Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Where Charity and Love Prevail: The Matthew 25 Solidarity Test

Our society is so divided over many hot-button issues. There are conservative and liberal viewpoints, with variations of all kinds in between. It can be confusing to know what to think when half of the population seems to have strong opinions one way and seemingly the other half of the population has just as strong views on the other side.

When people express opinions about a particular issue, I always look to see how charitable they are in this. Do they take the concerns of others seriously and try their best to get to the bottom of it? Or do they simply dismiss their concerns outright without getting involved? That is often a clue as to whether their opinions are in line with Christian discipleship.

Jesus promises that he is close to the poor and suffering of the world. He is so close that he can say whatever is done to the "least of these" is also done to him (see Matthew 25:31-46). In this passage, he compels us to do the same through the works of mercy. This is a great model for how Christians can move and act in this world.

If you are trying to figure out what position to take on a controversial issue, you can use what I call the Matthew 25 Solidarity Test: Do you know the people who are affected by this issue? Have you walked in their shoes? Have you heard their concerns in their own words rather than from a third party? Are you so close to them that whatever happens to them also happens to you?

I'll use two hot-button issues to illustrate this point:  Racism in the U.S. and the struggle of refugees and undocumented immigrants.

Reports have been mounting in recent years of unarmed black people in America being killed or otherwise brutalized by police officers. There are so many reports that it is hard to dismiss them all as simply isolated incidents. Yet, some people are quick to say, "There is no racism in the U.S.!" It is strange how that is their first thought. It comes across as defensiveness and frankly just flat out denial. 

Anyone who studies statistics can tell you that a string of incidents does not necessarily prove that there is something like societal racism in play. Such things are difficult to prove and it can take years for the proper data and studies to come in. However, anyone who is even remotely charitable should recognize that we have a big problem. All indicators point to it. Even if we were to find out later that this treatment of African Americans is somehow NOT systemic racism (which I sincerely doubt), we should still be acting as if it were racism until we know for sure. That is what a charitable person would do. Until we get to the bottom of it, we should be doing everything possible to solve this. We should be sensitive, compassionate and diligent until this problem is solved. The fact that so many resist any effort to work on this issue just about proves the legitimacy of the charge of racism.

For example, if someone falls out of a tree and thinks he has broken his arm, the best thing to do is take him to the hospital. It is possible that the arm is not broken, but doctors will treat that person as if the arm is broken until they can properly diagnose. It would be cruel and inhumane to say, "quit crying, your arm is not broken!" without actually doing the necessary evaluation to know for sure. Yet, that is exactly how many in our culture are treating African Americans who present strong evidence of racism and are met with resistance, dismissals of their concerns and overall lack of interest.

The people who say that racism is not a factor are rarely (if ever) close to the issue. They seem to pronounce their judgement from their comfortable living rooms in very white neighborhoods. They aren't the people who are consoling grieving family members or helping a wounded and angry community heal. Those who are involved seem to have no problem recognizing the footprint of racism at work.

I see the same pattern over how we treat refugees and undocumented immigrants. The people who are closest to migrants—who hold their hands when a loved one is missing or who simply listen to them with open minds and hearts—these people overwhelmingly support a merciful approach to welcoming immigrants and granting hospitality whenever possible. Those who want to shut out immigrants and refugees with strict rules are usually people who have had no meaningful contact with those migrants and have rarely taken the time to fully understand their concerns.

An important note: It takes more than physical proximity to truly be in Christian solidarity with others. For example, police and the people they arrest are very close. The police physically touch them and they share a ride in a police car. However, despite sharing that space, they are often very far apart in terms of their life experiences and perspectives. People in segregated communities can often think they are close to each other. They see each other from behind their car windows or in limited interactions in public. They can fool themselves into thinking they understand the concerns of the other group. Segregated or confrontational relationships are not relationships of solidarity, and solidarity is what Jesus is requiring in Matthew 25.

