Friday, August 11, 2017

"Fire and Fury": Misusing the Bible to Justify War

This week I sat in the waiting room of my therapist.  The receptionist had NPR playing in the background and the news was about President Trump's threats of "fire and fury" towards North Korea.  When she came to get me, I remarked to my therapist, "Today's news might not be the most calming thing to play in your waiting room, especially if you've got clients suffering with anxiety issues."  She grimaced and agreed.  I'm not sure if the radio station was changed or not after my comment.

When I heard the news that Rev. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church Dallas, Texas had declared, "God has given Trump authority to take out Kim Jong Un," I thought, "Oh, just shut up!  You are not helping."  Jeffress is apparently incapable of shutting up and has been doubling down on his declaration all week.  A conservative evangelical friend of mine stated on Facebook, "Robert Jeffress is the low-hanging fruit of morons. Criticizing him is taking the easy way. You don't even have to counter-point, just quote the crazy stuff he says."  I have to admit my friend has a point.  Does anybody take this guy seriously?

 The Dallas Morning News stated the following about Jeffress' latest comments:

"By now, those of us living and working in the shadow of Jeffress' church on San Jacinto Street are well-accustomed to such outrageous - and, in the word of former Dallas Morning News editorial board member Rod Dreher, "obscene" - utterances. This is the man who first became internet-famous in 2008, when he preached about "why gay is not OK." Then he called Mormonism a "cult"; blamed the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks on abortions; said President Barack Obama's policies "are paving the way for the Antichrist" - just a few of his greatest hits."

To justify his belief that Trump was given authority by God to nuke North Korea, Jeffress has quoted Romans 13:1-4

Let every person be subject to the governing authorities; for there is no authority except from God, and those authorities that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists authority resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Do you wish to have no fear of the authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive its approval; for it is God's servant for your good. But if you do what is wrong, you should be afraid, for the authority does not bear the sword in vain! It is the servant of God to execute wrath on the wrongdoer.. NRSV

The ridiculous nature of a Christian minister saying God is for using nuclear weapons would seem to be self evident.  Jesus' teachings about "blessed are the peacemakers," "pray for your enemies," and "love your neighbor as yourself" come to mind.  Even the secular web site Mashable couldn't resist this misuse of the Bible.  They put out a satirical piece titled "5 Bible Passages Supporting Trump Advisor's Claim That God Supports 'Taking Out' Kim Jong-un" which had mock bible verses such as the following:

1 Corinthians 12:8--"Three times I pleaded to the Lord to take it away from me.  But he said, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."  Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so the Christ's power may rest on me.  Also, Donald Trump has my explicit permission to bomb North Korea in 2017.  

and Jeremiah 28:11--"For I know the plans I have for you," says the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.  However I do have plans to harm somebody named Kim Jong-un.  He shall die by 'bomb.'  This will make sense in like two thousand years." 

I think it would be easy to dismiss Jeffress' statement, except for the fact that a great many Americans seem to think God did want Trump to be president and therefore God is okay when "God's chosen nation" (the U.S.A.) bombs the hell out of whatever country we consider to be evil--nevermind if the country is populated by people who have no say in their country's policies or actions.  Maybe many American Christians wouldn't say it as loutishly as Jeffress, but they at least passively believe it is a good thing to have a president threatening "fire and fury."

It's not that often that a Bible passage becomes international news.  (Google Romans 13 this week and the top results will be Robert Jeffress' statement rather than a link to an on-line Bible.)  So, I think it's at least worth discussing what it says and doesn't say.

There aren't that many passages in the New Testament, at least, that deal with the role of government, so Romans 13 gets drug out quite often, along with Jesus' statement "Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to God what is God's" in Matthew 22.  Yet, as often as these verses are quoted, they offer us little in terms of understanding the Christian's relationship to government.

Anglican Bible scholar N.T. Wright says in the New Interpreter's Bible,

{This paragraph] is not a fully blown "Theology of Church and Sate"; indeed. . . our post-Enlightenment notion of "State" would have been foreign to Paul.  One can hardly blame a writer if, in the course of a letter about something else, a small aside does not contain the full sophisticated and nuanced treatment that subsequent generations might have liked.  

