I heard my colleagues speaking sincerely about committing to pray or to listen.  I expect clergy to pray, so that seemed like a no-brainer, but the commitments to listening riled me up a bit. Despite all those commitments to ‘listen’, those same colleagues did not offer to genuinely try and connect with the pain and struggle of the ‘other’ side.  The truth is that listening is easier than you think.  I listen to all sorts of things: talk radio, close friends, music, lousy sitcoms, my counseling clients, my family, etc.  I spend a huge portion of my day ‘listening’.  Despite all that listening, the only things that actually impact me are the things I open my heart to, which is usually my friends, my clients, and my family.  Talk radio, sitcoms, etc…not so much, but oh my Lord don’t I listen to them.  I open my ears and the sound comes in and I don’t protest. Sometimes I can actually repeat what I hear—verbatim—to confirm that I’ve understood what I ‘listened’ to. But let the words in deep enough to let them impact my emotions?  That only happens when I open my heart on purpose and let the speaker’s words all the way in.  And this is what I mean when I call it corporate happy crap: it sounds SO good but it actually doesn’t require much real commitment.

I realize that I don’t know what was in the hearts of my colleagues as they committed to pray, or to listen, or to try not to jump to judgment.  They might have been deeply sincere and truly trying to do the right thing. On the other hand, I heard way too many hollow commitments during my corporate days, and it left me with a finely tuned radar for words that serve as escape hatches to avoid conflict and real commitment.  I fear that I heard a lot of corporate happy crap today and it leaves me frustrated and sad.

Please understand me: I don’t claim to have any of this figured out. I am not somehow smarter or better than my colleagues. I have, however, repeatedly discovered the value of scary honesty as a way of moving past conflict and differences of opinion to reach vulnerable places of connection and deep, heart-felt compromise.  I may have done a poor job of being gentle with my honesty, but it worked anyway. Honesty is vulnerable, and vulnerability invites intimacy, and my honesty—flawed as it was—reached right into Bob’s heart, and he stepped into the relationship space and the whole group became closer and more honest with each other because of it.  I risked honesty and Bob risked it back and everything changed in an instant. Our group may not have solved anything, but we got honest about difficult topics; we became free to admit our failures and fears; we genuinely laughed and genuinely ached together.  And the best part is we came away better friends than we were when we started.

To my LGBTQIA colleagues and friends, know that I will do my best to use my straight privilege to create honest dialogue wherever I can and to help you in your quest for full inclusion and equality. You have a voice that needs (and deserves) to be heard and I will do my best not be foolish and speak for you just because I already have the privilege and therefore the floor (so to speak.)  I also promise to avoid flinging any corporate happy crap your way.  If you catch me flinging crap, call me on it. I committed to scary honesty and I’m sticking with my commitment. If it keeps paying off the way it did today, it will be worth everything I put into it.

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.

Holy Week Schmoley Week

This is Holy Week. It began with Palm Sunday (which was last Sunday, April 9) and ends with the celebration of Easter on Sunday, April 16.  In between those two days we will remember the last supper of Jesus and his disciples on Maundy Thursday, the crucifixion of Christ on Good Friday, and the agonizing experience of the disciples as we await the resurrection during the Holy Vigil on Saturday.

It’s a busy week.

But what does that mean…Holy Week?

Are the other weeks not holy? Do other weeks somehow mean less?  Is this week more meaningful because of the historic events that we commemorate and celebrate?

I realize that some of you will call it blasphemy when I say this, but no…not really.

Holy Week is not any more ‘holy’ than any other week.  Holy Week does not imbue the days with special meaning, nor does it hold back any of the normal events that can occur during a week.

For instance, today is Maundy Thursday, and today the US bombed Afghanistan using the largest non-nuclear weapon in our arsenal.  Can we all agree that bombing another nation (even for good reasons like eliminating an ISIS stronghold) does not qualify as an action that is holy?  And please don’t start talking about how we must stop ISIS before they kill more Americans, because I understand that…and bombing and killing people is still not a holy action. Remember, God does not love the American people more than He loves the members of ISIS. And if, for some reason, you don’t agree with that idea, then you and I need to admit that we are not practicing the same religion at all and that perhaps you should find something else to read, like maybe something off infowars.com?

