Lucky You

Perry Edward Smith was a violent criminal. His offense was so brutal that in 1969 the story of his viciousness made it into newspapers all over the country. Perry was incarcerated in Kansas, but through the morning paper an old acquaintance caught up with him all the way in Reading, Massachusetts. When Don read the appalling specifics of what Perry had done, he felt compelled to write him. He met Perry in the Army in the fall of 1951. In his letter, Don recounted fond memories of Perry and his personality. Perry always had a grin, but also entertained the others of their company with his somewhat “wild streak.”  Don had become a religious man and his faith had moved his heart toward Perry despite or maybe more accurately because of his violent actions. Don ended his letter with this:

“God made you as well as He made me and He loves you just as He loves me, and for the little we know of God’s will what has happened to you could have happened to me.” 1

From day one, Perry was caught in a current of sick dysfunction. That did not excuse his actions. Many have had it worse, but what Perry did was partly (mostly) due to what had been done to Perry.

Through watching his own brother die of leukemia, Don had become aware that there are no guarantees in life. We all walk closely to trouble in some way or another whether we are on the “narrow path” or not. Yet we make distinctions between the types of trouble we find ourselves in. Perry’s ultimate circumstances were a result of choices he made. However, disease, like leukemia, just happens to us.  So, could have what “happened to” Perry just as easily “happened to” us?

The mountain of relational, mental and emotional garbage that Perry would have needed to summit seems insurmountable especially for a child trying to navigate the path to adulthood on his own. Any of us who have grown up in at least relatively healthy environments can still attest to the complexity of crossing even a tame river of a marginally maladjusted family or parent. Yet, somewhere along the way, despite undue obstacles laid before us all, we must own personal responsibility. We can’t let Perry off the hook for his crimes because of his treacherous upbringing. Yet, when we fail to realize that what happened to Perry could have happened to us, we become morally arrogant.

You had no control over the family you were born into. If you were raised in a “healthy,” loving and even faithful environment, you were nothing more than lucky. Call it blessed or whatever you prefer. You had nothing to do with it. Children like Perry are unlucky (not blessed?). You had no control over the country you were born in. Some are born in relative safety, wealth and freedom, while others are born into danger, poverty, and oppression. Neither deserves what they were handed.

Moral arrogance leads us to believe that our familial, vocational, or mental health is due to our good and Godly decisions. Don made better choices than Perry and his life ended up very different. Yet, Don realized it is simply not that simple. The curses and blessings of life are not formulaic. He could have easily been born into Perry’s mess. Don may not have ended up making the same atrocious choices that Perry did, but there is no question that his life would have been very, very different.

Don’s awareness of this “luck of the draw” randomness of life, which he learned through watching his brother die from leukemia, gave him compassion for people that have to fight battles that they didn’t provoke. Conversely, some of the blessings he had were just as random and in no way were a result of anything he had done. It is as God warned the Israelites when he gave them the land that he had promised. He repeatedly reminded them to remember that this “blessing” had nothing to do with them or their righteousness. They weren’t righteous and yet they were still blessed.2

Moral arrogance leads us to treat the poor like they are such simply because they don’t try hard enough leaving us to conclude that we are rich simply because we did. Moral arrogance concludes that America is a Christian nation blessed by God and yet when the distressed and destitute attempt to flee poverty and violence, we hold them back because we claim to be a nation of laws. The morally arrogant act as if they fully keep the law and forget that their rights were simply handed to them at birth. We deserve freedom no more than anyone else.

So, let us be faithful. Let us make godly decisions, sow peace and live wisely. It matters. But, let us not think that our wealth is a result of handling our finances biblically, our emotionally and relationally healthy children are a result of our intentional parenting or that our joy is simply the fruit of our morality. There is much more at play here than just our choices. You could have easily been the welfare recipient, the illegal immigrant, or the criminal. Spiritually speaking, you are. Remember that “God made you as well as He made me and He loves you just as He loves me, and for the little we know of God’s will what has happened to you could have happened to me.”

 

 

1 In Cold Blood  – Truman Capote pg. 261
2 Deuteronomy 9

Dropping Bombs

They literally wanted to drop bombs on the whole town because of their lack of hospitality. Given their nickname, this was probably not their only instance of overreaction. Those sinner Samaritans said there was no room in the inn for Jews traveling to Jerusalem. So, James and John, The Sons of Thunder,1 suggested they kill every man, woman, child and animal in that Samaritan village with fire falling from the sky. Shock and awe. Power on display. Jesus was disappointed in them. “You do not know what spirit you are of,” he said. They hated the Samaritans. With Jesus, there is no room for hate.2

These young hot heads argued about which of them was the greatest and thought the power of God only belonged to them. “The least is the greatest.” Greatness in the culture of God has nothing to do with power and leadership. It is as simple as welcoming a child. Those who do, welcome Jesus and therefore welcome God. When the apostles tried to stop an outsider from exercising an authority that they thought only belonged to them, he answered with a far-reaching statement that “Whoever is not against you is for you.” No one has a corner on the power of God.3

We do not really believe that whoever is not against us is for us. We believe like James and John did then, that whoever is not explicitly with us and fully in line with us, is indeed the enemy. The wide embrace suggested by Jesus threatens our authority. Suddenly, we do not determine where to draw the line, but instead, the line is drawn for us and it includes people we might not want it to include.