Wright goes on to make an important point: 

 Romans 13, in short, carries a hidden "nevertheless" at its heart.  Jesus is Lord, nevertheless his followers must obey their earthly rulers.  

In other words, whatever authority God may or may not have given an earthly ruler, their authority is subordinate to that of Jesus Christ.  

Presbyterian scholar Paul Achtemeier describes the limits of government implied by this passage in his commentary on Romans..

The language of this passage, at the same time that it calls for obedience to civil governments, also relativizes that government authority.  In the first place, since governing authorities are in fact God's servants for the promotion of civil order, those governing authorities cannot claim for themselves divine prerogatives.

He goes on to describe what happens if a government demands its citizens do evil.

If then a government claims for itself the kind of devotion proper only to God and demands of its subjects that they perform evil rather than good, and if it punishes those who disobey such demands to do evil, that government no longer functions as a servant of God and is therefore no longer to be obeyed as such.  

That final sentence is the rub, of course.  Critics of Robert Jeffress' claim of divine support for Trump rightly point out that preachers like him never thought God gave Obama any authority.  A president authorized by God is in the eye of the beholder, along with her or his political party affiliation.  A more liberal Christian might question the entire idea of God appointing every ruler in every place and in every time.  History is littered with abominations by totalitarian governments, but even the best rulers often commit actions contrary to what God intends.  Personally, I've never understood why Christians like Jeffries who preach all the time about the "fallen" state of humanity and sin can call for absolute obedience to human rulers--at least human rulers with whom they agree.

People of faith can disagree on what constitutes a government, law or ordinance that should be obeyed, but as with most things we should do so from a place of humility.  We should invoke God's support of our political ideas with fear and trembling.  The best way I know to figure out whether or not God would support a particular policy or law is to question its effects upon people who have little to no economic or political power.  God's consistent concern for "the widow, the orphan and the stranger" (i.e. those without power over their own fates) is a good rubric for bringing scripture into the political fray.

Undoubtedly (at least in hindsight), we can point to Christians who disobeyed civil government to protest unjust laws (e.g. the Civil Rights movement), yet most of the time politics and politicians remain imperfect and full of gray areas.  I believe strongly that Christians who take seriously the teachings about justice in the Torah, the Prophets and the teachings of Jesus have an obligation to engage with politics--apathy is not godly, and when we do so, we must act alongside people whose voices are either not being heard or silenced.  Doing so, however, requires courage as well as humility, lest we fall prey to the kind of self-righteousness Jesus so rightly condemned.

Our particular congregation has claimed it is a "Just Peace" or "Peace with Justice" congregation.  This is a designation given by our denomination to congregations who have studied what God's justice and peace mean, as opposed to charity and the passive or active support of violence.  In these days of "fire and fury" it might behoove us to recall what we committed to years ago.

CCCUCC voted as a congregation to officially become a Peace with Justice Church on January 26, 2007 by adopting the following resolution:

Resolved, that Country Club United Church of Christ now is and shall continue to be a Peace with Justice Church.  We affirm the human community and oppose the use of nationalism to divide us.  We reject the concept that whole groups of people and entire religions are our enemies.  We affirm diversity as the best example of God's handiwork.  We affirm nonviolent conflict as inevitable and valuable.  We affirm freedom to travel, freedom of exchange of ideas, and freedom for open dialogue.  We affirm the worldwide goodness of God's creation and deny that God creates junk.  We commit our community to hone our existing skills and God-given strengths to encourage justice and promote peace.  Be it so resolved this day, January 26, 2007, that we adopt this Peace with Justice covenant, so help us God.

Want to know more about what "Peace with Justice" looks like?  Click here to visit the national United Church of Christ Just Peace resources.
Grace and Peace,


Recommended Reading and Listening (8-11-17 edition)

Regularly, if somewhat spasmodically, I share a list of things I'm reading, watching and listening to with my congregation.  If I remember to do so, I also post it here on my blog:

 United Church of Christ 
The Religious Right
HBO's Confederate and the "#NoConfederate" Backlash
Religion in the 21st Century

Friday, August 4, 2017

Overcoming P.T.R.R.S.: Post-Traumatic Religious Right Syndrome

Last week I was outraged (justifiably, I think) about President Trump's tweet about banning transgender people from serving in the US armed forces.  As I shared in my "thoughts" last week, I really felt like this was scapegoating of the worst sort and a cynical ploy to change the news cycle from Trump's other problems. I was even further outraged when I read that this ban was precisely what conservative evangelicals urged Trump to do when they met with him in the Oval Office.  Remember that picture of these supposed faith leaders laying hands on Trump in prayer?  That was the meeting in question.

