“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.

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).

“The Road Goes on Forever, and the Party Never Ends”

I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.John 13:34, NRSV

There’s nothing like a quote from the famous Robert Earl Keen song to set the tone for a post, and you can’t lose when reinforcing it with the beloved New Commandment. So what do these two very different snippets have to do with one another? Follow me!

After Epiphany closed the Christmas season this past Sunday, I have been reflecting on the major Christian holy days and how celebrating them should impact us today. These days honor various aspects of Jesus’ life and ministry, so it would make sense for there to be some application for his disciples beyond just remembering what happened 2,000 years ago. So far, I’ve discerned one major reason for keeping these holy days (all of them) sacred in our lives.

They are all happening, all the time.

I know that sounds like some “new age” stuff, but it’s true. The Exodus, the mystery of the Incarnation, the crucifixion, the resurrection, the ascension, and the coming of the Holy Spirit are all realities here and now, in this life, in this moment. And they should be, otherwise we run the risk of denying the true power of these events for the sake of some mere, lame commemoration.

Each of us knows the difficulty of changing our lives for the better, of growing in relationship with God and moving from sin to life (Exodus). We know what it is to marvel at, question, or even deny the idea of a God that would take on flesh for us (Incarnation), even if it it shows indirectly as a questioning of our own value. All people know the reality of suffering and death (Crucifixion), and the importance of hope and restoration in the midst of it, ultimately leading to victory (Resurrection and Ascension). We know what it is to be inspired, and to be filled with the drive to use our gifts for the betterment of the world (Pentecost).

The problem comes when we fail to see the life of Christ in our own and vice versa. We get too caught up in the “Crucifixion” moments to remember what hope feels like. We are too consumed with our victories and comfort to remember that suffering is still a reality for many that we have a responsibility to ease.

We lose compassion for one another when we forget that all of us are sinners on the road to the promised land. Perhaps most tragically, when we lose sight of the Incarnation, we fail to recognize all others as brothers and sisters for whom God took on human flesh and died. When we limit these realities to seasons and days, we lose sight of the fact that they indeed are realities.

Christ lived with eternity in mind. He loved with eternity in mind. In eternity, everything echoes at once, without regard for day, year, or time. If we are to love as he does, we also must keep eternity in mind, letting these holy realities shape our daily lives.

It is my prayer that you will join me in living this new year in light of the reality of Christ’s life. May we all remember who we are, who God is, and what responsibilities come with that identity. Above all, whatever situation rings true for you right now, I pray that you will know how loved and valued you really are.

Peace be with you!

Sacrifice Isn’t Sacrifice

All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. — Matthew 25:32-33, NRSV

I live in a country that speaks often of sacrifice. We extol the virtues of our military and civil service members, revering the sacrifices they make to keep our nations safe and free. Movies portray characters that give of themselves to a heroic degree, always affecting some sort of monumental change at the end. Not surprisingly, we also lift up Jesus and His sacrifice, which grants us forgiveness and understanding of God’s insurmountable love.

With all that in mind, I believe we are very unhealthy when it comes to the notion of sacrifice and the “hero-worship” to which this nation subscribes. It is right that we respect the choice of those who join our military out of a love for family and country. This becomes problematic, however, when we are no longer allowed to question the legitimacy of the causes for which they are made to fight. Further, our respect seems to be mere lip service in a country with such high veteran unemployment and suicide rates.

Our police officers should be respected and given every chance and resource to safely and effectively keep our streets free of crime and violence. This goes too far, however, when the justice system cannot be challenged for its injustices against the poor and people of color. Again, our praise falls short when budgets, paychecks, and training protocols don’t reflect a desire for safety when it comes to our officers and civilians.

Parenthood requires self-sacrifice and putting the needs of others before ourselves. Problems arise when this idea is used to send an abused wife or child back to their home with the misguided hope of “keeping the family together” and “suffering as Christ suffered.” Again, what is a good notion of self-giving becomes an occasion by which innocents pay the price for the misdeeds of others.

I hope you noticed an important distinction. I am in no way criticizing the individuals who are simply trying to do what is right, but I am casting a suspicious look on the powers that make use of their good intentions. Blaming individual persons for structural issues is unproductive, and I do not want to be misunderstood.

So what is my point here? Sacrifice in and of itself is not necessarily a good or blessed thing. It matters who is doing the sacrificing, and it also matters for what they are making the sacrifice. Further, it is important to note that sacrifice, in the Christian sense, is not to be limited to our heroes. It’s the call of all people who claim to follow Jesus.

