When Jesus refuses to be crucified

I grew up in a conservative part of the country where women preachers weren’t a thing. People exited the Lutheran church our family belonged to because the denomination was discussing women in leadership (beyond Sunday School). While no change was actually made, some members left to form a new church in an even more conservative synod assumedly to avoid such conversations again.

Eventually I went east for seminary and most of my classmates were women, many around my mother’s age, experiencing a new freedom at the time to pursue a call to ministry. While I grew more comfortable with women in leadership positions because of this, deep seated prejudice still lingered. When my wife started to express and pursue her own call to ministry a few years later, I supported her but peppered her with well-intentioned, to my mind at the time, questions about the ability of women to lead in a culture that didn’t want them to.

I’m thankful that my slow acclimation to change didn’t hold her back.

As rooted as my reservations were in my own prejudice, they weren’t completely fictional either. While the ordination of women is, more or less, a settled issue in the denomination I belong to, female clergy are still caught at times between justice and the residual sexism that lingers in many congregations and in our society at large. The first female pastor at a church is still required to carry an extra burden beyond her pastoral duties. If she is excellent in all ways the church might welcome the next female pastor to come their way, but if she is like most people, imperfect, those faults can reinforce a narrative bubbling just below the surface.

Over the past forty or so years, much maligned mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church have taken official positions aligning themselves with minority groups, and those without power, because thoughtful leaders believed that it was the right thing to do. Despite the narrative of the conservative right, that these churches were simply accommodating themselves to culture, churches stepped up at a time where there was no clear benefit for doing so. If mainline denominations should be accused of anything, it might be their failure to publicly, and repeatedly, acknowledge that death (or a certain lack of popularity) is a likely cost of following Jesus.

For example, in the Pacific Northwest I can think of several progressive churches that affirmed and supported equal rights for gays and lesbians in cities like Seattle before it was culturally acceptable, and long before marriage equality was a real possibility. They did so because they were in the community, they knew the people, could see the pain, and were moved in love to respond. These faith communities often suffered distain (and worse) from other Christians for doing so despite the hard work they did to pioneer new understandings and applications of an old, old story. And as public opinion has shifted toward inclusion, these same churches are now accused of simply following culture despite a clear history that is in conflict with that narrative.

There have always been followers of Jesus, like myself, who have allowed caution, or prevailing wisdom, to get in the way of their calling to pick up the cross and do what it right. Most of Jesus’ disciples, with the exception of a few brave women, were among that number on the day Jesus was crucified. Eventually we get there but we need the prophetic foresight of those who walk ahead.

But there is a more problematic sort of disciple that confuses numerical success with God’s blessing. Jesus had some of these disciples around him too, urging him to assert himself and lead the people in violent revolution. Jesus had the apparent sense to know how short lasting that sort of revolution would have been; unfortunately we don’t always embody that wisdom.

During Holy Week it’s worth remembering that our calling, as followers of Jesus, is to the cross. We may have the promise of resurrection to anticipate, but that is distinct from our calling. Resurrection is God’s work, not ours.

Discerning why some churches grow while others die is a complicated thing, made even more so when we fail to acknowledge the diversity of congregational expressions held within labels like mainline, non-denominational, evangelical, etc. No one factor accounts for everything and shrewd leaders, and sincere disciples, aren’t all cut from one cloth. Sometimes failure is the result of poor leadership, ineptitude, or societal shifts (like where people live) beyond the control of any single congregation.

But when we look at something like the growth trajectories of mainline denominations and non-denominational churches, and fail to acknowledge that there is a cost to being faithful to the Gospel’s demands to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly, we neglect to acknowledge our calling to the cross. We also, unintentionally perhaps, present to the world a Jesus who refuses to be crucified, a cautious Christ that prefers the crowds to the cross.

Societal change doesn’t happen overnight, and institutions (which can, despite my GenX cynicism, be capable of much good) do require leaders who can manage the proverbial temperature. Their work can provide sacred and necessary space for conversation and transformation.

