Don’t Judge Your Journey…

Do not reproach one who is turning away from sin; remember that we all deserve punishment. Sirach 8:5, NRSV

At age 27, almost 28, I’ve learned a lot of lessons. I’ve learned lessons about managing emotions, honoring relationships, watching the words of my mouth, and avoiding situations I don’t need to be in. I’ve learned about my relationships with God, religion. and other people. As you can imagine, many of the lessons I have learned came through the undesireable avenue of mistakes made… and I used to hate myself for it.

As a society, it feels like we have gotten in the habit of judging not only the lessons we have learned, but also those others have had to learn. While one person may struggle with addiction, they cannot fathom why someone would cheat on their spouse. When one person works their way to an early grave, neglecting their family and friends, they can’t stand those who are overzealous with their opinions online or at social gatherings. In all these instances, we are resentful of ourselves because we weren’t born perfect, and downright wrathful toward those who have had to learn things we didn’t.

As I said before, I used to HATE that I ever had to learn how to be a decent spouse, son, friend, etc. I hated myself for not having a natural gift for navigating complicated people and situations. On top of that, I would find relief in the obvious flaws of others.

Guy that yelled at me after a sermon? What a jerk!

Lady that flipped me off in traffic for stopping at a stop sign? Rude!

Overzealous Facebook warrior? Crazy!

It feels good to hammer on people who are flawed in ways we are not. We are able to rationalize OUR mistakes because WE have good reasons, right? We couldn’t say the same about others… Could we?

The Book of Sirach teaches that we shouldn’t reproach people “turning away from sin” because “we all deserve punishment.” The language is somewhat condemning, but the message is powerful. Jesus says something similar in Matthew 7:1-5.

In more positive terms, instead of condemning others for their darkness because we don’t want to confront our own, we should remember that just like “them,” we have lessons to learn, and THAT IS OKAY. We are imperfect creatures, and each of us is on a path. When we despise our path, we start to envy or judge those of others, and no one gets anywhere.

Instead, we should mind our own road, fearlessly and compassionately embracing that which we must learn about life and ourselves. In that process, we become more understanding of others and what they are going through. That understanding enables us to lovingly embrace others where they are, possibly helping them along just as Jesus does in the Gospels.

All of this boils down to treating ourselves more kindly. I had to learn through long processes and lots of therapy that my lessons are nothing to fear or be ashamed of. They’ve made me a better man, husband, friend, son, and (God willing) father. The acceptance of who I am and how I got here has also made me more accepting of others, and I believe this is something God desires for us all.

I pray that you will ease up on yourself. Learn the lessons before you, for that’s what mistakes are intended to be. Through them, we learn humility, patience, and how to do better. Embracing that ride also helps us to be more compassionate toward others, and I don’t have to tell you how important that is.

God loves you. I love you. It’s time for you to love you, so you can love others.

Peace be with you!

“The Bible Says…”

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.’ 38 This is the greatest and first commandment. 39 And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 40 On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” — Matthew 22:37-40, NRSV

Pride Month is here, and with it have come more arguments about what “the Bible says.” Some people are arguing that the Bible is “clear” that any sexual orientation or gender identity that deviates from heterosexual, cisgender classification is to be considered sinful, even damnable. Others appeal to Scriptures like Galatians 3:28, which seem to relax such distinctions insisting that in Christ, “there is no longer male and female.” Everyone seems to be hiding behind the text, declaring that it “says what it says.”

Well I have had it.

Yes, the words of Scripture do promote particular views and concepts, but what you do with those is your choice. I get tired of hearing the false sympathy of conservative Christians who imply they *might* believe differently if only the Bible said something else. I am equally bored by liberal attempts to carve an affirmed, homosexual relationship out of Scripture, usually with David and Jonathan in 1 Samuel 18.

Horse hockey.

Codswallop.

Nonsense.

All. Of. It.