The rogues gallery of power hungry clergy surrounding Trump is grim indeed.  (Seth Meyers had a takedown of Trump's faith and his clergy friends that would have been hilarious if it wasn't so frightening.)  Given Trump is courting (and manipulating) megachurch pastors along with the likes of Jerry Falwell, Jr. and the right-wing zealots of the Family Research Council, I think I can be forgiven for feeling reactionary. 

Pretty much my whole life the Religious Right has been meddling in politics claiming to be building up Christ's kingdom while instead they built up their own kingdoms of earthly political power and wealth.  No small part of why I pastor the church I do is because I feel called to demonstrate a type of Christianity that stands as a refutation of such hypocrisy and religious abuse.  I guess I've got P.T.R.R.S.: Post-Traumatic Religious Right Syndrome.  

I haven't really known life without Christianity in America framed as hating LGBTQ people, opposing equality for women and condemning the poorest of our society for their own misery.  This current presidential administration feels like a bad sequel to a movie I didn't like in the first place.  Yet, I was forced to check my alarm when I read an interview with Robert P. Jones, director of the Public Religion Research Institute in Washington, D.C., who thinks the election of Donald Trump is the "death rattle of white Christian America."  (His most recent book is called  The End of White Christian America.)  He doesn't argue that white conservative Christians are going away completely, but he does compile statistical data to show that it is shrinking in its number of adherents at at amazing rate.  

Already white Christians of all persuasions (Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal) have become a minority in our country in less than a decade.  Jones says that when he wrote his book in 2015 he was using 2014 data, and it showed that the number of white Christians in America dropped from 54% in 2008 to 47% in 2014.  That percentage continues to drop: in 2015 the number was 45% and in 2016 the number was 43%.  That is an amazing cultural shift.

Jones cites "the three D's" as the drivers of this change in our culture.
  • demographic changes that are due mostly to immigration patterns since the 1960s; 
  • declining birth rates among whites relative to the non-white population;
  • and [religious] disaffiliation.  
The last item is perhaps the largest driver of the decline of white Christians in America.  Jones says, "There's an internal engine in the churches - mostly young people leaving white Christian churches in large numbers is really turbo-charging these changes. Nothing that the Trump administration could do is going to be able to affect that underlying engine and these changes. ... I do think the Trump administration is propping up the power of White Christian America but it may be the equivalent of putting it on life support and keeping it alive even as its vitality continues to ebb."

On the surface that seems like good news to me, however it becomes less positive when I consider that the decline in white Christians includes not just conservative evangelicals but also mainline Protestants.  In case you don't know the term "mainline Protestant" it refers to denominations that have historical roots in the founding of the country and that generally have chosen more liberal stances on social issues.  Generally by the term "mainline Protestants," denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church U.S.A., the United Methodist Church, American Baptist Churches, Disciples of Christ, and (GASP!!!!!) the United Church of Christ!  So while I'd love to laugh at the demise of the Religious Right, the tradition I have claimed has been in decline to a greater extent and for a longer time.

What does that mean for Christians like you and me?  Well it means that it is no longer enough (and never was) to define ourselves in negative terms (i.e. "I'm a Christian, but NOT that kind of Christian.")  It is not enough only to show up after some hatemongering group of fundamentalists commit religious abuse and denounce them.  Oh, I firmly believe false Christianities that abuse and demean and oppress  those in the minority or with less political power should be condemned and denounced, but I believe we must do so much more.  

If our experience of God is real.  If the God we say we believe in--the God who loves and welcomes ALL people, charges us to care for the Earth, hates inequality in all its forms and calls us to acts of peace and justice--is more than just a fairy tale, then we must live out these values in ways that transform our own selves and the world around us.  Simply being "Plan B" to the Religious Right is not enough.  It never was.