But we must always keep in mind Jesus’ paradoxical calling to us, that we might die to ourselves so that we might truly live.

Any honest interpretation of Good Friday begs us to consider again, in what ways might we die so that others might have life?


Postscript: While some of the preceding may read like a full-throated endorsement of progressive Christianity, it is not intended as such. The failure to collectively embrace discipleship as a serious task, to adopt innovative ways to communicate, teach and worship, and a reluctance in many places to trust the people of the church with modern biblical and theological conversations are all areas of concern. Well-intentioned or not, this can leave the laity in such places politically opinionated but strangely disempowered from the rich theological thought that undergirds some of the positions they have adopted.

 

Extraordinarily Clear #muslimban

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Just to be extraordinarily clear, a country has the sovereign right to close its borders to people it deems undesirable or dangerous. It can build large, magnificent walls and secure its airports and other ports of entry.

An organization, or any gathering of people, can define for themselves who belongs and who doesn’t. They can decide that certain people believe the wrongs things or live the wrong way and shun those who don’t fit.

As individuals, we all have free will and we can choose to empower our fears in the form of a demagogue or some set of exclusionary practices. We can even select alternative words for this like ‘Security,’ ‘faith’ and ‘freedom’ if that makes us feel better about it.

What a country, organization, or individual can’t do is think themselves a Christian nation, the capital ‘C’ Church, or profess themselves to be a follower of Christ while they chose something other than love.

The Bible isn’t extraordinarily clear on as much as I might like it to be, but in this area, it is very hard to read around some inconvenient themes:

“Be not afraid.”

“You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

The themes of resisting fear and offering hospitality don’t just appear in a few scattered texts here or there; they are woven throughout the Bible in such a way that were one to remove these threads they would unravel the very image of God there contained.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

The immigrant we turn out from our communities, the refugees that we stop and send back to danger, the person who doesn’t look, act or think like us; they all might be devils bent on our destruction. Living in fear, that is who they remain.

But for the follower of Jesus, the possibility, the promise, that they might be something more – an angel or even Jesus himself – is the starting point of our engagement. We are people “whose citizenship is in heaven” called to live fearlessly so that we might love freely.

We can choose to live in fear or we can be free to love. The choice for Christians may not be easy but it is extraordinarily clear.

Mirror, mirror on the wall…

The problem with Facebook is that it is a big mirror; a mirror with a financial incentive to tell us that we are beautiful.

In this mirror we see the things we want to see. Our politics are the right politics; our beliefs highly reasonable. Our pets, vacations, children, and food are always like-able.

And when we see an imperfection, Facebook gives us the tools to deal with it post haste. When someone advocates a position we don’t like, we can ignore it, or delete them altogether. If only middle school acne was so compliant.

Facebook is a problem because we are a problem. Our behavior draws the circle around us ever closer and closer. The echo chamber we have created tells us that we are wise. Our selfie-obsessed culture offers little critique or alternative.

Simple advice from Jesus to a divided electorate

After months of negative campaigning, it is easy to understand our growing ability to talk past, around, and at each other. Unintended or not, each negative ad or talking point belittling Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump yields collateral impact upon those who identify with the message of each. A surplus of evidence can be provided to document our declining empathy for those who see this election, or country, differently. Even if we never raise a fist in violence, we are all left feeling as if we are at war.

People being in conflict is nothing new, even if we have created to platforms (like social media) to weaponize our distain for each other like drones flying over the Middle East. Jesus understood the toxic nature of anger and hatred. Even when we believe these negative feelings are justified, or imagine that we hold them in some ostensibly depersonalized way, they are corrosive upon our relationships with others and to our spirits.

While we cling to our self-righteousness, Jesus challenges us:

To you who are ready for the truth, I say this:

Love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.

If someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer for that person.
If someone slaps you in the face, stand there and take it.
If someone grabs your shirt, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it.
If someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life.

No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.
Luke 6.27-30, The Message

People can choose how they want to react to the election. If their favorite candidate wins, they may choose to gloat and hold it over their enemies. If their candidate loses, they may turn to physical violence, or a political version of the same.