And just when we think this is too much and too far, he shows us the outer regions of the faith that almost none of us have truly reached: Love your enemies and pray for them.4 Now no one is to be outside of who you love. No one.

That’s impractical. It’s impossible, idealistic, and unrealistic. So, we pay lip service to it. We talk the talk. Honestly, I don’t know how to do it. I mean, sure, I can come up with some sermons and suggestions, but come on. As I said, this is the outer region of our faith.

But, we are not always the lovers in this relationship. Each one of us has been the enemy. The Samaritans were the persecuted. They were the ones treated like dogs. So, when they rejected Jesus and the apostles because they were Jews, they were rejecting the people that drew the line in the first place and who had placed them on the outside. Suddenly, when we draw lines, we are not identifying our enemies but instead revealing ourselves as the enemy.

And now come the “but” bombs. “But, but, but”…carpeting these teachings like Laos to protect ourselves from the threat. Here is one thing I know: I could write a multi-volume book trying to address every “but.” Yet, the transformative power of this message and way of Jesus is not in found in my words or in my arguments. The power is found when you drop your missile defenses and let it hit you squarely in the heart.

How? By admitting it. You do not consider your allies to be everyone who is not explicitly against you. No, there are lots of people and groups that cause your anger to flare and who evoke an expression of disdain on your face just by the sight of them. You see them as ugly. And lines? You have drawn them straight and thick clearly identifying yourself as the enemy of those on the other side. Your criteria for who is in and out is much more complex than simply welcoming a child at the compelling of Jesus. And loving enemies? You can barely like someone who is remarkably different from you or just weird.

“You do know what spirit you are of,” he said. He is still right.

 

1 Mark 3:17
2 Luke 9:51-56 Most translations read that “he rebuked them.” Some manuscripts include the details of this rebuke “You do not know what kind of spirit you are of.”
3 Luke 9:46-50
4 Matthew 5:43-48

Crippling Power

The fact that she was freed from eighteen years of pain was lost on him. He could not see past the threat to his own authority. So, when the circumstances of this event conflicted with his religious understanding his response was not joy or amazement, but a reasserting of law and order –  an indignant reasserting of power. Jesus exposed his preposterous hypocrisy by pointing out a simple inconsistency. The people were delighted. The powers-that-be were left exposed for who they truly were.1

Power is not a public servant but is truly self-serving and self-preserving. The struggle to gain and then to maintain power becomes the focus of the powerful leaving little to no room for any true progress.  When enough pressure mounts it is forced to engage but moves no further than platitudes and disingenuous sentiments. “I hear you” is an empty stalling tactic that maintains the status quo. As in the story above, this woman’s situation had been around for eighteen years and when it was finally remedied those in power cried foul because, at that point, their leadership nor approval were needed. Their power was, at that moment, irrelevant. Reasserting their authority, the powerful reminded the people that “There are six other days for this. We have instituted rules about what can and what cannot be done on this day.” But, there were not six other days for it. There was that day when the one person who could do something about it was there.

Power creates a false complexity and gets bogged down in minutiae. For the powerful, it couldn’t be as simple as someone getting healed. No, their rules and “laws” kept them from doing what was right. Today, that is why our healthcare system is such a mess, gun reform (or progress on ending mass violence) has been bogged down for decades and those without significant resources are powerless against the legal system. Power cares more about “the law” than it does the person. This leads to hypocritical situations where a  father who immigrated here thirty years ago is separated from his family by “lawmakers” who claim to uphold family values as they wash their hands of it with the dirty soap of “just upholding the law.”

This goes beyond our government into our places of work, our churches, and our personal relationships. CEO’s get golden parachutes while employees get let go. Investors drive the business plan that exploits the worker and neglects any responsibility we have to take care of the planet we live on. Big givers shape the church in their own image and Lead Pastors say only what will keep them employed. Progress in theology and function is slowed to an ineffective crawl or scoffed at all together. Again, the powerful stay unaffected and in place.

Right after this ridiculous event happened in the synagogue, Jesus makes clear the contrast between the synagogue they were in and the kingdom of heaven. The synagogue was a rigid structure with chief seats for the powerful. The kingdom of heaven was different. It was more like a seed that grew into a tree where the birds of the air perched.2 The people came into the synagogue on the terms of the religious rulers. The kingdom of heaven is there, like a tree, for anyone that needs rest. The synagogue was governed by rules. The kingdom of heaven is like a tree that grows and adapts to fulfill its purpose.