The text of Scripture that motivated this point is Matthew 25:31-46, known commonly as “The Sheep and the Goats” or “The Judgment of the Nations.” The “sheep” are those who, at the final judgment, are commended for their care of others (verses 34-40). As they did to “least of these,” so they did to Christ (verse 40). Notice the “sheep” have no idea that they were serving Jesus, just that they were doing the right thing!

Now, to truly care for another person, we must sacrifice ourselves. To feed, give water, clothe, visit, and comfort, we must give of our comfort and resources. This kind of sacrifice must be made of our own volition, utilizing our gift of freewill to honor God.

The “goats” also make sacrifices… out of others. They receive criticism for refusing the same compassion evident in the lives of the “sheep” (verses 41-45), and they pay the penalty for such selfish behavior (verse 46). When we decide not to care for others, we sacrifice them for the sake of our comfort, security, and self-preservation.

Now, it was no accident that sheep and goats were chosen to represent these two divisions of people. Both animals are used for sacrifices in the Old Testament, and the parallel makes perfect sense! Sheep are used as freewill offerings, while goats are the offerings for sin. Creepy, right?

One represents an offering of free will to God. The other represents a necessary sacrifice because of the power of human sin. The “sheep” sacrifice themselves by choice, offering comfort and peace to the afflicted. When we get to the “goats,” we see those who sacrifice others for the sake of themselves.

The latter is not a worthy sacrifice, and here is the takeaway: God will vindicate those who are sacrificed by executing justice on those who take advantage of them… as well as executing judgment on those who allow this to happen. It is here that we have a serious implication for this world and our tendency toward hero-worship.

When we pay lip service to those with genuine, self-sacrificing motives, we fail to truly honor what they have given. For example, if we look to Christ as a hero as opposed to an example, we fail to realize the truly transformative power of what He has done. We are called to take up our cross and follow, not to sit underneath the cross and be grateful that we no longer have a dog in this fight.

A more desirable alternative is to embody the values we extol in others, recognizing them as examples for us to follow. We should be willing to make sacrifices so that all may live full and blessed lives without having to bear the weight of our selfishness. This means asking the questions, taking the chances, and making the generous choices, even when all of this is uncomfortable or inconvenient.

Now, I am not laying the world’s fate at your feet. This is a work that will not be completed until Christ comes to restore all things… but that doesn’t mean we don’t still have a role to play. Start small. As always, I believe in examining our daily lives, finding opportunities to extend hospitality, keep silence, and work for justice. Whether it’s the man begging on a corner, the co-worker having a hard time, or that unbearable family member, our day-to-day decisions will bear witness to our willingness to sacrifice either ourselves or each other.

Instead of leaning on others to do what we will not, the life of Christ calls us to join the large family of people who bear witness to the love of God by their lives of chosen self-giving. Rather than merely talking of our heroes, let’s respect them fully by doing our part, walking the way of the Cross together, that we all may experience the life of God that awaits us.

Peace be with you!

For the Days I Don’t Believe

No, you didn’t misread the title. There are days when the idea of believing  in and connecting with the Source of all Being in the universe makes no sense to me. Usually, these days are spawned by my rebellious nature. Someone tells me what I should believe or what people of my faith believe, and my instant response is to resist when the subject appears to be arbitrary or unknowable.

Do you ever have those days? I bet you do. I have found that people are reluctant to admit it because, as I covered in a previous post, doubt is not considered acceptable by many in the Christian world. It is often seen as a weakness, and people like me are often blamed for our unbelief and the inability to “feel connected” to God.

This is consistent with current worldly trends. Faith is seen as a matter of feeling, so we seek worship environments with plenty of good music and lighting. When we don’t get what we want, we move on until we do, never thinking that our dependence on how we feel is getting in the way of our worship.

Our world also promotes tribalism. Whether it’s politics, social causes, or our faith, it is considered weakness to question the groups to which belong. After all, there is no security in admitting we might be wrong.

Yesterday was one of those days when I didn’t feel like a believer. My connection to God just wasn’t there, and my mind was deconstructing everything to which I normally devote myself. It was a rough day, but like all such days, an important lesson was close at hand.

Today, I stand as a believer, a person of the Way of Christ, not because I feel fuzzy when I think about it, and not because there was an open, front-row parking spot at Target this morning.  I believe by choice. I believe because I have an entire life story to look back upon wherein I see the power of my faith at work in my life.

