Christ

The Dream of Christ: Our Love for One Another

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Version 2One more blog for today, and then I’m off to get other things done… 

We wrapped up a month’s discussion on diversity this past Sunday at Church in Bethesda by talking about the dream of Jesus, a dream of unity and love. It is so much easier in times of our diversity to express anger, distrust and judgement… but that is exactly when Jesus comes in and starts talking about love.

You know it’s real when we’re busting out the chalkboard on a Sunday morning, huh? Yes, I could have projected something on a screen, but the sound of snapping chalk sticks on a board is so much more gratifying!

A Sunday Bulletin excerpt from this past weekend:

     What does it look like when Jesus dreams? Did he have a dream for us and for humanity that we can see in his life and ministry? It’s not only seen in John’s gospel, but John’s account of Jesus shows us the dream many times… love. He dreamed, and even commanded, that we would love one another, in our humanity, our diversity, our greatness and our brokenness, and in that love we would be one.

     This morning, we gather around a table that is meant to be a reminder of and an exercise of unifying love. This is a table where we put others first, where we discern one another as Christ’s body, where we gather for what our faith tribe has often called a “Love Feast.” If only our love would be always tangible enough to sit with and see on a table and taste with our lips and experience as we experience a filling and satisfying meal. Unifying love is the dream of our Christ. Love is the dream and the prayer of our Lord for us.

Love was the example of Jesus, for all kinds of people from many walks of life. Think of the times in the Gospel of John like when Jesus is found talking to someone of the wrong religion, gender, nationality and ethnicity… John 4. How about the time when Jesus masterfully and nonviolently prevents a stoning and says, “Neither do condemn you”John 8. And when he washed the feet of his disciples, serving and loving them, that included the man to soon betray him… John 13. One of my favorite verses has long been John 13:1, It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Good stuff. Good love.

Love was the command of Jesus, for all kinds of people from many walks of life. Jesus famously instructs us to love our enemies… Matthew 5. Jesus commands his disciples to love as he loved, in service and sincerity… John 13. And who can forget the awesome way Jesus summed up Law and religion: Love God and Love PeopleMatthew 22. In John 13 he not only commands love but says that it is by our loving one another that we will be recognized as his followers.

Love was the prayer of Jesus, for all kinds of people from many walks of life. Jesus not only prayed for a love-bound unity for the disciples in his day, but for all followers who would come later and walk his path… John 17.

Love was the example of Jesus, the command of Jesus and the prayer of Jesus, so we can confidently say: love was the dream of Jesus. When Jesus dreamed, it was of the love we would create among us. That love brings us together, unites us and alerts everyone around that some Jesus-stuff is happening. Let’s embrace the dream and run with it!

Diversity of thought, experience and background are grounds for more love, not less. Diversity among us is grounds for loving deeper, listening better and building bridges… not loving elsewhere, closing ears and burning bridges. Love. Dream on.

AMDG, Todd

Old Time Religion

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Old Time Religion: Why I’m a Jesus Fan Boy

religion jesus taughtLet’s be real at the outset… I’m a white guy who grew up in Texas. When the phrase old time religion gets bandied around I automatically hear banjoes in my head and start quoting scripture in the Authorized King James Version. If at any point while reading this post you begin to hear banjoes or an inordinate number of thee’s and thou’s, keep calm and know it does pass.

I do want to talk a little about old time religion, but a bit older than either the banjo or the KJV. It may seem a bit odd, but current media/faith messes like the Kentucky clerk who uses her personal faith to undermine other people’s civil rights are just the kind of things that remind me why I’m such a Jesus fan boy. I love Jesus, so much. I want the kind of religion, the old time religion, that he taught.

Jesus was always serving and calls us to serve. The work of Jesus was not marked by a denial of service to people not like him. He didn’t seem to have a test of deservedness or reciprocity before offering himself to those around him. Looking closely at the gospel accounts we find people, even his closest friends, constantly wondering why he’s talking to someone that he shouldn’t be talking to. But that’s just Jesus. And it’s what Jesus calls us to do, today. I don’t hate that poor county clerk in Kentucky; I blame the pastors and preachers who taught her that her faith sets her apart and above others in a way that permits her to judge them and deny them their legal rights as fellow citizens. I blame the folks who are egging her on and supporting her illegal and unconstitutional actions in such a way that it sounds like liberty and freedom are not Christian ideas. Liberty and freedom are not antithetical to our faith but part of the foundation of our old time religion.

