“There’s nobody quite as mean as people being mean for Jesus.” - Rev. Welton Gaddy (baptist pastor, president of the Interfaith Alliance, and spiritual advisor to Chely Wright)
This quote from the documentary “Chely Wright: Wish Me Away”1 hit me like a punch to the gut not because it’s a bash on faith and religion but because it reveals an ugly truth about the hostile posture of exclusivity that conservative Christianity often takes and promotes. Chely’s story is tragic because of the fear of ostracism and rejection she lived with for so many years became her reality when she finally “came out,” and I fear that a good chunk of the Christian community, especially the segment that is intent on “reclaiming our national Christian heritage” would probably agree that she got what she deserved: the tanking of her career, marginalization, exclusion, death threats, etc.
Fear is a powerful inhibitor of dialog; dialog that leads to openness, and openness to acceptance, and acceptance to compassion. It is much easier to hold to ideology, especially when your ideology is in the accepted norm. Easier yet is to criminalize those with different orientations, whether sexual, political, or religious.
This issue boils down to plain meanness. Why do Evangelicals succumb to being mean? I think it’s connected to our compulsion to be “right,” not necessarily in a nationally political sense, but certainly in the humanly political arena. Being “right” justifies grabbing for and wielding power, and who can resist that urge, especially if you feel morally called to “do good.” Being “right” and holding power are enabling and seductive. Unfortunately, we are also enabled to be mean when we are actually called to be kind, not just kind to our own, but especially to the “other.” Miroslav Volf is a great help here. Read “Exclusion & Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation”2. Read the bible too. John 16:2-3; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; Micah 6:8; John 3:17. No doubt, there’s also a lot of exclusionary language in the bible, and this is a problem for interpretation, but however you parse other passages, don’t neglect or mangle the ones I just mentioned.
So this post is a call to reclaim kindness and repent of meanness. If we will commit together to be kind rather than be mean, we will bring much less shame on Jesus, we will take a lot of fire out of the political religious discourse, we will find that some lovely people who hold positions that threaten our own are not the devil incarnate after all, and we will come to believe that love and acceptance are better than hate and rejection. At the end of the day, in our own way, we all want to love and be loved. Let’s begin by giving up meanness and instead choosing kindness.
A new cycle begins. I have looked forward to moving from the “B” to “C” cycle as Advent approached. Much has happened this year. Moved from Lombard IL to Nashville TN (and loving it). Lost my job as pastor and reconciled myself with the vocation of a consultant. I may always have the heart of a pastor, but never again get paid for it, and I don’t want anyone to think of me, or worse yet, label me as a pastor. I’ve gone underground to get some air, left the safety of the yard to find life, decided not to be so worried about being holy and more concerned about being human. I’m trying to discover the meaning and rhythm of Sabbath, having failed miserably for the last 10 years. How can you work at a church and experience Sabbath? Not to say it’s impossible, but I couldn’t figure it out.
I thought about going to church today, but had to remind myself of my commitment to “be” the church and quit “doing” church. For years I told my church family that we are the church and to stop thinking of themselves as going to church. I don’t think anyone got it. I don’t think I really got it until I moved to TN. Shortly after moving here, my friend J.A. told me that he was taking a “time out” from church. He also told me that he was “working on” becoming kinder. He’s one of the kindest people I know, in a very inclusive and accepting way. He probably wouldn’t be very welcome at my old church. His straw hat would be out of place. He could teach us all something about kindness.
I thought of the CEO Christians (Christmas and Easter Only) and reminded myself that I would not join that crowd in their practices, although I would be friends with any if the opportunity arose. So on this first Sunday of Advent 2012, with the long awaited movement from “B” to “C,” the turning of the seasons according the the Church Calendar (an alternate and in some ways profoundly subversive way to mark time), I didn’t “do” church.
I choose instead to spend this Sabbath day reflecting on the journey out of the institution of church, to ponder the Advent readings for the first Sunday of 2012 in cycle “C,” and to wonder at the interesting congruence of World AIDS Day, December 1 2012, and this first Sunday of Advent with its themes of Hope and Expectation.
I recently read Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor. I previously read Preaching Life, another of her books, for a seminary class a few years ago. She’s a gifted writer and author with a deep spirituality and I remember enjoying her writing. Her latest book is a reflection on the words of Jesus:
Whoever finds their life will lose it, and whoever loses their life for my sake will find it (Matt 10:39).