So it should be with our government, our laws, our churches and all the systems that we have created. If we truly wanted to create a system that provided healthcare to every person equally, we could. Yet money and power bog us down in arguments that miss the point of finding a solution for the greater good. If we really wanted to find a way to decrease violence and to keep our kids safe in schools, we would move beyond arguing amended rights. But money and the powerful breed fear, wash their hands of responsibility and hide behind a facial expression of concern. Nothing changes because lessening violence or providing care for everyone are not truly our first priority.  We must be honest about that.

As Christians, when we talk about repentance, forgiveness of sins and use the word gospel, we must understand that the injustices of our political, economic and social systems are included in our long list of sins. Beyond our own personal immoral failures, collectively we are responsible for the state of our political, economic and social systems and these systems are connected to and used to carry out some of humanity’s greatest sins. And this collective responsibility includes the church. For when we fail to speak out against such things for fear of losing our “big givers” and our ministry jobs we let money have the last word and the powerful keep things under their control. We fall victim to the false complexity of our political issues and fail to speak clearly where clarity is desperately needed.

But the kingdom of heaven does not seek to change the world by starting with the powerful and trickling down. Indeed, it is like a man with a small seed, that when planted becomes a great tree. When we look to the powerful to change things, we are simply keeping them powerful. But, when we speak and act on our own, like Jesus, we will not need to ask for permission to heal.

 

1 Luke 13:10-17
2 Luke 13:18-19

 

Yang from Illinois

In June 1944, a young soldier surrendered to American paratroopers in the Allied Invasion of Normandy. At first his captors thought that he was Japanese, but in fact, he was Korean. His name was Yang Kyoungjong.

In 1938 at the age of eighteen, Yang had been forcibly conscripted by the Japanese into their Army. A year later, he was captured by the Soviet Military and sent to a labor camp. In 1942, he was drafted along with thousands of other prisoners into the Soviet forces. In 1943, he was taken prisoner by the German army. In 1944, and now in German uniform, he was sent to the battle lines in France. He eventually was captured again and after spending time in a British prison camp, he went to the United States where he said nothing of his past. He settled there and finally died in Illinois in 1992.

“In a war which killed over sixty million people and stretched around the globe, this reluctant veteran of the Japanese, Soviet and German armies had been comparatively fortunate. Yet Yang remains perhaps the most striking illustration of the helplessness of most ordinary mortals in the face of what appeared to be overwhelming historical forces.” 1

Yang’s life was engulfed in the white, raging waters of the evil intentions of men and there was nothing he could have done about it. He was powerless in the hands of the power-thirsty.

Our wars are a grand physical manifestation of the darkest parts of the human soul. Humans are overcome by their own selfishness, egos, and hatred. Then after these desires conceive in their heart, they give birth to all kinds of evil and this evil, when it is full grown and no longer able to be controlled, gives birth to destruction.2

And so it is on the largest of stages within the world and so it is on the small stages of our everyday lives. Our Desires conceive and give birth to actions, and once acted upon, these desires become full grown entities that we can no longer control or contain. They move about and do as they will.

And while these dark parts of our souls can grow into something as large as a war that consumes the world and brings death to over sixty million humans, we are not only evil all the time. There is light among us and within us and some of the greatest stories of self-sacrifice, humility, and love have taken place during some of the darkest times in the history of humanity.

But let us not just cheer for the hero and eventually move on. In this context, simply remembering the brave and the fallen by a standing ovation or a moment of silence is hardly enough. May their death not simply give birth to remembrance and honor among us, may it give birth to change. We do not simply owe them cheers and bowed heads only to send their sons and daughters into the same chaotic violence decades later. We owe them death. Death of our own desires that grow into war.

Words are the first munitions used in war. And, out of the overflow of the heart, the mouth indeed speaks.3  Although the daily flow of words is at a diluvial level, we are in the middle of a drought when it comes to wisdom. Wisdom flows from the wells of deep souls and washes away the dry, cracked earth of foolishness.

“ So, who is wise and intelligent among us? Who are the geniuses? Let them show it by the way they behave, by what they accomplish through humility. Huge egos, vengefulness, bravado… these things are not indications of wisdom, but instead, trademarks of the shallow and carnal. You can be sure that the same heart that produces these things is capable of even more. But, the person branded by actual wisdom is a soul of deep reverence, that is equitable and fair. The wise are understanding and display goodwill joined with a desire to help. They are unwavering in their impartiality and drenched in authentic sincerity. They are peacemakers.” 4

So lay down your advice or advice given to you. Lay down your political talking points and the candidates you support. Lay down your black and white, right and wrong conclusions. Then, next to them lay these words and evaluate the depth of their wisdom.

pure, peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.

