Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Treasure Map: Christians United in the Search

Confusing passages in Scripture are an unlikely conduit for Christian unity.

For 2,000+ years, Christians have studied the words of Jesus, the Apostles, Ancient Israelite prophets, psalmists and lawmakers in the Bible. We have been locked in theological debate over the meaning of life and how to achieve the union with God we so desire.

For as many times as preachers tell us "the Bible clearly states," the truth of the matter is that it is not very clear about much. For every line that says one thing, we can find others that seem to say something else. I'm not suggesting that the Bible doesn't point us into a singular direction, because I think it does. I'm just saying that it can be hard to figure that out when reading the text at face value.

Some estimate there are as many as 40,000 denominations of Christianity, many of which claim that their precise doctrines and Biblical interpretations are the "right" ones.

If you approach the Bible as if your very eternal life depends on getting the precise theological formula right, it can be an enormously frustrating text.

Treasure Map

We often treat it as if the Bible like a mysterious treasure map. It is written in ancient, coded language that is hard to decipher. Our modern day preachers may tell us it's straightforward, but if that is so, why do Christians spend so much time agonizing over lines of Scripture trying to figure out precisely what it means? Why didn't God just hand us a bullet point list?

If the Bible is God's life-or-death, desperate message-in-a-bottle to us, why in the world is God making it so difficult? There are literally dozens and dozens of Scriptural references to things like salvation, justification and sanctification, for example. And what those words meant 2,000 years ago may be very different from what they mean today. There is no possible way to reconcile all of them into one coherent theology. Even if it were possible, the task it would take to do that would be beyond what any one person could do.

Why in the world would God play with us this way?

It seems like an extremely cruel joke. God gives us riddles and clues hidden in this 2,000+ year old collection of puzzles, which need to be translated into various formats and languages, and it's up to us to figure out the riddle before the clock runs out and it's eternal curtains on us.

Even the most twisted episode of The Twilight Zone was not nearly so twisted.

What Is Our Task?

I do believe that it is our job to pray unceasingly, study fervently and devote ourselves to contemplation of the texts. I do believe God keeps us on our toes. We are called to grow deeper in our knowledge, sensitivity and wisdom. I do think there are consequences of where our journey takes us and what conclusions we reach.

But I also believe there is a whole lot more grace and mercy in the system that we have been led to believe. The Bible may be less of a book of answers than a book of really good questions—and in those questions lie the answers, but perhaps not in the way we typically think. The questions we ask of the Bible—and perhaps more importantly the questions it asks of us—are perhaps more important than the answers.  In other words, it would seem that God wants us to struggle, debate and search unceasingly for the answers. The search itself has value. That is the only thing that makes sense based on how the Bible is put together.

What can we deduce from all this?

#1:  We need to be part of a community of believers who help us in this journey of understanding.

#2:  We need to take the conclusions of that faith community seriously, and that includes doctrines and dogmas.

#3:  But maybe—just maybe—we can dispel some of our anxiety about the conclusions we reach.

After all, the very idea that Scripture is a riddle to figure out with eternal consequences is an assumption that we bring to it. Nowhere in the Bible does it say that this is how we must approach it.

Christians United in the Search

Our common faith in Jesus and our mutual pursuit of the Way of Jesus should be enough to make us all traveling companions one with the other.  Christians are all trying to figure it out, live it out and grow into it. Even though we have come to different conclusions and have different ideas as to what it all means (conclusions that we are continually adapting), we all share in this common journey.  And maybe that's enough of a foundation for the unity of all believers.

For now we see through a glass, darkly; 
but then face to face: 
now I know in part; 

but then shall I know 
even as also I am known. 

1 Corinthians 13:12

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

How You Become Like Your Enemies

You have to be stubborn as a mule to budge this stubborn mule.
See the first post in this series:

In a previous post, I talked about how loving your enemies is the key to finding your own wholenessand ultimately loving yourself. The people we consider our "enemies" often—if not always—represent a projection of what we dislike in ourselves. Therefore, loving them affords us the opportunity to love and accept the broken pieces of ourselves.

On an energetic level, you can't oppose someone without being like them. It's actually impossible! 

Look at this example: Imagine if someone is on one side side of a wall attempting to push it down. You get on the other side of the wall and resist them. In order to do this, you have to push back on the wall in exactly the same way that they are pushing. The two of you may be pushing in opposite directions, but you are pushing in exactly the same way. This is a model of what happens to us whenever we oppose someone and call them our "enemy."

I noticed this when I—literally—had a turf war with a former neighbor. This man had little regard for anyone else's boundaries. He would police his own yard strictly but would overstep into our yard, claiming pieces of it as his own. In order to stand up for ourselves, I found myself quickly spiraling downward until I ended up guarding our yard as strictly as he was guarding his. I got sucked in and sank to his level. 

I grew up in a rural area where there was plenty of land. We had only a vague idea of where our yard ended and our neighbors' yards began. I used to roll my eyes at "city folk" who squandered their time squabbling over inches of yard in dispute. Yet, there I was doing everything short of stretching out a measuring tape to check if we still had all we were entitled to have.

It is healthy to set boundaries, but something went wrong here. The relationship became oppositional—I wasn't just respecting my boundary, I was opposing him. That was a subtle but extremely significant difference. I labeled him my "enemy," and in doing so, I started acting like him. One of us could have overpowered and outsmarted the other and technically "won," but the real story is that we both were in the same space. I lost simply by playing the game. I didn't just lose a conflict, what I lost was myself. I stepped away from my values and took on the values of my "enemy."