Taylor talks about finding, losing, and keeping, with losing getting the bulk of the ink. For her, finding was the journey into vocational ministry culminating with becoming the lead (and only) priest in a small rural church. Losing was leaving vocational ministry and all the trappings, privileges, and identity that went with the territory. Keeping is the journey of self discovery that follows, where she came to grips and peace with what really matters. Speaking of losing, she says:
I saw how Mother Church had not only fed me, clothed me, and housed me but had also given me brothers and sisters to learn to love, even when we did not like each other very much.
I saw how she had taught me the same things that had helped her older children find their way in the world as well as a few that she hoped might keep me safe. Be careful. Don’t leave the yard. No more questions. Because I’m the mother, that’s why…
Having left the house for the first time in twenty years, I did what most grown children do. I left the yard. I asked lots of questions. I sought out the grown children my mother had taught me not to play with, and in every case I learned that she had not told me the whole truth. While the world was an often frightening place, there was also a great deal of goodness in it. I met people of other faiths and of no faith at all who were doing more “to do justice, and to love kindness” than many of us who know where to find that verse in the Bible.1
I could have written these words if I was as gifted a writer as Barbara. She certainly articulated my feelings and findings. My journey is more recent and I sometimes worry about whether it’s the “right” thing to do, yet I feel a conviction and peace that it’s God’s way and it’s ok, and by the way, part of my journey is leaving behind the compulsion to be “right.” It turns out that in my desire to be holy, I was actually more concerned with being “right” without realizing it. And that meant coloring within the lines, staying in the yard, keeping up appearances, and being a little less human so as not to offend those who easily take offense.
In this first Sunday of Advent, cycle “C,” Jeremiah says:
Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will fulfill the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The LORD is our righteousness’ (Jer 33:14-16).
Here are words of hope and expectation. Behold, the days are coming. I will fulfill the promise I made. Deep down, we all want to love and be loved, to know and be known. We hope things will get better. We want to be healed, made whole, be accepted, not shunned. And if we’re dying and know it, we want to be saved. It’s World AIDS Day. Most of us conveniently forget that so many are sick and dying from this disease that we don’t know how to cure. And to our shame, our answer to the suffering can as likely be accusation as acceptance. We can be quick to play the blame game just so we can get it settled and get our minds off the tragedy. What we all really need is something to hope for.
To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul. O my God, in you I trust; let me not be put to shame; let not my enemies exult over me… (Ps 25:1-10)
To the one who feels hopeless, cast off from society, hurt and rejected by friends, family, and especially God’s people, here is a fitting response to Jeremiah’s proclamation. Behold, there is a better day coming. Don’t despair. Love and compassion will be the reward for those who wait. The end of shame, blame, and pain will come, though there be misery for a while.
… may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all … (1 Thes 3:9-13)
If what we really want is to love and be loved, what holds us back? Who causes us to be less than loving? Why is there sorrow and pain? Why don’t we care for one another? Why do we give in to our own selfishness? Why is the world in such a mess? Why should anyone believe in God given the evidence? If we can’t explain evil, can we explain love? Why should anyone care for the hurting, hungry, rejected, sick, imprisoned, dying. Yet there are those that do love, and love at great cost. Most of us even try, at least occasionally, at least a little bit. Who can explain the mystery of love? Who can teach us to love better? The truth is that we need help because selfless love doesn’t come easily and we just aren’t up to the task most of the time.
“And there will be signs in sun and moon and stars, and on the earth distress of nations in perplexity because of the roaring of the sea and the waves, people fainting with fear and with foreboding of what is coming on the world. For the powers of the heavens will be shaken. And then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Now when these things begin to take place, straighten up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near…” (Luke 21:25-36)
Advent is God’s answer to the lack of love that’s killing us all. He came once to give us hope and show us what God looks like with skin on him. All our crazy ideas about a cruel God have to be reconsidered in the light of the one sent once before whose birthday we’ll celebrate in a little while. For the time being we must wait with hope and expectation, in joy and misery, peace and pain, within or without Mother Church, living and dying, for we are all brothers and sisters learning to be human and stumbling on the way to try to love and be loved, waiting for someone to help us and show us how to really love, die, and live.
