love

Nov. 12, 2013 Civility in Xian Scripture

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truth in loveNovember 12: Speaking the truth in love needs to be understood and practiced. It can be a hallmark of a civility that holds and shares it’s own convictions while upholding the dignity of another person.

Ephesians 4:14 & 15, “Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the head, that is, Christ.”

I have heard the phrase “speaking the truth in love” all my life around churches and Christians. Almost without exception, it’s been used to justify a concept of “tough love” that we have brought from our culture into our faith. It’s been my experience that we have used the phrase to justify harshness and judgmental attitudes, all in the name of how much we love someone. It’s not been a comforting phrase for me or many others.

That’s a real shame. In the context of the passage, it’s love that is setting us in contrast to deceit and “craftiness.” It’s also set in a contrast between being infantile and being grown up, mature. The love part of our speaking the truth is not a justification for harshness or incivility in speaking the truth, it’s the part of us that is caring for and protecting the one to whom we speak. I don’t think we need to order the two, placing truth over love, or love over truth… let them go hand in hand, side by side. Neither is more important, but they both are incredibly needed and sacred.

Just to put it out there, I’m not necessarily saying that there’s never a time for what we might call “tough love.” I am saying that we need to stop abusing this verse. This verse is a call to love and to truth, both. Maybe we need a reminder of what love is and what love looks like among us, with a piece of 1 Corinthians 13

4 Love is patient, love is kind, it isn’t jealous, it doesn’t brag, it isn’t arrogant, 5 it isn’t rude, it doesn’t seek its own advantage, it isn’t irritable, it doesn’t keep a record of complaints, 6 it isn’t happy with injustice, but it is happy with the truth. 7 Love puts up with all things, trusts in all things, hopes for all things, endures all things. 8 Love never fails.

I know we like that passage for weddings, and it does fit very nicely in a wedding service. But the passage is a daily life passage, a me and you passage, a community passage. That is a picture of the love that is speaking truth in the Ephesians passage… it’s kind, patient, without jealousy, humble, encouraging (instead of bragging), in no way is it rude, selfish or self-centered. It’s hopeful, trusting, enduring and unfailing.

Can we be truthful and civil? Absolutely we can. If fact we can and should be both truthful and loving. Forget the craftiness and deceit of trying to be anything else, especially untruthful or unloving. Holding the two, truth and love, in tandem might be difficult, but it’s more than a worthy pursuit, it’s a necessity. I’m asking you to help me with it. Let’s grow up into Christ together.

AMDG, Todd

Un-Branded Truths

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equals human first runI wrote the bulk of this blog a couple of weeks ago and promptly forgot to finish and post it. I wrote it just after the Mother’s Day parade gunfire in New Orleans, as we reeled as a nation from the Boston Marathon attack and the women rescued in Cleveland after a decade of imprisonment. But honestly, I started forming this post in my heart a little earlier than that after reading of the young woman in Canada, Rhetaeh Parsons, who ended her life after being raped and bullied by her classmates. You’ll have to excuse me if it offends anyone that I don’t refer to it as an “alleged” rape. It offends me that when a young woman is oppressed to the point of ending her life that someone might still doubt the veracity of the crime done to her.

I am inured at heart by the violence we do against one another as human beings, the violence that our children have been taught to do against one another. I’m also at a place where I’m exploring what the truths of my faith are at their root, separated from the “branding” of Christianity, so that I can find even more ways to engage the problem of violence in our society without having to first deal with the “faith divide” presented by a pluralistic society such as ours.

I was reminded of this blog and encouraged to finish and post it today when I read about the homily given by Pope Francis in his morning mass. He vocalizes such a beautiful expression of meeting our neighbors, in our diversity, at the intersection of our common need of and duty to do “good.” I encourage you explore his statements, and I’ll only give this one amazing quote from the link embedded here: “We must meet one another doing good. ‘But I don’t believe, Father, I am an atheist!’ But do good: we will meet one another there.”

“We will meet one another there.” Wow. It’s time for Christians to un-brand some of our truths from being “Christian Truths” so we can share them fully with all our neighbors, many of whom already own and exemplify them better than we often manage to do ourselves.

Here Are Some Questions I’m Laying Out There

What is the “gospel” or the “good news” that people of faith have for a country that seems to be in a cultural tailspin of violence and the love of violence? What is my message? If I’m honest, then I believe I need to be real about having a message that is more than, “Hey, be like me!” In other words, converting my neighbors to Christianity is not the only answer I have to participating right now with my neighbors to make a more peaceful nation and world.  Maybe sounds obvious, but it’s not the way many of us were raised to operate.

I need to make sense. I need to speak in ways that all people can understand and that communicate the core realities that exist within my faith, in actionable ways for all people. I’m switching now from single to plural pronouns because this is a shared need we have to make sense in our time and place. One of the biggest realities of our daily experience should be that we aren’t all going to suddenly adhere to the same religion: We won’t wake up tomorrow to find that we have all miraculously become Christians.

