Not called to “Christianity nice”

I think many of us grew up in a time when a popular statement was “If you can’t say anything nice about someone, don’t say anything.” That applied in all of our relationships–including our spiritual ones.

I don’t disagree with that statement. I think it is important to look for the positives.

But…

Sometimes that statement is used to shut down dialogue–dialogue that it is important to have. And I find that happening in too many of our faith traditions. We want to have “Christianity nice”–to not have to grapple with the kind of real-world issues and challenges that I believe we are called to face.

M. Scott Peck, in his book The Different Drum says that organizations have to deal with those challenges. Otherwise they get stuck in “pseudo-community”–where everyone plays nice…where issues get swept under the rug and never dealt with. He says that getting to true community requires organizations to go through chaos and emptiness on the way–and that’s not an easy process.

My faith tradition believes in prophetic leadership given to the church pretty regularly. In 2007, this was the counsel given:

Jesus Christ, the embodiment of God’s shalom, invites all people to come and receive divine peace in the midst of the difficult questions and struggles of life. Follow Christ in the way that leads to God’s peace and discover the blessings of all of the dimensions of salvation….

The restoring of persons to healthy or righteous relationships with God, others, themselves, and the earth is at the heart of the purpose of your journey as a people of faith.

You are called to create pathways in the world for peace in Christ to be relationally and culturally incarnate. The hope of Zion is realized when the vision of Christ is embodied in communities of generosity, justice, and peacefulness.

Above all else, strive to be faithful to Christ’s vision of the peaceable Kingdom of God on earth. Courageously challenge cultural, political, and religious trends that are contrary to the reconciling and restoring purposes of God. Pursue peace.

There are subtle, yet powerful, influences in the world, some even claiming to represent Christ, that seek to divide people and nations to accomplish their destructive aims. That which seeks to harden one human heart against another by constructing walls of fear and prejudice is not of God. Be especially alert to these influences, lest they divide you or divert you from the mission to which you are called.

God, the Eternal Creator, weeps for the poor, displaced, mistreated, and diseased of the world because of their unnecessary suffering. Such conditions are not God’s will. Open your ears to hear the pleading of mothers and fathers in all nations who desperately seek a future of hope for their children. Do not turn away from them. For in their welfare resides your welfare.

Jesus did not shy away from confronting injustice. And neither should we…even if that means being uncomfortable

The worth of all people…

My faith tradition has what we call Enduring Principles–ideals that we try to live up to. There are a number of them

  • Grace and Generosity
  • Sacredness of Creation
  • Continuing Revelation
  • Worth of All Persons
  • All Are Called
  • Responsible Choices
  • Pursuit of Peace (Shalom)
  • Unity in Diversity
  • Blessings of Community

The one that has been on my mind a lot recently is the one that talks about the worth of all persons. Each principle has some short statements related to the overall principle; the worth of all persons says this:

  • God views all people as having inestimable and equal worth.
  • God wants all people to experience wholeness of body, mind, spirit, and relationships.
  • We seek to uphold and restore the worth of all people individually and in community, challenging unjust systems that diminish human worth.
  • We join with Jesus Christ in bringing good news to the poor, sick, captive, and oppressed.

So what does that principle mean in our current time in history?

For me, it speaks directly to the challenges we in the United States (as well as in other countries) are facing as we deal with issues of immigration.

If I say that I believe all people have worth, then that means all people, no matter their ethnicity, origin, gender, skin color, sexual identity or orientation…or any other the other ways we separate ourselves.

It means all people, regardless of whether they are citizens of my country, legal residents, or undocumented individuals.

If I truly believe that, then I must become more understanding of those who are fleeing situations of violence…and trying to find places of healing.

If I believe that…if I believe that is part of my calling as a minister who follows Christ, then I have no choice but to challenge systems, policies, and actions that say that some are “less than” others.

If I believe that all people are of worth, that includes those I might disagree with. I still see them as beloved children of the One who created us all.

