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.

#UMCGC

Our Connectional Game of Thrones

A couple of weeks before United Methodists gather in Portland, Oregon for their General Conference, the highly anticipated sixth season of Game of Thrones will debut on HBO. This will be the first season to leapfrog its source material, A Song of Ice and Fire, the popular fantasy series by George R. R. Martin. The second promotional trailer for this season, released just a week ago, already has 14 million views.

Game of Thrones logoWhile Game of Thrones is a cultural phenomenon, it is also very clearly intended for a mature audience. Even though the show’s fandom assuredly includes some Methodists, there have been moments throughout that have rightly given viewers, religious or not, pause.

Of course, the same might be said of the quadrennial meeting United Methodists call General Conference. Billed as a “global church gathering” accompanied with celebratory displays of worship and recognition of Connectional work, this meeting of the denomination’s “top legislative body” can also be a babelesque confusion of cultures, values, and theology. The $10.5 million price tag for this church gathering, given the elusiveness of substantive results, also gives many pause.

Mission Accomplished and a Savior that Knows Better

Does the image accompanying this post disturb you a little? I hope it does. The juxtaposition of this dubious image of American power with the work of Christ is intentional. Despite the misguided efforts of much of the modern Church, these things are like oil and water.

Holy Week provides us an opportunity to repent and cleanse a Church that has been unfaithful in its presentation of the Gospel and in its acclimation to a culture obsessed with celebrity, success, and power.

The Church has a Jessica Alba-sized Problem

Jessica Alba’s Honest Company has a problem. It’s a problem many churches can relate to.

Founded by Alba and Christopher Gavigan, Honest Co. has built its brand on the promise of delivering environmentally-friendly personal care items for the home. It has also effectively capitalized upon America’s fixation and trust in its celebrities and our tendency to believe that we can do social good by spending money on ourselves. In a few short years, this young company has minted a “$1.7 billion private evaluation” off of their promises and artful sales of simple products at a premium.

The Honest Co. has built a strong brand around doing what is right and being, for lack of a better word, honest. And that is why The Wall Street Journal’s expose revealing the use of sodium laurel sulfate (SLS) in their laundry detergent product is so damning.  This chemical, commonly found in the products of their reviled (by them) competitors, is defined by Honest Co. as a “known irritant,” and is clearly marked as a chemical their products are “Honestly Made Without.”

Independent studies commissioned by the WSJ to verify The Honesty Co. truthiness found SLS in their laundry detergent (the one product they tested) in amounts comparable to Tide.

So much for honesty…

Jesus or Trump. Who will you follow?

Donald Trump or Jesus Christ. Who should we follow?

  • One promises to make America great again; the other rejected the Satanic temptation to rule.
  • One promises a wall and false security; the other demands hospitality for the refugee and tells us to “fear not.”
  • One dismisses his competitors calling them “Losers”; the other calls us to love and respect our enemies.

And this list could go on and on.

No politician is perfect. And a vote for one is rarely an act of devotion. Our salvation is never to be found in a Democrat or a Republican.

Still, if a religious life is to have meaning, if faith is to have some purpose, it ought to drive us toward our better angels. Discipleship calls us to discern; it begs us to choose.

  • Where the evil one tempts us with “winning,” we are called to care for those who are losing.
  • In moments where fear rises, we follow faithfully in seeking hope.
  • When empire offers its faith promises, we resist knowing that our Kin(g)dom is not of this Earth.

Jesus or Trump. Who will you follow? 

Would Solomon Cut The United Methodist Church in Two?

If there was one biblical text I could recommend for people navigating deep church conflict, it would be I Kings 3:16-28. It is a familiar story often told to illustrate the wisdom of King Solomon. In it, the fabled King is approached by two women, identified as prostitutes, who share a home and each have a baby on the same day. One child dies causing the women to fight over the remaining baby boy, each claim this surviving child to be their own.

Solomon’s solution is both ingenious and memorable. After listening to the women argue back and forth, he calls for a sword and says, “Cut the living baby in two–give half to one and half to the other.” This leads to a revelation of the real mother as one woman clearly puts the child’s welfare first saying, “Give her the whole baby alive; don’t kill him!” The other woman also reveals herself, responding instead with “If I can’t have him, cut away!”

This story came to mind as I was anticipating the build-up to this year’s General Conference of The United Methodist Church. For decades now, the denomination has been in conflict over a number of topics with differences over human sexuality topping the list. The church gathers every four years to celebrate its work, set priorities, and consider any changes to its polity contained in The United Methodist Book of Discipline. The conversations and actions of the General Conference are both enriched and complicated by the reality that the denomination is increasingly a global one.

Homeless people are using this church as a campsite

“Outside the Church of the Assumption in Brooklyn Heights, two people have made their homes under garbage bags and blankets on the sanctuary’s steps, even amid opposition from parishioners.” – NYPost

The neighbors are upset to have homeless people in their neighborhoods. Parishioners are “very offended” more isn’t done to remove them from the sanctuary’s outdoor steps. According to the Post, a young couple visiting on Sunday offered the most concern, mentioning the cold and crime.

“New York has 57,838 adults and children living in city homeless shelters.” Another 3,000 to 4,000 live on the streets. Many other major cities, and smaller towns, are wrestling with the escalating challenge of displaced people in this so-called “Christian” nation.