Are we all on the same page now? Good.

The truth is that Holy Week is just another set of seven days, like all the others sets of seven days that come before it and after it.  A week is a week, and every week is made of seven days…and a day is a day is a day, and that’s all there is to it.  None of them is holier than any other.

And this matters, because…?

There are two major reasons that this matters.

  • Setting aside certain days as holy gives us permission to forget that all days are holy to God and all people are holy to God. There is no time or person or situation that is not holy to God. All of creation belongs to God: time, space, people, plants, animals…you name it, it belongs to God and everything that belongs to God is holy.  Christian vegans will tell you that they became vegan because they could no longer sacrifice the holy lives and bodies of animals to satisfy their need for food and clothing items.  While I am not vegan, I get where they are coming from.  Proclaiming all thing holy has implications for how we treat the environment, how we treat material objects, how we treat the animals we farm, and for how we treat each other.
  • If everything is holy all the time, then we human beings are holy all the time, and this has huge implications for how we treat our bodies. It isn’t just the obvious stuff like how we eat, how much alcohol we drink, and whether or not we exercise, but also how often we take time to laugh, how much of our resting time is dedicated to connecting with friends and family, and how much time we take to simply contemplate where God is leading us in this life. I can’t tell you how many people set aside extra time for spiritual practices during Lent or Advent who then fail to set aside time for spirituality at all during the rest of the year (outside of time spent in corporate—church—worship). Think of it this way: we need to feed our spirits just like we need to feed our bodies. Imagine what would happen if we took time for meals during Advent and Lent but then failed to eat (except once a week) for the rest of the year.  How long do you think you’d be healthy if you did that?

I understand that many people need special holy times so that they don’t become habituated to the holy. This is a common problem for clergy because we spend a lot of time around what are considered to be sacramental things. It’s easy for those things to lose their sparkle, their special value, when you are around them all the time. This is why I’m not suggesting that we stop practicing things like Holy Week, or that we let them pass without setting aside extra time to observe all that they mean.  There is nothing wrong with the Christmas and Easter seasons; actually the problem is that we make them into singular events instead of exaggerations of our daily realities.

I am suggesting that we put a little more value on the rest of the year, that we allow each day to embody a little of the holy for us. Perhaps that would involve becoming more mindful of the blessings that God is raining down on us all the time. Perhaps that would involve becoming more aware and appreciative of the kindnesses we experience through others who are often total strangers. Perhaps that would involve taking time to appreciate the beauty of the smallest things in creation: flowers, fallen leaves, grass clippings on the sidewalk, a cloudless sky. Sometimes it might be as simple as letting yourself stop and actually taste the coffee you are drinking, looking for those herbal notes that Starbucks swears exist in the Sumatran beans they roast.

If all of creation is holy, then holiness is waiting around every corner to stun you with its power and fill you with awe and gratitude.  The world is a wearying place for souls, and awe and gratitude are excellent remedies for weariness.

This Easter, I wish a year of holy days and sacred discoveries for you.  As for me, I’m about to get a cup of Sumatran roast and sip it very slowly.

Happy Easter!

I Am Not Happy.

Lately I’ve had a case of the blahs.

I’m irritated with everything. I’m tired of everyone (hi honey…love you!). I am tired of my counseling practice and sick of being giving. I’m sick of weighing more than I want to but am unwilling to actually do what it takes to change that.  The worst part is that I am tired of caring…about pretty much everything. Every time I pull up next to a homeless person, I close my eyes and sigh because the feeling that I am supposed to do something for this person is draining the life out of me.  I know that sounds mean, but it’s just how I’m feeling right now.

I think I have what they call compassion fatigue. But I’m really low on passion for life and I’m drained of energy and ‘give a damn’ in general.