There are no exceptions. None.

I wonder what would happen if we based our lives on that belief…if we had leaders in governments who believed that. How would we interact with each other? How much different would our world be?

Some might say that’s impossible…I don’t. Difficult? Oh yes. But until (and unless) we believe that all people have worth, we will continue to struggle. Not just with issues of immigration but with all of our relationships.

I’m tired…

I am tired…emotionally and spiritually. And it’s not the kind of tiredness that can be resolved by a good night’s sleep.

It’s a tiredness that is deep in my soul.

I’m tired of our refusal to acknowledge our part in creating the hostile and violent environments that many people are fleeing, hoping to find a better future for themselves and their children…only to be met here with violence and separation.

I’m tired of all the gun violence. I’m tired of the news opening up with how many murders have taken place overnight…

I’m tired of wondering when the next mass shooting is going to take place…how many people will die…how many families will be destroyed.

I’m tired of “thoughts and prayers” that aren’t linked to a willingness to have the hard discussions about ways of making weapons less available…of common sense ways of decreasing the violence, even if it doesn’t stop it.

I’m tired of the anti-intellectualism that says that people who have studied areas of science for years somehow really don’t know what they’re talking about. I’m tired of the refusal to make changes that will help our earth heal.

I’m tired of the hatred of “the other”…of anyone who doesn’t look like us…doesn’t speak the same language we do…doesn’t worship the way we do…doesn’t love the way we do.

I’m tired of the ideologies that place one race on a pedestal built on the backs of another race…that says that only one color of people have rights.

I’m tired of women’s health concerns being negated…of others making decisions for them who have no ideas of the struggles they are going through.

I’m tired of the domination of those who call themselves pro-life…but who are comfortable cutting the programs that would help support women during pregnancy…and babies and families after birth.

I’m tired of hearing the God I worship being used to attack others…a God of love who created all of us in God’s image. I’m tired of having my faith misused by those who would claim that “God hates…” (insert any one of a number of groups there).

I’m tired…and sometimes I want to just give up. It seems so difficult to open up any kind of dialogue, because we seem to live in completely contradictory world views that don’t have anything in common.

But I can’t give up. If I give up, then I’m letting the hatred…the division…win. And because I believe in a God who gave us minds to use…a God who wants us to work together to heal the world’s wounds…a God who calls us to be good stewards of what God created…a God who has given me the choice to be a divider or a healer…I have to continue trying to build bridges.

I don’t know if I will succeed. I may never know that. But all I can do is keep trying…because I follow a Carpenter who builds bridges.

Once upon a time two brothers who lived on adjoining farms fell into conflict. It was the first serious rift in 40 years of farming side by side, sharing machinery, and trading labor and goods as needed without a hitch.

Then the long collaboration fell apart. It began with a small misunderstanding and it grew into a major difference, and finally it exploded into an exchange of bitter words followed by weeks of silence.

One morning there was a knock on John’s door. He opened it to find a man with a carpenter’s toolbox. “I’m looking for a few days work,” he said.

“Perhaps you would have a few small jobs here and there. Could I help you?”

“Yes,” said the older brother. “I do have a job for you. Look across the creek at that farm. That’s my neighbor, in fact, it’s my younger brother. Last week there was a meadow between us and he took his bulldozer to the river levee and now there is a creek between us. Well, he may have done this to spite me, but I’ll go him one better. See that pile of lumber curing by the barn? I want you to build me a fence – an 8-foot fence – so I won’t need to see his place anymore. Cool him down, anyhow.”

The carpenter said, “I think I understand the situation. Show me the nails and the post-hole digger and I’ll be able to do a job that pleases you.”

The older brother had to go to town for supplies, so he helped the carpenter get the materials ready and then he was off for the day.

The carpenter worked hard all that day measuring, sawing, nailing.

About sunset when the farmer returned, the carpenter had just finished his job. The farmer’s eyes opened wide, his jaw dropped.