Jesus loved people, all kinds of people, and calls us to the same. Man, Jesus loved people. All people. The Jesus who said “do not judge” also refused to throw a single stone. He walked his talk. He felt no need whatsoever to judge people before giving them grace. He didn’t need to point out and sermonize their faults before reaching out to heal them. The only exception to this was when he spoke to the religious leaders of the day who did not love as they should be loving. Their faults and sins he clearly enumerated. The only hell-fire and brimstone homilies from Jesus were directed at the religious elite. I am such a fan of this Jesus who had no time whatsoever for the religious establishment when it strayed from the work of God. This is something that every pastor and preacher needs to keep in mind, every day and every Sunday when we stand to make a proclamation.

me at my baseJesus did not repay violence with violence, and he taught us to also break the cycles of violence. Jesus did not strike back. Jesus did not taunt Satan when he was tempted and did not raise an army against those who sought his life. But we’ve created a Jesus culture that weirdly smashes him up somewhere between a Mighty Morphin Power Ranger and Rambo with the barest hint of Ghandi’esque rhetoric and dress. We have at times made as a much a violent caricature of Jesus as we daily condemn Islamic extremists for doing with the concept of jihad in their own religion. Jesus taught us to turn the other cheek, and then did it himself as he stood before Pilate and defined his kingdom as one that did not fight the battles of this world, did not fight back and did not seek world domination. How have we strayed so far from our old time religion? Christians who fight daily for their religious convictions to override their fellow citizens’ freedoms have gone past the edge of the map, folks. They have moved off the path.

Yes, I know that Jesus cleared the Temple courts. I have had people throw that at me before as an example of a violent Jesus. Really? The Temple event falls in the same basket with the condemnation of the religious leaders. Jesus did not go to the courts of Governor Pilate or King Herod to re-order reality, he did it at the Temple. He went to the heart of religiosity and demanded people stop abusing others in God’s name. Once again Jesus is moving against the religious establishment to reassert some humanity and care of people. He quotes a passage that highlights what he is trying to do; the Temple was to be a place of connecting with God and spiritual blessing, not a place of usury where people are relegated to monetary transactions. He is not recorded to have struck anyone, killed anyone, hurt anyone or whipped anyone… though it does sound a lot like he cracked a whip and most definitely moved some naughty folks around. =)

Yeah, give me that old time religion. But let’s just be sure to go back to the time that Jesus was in control of things. It was a time of humbled clergy, served sinners, loved people, less violence and way more grace. It was a time when a dream of a better world created through love was preeminent to a world where those obsessed with their moral correctness self-martyred on the steps of their local courthouse. Ouch, I might have gotten a little carried away with that one. Maybe not.

Jesus said we’d known as his disciples by our love for one another. Anything else we choose an an identifier or mark of faith and religiosity is a distraction, and everything that distracts us from the path leads us astray by our own willful negligence. Lord, have mercy.

AMDG, Todd

Arizona SB1062 and Religious Liberty

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embrace the sufferingLet me give you the punchline right out the gate, and then I’ll explain myself: I find the idea of legislating public discrimination as the antithesis of religious liberty as we are taught by our Christian scriptures. It is an egregious error to use one’s faith as a reason to deny service to anyone in the public arena based on one’s personal held beliefs and/or the other’s sexuality or perceived sexuality and decisions of conscience. We must hold true to the values Jesus related to us to be of the greatest importance, loving God and loving our neighbors.  We also must hold to the example of Jesus, the suffering servant, the powerful-yet-disenfranchised Lord, the One who gives his all for others. (Matthew 22:34-40)

In Arizona they have done what was attempted just a few days before in Kansas, they passed State legislation removing legal penalties for denying business services and public access of services to someone based on their sexuality, if the reason for that denial of service was justified by the provider’s religious convictions. This has been called and defended as an expression of “religious liberty.”

The problem with this scenario for Christians is that our scriptures teach us the exact opposite about liberty. Jesus teaches us about the problematic exercise of judgment and the imperative expressions of love for all people, and he models a life and ministry which seems to have no filters for picking and choosing with whom he will minister and associate. He is seen in the homes of the wealthiest and most influential, and he’s on the street defending a guilty “sinner” against an angry mob. He heals all those who come to him and denies his followers request to punish those who do not accept him. (Matthew 7:1-6, Matthew 5:43-48, Luke 14:1-14, John 8:1-11, Luke 9:51-56)