Being in close solidarity with the poor and suffering of the world is no guarantee that you will always form the best opinions. However, in our culture that seems almost evenly divided on so many important issues, we are actually not very divided when we factor in solidarity. Looking at the issues of racism and immigration, those who are in solidarity with the affected groups overwhelmingly have a supportive, sympathetic opinion of their struggles while those with differing opinions are almost always those who are not in solidarity. I'm sure there are exceptions, but quite frankly, I have never met one. Exceptions must be very rare, if they exist at all. This is a pretty clear indicator to me that opinions on both sides are not equal in validity.

I'm reminded of the lyrics to the old church hymn:

Where charity and love prevail,
there God is ever found;
Brought here together by Christ’s love,
by love are we thus bound.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Book Recommendation: Thinking Theologically about Mass Incarceration

Click here to buy

It's hard to imagine a more urgent and timely topic: How can Christian churches understand and address the problems of racism, especially in its most current manifestation, mass incarceration?

BOOK RECOMMENDATION: Thinking Theologically about Mass Incarceration, Biblical Foundations and Justice Imperatives.  Churches, seminaries, social action groups and other concerned Christians: This is a fantastic book for any Christian who wants to better understand—and take action on—racism in the U.S in its contemporary form: Mass incarceration.

26 writers—representing nearly as many Christian denominations—contributed brave essays, prophetic sermons and top-notch scholarly pieces on this very topic as part of the Faith & Order Commission of the National Council of Churches. It was the fruit of a multi-year process of vigorous discussion and discernment. The essays are powerful. 

Topics covered include racism, white supremacy/privilege, prison ministry and the main focus, mass incarceration.

Full disclosure: I am one of the authors who has a piece in this volume.


This book is a great volume for prayer, study and action on this extremely important, contemporary issue! It's a "must have" for libraries, seminaries as well as personal and group reflection! It is academically robust, but it’s written in an accessible style so that non-experts can engage.  Thanks, Paulist Press!

What is mass incarceration?

If you talk about what racism was like before the Civil War, you couldn’t do that without talking about slavery—it’s most sinister manifestation. For 100 years after the Civil War, you couldn’t talk about racism without mentioning the way Jim Crow laws in the U.S. South institutionalized segregation and, along with it, racism. Today, you can’t really get a full grasp on the reality of racism without understanding how it manifests itself in the phenomenon of mass incarceration and the selective bias and privilege which fuel it.

Mass incarceration is the disproportionate treatment of people of color in all aspects of the criminal justice system—everything from shopkeepers being overly suspicious of black patrons to the statistics that say that people of color are more likely to be questioned by police (such as in a traffic stop), more likely to be searched, more likely to be arrested, and more likely to be convicted and, once convicted, more likely to have the harshest sentences. And the only factor that seems to correlate to these differences is skin color. I’m only restating what has been said so well in Michelle Alexanders seminal book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness.

A young African American kid is shot and killed for sporting a water pistol in Cleveland, Ohio. A white man who was arrested after shooting 9 black people in Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, is taken to the drive-thru at Burger King immediately after the incident. Perhaps a single incident could be excused for any number of reasons, but there are hundreds and hundreds of comparable examples all across the nation.

The end result is that African Americans have a familiarity with the criminal justice system that most Caucasian Americans will never have. This leaves empty spots in the pews, a gap in father-child relationships, a permanent mark on one's work history and a lifetime ban from voting. While some individual African Americans may fare well, the overall result of this is a permanent 2nd class caste system for African Americans in general.

What can we do about this?  And more specifically, what can our churches do about it? I recommend Thinking Theologically about Mass Incarceration, Biblical Foundations and Justice Imperatives to help with that.

Monday, November 13, 2017

2 Takeaways from Pope Francis Statement on Capital Punishment

Pope Francis recently made bold comments on capital punishment. He called it "contrary to the gospel" and flat out "inadmissible." In these words, we are seeing the culmination of what's been building over the course of several pontificates—John Paul II, especially, but other popes, as well.