I wasted so much time and energy focusing on a small section in the back of our yard, a section that in normal circumstances would not have occupied much of my attention. Whether I became like my neighbor or whether my neighbor brought out a piece of myself that was lying fallow is a curious question to consider. The truth is probably both are in play whenever we go down the path of enemy-making.

So then how do we respond when people legitimately trespass against us? As stated before, it is healthy to set and maintain boundaries. It is not good to be a doormat for bullies. The radical self-sacrifice of the Gospel is not the same as having no self-respect or boundaries. But it is also risky to respond to fire with fire.

I think this is what Jesus was warning us about when he told us to turn the other cheek. A punch in the cheek seems to demand a punch on the cheek in return. However, whether you "win" or not by punching the other person, the other side has controlled you and gotten you to play their game. Play this out long term, and you realize there is no winning as life simply deteriorates into an endless game of king of the hill where no one stays on top for long. You refuse to play their game when you turn the other cheek. You set and live by your own values. Your center is solid and unmovable by others. It doesn't mean you become a doormat. It just means that a peaceful person remains a peaceful person even if others around you are not. It is actually a position of amazing strength.

I think the key in the situation with my neighbor would have been to focus on my own values rather than focus on opposing him, keeping my attention at as high of a level of consciousness as I could imagine. Compassion and patience should have factored in heavily, too. Long term, I could see the opportunity here. Obviously, there was something about my neighbor that made it difficult for me to stay on the high road, fears or old triggers of some kind, and this interaction was a chance to become aware of that and work on it. 

If a situation absolutely demands that direct resistance is needed, try to spend as little time at that as possible. Spend most of your energy creating a new paradigm rather than fighting on someone else's turf (no pun intended).

I'm reminded of the Pink Floyd song, "Get Your Filthy Hands Off My Desert" off their brilliant anti-war album, The Final Cut. The title is a sharp critique of maddeningly endless geopolitical wars over—quite literally—completely arbitrary lines in the desert sand.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Why 'Works' Are Necessary

A recent Pew Research Center poll has reopened the old debate about faith vs works--the line of scrimmage of the Protestant Reformation. Whereas Martin Luther and the heirs of the Reformation have always held that it is through faith alone that salvation occurs, many Protestants and Catholics today have a blended view of the role faith and works--at least, according to this poll ("works" is defined differently by different denominations, but could refer to any effort on the part of humankind, whether it is doing good deeds or following any religious prescription that guarantees that God will act a certain way after we do it).

The controversy has famously raged for the last five centuries, but its roots go much deeper. St. Augustine and Pelagius went several rounds over very similar issues in the fifth century A.D. The question is peppered throughout Scripture, as well, sometimes in more subtle ways. It is one of those theological questions that never seems to go away.

The issue is riddled with problems of semantics. Catholics and Protestants often understand terms like "justification" and "righteousness" differently and therefore answer questions about them differently. There is also a difference between attaining salvation through works and simply seeing works as evidence of a healthy, living faith. Furthermore, the article above saying that "a historically Catholic position" is that "both good deeds and faith in God are needed to get into heaven" is a misleading statement. The Catholic position is much more nuanced than that. From the standpoint of church apologetics, it is both problematic that the poll asked misleading questions, and it's even more problematic how people answered those misleading questions.

Nevertheless, all this has been hashed out by theologians much more trained that me, and it's hard to  find a place in the "faith vs works" debate that hasn't already been explored vigorously. But I think I've found one such place. There is one point that is extremely significant, but it seems to get lost in the shuffle almost all the time in this debate. In fact, I would argue that the subconscious purpose of this debate is actually to make sure this issue gets lost in the shuffle. In all the debates about whether works are essential for salvation we forget one very crucial thing:

Works are essential for discipleship. Whether or not those works are essential for salvation is a very different question. 

Maybe this is obvious to some, but I don't think it is said nearly enough. 

In light of this, does it really matter how we understand the reasoning behind our actions? Maybe one person feeds the hungry believing it is a means to earn salvation while another feeds the hungry in gratitude for the free gift of salvation. So what? 

I have always believed that our theology matters. How we understand God, who we are and our relationship to God and the universe are all extremely significant. But we must not forget that there is an orthopraxy at work in our lives. We grow in wisdom by doing. After all, its much more biblically accurate to say that Christians follow the way of Jesus rather than subscribe to the conclusions of Jesus. The implication is that the Christian life is a journey to be undertaken rather than a test to get all the rights answers on.

I'm reminded of the famous poem by Dr. Kent M. Keith (with additions attributed to Mother Theresa), "Do It Anyway." It contains this line:  "If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives. Be kind anyway." [Both versions are included in the link.]

I find great wisdom in this. In light of the faith vs works debate, I interpret this line as saying it ultimately may not matter if our good deeds have the purest motivations or not. Perhaps we do good deeds because we think we are earning a reward or because we may mistakenly believe we can control God's award of salvation. However, doing good deeds is still a good thing to do. We ought to do good deeds anyway, even if our motives and our theological foundations are less than pure. In fact, they almost certainly will be less than pure, because 100% purity of heart is either impossible--or else extremely rare--in our world of limited, fallible human beings. We will grow in our wisdom while doing those deeds. We shouldn't wait to do good works until we have all the theology figured out, because we may need the praxis of doing them to properly form our theology in the first place!

In this broken world filled with human limitations, if we need 100% pureness before we do something, we will end up never doing anything.  

When I see people locked in debate on this issue, I just see people who have allowed themselves to be distracted. I understand why it's so easy to distract ourselves. Discipleship involves real change. It can be scary, especially when we are confronted with the self-sacrificial way of the cross preached by Jesus through both his words and deeds. It's so much easier to wax theological for hours on end and find that the time for putting those thoughts into action has simply slipped away while the debate raged on. You see, that was the whole point of the debate in the first place!  