It is an appropriate thing to be outraged by the hypocrites praying in the Oval Office, but we must be careful we do not spend too much of our emotional and spiritual bandwidth upon them.  They and their kind are dying out.  The vast majority of our emotional and spiritual bandwidth must be used for cultivating our own spiritual lives, strengthening our own community of faith, partnering with other like-minded Christians as well as people of other faiths and no faith who share our values, and working for a world that is just and peaceful.  If we fail to do so, we will die out as well--and justifiably so.

If you, like me, have P.T.R.R.S., let us together vow to spend as little time as possible upset about the Religious Right.  Instead lets spend as much time as possible living out the wonderful life together that God desires.
Grace and Peace,


Recommended Reading and Listening 8-4-17 edition

Regularly, if somewhat spasmodically, I share a list of things I'm reading, watching and listening to with my congregation.  If I remember to do so, I also post it here on my blog:

United Church of Christ 
  • "The Inner Life of Rebellion"--The history of rebellion is rife with excess and burnout. But new generations have a distinctive commitment to be reflective and activist at once, to be in service as much as in charge, and to learn from history while bringing very new realities into being. Quaker wise man Parker Palmer and journalist and entrepreneur Courtney Martin come together for a cross-generational conversation about the inner work of sustainable, resilient social change.
Other Stuff I Think is Cool

You can find more stuff that I think is worth reading, watching and listening to by following me on Facebook and Twitter.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Scapegoating: We Hate It (except when we do it)

Last week President Trump announced via Twitter that he would ban transgender people from serving in the U.S. Military.  This came as a shock to the U.S. Military since they've been working for years fully integrating openly transgender people into the military.   For now at least, the U.S. Armed Forces do not treat a tweet from the President as the same thing as an official order, so they will continue to allow trans troops to serve.  It seems like a classic political move aimed at changing the subject of the news cycle.  The news is bad about Trump's staff in the White House, his relationship with the Attorney General and Republican efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act, so let's change the subject.   If he can score some points with his supporters in the Religious Right and Alt-Right, then that's all the better.  It's scapegoating at its worst.

I wish I could say that Donald Trump is the only person who scapegoats others, but I do it and so do plenty of people I agree with and even admire.  It seems like humans can't help but cast the blame on someone else, so they do not have to take responsibility for the problems they or the people they care about face.

I'm not letting Trump off the hook.  Nor am I letting Steve Bannon, Trump's racist adviser off the hook either--this reeks of a Bannon move (listen to Bloomberg Businessweek journalist Joshua Green give his take on how Bannon likes to do this sort of thing).  And no, I'm not letting Trump's Vice President Pence who seems to love oppressing LGBT people off the hook either--I feel sure he has been whispering in Trump's ears.  I'm just saying that Trump is not alone in doing this kind of thing--he just has the loudest microphone at the moment.

"The Scapegoat" by William Holman Hunt

We get the term "scapegoat" from the English translation of Leviticus 16.  There Yahweh gives Moses instructions on how to observe the Day of Atonement.  Among other rituals, Aaron is told to do the following:

"He shall take the two goats and set them before the Lord at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron shall cast lots on the two goats, one lot for the Lord and the other lot for Azazel. Aaron shall present the goat on which the lot fell for the Lord, and offer it as a sin-offering; but the goat on which the lot fell for Azazel shall be presented alive before the Lord to make atonement over it, so that it may be sent away into the wilderness to Azazel." NRSV

The goat for Yahweh gets sacrificed in the tabernacle's Holy of Holies.  The goat for Azazel (an ambiguous term that most scholars think represents a demon living out in the wilderness--the Hebrew word is made up of two terms literally meaning "remove entirely") takes on all the sins of the community and is sent out into the wilderness.

"Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness." NRSV
Philosophers and anthropologists have seized on this image as a way to understand human societies and dynamics of power.  Dictators often attain power by scapegoating a minority for society's ills (think Hitler's rise to power through Antisemitism).  Communities and even families do it to support order and rules (think the "black sheep" of the family).  In the case of Trump--this week at least--transgender people are a convenient minority to pick on to achieve his ends.  He does so with false claims about the costs of medical benefits for transgender military personnel.   