There are, at least, two developments happening in Church teaching that I see:

1. Defense, Not Punishment. I assume that Catholic theology would still support some executions if they meet the conditions for the moral category of "necessary defense."  

What I think Pope Francis is saying is that if the death penalty is administered to defend human lives, then it is not actually the death "penalty" at all. It's not done as a punishment. Through double-effect reasoning, the intention would be to protect life rather than to punish wrongdoings. If somehow God's justice if done through this, that's frankly none of our business.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church comes very close to saying this. However, the language is muddy enough to allow confusion: "The traditional teaching of the Church does not exclude recourse to the death penalty, if this is the only possible way of effectively defending human lives against the unjust aggressor" [See Catechism, #2267, emphasis added by me.]

The clause that begins with "if" seems to be lost on supporters of the death penalty. The state is not charged with doling out God's punishment. Take away the necessary aspect of defense and the act of executing an aggressor loses any moral justification.

The classic example is a wagon train moving westward in the mid 1800s American frontier. If someone attacks the wagon train and puts the lives of others at risk, the pioneers may have no choice other than to execute the attacker, even if they successfully capture him. There are no prisons to speak of or even any law enforcement at all. They simply don't have the resources to render the attacker "harmless." They have every reason to believe that if they were to release him he's simply going to kill again. As unfortunate as it may be, execution may be the only option to protect the lives of the pioneering party. This is, however, not an act of carrying out God's justice by doling out punishment; rather, it's primarily an act of self-defense—doing what is necessary to protect the common good.

I'd still like to believe that Jesus has opened up a way that would not require any violence, even in the most tragic circumstances. It would also not surprise me in the least if Francis were completely nonviolent himself. However, traditional Catholic teaching has supported the use of some violence in limited circumstances to protect the common good, and I don't read Francis as contradicting that.

2. The State is Not the Arbiter of God Justice. Francis is distancing the Church from the unfortunate theology that sees the state as the administrator of the justice of God. Proponents of this theology like to cite Roman chapter 13 as a proof text.  However, they are forgetting the larger, more consistent biblical message that only God is the Lord over life and death (see 1 Samuel 2:6 and Deuteronomy 32:39).  

The notion that the political state is always* the administrator of God's justice is seriously problematic at best and absurd at worst *("always" added later due to comments below).

The church has always respected the role that governments play and acknowledges they have a legitimate realm of decision-making—true. Governments are charged with protecting the common good, and to the extent that they do that, they may indeed be a conduit for the goodness of God—absolutely. That is why Christians can and should prophetically challenge governments in our quest to make way for the Kingdom of God.  

But given the evil in the world perpetuated by governments, to say that governments are sanctioned by God to do what they do is to deny the obvious. Governments made legal the practice of human trafficking in the form of slavery. The government of Nazi Germany attempted the extermination of the Jewish people and ended up killing over 6 million people in death camps. The government of communist USSR killed millions and sent untold numbers of thinkers, artists and outcasts to die in Siberian work camps. The list could go on and on of heinous acts carried out under the mantle of "justice" by various state entities.

The human tendency to abuse power is bad enough without the underlying (false) belief that this power is sanctioned by God.

What is "sinful" and what is "illegal" are not always the same thing. For example, most governments no longer punish adultery outright through the courts, yet it still remains one of the most serious sins for a Christian. Yet, few people still believe it is the job of the government to settle the score on behalf of God. Adultery is a wound that needs considerable work to heal and atone for, but few see the government as having the authority to do that. In a likewise manner, a murderer does indeed have issues to account for with the victims and with God, but it is not necessarily the job of the state to settle every bit of that.

Christians apply Romans 13 very selectively. It seems to only pertain to the death penalty and a few other affairs but they fail to bring it up on any number of other issues. It makes no sense that we should just blindly submit to the state when it is conducting executions yet challenge the government on everything else it does. Besides, it surprises me that many of the same people who mistrust the government implicitly on just about everything seem to blindly trust the same government to make decisions of life and death in a very flawed criminal justice system.