Jesus is the one who removes his clothes and wraps himself in a towel to do the most menial of service for his friends, washing their feet. When he finishes washing their feet he says to them, “My very position and authority, my power, as Lord and teacher, make me a servant. Now you should be servants as well.” (That is, of course, my paraphrase.) Jesus takes our understanding of power and authority and inverts it so that any power and authority we have becomes the basis of service to others and not service to ourselves. This is a crucial understanding of our Christ that should not be overlooked right now because we have a special opportunity in our democratic system of government to live this and experience this very truth in a real way. We have power and position based on our ability to vote and shape public discourse. Will we use that power and position to serve ourselves or others? (John 13:1-17)

The idea of using religious liberty or freedom as a rationale for discriminating against another person and refusing to serve them stands in complete contradiction to the New Testament witness of the freedom and liberty we have received from Christ. This is something that other New Testament writers understood and also addressed in their own ways and in their specific contexts. Paul tells us explicitly that our liberty and freedom are the foundation for service to one another. James will highlight the problem with showing partiality and living judgmentally without mercy.

Paul’s entire letter to the Galatians is dealing with a specific problem in Galatia; they (as Gentile Christians) have been taught by others that after becoming Christians that they must also submit to the Law of Moses, in effect becoming observantly Jewish in order to be truly Christian. Paul discusses the difference he sees in Law and grace, defending their freedom from legalistic requirements. This is an entire letter written about our religious freedom and liberty. (Galatians 1:6-10, 2:11-21, 3:1-14)

Paul strenuously makes his case to the Galatians that in Christ we experience a righteousness (essentially a state of restored relationship with God) while receiving freedom from legalistic performance instead of being righteous through that performance. He sums up his specific arguments about this contrast of religiuos legalism and freedom in the beginning of chapter five by asking the Galatians if they would willing choose a state of slavery over a state of freedom. He then goes on to relate a broader expression of religious liberty in the same chapter, making our freedom in Christ the foundation of service to other people. Freedom then is not just our freedom from legalism, but our freedom is being free from self-service. Paul will frame this broadening of the discussion of liberty by referencing familiar words from Jesus about “loving one’s neighbor.” (Galatians 5:1-12, 13-26)

Paul moves our liberty and freedom into a more global arena. We are free to be servants to our neighbors. And who is our neighbor? According to the way Jesus taught, a neighbor is what we become when we meet the needs of and serve another human being, and a neighbor is a person in need. A neighbor is both a needful person of whom we have an awareness, and who we are when we serve them. It’s troubling that years later followers of Christ would use religious liberty as a rationale to deny service to a neighbor. It’s just too ironic. To be honest I find it more than troubling. It hurts my soul that people might evaluate our God, our Christ, our scriptures or our religion based on such a selfish and hurtful idea. (Luke 10:25-37)

Again, the proponents in the bill in Arizona keep referencing the “attacks” on faith and Christians. In his first chapter James gives us a reminder of a familiar New Testament theme of “joy during adversity.” I don’t feel like anyone is truly facing persecution as a Christian by having to do business with or to relate in a public context with a person of differing sexual orientation, but even I did feel that way, my response should not be to raise my fists or my votes in conflict. I should appreciate the tension and conflict, even if it escalates to a true persecution, as a chance to grow and practice perseverance. God’s love for me transcends any discomfort or stress of life.

We tend to think there’s only joy in dominance, but James reminds us that there’s joy in hardship. He also repudiates responding in anger, but instead advocates shutting our mouths and listening better. It’s an amazing chapter! It probably finds it’s fullest meaning when applied to a time when we might be a minority voice or simply in a conflict of ideas. (James 1:2-12, 19-25)

In the second chapter James will talk about the problem of Christians who show partiality, using as an example a time when they might treat people of different economic levels with an inequity of grace and respect. It’s a problem because God doesn’t show partiality, especially not based on economics. James will also quote the “Second Greatest Command” as named by Jesus, the responsibility to love one’s neighbor. Isn’t that an interesting recurrent theme? When speaking of liberty and freedom, and upholding people’s inherent value and dignity, we keep hearing about our call to love our neighbor.

Again the context is broadened with the evocation of loving one’s neighbor and we can easily see that disparities and diversities exist among us on many levels like economics, race, nationality, education, etc. Our principle of not showing partiality becomes a secondary foundation after liberty for humbly serving all people. This broader application of impartiality is affirmed by the next discussion from James about judgment without mercy.  We do not sit in judgment over people, showing a favoritism that values some and devalues others, because we know all about our own dependence on mercy. (James 2:1-13, *8-13)

I think the thing about judging that really messes us up is that we’re often  justified in our judgment. By this I mean that others have sometimes actually misbehaved or given evidence of misbehaving. Though this is not always the case, it can be the case, and we can feel very correct and justified in passing judgement. We might sometimes be correct in judging, but being correct is not the point. James brings this home to us with his mercy discussion. Mercy trumps judgment. He says it quite clearly. Mercy wins. Mercy is more powerful than judgement. Mercy defeats judgement. Mercy is greater than judgement and so we are called to be merciful and not to be judgmental.