Christians who seek to follow Jesus are not afforded those choices. Win or lose, our calling is to love our enemies, end of debate.

Trump or Clinton? It is a question that the world will obsess over for a short time now, God-willing. Regardless of the outcome, we might expect months of acrimony and finger-pointing.

Christians have a better question to obsess themselves with. Do our actions post election bear witness to Jesus who tells us to love our enemies? If we can we preoccupy ourselves with this question, the process of healing can begin for us and perhaps for our nation as well.

Towers, schism, and the confusion of The United Methodist Church

As a child I was fascinated with the Biblical story about the Tower of Babel. Take a minute and read it. It’s short; I’ll wait right here.

Then they said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city, and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves; otherwise we shall be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.”

The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built.

And the Lord said, “Look, they are one people, and they all have one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.

Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city.

Therefore it was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the earth; and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of all the earth.

– Genesis 11:4-9, New Revised Standard Version

We like to build things. It is part of who we are.

Music, sculpture, cinema, dance, architecture, and language. This creative drive so present in our culture is a reflection of the one who shaped us. Working together, there is indeed very little that seems impossible. Some of our creations are amazing in both form and utility; most have an expiration date the second they spring forth from our imaginations. We forget this.

The story of Babel’s tower is still as striking to me today as it was when I was a child. Then, I used to imagine an immense skyscraper nearing the heavens in such literal ways. Today, I find such a curious metaphor for human ambition and divine limitations upon the same.

This old, old story of Babel’s tower still has some wisdom to impart. While it proposes to explain the origins of our many languages, it also establishes a certain confusion as our baseline reality. It’s not hard to imagine that we continue to live in the world it describes, one where assumptions about the ‘other’ replace deep understanding. Despite our best efforts, we can never quite close the space between.

For the most part, we have learned to adapt to this baseline of confusion by creating things that make sense within the limited context of their construction. When these things are threatened, we build walls. This is how a piece of art can be deeply experienced by some, even as revelatory, yet repulsive to another. And it is why a system designed to connect and direct people toward a common purpose might be experienced as empowering by some, and felt as restrictive and harmful by others.

On the day of Pentecost, as recorded in The Book of Acts, the Holy Spirit visited the early Church and for a moment She broke through our baseline of confusion in a literal way. Each disciple was given the gift to speak in other languages, bewildering those who gathered, each hearing their native tongues being spoken. This reversal of God’s own action at Babel is instructive in helping us to understand how God builds the Church.

In a way, the Church is God’s answer to our towers. With the simple gifts of the Spirit, the most important being love, Christians have and continue to experience this church whenever they break bread together, allow grace to permeate their relationships, and the Spirit to cultivate empathy and curiosity about one another. Where we are tempted to build up first, God builds out, networking us together to provide a firm foundation for the work we are called to do.

But we are still attracted to our towers. Quite often with the best of intentions, we look to understand, define, and order the experiences that we have had believing that these laws, the patterns we recognized at one moment in time and space, will work the same for all others in perpetuity. And the higher our towers get, the easier it becomes to put our faith in these structures as the foundation is now so very far below.

Over the 15 or so years that I’ve been a United Methodist, I’ve experienced a church that is both deeply divided and very united. I’ve met conservative and progressive Methodists willing to connect to, and hold generous relationships with, those across the proverbial aisle. And I’ve met liberals and traditionalists whose rancorous nature made it impossible for respectful dialogue or much common practice.

Understanding that our human constructs have limits is essential to recognizing the problems The United Methodist Church faces today. At moments of deep division, we should ask ourselves:

  • Did we reach too high? Are we attempting to build something without the Spirit?
  • Is our polity unintentionally supplanting the work of Christ, our firm foundation?
  • Do we hold healthy distinctions between denominational identity, theological affinity, and unity in Christ?

Unity isn’t something any denominational commission or task force can create or take away. No association or caucus who mistakes the fuzzy elation of hive mind for God’s heart will get us any closer either. At their best, such groups might help us to look more generously upon each other and alleviate the labors of the Spirit upon our hardened hearts.

