A Christian One-Liner

The other day I was involved in one of those controversial Christian conversations.  As our discussion was wrapping up this person said to me, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin."  Then we hugged and went our separate ways.  This one-liner was not new to me.  As a matter of fact I have heard and used the exact same phase for years. I have probably even uttered it from the pulpit. This time the conversation was a tough one and the phrase did not sound so spiritual.  You see it was the first time I had ever been the target of the line.  To him I was the sinner that needed loving and my prayerfully considered convictions were the sin that needed hating.  Quite frankly it did not feel good to be on the receiving end.  I had been judged to be a sinner.  His love for me, in spite of my sin, did not make me feel any better, respected, or accepted.  I would not be whole until I quit sinning.

I have done a lot of thinking about loving the sinner and hating the sin.  It is one of those statements that sounds good; so good that many of us might even wonder why Jesus didn’t have the wisdom to use it himself.  I could just imagine Jesus as he looked a Peter after the third denial, shrugging his shoulders and muttering to himself, “Well you have to love the sinner and hate the sin.”

The problem with loving the sinner and hating the sin is that it shifts power.  It is an attempt at becoming God.  When I say love the sinner, hate the sin in essence I am saying that I have God knowledge.  I have the ability to name who sinners are and what sin is.  Granted there are times when this seems obvious to all.  Pedophiles and murders are two groups of people that come to mind.  However, most of us live in a world that is much less stark.  As much as many of us would like Scripture to be crystal clear on issues of war, patriotism, sexual orientation, speaking in tongues, hell, heaven, and many others, it isn’t clear.

When believers differ from each other it is tempting to name that difference as sin.  The temptation is especially strong when we believe that we have Scripture on our side.

I remember going to church and being told that drums were a sign of the Devil and that women were not gifted in leadership.  These opinions were held fervently, leaders believed they had God and Scripture backing up their beliefs.  I am glad that the church had the courage to grow beyond those convictions.

I do not know where we are going to end up with the big discussions of today, but I do know that if we keep naming those who are different than us sinners we won’t have the opportunity to see where the spirit of God is leading us.

Gray

I am the kind of person who desires clarity because it provides things like answers and direction.  It allows one to move forward with confidence and the assurance that “I am leading in the right direction.”  I have been brought up to believe that it is important to know some things, for example, the difference between right and wrong. There is a lurking danger when some in leadership claim to have divine clarity or direction.  More often than not it is simply arrogance parading as morality.  As I am writing this blog our nation is watching our federal leaders bring us to the brink of economic meltdown all in the name of their political “clarity.”  Everyone thinks they are absolutely right and this absoluteness leads to arrogance and a complete unwillingness to compromise.

This kind of misplaced clarity also shows up in the church.  From the benign - think of the worship style wars; to the sinister – consider how many in the church have treated those who are gay.  All of these struggles emerge from a false position of clarity.

As much as I desire clarity, both personally and professionally, I am slowly coming to realize how dangerous and destructive certainty and clarity can be, I am thinking particularly about a kind of certainly that emerges out of a desire to control, manipulate or rule the other.  The simple truth is that we live in a world which is mostly gray.  And it is not easy or comfortable living in the gray.

In politics, living in the gray means valuing and working with those who do not hold to your particular position.  It means owning the silliness of absolute viewpoints and assuming a position of humility that allows space to be wrong.

From a theological perspective we must own that black and white makes God small and manageable.  It removes the mystery and wonder.  It makes God easy to follow.  It allows us to shape God into our image rather opening ourselves to the possibility of being formed in God’s image.

Living in the gray opens us to the possibility of living in the tension of not knowing.  As strange as it might sound this is good and freeing.

The Church

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to work with church leaders and members from many different faith traditions.  Some come from very structured church communities while others come from less formal more Pentecostal contexts.  There are churches that see the Bible as one of many holy books they would turn to for advice, while others come from traditions where the Bible is viewed as the inerrant word of God and the only Holy Scripture that should be consulted.  The labels people of faith give themselves and each other are telling as well - Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, etc. After almost two decades of interacting and leading all these different “Christian” groups I find myself fascinated by the similarities between the extremes.  Take for example Scripture.  Both Liberals and Conservatives require a high degree of “Selective Reading” in order to maintain their understanding and reworking of the Christian faith.