Who indeed is wise and understanding among us?

 

1 The Second World War by Antony Beevor (from the introduction.)
2  James 1:14-15
3 Matthew 12:34
4 Paraphrase of James 3:13-18

Nobody Cares What You Think

We want to believe that we are clear thinking, rational people. We want to believe that we have arrived at our conclusions and opinions through well thought-out reasoning. But, we are not and we haven’t. According to Jonathan Haidt, “…moral reasoning [is] often a servant to moral emotion.”1 What this means is that we do not simply think our way through issues, but instead, we all have an instantaneous emotional reaction to certain words, people and concepts and, instead of wrangling those emotions in and drawing conclusion based on reason, we begin to reason in support of our moral emotions.2  When you have a negative emotional reaction (no matter how slight), you then go off figuring out how to justify that emotion instead of figuring out if it is justifiable.

You do not have to be a social psychologist who spends years running detailed academic studies on this subject to see that there is a lot of truth here. These past weeks in America and social media is Exhibit A – this past year really. Why did so many of my friends who profess faith in the same God profess such opposite views on the same event? And why, when I read them, did I react so emotionally. I decided years ago (for a variety of reasons) to stay out of Facebook bickering no matter how important the issue is to me. The problem with that practice is when I read things being said that I find appalling (that’s not an exaggeration) there is not much of an outlet for those emotions and it can leave me depressed while I wait for my mind to digest the junk food I just consumed. That stuff can stay in your system longer than you want it to. But, like an idiot, I come back for seconds too often. I might create an app that every time I go to open Facebook, it delays it ten seconds and makes me answer the question “Are you sure?” three times.

This emotionally driven reaction is why nobody changes their mind on anything because of that article you shared or questionably ingenious argument that you just put forth in a world changing cartoon. Nobody cares what you think. Simply speaking to someone’s reason is not effective.3 The level of polarization that we see in our country today is the result of our emotional reactions and our emotion serving reasoning that then clears the path for us to move further away. This can quickly lead to the absurd.

As people of faith, we claim to have Jesus as our point of orientation. We are to lay our lives like tracing paper on his pattern, erasing and retracing as needed. But, it seems as if many of us have picked up our tracing paper and laid it on some other pattern. We look more like our political parties than we do Jesus. The problem with this is that when you attach Christianity to anything other than Christ, it becomes something else and is compromised. The result is emotion and emotion driven reasoning that is more worldly than Christian. Our rhetoric sounds more like talking points. We sound more like the news than good news. Spiritual wisdom and depth have been overcome by emotional tweets.

Lately, it seems that we care more about protecting statues than we do people, more about football and anthems than hate and more about American citizenship than Kingdom living. This is not an ironic attempt to change any opinions, but instead, it is a reminder of who we are and the need for our dialogue, as Christians, to rise again to a higher level. We are in desperate need of a flood of spiritual wisdom to irrigate the land scorched by our shallow partisan vomit. What we say matters.Out of the same mouth comes praise (for God) and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be.”4

“Empathy is the antidote to righteousness.”5 The “righteousness” in this quote is a self-assuredness of one’s conclusions as being right and rational. This is not wishy-washy empathy that leads to relativism singing kumbaya and telling everyone they are ok. This empathy is an honoring of and starting with valuing humanity – people. I do not have an answer to healthcare, but I believe God finds it absurd that money keeps fellow humans from getting readily available care, or if they do get help, leaves them in financial ruin. So, any talk about health care must start from a premise of valuing people and not political parties. This is what has troubled me so much about the discourse between Christians for some time. I saw more posts from Christian friends about being against “sanitizing history” than I did about Heather Heyer – a human ran over by a car.

As I have said many times, I do not claim to have the answers to a single issue facing us in America today, but, to me, the way of Christ is clear on this: We are to value others above ourselves. Our speech should reflect that. People are more important than political parties, money, heritage, or even our own mistreatment. We are to be people of grace in word and deed who stand on the side of the less fortunate, on the side against hate and a people who point the world to a place above our shallow and trivial arguments full of missing the point to a higher spiritual wisdom from a God loving perspective.

Who cares if you won’t watch the NFL anymore? That changes nothing. But grace does. We need to hear more about grace. Many of us are just adding to the noise and nobody really cares what we think.

 

 

1,2 The Righteous Mind,  Jonathan Haidt pg. 29
3 This premise is discussed throughout the above-mentioned book.
4 James 3:10
5 The Righteous Mind,  Jonathan Haidt pg. 59

Don’t Let Your Life End Up Like Mine

Physically, she was eroded by life. Sundried, leathery skin. Tangled, coarse hair crudely chopped off for the sole purpose of keeping it out of her eyes. Missing teeth. It was a stark contrast to the three young girls she was talking to. They were new. Unblemished. Flourishing. She was there for a free meal. They were there to serve it and clean it up.