Such views are attempts to justify pre-existing beliefs by claiming Scripture clearly and objectively supports what the reader thinks. The decision has already been made, usually by way of cultural or familial influences, and we just need the evidence to make it “legit.” This sickening display of confirmation bias runs rampant in Christian circles of all persuasions, and it all amounts to avoiding personal responsibility.

The truth is that the Bible is a very old collection of documents from other countries and cultures. Yes, I believe the authors were inspired by their experience of the Divine, but the language, imagery, and concepts clearly place those authors in a very specific place and time. Therefore, the biblical texts need to be interpreted. 

This is an uncomfortable truth, because interpretation is up to the reader and the reader alone. You choose what to do with what you read in this ancient text, and how you choose to use it will be something you are held accountable for. This isn’t because God is really worried about the Bible, but because our interpretations of it influence our treatment of those who are made in God’s very image and likeness!

We have been sold an insidious lie that to take the Bible seriously means to take it “literally” or at surface level, guided only by the traditional voices of Christian faith. I submit that taking the Bible seriously means taking into account all that went into writing the thing. We must explore the history, cultures, and religious views behind the text, not to “shoot holes” in it, but to actually help it make a lick of sense!

When we do this, there are perfectly valid arguments for maintaining traditional views of sexuality and gender based on long-standing Christian tradition… and for relaxing those distinctions in light of the fact that homosexuals have by and large been proven not to automatically be idolatrous, violent, or exploitative people. What’s left is for everyone to choose an interpretation, and this is where I really want to urge some caution. How you decide to read Scripture will have an impact on other people.

Am I unbiased? NO. But I own it. I also try to base my choice of interpretation on the Scripture quote at the beginning of this article. I ask myself if my interpretation is going to help me better love my neighbor (and thereby God), or not; Will it make me a more generous, peaceful, loving person or not? It is at this point that I want to encourage the same thoughtfulness in all believers before we go spouting off our usual rhetoric regarding our LGBTQ+ people.

If your biblical interpretation has you thinking it’s okay to disown or abuse a gay or transgender child, reconsider.

If your biblical interpretation enables you to disregard the feelings, opinions, and experiences of others because they challenge yours, reconsider.

If your biblical interpretation allows you to act toward others in ways you would never accept for yourself, reconsider.

If your biblical interpretation feels safe, comfortable, and doesn’t challenge you, reconsider.

Whatever your interpretation is, be honest about it. The Bible didn’t grab you by the collar and demand you think the way you do. It’s your choice. It’s my prayer that we all make the right one.

Peace be with you!

Blessed Submission

Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ. — Ephesians 5:21, NRSV

Ephesians 5:22-33 is often quoted at weddings, and verse 21 is often omitted from the beginning because it implies that men and women should “be subject to one another,” rather than just the wife being subject to her husband. While this is generally a small issue, I find it gets at the heart of authority and what it actually means to follow Jesus.

We live in a world that likes authority and power. We admire those who are in charge, and we aspire to their perceived level of success, whether it’s the loaded CEO or the couple your age that just bought a nice house while you’re stuck in the same small apartment. As mentioned above, certain traditionalists in the Christian realm believe men are special in the eyes of God, and are thereby called to all positions of prominence in the home and in society. In the church world, those with large parishes and congregations are held up as paragons of effective ministry.

It’s my contention that as long as we maintain this outlook, our world will continue to spiral out of control with greed, envy, and the resulting violence.

When we read this passage in Ephesians, we are seeing so much more than a mandate for newlyweds. Rather, we are actually given a template for the function of society and the potential impact our discipleship can have on this world. The key is submission, which is a dirty word, especially *stereotypical southern drawl* in these here United States.

We don’t like to be subject to anyone but ourselves. We’d rather serve our own interests first, reserving that of others for the occasional act of charity. Whether it’s traffic, self-defense, voting, or relationships, we want things to fit our preferences, and we resent anything that might force us to deviate.

