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

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.

Words and actions…

As I’ve been watching and listening to the news this last week, I’ve found myself pondering the difference between “merely words” and “words with actions.”

We’ve all known people who can say the “right” words, but whose actions contradict what they’ve been saying. And unfortunately we’ve been seeing a lot of that recently–in my opinion!

If you’ve read my blog at least semi-regularly, you know I don’t like Donald Trump…for a variety of reasons. But his tweet at the beginning of June–the celebration of Pride for members of the LGBTQ+ community–struck me as a perfect example of someone saying one thing when his actions are a complete contradiction. His tweet said this:

“As we celebrate LGBT Pride Month and recognize the outstanding contributions LGBT people have made to our great Nation, let us also stand in solidarity with the many LGBT people who live in dozens of countries worldwide that punish, imprison, or even execute individuals…. ….on the basis of their sexual orientation. My Administration has launched a global campaign to decriminalize homosexuality and invite all nations to join us in this effort!”

There are many problems I see with that, but a big one is what I would identify as hypocrisy! He (or his administration) are trying to take credit for “stand[ing] in solidarity” with members of that community while

  • putting in place policies that allow health care professionals to refuse medical service to individuals who are LGBTQ,
  • allowing businesses to refuse to serve members of the LGBTQ community,
  • banning transgender members from serving in the military,
  • removing information about the rights that LGBTQ Americans have from government websites,
  • rescinding nondiscrimination protections for transgender students in schools,
  • removing protections for transgender individuals at homeless shelters,
  • not speaking out against violence experienced by members of the LGBTQ community,
  • choosing and supporting justices who are openly anti-LGBTQ,
  • cutting federal funding for HIV and AIDS research,
  • making it difficult for individuals fleeing violence and danger to request asylum,
  • supporting dictators and rulers who are among those who “punish, imprison, or even execute individuals on the basis of their sexual orientation.”

Unfortunately, his actions have emboldened others to join in negative words and actions toward members of the LGBTQ+ community–including a mayor who recently said that the only “cure” he sees for the “disease” of homosexuality and being transgender is to kill all of them! (Yes, I know he issued a public apology later…but the fact that he even said that originally is appalling.) And a number of “Christian pastors” continue to call for harsh punishment towards members of the community.

Because I am a follower of the One called Jesus, I want to state very clearly that these “Christian” pastors do not speak for me. Nor do I believe that their words are supported by the scriptures they say they believe in. I am reminded of a couple of quotes from the Bible they are so fond of using to attack members of the LGBTGQ+ community:

For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. (Matthew 12:34)

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… (Galatians 5:22)

“Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?” He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 25:36-40)

Pretty words without actions are just pretty words. So…one final thought:

When deeds and words are in accord, the whole world is transformed. (Zhuangzi)

Let’s do what we can to transform the world for good!

Pursue peace.

In my faith tradition, the two words in this title are part of our contemporary scriptures. “Pursue peace.”

That sounds so simple…but what does it really mean? I’ve thought a lot about that recently, especially in light of (1) the lectionary scripture for this last weekend in May and (2) the fact that this is Memorial Day weekend in the United States.

Part of the lectionary scripture says this (John 14:27): “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”

Memorial Day–while often the “kick-off” celebration for summer in the United States–is actually a memorial for those who have died in the service of their country.

And so, as I think of these two things–and “Pursue peace”–I wonder. What does Christ’s peace mean?

I appreciate those who have served in the military. My husband was in the Navy during Vietnam. Two grandsons also served in the military–one a Marine who is now buried in a veterans cemetery, and the other in Afghanistan in the Army. They did what they believed needed to be done to try to bring peace.

But does it?

How many wars have been fought to try to bring peace? And how long has any of those times of “peace” lasted?

The peace that Christ promised (and promises) is not what the world expects. It’s a peace that is so much more than merely the absence of conflict! It’s right relationships… wholeness…reconciliation…completeness…wellbeing…a willingness to give back.

We’re never going to get that through force. Violence begets nothing but violence.

Pursuing Christ’s peace is not going to be easy. It’s counter-cultural. It requires us to see those we disagree with as people of value…people we need to be willing to listen to and work with the find common ground. It requires us to let go of our insistence on our own way and our confidence that we are right and have all the answers.

We don’t.

We can’t go on the way we have. Our world is hurting–desperately–and needs Christ’s peace.

Let’s pursue that peace.

Shalom is what love looks like in the flesh. The embodiment of love in the context of a broken creation, shalom is a hint at what was, what should be, and what will one day be again. Where sin disintegrates and isolates, shalom brings together and restores. Where fear and shame throw up walls and put on masks, shalom breaks down barriers and frees us from the pretense of our false selves. –Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Vulnerable Faith: Missional Living in the Radical Way of St. Patrick

Angry…and disappointed

I’ve been trying to listen to my feelings this last week, trying to understand just how I feel–and why. Some days I’ve been more angry…some more disappointed. So I guess that if you asked me how I’m feeling now, I’d have to say it’s a combination of the two–and which one takes precedence depends on what I am reading and seeing in the news on any given day.

Why? I’m not even sure where to start…there are so many things mixed up together.

But…here’s at least a beginning list (not in any particular order). You may not agree with all my issues–but please don’t tell me I shouldn’t feel this way! Many of these issues will affect my grandkids and great-grandkids…nieces and nephews. I have a right to feel angry and disappointed.