- Leaving Church by Barbara Brown Taylor (HarperSanFransisco, 2006), 173. ↩
In these recent times of highly polarized discourse, both political and religious1, I find myself increasingly uncomfortable self-identifying as an Evangelical. The basic tenant, that the gospel is good news for all mankind2, is central to my worldview. It’s all the other ideology and unholy alliances3 that I am troubled by. This sets the stage for all kinds of exclusion, demonization, cherry-picking favorite sins while justifying others4 I worry that Evangelicals have become identified with xenophobia and that the “good news” is now mostly parochial. The gospel message to the outsider has morphed into “Go away. We don’t want your kind.”
I think this [election] was an evangelical disaster.
and Jim responded
Not really. But it was a disaster for the religious right, which had again tied its faith to the partisan political agenda of the Republican Party — which did lose the election. But Nov. 6 was an even deeper disaster for the religious right’s leaders, because they will no longer be able to control or easily co-opt the meaning of the term “evangelical.”
Jim goes on to explain that the term “evangelical” has taken on its own ideology in political support of the Republican conservative base which is code for Republican white anglo conservative xenophobic nationalistic freedom loving Americans. Actually, Jim didn’t really say all that, but I calls ‘em like I sees ‘em. Jim did go on to say
Just as the 2012 electoral results finally revealed the demographic transformation of America — which has been occurring for quite some time — it also dramatically demonstrated how the meaning of the word “evangelical” is being transformed.
Evangelical can no longer be accurately used to mean “white evangelical.”
Jim’s point is that there are other Evanglicals (non-white, young white, Latino Pentacostal, etc.) that have conveniently been ignored by the mainstream ruling faction6 of Evangelicalism, but after this election, the cat’s out of the bag, Pandora’s box is open, and there’s no going back to the good old day (thank God!).
Jim says on behalf of the broader out-of-the-closet spectrum of Evangelicals
While most evangelicals are still “pro-life,” abortion is not their only concern. Not all are convinced that Republicans have the best answers to all the life issues. While most evangelicals are strongly committed to strengthening family life, not all think equal rights for gay and lesbian people are a threat to the family. Poverty reduction, immigration reform, a consistent life ethic, the care of environmental protection, a less militaristic foreign policy and a deep commitment to racial and economic justice are all issues of concern.
There is a greater and broader set of concerns for Evangelicals and the time has come to redeem the word “Evangelical” in light of the gospel and person of Christ. Jesus wrapped it up nicely in the fourth chapter of Luke
And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. (Luke 4:17-20)
Jim calls the white conservative minority branch of Evangelicalism to repentance and concludes with a word of hope
This election signaled an important change in American public life and a transformation in the meaning of the word “evangelical.”
I say “thank God” and amen.
- Is there a difference? What distinguishes political discourse from religious discourse? ↩
- I prefer good news for all creation. ↩
- Does a particular political party come to mind? ↩
- Other “acceptable” sins are arguably more horrendous than the typical suspects. Can anybody explain just war theory to me? No, we don’t want to bother with that… ↩
- http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/the-new-evangelical-agend_b_2137388.html ↩
- Please don’t overlook the word “faction.” It’s important to realize and recognize the factious nature of much Evangelical discourse. ↩
Only let each person lead the life that the Lord has assigned to him, and to which God has called him. This is my rule in all the churches (1 Cor 7:17).
Paul admonishes us to choose to be content in whatever state we find ourselves. This is not to say that things never change or that we should resist hopes, dreams, and opportunities. We can count on change. Change is a necessary part of growth. Paul’s life was filled with change. Yet our struggle is often discontent and we seek change for the wrong reasons. So Paul promotes the rule to be content because pursuing change as response to discontent will not likely lead to a better life. Paul’s advice to those consumed with discontent: “Do not be concerned about it” (1 Cor 7:21). Do not connive to move out of your position in life. Yet, if the opportunity presents, “avail yourself of the opportunity” (ibid.). This applies to job, social status, singleness, marriage, etc. Paul knows that change is inevitable. “For the present form of this world is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31). But we can be content in the midst of change and turmoil. Indeed Paul seeks freedom from anxiety and divided interests that lead to conflict (1 Cor 7:32-4) for his readers. As Paul writes elsewhere (2 Cor 12:10; Phil 4:11), contentment is a value to aspire and seek, and a character trait learned in the crucible of conflict, trials, and suffering.