My faith has made me a better man. It has sustained me in some of the darkest and most painful moments in my life. Days may come when my feelings and thoughts betray me, but in the end, I have to make a choice. We all do.

I don’t know if this is a struggle you have, but if so, I want you to know that you’re not alone. Instead of relying solely on how you feel or how well you’re able to rationalize your faith, I encourage you to remember the powerful transformation brought about by belief in Jesus. If you don’t have that experience, I pray that you will decide to strive for it. In any case, don’t judge yourself for questioning. It can actually be a healthy practice for your faith!

If you don’t struggle with your faith and tend to… admonish (judge) those who do, please stop. Compassion is part of the Christian witness, and when we fail to show it to everyone, we fail to walk in the Way. It is scary when people we know and love express doubt in something so dear to us, but it’s important to remember that love, support, and camaraderie stand a much better chance of promoting faith and peace than judgment and fear tactics.

Jesus let’s us know that faith is costly, and it won’t bring us all the peace, security, and prosperity we crave in life. Rather, we will be met with persecutions. We are told, “You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name” (Luke 21:16-17, NRSV). There are going to be days when the Way of Jesus doesn’t seem appealing. So what then?

We have to make a choice. Faith is a decision to walk in the Way, even when it doesn’t appear to do anything for us. When we make the choice to worship and act in faith in spite of our feelings and doubts, we are actually closer to the heart and mind of Christ.

I pray that you will join me in making this choice. It is a Way of adversity and self-sacrifice. Days will come when it makes perfect sense for us to want to abandon it. However, we must remember that it is also the Way of God’s transforming love, which makes the risks well worth it.

Peace be with you!

Doubt: What I Wish I Had Known

Doubt isn’t a thing fondly spoken of in faith circles. James tells us that “the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind,” and this person “must not expect to receive anything from the Lord” (James 1:6-8, NRSV). Such opinions abound in the Scriptures, but I can’t help but feel a little rebellion toward them. After all, it is unreasonable to expect humans to believe in what cannot be seen with unyielding resolve.

For some reason, though, this seems to be the standard for the religious of the world. Doubt means a lack of faith, which puts one in danger of a lesser standing in the eyes of the Divine. Anything that could cause a person to reconsider their faith, traditions, or core belief system is a threat to the fragile realities we tend to build for ourselves.

I witnessed this first-hand in college. I was part of two pretty conservative ministries, and as a history major with a geology minor, evolution was just a fact for me, as it still is today. Little did I know that when I got into a conversation about Genesis with my small groups, my invitations back to those gatherings would cease and I found myself in search of a new spiritual home.

When I presented the evidence for an evolutionary view of biology and history that conflicted with Creationism, I was met with anger that seemed… panicked. I didn’t understand it, and I also felt there was something wrong with me.

This feeling continued even through seminary. Why couldn’t I believe like all of my classmates? What was making me question everything? Where did this resistance come from that kept me from accepting everything as it appeared to be?

I sought out counsel and was told “the devil was trying to throw me off course.” That didn’t help. Other people said I just needed to “fake it” until I was convinced. That came across as basically being advised to brainwash myself.

It was only when I stumbled upon Søren Kierkegaard that I found something useful. Kierkegaard was a Danish theologian famous for his understanding of doubt and faith as realities that play off of each other, best summed up in his quote, “doubt is conquered by faith, just as it is faith which has brought doubt into the world.” For Kierkegaard, faith is something that always exists beside doubt, as faith, truly expressed, is a decision to believe in spite of a lack of what is considered proper evidence.

This changed the game for me. Suddenly, my doubting nature wasn’t a curse, but something natural to me. It was a characteristic that removed all pretense and forced me to decide whether I was going to live in light of faith or something else. Faith, hope, and love became conscious decisons rather than passively received and executed spiritual gifts.

Odds are that you’ve shared my experience in some way, especially if you come from a Christian background. Doubt can often be a source for guilt and despair, even outside of the religious world. The “go-getters” are the true believers who never seem to waver or step back for examination. To be successful, we must believe, confidently striding forward in all our glory, right?

Nonsense. Life takes all kinds, and your doubt is essential to making sure we don’t get too full of ourselves. When no one asks questions or challenges the status quo, growth and positive change become impossible.

Doubt serves to keep us all in check, ensuring that every decision we make about what we believe and do in life is intentional. While an excess of ever-present doubt can be disheartening, tempering our words and actions with the possibility that we might be wrong produces a humility we could use more of these days.