Our nation will wake up tomorrow with the amazing diversity in which we live today: Christian, Atheist, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Wiccan, Buddhist, Bahai, and all the faiths and philosophies I don’t have room to name or even know. Of course, that is all happening right alongside our incredible diversity of political ideologies, regional concerns, linguistic roots, ethnic richness, gender identities, sexual orientations, educational backgrounds and economic struggles. To name a few. We are a beautifully mixed bag of amazing variety.

This isn’t a repudiation of Christian on my part. I’m a disciple of Christ and have no intention to ever walk another path, but I am doing so in a diverse world, a diverse nation with a pluralistic society. This diversity isn’t bad, but it does make it much more difficult for people of our faith, or any faith, or lack of faith, to speak into the broader nation, culture and community in which we live. We won’t all have the same vocabulary. The shame is that often we won’t have the “tools” in language or common experience that are necessary to recognize shared values and hopes.

If everyone to whom we speak is not willing to become like us, to become a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, or an Atheist), or more to point, our chosen brand of Christian (or brand of whichever tradition we have chosen), how then do we speak, share and participate in discourse? What do we do in a pluralistic time and space when we need to communicate with our neighbors in the absence of simply making them like us? The episodes of violence breaking into our daily national conscious demand that something be said! Something must be done!

But we people of faith, and not just Christians, have a huge disconnect when it comes to speaking to one another in a pluralist, diverse culture. This issue is most evident in my life when I hear my fellow Christians naming the problems we face as a nation and a culture being that we have “turned our back on God/Christ,” or “Satan’s power is the root of our troubles.” The same goes for when the answer to the most disturbing trends in our nation’s violence are simply stated as a need “to return to being a Christian nation” or that all would be well “if we would all simply embrace Christ.” 

Having grown up in a place and time of the country where and when almost everyone was a Christian, I find it too laughable that a Christian would say the answer for our nation’s violent crimes is as simple as converting everyone to our faith. I’ve watched too many times as Christians turned on one another in the absence of any other common enemy. Maybe it would be more plausible if the statement were more along the lines of, “If only we could all follow the teaching of Christ” as in the parts about treating others as we wish to be treated ourselves and loving everyone even to the ridiculous extent of loving our enemy.

And I’m not repudiating a worldview that includes Satan. I believe that there is evil in the world. My own framework as a Christian names a particular force of evil in this world as Satan, though I prefer a more ancient tag “The Accuser.” The Accuser is an agent of evil and a personification of evil’s work in humanity and creation. But here’s my question about evil: Does my neighbor have to conform their frameworks and beliefs about evil to match my own before I can begin to speak and move together with my neighbor to stand against evil? I can only hope not.

One of our deepest yearnings as Christians may very well be that everyone on this good earth would proclaim and own our Christ as Lord, knowing and experiencing the goodness of knowing God in Christ. But there never seems to be any expectation in the teachings of Christ, or even the later apostolic witness, that we will find ourselves suddenly on such a planet.

Paul relates for us the vision that seems to be from an early Christian hymn of the moment when every knee bows and tongue confesses, and it is a vision of worship and unity that warms my soul. Really. But it’s hardly a reasonable expectation that such unity of faith is the foundation for how I will participate with my many diverse neighbors on these important societal issues in our shared life as a nation, right now. I can’t simply remain quiet or continue speaking in ways that don’t make sense to my neighbors “in the meanwhile” as I wait for all the bowing and confessing to start.

Here’s the Short Version of My Question

In the wake of our country’s past episodes of home grown violence and the more recent national tragedies at Sandy Hook, the Boston Marathon bombing, this past Mother’s Day parade shooting in New Orleans, the women and children held hostage in a Cleveland home for a decade, and the bullying and suicides happening across our continent every day: Do Christians have anything to say other than quoting John 3:16?

John 3:16 is good stuff, but in fact we do a lot to say to our home culture, and our neighbors! We have a lot of things to say that flow directly from our faith, but aren’t predicated on all our friends and neighbors accepting our faith before being blessed by our message or welcomed to participate with us in living and realizing this “Good News!”

In other words, I believe we have amazing truths through which we can participate in with our neighbors to bring about more of what our Lord taught us to pray for: Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.

Here are three messages that I believe are core to our faith as followers of Christ that can be transformative in our nation when we live, proclaim and defend them, even when un-branded and allowed to simply be truths, instead of “Christian Truths”:

1. Love is preeminent.
2. We are intrinsically interdependent.
3. Tomorrow is ours to lose.

Three Heavy Truths

These three messages are truth. I believe they flow from the heart of God, have been illustrated in the life of Jesus Christ, and are commissioned to the followers of Christ by Jesus himself and the apostolic witness of the church. That last sentence sounded pretty heavy, yeah? I think these are heavy truths.