Don't get me wrong, I understand why people think salvation is a big deal and very much worthy of their attention. If you think that your eternal life depends on getting a question right, I can understand the anxiety. But I also think debating theological minutiae is a clever way of distracting ourselves from the tasks of Christian discipleship. Jesus tells us to love one another, feed the hungry, turn the other cheek, forgive 70 x 7 times, love our enemies and so forth. He tells us over and over again to let go of anxiety over the future and simply follow his way--all shall be well. Yet, so many churches lock horns and obsess over doctrinal nuances.

In conclusion, all Christians should be dedicated to living out the commands of Jesus and following in his way. In practice, all Christians should look pretty much alike, even if they are motivated by very different theologies. A "faith alone" Christian should be working side by side with a "faith plus works" Christian. Whether they understand themselves as earning salvation by their good works or simply living out the requirements of a justified person growing in righteousness should not interfere with doing the good works required of discipleship. The tasks should be the same. They should be working just as hard doing the same things. This is what we seem to forget in this debate.


While not the focus of this piece, it is worth pointing out that this issue has been largely settled by many of the key players of the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Catholic Church (through the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity) and the Lutheran World Federation signed a joint statement on justification in 1999. Other denominations have signed on since then, including the World Methodist Council and the World Communion of Reformed Churches. The Anglican Church is also expected to sign. To these signers, the faith vs works debate is over because a common understanding of this issue has been accepted. It is also worth pointing out that each of those denominations has detractors who don't support statement, as well.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

7 Forms of Recycling You Didn't Realize Were Recycling

What's the first thing that comes to mind when you hear the word "recycling"?

For me, it's separating cardboard, paper, plastic bottles, cans and glass and periodically hauling them away to the city collection area.

Today, I was reminded that the concept of recycling is much broader than that. My wife and I just hosted a yard sale. A lot of stuff was cluttering our home, and we wanted to downsize before our upcoming move. We were tempted to just throw much of it away.  Otherwise, the plan was to just box it up and begrudgingly drag it to the next housebasically postponing having to make a decision about it.

At the last minute, we threw an impromptu yard salewe spread out items on the front lawn, nailed a cardboard sign to the telephone pole in front of our house and spent the day helping neighbors haul stuff away. We met new people and exchanged some stories along the way.

It's win-win situation: We get rid of stuff that is sitting around not being used and even make a little cash from it. Our neighbors acquire stuff for very little money. The earth gets a break from us humans constantly producing new things. Old items that are not even produced anymore get re-circulated. It might even help foster the bonds of community.

Advertisers have invested a lot into convincing us that the solution to any of our problems is that every individual person can own a "new one of everything." However, that severely limits our imagination. It also puts an unsustainable strain the earth's resources. [If everybody on earth consumed as much as the average U.S. citizen, we would need four earth-sized planets!]

Our yard sale has caused me to reflect on all the ways that we can acquire and share resources that do not involve every individual person going to a retail establishment to purchase something new. I compiled a list below. Several of these do not involve the exchange of money at all. Some of these are probably second-nature to many folks and you do them all the time. However, are there any you have not considered? How long can you get the items you need without having to buy something new? Are there other methods I'm missing?

Keep in mind, most of these methods involve us having to work cooperatively with our neighbors (which is usually the last thing most Americans want to do)!

1. Share. I come from a family of Midwestern farmers. My grandparents did not own all the farming equipment they needed. A group of several neighbors and friends owned everything and shared with each other. One family owned a plow, another a hay-baler, another a combine, etc. Each item was only needed a few times during the year. With enough coordination during peak planting and harvest seasons, they were able to simply rotate items between them.
     My family no longer farms, but I own a weed eater, mower and other lawn care equipment. I use these items for a few hours every week or two in the summer. My neighbors do the same with theirs. Yet, each of us owns his or her own. We've been led to believe that it's better to spend a few hundred (or a few thousand!) dollars on our own equipment rather than talk to our neighbors and come up with an arrangement to share.

 2. Time share/joint ownership. This is an extension of the point above. Sharing doesn't have to involve money at all, but it can. Perhaps 4-5 neighbors could chip in the money to buy and maintain a lawnmower that they all use. What other items could be jointly owned?

3. Swap.  Do you covet something your neighbor has? Maybe he covets something of yours. Get together and simply swap items. No money has to change hands. It will feel awkward and wrong. Do it anyway! What if one person gets a better deal than the other? So what!
     A few years ago, I was part of a group that hosted a swap meet. Individuals arrived with a box load of stuff they no longer wanted and left it there. They were free to take a box load of whatever their neighbors brought. Some took more than others, but all were satisfied and there were 12 bushel baskets left over to donate (yes, that is a Biblical reference, but it was also quite literally true in this case!) People recycled items which others acquired, and not a single dollar exchanged hands. It was like a free garage sale.

4. Public Facilities. I'm always amazed when walking around the neighborhood to see swimming pools in many of the yards. I rarely see any them used. They take up a lot of space and require significant work and expense to maintain. Yet the thought of a public swimming pool repulses many of us. I think would be so nice if there were a public swimming pool down the street that we can all use. Parks, pools, libraries, gymnasiums, sports fields, recreation rooms and entertainment centers work nicely in public settings. If you have your own, who are you going to share it with?

5. Libraries for books... and more! Some neighborhoods have a lending tool library. Instead of  buying an expensive tool you may only use once for a home improvement project, you can simply check out that tool and return when you are done with itno different than a library book. You will have access to more items this way than if you had to purchase them all yourself.
     Traditional libraries carry not just books, but periodicals, movies, music and more. They host programs for young kids. They have computers with internet to use, as well.