The good news is that the Church unity we should seek first is simple, if costly, and always available to us. What truly unites the Church is not doctrinal consensus or perfect piety. The love we are given, the grace we receive and extend to others, is what binds Christ’s Church. When we can see Christ in the other, no matter our disagreement, we are united. When we can no longer see Christ in them, no matter our fidelity to our towers of rules and regulations, we have left our foundational network behind.

By this measure of Church, where one stands is less important than how one stands. People who really care about Church unity will invest in relationships, not rules. They will double down on love, not law. They realize that unity is in the foundation and that there is a risk in building too high.

It’s a shame that our ability to create is not always matched by an ability to order the same with grace. The structures we build may have their limits but they can be so very useful in helping us to meet the needs of a hurting world.

And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.

-1 Corinthians 13:2, NRSV

 

Real Christians should be thanking Donald Trump

When Khizr Khan spoke last week at the Democratic National Convention it was powerful. In a short and pointed speech, Khan poked a large hole in all the vitriol and bluster that is the Donald Trump campaign, exposing him as an ignorant xenophobe whose self-portrait as public servant is plainly fraudulent. If you haven’t watched it yet, you should take a few minutes to do so.

Of course, Khan’s speech wouldn’t have been so effective if we didn’t already know these truths to be self-evident, as they say. As we hit the weekend we saw Trump, once again, display his habitual inability to respond with any grace or empathy for another, in this case for the Muslim parents of a son who had given his life for this country and his fellow soldiers. Rebukes from veteran’s groups and many others followed.

It is hardly hyperbolic to suggest that we may never see a major party candidate for the highest office in the land that is as clearly bigoted and anti-Christian as Donald Trump. Throughout the campaign Trump has regularly bullied his political opponents, acted with remarkably little self-discipline, and made numerous statements in clear conflict with any plain reading of the teachings of Jesus.

So why should real Christians thank Donald Trump?

We should thank Donald Trump because he is doing a fantastic job of exposing the metaphorical wolves amongst the sheep in Christianity. We have had a problem for years with so-called Christian leaders who made political deals to advance their own interests and brands (upon which they can more effectively sheer the sheep). Perhaps not all of these leaders had bad intentions but in meddling in politics with so little grace, they have all been contributors to the divisiveness we see in this country and the increasingly negative views that emerging generations have of the church as a whole.

The church has struggled to rebuke many of these so-called leaders despite the great damage they have done. The diversity within Protestantism, and to a lesser degree Catholicism, makes it difficult to discern the boundaries of what is faithful and what isn’t. But with his clear and public disregard for the broad spectrum of Christian virtues, Trump makes himself difficult for an informed follower of Jesus to stomach (of course, many good people are relatively uninformed) and impossible for faithful Christian leaders to endorse (as an endorsement suggests that the endorsee is informed).

Any pastor or evangelist who is publicly promoting this candidate is either delusional or motivated by an ideology in conflict with the Gospel (party loyalty, fear, hate, power, etc.). It’s the only way to explain how a “Christian leader” like James Dobson could argue that Trump “appears to be tender to things of the Spirit.” In fairness, Dobson doesn’t define what Spirit and is joined by other partisan evangelical leaders in lining up behind Trump (and notably not joined by others).

If you are watching such an evangelist or pastor on television, do yourself a favor and change the channel. If you are attending their church, explain your concerns and if they go unheeded, find a new community. Your soul will thank you, and so will your country.

Now politics are a messy thing; this is a truth as old as Scripture. No political party is perfectly aligned with the Christian faith, even in the abstract. There are politicians in each of the major politcal parties capable of making the baby Jesus cry. Still, faith that is worth having, has real world implications. It should inform the decisions we make, including who we might vote for.

In this election, there really is one choice that is simply unconscionable; his name is Donald J. Trump. Let us thank him for providing a moment of clarity and work zealously to call out the wolves who have, for years now, been preying upon the sheep who they should have been praying with.