1. Love is preeminent. That word preeminent might look a little tricky at first, but it’s not as theological a word as you might think. It’s a good word. Mirriam Webster’s online dictionary defines preeminent as “having paramount rank, dignity, or importance.” That is how we need to be speaking about and living our love for all people. Preeminent love is pure gospel! Jesus famously summed up all the law and commands of his own Jewish religion in the two-fold flow of love 1) love God, and 2) love neighbor. He also taught stories to illustrate a love of neighbor that crosses lines of ethnic, geographic, national and religious diversity. When Jesus was asked “Who is my neighbor?” his answer broke down barriers that prevent us from loving people, even the people least like us or likable to us.

What is preeminent love in the context of our society? It is the answer to the hatred that is kindled and fanned to life by the things we have wrongly raised above love. We are talking about being real, so let’s be real. Our culture has lots of things happening emotionally and spiritually, economically and politically, besides love. Namely we have hate and anger, and they flow from a myriad of very real streams of lives: jealously, competing ideologies, inflation rates, diseases, immigration arguments, fear, pain, nationalism, racism, prejudices, bad drivers, dishonesty, workplace tensions, loneliness, food scarcity, environmental concerns and arguments, and much more. And if I’m really real, I can name and easily find preachers who have used all those streams to incite and divide us in recent years, all in the name of “truth.”

But as a people, Christians have a spiritual mandate to speak love above those things. How else is mercy possible? How else does forgiveness happen? We have a spiritual mandate to live out of love above and beyond the hatred, anger and fear. Fears are often well founded, and sometimes anger is justifiable, but neither should be placed above love in our words and actions. Love is neither restrained to only romantic arenas or to theological discussions. Love should be a daily reality. You don’t have to be a Christian to embrace this truth, and many in the world who strive to live this truth aren’t Christians. But every Christian should have learned along the way that if we are going to accept a scriptural definition of God being “God is love” and the basic drive of the heart of God being a robust and active love for this world (yes, John 3:16!), then we have the same basis, foundation and core for our heart and drive.

2. We are intrinsically interdependent. We need preeminent love for the simple reason that you and I are indelibly connected and interdependent. We exist together. Our freedoms and our rights are shared freedoms and rights. Our lives are connected and intertwined. As Christians we have this truth illustrated in matters of love, life and spirituality in many ways: 1) we cannot love God but refuse to love each other, 2) we cannot see the suffering of fellow humans around us and not act, and 3) we have been taught not to ever say to those not like us, “I don’t need you!” on the basis of our differences. Just to name a few.

We need one another. Our value and dignity are shared. Too often we end up bunkering into our various cells of culture, by religion or race or gender or any of the many ways we self segregate, and in doing so we disconnect from others, lessening their presence and contribution to us and ours to them. Once we have broken that connection we  have broken our ability to love and hold love as preeminent. Once we break that vital connection we become more easily swayed by the rhetoric of division that places us in “us vs. them” systems and ultimately de-humanizes the other.

If this were not true, then why aren’t more Christians speaking out against hate crimes and prejudices against Muslims? Why aren’t more Muslims fighting to end discrimination against their gay neighbors on the basis of their sexual orientation? Why aren’t more Republicans fighting for the voting rights of Democrats? Because when we bunker down into our own self interests we have broken the vital connection which allows us to love and raise love above the fears, jealousies and frustrations that inhabit a pluralistic society. By the way, one of my favorite newest friends is a Jewish man who has devoted his life to stopping anti-Muslim prejudice. Ira is an amazing human and he encourages me with his grasp of these truths!

Our vital connection to one another is gospel and it’s not predicated on everyone being of the same faith. We can live and speak and engage with our neighbors within this vital connection to increase understanding, cooperation and peace in our nation and upon our beautiful little globe. In fact, we must. I must not allow anything to devalue my fellow human being in my heart or mind. Such a devaluing of another person is a disease and a cancer in my own soul and self. For me to break our human connection and lessen you is to suffer the same for myself.

3. Tomorrow is ours to lose. All my life I have loved the 131st Psalm, a song of humility and peaceful contentment against the restful greatness of God. Humility is core to the Christian faith and is central to living in the connectedness that we have been speaking about, but it is not an excuse to be idle or stupid about our power to make change in the world. It is not a denial of our humility to recognize that we are powerful and responsible in this world. We are gifted with everything we need to live and breathe and create greater peace, love and joy in this world. We have been crafted as agents of good, and we cannot live in denial of this amazing purpose in our daily lives.