6. Rent. Why buy when you can simply rent? There are many items that are only used occasionally.  Trucks, rototillers and carpet cleaners are great options here and readily available for rent.

7. Garage & yard sales, flea markets, second-hand stores and free stores.  These are great ways to get quality items, many of which are not even available to purchase new, anymore. You pay a small fraction of the cost as buying retail for often similar quality. Donate/shop at organizations that give away goods to the less-fortunate

Going back to the yard sale example, it's a shame when something is simply thrown away that could have much more life to give. Our retail consumer-driven economy has conditioned us to forget all the other ways that the economy functions outside of retail purchases. Given global environmental problems up to and including climate change, we are going to have to re-think how we acquire and dispose of what we consume.

Pete Seeger has some further suggestions to add to the list:

“If it can’t be . . . 
reduced, reused, repaired, rebuilt, refurbished, refinished, resold, recycled or composted,
then it should be . . . 
restricted, redesigned or removed from production.”
Pete Seeger

Everything needs to be part of a cycle of life, decay and rebirth. If we have created items that only have a single use and have not devised a way to either re-use them or return them back to the ecosystems from which they came, then we should not be producing or consuming these items.

Thursday, August 3, 2017

Love Your Enemies (i.e. Love Yourself)

from Matthew 5:44

Have you ever noticed that people hate the same qualities in other people that they themselves have?

Bossy people can't stand other bossy people. Nosy people are irritated by other nosy people. Hyper-sensitive people seem to lack patience with others.

You shake your head and think, "you just can't make this stuff up!"

Psychologists call this behavior projection. It is only one of many dysfunctional habits, but in my experience, it's positively uncanny how I see it just about everywhere.

Eastern religions would classify this under the energetic relationships of "karma." I think they are onto something. These patterns run like clockwork, and they are as predictable as Newton's Laws of Physics.

This form of projection helps me to understand the command of Jesus to "love your enemies" (Luke 6:28; Matthew 5:44)

You should love your enemies, because your true enemy is yourself. The qualities in others that offend you so much are keys to missing pieces of yourself.

We like to portray a glossy picture of ourselveswhether it's our resume, online dating profile or Facebook page. But those documents rarely tell the full story of who we are. It's easier to think about the qualities that we like and ignore our less than noble features.

When we hate other people, there is a reason why they irk us so much and get under our skin. There's some unfinished emotional business there. We may try to disassociate ourselves from the parts we don't like to admit that we have and project those traits onto others, instead.  It's a form of denial.

The people who offend us offer us a key to our own wholeness. Because if it is true that our hatred of others is a projection of our own internal baggage, then when we attempt to cut ourselves off from them, we are also cutting ourselves off from a part of ourselvesa messy, dark, dirty part of ourselves, but a part nonetheless. We can't be truly whole unless, by definition, we accept each and every part of ourselves. And in accepting those pieces, we find wholenessShalomPeaceA peace that surpasses all understanding.

You cannot hate someone without turning into them. Even if your dislike others else does not start off as a projection of yourself, if you continue the process of hatred, you will eventually turn into themat least, the qualities in them that you hate. It's Greek Tragedy. It's what happened to Darth Vader. You are what you hate. The only way out of this inevitable trap is to not hate them:  Love your enemies. Do good to those who hurt you. Prayer for those who persecute you. It all makes sense. Hated will take control over you, which is why love is the path of true freedom.

Jesus brings us to a unity that is both cosmic and microscopic, external and internal. Yes, Jesus is calling all of creation into oneness. But in doing so, let's not forget he is also calling each individual person into wholeness with her or himself in the process.

Our enemies always tell us something about ourselves. Therapists and other healers know that our enemies are always a key to our own growthOur enemies are our best teachers.

Separation is myth. Oneness is the ultimate reality that Jesus pointed toward. That truth is evident in many shapes and ways, but to me our tendency to project our self hatred onto others shows me the wisdom of Jesus.

I will be further exploring these topics in upcoming posts, stay tuned!

Thursday, July 20, 2017


"The large, muscular man was nearly in tears," she said.

In a talk this past Sunday at the Wild Goose Festival, Catholic activist Sister Simone Campbell described a man she met in Indiana. He was always taught that if you work hard enough you will be successful. After all, that's what his parents did and their parents before them. He was indeed working hard and doing everything he could, but he was just barely making ends meet for his family. In a moment of emotional truth, the shame and disappointment he felt in himself came out.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is George Monbiot: "If wealth was the inevitable result of hard work and enterprise, every woman in African would be a millionaire."

People are not poor because they don't work hard enough. In fact, many of them work harder than the wealthy--they have to, because their very survival depends on it. Vacations and "down time" are a luxury that the poor simply can not afford. Let's look at Africa: Poverty is extreme, but there is no shortage of brilliant entrepreneurs doing amazing things to keep their families alive. Still, it's not enough. The full weight of a system that works against them is often too much. Millions and millions of people are just barely surviving, despite their best efforts.

Why can't people "pull themselves up by the bootstraps" like their parents did? It's not because people don't work hard enough or develop innovative ideas to cope with their struggles. It's just that the struggles today are so overwhelming.

My Father

My father graduated from high school in the late 1950s. He worked a job or two before getting hired in a factory of a major automotive producer. Still in his teens, he made enough money to support a family on one income. He could reasonably expect all the trappings of a middle class lifestyle: Health care, retirement after 30 years, a lifetime pension after retirement, time off for vacations and enough money to own a home, automobiles and send kids off to college. It was grungy, dirty work, but it was reliable work. He retired in his early 50s.