I could easily blame my blahs on menopause and there would be quite a bit of validity to that if I did. I am in the throes of wicked hot flashes, leg and foot cramps that strike without warning, pimples on my face and on the nape of my neck that just won’t quit, too many sleepless nights, and periods that remind me of the Arizona desert: some months it seems the river has run dry and other months are so bad it’s like “Noah! Get the boat!!”

TMI, I know.

While I am not going to lie about the stress that menopause is putting on my body and my life, I am unwilling to write off my blahs as a little menopausal mood swing because this has happened to me before.  In fact it has happened more than once, and every time, God was trying to tell me something.

This first time it happened, I was still a computer programmer and my children were still babies.  God used a major case of the blahs to convince me that I didn’t want to be a computer programmer anymore, which made it easier for me to obey God when God asked me to abandon my career and go to seminary full time. In other words, God used a case of the blahs to motivate me to ‘move on’…to get out of my rut and get my butt moving in the direction that He was pointing me.  Years later, as I reflected on that time and my experiences, I labeled what I was feeling as “holy discontent”.  To me, holy discontent is when God makes us restless, irritable, and maybe even downright unhappy until we realize that things need to change. It’s not that anything is actually wrong, it’s that God is not interested in us getting too content in that space. Holy discontent is what God uses to make us let go of things are no longer serve a purpose in our life and to start heading in God’s new direction for us.

I’ve been in this place for a couple of months now and I have only realized today that it might be holy discontent that I’m feeling.

Can we just admit that I’m kind of slow on the uptake?  Thanks.

In reflecting on my holy discontent, I don’t think that God is trying to lead me out of anything, although I need to leave the door open to that possibility just because I don’t want to shut off God’s guidance in this experience. The last time God planted a little holy discontent in my life was back in 2015 and it was because God wanted me to start writing. (Hello! Welcome to my blog! If it sucks, blame God. LOL)

I have no idea what God is trying to do in my life right now, although my reaction to the homeless person—the feeling that I’m supposed to do something for this person—might be a clue.  I don’t know.  Luckily, though, God has always been kind enough to place a few folks in my path to help me figure things out during past instances of holy discontent, which means that I should start keeping my eyes open for those folks.  It’s always easier to find someone if you are actually looking for them.

There is something else I think I’m going to do. A long time ago, a seminary friend of mine told me that the best way to devote yourself to the work of the Kingdom is to let God break your heart over some issue. Once your heart is broken, she said I would know where God’s heart was breaking and that would be my invitation to build the Kingdom in that broken spot.

Back when she said that to me, my heart was on fire for the Kingdom and I knew where God was calling me to work…in the broken spot of mental health counseling for the poor…and I don’t regret following the Lord into that spot, not one bit.  Now the fire in my heart is down to glowing coals that desperately need some kindling and I am consumed with holy discontent.

But I know what I need to do.

Holy, holy, holy Lord…I know You see this world and your heart breaks.  Break my heart into pieces, Lord, and show me where You hurt the most.  Then set my heart on fire again and give me strength to do Your will, whatever it is.

I pray it for me, and as we move into Jerusalem this Palm Sunday, I pray it for you too.

 

It’s A Conspiracy!

Can we discuss “the peace that passes all understanding”?

I have heard that phrase for years. I remember hearing it as a child and wondering what it meant and how I was supposed to get something that I didn’t even understand.

Don’t get me started about trying to understand something that says, in its title, that you will not be able to understand it.

But I digress.

“The peace that passes all understanding” turns out to be one of the Christian code-phrases we hear about when millennials and agnostics write about the Church; words and phrases that appear to have no context for meaning if you are not already faithful.

