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“Don’t Talk Religion!”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I am has sent me to you.’” — Exodus 3:14, RSV

You know “the rules.” Don’t talk politics. Don’t talk religion. Don’t talk sport (for some of us). For someone like me, though, these rules suck. I am bad at small talk. I don’t care what the weather is like or who won the high school football game on Friday. I want to know what you think about important stuff. I would also like to be able to share how I feel about said important stuff, and introverts like me are crippled by such nonsensical regulation.

GAH!

Anyway, there is a very serious reason I want to discuss these rules, especially the idea of not discussing religion. First of all, I understand. We are passionate about the things we believe, and any perceived criticism can come across as criticism of us if one is not careful. With that said, there is a word for the inability to discuss religion and spirituality.

Idolatry.

God is asked for His name in Exodus 3, and He instead tells Moses, “I am who I am” (3:14). When the Ten Words are offered in Exodus 20, the second word instructs:

“You shall not make for yourself a graven image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth; you shall not bow down to them or serve them…”

We all know of the obvious, surface-level implication of this teaching. Don’t carve and worship rocks or pieces of wood and call it “God.” Looking deeper, though, we find why our inability to lovingly and civilly discuss our faith with those who are different might be a violation of God’s instruction.

When discussing religion, we get angry. Why? Because our beliefs about God are being challenged. Notice what I said. Our beliefs about God are being challenged. God is not being challenged, only how we perceive Him.

God is a big Deity. He can take care of Himself.

God can also be a She. God can be whatever God wants to be, and He says as much in Exodus 3, remember? I use a masculine rendering for God because it is what I am used to, but I know I shouldn’t fly off the handle when someone discusses God in feminine terms, because, ultimately, what do I know?

Likewise, when we find ourselves being challenged on the topic of religion, and when we find ourselves interacting on a basis other than love and mutual respect, we are guilty of letting our images of God get in the way of treating our neighbor in the manner God asks of us. For all we know, God could have a powerful lesson waiting for us in the midst of a difficult conversation, and we could be spitting on it by being too enamored with our own ideas to be silent and listen.

This same teaching holds true for any of our “causes for stumbling.” Many can’t talk politics because their ideas have become idols that cannot be challenged, and that is not okay. We have become a society that cannot communicate because our own perceptions have become our gods. We cannot act righteously because we carry our idols with us everywhere we go, and we will do anything to keep them sacred.

My prayer for all of us is that we can set down our idols and turn to the One Who Is. In doing so, our hearts will become open and we can finally talk about the things that really matter. We should be talking about our beliefs, our thoughts, our feelings, and our concerns. We should be listening respectfully and carefully to perceptions of others, and we should all be looking for a way forward together.

For Good

We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. — Romans 8:28, RSV

The challenge coin in the image above is a small(ish) thing that I carry with me every single day. A lot of people get these tokens for far more important reasons, and, if we’re being honest, you can even purchase them. So why is it so important to me?

This coin is a daily reminder for me that I may never know the full scope of my life. Further, it’s a testament to God’s ability to take our worst moments and turn them into something beautiful and edifying. This isn’t some cheesy “lemons and lemonade” theology. I am actually arguing that no moment, good or bad, determines our future indefinitely. What’s more, no moment in our lives should be taken for granted, for it could become a means by which we become characters that advance the story of God’s salvation.

If you read my post about my attempted suicide at age 11, you know that such a moment produces lasting effects. I still deal with depression and suicidal ideation, albeit in far healthier ways than when I was a child. It’s still “there” in my relationships with loved ones, and long ago, I accepted that would be the case.

What I did not foresee, however, was how such a dark experience would enrich my life.

My post on suicide found its way to a Lieutenant Colonel at Goodfellow Air Force Base. For those of you that don’t know, our armed services have a horrific suicide rate. The pressures of training and the things these people have to see take a hefty toll that we still don’t properly acknowledge as a nation. As it turns out, the Lt. Col.’s squadron was going to take part in suicide prevention training two weeks after I posted the article.