Nowadays, those jobs are extremely rare, if not altogether nonexistent. Individuals today are often working more than one job to make ends meet. Both spouses have jobs in order to try to achieve the same standard of living that was once easily accessible with one income. Young adults struggle to find adequate work and continue to live with their parents or with other friends in shared living arrangements. Pensions are a distant memory (the system where after you retire your company continues to pay you for the rest of your life), and young people will wonder if they actually existed or were just a figment of someone's imagination. Even people in the skilled trades or others who have spent years earning full college and masters degrees often cannot achieve the same standard of living that entry level workers once enjoyed. Whatever the economic reasons for this, one truth is abundantly clear: Wealth is NOT directly related to one's willingness to work hard!

We love the stories about people who overcome every obstacle and still come out on top. Those are admirable people who inspire us all. Whether through luck or skill, their stories should be celebrated. The problem is when we make that a basic expectation for all people and blame them when they struggle rather than the system that made their success unlikely.

Do people really believe they aren't working hard enough? Like the man described at the beginning of this post, a lot of people probably do take it personally. They see their struggles as a reflection on their own shortcomings. They have been falsely led to blame themselves, when the real culprit is a system that puts too many obstacles in front of hard-working people.

There are plenty of statistics to back this up, but we need only look around us: A family with multiple income-earners, with advanced degrees, working more hours, struggles to achieve what a single breadwinner could earn in previous generation with (and often without) a high school education. Let's quit blaming each other and rework the system so that the system works for--and not against--us!

Wednesday, July 12, 2017

4 Tools to See the Biblical Big Picture

They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream - Jeremiah 17.8

Scripture is like a tree. Some parts are the roots, some are the branches and others form the trunk. You will run into problems if you correctly read a line that serves as a leaf but try to present it as if it were the trunk. This is partly what it means when experts advise us to read Scripture within its proper context(s). You could even read your favorite lines word-for-word but end up misunderstanding them if you fail to see where they fit within the whole body. This is, of course, the same mistake the Pharisees made. They were so right--and yet at the same time so very wrong.

I present the following four tools to help us keep the Biblical big picture in view. Whenever we fall into the habit of hyper-analyzing individual passages, it is good to keep the following in mind:

1.  Proportionality: Compare the Numbers

Let's dive right in and talk about a current hot button issue:  Homosexuality. There are, at most, seven Scripture verses that directly address the topic of homosexuality. In contrast, there are thousands of verses addressing poverty, the suffering and the marginalized--hundreds by Jesus himself. There are so many references to poverty in direct, indirect, metaphorical and literal ways that I wasn't even able to find an exhaustive list--perhaps no one thought it was important enough to compile. Maybe there is a list in a dusty book in the back corner of some library, but nothing that is readily available online. But much has been written about those seven verses about homosexuality and you can easily find commentaries on a quick internet search.

Any Christian who takes the Bible seriously has to face the sheer numbers. At some point, the Bible has to start asking you questions:  Why are you obsessed with seven lines about one topic while ignoring hundreds of lines about another topic? What does it mean that Jesus himself references poverty over four hundred times but never once homosexuality? How can homosexuality possibly be THE issue for Christians if they are using the Bible as a guide? The level of emphasis our culture gives it is out of proportion to the level of emphasis Scripture gives it, and we need to wrestle with that.

This article is not intended to argue for or against homosexuality, although I can all but guarantee that if this article gets any comments it will be precisely along those lines. The point here is: Why are we not talking about poverty? Is the focus on other issues a way to distract ourselves from the poor and marginalized?

2. The Bible as Mirror: Who is Really the Subject?

When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
- John 8:7

We all know the story in the Gospel of John Chapter 8.  A mob had formed to try, convict and punish a woman caught in adultery. What they didn't expect was that they would be the ones on trial once Jesus turned the questioning back on them. This is, I believe, what happens to all of when we dare to read Scripture with an open heart and mind.  We may consult Scripture trying to find an answer about how to deal with those people or that group. But we may be surprised to find that Scripture has just as many--if not more--uncomfortable questions to ask of us.

If you incline your ear and listen deeply enough, you may be hearing Scripture whisper back at you:  Why are you looking for rocks to throw against the homosexual community while ignoring the poor? What is going on inside of you that is making it hard for you to hear Jesus' very clear and direct words about the poor? Maybe the Bible isn't teaching you about homosexuality. Maybe it is teaching you about yourself.

[This section is influenced heavily by the short but sweet book Opening the Bible, by Thomas Merton.]

3.  Trajectory: Keep Your Eyes on the Prize

"The moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward Jesus."

     - Russell Moore, President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission at the 2017 Southern Baptist Convention. Dr. Moore is taking a quote by Theodore Parker which has been used by Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. [The original quote ends with "justice" rather than "Jesus," but to a Christian it's not a huge leap to substitute one for the other.]

It has famously been said that you can use Scripture to justify almost anything.This is especially true if you take individual lines out of context. Sometimes the Bible really seems to contradict itself. What is a believer to do?

It is important to look at where the overall direction and momentum of Scripture seem to be pointing us. A relationship with Christ takes us from someplace and moves us toward another place. We are in motion. The Ancient Israelites were a people in motion. Jesus tells us that the Kingdom we are going toward is both here and not here, now and not yet.  But we pray that one day it will be "on earth as it is in heaven."

When reading Scripture, it is important to ask whether a passage refers to the Kingdom "now" or "not yet." just because something is mentioned in the Bible does not mean that it is God's intention for humankind for all times and places.  After all, the Bible has plenty of positive, supportive references to slavery, rape, incest, sexual abuse and the subjugation of women, but we are quite confident that is not where God is calling us today.  Let's not make the same mistake about other verses about other issues.