As a result, we are violent. We engage in war to make the world look and function like we prefer. We physically attack or kill those that are different or frightening to us. Our words and thoughts are full of anger and ill-intent for those people or things that inconvenience or challenge us.

But what if we change?

What if we would rather be inconvenienced or hurt than do the same to others? What if we speak and think with the calmness and gentleness we would like to receive? What if we become “subject to one another,” and what if we love each other “just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” as Ephesians 5:25 asks of us?

I bet things would start to look very different.

Discipleship isn’t just about how we check our religious boxes. It’s about actually letting the submissive love of Jesus (as witnessed on the cross) touch every single aspect of our lives, whether that’s in traffic, at work, or in the voting booth. Discipleship is about living differently because we have experienced the all-consuming love of God, which is too powerful to ignore!

I hope that you will join me in re-joining verse 21 to the conversation of our human relationships. “Being subject” isn’t a command of passivity that feeds our traditional view of power and authority. Rather, it is the very power of God that we see in Jesus Christ as He became subject to us, that we might know what it takes to truly live out God’s purposes for Creation. This is not a command just for women or saints, but for all people who desire to experience the Kingdom of God here and now.

Peace be with you!

Hiding From God

Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. — Romans 13:14, NRSV

I have many delightful and powerfully spiritual memories associated with traditional Christianity. The Eucharist, my baptism, preaching from a gorgeous Lutheran pulpit in Kentucky, and many such qualities of what would be called “orthodox” Christian circles are firmly and fondly planted in my mind and heart. Then there are… other memories.

Having come of age “in church,” I was always struck by the obsession with “grace” that seemed to yield very little in practice. God forgives us, yet we frequently stone one another for anything and everything. We also claim to believe that humans (along with all creation) are fundamentally good, having been created with the image and breath of God on and within us (Genesis 1:27 and 2:7). But when passages like the one above from Romans came up, there always seems to be this idea that we need Jesus to act as a spiritual, bullet-proof vest of sorts.

In this passage, Paul is talking about setting aside “the works of darkness” in favor of living honorably “as in the day” (13:12-13). We are to “make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (13:14). In this context, we are encouraged to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” which many take to mean that we cover up who we are so that God only sees Jesus, thereby granting us mercy. 

I think this is a deeply flawed interpretation.

If this is true, it means that God isn’t interested in a relationship with us so much as with a multitude of Jesus clones. The message this sends is that we must hide from God behind Jesus so that our awful, sinful selves can be overlooked. Unfortunately, this is what I was often taught, either explicitly or implicitly by well-meaning teachers and pastors throughout the years. We see this idea put forth in literature, in the pulpit, in our worship songs, and in our liturgy.

What we don’t realize is this kind of thinking reinforces every negative cycle and belief with regard to ourselves and how we perceive our connection to the Divine.

If the “Good News” is that Jesus allows us to hide ourselves from God, that’s… not good. I also don’t believe this to be what the passage is getting at. It seems that to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ” is to act in a particular way in this life. It’s to walk in discipleship, following the example of love and Divine connection that we have in Jesus of Nazareth.

In short, to “put on Christ” is to be who we were always meant to be!

God doesn’t intend for us to go around in fearful self-loathing masquerading as faith. To follow Jesus is not to hide behind Him, for God doesn’t want us to hide, but to be who we really are. To lead a life of love, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, tolerance, integrity, and peace is nothing more than to embrace all of the gifts which God has given us.

The Good News is that God sees you for who you really are: a good and blessed creation that bears His image and likeness. He sees past your mistakes and sins, loving all of you in a more complete way than anyone else ever could. What remains is for us to act like this is the case, and that is what it means to “put on Christ.”