I wish I could say that Trump was the only person I know of who does such things, but scapegoating is everywhere. Conservatives do it.  Liberals do it.  People of all races do it about people of other races.  Religious people do it.  atheists do it.   

Take the instance of transgender people--I've been told by transgender people that the "T" in LGBTQ is the letter most despised by the other letters.  Today's Washington Post political cartoon by Tom Toles shows Donald Trump in the first frame saying, "I needed to throw somebody under the bus to distract from all the bad narratives."  In the next frame we see a bus with a body underneath it marked "Trans" and Trump addressing three people: the first's shirt says "L," the second's shirt says "G" and the third's shirt says "B."  Trump says to them, "I thought you'd be happy.  I picked the least popular of you."  (Here's the link to it, but you need a digital subscription to see it.)  Sadly, even many gay, lesbian and bisexual people who have been themselves the victims of discrimination often disparage transgender people.  

Every group likes a scapegoat.  It happens in politics.  It happens in families.  It happens in churches (usually the former pastor).  It happens in offices--anybody ever known a bad manager who fires somebody else as cover for his own incompetence?  I like them too, because that means everything can be someone else's fault--entirely their fault, not partly their fault.  If it's only partly their fault then I might bear some responsibility too.  Then I'd actually have to do something.  If I've got a scapegoat handy, I can blame them and like the goat bound for the wilderness in Leviticus 16, I can devote my energy to getting rid of them and go on feeling good about myself.

Zurbarán, Francisco, 1598-1664. Crucifixion, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

Some years ago I was introduced to the work of the French philosopher Rene Girard and his theory of scapegoating.  Girard's ideas have been used by some Christian theologians interested in understanding the meaning of Jesus' death as something other than "penal substitutionary atonement" (Human sin is an affront to God and must be destroyed, but God loves us and sends Jesus to die a violent death in our place to save us--that is, if we accept Jesus Christ as savior, if not then we get the violent death in hell).  

Girard wrote that human societies develop scapegoating rituals--often as a part of religious rituals--in order to deal with instability within that society.  Humans are driven by desire for what others have.  This desire develops into conflict and triangulation of battling groups against one another.  Eventually, the conflict gets bad enough that a scapegoat is found for all the problems.  Society overcomes its divisions and unifies in its blame of the scapegoat which must be destroyed.  Greater bloodshed is spared by destroying the scapegoat only.  Things simmer down until the next time conflict boils over and then a new scapegoat must be found.

For theologians using Girard's ideas, Jesus's death is not a pawn in a cosmic drama within God's self, but rather Jesus is a scapegoat humans used to overcome their differences.  The religious authorities, Romans and the general populace of Jerusalem could overcome their tensions by agreeing that Jesus was the real problem.  A cheap form of unity was found and nobody has to take responsibility for society's problems but Jesus.

Taken this way, Jesus' death, these theologians say and to some extant Rene Girard says too, there is great irony in Jesus' death.  The person scapegoated--Jesus-- is the one person who hasn't done anything wrong!  Since Jesus is the only one who can be truly innocent and he is the one who gets scapegoated, then the falsehood of scapegoating is revealed.  Jesus was not to blame--everyone else was.  Understanding scapegoating, whenever it happens and whoever perpetrates it, means that everyone must take responsibility for her or his own part in the problems facing a group.  There is no more "black sheep" of the family, because everyone in the family plays a part in its problems.

I don't mean to ignore the power differential between say the President of the United States scapegoating transgender troops and an average person scapegoating their neighbor who doesn't take care of his lawn.  I do, however, wish to point out that scapegoating is always wrong.  

It is a tragic irony that a religion which claims to worship and follow the person who stands as the ultimate false scapegoat is so stinking good at scapegoating.  Christianity is currently good at scapegoating LGBTQ people, but it has a long and terrible history of scapegoating whoever the heretic of the week happened to be.  Let's demonstrate a different type of Christianity, one that denounces scapegoating by whomever perpetrates it and does so by first looking in the mirror.
Grace and Peace,


Recommended Reading 7-28-17 Edition

Regularly, if somewhat spasmodically, I share a list of things I'm reading, watching and listening to with my congregation.  If I remember to do so, I also post it here on my blog:

United Church of Christ 
  • Radiolab--"Revising the Fault Line"--A really provocative episode about how much free will do we really have vs. how much is genes, neurology, etc.? Warning: the main story is a disturbing one--yet also fascinating because of the questions it raises. I'm a proponent of free will, but the more I work with people who have mental health issues as well as the people who treat them, the more I wonder about all the things we do not know about how our brains work. I will be thinking about this one for a long time.
The Political Divide

The Religious Right
Other Stuff I Think is Cool

You can find more stuff that I think is worth reading, watching and listening to by following me on Facebook and Twitter.