She gave them some advice. “Stay away from men.” If that had been all she said, it would have passed over all of us as an exaggerated lesson from a rough life. But, she continued and it went something like this:

“If you find a man, date him for a long time. MAKE SURE, that he treats you like a princess. If you fight, walk away and calm down. If he ever hurts you, get out of there and don’t go back. You treat him like a prince too. Don’t let your life end up like mine. I’ve been married three times. The last time, he beat me so badly that they put me in a coma so that I could heal. He really messed me up.”

There was obvious weight to her words.  Her appearance alone was her witness. You could judge her book by its cover. But, she did not say it with contempt or even understandable self-pity. It was a moment. Her simplistic and basic wording painted a dense, compelling portrait of pain and regret. She was lucky to be alive, but unlucky in almost every other way. We thanked her for sharing her story. She said, “Thank Him.” That would have usually passed over me as a Christian cliché, but she authentically meant it.  She left. We stood still. Her words had put us on pause for a moment.

Resurrection is an audacious claim. Yet, it is at the center of the Christian hope. If it were more on the periphery, more in a gray area, we could tuck it away and avoid talking about someone raising from the dead and the future hope of that happening again. But, it is not and our faith is useless without it. Social justice without resurrection is temporary good, but ultimately futile. (Resurrection without working toward the betterment of the world is selfish escapism.) So, without it, “Let’s eat and drink for tomorrow we die.”1

Simply leaping to a conviction of resurrection in blind faith makes it all silly and flimsy. There is history to investigate and records to be examined. (This not a post about apologetics, so excuse the simplistic treatment). Yet, while we cannot and should not simply take a leap of faith, “one cannot simply argue right up to the central truth of Christianity by pure human left-brain reason alone…. we cannot fall into the camps of private space religion or just cause and effect history.”2  At some point, you decide to say “I am not sure what happened, but I know people do not raise from the dead.” Or, your worldview shifts.

“The same worldview shift that is demanded by the resurrection of Jesus is the worldview shift that will enable us to transform the world.”3 If you believe in something as audacious as resurrection, you can believe something as audacious as the real and permanent ending of tragedy and violence.

Resurrection without social justice is an intangible hope that things will be better someday. Social justice without resurrection is a cycle without end.

Together (as if resurrection and justice could be separated) the leather skinned woman gets a meal, another day, a smile, a chance to do good and a promise. A promise that she can definitively and fully be made new again. A promise that goodness has a destination and that she has a destination of goodness. A promise that her life hasn’t “ended up,” but her past will.

 

1 1 Corinthians 15:17-19,32
2 Surprised by Hope N.T. Wright
3 Surprised by Hope N.T. Wright, pg. 70

Why You Cannot Change

It is a tongue twister.
“For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do–this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.”1

Paul could have said this a little more succinctly, but the disorienting wordiness of it accurately captures the emotional essence of wrestling with who you are and what you do. No matter how determined he is, he often fails to do what he knows he should. In the context of the verses above, he is talking about his failure to follow the God-given law that ordered his life and that of an entire people. On this side of the cross, we claim grace and not law following, but if we are honest, we have really just traded one law for another. We have replaced an old law with a new one that is just as demanding and exacting. This is why you cannot change and the death-metal song of guilt keeps showing up on your playlist.2

There, seated next to law, you will never get off the roller-coaster of good intentions and horrible results. Long climbs, steep descents, sharp curves and headache inducing loops.

In grace (the experience of actually accepting that you are accepted) we can admit to who we are without excuses, or even trying to change. For in grace we accept that we are accepted as we are and don’t have to change anything. The power of grace really comes to light when we realize that it is only as we are able to find this acceptance and admit to our darkness that the darkness begins to dissipate and our basic operating code begins to change.

Here in this space of grace where we do not need to change, true change begins to sprout from the dry earth of our being.3

It sounds like it goes too far. We want to add a “but” in there somewhere. We feel the need to clarify it. Maybe that is where we strip it of its power. We advertise grace, but we end up treating it like it is one section of many along the car wash of change. Grace is not a step or a chapter in the process. It is the entire path or the whole book.