A few emails and a phone call later, I was set to travel to Goodfellow AFB and share my experience out loud, in full detail, for the first time ever, in front of 40 or so Airmen. No pressure. I drove down feeling relatively calm, but once I arrived, it became a different story. I realized Dad and I had never talked about this. We never discussed this topic after it happened. I was glad he was there to support me, and to hear that it wasn’t his fault, but I didn’t know how that was going to impact him. On top of that, right before I was to speak, I went to the restroom, where I saw a handicap rail.

Normally, I ignore handicap rails. I am glad restrooms have them. But not this day. This day, I wanted to tear off the wall the very thing I had tried to hang myself from as a boy. Somehow, though, after a lot of shaking and praying, I found myself talking and baring my darker side to a lobby full of total strangers. And Dad.

When it was over, there was applause I couldn’t really hear from people I couldn’t really see regarding an experience I couldn’t really process. I took some questions, bowed out gracefully, and then the Lt. Col. shook my hand. It was in this handshake that he passed me the challenge coin as a token of gratitude. In the moment, I was unable to truly appreciate such a gift from a service member, but now my heart is humbled by it. I am also grateful for the physical reminder that an experience that was so ugly for me had become a means by which I could bless others.

The Scripture verse at the start of this post is used to justify all kinds of theology regarding the will of God and the problem of evil, but I am honestly not interested in that today. Rather, I want to affirm the truth that God honors our trust in Him by taking our moments of pain or weakness and making them into a blessing by which His will may be accomplished.

If had not been the one to attempt suicide at age 11, this particular talk and this particular service to this particular group of service men and women would not have happened. Several in this group had been touched by the problems of mental health and suicide in the armed services. My connection to this base and my experience as a boy led to a moment in which those feelings could be validated and addressed.

Further, if I had not gone through the painful process of being fired from a ministry job, and if I had not chosen to leave my long-beloved denomination, I would not have started this blog. I would have remained in a job that actually discouraged me from sharing this very story of my life. While my life would have been smoother and more comfortable, my purpose would have actually been cut short. My firing led to my leaving. My leaving led to this blog. This blog led to that post, and that post led to a moment of service to those who serve.

In John 6, Jesus ducks a crowd for fear of being placed in a position of power. In verse 15, we see that, “Perceiving then that they were about to come and take him by force to make him king, Jesus withdrew again to the mountain by himself.” If Jesus had allowed himself to be made king, he would have been powerful in a way to which we humans could relate. He would have been like every other person exacting judgment and promoting power from the top down. Instead, he withdrew, in order that he would become the Christ we all needed to see.

Likewise, moments of humiliation or pain in life seem to be causes for shame and disgrace. For God, however, they are fertile ground for our humble participation in His kingdom. If we remain open to His love and Spirit, even in the darkest moments of life, we can rest assured that opportunities will arise in which we can draw on that experience in order to heal and edify others. In doing so, we are also edified and healed.

All of this is why I carry this coin every day. It’s not a trophy or statement of how awesome or brave I am. Instead, it serves as a humbling reminder of God’s undeserved activity in my life. Even when I stumble or fall, God is always working for good, and the same can also be true for you. .

Peace be with you!

The Dangers of Tunnel Vision

In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes. — Judges 17:6, RSV

Like others who grew up in the United States, I was raised with an emphasis on individuality. Sure, you’re expected to have a respect for family and authority as a child, but as an adult, the goal is to pull yourself up by your own bootstraps and carve your own way in the world. If you end up in an unhappy or undesirable place, that just means you didn’t put in the work or effort to get yourself where you wanted to be.

In recent times, this individualistic mentality has actually intensified. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, even if it is proven to be dead wrong. We get to choose what version of the truth suits us best, and we form tribes that align with our own sense of what is right and wrong. These groups are actually just larger extensions of our individual selves, and we use them to do battle with others.

We have “representatives” upholding party lines, no matter how insane and unhelpful such tribalism might be for us as a nation. As a society, we have carved ourselves into groups that are either entirely supportive of or condemnatory toward police officers. We must be either pro-choice or pro-life, even though solutions exist that could actually appeal to both sides. We can go online and find articles published by terrifically biased sources and share that misleading information, justified only by the fact that we agree with it.

