Nonjudgmental Christians, Part 2

Posted on

We begin with the words of James 4:11-12…

11 Brothers and sisters, do not slander one another. Anyone who speaks against a brother or sister or judges them speaks against the law and judges it. When you judge the law, you are not keeping it, but sitting in judgment on it. 12 There is only one Lawgiver and Judge, the one who is able to save and destroy. But you—who are you to judge your neighbor?

nonjudgmentalismJames makes a fundamental point about judging… when a person chooses to become a judge there is a usurping of the way things should be… a stepping out of place for the one who chooses to judge. Who am I to judge you? Who am I to act as if I am the judge and not simply a co-defendant, standing at the same level as you?

In the first week of this series we looked at the straightforward warning from Jesus that we should not judge others. It creates a reciprocal loop of judgment and easily becomes tangled our own blindness and hypocrisy. But at the same time we are told not to judge, we are also told by scripture to be involved in one another’s lives. And for that reason many Christians get really uncomfortable when we quote Jesus saying, “Do not judge.” They immediately begin qualifying the statement, basically creating loopholes for judgment.

I get the rub, I really do. When I speak of being nonjudgemental I often get a response somewhat like, “But if I see something sinful, I’m supposed to point it out!” or maybe “If I see someone in trouble, I can’t pretend that everyone is just ok and not help!” Some Christians like to speak of nonjudgementalism as being convictionless or “wishy washy.”

I see where the problem is and I do understand what is trying to be said: If I see someone hurting themselves or hurting others by their words and actions, I should not pretend that I don’t know anything is going on. I agree with that. It’s not being a very good friend or brother if someone I love is doing harm in their words and actions, but I simply stand by and watch.

Do I have to judge someone to correct them?

There are certain passages are often sited in support of actively judging the people around us: John 7:24, James 5:20, Ephesians 4:15, and 2 Thessalonians 3:11-15. These are passages I have seen and heard Christians quote as their “License to Judge.” If you want to look at those, you’re welcome to and encouraged to. But here’s deal on each… The John passage deals with people’s performance of the Law and how it is judged fulfilled or not, as Jesus is speaking to the religious pros, correcting their misjudgment.  That hardly overrides his own warning not to judge. The James passage is about correcting someone “in sin,” but of course comes a chapter after James reminds us not to judge people. The Ephesians passage is the famous (and famously abused) “speaking the truth in love,” but is in a context of building people up, not tearing them down. And the 2 Thessalonians passage is crystal clear that the offending people are not to be viewed as enemies, but as fellow believers. So, let’s move on to the real issue…

We seem to have some problem premises, some destructive ideas that we need to root out and remove from our lives and habits. I identify and list them in the following way, but they are interrelated and can be see in almost any order. These are wrong ideas…

1. For me to have convictions about right & wrong, I must be judging you or correcting you.

2. Because for me to help you, I must first judge you.

3. Because help and correction only follow judgment.

4. Judging and correcting are one and the same.

When I think in ways based on these problem premises, I cannot distinguish judging from helping, judging from correcting, or even sometimes judging from encouraging. This idea is fairly self-evident when you quote Jesus, “Do not judge” and a nearby Christian immediately says, “Yeah but…”

The bottom line is that when I allow myself to distinguish between judging and correcting, I can correct without judging. Sounds simple, but I actually have to work on this to do it well. You may sin, but I do not have to judge you a sinner, fallen, evil or wrong, before I can show you a better way. And vice versa. When I am caught in a weakness, or a moment of poor choice or wisdom, you do not have to judge me a failure to lend a helping word or hand. Jesus modeled this so well!

Neither Do I Condemn You

Jesus models a way of helping, even correcting, without judging in John 8:1-11. He says, “Neither do I condemn you.” That’s right, even when a person is caught doing wrong and guilt is not in question in any way, Jesus still begins with “Neither do I condemn you.” But Jesus! It’s a slam-dunk! This person is totally guilty… but Jesus didn’t condemn. He didn’t say, “Well, you screwed that up! Here’s what you do to fix things…” He didn’t say, “You’re so guilty, and you suck at fidelity and all, but good thing I still love ya anyway. Shape up.” He says, “Neither do I condemn you.” And in saying that, he loses absolutely no authority to correct her behavior.