One scriptural writer famously says that we are not given a spirit “of timidity, but of power, love and self-discipline.” (2 Timothy 1:6-10) And as I love the song of humility in the presence of God’s great sovereignty from Psalm 131, I also recognize the reality of the psalmist’s statement that God “has made [us] just a little lower than God.” (Some will translate this “yourself” or “angels.”) Whoa, we need humility because we are so powerful. We only have tomorrow to lose. God has already given it to us. God has equipped us, as little less than the gods, to be movers and makers of change on this earth! There is no adequate rationale for a person to faith to sit still and wait for God to do for us what we have been made to live and be ourselves.

It’s easy to forget, but neither of those psalms were originally written by, about or to Christians, regardless of how or by what reasoning I might lay claim to them today for my life. The ideas and truthes they carry cannot be branded as “Christian.” And even as we believe that Christ gives great and precious gifts to those in his church, we cannot deny the amazing gifts and abilities that God has wired into all our of species. We see those gifts every day. We cannot wait for all our neighbors to share our faith before we move humbly among and with them to not lose tomorrow’s promise and goodness.

Un-Branded Truths

I think these truths are for all people in all times and all places. The hard part for us swallow is that the three simple statements are unbranded truth. We have been taught to brand everything or own nothing. So we speak of Christian Love, Godly Justice, Christian Truth and God’s Mercy. And we have been taught to devalue all truths not so labeled. Have you ever noticed how rarely scripture addresses things that way? Paul simply says that God’s Spirit makes in us love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, kindness and self-control. It’s the work of the Spirit in us, but the fruits are simply fruits. And so we lose the ability to see and value the many truths of God’s work and Spirit in the various people all around us every single day.

I grew up hearing preachers often say, “It’s not enough to be a good person, you have to be a Christian.” I suppose I know what they were saying about identifying with Christ and the church in a theological sense, but I always came away thinking more about what sounded like an inherent contrast they were making between good and Christian.  Those two didn’t seem to be the same, but different. And even if I am able to step past inferring a contrast like that, the statement still devalued the good in a person if they weren’t enough like me. I’ve not had a very long life, but I have definitely learned that finding a good person can seem a rare enough event not to ever devalue or dismiss.

I am asking us, asking myself, to do better at engaging the world with these unbranded truths so that we move the truths forward without having to have the argument about what is dissimilar between us. I could easily stick to branding and say something like: 1) God wants Christians to live in preeminent love, 2) Christian altruism and Godly benevolence is a duty, and 3) with humble prayer we can defeat Satan and can claim tomorrow as the Lord’s Day returning our nation to global moral dominance and greatness! But I won’t.

But I believe it is no less true and vastly more engaging for many of my neighbors if I proclaim and live: 1) love is preeminent, 2) we are intrinsically interdependent, and 3) tomorrow is ours to lose. Though I do understand a little bit about the power and importance of branding in the commercial sense of moving products and services, I think that God’s truths should be handled a bit more on the open source model, freely shared and abundantly distributed.

Love My Enemy?

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me at my baseThe Question

Jesus said, “Love your enemy.” (Matthew 5:43-48) What does it mean to love my enemy? I’ve been thinking about this a bit lately. It seems appropriate to talk about as our culture continues it’s “war” and daily divides along a myriad of lines, political, religious, racial and economic. And it’s not just the “culture,” it’s often me. I seem to have enemies. Some are pretty up front about it and tell me clearly of their disdain for me, but others seem to have more of a guerrilla tactic of sniping quietly from the trees and hills, little hits and nicks here and there that seem minor at the time, but become a real issue for me.

And of course there’s the third angle… there’s the people I don’t like. I figure that most of us know we all have people in our lives we don’t like. We may hope that we able to rise above such a thing, and we may exert a lot of energy to rise above viewing all people with anything over than love, but we fail. I fail.

That’s when the words of Jesus then come ringing in and oppress me. He commanded love for enemies. A part of my gut reaction to that is to feel as if “I am told to lose.” Most of our enemies are not just in conflict with us, but also in competition with us. I also feel a reaction deep inside that says, “He doesn’t know my enemy.” Surely, if Jesus knew how much hurt I was feeling from the malice of another, he’d be as peeved off as I am! And finally, I have to admit that often at my core, I’d rather beat my enemies. You know, I’d prefer to get a little Psalmy and smite the skulls of those who would encircle me, right on?

So……….. I’m trying to find some things that “love your enemies” might mean in my life. What does it really mean to love an enemy? For me? Can I do this? Do I want to do this? Will I do this? Each question just surfaces another one, or three, or fifty questions.

I have to start with myself. After all, the command to love enemies is mine to own. It’s not a command that necessarily alters the enemy, it changes me. Here’s where I’m starting:

Love Your Enemy = I Am Not A Victim (even if I was victimized)

I need to step off the stage every time I start to feel like singing my woes. I am not a victim and my enemies do not control me. Victimization is too often an experience that becomes an identity. Of course, there are victims among us every day, and we are victimized. I would never try to lessen the pain or impact of anyone who is a victim of a violent or horrible crime or hurt. In my own life some things have been more painful and less painful at times, but my response needs to be consistent that I am not defined by the hurt.