4. Hiding in Plain Sight

The most devious way to downplay difficult biblical teachings is not to completely ignore them, because that would be too obvious. The most devious way is to give occasional lip service to them--mentioning them but always minimizing them, always qualifying. And NEVER mentioning them with the same frequency or focus as Jesus or the Bible as a whole. This is a variation on #1 above.

A church may hold a canned food drive for the hungry once a year, give an award to someone who cares for the poor, or mention the poor in sermons but always with some qualifiers. We can pat ourselves on the back and reassure ourselves that we've done our duty.  But that level of interest in the poor is nowhere near close to the level of interest that Jesus seemed to have.

It's hard to read the Bible and not come away with the idea that the poor, the sick and the marginalized are the focus over and over and over again. They're on just about every page.  We're not talking about an occasional line here or there.  It's just everywhere.  It's not just what Jesus talks about--he actually says where you find the poor you will also find me (Matthew 25). If we are going to address the issue of homosexuality, back to our first example above, we should do it through the context of reaching out to a marginalized community if we are going to be "biblical" in how we do things.


But we are all afraid of the Bible.  Opening it and reading it are scary. It might challenge us too much.  It might transform us.  So we make sure to put all sorts of brackets around it.  We make sure to tell ourselves what the Bible means before we actually open it., trying to intercept the divine message and make it more palatable before it does any damage and changes us. These four tools are not a guarantee that we won't make mistakes, but they are a good help to step back and see what's really going on when we read a passage.

Friday, July 7, 2017

What's Fundamental to a Fundamentalist?

Do our Holy Books and doctrines point us toward God,
or do we hold them up and block ourselves from seeing God?

"Fundamentalism is not a position as much as a disposition."
Stan Mitchell, Pastor of Gracepointe Church in Franklin, TN

Pastor Mitchell articulates so well something that has been on my mind lately.

The term "fundamentalism" was first coined in relation to the Christian Fundamentalist movements which originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They largely came out of American and British Protestantism. In particular, the series of books called The Fundamentals, published in 1910-1915, gave the movement its name.

Technically speaking, a "fundamentalist" should only refer to a Christian who is part of the specific movements which self-identify as such. Yet, many onlookers have found resonance between the way these movements operate and other religious (and non-religious) movements. People today talk about "Catholic fundamentalists" and "Muslim fundamentalists" and all sorts of other "fundamentalists." How can this be?

I had a pivotal insight when researching the details of Christian fundamentalism for an article. I knew that fundamentalism identified about 5-6 "fundamentals" of belief and doctrine that were non-negotiable, but that was the limit of my knowledge. Doing my due diligence as a writer, I began researching. For that particular article, it made sense to name those half-a-dozen fundamentals.

I was surprised to find out that there was not just one list but several. Yes, there were five points which were tied to The Fundamentals book series, but other groups had their own lists. To a casual onlooker, these lists may seen strikingly similar--all of them include Biblical inerrancy, for example. Some of the other points may have been implied in previous lists but due to a changing cultural landscape, a particular denomination may have felt the need to be affirm them specifically at a later time. But there's no getting around the fact that these lists are simply different from one another.

Here we come back to Pastor Mitchell's quote: It seems like it isn't so important what those fundamentals are, just so long as a group has them.

So what is fundamental to a fundamentalist?  The answer may sound like circular reasoning, but there is a deeper point underneath: What's fundamental to a fundamentalist isn't necessarily a literal interpretation of the Bible or any of the other points--what's fundamental to a fundamentalist is the need to have fundamentals.

This is what Pastor Mitchell means, I believe: It's not so much the position as it is the disposition.

Some people simply need to have several points to rally themselves around in no uncertain terms.  These points distinguish "us" from "them." It's a black-and-white approach to spirituality.  It's tribal. It's rigid. It's exclusionary. This is the "fundamentalism" that can be found across the board in all the world religions, as Pope Francis has said.

But does it open us to God or keep us from God?

In all fairness, every group has to delineate what group membership means--every group has identifying creeds, doctrines, fundamentals or, at the very least, guiding principles for what it means to be part of that particular group. A lot of people don't like rules of creeds, but without them, how to do you identify why your group exists and what it's about? Just having a group-defining list does not automatically make that group a fundamentalist. A fundamentalist is more about rigidity--their list ends with a period rather than an ellipsis.

Modern Evangelical Christians (not to be confused with fundamentalists!) witness to the centrality of a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I think they are right. Ours is a living faith. We are in relationship with the Mystery our tradition has come to know as God. And out of that relationship will come beliefs and out of those beliefs will eventually come doctrines. But the most important thing for a Christian is to rally around that living relationship.

Whenever we put doctrines or theological interpretations as the most central, identifying elements, we are at risk of breaking the first and most fundamental (no pun intended) of the Commandments: Putting a false idol in place of the awe and mystery of God. Those doctrines and theological interpretations are going to be flawed, because they are drafted up by humans and written out in clumsy human languages. They may be inspired, but they are all too often the work of human hands. As the mystics say, those doctrines are a finger pointing toward God, but they are not actually God. Big difference. To define ourselves by them is to basically worship the human ego and its own creations.

It is the living relationship with God that is the best axis around which to revolve our lives.

Thursday, June 29, 2017

A Twitter Hashstorm: The Alt-Right Controversy at the Southern Baptist Convention

"Southern Baptists overwhelmingly pass a resolution June 14 condemning
the racism of the alt-right movement. Photo by Adam Covington"

The Southern Baptist Convention first rejected then resurrected a resolution against the alt-right and white supremacy. This occurred at their annual meeting held in Phoenix, AZ, a couple weeks ago in June, 2017. Click here for a sequence of events. There are many different ways to understand this process, and it stirred quite a controversy.