Further, it’s become fashionable to speak and act callously, even cruelly, whether in the name of our specific cause or even just in the name of “freedom.” We are obsessed with our rights while dismissive of our duty to use them responsibly. Using vicious language designed for shock value, we have become more violent in how we think, speak, and act with regard to each other. Should anyone try to correct us, we are quick to remind them of our right to speak and do as we please, and our individual freedom will not be hindered by something so pesky and invasive as compassion.

This is what we see in the Biblical passage referenced at the beginning of this post. The Book of Judges is full of ironic warnings regarding our tendency to depart from the path of God, and the core of the problem is quoted above and appears as the very last sentence of the book. “In those days there was no king in Israel; every man did what was right in his own eyes” (Judges 17:6, 21:25). It seems the ancients shared our self-centered problem.

In Judges 17, the unnamed mother of a man named Micah makes a graven image from silver coins (violating the teaching of God). Micah takes this idol and establishes a shrine in his home. Soon after, a Levite happens upon Micah’s home, and Micah makes this Levite the priest of his shrine. Then in Judges 18, the Danites get involved, take the Levite and the idol, and “set up the graven image for themselves” (verse 30). One woman’s sin, perpetuated by her son, becomes the sin of an entire tribe of Israel. To put it more broadly, because one person did what they felt was right, without regard to anyone else, an entire nation suffered violence.

I hope you can see where I am going with this.

As long as we allow our thoughts, words, and  actions to go unrestricted by compassion, our nation and world will suffer violence. If we continue to live our lives in our own little, individual bubbles, our society will face dire consequences. Every individual person has the ability to build up or tear down, to give life or to take it. For us to choose correctly, we must stop caring only about what is right in our own eyes and strive to look through the eyes of others.

What would happen if the staunch, pro-life advocate looked through the eyes of a woman who couldn’t afford to feed herself, much less the healthcare and maternity leave needed to care for a child? What would happen if the most avid pro-choice proponent saw the guilt a young woman carries after having an abortion? The most anti-police demonstrator could learn much if they saw the fear and anxiety that accompanies an officer’s family every time she puts on her uniform and goes to work. A blue-blooded tribe could also stand to experience and understand the fear a patrol car elicits as it rolls down the streets of a low-income, predominantly black neighborhood.

Could the Democrat grow to appreciate the need for a careful, conservative approach to change? Could the Republican see value in loosening our hold on a system that hasn’t been working correctly for quite some time? Maybe those in the public eye could learn that shock value is not the same as substantive content.

Each of us, perhaps, could learn to approach our daily lives with a compassionate heart and an open mind.

None of this means that we need to stop thinking critically for ourselves. It does mean, however, that thoughts and actions rooted in our own narrow perception of life don’t add up to much. When we cease to care about how we affect each other, we abandon the most fundamental commandment of God. We love Him in how we love one another.

I hope you’ll join me in trying to take a more “outward” approach to life. We Christians have just entered into the season of Lent, a time for personal reflection and growth. It is also an ideal time to make compassion a daily practice. We could listen to those that we disagree with, without waiting for our turn to speak. We could imagine what it’s like to be like those who are different from us, and when we are unsure, we could ask questions. We could ask the simple question of how we would like to be interacted with if we were in the same position as someone else.

Transformation is often viewed as a process that comes from power. The law must change, the policy must be altered, and the results must be major. While I agree in a series of just laws and policies guiding us, I believe in Jesus’ model of transformation: One person and relationship at a time. Consistent, intentional effort for the Kingdom of God will lead to far greater things than we can ask or imagine. So let’s get started!

Peace be with you!

 

 

Being the Church When It Hurts

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. — 1 Corinthians 12:14, RSV

Believe it or not… most people disagree with their church home of choice in one way or another. I know it’s hard to believe that an institution made up of humans could ever fail to spiritually deliver, but I’m afraid it’s true. Many Roman Catholics I know disagree with the Vatican’s take on sexuality and birth control. As an Episcopalian, I know many in my denomination disagree with the unstoppable “progressive” train powering through the national church at the moment. Recently, many United Methodists were crushed by the General Conference decision to maintain and “shore up” restrictions on LGBTQ+ inclusion in marriage and ordination rites.