Worship of God is a spectacle, not because we make it so, but because God is who he is. This short dialog that introduces the account of the miracle at Cana is loaded with pregnant meaning. “They have no wine” (John 2:3) implies expectation. Whether Mary knew that Jesus could turn water into wine is beside the point. Having raised and lived with Jesus, Mary must have known that Jesus had an uncanny knack of knowing what to do. Jesus’s sharp reply, “what does this have to do with me?” (John 2:4) suggests an expectation on Mary’s part that prioritized the social event over the presence of God. We do this in church by trying to “work up” worship to be engaging, exciting, inspiring. We want a spectacle more than we want God. When God reveals himself and becomes present, there may indeed be a spectacle of some sort, but the central issue must always be God. We can create an exciting moment, but if God is not truly in it, then what does it matter? Let us avoid the superstitious practice of trying to conjure God up lest he sharply ask us, “what does this have to do with me?”
Memorize, do a bible study, quote Scripture, play Simon Says. All these and much else that we do in church will not a disciple make. Two questions matter most. What is God saying? What are you doing about it?
This was another musical moment that opened an entirely new world to me. Ten years before the first time I heard Holdsworth, I first heard John McLaughlin. Frankly, I didn’t understand anything he was saying. I came up listening to Wes, Miles, Parker, Train, Dizzy, Joe Pass, Benson, and others. Then I discovered Hendrix, Clapton, Beck, and Page. But when I first heard McLaughlin, he was doing something so radically different that I just altogether missed it at first. Eventually he got through to me and became the dominant voice on the guitar. Here is the title cut from his 1969 album by the same name, Extrapolation.
John McLaughlin, Brian Odgers, Tony Oxley, John Surman playing the title cut to the 1969 album Extrapolation.
This was one of those musical moments that opened up a whole new world to me. Bill Bruford probably became best known for his work with King Crimson. He was also the original drummer for Yes, and played for Genesis and UK. The first time I heard One Of A Kind, I was struck by two things in particular: 1. the entire album was like an intricate musical concept statement, 2. Alan Holdsworth. All the players were and are exceptional, but Holdsworth was doing something truly unique. He has always had an instantly recognizable style. He plays lines that no one else ever thought of and very few can execute. His tone, picking style, composition, chords, legato touch, high speed, accuracy, tremendous creativity, plethora of ideas, are all part of the package and unique to his artistry. He is, for me, one of those few primary voices that speak deep mysteries in musical form. This is the album that introduced me to him. Here is the song “Sahara Of Snow” from Bill Bruford’s 1979 album One Of A Kind.
Bill Bruford, Allan Holdsworth, Jeff Berlin, Dave Stewart playing “Sahara Of Snow.”
Now when Jesus saw a crowd around him, he gave orders to go over to the other side. 19 And a scribe came up and said to him, “Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go.” 20 And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 21 Another of the disciples said to him, “Lord, let me first go and bury my father.” 22 And Jesus said to him, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead.” (Mt 8:18–22).
Following Jesus is not about going to a place or accomplishing a task. Foxes have holes and birds have nests. Men build homes, businesses, cities, and kingdoms, These become identifying places and even come to own their makers. People become slaves of their gardens, workaholics, have streets and cities named after them, become absorbed in the preservation of their places and possessions. Following Jesus will probably require leaving a place. “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come” (Heb 13:14). Neither is following Jesus about getting things done. Not to say that Jesus never leads us to do anything, but that we run the risk of getting left behind when the task becomes primary. The disciple who wanted to bury his father turned a task into an excuse. Following Jesus is all about responding continually, listening to the leading of his Spirit, following him on his mission. Jesus accomplished many tasks in his earthly life. He traveled widely, often into foreign cultures, but built no businesses, had no home, no city bears his name. Only one task consumed him and he calls us to join in the task of the cross. “Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple” (Lk 14:27). Jesus likewise left one living monument, the church, his body, and calls us to find our place in it, that we might become joined to him, partners in ministry and mission, redeemed, heirs of God, and recipients of his Spirit (Gal 4:5-7). Following Jesus is all about joining the person who opens heaven to us and makes our lives meaningful and significant. We will utterly fail if we aim for heaven or good deeds rather than the person. Follow Jesus.