So, take a seat. Be still in it and accept that you are accepted without excuses and without making any effort to change. Grace is a not so dirty trick. It greets you with a smile. It assures you that you are included without needing to clean up first. It places no demands on you. As soon as you truly believe that, it is too late. At that moment, you have been changed. You are no longer living with a law of obligation, but now you are living with a deep spirituality.4

 

1 Romans 7:19-20
2 This is a short blog post and not meant to be an all-encompassing conclusion of how to change any psychological or physiological issue, addiction and the like. Please take what you can from it knowing that overcoming our challenges is much more complex than what it is treated as here.
3 Peter Rollins
4 Romans 8

Then There Will Be Equality

There was a village deep in forest isolated by the surrounding hills. During the rainy season, a sickness spread among the people. At first, there were only mild symptoms, but as time went on, the sickness progressed and those who had been infected were quickly becoming severely ill. The town elders decided that they needed help from the doctor in the next village. However, this village was a full day’s travel away. By their estimation, some of the villagers would die before the medicine could make it back.

There were two young men in the village who were known to be the fastest and most athletic among them. Both of them knew the hill country well. If the sick villagers were to have any chance, these two young men would have to traverse the hills as quickly as they could to get the medicine back to the village in time. As they started out, they were full of energy and resolve. But somewhere along the path, a seed of competition began to sprout. There would be glory to be gained for the one who returned with the medicine first – glory that would last their lifetime. As this seed of competition sprouted, its roots drove deep in search of power creating a divide between them. Both were confident in their knowledge of the hill country and this confidence, fed by selfish thirst, grew into a decision to part ways. Each took the path that they believed would get them there and back before the other resulting in their arrival home to a glory they would not have to share.

 It was not long until one of the boys got lost. He eventually made it to the village, but only after wasting hours trying to find his way. When he arrived, he learned the other boy had made it much earlier and was already on his way back home with the medicine. Defeated and full of shame, he wondered if he could ever return home. The boy who had successfully gotten the medicine was renewed with vigor and energy by the thought of the waiting glory. He knew that not only would he make it back first, but that he could do it so quickly that the tale of his heroics would become even greater. But, his speed brought with it carelessness and he soon stepped into a deep hole. He was able to keep the medicine intact when he fell, but it did not matter. His leg was now broken. As he laid there, he cried out, but no one was there to help.   

We are those two boys. With every problem, we seek to solve, somewhere along the way we get bogged down in our own opinions and grandeur. The bigger picture gets blocked out by our arrogance and greed leaving us turned around in a swirl of unending discourse. Like those two young men, we are too often on an adventure in missing the point.1

When Paul found out that some of the poor in Jerusalem needed help, he went to work to solve the problem. Some of the Christians in Corinth were in a position to assist and, at first, seemed eager to do so. Yet, for whatever reason, they did not finish what they started. So, Paul, with some finesse (or passive-aggressiveness) leads them back to the bigger picture.2

Equality.

More precisely, the two-way street of equality. Because equality only exists where it is given and received – by its nature it must be shared. Paul was not asking the Corinthians to take on financial stress so that others could be relieved. Instead, he called them to an economy where the plenty of some met the needs of others. This was not a simply a “rich/poor” thing. The Christians in Macedonia were poor, but creating an economy of equality means that we all have a willing responsibility according to our means. So, they gave too.3

If the two young men would have reminded themselves along the way, that the goal was getting the medicine home, not the glory of it, their village would have been saved. In this instance, Paul reminded the Corinthians of the bigger picture: “That there might be equality.”

We too have lost our way and fallen into debilitating holes as we move headstrong down our chosen paths overgrown with the rhetoric of animosity and winning.  As followers of the way of Jesus, we are called to step out of these ruts of party lines and media personalities. For too long, animosity, winning, self-perseverance and the like have entangled us along the way leaving us immobilized and ineffective. Every day we are called to step off our man-made paths and climb high enough to regain our orientation. From here, in view of the “one who became poor so that we may be rich” 4 may we seek to solve our greatest problems.

 

1Stolen from a title of a book by Brian McLaren and Tony Campolo.
2 2 Corinthians 8:8-15
3 2 Corinthians 8:3
4 2 Corinthians 8:9

 

What Makes for Peace?

Bumper stickers are often just unsolicited opinions or unwanted information. If we were just walking through the mall we wouldn’t yell these things out in people’s faces as we passed them.

“I have 4 kids and a dog!”
“I’m a swimmer!”
“I love guns!”
“26.2!”
“Coexist”
“Don’t tread on me.”

But, for some reason, in our cars, we feel enough separation to stick those symbols of our lives and conclusions right where everyone can (has to) see them. They say something about our identity and we want to be known. Whether we put them on our car or not, we all have symbols with which we identify.

Two-thousand men were crucified by the Roman general, Varus in 4 B.C.E.1 The cross was not just punishment, it was used as an act of terrorism. Tens of thousands of people were enslaved, cities burned, regions utterly destroyed by Rome as they conquered and ruled. Jesus arrived in a world leveled with trauma, political rebellion, and devastating punishment. The rumor of an arriving king being met with the mass murder of children at the hands of a threatened ruler depicted the status quo of violence of that time.