  • After so many shootings we still can’t agree on common-sense ways to deal with gun violence. We can’t even agree that gun violence is a problem! And so our children continue to go to school, worried about whether they will survive another day.
  • We can’t agree on the need for mental health help. There aren’t enough beds for people needing help…and too much stigma about asking for help.
  • The after-effects of slavery are still very active among us–but many of us are not willing to acknowledge the long-term effects that we’re still dealing with. Particularly those of us who have had the privileges that go with being white find it difficult to empathize with people of color.
  • I remember as a child believing that the police were my friends. I still (mostly) believe that–but I am also concerned when I see so many white police being given a pass because “they feared for their lives” and shot a person of color…but persons of color are far too often not given the same pass in similar situations.
  • We have demonized those who are seeking to escape violence by coming to America, a land that used to be seen as a land of promise. Now that promise seems to be more that we will separate families with no plans on how to reunite them…that we will refuse to acknowledge our role in creating those situations that they are fleeing.
  • Our environment is in danger, and yet we seem to blithely ignore the danger signs. Those who speak out for change are ridiculed–and our current administration is determined to roll back all the actions that were previously taken to help deal with the situation.
  • Speaking of our current administration, I am appalled at the gratuitous cruelty that is expressed by so many in it. I am also appalled that many of those who have been named to run parts of our government are individuals who have expressed determination to dismantle those very parts they are supposed to run!
  • I do not understand how individuals who call themselves followers of Jesus can continue to support a leader who believes himself to be above the law…whose morals are appalling…who doesn’t seem to be able to tell the truth if his life depended on it…who mocks and scorns those whom he sees as “less than” or different.
  • While I understand that we will not necessarily agree on the what/why someone is LGTBQ+, I do not understand the refusal to offer that community–a long-persecuted community–protections re: housing, jobs, and medical care.
  • I am appalled at the desire of white men to control women’s bodies…often (and obviously!) without knowing what they are talking about.
  • I hear many saying that they “value the sanctity of all life”–yet they are willing to possibly put women to death for having an abortion. They support the death penalty. They are unwilling to fund the programs that would help support those that they want to see born. It feels like they are pro-birth only, not pro-life.
  • White supremacy terrorist is on the rise in our country–but we are unwilling to call it by that name.

Is that enough? If I took more time, my list would be longer. These are just the constant concerns…the ones at the front of my mind.

I keep trying to find ways to build bridges…but I’m finding it harder.

I have many friends I love but who make statements and stand for things that seem antithetical to what I hear them saying they believe.

I honestly don’t know how much longer I can go on as I have.

I am feeling much more understanding of people like Martin Luther or Dietrich Bonhoeffer who found themselves pushed to a point where they felt they had no choice but to take a stand–regardless of the cost.

 

 

 

Practicing Christian…believing Christian?

I was recently at a retreat where our presenter, Jane Vennard, talked about the way she described herself in the forward to her book Fully Awake and Truly Alive. Her description intrigued me, and I’ve been thinking about the meanings of the descriptions she used.

She describes herself as a “practicing Christian” rather than a “believing Christian.” A first response might well be, “Then how can she describe herself as a Christian?” But as I’ve thought about those words, the more sense they make…and are words that I want to claim as my own descriptors.

While others might have different reactions to the choice of words, here’s how they strike me.

Describing oneself as a “believing Christian” has been the default for many of us for many years–and is perhaps the simplest way of defining oneself. That means that there’s a specific list of beliefs that we agree with. It doesn’t necessarily require anything other than saying, “Yes, I believe that…I agree with that.” It allows me to sit comfortably in my pew (or chair) on Sunday morning, nodding my head in agreement, and then going back home until the next time the church doors are open.

It’s not necessarily a bad thing to identify as a believing Christian…but I think it’s incomplete.

To be a “practicing Christian” is harder. It’s not that there is a specific list of beliefs that I have to agree with. Rather, my focus is on trying to emulate the example of the one we call the Christ…being with people…listening to them…bringing healing when possible…sharing good news…and all the other things that Jesus did when he walked on this earth. Beliefs may (or may not) grow out of these actions–but if I am working at being a practicing Christian, then my relationships with the people I meet will certainly have more in common with the kinds of ministry Jesus brought.

Ideally I can be both a practicing and a believing Christian…if my beliefs call me to actions that emulate the One whose name I claim. But if it comes down to a choice between them, I will choose to be a practicing Christian because I think that is much more in line with the challenge given to us in Matthew 25:31-46 (this is The Message version):

When he finally arrives, blazing in beauty and all his angels with him, the Son of Man will take his place on his glorious throne. Then all the nations will be arranged before him and he will sort the people out, much as a shepherd sorts out sheep and goats, putting sheep to his right and goats to his left.

Then the King will say to those on his right, “Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

I was hungry and you fed me,
I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
I was homeless and you gave me a room,
I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
I was sick and you stopped to visit,
I was in prison and you came to me.”

Then those “sheep” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?” Then the King will say, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.”

Then he will turn to the ‘goats,’ the ones on his left, and say, “Get out, worthless goats! You’re good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—

I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.”

Then those “goats” are going to say, “Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn’t help?”

He will answer them, “I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.”