Friday, July 21, 2017

What does a "moment of decency" look like in your life?

I listen regularly to the podcast "The Gist" put out by Slate and hosted by Mike Pesca.  With the news this week about Sen. John McCain having brain cancer, Pesca took a moment during his regular monologue about current events to note that McCain was a "decent man."  As proof, he cited one particular instance from the 2008 presidential campaign when at a town hall meeting a questioner describes her fear of an Obama presidency because in her words, "He's an Arab." Instead of capitalizing on that "birther" fear among some in his base, McCain took a moment to refute the woman and to state that Obama was a good person, a good family man and a good American with whom he disagrees quite a bit.  Especially in light of President Trump riding into the White House in a campaign that began with calls for Obama to reveal his "true" birth certificate, McCain's honesty--what Pesca calls "a moment of decency" is notable.

(Now before I get e-mails from all the liberals in our church, I am well aware that McCain went on in that campaign to make Sarah Palin his running mate, and she is in many ways one of the people responsible for our current political situation where fiction is wantonly paraded around as fact, let me assure you that I haven't forgotten about Palin.   I have also not forgotten about the many ways I disagree with John McCain on oh so many issues.  Yet, at the same time, I am able to hold all of that in tension with McCain's heroism as a P.O.W., his strong stance against the Bush administration's use of torture, and his moments of decency going against his own party.)

Mike Pesca goes on in the podcast to share about other "moments of decency" in politics where someone chose to move against their own self-interest.  He cites Bernie Sanders saying "I'm tired of hearing about your damn e-mails." to Hilary Clinton in a debate, as well as when the Gore campaign received leaked Bush campaign debate prep materials and then turned them over to the FBI.  (He does pause to ponder the fact that all the examples he cites were from losing campaigns.)  Pesca goes on to contrast President Trump's statement that "anybody would have taken that meeting" in which his son was offered dirt on Hilary Clinton by the Russian government.  Really, would "anybody" have taken that meeting?

It's all well and good to keep at arm's length the question of what a person does when they have an opportunity for a "moment of decency"--when they can choose to do the right thing even if it goes against their self-interest.  Talking about presidential candidates is a nice parlor game.  Yet, this got me thinking about the ways each of us--who are likely never going to run for president--act when we are put in the posisition to make a moment into a "moment of decency" or a moment of self-interest put over and above decency.

It matters what choice we make when we have the chance through commission or omission to score points on someone we do not like or feel threatened by.  Do we stand by and let that rumor get passed along about a coworker whom nobody in the office likes?  What about when the rumor is about someone who is up for the same promotion as we are?  What about that unfair statement said at a family get-together regarding that sibling or cousin whom you don't like?  Do you remain silent and let it pass?  What about that person at work, school, in your family or among your friends whom just bugs you?  Are you willing to let something happen to him or her that is unfair or ignore statements about that person which you know aren't true?

If you're like me, there is a not so insignificant part of you which feels a little bit superior when someone you don't like gets run down.  In fact, it feels so good that I'm tempted to pile on and twist the knife another turn as it passes by.  

In many ways that matter, our culture rewards people who do not buck a herd mentality.  We love to scapegoat others, because that means we aren't the one getting scapegoated.  In so many ways, our "adult" interactions seem to have evolved little beyond the middle school cafeteria.  We jostle for position in a hierarchy that ultimately does not matter.

Despite the age in which we live where each person gets to declare their own brand of truth (what Stephen Colbert used to call "truthiness"), it appears truthfulness, integrity and yes, decency, matter just as much as they always have.  Despite the cacophony of Christian celebrity preachers who peddle their own form of "truthiness", the Bible is full of admonitions regarding how to act when your potential "moment of decency" occurs.