I’ve got news: I grew up in the Church and accepted Jesus as my personal savior when I was only five years old, and I still did not understand lots of those Christian code phrases.  It isn’t because you’re young or seeking or simply unfamiliar with the Church; you don’t understand the code phrase because…well, because we Christians hardly ever take the time to define what the heck we are talking about and we pastors can be even worse.  We just throw the phrase out there like it means something and expect everybody else to understand it intuitively.  The evangelical movement has a ton of these phrases:

“Walking in victory with Jesus”

“Growing in grace”

“Die to self”

“Washed in the blood”

“The peace that passes understanding”

“Pray a hedge of protection”

There are plenty more but I figure you’ve probably gotten the point by now.  I remember hearing these phrases and wondering what they meant but never really asking for an explanation. Even when I did ask for clarification, the answer I received was often just as baffling as the code phrase itself.  “Walking in victory is when you have grown in grace enough that you are able to ignore the attacks of the Enemy and follow the will of God wherever it leads you.”  Okay, so how do you ‘grow in grace’ enough to ‘walk in victory’?  “You grow in grace when you ask Jesus to wash you in His blood and help you die to self.”

The explanations were kind of circular in nature.  After a while I just gave in to the thought that perhaps my experience of faith would explain these concepts to me and I would finally understand what no grownup seemed able to fully explain to me.

Don’t get me started on why I thought growing up would cause me to understand what other grownups were incapable of explaining despite their advanced age.

But I digress.

The problem with these Christian code-phrases is that they can lead to a conspiracy of lies around what it is to experience the Christian life.  It makes it sound like good Christians don’t experience fear or anxiety or depression…after all, they have the peace that passes all understanding!  And of course, they don’t struggle with finances or with adverse situations, because they are “walking in victory with Jesus” and victors aren’t losers! Only losers struggle.  If you’ve truly ‘grown in grace’ then you probably ought not to curse or lie or speak unkind words…in fact you can’t be even remotely sinful…because growing in grace implies that you are continually becoming more holy and holy people are squeaky clean!  And goodness knows that those who ‘die to self’ don’t act selfishly since their ‘self’ no longer matters.  Those who have ‘died to self’ just give and give and give and never get tired of giving because they receive all they need from Jesus…

Really?  Because that’s a bunch of BS.

Christian life is full of struggle and fear and pain and failure and sin and self-focus and self-care and prayer and reflection and growth in grace…

There! I said it!  One of those Christian code-phrases makes sense to me!  I understand growing in grace, because I came to understand grace when I became a Methodist.  Grace is an unmerited gift from God that helps me become all that God created me to be, by drawing me deeper and deeper into a relationship with God, which slowly changes me until I am conformed to the image of Christ.

Oops! I just used another Christian code-phrase.  In fact I used several.

The truth is that these phrases do have meaning.  Some are symbolic (since no one really bathes you in blood, thank goodness) and others are more representational of Christian life and faith as it is actually experienced, because I really should become much more like Jesus Christ as my relationship with Him grows deeper and stronger. To me, becoming more like Jesus (more Christ-like) means that I should be more loving and accepting of those on the margins of society and that I should actively seek social justice and equality for all people.  The Jesus I know is a bit of a rabble-rouser.

I want to get back to the conspiracy of lies.

In all honesty, the conspiracy of lies starts as a conspiracy of expectations. I grew up in a fundamentalist, evangelical faith tradition that emphasized orthodoxy (right belief).  We were taught that orthodoxy would lead to orthopathos (right experience). In other words, believe the right things and you will experience the right things.

That’s a powerful draw to faith!  Think about it—according to that concept, believing the right things will lead me to experience the “right” things: peace, prosperity, happiness, success, achievement…you name it, whatever this culture deems “right” is what I will get if I believe in the right ways.

Here’s a few things that our culture does not deem “right” despite their frequency in the general population:

Poverty

Domestic Violence

Divorce

Having children who commit crimes or use drugs

Addiction

Mental illness, including depression and anxiety

Unexplained or chronic illnesses that are difficult to manage

Wow.  Just wow. Can you imagine what it’s like to grow up believing that none of these things should happen to you if you have “right beliefs”?  And it doesn’t help to acknowledge that (of course) these things ‘happen’ to Christians, it’s just they don’t persist and (of course) Christians count on their faith to give them “victory in Jesus” over all these circumstances.