This dominance was gratuitously celebrated by the Romans. Their victory parades were magnificent spectacles, with moving stages four stories high depicting the episodes of their recent victory with pictures of slaughtered enemies and incinerated towns. They drug the finest specimens from the enemy’s army into the streets and executed their rulers for all the people to see. It was a Macy’s Day parade of violence.1

It is against this backdrop that Jesus rides into town on a donkey cheered on by peasants. It is like driving a Chevette down Wallstreet or wearing hand-me-downs on the red carpet. Laughable, weak and non-threatening really. He was turning Roman symbolism on its head. When he reached the end of the parade route, he marched right into the Temple and turned over the tables of Jewish the symbolism. The temple was the center of their society. It was not only a place of religious worship, it was at the center of their economy and government. Jesus was not mad because someone was selling Girls scout cookies at church. He was pronouncing judgment on what the heart of their society had become.

We must be willing to ask ourselves what he would do to our symbols. If he were to hold an Inauguration in Washington surrounded by a smattering of homeless people, from there where would he go? What would he say on the steps of the Capitol Building? Would he disrupt trading on Wallstreet? What “tables” would he overturn in our churches?

The symbols of American society are too often the dollar sign, golden statues named Oscar and the shape of a Pentagon. As Jesus parades through the crowd cheering for a King that they expected to bring violence down on the heads of the violent, he mourned for them and the destruction they were bringing upon themselves. “If they, on that day, would have only known what would bring them peace.”2 But, the trajectory of their society left them unable to see the road of peace.

I am not naïve about the complexity of foreign policy, national security or even that of each of our individual lives. I would be skeptical of anyone who claims to have definitive answers. But, I propose that in order to get to the best answer, we must start with the right question. Maybe, that question is “What makes for peace?”

At that moment in history, as Jesus rode his borrowed donkey through the streets, Israel was not asking that question. They believed they had the answer. They believed that peace would only come when God crushed the occupying nation of Rome and returned Israel to its rightful place as a sovereign and fearsome nation who alone were the children of God. When the Messiah came and led the people in a successful revolt of military prowess backed by the Name of God, then there would be peace.

But, the Messiah did not roll into town in a tank. The Messiah rode into town on a donkey under the banners of humility and reconciliation instead of parading the spoils of violence.

As you wrestle with the confusion of our world and the desires of your own psyche, the question lingers. What makes for peace?

 

1Jesus and the Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New Disorder Richard A. Horsley
2 Luke 19:42
3 Luke 19:43-44

In Defense of Your Pastor

I have wanted to write a post about this for quite some time (years), but I did not want it to come across as self-serving. Since I am in paid ministry, this might seem like I am “airing my grievances” for my own benefit. But, I truly am not writing this to defend myself. If you are a member of a church in any capacity, I am writing this because you need to know it for the health of your church community and the health of your pastor and his/her family.

Let’s be honest. Some pastors do a bad job. Maybe they are just a poor fit for that church’s culture (I’ve been there). Maybe they have some personal issues that are really distracting them. Maybe they are burnt out. Undoubtedly, some pastors have some deep issues that are detrimentally unhealthy. They are like anyone else. Some need time to grow through experience (I took my first ministry job at 23). Some need to develop better leadership qualities. Some need to stop being so arrogant. So no, this post is not about letting them all off of the hook. They are far from perfect and sometimes that has to be dealt with. But, for the most part, they are people that, rightly or wrongly, feel called, are sincere and truly want to “pastor.”  With that, I by no means claim to speak for all of them. These are my personal observations and conclusions (obviously).

This post is about perspective and I hope that it can aid, again, in creating healthier relationships in our churches. We undoubtedly need them. So, here are six points (in no certain order) you need to know.