"You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor."--Exodus 20:16 (one of the Big 10!)

"So then, putting away falsehood, let all of us speak the truth to our neighbors, for we are members of one another."--Ephesians 4:25

"If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless."--James 1:26

"Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord,
    but those who act faithfully are his delight."--Proverbs 12:22

"Those who desire life
    and desire to see good days,
let them keep their tongues from evil
    and their lips from speaking deceit"--1 Peter 3:10

"Truthful lips endure forever,
    but a lying tongue lasts only a moment."--Proverbs 12:19

and of course

"Do to others as you would have them do to you."--Luke 6:31

Oh, and about a bazillion more.

I'm preparing my sermon for Sunday on Matthew 13:24-30, 36-42 which is Jesus' parable of "the wheat and the tares" or "the wheat and the weeds."  A man's enemy sows weeds in a man's wheat field.  When the weeds are discovered, the man declares that at harvest time, it all will be cut down and the wheat will be harvested and the weeds will be burned in the fire.  Jesus goes on to explain that the wheat are the "children of the kingdom" and the weeds are the "children of the enemy."  The latter will be thrown into the "furnace of fire" at the end of the age by God's angels.  It sounds very neat and tidy, but if I'm honest despite my habit of reducing complex human beings I don't like or ones I disagree with to flat caricatures, none of them is a wholly evil person.  For that matter, as much as I want to think well of myself I have to admit I'm a mixture of good and bad choices, selflessness and selfishness.  I'm more than a little scared to look at a tally sheet of moments when I chose my self interest over doing the right thing vs. "moments of decency."  At my better moments, I'm wheat, but at my worst moment I'm a weed.  Stay tuned Sunday to see if i can make any sense of this story.

In the meantime, like John mcCain we may inevitably make mistakes of judgment and even compromise our own self-proclaimed principles, but hopefully alongside those stains on our character we can hold up moments of decency too.
Grace and Peace,


Recommended Reading 7-14-17 edition

Regularly, if somewhat spasmodically, I share a list of things I'm reading, watching and listening to with my congregation.  If I remember to do so, I also post it here on my blog:

United Church of Christ 
The Religious Right
  • "Rev. Barber: An open letter to clergy who prayed with Donald Trump"--This is posted on a blatantly liberal site, but I would offer that Rev. Barber offers a stridently conservative position. He calls the clergy praying with Trump out for encouraging the President in his wrongdoing rather than calling him to account. He notes that these clergy who declare themselves Pro-Life do not care for the millions of lives affected by the elimination of the Affordable Care Act and the thousands of people who will die because of proposed cuts to Medicaid. In so many ways, Barber takes the Word of God which speaks through scripture much more seriously and faithfully than the clergy who abet Trump. 
  • "Revisiting Ayn Rand's anti-religious philosophy"--Much about conservative Christians and politics baffles me, but what perhaps baffles me the most are Christians of any stripe who espouse the philosophy of Ayn Rand. Rand's ideology and worldview--as she herself proclaimed--are not only adamantly anti-religious but especially anti-Christian. Eminent church historian Martin Marty adds his two cents here on the subject.
  • "A Beloved Former Pastor Retracted His Support of Same-Sex Marriage. It Will Harm LGBTQ People More Than He May Know"--This week Eugene Peterson, a retired Presbyterian minister and a popular writer--including his bestselling paraphrase of the Bible The Message--said in an interview he would perform a same sex marriage.  After critical reactions from evangelical fans and threats to stop selling his books by Christian retailers Peterson issued a statement that he opposed same sex marriage and supported a "biblical view of marriage.  Here's a response by an advocate for LGBTQ equality in the church.

What I'm Learning From Glennon Doyle About Pain

My sermon last Sunday was about feeling inadequate, especially in a culture where we are bombarded by messages telling us we are inadequate unless we buy the right car, clothing or diet plan.    I told a story from Glennon Doyle (formerly Glennon Doyle Melton), author of the bestseller Love Warrior and creator of the blog "Momastery."  The story "Quit Pointing Your Avocado at Me" is worth reading in Doyle's own words.  I was moved deeply hearing Doyle speak at the United Church of Christ General Synod, especially what she had to say about pain.