Pope Francis is making it clear that governments cannot claim Catholic Church support for executions any longer. Francis is on solid ground to state that the Church revokes all support for the death penalty. The Church would not deny the state the right to punish criminals. But it is saying that punishing with an execution is not moral:  The right to life of the convinced criminals, coupled with the opportunity to repent and reform, should come before whatever punishment the state deems appropriate.

Saturday, October 21, 2017

How Toxic Shame Turns Evangelization Into Abuse

"Compulsory conversion of Indians (sic) by Jesuit missionaries."
Artist unknown, c 1500.

Toxic shame is one of the most powerful forces in human culture.

It is commonly discussed in therapy and self-help circles. People also regularly talk about the "guilt and shame" of cultural Christianity, especially as it relates to sexuality.

But I have rarely heard anyone talk about how shame manifests in pastoral settings. How does shame impact how we function as pastors, activists and chaplains? In this post, I want to talk about the role shame plays in evangelization—how we share the good news of the faith.

It goes like this:

Another way of talking about shame is self-hatred and self-doubt. Shame is, after all, a feeling of disgust about some aspect of who you are and a desire to hide it.

Self-hatred is, by definition, a lack of self-love. Therefore it can be said that shame is a lack of interior self-validation. People with shame simply do not feel good about what they do or who they are on some subconscious level.

Going further, people who lack self-validation tend to seek out external validation to fill the emptiness and treat this wound.

And what is a powerful form of external validation?  To conquer someone else, dominate them or convert them. Since this post is about religious practices, I'll focus on the latter.

Imagine if someone else will give up something as personal and visceral as their own religion and culture in order to adopt your religion and culture. What a tremendous affirmation that must be! This external validation is a way of saying, "you must be okay, because someone else wants to be like you." It can be quite a rush. It feeds the ego. We think it'll treat our wounds, but sadly, it does not. The emptiness will not go away in any long-term way no matter how many you convert. The reason is because external validation can never overcome your own refusal to validate yourself. No form of bullying or abuse is ever truly satisfying.

Those who evangelize out of shame do it in an attempt to eradicate the other person and create a facsimile of themselves. They hate you because they actually hate themselves. They cannot appreciate the God-given dignity which everyone already has just as they are, because they cannot accept the same truth about themselves.

You would think it would be the opposite, right? Why would someone who displays self-hatred want to replicate themselves? Rather, doesn't this instead sound like pride? Don't prideful people feel so good about themselves that they arrogantly think everyone else should be just like them? But that's not what's really happening. Pride is always the mask that hides shame and self-hatred.

Prideful people spent enormous energy putting forth a positive image, but the only reason they are driven to do this is because they feel empty inside. True self-love is much more assured and calm. Someone who feels good about themselves will also find it easier to feel good about others just as they are—without any need to change them.

Someone struggling with toxic shame may look "together" on the surface. They may have what seems like the perfect look, perfect family and perfect job. In fact, shame-driven people work hard to control these appearances, because shame is linked to a need to be in control. But at their core they don't feel good about who they are. They may not even be aware of this feeling, but it gnaws away at them. They feel rotten inside.

This is not, I believe, the evangelization Jesus is asking of us in the gospels. Jesus speaks from the tradition of the psalmists, who remind us that "our cup overflows" (Psalm 23:5) with God's blessings. We can be so filled with God's goodness, so aware of the blessings in our lives, that we are naturally brimming over with joy and want to share that with others. It simply radiates out of us whether we intend to or not:

 For you shall go out in joy,
    and be led back in peace;
the mountains and the hills before you
    shall burst into song,

    and all the trees of the field shall clap their hands.
Isaiah 55:12 (NRSV)

Evangelizing should not be about conquering other people as much as it is giving them a wonderful gift. God has given you such blessings that the only appropriate response becomes paying it forward to others.

The times I've evangelized the best were when I wasn't trying. My life and my joy simply witnessed to something so good that others wanted to know more about it.