There was no fence there at all. It was a bridge… a bridge stretching from one side of the creek to the other! A fine piece of work handrails and all – and the neighbor, his younger brother, was coming across, his hand outstretched.

“You are quite a fellow to build this bridge after all I’ve said and done.”

The two brothers stood at each end of the bridge, and then they met in the middle, taking each other’s hand. They turned to see the carpenter hoist his toolbox on his shoulder. “No, wait! Stay a few days. I’ve a lot of other projects for you,” said the older brother.

“I’d love to stay on,” the carpenter said, “but, I have many more bridges to build.”

What is church?

If you’re like me, you grew up believing that “church” was meeting with like-minded believers in a specific building on Sunday morning, Sunday night, Wednesday night–and sometimes every night if there was a series or revival going on.

But what if that’s only a part of what church is?

And what if that’s not even the most important part?

What if “church” is more about our relationships with everyone we meet…whether they share our beliefs or not?

What if “church” takes place at work…on the playground…at a restaurant…in a bar?

What if “church” doesn’t have to have its own building but could be happy meeting in someone’s home…or a rented building…or a park?

What if “church” meant using the money we so often spend to keep the lights on and the air conditioning and heating running and used it to feed the hungry…help provide homes for the homeless?

What if “church” meant sometimes going to jail in order to protest injustice? Or getting together to write letters to (or call) members of Congress to push for less spending on unnecessary military might and more to meet social needs?

Yes, meeting together to worship with like-minded believers is important. But it’s important because it gives us renewed strength to go out and actually “be church” in all the other places and situations we find ourselves.

What if “church” meant we were really willing to pray this prayer…and live it? How would our world be different?

Mission prayer

The plain truth…

I have to admit, I always get a little worried when someone starts out a conversation with words similar to “The plain truth is…”. I wonder if we will agree on what that plain truth is.

But I’m going to try it. Please realize that this is “the plain truth” from my perspective only–but I hope it might spark some thinking and much-needed dialogue.

The plain truth is that most of us live where we live and how much clothing, shelter, food, and safety we have through no initial effort of our own. We were born into specific places–with the blessings and/or challenges that surround us in those places and cultures and we have grown up to think that what we experience is normal.

For those of us who have never needed to worry about where we are going to sleep, what we are going to eat, whether we will survive this day without being shot–or raped–or assaulted in some other way, we often find ourselves thinking that people in those situations “deserve” what they are experiencing–or that they just need to pull themselves up…to work harder, to save more. Then they could live like we do.

But what if we could think–just for a few minutes–what life might be like for us if we were born into a different family…a different culture? What if we were the ones who were afraid for ourselves…our children? What if we were the ones wanting desperately to find some way for our children and grandchildren to have a better future? What if we knew that if we stayed where we were, we were facing assault or death each and every day?

Would something–anything–sound better?

The plain truth is that any of us could find ourselves in those situations.

The plain truth is that yes, there are policies that need fixing–but we are called to work together to try to find ways to make our policies work for everyone.

The plain truth is that every person–even those who look or worship differently from us…who speak different languages from us…and yes, even those who might hate us–are brothers and sisters.

The plain truth is that until we see ourselves in “the other”…until we are able to see the Divine in “the other”…until we are willing to give up some of our abundance that others might have enough…we are living in darkness.

 

 

Dissent and criticism

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo is not un-American. In fact, one could make a case for the fact that they are very American values, since the United States was forged out of dissent and criticism. We were birthed in dissent and criticism of the status quo of being an English colony…and it was not an easy birth. Harsh words were thrown at those who did not agree with a particular viewpoint…and some were literally forced from their homes because they did not agree with actions that were being taken.

We tend to forget that. Our history in some ways has whitewashed the whole process, making it seem inevitable. But it wasn’t. And the founding fathers of the United States were not always nice or polite with each other. In fact, if you read some of the letters and newspapers, they were downright brutal!