An Outsiders Perspective

It was a roller coaster ride of emotions for me. I stand not as a member of the SBC but as a very interested observer from the Catholic Church who cares deeply about race. My colleague (a Roman Catholic priest) and I attended the Convention as representatives of the US Catholic Bishops in Christian friendship.

I spent much of the Convention glued to my Twitter feed, and I'm not typically an avid Twitter user.

News of the proposed resolution against the alt-right and white supremacy broke before the Convention. Twitter was chock full of some of the nastiest, most vile messages against it. Yet, I sensed something was awry. SBC pastors and leaders, as well as most church folks, are some of the most polite people I have ever met. They have a very Southern way of being indirect about grievances and disagreement. While they are also not shy about engaging in debate, what I saw on Twitter did not match the tone or timbre of what I have come to know as the SBC.

I suspect the #sbc17 hashtag was being rigorously trolled by alt-right activists. The vile, pornographic language and level of aggressiveness in the tweets signaled the work of outsiders. The language was so consistent in these tweets, actually, that it could have been the work of just a few (or even a single individual) using continuously new, anonymous accounts making it seems like the outcry was bigger than it really was. 

However, there were also few voices competing with these, before the Convention started. The glaring silence of others in the SBC worried me. Were there no contrary opinions? Were feelings against racism too weak or afraid of the alt-right to speak out? Was the SBC so weary from backlash against repudiating the Confederate Flag last year that it no longer had will to stand up to white supremacy this year? I wondered.

A lot has happened in one year. The campaign of Donald Trump has been associated with a significant increase in violent actions and rhetoric along racial lines. Trump received 81% of the white Evangelical Christian vote--which would soundly describe most SBC members. In the wake of Trump, many in our culture--like myself--were left wondering where do white Evangelicals--like many in the SBC--really stand on racism? Were all the apologies in the past just lip service? Most Americans understand that voters had only a couple choices for president and complex political issues had to be boiled down to a single vote. We get that. But what has been noticeably absent is  white Evangelicals holding Trump accountable since the election. They could be saying to Trump: "Yes, we voted for you, but that was in spite of--and not because of--the racist rhetoric, and we condemn that rhetoric." That outcry has been pretty minimal from the white Evangelical community, which comes across as an endorsement.

When the alt-right resolution failed to be brought to the floor on Day one of the two-day Convention, and when the messengers failed to keep any semblance of it alive after that, Twitter just blew up. It blew up in a way that raised my spirits.

I was so wound up I could barely sleep that night as tweets poured in.

I was so encouraged by the groundswell of support. SBC members simply did not want to leave Phoenix with the world unsure about where their denomination stands on the alt-right and white supremacy. It wasn’t just one Twitter account leading the charge, although there were key leaders in this effort. It was dozens and dozens of formerly silent Twitter accounts erupting all at once. At least one group organized a meeting to draft a new resolution with the resolution's original author, Texas pastor Rev. Dwight McKissic. The Resolutions Committee itself sought to find a way to remedy this. Russell Moore, president of the SBC's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, had a hand in drafting the revised version.

I was grateful to witness this.  It was a pure blessing to see both the Twitter messages appearing one after the other in rapid succession and being part of conversations in the convention center hallways. Dozens and dozens of pastors and SBC members entered the fray.

It will be hard to walk away from SBC 2017 without at least a shadow of a doubt as to where the membership stands. Al Mohler, president of Southern Baptist Seminary, remarked that the SBC has indeed gotten a "black eye."  

Yes, the SBC stumbled and fell here. It may be hard to wash all the dirt off.  But the stumble created a moment that allowed the SBC to mobilize to make it right.  That movement was pure blessing to watch. I am not a voting member, but as a fellow Christian who cares deeply about what happens here, my heart was with the SBC every step of the way. I am optimistic about the health of the SBC after this.

My assessment: Those who want to put racism behind them are sincere and passionate. There is also a gap between SBC leadership and the membership as well as a generational gap among pastors. When the SBC messengers voted last year to repudiate the Confederate Flag, once person spoke on the Convention floor that it was a fine resolution for pastors but it may be difficult to explain to churchgoers back home. A lot of people want to believe that the SBC has put its racist past behind it, but its rank-and-file membership seems divided as to the necessity of these resolutions and the relevance of symbols like the Confederate Flag.

Some members of the SBC were upset with the headlines coming out the Convention. Those headlines may--or may not--have been unfair. Still, I would urge the SBC not to spend a lot of energy feeling like victims of sensationalistic journalists trying to exploit a controversy for juicy headlines. The hesitation of the SBC over this issue opens real wounds and makes real people wonder where the SBC really stands.  I saw African-American pastors and families shed tears on the Convention floor in shock over what they thought would be a routine denouncement of racism that was instead killed in committee--at a time when our nation cannot afford to be neutral on race.  These are sincere questions that deserve answers.

While I believe SBC senior leaders are sincere in wanting to put racism behind them, they may be guilty of tone deafness here. They underestimated what message it would send by avoiding this topic. Case in point: Alt-right groups were initially declaring this a victory for white supremacy. Perhaps SBC leaders simply wanted to avoid a difficult topic, but sometimes the best way to attract controversy is by attempting to avoid it. Still, those fighting passionately for racial equality and reconciliation are an impressive bunch, and they give the SBC a bright future.

Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Is Healthcare a Right or Privilege? Wrong Question.

The question comes up all the time: Is healthcare a right or a privilege? Pope Francis has even weighed in.

I don't think this is the right question.