Think back on John 4, as Jesus speaks with another woman, whom he knows to be living with a man out of marriage, and he doesn’t condemn either one of them. Instead, he chats with her having one of the deepest theological discussions recorded in the gospel narratives.

Think again on every single time Jesus touches the “unclean” or eats, drinks and associates with the wrong kind of people. He’s amazing in the way he reaches into people’s lives and touches them, without judging. Why can’t I do this as easily? Is it simply my ego that demands they be judged first? Jesus makes it look easy, but I know I have to work hard to retrain my heart.

I will also say this, one more thing about the passage in John 8… by the time Jesus says “Leave your life of sin” he has that person’s attention. He has an audience with her, I believe in large part, because he did not feel the need to judge her first. How many times have I lost an audience because judgment rang through in my opening remarks, or it was painted across my face? The question makes my stomach hurt, just to be honest with you.

The real test of this thing, this amazing way that Jesus modeled for us to reject condemnation and judgment, was seen on the cross. He looked at a raving crowd that demanded his death, at the soldiers who nailed him to a piece of wood, and he said, “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” What? Jesus? They do too know! They just did it! Guilt is once again crystal clear!

But for Jesus, the choice has been made to look on others without the need to judge and condemn. He doesn’t need to revel in their guilt before offering prayers for their benefit. The words from the cross need to haunt me, drive me, guide me. If I could only look at the people around me whose guilt is so certain, and begin with a love not rooted in what they’ve done or not done, then maybe I would receive the same.

I don’t judge the judgmental people. I’ve been there too many times myself. I feel the judgement sometimes rise up within me. My heart can sometimes judge, classify, label and dismiss a person faster than a super computer can process 2+2. But when I want to judge, I need to not judge. When you feel like judging, please stop it.

My heart has some growing to do. It so often feels like judgment has replaced love in my heart, by habit and experience. But didn’t someone once say, “Knowing is half the battle?”

Some thoughts on Emergent Church…

Posted on Updated on

I’m planning to come back to some more thoughts on preaching, but since my brain tends to bump and jive between multiple threads (not necessarily a good thing), I’m going to share some thoughts on the whole “emergent” church stuff first, or “emerging,” or “emergence,” whatever.

Honestly, too, I’ve lately not only had some questions put to me about it, but I’ve also read a few things that I only marginally thought had merit. Also, I’m surrounded by a church family, many of whom are new to the vocabulary of emergent and find themselves where most of us find ourselves, when painfully honest… that’s an exercise of defining emergent for myself, because we each have had a varied introduction to, experience of, and history with emergent church friendship/conversation/aspiration.

Here’s a couple of things you should know about me, in case you’ve never heard me say them out loud: 1) I self-identify as a pastor of an emergent church, 2) most of the folks in my church family are versed or becoming versed with things “emergent,” and 3) I in no way consider “emergent” to be a denomination, affiliation or even much of a genuine modifier past my own set of thoughts and definitions.

I was at a little conference hosted by our Disciples of Christ sisters and brothers in DC back in 2007 and heard Tony Jones try to share a metaphor with folks about why emergent is not a denomination, or even a reformation movement, but simply a survival move that has resonated with a lot of people. He said that he and his friends who kick started what we now call “emergent church” simply jumped ship from their Christian traditions into spiritual life-rafts in an effort to save their own faith. But amazingly, as they paddled away in their life-rafts they heard the splashing and calls of all the folks jumping ship after them and hoping to also salvage their own faiths.

That resonates with me. I was at a place where my own faith had become sullen, caged and dry. Because my church tradition was wrong? No. Because my church tradition was stupid or bad? Nope. My faith was in jeopardy because my church tradition simply didn’t have the built in receptors for a person like me. (I mean “receptors” like when certain proteins or viruses are made to connect and join together.) There were no places of safety for me to ask my questions. There was no value placed on diversity of thought or expression. So, as an individual human and as a follower of Christ, as I began trying to unpack certain parts of my life and faith, I found mostly only confusion and hostility.