My more liberal (or progressive) brothers and sisters don’t really like the Apostle Paul.  They seem him as a sexist and homophobe.  More often than not their approach is to simply ignore Paul and focus on Jesus and his message of Grace.

My more fundamental (or evangelical) brothers and sisters have so confused American Civil religion and Scripture that they can no longer tell the difference between the two.  Take for example the “life issue.”  The vast majority of conservatives are both pro-life and pro-war; at best this is an oxymoron.

I cannot help but wonder what it would mean for the church to take Scripture seriously.  Conservatives would have to give up their sexism, homophobia and need for violence.  Liberals would have to give up their eliteness, smugness and educational arrogance.

Here is the good news.  Every week DOOR hosts multiple church groups, representing a wide spectrum of the Christian faith community.  It is true that the church leaders sometimes judge and condemn each other, but the youth have very little interest in finding reasons to divide.  They are interested in a Christian faith that moves beyond posturing, politics and rhetoric.  For them faith is about taking Scripture seriously, loving God and loving neighbor.  When this happens walls of division become unimportant.

Attitude

I have two teenaged boys.  Every once in a while they develop what can best be described as an “attitude.”  Please do not read this as a positive thing!  Their negative attitudes can be quite diverse.   One moment I am a lousy incredibly unfair parent and the next they see no reason to participate in family activities.  They argue about the importance of homework, getting enough sleep, going to church, and the friends they hang out with.  During every one of these discussions they spend a significant amount of time ranting about how uninformed and out of touch I am.  None of this is good for my self-esteem. I cannot help but wonder how often I cop an attitude with God.  For example, I am the Executive Director of DOOR.  In my mind this means I need to be powerful.  For me, power has something to do with an ability to control.  Then I read Scripture and Jesus seems to contradict this idea.  For Him power is about service and self-sacrifice.  On paper this sounds almost idyllic, but in reality service and sacrifice can be view as indicators of weakness.

Can you imagine living life as a servant?  Servants are people who need to figure out how to survive under the power of a master.  What happens if the master is evil?  Aren’t Christians called to defeat evil?  If we are going to win this battle then we need to be people of power.

Donald Kraybill is credited with coining the term “Upside-Down Kingdom.”  This is another way of thinking about what Jesus was called his followers to.  In this kingdom everything we know about leadership and power is reversed.  Enemies are to be viewed as future friends.  Non-violence is always the response to violence, even when terrorists attack.  Service to others, regardless of social position, is always the starting point for relationship.

Living and acting this way is counter-cultural.  Living counter-culturally is not easy; sometimes it leads to copping an attitude with God.

Black-on-Black

I am always amazed how rumor and innuendo and become truth and fact if they are repeated enough.   For example, if the news media or anyone with a powerful voice says something often enough eventually it becomes “true.”  This is the case with “black-on-black” crime.   If one listens long enough to the rhetoric it becomes possible to conclude that “black-on-black” crime is a raging epidemic in the USA.   All this talk about “black-on-black” crime leads at best to irrational fear and stereotyping and at worst it gives license to do harm to any black person who comes with our field of vision – stop them before they harm us. There are other ways to describe what listening to this rhetoric is – brainwashing and indoctrination are two concepts that come to mind.  Why are we so easily persuaded to believe half-truths and lies?  It embarrasses me that supposed Christian pastors think that all Muslims are only interested in destroying America.  Yes Muslims believe differently, but different does not equal evil or bad; it is just different.

Is this the kind of society any of us want to live in - a society that defines different as bad, as evil to be destroyed?  Aren’t there are enough real things to fear, things like: a government that is too easily persuaded to go to war, the environmentally dangerous fracking practices energy companies are engaging in, and lack of access to affordable healthcare.

It takes courage to confront irrational fears.  After all there is a tremendous amount of peer pressure asserted to keep our enemies our enemies.  Can you imagine a world where rhetoric and innuendo are quickly dismissed as silly and unimportant ramblings?  Can you imagine a world where we start by assuming the best of each other?  It almost sounds like the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus was so fond of talking about.  The kind of world I want to live in.