Anyone familiar with church history knows that there have been many times when the faithful were (or should have been) at odds with the institutional church. The Christian religion has been complicit in many less-than-stellar historical events. We were silent in the face of German fascism, and we resisted the American Civil Rights Movement. We hunted and tortured “witches,” force-converted numerous groups of people, and participated in the violence of colonization. We persecuted Jews and participated in the mutual disaster of the crusades.

Thankfully, that’s not the whole story, as we also resisted and fought for righteous change in the midst of all those dark moments.

As an institution, we have failed quite a bit. But it’s also true that when the people of God are filled with and guided by His Spirit, we actually become the Church we were intended to be, even if it means resisting the establishment. God’s Church is not limited to the Pope, cardinals, bishops, deacons, priests, or pastors. It is not limited to the conferences or conventions. God’s Church is made up of all God’s people, and that includes you.

We’ve gotten in the habit of confusing institutional decisions with the extent of the Church’s reach. When the authorities decide something, that must be it, right? Wrong! You represent the Church! If God is calling you and those like you to move, then move!

Let’s say you are a lay United Methodist who was put off by the General Conference decision last week. The UMC will not bless same-sex unions or ordain members of the LGBTQ+ community, so what can you do? Well, you and those like you could make it a spiritual practice to attend and participate in same-sex weddings for those you know and love. You could also host small groups that enable LGBTQ+ members to explore their calling to preach and teach the Word of God. What if you’re a Pro-Choice/Pro-Life Roman Catholic? You could advocate for honest, accurate, and realistic sexual education resources that will help reduce unwanted pregnancies. Are you a conservative Episcopalian? Make your voice heard as you lovingly defend traditional language and practice, advocating for a more cautious approach to ecclesiastical change.

The point is this: You are not without power, especially when you are guided by the love of God and neighbor!

When we are faced with the evils of this world, we often ask where God is. We wonder why the Church doesn’t seem to be making a difference. The answer is God is where He needs to be, and the Church will make a difference when you and I decide to be where we are supposed to be. The Church is not a building, conference, or institution. It is a people. If we can remember this and put it into practice, we can shine the light of Christ in any darkness, and it will not be overcome (John 1:5).

I’m not saying you should leave your organized religion and go rogue. We’ve had enough “Jim Jones” activity in this crazy world, I think. What I am saying is that you can still follow the path God has set before you, filtered through the love of Christ, even when the “powers that be” set off in a different direction. In fact, doing so can lead to all kinds of positive, Spirit-filled change beyond anything you initially thought possible.

Now, take heart, child of God. You are not alone, and we are nowhere near the finish line. As long as the people of God actively and earnestly strive to follow in the footsteps of Christ, the best is yet to come.

Peace be with you!

Where to Put One’s Faith

…That thy way may be known upon earth, thy saving power among all nations. — Psalm 67:2, RSV

People have a habit of looking to our human institutions to solve problems. A good example would be this past week’s General Conference for the United Methodist Church. It should be known that every person had already decided how they were voting with regard to the inclusion of LGBTQ+ members in Christian ministry and marriage. While the circus may have been moving, as various speakers took to sharing their perspectives and beliefs on the matter, no one was going to be swayed away from what they had previously decided.

For myself and others, the results were disappointing, but certainly not surprising. The United Methodist Church serves the god of numbers, and whether it’s money, members, or votes, the biggest number is the clear winner, and obviously symbolizes the approval and work of God. Now, the UMC is not the only denomination or institution to function this way. Most human-based structures operate with the same basic understanding of power, and we look to such places as if this is where God has made His ways known.

The problem is this isn’t true.

As God declares in Isaiah 55, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways” (verse 8). Indeed, God’s “ways are higher than your ways, and [God’s] thoughts than your thoughts” (verse 9). Just as God’s ways differ from our own, so the way God reveals Himself runs counter to human expectations, and there is no better example than Jesus.