This is how you end up with a conspiracy of lies.  If right belief means right experience, then I better not let anyone know that I am having the wrong experiences, and if I do tell the truth for a brief moment, I better not let anyone know that my wrong experience is persisting.

The funny thing is that Jesus told us that He is “the way, and the truth, and the life”. (John 14:6) He also said that if we continue in His word, we are truly His disciples and we will know the truth and the truth will make us free. (John 8:31-32).

Does the “truth that will set us free” include telling the truth?  I think so. I also think it means that we will stop fearing the truth as if it will destroy us and invalidate our faith.  Get real people! We worship a Savior who cried out “My Father, my Father, why have you forsaken me?” as he hung on the cross, dying.  Jesus didn’t say that to quote a Psalm and look impressive. Jesus said that because it was His experience as He died a horrific death.

If Jesus didn’t lie about His pathos…and I don’t think we should either.

Skip the conspiracy…both the conspiracy expectations and the conspiracy of lies…and stick with the Truth.

It’ll set you free. Trust me on that one.

Florescent or LED?

Matthew 17:1-13

1 Six days later, Jesus took with him Peter and James and his brother John and led them up a high mountain, by themselves. And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly there appeared to them Moses and Elijah, talking with him. Then Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” While he was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!” When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, “Get up and do not be afraid.” And when they looked up, they saw no one except Jesus himself alone. As they were coming down the mountain, Jesus ordered them, “Tell no one about the vision until after the Son of Man has been raised from the dead.” 10 And the disciples asked him, “Why, then, do the scribes say that Elijah must come first?” 11 He replied, “Elijah is indeed coming and will restore all things; 12 but I tell you that Elijah has already come, and they did not recognize him, but they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.” 13 Then the disciples understood that he was speaking to them about John the Baptist.

This is one of those passages of scripture that I cannot read without giggling. Seriously…I lose it when I read this passage.  If you aren’t in the mood to indulge my stupidity for a moment, be kind to yourself and skip ahead a few paragraphs to the point where I say “Back to the topic at hand.”

Okay…ready?

First I want to call him Jesus Christ Glow Stick or just Glow Stick Jesus. It’s as if Jesus was normal all this time and then he bent over too far and ‘click!’ and the glow stick part of Him was activated and he got all bright and glowy “and his face shown like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white.”  This is the point where I start thinking that marketing folks could use Glow Stick Jesus to advertise the whitening properties of their detergent. “Transfiguration Tide…for clothes that are dazzling white!

Then I start imagining Glow Stick Jesus at a rave and all the little ravers, drugged up on Ecstacy, oohing and ahhhing over Jesus’ glowing visage. It makes me wonder if Jesus is able to glow in any other colors than ‘like the sun’, because if He can glow in different colors, that would be a major money maker.

Then I start wondering about Peter. What is wrong with that man? Your Lord and Savior turns into a glow lamp and two historical characters appear in front of your eyes, and the first thing you do is offer to build them each a house?  The least Peter could have done was to fanboy for a few minutes over Moses and Elijah, but NO…he goes all Bob the Builder on them to the point that God has to get involved and tell Peter to shut up and listen to Glow Stick Jesus.

Okay, God didn’t quite say “Shut up and listen to Glow Stick Jesus” but you get my point.

Finally…I have always wondered how the disciples knew that the two guys who appeared next to Jesus were Moses and Elijah.  Unless God requires the residents of Heaven to wear name tags (which makes Heaven sound like a convention or a senior center) then there has to be a couple of lines of scripture missing where the disciples say “Who were those guys?” and Jesus tells them that he was talking to Moses and Elijah.

And this is where I go from stupid to serious.