And dissent and criticism of the status quo have been a significant part of who we are ever since. Opposition to slavery…those who fought for religious freedom…individuals who fought against the treatment of Native Americans…those who supported the rights of individuals to come to the United States to find freedom and new hope…pacifists…women who fought for the right to vote (and to control their own bodies)… The list could go on and on.

Dissent and criticism of leaders and the status quo are woven into the very fabric of who we are.

And for those who claim to be inheritors and followers of the Judeo-Christian heritage, dissent and criticism are also part of that heritage. The Hebrew scriptures are full of sermons and challenges from prophets who challenged the status quo…who called both the leadership and individuals to be better than they were…to live up to what they said they believed.

Jesus himself challenged the status quo. We have often tended to forget just how radical his teachings and actions were. He challenged not only the leadership of Rome but also the religious (and political) leaders of his own people. He didn’t hold back either:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others. You blind guides! (Matthew 23:23-24)

Scribes knew the law and could draw up legal documents. Pharisees were religious leaders (and were also legal experts). Jesus didn’t seem to have much use for their focusing on the letter of the law while ignoring the things that mattered more.

So when we accuse critics of the status quo as somehow being un-American or un-Christian, we’re just plain wrong. We need to hear those voices that challenge us to be our better selves…to live up to what we claim to believe.

We can disagree with how to get there–but we need to be reminded that at one point in our history, people in other countries saw the United States as a place of hope…a place of new beginnings. We took pride in what Emma Lazarus wrote in 1883–and what is mounted on the Statue of Liberty. Those who dissent and offer criticism of what we have become do so because they want us to live up to these words of hope:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

 

Jesus wept…

The shortest verse in the Bible (in some translations) is just two words long: Jesus wept.

Why? Why did he weep at this time?

Jesus had some devoted followers–male and female. Some provided financial support…some shared his message…some gave emotional support…and others provided a place where he could pause and be refreshed.

Lazarus, along with his sisters Mary and Martha, seemed to be among those who provided a place for renewal. And Lazarus had died. We don’t know what caused his death. But the Bible shares an interesting point–when Jesus had gotten word that Lazarus was sick, he didn’t hurry off to the house. He waited two days.

When he arrived, Martha and Mary scolded him for not coming earlier, and also heard their friends asking why he didn’t do something? He wept–and then he went to the tomb…where he returned Lazarus to life.

In our English language, “weeping” carries deeper connotations than merely “crying.” It implies a reaction to an experience that has reached deep inside us–that has touched our hearts and souls.

So…Jesus wept. He wept for the loss of a friend…for the inability of friends to trust him.

But this wasn’t the only time Jesus wept.

He had also wept right after his triumphal entry into Jerusalem, earlier in the week.

Why? People had acclaimed him as the messiah…had cheered him and flocked to him. So why weep?

Luke says that he wept because the people of Jerusalem didn’t really understand who he was…didn’t realize what they needed to do to bring / have peace. He wept because he saw the devastation that would come upon them. His soul was touched in deep sorrow for the people he wanted to reach–but who didn’t understand.

And I wonder…today, is Jesus weeping?

When there are children separated from parents and kept in cages without even basic sanitary supplies…

When children of God are called by vile and hateful names simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity…

When other children of God are seen as “vermin” to be exterminated because of their ethnic origin or country or skin color…

When the rich become obscenely richer while the poor struggle for food and shelter…

When we ignore climate change because we don’t want to make necessary changes to slow it–because those changes might make us uncomfortable…

When so many innocents are caught in war-torn nations with no hope of a better future…

When politicians are more concerned about being re-elected than about working together to deal with real problems that affect real people…

When gun violence continues to take lives and all we offer is “thoughts and prayers”…

When words of division, hatred and violence have become the default political language…

When we are unable to see the face of God in everyone we meet…

Then yes, I think Jesus is weeping.