  1. They have all of their eggs are in one basket. For most (not all) secular jobs, there are natural, healthy boundaries between work, family, friends, and faith. If something goes south at work, you can at least find some solace at home, with your friends or at church perhaps. If something is troubling your marriage, that does not necessarily put a lot of extra stress on your work life. It might, but again, there are some natural boundaries there. Plus, church and friends might actually help. Something wrong at church? Well, you can step out of the role you are in to ease the conflict, create some space between you and the other person, or, if all else fails, you can find a different church altogether to invest in. That is not a great option, but I have seen it be necessary.
    But, for a pastor, all of those areas are intertwined. Something wrong at work? That means something is wrong at church and your family and friends are all in that mix. All of a sudden, stress in one area of your life can pour over into all of the other areas very easily. A work conflict is a church conflict which can easily turn into a family conflict. Stress in your family? Well, your family goes to work with you at least once per week and everyone knows them. Privacy is hard to find. Learning to create healthy boundaries is part of the job of a pastor, but it is not easy. I hope you can appreciate that.
  2. Moving is hard.
    A lot of people move for work, but they do not always have to. If you work in IT and live in a large enough area, you can change jobs without relocating. If a pastor needs to find a new position, they are going to have to move and most of the time they are going to have to move a considerable distance and not just from the north side of town to the south. I have lived in seven states, nine cities, both coasts, the South and Northern Midwest. Sometimes I wanted to move, a lot of times I simply had to. I have seen the average tenure at one church for a pastor reported as low as three years and as high as seven. My average is four. Either way, three or seven, pastors and their families move a lot and moving is hard. With that, a ministry degree and ministry experience, at least in the mind of a recruiter, does not translate easily into any other line of work unless you can afford to take a pay cut back to entry level or work a sales, commission based job. My biggest piece of advice to someone majoring in theology who is planning to be a pastor? Double major. You need a plan B that does not involve having to relocate or for when you cannot wait out the six months or longer duration of the typical church hiring process. Plus, I know more ex-pastors than I do pastors. The chances that you will do this for life are not in your favor.
  3. Pastors are criticized by the people they are trying to love and it always get’s back to them.
    Criticism comes with any job, but not every job requires you to be emotionally available to and invested in a large group of people. Ministry requires a certain level of vulnerability and that will always, at some point, be exploited. With this, people like to talk. So, you might think that you are just airing some criticism or concerns privately among friends, but it never, I mean never, stays private. Your kid will tell the youth minister what you said. The pastor’s friend will hear about that conversation and warn them about so-and-so. Your comment will be repeated. Again, please hear me, what you say about your pastor will get back to them. Always. 
  4. A lot of people think they know how to do the pastor’s job and maybe even better. (Especially of you are a youth minister)
    Imagine that you are an accountant. You have an accounting degree, maybe even a CPA and you have a few years of experience under your belt. A family from church invites you over to “get to know you” and after the small talk, the husband starts asking you more about your job. At some point, he says something like “You know I used to do some accounting in my day (he used to do his own taxes). If you don’t mind, let me give you some advice.” Advice is tolerable, but too often it is assumptive and condescending. Now, imagine that happens all of the time. It does in ministry, especially if you are a youth minister. Almost every time someone invites you over, the topic of church will come up and opinions will be shared. It can be exhausting and disheartening. Just because you did two years of youth ministry back in 1995 does not mean that you know how to do any of it today. You used to volunteer in ministry? Cool, that is completely different than doing it for a living. If you ever start a sentence with “We used to do x,y or z…” just slow your roll. The key phrase there is “used to.” That means you stopped doing it at some point for a reason. You are remembering the good, but forgetting the bad.
  5. Volunteers are messy and progress is slow .
    A church is basically a non-profit organization heavily reliant on volunteers. This means that it takes a long time to get things done and maintaining a level of excellence is difficult, to say the least. To begin, at some point you will have a bad volunteer in your ministry. Maybe they are in the wrong role, or maybe they are volunteering in the completely wrong ministry. Some volunteers need “fired” or “reassigned.” Now, think about how complicated that would be to do in a church. Pastors need all of the volunteers they can get. Plus, a good pastor ministers to their volunteers beyond just putting them to work. No matter how delicate you are, their feelings and/or ego are going to get hurt. If they are emotionally healthy, things will eventually heal to some degree. If they are not, and a lot of people aren’t, the situation could become very volatile very quickly.
    Ministry is heavily reliant on volunteers. People are busy and spread thin. So, volunteers do not have time to be as thorough and prepared as you would like them to be. Set the bar high, but know it will not be reached very often. If you push too hard, you will burn people out and you need them to stay. Because of this, so and so’s small group leader may not be up to their standards or such and such program may be a little less than ideal. You will hear about it and someone will want it fixed fast. It is never that simple. Nothing in the church world happens fast. We are steering a cruise ship and not a fork-lift. (If you don’t know, those things turn on a dime.) In a volunteer based organization, change is always messy and drawn out and some people are not understanding of that.
  6. The pastor’s spouse (and possibly kids) will get hurt.
    Remember point one about all of the eggs in one basket. Also, remember point three. Not only will the negativity get back to the pastor, but it will inevitably get back to the spouse and maybe the kids. If a pastor is doing a decent job at creating boundaries, they will shield their spouse and family from a lot of the negative, but they cannot block it all. Sometimes, the spouse will hear about it first. I’ve had people disguise their personal criticism as a “suggestion” and ask my wife to pass it on to me. Please… This can make church a stressful environment for a pastor’s family and it hurts. It can really hurt.

This is not an exhaustive list of what makes being a pastor somewhat uniquely challenging. And, again, this is not an effort to excuse a pastor who is doing a poor job. Maybe in the future, I will give my two cents on the healthiest way to share suggestions or critiques with your pastor. But for now, I hope this at least provides some context and insight into some of the challenges that your pastor and his/her family face and that it will inform your thoughts and actions as a member of a faith community.