When God made Himself known to us in the One who would be called “Christ” or “King,” He didn’t choose the way of Roman royalty. When He decided to deliver us, He didn’t become a general of legions, or the charismatic leader of an insurrection. When God wanted to teach us His ways, He didn’t spend all His time in the established Jewish synagogues or Roman temples, re-iterating the same old teachings.

No, all of Christian belief and practice began as a response to the God that shouldn’t have been. Our faith is dependent upon the child who shouldn’t have lived from a place that shouldn’t have mattered. We learn from the Teacher who shouldn’t have taught, the Healer who shouldn’t have healed, and the Prophet who shouldn’t have prophesied. Our King washes feet, our Deliverer suffers death, and the condemned Man brings us to new life in God.

Christian institutions have arisen in response to this story, and that is not a bad thing. It’s good to have a community with which we can grow in our journey. What is bad, however, is that for far too many people, the institution has now become synonymous with the God it intends to serve. Christianity has been represented by powerful organizations that look more like those who would try to silence Jesus than the people who initially embraced Him.

We have forgotten that the Spirit of God goes where It wants, and does what It wants. The Spirit cannot be wrangled or possessed, and it is not beholden to the written code of any church or government. Further, God’s Church is not confined to one set of walls. The Church is a people, filled with and guided by the Spirit of God, and it reaches across every boundary we humans try to erect.

If we want to see a change in the way the world seems to work, we must take our place as members of God’s Church and citizens of His Kingdom. Instead of looking to our government or church policies to heal this broken world, the task falls to us to live out our lives and relationships in the life-giving way of Christ. We are called to imitate the Incarnation, allowing the Spirit of God to become “incarnate” in us as we live according to the selfless example of Jesus.

This is not a call to abandon your denomination. This is not a call to anarchy. Rather, it is a plea for us to seek change from the bottom up, beginning with us and the way we choose to love God and others. As the UMC and other others have learned, human institutions have their limits, even when attempting to express something sacred. They will not always get it right, and they are not always the chosen method by which God reveals His will. Religions and governments may get things wrong, but when the people of God seek diligently after what is right, the Spirit of God still has plenty to work with.

It is my prayer that my brothers and sisters in the UMC will find comfort in the fact that God is God, with or without the votes. I also hope that those who are distressed due to governmental, political, or social issues will remember that no human power or authority has the final say. Instead, we should live intentional lives of service to each other in the name of the One who really is in charge, that His “way may be known upon earth,” and His “saving power among all nations” (Psalm 67:2).

Simple, Not Easy

My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee. — Psalm 56:12, RSV

One of the themes I’ve been touching (harping?) on frequently in recent posts, such as the one on Islam, is the idea that we are only responsible for our decisions to love God and our neighbor (or not). This life is short and full of opportunities in which we might witness to the love of God with our lives, but we often make that process more complicated than it needs to be.

Take the conversation about homeless persons, for example. Many of us don’t give money to panhandlers because “they might go buy drugs or booze with it.” I definitely appreciate this concern, as fueling someone’s self-destructive habits is certainly not something I want to be guilty of.

It is, however, important that we ask ourselves a question in this scenario. If, at the judgment, God asks us how we responded to someone’s apparent need, what will we be able to say? Sure, that person may choose to waste our kindness, but that is something for which they will have to answer. For me, the only choice I face is whether or not I meet a perceived need when I am able to do so.

This consideration is true for virtually any risky situation in which we are challenged to give of ourselves, especially when we may not be assured of any discernible positive effects. In Psalm 56, quoted at the beginning of this post, the speaker is being pursued by those “who seek to injure my cause,” and those “whose thoughts are against me for evil” (56:5). These people “band themselves together, they lurk,they watch my steps,” and yet the Psalmist’s decision is not to turn tail and flee (56:6). Instead, the speaker insists, “My vows to thee I must perform, O God; I will render thank offerings to thee” (56:12).

The proper response to any situation, even one in which we may be taken advantage of or “pursued without cause,” is faithfulness. Being faithful to God is found in following His commandments (1 John 3:22), and all commandments and prophets may be hung on the Christian calling to love God with all we have, and our neighbors as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40). It’s certainly not easy, but it is rather simple.