In Jesus, we see the ideal human and the ideal relationship with the Divine. Jesus fully embraced the Divine within Him, and He invites you and I to do the same as His disciples. God doesn’t want you to hide behind Jesus, but to join our Lord in openly embracing your true nature, which is fundamentally and irrevocably good. The cool thing is that doing this also means treating everyone and everything else in the same way, as all are beautiful manifestations of God’s creative power. So let’s get to it!

Peace be with you!

 

 

From Within

there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defileMark 7:15, NRSV

I’ve always looked at this teaching with an emphasis on the “all foods are clean” thing (Mark 7:19). After all, it means I can enjoy bacon guilt-free and it represents a shift from religious box-checking to a more transformative spirituality. But the last part… the “defilement from within” part… that didn’t truly sink in until recently.

We as humans always look to external causes for our inappropriate actions. It’s never our fault. It’s the unclean “stuff” out there that got us.

We see this when the media crucifies an assault survivor for what they were wearing; we hear it about the victim of a careless police officer for what they may or may not have been doing out so late in that neighborhood OR we see the same logic used to justify the assault on a police officer. After all, there’s this back story…

It’s never our fault.

I’ve done this in my own life. Old habits die hard, and all the more so when changing seems too scary or painful. There was always a reason, whether it be my childhood, my losses, or my depression.

We always look for external sources of trouble and salvation. We don’t want to be responsible for our mistakes because then we might be responsible for fixing them. Jesus rightly criticizes this attitude.

Agreeing with James (4:1-3), Jesus asserts that “it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly(Mark 7:21-22). Our desires and our fears produce the evil we enact in the world. Other people or situations may stimulate or add specificity to these things, but our response is ours alone.

Now this is not a guilt trip or a statement about my own perfection. I am simply indicating that this passage has taken on new life for me because I now understand that I must heal what is within rather than waiting for something from without.

When many of us entered into faith, we are taught that God is a Savior, which is true. But what often follows is the expectation that God will do it all, which is actually a blatant denial of free will. God gives us the means and awareness, and He is with us always, but to change and grow and leave behind our harmful practices is our work. We must desire it, initiate it, and see it through while relying on God’s grace to keep us moving with compassion for ourselves and each other as we all embark on our roads to healing.

For me to change, I have to want it. If any of us have habits in need of changing, it must be us that seek to enter into that process with God. God’s already where He needs to be, He’s just waiting on us to meet Him at the station.

Whatever is plaguing your life, and whatever negative habits or behaviors are manifesting in you, I pray that you will know that it is never hopeless or too late. All that you need to make the change is already with you, waiting for you to find that motivation and get started. Is it your relationship with your family, friends, or kids? Your relationship with God or yourself? Are you simply sick and tired? Whatever it is, may the grace of God light a fire within, and may we all choose to take a step into that transforming Light.

Peace be with you!

Actually Choosing “Life”

I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live… — Deuteronomy 30:19, NRSV

I am assuming that many of you know about the recent anti-abortion legislation that has recently  been passed in Georgia, Alabama, and now Missouri. If not, hey, now you do. I’m sure many of you are celebrating it, and I am also sure many of you are furious about it. It’s a polarizing topic in that way (Captain Obvious strikes again!).

Unfortunately, though, the abortion debate is one that has pit us against each other in such a way that civil conversation about it is nearly impossible. I get it that it is an emotional concept, but let’s face it, the loudest voices of pro-choice and anti-abortion advocacy groups have a vested interest in fueling our emotional responses to this problem. After all, if we found a way forward together, things would actually have to change, and that is no good for the powers that be.

As a Christian, this debate is just a headache. Scripture and our tradition exhort us to make life-giving and life-preserving choices. For some people, this means simply voting pro-life (a misnomer) and moving on with their day. But is that really a comprehensive and helpful way to ensure the preservation of life and the improvement of its quality for our people?