Courage

During last Sunday’s sermon the pastor referred to Matthew 16:24, where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to be his followers then they must be willing to deny themselves.  This is one of those passages that is easier to just skip.  It is much simpler and less confusing to talk about a religion that teaches us to be good “Christians” rather than to engage a faith that asks us to abandon an entire way of life. Self-denial has never been a favorite sermon or bible study topic.  Taking Jesus’ words seriously have the potential to disturb the status quo and the status quo is comfortable.  To be honest I like things to be comfortable, predictable, safe, and secure.  These are the foundations of an uncomplicated life.

Self-denial removes me from the center.  It may even move my family, church, community, and country from the center.  According to Jesus, self-denial naturally leads to cross-carrying and cross-carrying leads to aloneness.

Jesus carried the cross 2,000 years ago because carrying the cross was what needed to be done.  Without the cross there could be no Easter and without Easter there could be no resolution to the sin problem.

When Jesus calls his followers to cross-carrying it is a call to courage.  It is a call to stand-up for truth even when no one else wants to hear the truth.  It means exposing and naming the powers that have neutralized the church’s prophetic place in the world.

When we name racism as a current sin, we risk our popularity.  When the church declares that we need a president of color because another white man will just reinforce the worst of our prejudices and stereotypes, we risk being called non-Christian.  When the church stands up against the raping of the environment just for cheaper fuel, we risk being called extremists.  When the church stands for the stranger and alien in our midst, we risk being labeled unpatriotic.

Friends, this is the call of Easter; a call to self-denial, cross-carrying, and truth telling.  It will not be easy.  It will not make you popular and you may end up feeling very alone.  Know this; we serve a High Priest, Jesus Christ, who understands.

Silly Questions

May is not an easy month for me. It was in May 2003 that my mother passed away.  Recalling memories of her has become a May ritual for me. One childhood memory that has surfaced this year was a time when my mother, in a fit of frustration, demanded that I stop asking such silly questions. The other day USA Today ran a story asking if Osama bin Laden was in Hell.  The article goes on to speculate that this question has become a type of litmus test between traditional heaven-and-hell evangelicals and the emerging evangelical movement led by Rob Bell with its tendencies towards universalism.  The traditional argument in its simplest form goes something like this: if God is just, then it is not possible for bin Laden to end up in heaven.

I cannot help but wonder if this debate is a silly one.  After all, trying to figure out where someone else is going to spend eternity is a little like asking if Adam and Eve had belly buttons - a potentially  entertaining discussion but also a little silly.

Why is it so important to condemn someone else to hell?  There is a strange comfort in knowing there are people more sinful than I am.  It is reasonably safe to state that I am not, nor ever will be as sinful as Osama bin Laden was.

Is it possible that condemning someone else to hell is a convenient way to avoid dealing with the stuff in my life?  After all I have never master-minded a terrorist attack or sent someone on a suicide mission - so I can’t be all that bad of a person, right?

In light of what bin Laden has done my judgmentalism, anger and arrogance are just minor offenses that should be overlooked.

Chaos

I was at Gunther Toody’s, a famous Denver breakfast spot, the other week for breakfast. Every Thursday, a group of retired pastors and church leaders get together to talk about what was, what is, and what should be. For me, it is fun to be part of a group where I am the youngest person by 30 years.

Every once in awhile, they ask my opinion on a matter they are discussing, but for the most part I enjoy listening to their bantering back and forth. Every once in a while someone shares a real zinger.

During my last visit, one gentleman who had been quiet for most of the first hour jumps into the conversation, and with a funny grin on his face, makes the following statement, “Religion provides solace for the chaos it creates.”

At first I thought I was hearing the cynicism of a grumpy old man. Then I started to think.

A lot of crazy stuff has happened in the name of religion. I remember as a young person going to book and record burnings because someone had told us that Satan was in the books and records. Most wars are fought in the name of God or we ask God to bless our war.

Our world is divided as much by religion as it is by politics.

Is it possible for religion to be less chaotic and more unifying? Do we always have to use religion as a reason to divide, separate and fight? Is it possible to start every discussion by finding out what we have in common?

Maybe labels like liberal, conservative, pro-life, pro-choice, Republican, Democrat, Pentecostal, Presbyterian, Methodist or Mennonite have no business being part of the church.

I had a friend who used to tell me that this world needs a little less religion (read chaos) and a whole lot more Jesus (read inclusion).