When people ask whether healthcare is a right or privilege, they are basically asking whether healthcare is either an act of charity or a luxury. And then if it is an act of charity, they ask whether others are entitled to that charity or not. Furthermore, this question implies that the benefits of healthcare go directly to individuals and not to society as a whole.

Sometimes the questions we ask have more power than the answers. A question can frame the debate and imply assumptions about the topic. Without realizing it, most of us answer the question only within the categories that the question gives. The way questions are asked can exert a powerful control over us if we are not aware.

Once asked, the discussion quickly gets derailed in debating the nature of charity itself and whether anyone is entitled to it. These are hot-button issues in US culture that usually promise nothing but gridlock.

I'll use an event from my life to illustrate another way to look at this issue.

My Story

Several years ago, I helped establish the Columbus Catholic Worker (CCW), a center for charity and justice efforts. It was a wonderful experience feeding the hungry, providing clothing to the less fortunate, teaching ESL and offering hospitality to immigrants. Ministry was blossoming in a part of town that was thirsty for Christian love in action. The organization was growing and putting down roots. While it took a village to birth these efforts, the CCW eventually fell under my care and direction. I loved it and felt God's grace pulsing through it.

Today, the doors to this organization are closed. A multitude of reasons converged to bring it to that point, but an often unnamed reason lurking in the background was healthcare. Because of a cancer diagnosis, I needed a "regular" job that came with health coverage. It might have taken several years before the CCW could have grown large enough to offer a salary with health benefits, if ever. I was okay with that. I could live lean for a while. I could wade through and wait out other problems. But I could not wait for health coverage. This organization could have served all of Columbus for many years. It was already having a positive impact on many people. It could have been my life's work. It took a lot of effort from a lot of people to start it, and it's not something that can be re-started so easily. It was hard to walk away from it. 

While I have no regrets about where my life is today, this story illustrates an important point:

I am a citizen who had ideas and energy. I was willing to try out new ideas and take risks. The same could be said of my friends and partners who worked beside me in this ministry. The CCW benefited not just me but dozens of individuals and (dare I say) the whole city. But this work is no longer being done. 

Just imagine how many other people have to scale back--people with ideas, new inventions, innovations and business ideas. They have to limit how much they share these gifts because they are squandering their time and energy securing health coverage. 

We all suffer when we make it difficult for our neighbors to share their gifts.

Americans often live in a Hollywood fantasy that celebrates--and even expects--that others overcome every bit of adversity and still come out on top. After all, it happens in the movies and sometimes in the history books. It does work for some people, and those people deserve to be celebrated. The problem with those stories is that they don't reflect a fair expectation. In real life, real obstacles take a real toll on real people. It's not because people don't have the character, skills or faith to overcome them. Rather, it's just simple math: Someone who runs with a 50 lb weight strapped to his back is not going to run as far or as fast as if he did not have that weight. Yes, the weight may build extra strength and character and force innovation, but it may also come with significant delays, setbacks and failures in the meantime. If someone has a great business idea, I would rather she begin when  she is 25 years old rather than 45. She will bring more wisdom at age 45, but she will also lose 20 years of experience during which she could have been refining her craft rather than working side jobs in an unrelated field.

Everyone loves a good story where people pull themselves up by the bootstraps, fight all the monsters and win.  But it is pure insanity to make the lives of our neighbors as difficult as possible as a game to see who is able to turn that into a heroic quest and win. We are all too quick to assume that if a business venture fails, that it "wasn't meant to be" or that the people just did not work hard enough or have a good enough idea. It could simply be that an environment that is unfriendly to new ideas and ventures is going to result in, well . . . fewer ideas and ventures.

In this country, we are shooting ourselves in the foot. People get angry because a dime of their tax money might benefit someone else. What they don't realize is that when their neighbors are better off, so are they. It's a safer, healthier, smarter, more advanced country we are building. It is a more competitive nation in the world market. Consider my story and multiply it by a thousand. Think of all the businesses, church ministry efforts, nonprofit organizations and other new ventures that are not happening because people either need to either get health coverage or are crippled under medical debt.

If I want to start a business, I don't have to go out and cut trees down to build a road to transport my goods and services. I don't have to build water or sewer lines. I don't have to train employees in basic math, reading or problem solving skills, because we have public education. The only thing missing is that I can't expect the people I hire are healthy enough to work. It is one glaring piece that is missing.

Universal health care means that our country can be more competitive as people take less time off work due to illness, that communicable diseases are treated before they can spread, and that a major obstacle is removed for my fellow citizens who want the space to innovate. 

To me, it's not a "right" or a "privilege" that I can leave my house and take my car on any road I want. I don't think you are mooching off the government because you drive on the freeway or public city roads. It's just common sense that roads are open and available to all, including businesses. I don't spend any time at all upset that my tax dollars might pay for a road to a remote town in Montana or California that I myself will probably never use. For the same reason, I would not be upset at all that my tax dollars would pay for my neighbors to get the healthcare they need to stay alive, healthy and productive (in that order).

It would be so complicated if roads were only for certain people. Imagine if you bought a "road plan' where you could only use certain roads and had to drive extra miles across the city to use the roads in your "plan." Yet we do that with our complicated medical plans that exclude us from so much.

Charity is great. I wish we could make the decision on healthcare based solely on humanitarian reasons and not take into account whether it makes our neighbor more productive. But this is not going to melt the ice in this discussion in this country. Whether healthcare is a right or privilege is not the only question when we go to the voting booth. Providing universal healthcare is simply what a smart country does that wants to stay competitive and advance as a civilization. Like public roads and public education, it provides a basic infrastructure so that we can all share our God-given gifts more broadly and without reservation. It's the next logical step in the growth of a healthy society.