Was it because I’m a “post-modern?” I suppose partly. Was it because I’m a “rebel?” At one point, yes. Today? Not so much. Could I have stayed in my tradition and made a place for folks on a spiritual journey like mine? I could not have stayed. Some of my friends who are kindred spirits have stayed, and I respect that. For me, survival meant moving on.

So, back in about 2003 I read a little book by Eddie Gibbs called ChurchNext about why we needed missionaries in America again, folks who are tooled to re-deliver the gospel in new terms and models. As a trained cross-cultural missionary, this woke me up and put words to many of the thoughts and questions with which I had previously wrestled. It also laid the ground work for me to pick up my first Brian McLaren book, More Ready Than You Realize. Brian started filling in some the terms and frameworks that I needed to find my new way of faithing. That help ultimately culminated in his Generous Orthodoxy.

More authors followed: Darrell Guder, Doug Pagitt, GK Chesterton, Richard Pascale and more. Ultimately, I found ways to express my yearnings and fill in some of the blanks… and that is the foundation for our church family in Bethesda right now… and so we are arriving at a few of my thoughts on what emergent church means to me…

Emergent gives faith a fighting chance against certainty.

That’s right, I don’t think faith is simply holding a certain set of theological definitions or affirming certain doctrinal statements. Faith is something other than certainty. I can’t believe that with all the scriptural witness to what faith is, we have so often made it an answer instead of a question. Faith is hope. Faith is yearning. Faith is trust. Faith is appetite. Faith needs to move and live and breathe. We try to make faith into the acceptance of a method and form like the four spiritual laws (easily distilled to a tract, pamphlet or sermon). We try to make the scriptures answer all our questions so that we can construct a base of certainty. We try to make a hermeneutic that can help us navigate and subdue the Holy Scriptures of our “faith” and leave no questions in doubt. Can we have faith without doubt? Really? With certainty in place, we’ve no need of faith.

Well, I found my certainty system to be severely lacking. I’ve probably investigated and found yours to be lacking, too. What I love to read about these days is your faith. I want to know how you hear God and touch the divine. Without the certainty crutch you can become frighteningly mystical, and that is necessarily a good thing. I want to hear your doubts, and how you grapple with a God who is wrapped in the deepest mystery and yet also is claimed to have walked in human flesh. That’s a God worth my time. That’s a God who defies my pamphlets and snorts when I talk about my awesome theologies. That’s a God who calls all people, for that’s a God able to wrap around all kinds of people, I hope, I trust, I faith.

Emergent gives diversity a fighting chance against conformity.

So, did I run into trouble in church because I’m a “postmodern?” Yes, I have to admit that I did. My value system just can’t support a communal structure that enforces conformity. I also can’t abide in myself an inauthentic acquiescence that screams hypocrisy from the depths of my soul. Sweet grief, I can’t even abide the idea that you’d agree with everything I’m writing and be thinking just like me! What kind of screwed up world would we have if we all thought alike? Diversity is the core of imagination. Diversity is the foundation of innovation. Diversity is flavor and color. Diversity is needed for mental, intellectual, emotional and spiritual health. When a faith system or church tradition loses diversity or moves to quell diversity, it becomes inert, that is without internal and vital motion. The same is true, I believe, for a single human soul.

Members of our church family in Bethesda claim many church traditions and often still self-identify with those traditions. And that’s awesome! We’re not post-denominational, we’re pan-denominational, or I usually say “multi-denominational.” So, my messages on Sunday mornings often have more to do with what someone might go make of my sermon ideas than what they’re supposed to agree with me about. Ergo… sermonizing as “Here’s an idea/image in scripture that I think we need to fashion a response to; Now what might that response be in your life, or our life as a worshipping community?” Diversity is fertile soil for growth.

Emergent gives a relational, gracious community a fighting chance against earned acceptance.

Let’s face the facts. If I am to be me, I’m not really welcome in very many congregations. One of the hardest things for me in my earlier years of ministry was the recurring fights and arguments with church leadership. Often, I would have taken so much time to tailor my words and finesse my communication to be non-threatening, but still end up with horrible things being said to me. I would think I had come up with the most innocuous way to say something, and then BOOM, I’d blow someone’s world apart and off we’d go down the rabbit’s hole. It took a few years, but I finally figured out that it was me, ME, who I was and how I thought was the problem. And I couldn’t just stop being me. I have tried that, by the way, and seen others choose that path, and it leads to spiritual death.