I’m a little stunned that Jesus forbade Peter, James, and John from telling the other disciples about the Transfiguration. Why would He do that? Why would Jesus set certain disciples apart from the others to have special knowledge about life after death, which would provide a huge amount of consolation during the crucifixion.  After all…Peter, James, and John just saw Moses and Elijah…two guys who had been dead for hundreds and hundreds of years and there they were, alive and well and speaking to Jesus. That’ll change your point of view when it comes to believing in life after death, and it would certainly change your experience of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus if you had already seen someone vividly alive after their death.  I feel like Jesus cheated the other disciples just a little. I don’t know why He would do that, and I have to trust that He knew what He was doing, but it still seems kind of unwise and even unkind to the other disciples. Don’t you wonder what seeing the transfiguration would have done to change Judas’ mind?

But that’s a blog post for a different day.

Back to the topic at hand.

Usually, after I stop giggling, I find myself wondering if we, or more specifically I, will ever find out what my transfigured self is like.  Do I shine like the sun and become dazzlingly white, or am I so flawed that I will flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb?  I’m guessing that it’s more of the latter, and that disturbs me.

Recently I was rereading a favorite book, Voices of Silence, the Lives of the Trappists Today by Frank Bianco.  I originally read this book when I was in seminary.  At that point in my life I was struggling to reconcile my own flawed humanity with a life devoted to ministry, and this book provided story after story of Trappist monks and priests struggling in exactly the same way, trying to reconcile their lives and failings with a deep desire to dedicate themselves to a holy life, set apart.  I reread the book every now and then and I always find new gems that I missed in previous readings.

The passage that caught my eye this time was actually a passage that caught my eye the first time I read the book.  Bianco was discussing his need for a hero with Dom Thomas (known as Mac in Bianco’s book) the former abbot of Gethsemane Abbey, who tells Bianco that this struggle is exactly what led to the fall of the angels.

“People need to feel that somebody has all the answers, that somebody is in control. They spend the major portion of their lives and energy trying to gain and…keep control.  They’re trying to prove they’re perfect…It’s a self-delusion that the devil himself bought. ‘Let us be like God’ he urged all those poor angels who followed him into damnation.”

My awareness that I would flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb might be a good thing if the search for perfection leads to damnation. I am acutely aware that I am nothing like God, nowhere capable of sustaining that kind of goodness, kindness, or awareness of the needs of others. Jesus was always caring for others and healing them, and I…I am mostly about myself, which is normal but annoying for a Christian who is supposed to be a leader of the Church.

Mac goes on to make the point that our imperfections are not what will lead us into damnation.

“You still don’t understand God’s love. Perfect love, he explained, cannot see imperfection …God is perfect love. Evil is self-love. It is philosophically impossible for God to even ‘think’ of evil. He cannot ‘see’ evil. It is completely outside His orbit. That fact tells us what our final judgement will be like…We will come before all-perfect love (God), who can only recognize love. He will only see as much of us as has been loving. That He will take unto himself…Sin and evil are nothing less than our inability to love. At those moments, it’s as though we’re invisible to God. He, the all-good, perfect lover, can only see the good in us.”

I am not sure that I buy into the idea that God cannot see us at all when we are sinning because an action that is love-less cannot extinguish all the love that’s within me, not even for a second. It does, however, explain my feeling that I flicker and sputter and flash like a florescent bulb struggling to light and remain lit.  The love inside me is like a force that fights for dominance, pushing its way to the surface only to be capsized by my ego and my self-will.  Luckily love is more of a buoy than a boat, inevitably righting itself and rising to the surface to claim its rightful place in the center of my life again and again despite my stupidity and sinfulness.

Suddenly, the idea of Jesus transfigured, shining like the sun and clothed in dazzling white makes total sense to me. Apparently love glows like sunlight, shining from within, illuminating not only the person who loves but the beloved, who bathes in the warmth of that love.

And so I flicker and sputter like a bad florescent bulb, and while that is not optimal, it is good news because it means that there is light and love in me that cannot be suppressed for long.  My job is to stay plugged into the Source and do my best to clear away anything that dims my light. This, I think, is what Wesley would call being ‘perfected in love.’  I would call it upgrading me from florescent to LED.

I’m still giggling about Glow Stick Jesus and the laundry detergent.  Sorry.

 

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.