Doyle's had a lot of pain in her life.  In her memoir Love Warrior, she tells about becoming an alcoholic and a bulimic in middle school.  She only understood being worthy of love in terms of earning it by being thin, pretty and vicious towards other girls.  Her relationships from high school forward were ones where she hid her true self out of fear of being rejected.  The memoir tells the story of how she began the hard work of recovery and sobriety--work made even harder when her husband and the father of her children admitted to cheating on her throughout their marriage.  I haven't finished the book yet; I'm still in the part where she shares about her pain and haven't gotten to what comes after.  I know there is an after, because Doyle said as much when I heard her speak.  

Doyle has been through a lot of pain, but she has come to see pain as a gift.  Her attempts to hide from her own pain only brought deeper pain.  Only when she faced her pain could she move through it to learn what that pain was trying to teacher her.  She said that we shouldn't fear pain, but rather we should fear the "easy buttons" our culture offers to cover up our pain.  You know the "easy button?"  It's from the Staples commercial where when things get complicated in business you hit the "easy button" and Staples shows up to take care of your complicated problem.  Doyle says there are no "easy buttons" to take away the real pains that come in life.

She described pain as the world's greatest professor which knocks on our door and says, "If you will let me in and sit with me for a while, I will teach you amazing things."  She stated that the only way we can find transformation is to sit with the "hot loneliness" of our pain.  She said, "When we transport ourselves out of the pain, we reject the invitation to our transformation."  She also said, "If we changed our ideas about pain, we would transform our lives, and our relationships, and our church."

Not only did I take Doyle's words to heart regarding the struggles in my own life, but I thought about her words in terms of our church.  Our church does a lot of things well; for instance, I believe we excel at welcoming people.  Visitors often tell me how much they feel welcomed at our church.  

Doyle is a member of a UCC church in Naples, Florida.  She shared how she found it.  She was going through a difficult time and took her kids to church--not something she had a history of doing.  She knew God loved everyone and thought church would be a place where people were truly themselves.  Instead at that church she found people dressed up, looking their best and acting as if they had no problems.  She felt that she was a mess and so were her kids.  

So, as I shared in last Sunday's sermon, as soon as the service was over, she bolted.  A woman followed her out and caught her before she made it to the safety of her minivan.  The woman said, "I don't normally do this, but I feel God wants me to tell you something."  Doyle thought, "Oh no, here we go!"  The woman said, "I think you are meant to be at the church down the street, the United Church of Christ congregation."  So Doyle gave it a try the next Sunday.  There she says she found authenticity.

I hope people would say that about our church, yet I wonder if at times we act too much like the church which has it all together.

Doyle credits her success to being vulnerable about her pain.  She told us,  "People don't need perfect; they don't even need good. They just want real."  

As minister, I never know how much is too much when it comes to what I share about my own journey.  I never want my work as a minister to be self-indulgent or all about me.  Yet, I suspect I am not vulnerable enough and I feel pretty sure we aren't vulnerable enough about the pain so many of us carry.

I don't have an answer for the question of what do we do differently?  I do know that Doyle has connected with thousands upon thousands of people who are attracted to her vulnerability--which somehow allows them to be vulnerable too.  I suspect there are people looking for a church where they can be vulnerable--some of them might already be members of our church.

After all, we Christians supposedly follow a guy who became vulnerable to the point of death.  Doyle said that Jesus offers us the truth that resurrections cannot happen until after the pain is faced head on.  
Grace and Peace,


Recommended Reading and Listening 7-14-17 edition

Regularly, if somewhat spasmodically, I share a list of things I'm reading, watching and listening to with my congregation.  If I remember to do so, I also post it here on my blog:

Recommended Reading and Listening
United Church of Christ 
Recommended Podcasts
  • "Building the Troost Wall: Structural Racism in Kansas City"--I was sent this video by a church member and by a friend in NC. It explains briefly the history of the "Country Club District" and the East/West of Troost divide that still tears at the very fabric of KC. If you are wondering why "Country Club" is in our church name (along with Country Club DOC and Country Club UMC) here's a nice introduction--fair warning, it is not a pretty history:
Sexual Abuse by Clergy
You can find more stuff that I think is worth reading, watching and listening to by following me on Facebook and Twitter.