Shifting gears, the idea that a woman has absolute autonomy over her body and whether or not she decides to bring life into this world is so strong that for some, morality need not enter into the discussion. It’s a personal, private decision that isn’t anyone’s business. Unfortunately, again, I don’t think this appropriately addresses the problem of why abortions are even necessary, and dropping the conversation altogether for the sake of “freedom” doesn’t seem like a healthy option.

Then there are people like me. Having gotten a girl pregnant in high school whose parents made her get an abortion, I can tell you that it is not a positive experience. No one skips into the abortion clinic and high fives everyone as if they are taking their life back. Part of this is due to the ignorant protesters outside, screaming “murder” at people who could just be getting regular OBGYN care.

To those protesters, thanks for your (non) help. Your time is better spent elsewhere.

The other aspect is that something has begun to take shape in this woman’s body, and removing that is not a light or easy decision, even if her parents aren’t forcing it. Needless to say, even with freedom of choice, most women will not be thrilled to have to make this kind of visit to a clinic, which implies that there is something… “off” about the procedure.

In fact, I would bet that most people (whether they pick the pro-choice or anti-abortion camp) would agree that a world without abortions would be ideal. So if that is the case, why all the screaming? Why not find a way forward that adequately addresses the problem?

From the Christian perspective, yes, the teachings of the faith place an emphasis on valuing life (don’t get me started on the devaluing of criminals and women that has also been a part of “tradition”). But those same teachings also tell us that surface-level action is not enough.

Jesus is furious when he chastises the religious leaders of his day, saying, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence” and “you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth” (Matthew 23:25, 27). On the surface, the actions of those leaders could be called “righteous,” but the truth is that the actual causes of sin and death were not being addressed, rendering such actions shallow at best.

Jesus exhorts us to “First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean” (Matthew 23:26). We are to get at the source of our iniquity and do the work of facing our darkness before we can actually hope to improve anything. This is true on a personal level, like treating the cause of addiction rather than just the symptoms. It is also true socially. As a nation, we must find what is causing our problems and deal with those first, rather than blanketing them over with inadequate arguments and decisions.

So what does this mean for those of us trying to find a good way forward with regard to this tricky abortion topic?

Simply passing legislation that just makes abortion illegal doesn’t solve anything. It merely makes some people sleep better at night. The truth is, abortion happens and has happened since humans started having children. When the clinics close, the back-alleys will be back in full swing, costing even more life. The choice isn’t whether the law stops abortion, but what kind of abortion the law is going to allow for: safe and clinical, or the kind of dangerous “procedures” that often end up killing women. That’s the current choice, politically, and simply looking to such useless legislation is not an adequate measure of preserving life.

Also, can fetuses be insured? Can child support be paid as soon as a heartbeat is found? Will a pregnant woman be entitled to all governmental and societal benefits of motherhood from that point on? Odds are the answer is no. So what this amounts to is simply telling women what to do because they are the only ones who actually have bear the consequences of what two people did. Again, this is not life-giving decision making that fully recognizes that humanity of everyone involved.

On the other hand, we don’t want there to be a ton of abortions every year. So how do we trim that down in a manner that will promote a healthier society that honors humanity and the gift of sex?

This would require economic changes, changes to healthcare and adoption protocols, access to birth-control, and evidence-based sexual education made available to all people in all places attending all schools. Ironically, it means taking the church out of sex education, because abstinence-only methods have been proven ineffective. It also means removing the stigma around sex, talking about it and the importance of having it safely, because assuming kids will stop “doing it” is a pipe dream.

For us individuals, this means contacting representatives, attending school board meetings, advocating at our children’s places of learning, and, yes, voting accordingly. We have to talk to our kids realistically and pay attention, suspending judgment. This is a lot more effort than simply voting “pro-choice” or “anti-abortion,” but hey, it takes actual effort to make any kind of a difference.

If everyone got the education, healthcare, and communal help they needed, I guarantee you abortion rates would fall and the legality of the practice would no longer be a major issue. This, in my opinion, is what it would take to truly promote life in this nation. This would be a step forward in recognizing and affirming the humanity and autonomy of women while also eliminating the need for a practice that is a concerning metric of where we are as a society.