So maybe you feel like you’re always the “Debbie Downer.” Maybe you feel like this world has no place for you because you don’t connect with our perceived cultural norms. Perhaps you feel flawed because you struggle to accept the dominant beliefs that surround you.

Well take it from me. You’re not flawed, broken, sick, or lost. You are gifted, loved, and here on purpose. So embrace the doubt in life, that the faith you choose to hold may mean all the more.

Peace be with you!

You Can’t “Have” God

…and the Lord said to Moses, “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at all times into the holy place within the veil, before the mercy seat which is upon the ark, lest he die; for I will appear in the cloud upon the mercy seat.” — Leviticus 16:2, RSVCE

I was in seminary, seated in a class we called “Systematics.” This was the infamous course in which two professors with different theological stances (who wouldn’t kill each other) co-taught on the different aspects of Christian belief. At the end of this course, the students were to write a thirty page paper that detailed their constructed theology based on the conflicting perspectives they received from professors, along with their own independent studies.

ANYWAY, in one of these seminars, a class discussion was being had over the nature of God and His relationship with humans. Now, I am a fairly relaxed guy. If you refer to God as “Mother” or “the Divine,” I understand that. There are arguments for that. “Father” is just easier and more comfortable for me. On this particular day, though, somebody took it just a little too far.

I had just wrapped up about my view of God as the most mysterious, distant, yet intimate reality that could possibly be conceived. I see God as the One who offers no real name to Moses in Exodus 3, precisely because this is a God that cannot be boxed or neatly categorized. In response, an older woman in the class interjected, “I mean, I understand that, but to me He is just family, I mean that’s ‘Daddy,’ know what I mean?”

Rest assured, I kept my reaction in check. Sure, my skin felt like it was crawling off of my body while my soul wanted to launch itself into sweet oblivion, but I was fine. You might be wondering why this bothered me so much, so let’s look at this text from Leviticus.

The context of this passage is a situation in which Aaron has lost two sons (Leviticus 10:1-3) because they did not behave in a holy way toward their charge. Because holiness and unholiness cannot abide together, especially in Leviticus, God’s very presence lashes out and consumes Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron. These are two members of the chosen line of Levi, the clan of Israel perpetually assigned to be priests before God on behalf of the nation… and they were consumed by God for being lax in their duties.

Just because people are chosen and loved by God doesn’t mean that they possess God. God loves us all as His children and desires a relationship with us, but that doesn’t mean that God is “in our pocket.” We still have responsibilities, and we are still dealing with something that cannot be contained, boxed, packaged, or defined. While God has made revelations of Himself to us in Jesus Christ, even the Incarnation is not what was expected (living a poor, nomadic life that culminates in being featured in a public execution, for example).

So my problem with the idea that “God is my Daddy, Buddy, Divine Pal,” and the like is that we somehow seem to forget that God isn’t always on our side the way we might think. This is a Presence that first and foremost is the I AM of Exodus 3. When we live lives of selfishness and lack compassion, it doesn’t matter if we pray to “Daddy God” every night. God will not be pleased, and we will eventually know it. God’s love is always there, the relationship is always possible, but in no way does that mean we are at a level of intimacy that puts us on God’s level. In no way are we not accountable for what we think, do, and say. This puts some fear in me, and I’m sure it does in you. Now you know what it is to have the “fear of God.” It’s not abject terror, but it is recognizing that you are still dealing with something that is totally “other,” something that is beyond us but chooses to be near to us. That is both an encouraging and humbling thought, yes?

So what am I getting at here? I don’t think this particular student was being idolatrous or silly, but I do think there is some reverence lost when we over-familiarize ourselves with God. Further, we become dangerous. When we feel God always has our back no matter what, we lose the ability to self-examine and recognize our need to change and grow into a more accurate depiction of Christ. On the large scale, religious terrorists feel that God is theirs and theirs alone, and they are fueled by the misconception that He will ultimately sanction whatever action they take in His name. They are wrong. Sometimes, God’s idea of “having our back” is giving us a swift kick in the butt to let us know we got off track… And that is okay.

For today, let’s take a moment to be in awe of the great Mystery that has revealed Itself to us. Let’s marvel at the all-inclusive Whole of reality, the Source of all Being, who chose to reveal Himself to us throughout history, and most especially in Jesus Christ. How about we take a moment to be utterly humbled that THAT is what went to the cross for us? I hope that, like me, you will find yourself challenged, encouraged, and feeling as loved as you really are.

Peace be with you!