Credit: Photo of Donald Trump by Flickr user Michael Vadon, CC BY-SA 2.0.

I’m tired of pretending (and of conferencing) – #WJUMC

I’m not a big fan of pretending.

We all do it of course. We pretend to be happy when we aren’t. We pretend to like dinner when we didn’t. We have dedicated entire genres to the art of pretending; some of our favorite things are born in these worlds of science fiction and fantasy.

Pretending has an undeniable value. Pretending plays an important role in child development fostering social and cognitive skills and igniting creativity. Adults can use role-playing and other forms of pretending to spark their own creativity and to troubleshoot challenges they face.

But there is also a time when pretending ceases to be helpful.

There is a lot to love about our Methodist practice of conferencing. Together, Methodists have done good work together saving lives and committing resources to greater efficiency. I’ve seen relationships develop across divides, and there is most certainly value in knowing that we are not alone in this big world.

What I don’t appreciate about our practice of conferencing is all the misdirected pretending.

It has long been acknowledged that many churches struggle to create safe places for authenticity. Where we ought to be able to bring our struggles and troubles, instead, we often feel we need to dress them up with fine clothes and fake smiles. Building real Christian community is hard, time consuming, work.

Some churches have found that small groups help because they allow folks to more easily get beyond pretense to intimacy. Trust is hard earned in these days of political polarization, quick judgment and superficiality. Where a hard truth might easily be discarded as a harsh judgment coming from an acquaintance or even from the pulpit, in relationship the same words might take root leading toward transformation – or they may never be spoken because relationships help us all to understand context and appreciate nuance.

Still we come together at our annual, jurisdictional, and general conferences and spend a lot of time (and money) pretending that the Spirit is with us absent the love, grace, and trust we may once have had for each other. We imagine good preaching and excellence in music can erase ugly words and cynical politicking. We pretend that we are looking to our bishops for leadership but really we just want them to take our side.

Perhaps Jesus never intended for us to build such ziggurats of institutionalized religiosity. Maybe they just don’t work as well today as they did in the past.

Perhaps uniformity fit better when missional context was just a rough edge to sand away. Maybe things were easier when we didn’t have the Internet around to expose how love often allowed for divine deviation.

I mentioned earlier that pretending can actually serve a positive purpose. Perhaps we are just pretending in the wrong direction.

Imagine for a moment that you are a little boy playing with his Star Wars figures. You have a choice of playmates this afternoon and your mother wants to know which friend you wish to visit.

Your first friend is a delight to play with. Together you dream up new worlds to save from the evil clutches of the Galactic empire. You aren’t thoroughly convinced that her Care Bears are “the same as Ewoks” but you roll with it anyway. Your mother always seems to pick you up too early.

Your second friend is a little different. Whenever your Luke Skywalker figure determines the best path to victory, this friend quickly presents a reason why Luke can’t do what you need him to do. And before you know it, his Darth Vader is force choking your doll. End of story.

If you are looking at these options as a reasonable adult, it’s very likely that you would choose to play with the first friend. If you really got into role-playing as a little boy, you may have made a different, poorer, choice. How little kids develop gender-bias is a conversation for another day.

What I would put before you, as I end this post, is the choice we never seem to make as a larger church. When we come together for our Connectional playdates, we most often choose the second friend’s form of pretending, that is pretending in the negative. We spend hours defining what we can’t do, obsessively limiting the possibilities of our Methodist sisters and brothers, and thus, potentially quenching the Spirit that moves is ways we can’t predict (John 3:8).

Instead, we could choose to pretend together as this little boy does when he visits his first friend. This positive pretending would allow us to dream together about what God is calling us to. We might have to overlook the fact that our playmate has brought Care Bears to a Star Wars battle, but the energy lost obsessing over those details, trying to deliver what we may believe to be a hard truth, is more than we frankly have.

So as we head into this final conference of the quadrennium, I am tired of pretending and looking forward to a day where we might dream up new possibilities together again. I hope I am not alone in this.


Image Credit: Composite image from source files by Flickr user JD Hancock.