We have to relearn how to practice a very authentic and whole-hearted welcome. We have to relearn how to love each other whether we agree on some things or not. People, including ourselves, must be able to walk into the life of a faith community with a full, intact and immediate worth and dignity. If we withhold that on any basis of merit, we have sinned, and sinned mightily.

We’ve spent to much time deciding and communicating who wasn’t welcome. We’ve spent too much time “protecting” the church to let it be porous enough to admit some of the most needful folks in our society and some of the folks we’ve most needed among us. In our rush to certainty we’ve forgotten to trust God. In our unreasonable fear of God and of messing up that solid base of certainty, we’ve not allowed ourselves to love as God loves or risk ourselves as God so amazingly risked personhood in the life and death of Jesus who was the Christ. Walled-in communities and souls risk a death of stale inertness.

I never thought I would say this and really mean it, but I would so attend worship with my church family, even if I weren’t their pastor! I love those folks! Man, some of them are screwed up, almost as bad as I am! Some hold political opinions or theological ideas that scare me, really. Some can’t sing on key and some truly share nothing in common with me. I love them all! They love each other. It sounds stupid and fake, but we have to love each other. You don’t come to us to have your belief/certainty system validated! Truth is, it’s our love for one another and for God that allows transformation among us. It’s the tension of our diversity that fires the kinetic joy, peace and imagination among us. We practice an authentic welcome because we each depend on it and need it so much.

Wow. This is a long post. And it only has three thoughts in it so far. But I have to lay just one more out here, before I chicken out totally…

Emergent gives dynamic, “becoming” faith a chance against a completed, static system.

I was once asked if I didn’t think the scriptures provided a complete “Christian Worldview.” My answer then, as it is now, was no. What I felt I was really being asked was if I couldn’t see that the Bible gives us a single answer to every moral and ethical, methodological and theological question which confronts humanity in each epoch, place, generation and situation. My answer reflected my belief that we are not ultimately called to parrot doctrinal and moralized statements generation after generation, but called to be thinking, processing, growing agents of eternal life. If calling faith “appetite” didn’t make you grimace then the implications for church of that last little ditty should have. My humble opinion is that our loss of becoming, our loss of identity as contemporary agents of eternal life, is why so many church buildings stand empty today and why so many congregations devour books on how to keep a dying congregation alive. We’ve traded off an amazing invitation to become something for the consolation prize of belonging to something.

If we aren’t allowed to “become” church just like the lucky folks living in 70A.D. or 325A.D. or 1500A.D., then we become the simplest minded, however clever, copy-cats the cosmos has ever created, and most of the unbelieving world’s criticisms of us become well-earned. For some of you, I just stopped being a “Bible Believing Christian” because I thoroughly undermined the authority of scripture. All I can say is this: I love, cherish and cling to our scriptures. They guide me, admonish me and uphold me. I love our scriptures and the community of souls whose story they share and invite us to be a part of… but I don’t worship the scriptures or follow them in place of a living God. Fact is, it’s in the scriptures that I see the call to become.

Now, if we are allowed to become, then it’s an imperative that we hold to faith and love, without which we fracture in our diversity and lose touch with one another in a hurry. BEWARE: What I become may not be what you need to become! The scariest things for me to hear is someone saying, “We’re the only true emergent blah, blah…” or something like that. Go catch the wind and put it in your pocket, my friend. “Emergent” is not what we are becoming. “Emergent” is not just a new way of conforming and belonging. What I am becoming, what you are becoming, that’s all God’s business. And the day that “emergent” stops facilitating that becoming, I’m moving on, I promise.

Emergent stuff is a dangerous game we play, as dangerous and threatening as any relationship we’ve ever pursued with another person, but the rewards! The joy of the kind of community and running with God that this emergent conversation, friendship, and aspiration has afforded me! It’s been well worth every momoment.