The recent theatrical incarnation of Les Misérables gets some pretty mixed reviews, but I totally enjoyed it. One of the most haunting lines for me is in Fantine’s song “I Dreamed A Dream” when she sings, “…but there are dreams that cannot be / and there are storms we cannot weather…” The sentiment is echoed again in the song “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables” when Marius sings, “…there’s a grief that can’t be spoken / there’s a pain goes on and on…” I can’t speak for anyone but myself here: I know what they mean. But even as these lines resonate with me in deep ways, I also recognize that I must turn away from darker, hopeless view, even when justified by my own pain.

I cannot be a victim, defined by the injury done by my enemy, if it I am to love her/him. Love is not denial. Love is going to require that I find my way out of the identity formed by my injury. If someone abuses or attacks me in a way that devalues me, I must re-find my value. If the attack cause me pain, I need to heal. If the attack demoralizes me, I need to regain strength and courage. I will do these things so that I can return to the task of loving. I cannot do this alone. If Jesus commands it, I need Jesus to help me do it, and I’ll probably need you, too.

Love Your Enemy = Forgiveness

Just as love is not denial, neither is forgiveness. Forgiveness begins as my own way of releasing the need to punish, to avenge, to hurt another, to attack, to rationalize my own violent needs. Forgiveness is hard because when I choose to forgive I am choosing to shoulder the burden of paying for another’s crime. At least if Jesus wanted to command something he was willing to demonstrate it. On the cross, he spoke what I think might be some of the most awesome words uttered in the gospel narrative, “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing.”

What? Yes, they did! They knew what they were doing! Can I accidentally crucify someone? Could they have tortured and murdered so cruelly without intent and premeditation? What is Jesus saying? Is this the blindness and denial I fear that my own forgiveness might represent? Or is it a conscious decision on the part of Jesus to remake the world around him? Those words are a one-sentence-wake-up-call and alarm that something is happening here that breaks the ordinary into sharp little pieces.

Forgiveness is re-creation. When I can actively forgive I am re-creating things and myself. This is not a simple switch I throw or a decision I make. It’s a set of reflexes and intentional actions I take to make forgiveness real. And I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the best at it. Forgiveness will look and feel a little different for each person, reflecting our intrinsic variety as individuals, but it will always need to have the hallmarks of active, authentic forgiveness. Jesus forgave, and still hung on the cross. He still died. I think the reality of his forgiveness is in the narrative of his resurrection. He didn’t come busting from the grave like one of our contemporary action heroes might, kicking butts and slapping bad guys. He came forth and said, “Everything I taught you is still in force, my own pain and hurt doesn’t change a thing… go love, love God, love one another, love enemies… go do it, go teach it, go live it… everywhere… every when… with everyone.” (Yes, that’s my paraphrase and interpretation of Jesus after his resurrection. I personally don’t want the “great commission” in my life and experience of it to ever be divorced from the power of Jesus’ humble, courageous grace.)

Love Your Enemy = I Don’t Have Enemies

Unfortunately, I am me enough to get sidetracked by the statement Paul makes about enemies, that seems so close to what Jesus says, but adds that in doing so I will be “heaping hot coals on the heads” of my enemies by my love. I am bent and base enough to chuckle that Paul seems to offer me such a slick way to get revenge on an enemy, simply by loving. Is that not a bonus and a half? I really can kill him/her with love!

One of favorite authors and speakers is Fr Richard Rohr, a Franciscan out in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I have heard him a couple of times mention what he calls “a low reading of scripture” and “a high reading of scripture.” I think it’s Fr Rohr’s very polite way of telling me how childish I am sometimes, lol. Whenever I read scripture in a way that gives me license to hate or attack or be mean/vengeful/negative, or in any way move against the actual fruits of God’s Spirit in my life… love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control in those moments I have misread scripture. So, for Paul and the Proverb he seems to be quoting, I will choose to focus on the summation of “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.”

Whether my love for an enemy is a purifying fire or a painful fire for my enemy, or more accurately feels like hot coals on my own head… it’s still love and not my need to punish or avenge myself. And for my part, if I love someone, it’s hard to call them an enemy at all. We may still disagree on things, we might still need to work on the consequences of their actions, or mine… but in the act of loving I am re-creating their role and place in my life. One who is loved is the antithesis of an enemy… she/he is precious, cared for, sheltered, redeemed.

The Answer

I wish that writing a blog post about love made me love better. The only thing a blog post might actually signify is that somewhere along the way I have recently realized a deficit of love in myself. It’s too easy to blame my “enemies” for that lack of love… they are either too unlovable or too deserving of hate. It’s too easy to make some quick excuses for myself… I drank too much, I’m too tired… or I didn’t really mean it, I just knew it would get a lot of shares and likes from people on Facebook who are angry or biased like me!