This is a world in which we want assurance and security regarding the people and place in which we invest our kindness. Some of this comes from a good place, other times it’s mere selfishness. Therefore, it is my prayer that you will join me in practicing the Great Commandment. Jesus leaves us His example, healing and bringing the Good News to all, even those who would eventually crucify Him, and the invitation to follow is extended to us. Just remember, regardless of the uncertainty of the world, God’s faithfulness is something we can certainly depend on.

Peace be with you!

 

 

Why Bother With Prayer?

And in praying do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. — Matthew 6:7-8, RSV

I am becoming a more and more consistent member of an Episcopalian ministry called The Brotherhood of Saint Andrew, which sounds a bit esoteric, but it’s actually an open men’s ministry that meets several times a month for food, Scripture, and prayer. This past week, we had a wonderful (and lengthy) conversation regarding confidence in prayer. While we began talking about being confident in prayer, we ended with a more general discussion of the purpose of praying at all.

This isn’t a new topic. If all is God’s will, why bother trying to change it? Or what about the ethics of praying for God’s favor to the exclusion of others? What does it mean when we seem to go unanswered or unacknowledged? Does God not love us? Does God not exist?

All of these questions were spoken or implied regarding prayer in our meeting this past Saturday, but we kept coming back to the purpose of prayer. Out of nowhere, I was struck with a response that stems from an experience I had in childhood.

It all begins with a hacky sack. I was a young boy, and hacky sacks were still a common form of entertainment. Texas is hot, however, and I much preferred to work out my new “skills” in the comfort of our air-conditioned living room. I hope you can see where this is going.

I was asked repeatedly not to keep playing in the house, but as a pre-teen, I obviously had it under control, and my parents were overreacting. Naturally, I got a little over-ambitious and broke the glass in a picture frame. After the panic subsided, I thought, “Glass is clear! I’ll just get rid of the glass and put the frame back up like nothing ever happened!” This obviously went off without a hitch, and my parents came home, noticed, walked into my room, and asked me about the frame.

Now, my parents knew the glass was broken and gone. So why did they ask? It was clearly a combination of entrapment and moral examination, but it was also an opportunity. If I had chosen to lie, this would have done damage to our relationship. It would be a sign that I didn’t trust them to handle the truth well, and it would also be a sign that they couldn’t trust me. So I opted for honesty, and our relationship took a step forward.

Too often, we view prayer as an exchange of goods rather than a moment of vulnerability and an enhancement of our relationship with God. Sure, we should pour out our petitions before God, but we also need to know that God knows what we need and will give it to us, regardless of whether or not it’s what we are requesting. But the reason we ought to pray and pour our hearts out to God is because that show of trust and reliance with regard to our Creator is something that will cause powerful transformation in life with God and life with others.

Opening up to God is about relationship maintenance, not receiving whatever we want. Too many people twist passages of Scripture out of context, and Matthew’s “Ask, Search, and Knock” passage is often viewed outside of the discussions of prayer and worrying in chapter 6. Remembering that the Bible was written without chapters and verses, we should note that Jesus lays out parameters within which we are to “Ask, Search, and Knock,” and the only way we can meet those is if we meet God with honesty, simplicity, and trust. We need relationship before “results,” and too often we switch those.

If you struggle with prayer and its purpose, you’re not alone. We live in a capitalist world where every relationship and act is a means of gaining something. God, however, doesn’t operate that way. God desires our honesty and trust in prayer because He wants a relationship with us because He loves us. Period. Likewise, we should also seek relationship with Him without expecting prayer to function like a vending machine.

I hope this post has let you know that struggle with prayer is not uncommon. Your doubts are not strange, nor do they have to be an impediment to your relationship with the living God. If we honestly lift our faults, fears, doubts, and concerns to God (with praise and thanksgiving for all the blessings of our lives), we are vulnerable in a way that opens our lives up to a transformative relationship with the One who loved us first and loves us still.

Peace be with you!