Some Thoughts on Preaching, Part One

Posted on Updated on

Several conversations this past year have had me thinking about writing something about the practice of preaching. I’ve sat with several folks from my church family and responded to questions about my preaching style and habits, and I suppose that what I want to do here is share some of that with you. This is part one of that effort.

Why share thus stuff?

Am I tooting my own horn or flexing my pretentious muscles? I really hope not. But, I think it’s important to talk about things from individual perspectives and experiences. When we do that we find out that we’re not nearly as unique or alone as we tend to think. So, I guess I’m trolling for kindred spirits as I do this, friends trying to make a similar path. I wasn’t trained to preach as I do, so it’s been an odd journey for me to do different things and attempt new methods. Sometimes it has soared with eagles and other times hidden in the mud with worms, but I find that experience far more authentic and life-like than the many idealized preachers of my youth who became more and more distanced from us and God because of a rigid preaching practice until they fell into the worst sins against which they weekly railed. As is probably the case for most church leaders, I am deeply concerned with the lives and souls of the people who look to me for leadership, but I’m also hoping to live the life eternal now and always for myself.

Here are a few things I don’t tend to do…

I don’t ever read a prepared sermon.

If you are trained to do this, and you enjoy it, and you minister with a church family that appreciates it, don’t change a thing! I found that I could not engage my listeners when I engaged the paper. My experience has been that younger generations, unless trained otherwise by seminary or church experience, tend not to respond positively to the sermons being read to them. I think it has to do with the way the younger gens interpret and recognize a couple of crucial things: authenticity and relationship.

Did I just say that written sermons aren’t sincere and authentic? Nope. I said that I’ve found the younger gens, and many from the older ones, are finding a prepared and read sermon to feel less engaging, and therefore not seeming authentic to the life of the speaker. That’s my experience when trying to encode messages for my listeners… and it resonates with me as well.

The idea of relationship is probably even more important and really impacts the idea of a speaker’s authenticity. Younger gens are way more relational these days, and they often hear you or don’t hear you based on their relationship or perceived relationship to you. I believe that to be a fairly true generalization. Many younger folks just aren’t looking for the “power” image in preachers, but instead want someone who can relate to and connect with them at empathetic levels.

Of course the kingdom still has plenty of room it seems for the styled hair, capped teeth and prosperity models who build some of our mega-churches. Cool. That’s no skin of my bald head, not so pristine teeth and jeans. I don’t go into Sunday mornings looking like a slob, nor a poster child, but just me. I’ve found the effort worth the dividends of trust and grace that my church family folks are willing to extend to me.

I don’t like to draw a closed circuit of conclusions.

I don’t think that what I have to say should ever be the final word on something, or that my conclusions are the necessary conclusions for each of my listeners. What? But aren’t preachers paid to think for us, study for us and tell us what the coolest theological trends might be for the day? Aren’t we actually saved by our rightness regardless of our lip service to grace and faith?

I don’t try to complete some of the ideas I’m preaching because I intend for them to be germinal in my listeners. My applications tend to be exploratory. I genuinely invite folks to chew on what I’m saying and give me alternative conclusions or ideas. I’ve been broadened many times by my church folks coming to me with alternatives and additions to what I’m talking about, and I often include those points or reference their thoughts on a following Sunday. The classical form of a sermon that has an introduction, three points and a conclusion is more of “take it or leave it” situation than one in which a person in invited to grow and take their time. Simply put, I don’t expect my listeners to accept everything I say in a message at face value or in the moment of hearing my words… I’ve had a while to play with my ideas and conclusions, digest them and throw them through some tests before any given Sunday morning. It would be un-neighborly not to allow my listeners some time to digest and incorporate the ideas, and improve on them in the effort.

Humility seems to call for a bit of openness and invitation to many of a preacher’s conclusions. After all, I am one person, and God’s Spirit lives in the many persons surrounding me. If I have faith that God’s Spirit is a present, convicting agent in peoples’ lives, then I carry no less of a burden as preacher, but a little different of a burden, one shared with my church folks, not imposed on them.

At the risk of making any comparison between myself and Jesus, which would be a huge mistake for me, I’d ask you to consider how many times Jesus threw some teaching out and then walked off leaving people scratching their heads, frustrated or confused, but also processing and deeply involved in what he had said, though maybe not what he concluded.