That's the evangelization we're called to in Scripture. But that's not the evangelization that happens so often in the world.

Which kind of evangelization do your support? Do you want to turn everyone else into facsimiles of yourself as a way to treat your lack of self-worth? If so, just know that it can lead to abuse and is rarely satisfying in a long-term war.  Or are you so happy and joyous that it simply bubbles out of you naturally and you find you want to share this good thing you've found?

To be fair, not everyone with toxic shame lashes out in overtly abusive ways. The majority of the population—if not everyone—has some element of shame they are dealing with. That is why it is good to be on the lookout, as toxic shame, and the abuse which is often in its wake, can show up in surprising ways.


I highly recommend the book, Healing the Eight Stages of Life, by Fr. Matthew Linn, SJ, Dennis Linn and Sheila Fabricant Linn. It's the only book I found that approaches the eight stages of Erik Erikson in a pastoral way, rather than as an academic exercise. Shame features strongly in Erikson's theory of psychosocial development. This book is simple but shocking powerful.

Friday, October 20, 2017

Christian Unity: Warts and All

"I love you, warts and all," says this frog.
Picture from National Geographic Kids:

I've noticed a generational divide in the quest for Christian unity. People of different ages often articulate different priorities.

Many veterans of the work for Christian unity focus on what Christians have in common. Younger ecumenists often talk of finding peace in the midst of real differences.

This divide follows a natural pattern of healing and reconciliation. It reflects more than just two sides of the same coin.

When two groups first attempt to open a dialogue and mend a wound of division—a division that in some cases goes back hundreds of years, such as between Protestants and Catholics—it can be very delicate in the beginning. There is also a freshness as the relationship is pregnant with possibilities. It can be easy to be giddy with joy and see only positives.

It may be astonishing to discover that you are not as different as you were previously led to believe. You might even find kindred spirits in that "other" group.

The goal is to just start talking. Hundreds of years of separation between Catholics and Protestants have left a lot of hurt feelings and old triggers, and there is no sense stepping on any proverbial landmines in these first encounters. There is joy in just making the initial contact. You can dispel rumors and misconceptions but otherwise leave differences aside—they don't seem very important when members of the Body of Christ finally start talking after such a long, weary and costly separation.

When the prodigal son returned, his father embraced him. That moment was not the time to hash out who was to blame or identify which differences may remain. Their commonality as family was more important at that moment. [To be clear, I am not suggesting that the divide between Protestants and Catholics is like "father" and "son," I'm only using that story to illustrate an appropriate behavior when two separated parties finally reconnect for the first time.]

I'm sure this is what it felt like after Vatican II closed in 1965. Catholics in particular had the approval of their church leaders to interact, pray and engage with Protestants in ways that were previously strictly off-limits. Many Protestants were also committed to this (some have been working on unity for much longer) and the ecumenical movement was in full bloom.

As the relationship matures, however, it eventually becomes necessary to transition to a different phase. Focusing on similarities can run the risk of sweeping problems under the carpet if left unaddressed. This method which initially worked so well can devolve into a strained politeness. Ignoring differences also cloaks the full dignity and expression of each party, as people may feel pressure to downplay important parts of themselves for the sake of the relationship.

Ecumenical leaders have been working for decades trying to find out how to achieve the unity Christ himself prayed for (John 17:21). They do not attempt to water down or ignore our differences (as some critics wrongly claim), but often they hope that the differences may not be as severe as they initially seem—perhaps they can be boiled down to difference in perspective or the use of language but are not at their core church-dividing. Their success in this has been astounding.  However, after many documents of understanding, clarifying of ideas and mending of social and psychological wounds, sometimes what is left are still some very real differences. What, then, do we do with those?

Recent comments by Vatican officials from the Pontifical Council for Interreligious Dialogue give witness to the process:  "We are challenged then to go beyond the confines of tolerance by showing respect to all individuals and communities for everyone desires and deserves to be valued according to his or her innate dignity."