What does Arizona SB1062 represent? It represents judgment and not mercy. Arizona SB1062 is exactly how we give people a mistaken image and impression about Jesus, about scripture and about our religion.

Taken to their fullest extension, all these passages represent the kind of teaching that should be producing Christians who humbly serve others, even in the environments most hostile to their sensibilities, without the “culture wars” we‘ve been seeing in our contemporary public discourse. Also, this would produce Christians who are vehemently fighting for the rights of other people, especially those not like them.

This has been a long post already and I won’t drag it out it much more. At the end of the day, there are many diverse beliefs and convictions held by Christians (both Christians identifying as straight and gay) about human sexuality, and we are each free and responsible to make our own journey of discovering exactly what we believe and practice in our own lives with regard to the complexity of human sexuality. We are called to study, to pray and to trust God to lead us. What we do not have as Christians is a religious or spiritual license or rationale to deny our neighbor their personal dignity, respect or our humble service to them. Will we embrace the servant’s humility and suffering as we are called to do, or will we try to make the world in our own image, a world where we push suffering off to our neighbors to accommodate ourselves?

If I cannot live out the mandate of Christ to selflessly serve others in my public arena then I have to question if I have an understanding of Christ’s own humble, redemptive service to me. Perhaps I will have fallen into the very thing Paul warned the Galatians about, namely exchanging my restful and gracious dependence on God through Christ with a feeling of entitlement and a sense of deservedness achieved by my exceptional religious performance. That thought scares me because I’ll not stop needing grace any time soon.

Christ has used his power, position and authority to menially (and amazingly) serve me in my messiness and neediness as well as in my goodness and my best effort to live by my conscience. Christ has loved and served the whole of me, redemptively serving me in such a way that I learned of my own value and worth through him. My neighbor, my every neighbor, deserves no less from me, and Christ has asked no less from me. Now, I have to try to live up to that calling as best I can.

AMDG, Todd

*A Note on Scriptural References: After each paragraph I have listed the passages I am using in that moment. When I mention several, they are listed in the order to which they are alluded or referenced in that paragraph. Please don’t take my word for it when wondering what a passage means, but dig in and enjoy!

Love Wins

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I finished Rob Bell’s “Love Wins” over lunch today. I started it well before Easter, but then we hit the Lenten Season and Holy Week… you know how it goes. So to celebrate a great season finished, Eastertide beginning, and the kids going back to school after a fun Spring Break (WOOT!) I sat down with some Hunan Chicken, my iPad (Nook app) and Bell’s thoughts. I suck at the “simple life.”

Let me just give it to you as I think it is: With “Love Wins” Rob Bell wins.

It’s not a real scholarly read, though I think Bell has done his work in the books. It’s not a theological treatise, though I think it reflects some good theology and theological thinking. And it’s not a big enough book to answer all the great questions it poses or all the choice questions it makes you come up with on your own. And that’s a good thing, really. All in all, it’s a win.

And the critics? The ones who jumped to condemn Bell before the book was even published? Shame. Shame on them. Now that’s not to say that you have to agree with everything that Bell says or concludes. I don’t really think Bell expects all of us to agree. But it’s partly because of the divisive and judgmental voices like those earliest critics that I think Bell wrote this book. Those sometimes mean-spirited voices are often the ones framing our narrative. They are often the mixed message of love and grace until you are found wanting in some area of thought or theology, and then it’s the guillotine, baby! And yes, I spelled guillotine without any help from my spell-checker!

What is Bell trying to do? He’s trying to help us make a coherent narrative of our faith, our scriptures, our hopes and our fears. And he’s doing it in the middle of a highly connected, pluralistic world scene in which the predominant “belonging system” model of faith has not always prepared us to exist and contribute.

Do I agree with Bell? Pretty muchly yeah, I do. ‘Cause I’m very comfortable with the Cosmic Christ stuff from Fr. Rohr and I always side with C.S. Lewis on matters of substance. And because I am not terribly happy with the limitations of the belonging system faith we so often give lip service to while quietly hoping for something more, something bigger and something gorgeously unexpected.

Thank you Rob! Nicely done!