I try not to move in a linear fashion through points A to D, 1 to 5, etc.

Mostly, linear communication leads to two great evils: 1) alliteration, and 2) lazy listening. I’m doing my part to kill both practices in the world. Seriously, I can remember in one of my earliest preaching class experiences when the teacher was trying to help us grasp the finer points of outlining our messages and ended up with sub-points A) thru Q) on the board under his second main point. No kidding. It forever altered my perception of the job of a preacher.

Of course, I don’t think that everyone who practices alliteration is evil or dumb, I’m just wore out on the five P’s of this and sixteen J’s of that. Alliteration takes valuable energies that could be much better spent in service to the church and the world. I involuntarily tune out the moment I see sermon notes that have five blank lines all beginning with a capital “U:” because we’re getting the five great U’s of uber discipleship. OK, I don’t just tune out, my mind changes channels and rips off the tuner knob. And, though maybe not all preachers are crass enough to say it out loud, I simply preach the way I want to listen. That’s why not every preacher is right for every listener. I usually say it another way… if I’m not comfortable and enjoying myself, then I bet my listeners aren’t either.

And I think linear messages can lead directly to lazy listening. You know what lazy listening is right? That’s like when someone listens through a whole sermon, shakes hands afterward and compliments the preacher, and immediately moves on with life with nothing better than hopefully a subconscious plant to later haunt them. Lazy listening engenders no questioning of what the speaker just said, it engenders no curiosity or creativity, and it certainly never leads to interrupting the speaker during the message.

I think that classical American preaching set out to do two things, to inform and to convict. So my grandparents were trained to sit and receive information during a sermon and maybe be convicted to do something. These two movements were the meat and bread of persuasion. My grandparents’ generation really believed that they should listen to a sermon because it was good for them to do so, sort of like eating broccoli was supposed to be a good thing.

Later, some preacher with too much time on his/her hands decided to plant a joke in their sermon, and the modern preacher was born… now we’re going to inform, convict and make them like us, too! How liberating and exciting for a tired preacher! Critics of this new paradigm shift invariably call this the “entertainment” model of sermonizing. The more jealous they are of a preacher’s ability to be liked is directly related to their time spent calling it entertainment, even though that preacher is usually still playing the same old game of informing and trying to convict his/her audience. So, my parents were trained to sit and listen, but they really lived for the next humorous story or tear-jerking anicdote. They were willing eat their broccoli, but now demanded some melted cheese on top, because really!

Listen, I’ve done all that! I’ve laid out my points, I’ve brought the Reader’s Digest to bear on important topics, and I’ve tried to bring folks down front during fifteen verses of Just As I Am with tearful pleas between each verse. But these days I’m more interested in getting people engaged than persuaded. I would be just as happy if one of my sermons made someone go be a student of the Bible in an attempt to prove me wrong then because I was so eloquent. I’d love to think that our circular weave through paintings, scripture and life one Sunday morning caused an artist to think about writing a new song or putting brush to canvas. I would often rather one of my sermons leave you with a big question than a big answer. Why? Because I don’t fear God blasting you for something you don’t know more than I hope for you to seek God in a new way, a new question or a renewed period of reflection.

Then again, someone might do what I usually do when listening to a sermon… often I hear a word or phrase early on and disconnect because it’s sent me off on a grand chase down some rabbit hole of scripture or reflection. I’m always grateful to the preacher for kicking off that journey for me, though I probably didn’t hear their message’s conclusion, much less was I persuaded by it. But I did engage. Folks are welcome to do the same during my sermons.

Really… look again at Jeremiah 31:33-34, especially the second part: “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD.  “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will they teach their neighbors, or say to one another, ‘Know the LORD,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the LORD. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” Sounds like the end of preaching as a profession, huh? Maybe it is, or maybe it is a reminder that God wants a lot more engendered in the hearts of all the people than in the pulpits and sermons of the churches. Maybe this new covenant hope has been stalled because we keep wanting folks more focussed on what we’re saying than what we’re releasing them to experience.

I’ll stop here. I’m almost ranting, and that’s not always constructive. Peace!