And that’s the reality. I recently find myself withholding posts and shares because I know they don’t stem from love, but from the hate I’m harboring deep inside. I find myself sitting in the corner of the room rubbing my hands together and evilly chucking “bwahahahahah” over the attack posts I could launch if I wanted to… and then, baby, they’d know how stupid they really are! Quite an image, huh?

Withholding the attack posts is only part of the equation for me… facing the reality of my own anger and lack of love is the other half. Dang it, having enemies can really enliven me! And just as my cat would love to shred my favorite couch, it would feel too good to sharpen my claws on the idiocy of another.

“They don’t know what they are doing” is not denial, it is re-creating myself. It is the reality that whether they know anything or not about what they do, I am still to know myself, and I am to carry the responsibility to make myself. No one’s action or ignorance is license for me to abandon that call.

“Lord, I believe. Help me overcome my unbelief!”

Touching & Healing the Total Person

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Stethoscope-Heart-Health-conceptAs wonderful as it was to get home and change into jeans and sandals, it was a huge blessing to go to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center today and address the graduating class of medical students from the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences who gathered in the base Chapel for their baccalaureate service. I am so appreciative and so proud of our Church in Bethesda graduates, Dr. Tim Curlet and Dr. Sarah Anderson, both of whom helped plan and lead the service, today. Thanks, Sarah, for hooking me up with this sweet gig on base!

Here’s my speech. Those who know me know that I’m one for suits and notes, except at weddings. I dialed it up today with both those things, a suit and notes, so I have the text almost verbatim as given:

Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
Baccalaureate Speech, May 16, 2013
Pastor Todd Thomas, Church in Bethesda

Good morning, graduating class, faculty, staff and honored attendees. I am so glad to be here; I’m humbled and excited to address you this morning. This is a different kind of speaking gig for me to be honest, and so I’m using notes! I’m a pastor, but on Sunday mornings I just roll a bit freer with very little written down. For an occasion like this though, I’m going to rely on my notes.

I look out at you, and I am impressed. I live and work just a mile from from here, and so I’ve been blessed to know many medical students from your school. I thank you, for your service to our country, and your service to our species. You people totally rock!

I know that there’s not one type of person or personality that pursues medicine. You are a wonderfully diverse group of individuals and you each are going to be suited to various disciplines within the broader field of medicine according to your personalities, abilities and interests.

And still, there is the bond that exists between you all, that you have chosen to work in one of the greatest helping professions. You have all similarly chosen to serve the medical needs of your fellow human beings. You have not only chosen this, but have invested and devoted yourselves to this task.

One of the things that fascinates me about people in the medical profession is that by nature or by training, or by both, you are able to necessarily objectify the human being, to see so clearly the processes of life, health or disease. You can handle the sight of blood better than the average person. You’ve sliced cadavers and explored regions of human anatomy I’ve only seen in video games. That is so cool.

You can look at a person and see the systems, nervous system, cardiovascular, immune system… and in seeing these systems and the present affect of each, you can begin to detect issues, problems, and solutions. That’s really amazing, and it is a product of an incredible amount of work. Again, I commend you. You are so needed, and your skills and gifts are needed!

I commend you for all you’ve accomplished and all you will do, and I ask you to do something for me, for all your future patients: Never let that necessary objectification of the human being move from an asset to a liability. As you deal with these physiological systems and realities of each human person, keep a strong hold on the spiritual, the emotional, and whole reality of the person.

Forget “beside manners,” it’s not something you can simply fake. I ask you to care about the person. I ask you to love me, to love your patient. And then speak and act from that love. It won’t be easy. The people you are going to serve will rarely be very objective about their body or their situation. They will be somewhere on an active sliding scale of fear, anxiety, depression, fatigue and pain. They will benefit by your love as well as your knowledge and skill. I’m not asking you to kiss your patients or write them love notes. I’m not asking you to “fall in love” with every person you serve. But active love for your patients is powerful and needful, and I believe it looks like this:

First, love listens. If you haven’t yet, you should explore some ways to learn to listen well. I used to think I was a good listener, I mean, I’m a pastor! But then I went through a year of training as a life coach, and we focussed quite a bit on how to listen, and I realized I was a poor listener who broke all the rules. While someone spoke, I was most often simply formulating my response. I would interrupt people. I would fail to keep engaged, meaningful eye contact. And because I broke all those rules, I rarely was able to ask good questions when it was needed.

Let love cause you to listen and hear what your patient is saying, not just what their body is telling you. Slow down, and don’t even start thinking about the next patient. Let this person fully be your “present moment,” and love them sincerely in it.