Respect for similarities is a great first step. The Vatican is right that the next, necessary step is to continue to respect each other even being full aware of each other's differences—not just tolerating differences but respecting people in those differences.

I'm reminded of a Billy Joel lyric from the song "This Is The Time":  You've given me the best of you, but now I need the rest of you.

If you want a person in your life, you want the whole person, not just the picture-perfect persona who shows up on the first date but the real nitty-gritty—"warts and all" as the saying goes.

At some point, the differences and messy disagreements are necessary to sit with. You don't always have to fix them or find a way around them—you have to first just let them be. By doing this, we may discern the next step in the relationship.

A relationship requires some things in common, but it is not stable if it depends entirely on having things in common. A mature relationship develops when people who are legitimately different can still come to the table in good faith and mutual respect. True respect means accepting the whole person, including all the attributes that don't neatly fit with yours. Those differences may eventually be reconciled, but we still have to learn to be in relationship until that happens.

This is not in any way to downplay the importance of identifying things in common. I work regularly with Roman Catholics and Evangelical Christians who are still meeting each other for the first time. Those initial encounters are still happening in rural towns in the U.S. where my organization primarily ministers. Identifying commonalities is still very much the work that needs to be done in these areas. The first step, however, must eventually be followed by next steps. Respecting differences is key to this next phase and, once we live this out, I believe it will help us see the phase that comes after it.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Taking One (Knee) for the Team

Race relations in the U.S.A. all too often play out like this:

African-American people: "We have a problem in this country with race, and it is important to us."
White Americans: "Be quiet!"
African American people: "Lives are impacted both in the past and now."
White Americans: "Get over it!"

I wish I could say this were an exaggeration. Sadly, I have seen these responses quite literally on the social media pages I manage and elsewhere.

Right now, this controversy is playing out intensely over athletes taking a knee during the national anthem in protest over racism and police brutality. Before any of us gives our opinions on the flag, the national anthem, racism or the first amendment, there is something more fundamental that we are missing:

Our brothers and sisters in Christ are raising their voices. They say there is a problem. The rest of us may not see the problem, but we can hear their voices raised. Maybe we ought to walk in their shoes for a while until we can also see the issue as they see it?

The fundamental issue is: How do we treat our fellow citizens when they cry out in pain?

Whenever people respond with denial, trying to shut others down from speaking their voices or dismissing their concerns without any reasonable discussion, that just about guarantees that the original concerns are probably a little too close to the truth for comfort. Or at the very least, they have hit some nerve somewhere.

That is simply not an appropriate way to respond when someone comes to us in distress. People who attempt to shut others down are very often—if not always—trying to hide something. I suspect that white America knows its guilt, but it is still largely trying to run from it. White America has never been very good when it comes to mature accountability for its actions around race. Tragically, all this does is allow the injustices to continue to be perpetrated, and it passes the buck for later generations to deal with. Problems do not go away this way.

You may not agree with my assessment. But can you please demonstrate that you are listening deeply to the concerns of protesters before reaching that conclusion?

Some do not like the method of protest where athletes take a knee during the national anthem. However, the debate over the method has obfuscated the original reasons for the protests. The original issues have little to do with the flag, and many were doing it long before President Trump weighed in. It is about racism and police brutality.

If you don't like the way folks are protesting, could it be because you didn't listen to all the other ways folks tried to tell you before? We, as a nation, did not hear their cries, so prophets had to find new ways of getting the message across. This is not hard to understand. What is difficult, as history reminds us, is finding the willingness to hear.

If you don't want athletes to kneel during the national anthem, are you willing to come to the table to hear their concerns in some other way? Or do you want them—and their protest—to simply go away? I have heard many detractors call for these protests to end. I have not heard a single detractor invite the protesters to the table to listen with an open heart to their concerns.

It seems before we can resolve a conflict as serious as racism, we have to first learn how to talk to each other. This means active listening and taking each other's concerns seriously. That has to come before any other consideration.

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.