If you’ve made it this far, thank you for bearing with me and reading this post. The truth is, I belief that most of us have more in common than we do to divide us, even on a topic such as abortion. Like all other controversial topics, the answer is not in what makes us feel better, but what actually makes this situation better. Our shallow political climate, then, isn’t going to cut it. Further, slinging mud at each other and digging in our heels is also no way to be productive or kind.

It’s my prayer is that all of us, no matter what “camp” we may have settled into, will see beyond the lies and trickery of the current times. All of us have a vested interest in preserving the rights and healthcare of women. All of us have a vested interest in reducing the need for abortion. All of us have a vested interest in moving forward together. If we can recognize that and behave accordingly, we will stand a far better chance of actually choosing and promoting life.

Peace be with you!

 

 

But Did You Change, Though?

For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! — Galatians 6:15, NRSV

I grew up mostly “in church.” I was baptized, confirmed, took Communion once a month, and attended all the Bible studies and youth events I could. When I became an adult in ministry, I read the Bible daily, studied the faith at seminary, prayed multiple times throughout the day, and participated in service and worship projects all. The. Time.

With all of that said, it’s only been in the last year or so that I feel I have actually experienced the grace of God for myself. When I was a kid and when I was a minister, I made lots of selfish and harmful decisions. I had scars that I had never healed and unacceptable ways of coping with them. While I had affirmed all of the doctrines, aligned with all of the beliefs, and performed all of the pious acts, I had not yet been transformed by a real encounter with the grace of God.

A lot of us are like that. We use the symbols, say the right words, agree to the right doctrines, and do all the right “stuff,” yet our scars remain unhealed, our habits remain unholy, and our lives have yet to be transformed. We talk about the grace of God we see in Jesus, but we don’t feel or know that grace on a real, personal level.

When Paul wrote his letter to the Galatians, the Christians in that area were being led astray by those who valued the outward expressions of faith more than the internal transformation brought about by it. Adult Gentiles were getting circumcised to please a particular religious faction, but that sign ultimately proved empty because it amounted to “checking a box” rather than transforming one’s life to follow Jesus. This leads Paul to say what he says in chapter 6, part of which is quoted above.

The truth is that what we believe is irrelevant if it only amounts to being a part of “the club.” If we claim to believe all the right stuff, say and do all the right things, but our lives remain unchanged, it’s time to re-evaluate the depth and meaning of our relationship with God.

The love of God, when experienced and truly understood, is a powerful, deeply moving reality that soaks into one’s very being and provokes change. It inspires us to live differently because we simply can’t afford not to do so when we finally become aware of God’s loving presence throughout this entire created universe. We can’t help but treat ourselves, each other, and this good earth with the respect and dignity of beloved creations of God!

When I was faced with this grace, this unmerited love, I had to change. I had to see a counselor and heal the wounds that had long influenced my behavior. I had to make apologies and find a different path forward. I had to take a step away from what was causing me to stumble so that I might be free to minister effectively in my everyday life. I just had to do all this because it meant I could more fully participate in the love I was experiencing!

If you feel like you are just going through the motions, checking the boxes, and joining “the club” because it’s all you know, there is good news for you. If you have left faith behind because you didn’t see any depth or meaning to it, there is good news for you. If you feel that God can’t possibly love you because of the life you’ve led, there is good news for you.

The good news is that it’s never too late to change. The good news is that God is not a doctrine, a building, an altar, or a ritual. The good news is that God is already present with you and reaching out to you!

I pray that you will ponder this good news and seek to put it into action by changing your approach to life. Live as though the love of God is for you and for all others. Live as though the image of God rests upon you and all whom you encounter. Live like this world is not a resource, but a beloved creation designed to be cared for and protected. After all, it’s true.

Peace be with you!