Second, love respects. Make a commitment, and I mean make it! Write it down… commit yourself to the dignity of every person you will serve. Their dignity and the respect you show them are vital parts of their total health. Your active respect of their personhood can engender trust and participation on their part that will make your job easier. When you unpack your knowledge for them, explaining the processes and aspects of the body they don’t know, when they ask the wrong question, when they cannot speak in their grief or any longer stand in the crucible of their pain, love them where and when you find them.

Third, love hopes. Yours really is one of the greatest helping professions there is. You are now equipped to serve and heal your fellow human beings. Do this from a deep and sincere hope for them: hope that they heal, hope that they will grow, and hope that they will realize a joyful existence. Don’t forget that as people come to you for help, they come seeking hope, because heath is their vehicle back to the joys and dreams that they carry: their family, their friends, their vocation and their community. When you touch them, when you heal them, when you diagnose them, when you speak to them, remember to hope with them.

When the Apostle Paul wrote to the followers of Christ in the city of Corinth about love he wasn’t writing a text for wedding ceremonies, and yet that is where we have most often relegated 1 Corinthians 13, the famous “Love Is” passage. Instead Paul was writing about the things in life we seek as attributes for service to others, and he sets all that up in chapter 12, leading into chapter 13 by saying, and this is my paraphrase: “Now I’m going to show you what is truly awesome!”

He was about to unpack the awesomeness of love. Paul said that no great storehouse of knowledge, sacrificial spirit, or greatness of any kind about himself, would be of any true use, if not found in the presence of love. Here is 1 Corinthians 13, verses 1 through 8:

What if I could speak all languages of humans and of angels?
If I did not love others, I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.
What if I could prophesy and understand all secrets and all knowledge?
And what if I had faith that moved mountains?
I would be nothing, unless I loved others.
What if I gave away all that I owned and let myself be burned alive?
I would gain nothing, unless I loved others.

Love is kind and patient, never jealous,
boastful, proud, or rude.
Love isn’t selfish or quick tempered.
It doesn’t keep a record
of wrongs that others do.
Love rejoices in the truth,
but not in evil.
Love is always supportive,
loyal, hopeful, and trusting.
Love never fails!

Because Paul was speaking of love in the sense of daily service to other people, and not just in the arena of covenantal marriage, these words have everything to do with the way we pursue our careers, render service to our neighbors, and daily meet the people and the tasks put before us.

So I stand here and I look at you. You people are amazing. Go, and make this world more amazing than it has ever been.

The Lord bless you and keep you.
The Lord make his face to shine upon you,
and give you peace. Amen.

Chick-fil-A vs. Muppets… What A Bummer

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I have avoided writing or saying much on the Chick-fil-A vs. Muppets squabble. I like Chick-fil-A’s sandwiches and their slaw is awesome. And I like the Muppets, a lot. But since I didn’t even realize they were doing business together, it’s no heartache for me that they broke up. I suppose that I have been most afraid that saying something lends validity to the squabble, but it’s grown big enough to captivate a nation without any input from me (said tongue in cheek, since probably twelve people will read this blog), so here goes…

It’s been common knowledge my whole life that the Chick-fil-A tries to mix it’s owner’s values with the way they do business. They’ve always been closed on Sundays. I’m pretty sure they used to have Veggie Tales toys and prizes, and I am quite sure they have had other kids toys of that tied into Bible stories and characters. That’s who and what Chick-Fil-A has always been. I have to wonder what the Henson folks were thinking when they entered into a business relationship with the group if they weren’t aware of this.

Chick-Fil-A has given money to organizations that promote heterosexual marriage and oppose same-sex marriage. However, I’ve not found any articles or accusations that they have discriminated against people in their hiring/firing policies or broken the laws of our country. I’d be curious to know if they have had such accusations or problems.

Then, there’s the actual quote that this whole broo-ha-ha has grown out of… did you read it yet? Before presenting the quote, I’d like you to do something: Stop thinking about gay marriage! Gay marriage doesn’t seem to have been mentioned in the article, and Mr. Cathy wasn’t asked about it. Try for a moment to step back and let the quote be itself: “‘We are very much supportive of the family — the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that,’ Cathy is quoted as saying.”

Ok, so this guy is all about the “family.” And he invokes the idea of a “biblical definition” of the family. We can all read different things into that depending on our theology and cultural experience/tradition. We can even safely assume he would include defining family as based on the marriage of a man and a woman. But he didn’t decide to go there. When he expanded on things he said this… “We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives.” What? What?!

I understand that someone reporting on this story may not be up on all the conservative Christian vocabulary that gets thrown around, but I’ve not heard a single friend or Christian writer respond to “first wives.” Now, if Mr. Cathy were Mormon, then maybe he would mean that those men in his family aren’t polygamists. But he’s Baptist, and “first wives” means that they don’t practice the ultimate evil (at least it was before gay marriage supplanted it) of divorce. That quote is a direct slap at divorced people, not gay people, by it’s own explicit content. 

Of course, we can assume he would exclude gay marriage from his “biblical definition,” but he chooses to hang his hat on the absence of any “second wives” in his family. I know a lot of Christian friends who have been like “Whoo Hooo, let’s go support Chick-Fil-A!” who are also divorced, the spouses of second wives and even, dare I say it, “second husbands.” Why aren’t they aggravated at the lack of grace Mr. Cathy showed for divorced people? I think it’s because of the great law of media that once a story has been framed one way, it doesn’t get a second framing. A wise friend who spent years in news broadcast around the DC area let me in on that media law, and it’s so true. The story was framed around gay marriage, and there it has remained.

Plenty of people have written on the absurdity of this public debate over eating at Chick-Fil-A or not. I haven’t seen anyone actually pointing out that Mr. Cathy was blithely devaluing divorced people, not gay people. Why not? Because the story was framed about gay marriage, and that framework holds, it sells, it galvanizes, it’s fires people up on both sides of a silly culture war that no one will win. And that framework has no place to process the “first wives” vocabulary.

So, what do I do with the “first wives” thing? I would say to the divorced people out there, the second wives and second husbands, “You’re welcome in my church family!” I say that because my biblical definition of family is inclusive of biblical things like grace, love and humility. We don’t distribute labels in our church family like “divorced,” “first” or “second.” I personally thank God for my wife, not because she’s my first wife, but because I get to share life with an amazing woman. I’ve known many people who felt the same about their second spouses. I’ve spoken with and read things by gay friends who felt that way about their partners and spouses.

What do I do with the whole “gay” thing? I would say to gay people out there, married or not, divorced or not, “You’re welcome in my church family!” I say that because my biblical definition of family, whether we’re talking about my biological family or my faith family, is based on biblical things like grace, love and humility. We don’t distribute labels in our church family like “straight” or “gay.”

Grace, love and humility. God forbid I ever make a move or say a word to win an argument or achieve dominance in any cultural arena of thought, if I have to trade one single opportunity to show grace, love or humility to claim that win. So where’s the grace, love and humility in this whole Chick-Fil-A vs. Muppets carnival? I’ve not seen much on either side of the argument. So, it’s not my argument. I’ll let Chick-Fil-A and the Muppets handle their own fight, after all they’re the squabbling couple. I’ll just keep trying to find those moments when I get to live the grace, love and humility the Bible has taught me. And I’ll pray I’m better at it today than I was yesterday.

Selling each other short…

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I am more than a little heart-sick at this story. And I’m keep the Clementi family in my prayers. Have you seen the story? The shameful treatment of a college student leads him to take his own life.

Ya know, I understand the drive to have the next big viral video. I see people everyday online trying to capture that magic, that big laugh. Some achieve a certain amount of online notoriety, and some simply tear their own dignity to shreds while hurting others in the attempt.

Think for a second about the news stories asking about the rightness of parents who post pics and vids of their toddlers with bong pipes and firearms… why? Because they want a laugh. Never caught those stories? Google it.

And amid all the grotesque stories of cyber-bullying, we have this one… a college roommate and his friend hide a camera to live stream a young man’s love life. That young man then commits suicide in shame. And it’s just all too easy. It’s too easy to plant that camera, to laugh at a friend, to Tweet and post and stream a friend for a few laughs, a few glorious moments of viral power. Tyler Clementi was sold short… his life, he himself. He was worth so very much more than the few laughs his antagonists sought.

I hope at least one person with a webcam and a stupid idea for catching an online laugh will stop and ask… “Am I trading my neighbor off for a selfish grab at a laugh or a few more views? What is my fellow human being worth?” And beyond hoping, I pray that when that person looks inside and gropes around for the answers to those questions, they’ll find love.

Oh, God! Help us love each other!
Break our hearts and teach us mercy!
Teach to pursue each other with grace!

And when we’re done praying? Well, then we have to speak and act for love! Speak and act the value and dignity of our neighbors! We have to be love, be the value and be the dignity of everyone around us! For such things our Christ has suffered the cross!

And here’s just a flashback for you 80’s fans… a song I have often sung along with and admired for it’s honest and good questioning of our need to hate…






"People Are People"
- Martin Gore, Depeche Mode

People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get
Along so awfully
People are people
So why should it be
You and I should get
Along so awfully

So we're different colours
And we're different creeds
And different people have different needs
It's obvious you hate me
Though I've done nothing wrong
I've never ever met you so what could I have done

I can't understand
What makes a man
Hate another man
Help me understand

People are people...

Help me understand
Help me understand

Now you're punching
And you're kicking
And you're shouting at me
I'm relying on your common decency
So far it hasn't surfaced
But I'm sure it exists
It just takes a while to travel
From your head to your fists

I can't understand
What makes a man
Hate another man
Help me understand