Saturday, November 11, 2017

A Word for Christians

Dear Christians, especially those who name themselves “evangelical,” I have a word for you. I believe it is a word from the Lord. Those of you who know me know that I do not say this lightly. That, in fact, I am leery of anyone who claims to speak a “word from the Lord” because I believe the scripture is clear that if a person claims to speak from God and the word is not from God, that person will be judged. I pray that God will judge me if this word is not truly God’s so that God’s will may be evident.

I am writing this partly in response to a variety of news reports. One, from Sam Sorbo of Fox news gets the problem right, but the solution dead wrong. Or the story by Philip Wegman in the Washington Examiner talking about Jim Ziegler defending Judge Roy Moore by using the bible. In some ways, I am also responding to the comments I have see on Facebook and other places through the years justifying the immoral behavior of Donald Trump because he is “pro-life” (too many sources here to cite) or the immoral behavior of Bill Clinton because he is “our guy.” Justifying immorality because someone is on your side is a whole topic to itself, though not the one I am addressing today. But mostly I am writing this because I think I need to say it.

Here is the word: Please, please stop being concerned for and fighting for your “rights” as Christians. Stop supporting those who are hypocrites and purveyors of evil in the name of putting those into office who will ostensibly support the rights of Christians. Christians in America, you must stop believing that you are oppressed and persecuted. You are not oppressed or persecuted, not in any real sense in this country. There are Christians in the world who are being persecuted or killed for their faith. Do not trivialize their faith and their experience by comparing your “persecution” to theirs.

If you have:
                A roof over your head
                Food to eat
                The ability to see the doctor when you are ill and get the medicine you need
                A job that pays enough to support you and your family
                An education
                The vote and the ability to use that vote
If you can walk down the street in your neighborhood and not be accosted by police because you look different from others in your neighborhood. If you have never been stopped because you are “driving while black.” If you are not afraid of the police. If you have never had to use a public defender in our justice system. If you are not afraid of a knock on the door that might be ICE. Furthermore, if any of these things has, in fact happened to you, but not because you are Christian, THEN -  you are not being deprived of your rights as a Christian.

Instead of fighting for our rights, Christians should be the ones who fight for the rights of those who truly are oppressed and persecuted – the “widows, orphans, and aliens” of our time. Our call, going back to Abraham (in Genesis 12:1-3, if you are interested) is to be a blessing to all the families of the world. Not just the Israelite families. Not just the Christian families. Not just the families who attend our churches. ALL the families of the earth. Now we can wrestle with what it means to be a blessing. We might have some disagreements over how to be that blessing. But our call is to be a blessing.

Through the years I have heard a lot about how the government should not guarantee food, shelter, health care, etc. I have heard a number of Christians say that is the job of the church. I’ve said it myself in the past, to my shame. Well then, God is asking us - why aren’t we doing it? Why are there still homeless, hungry people? Why are there still people who are not able to find health care or who have to choose between paying the electric bill or buying the medicine they or their child needs? Why is there a whole island of Americans many of whom do not even have electricity? If you have what you need and someone else does not, why? I am asking these questions of myself as well as of you. Why do I deserve to live in a safe warm house when there are those who are out in the cold and rain today? The cry is not “how long, O Lord?” but “how long, my people?” The only answer that I can come up with is that I am a coward. I am unwilling to be faithful enough to give everything I have so that others may have what they need. I pray that God will help my unbelief.

We in the U.S. want our country to guarantee our “rights” as Christians, because we are unwilling to trust in God for our protection and sustenance. We are like the Israelites of old who wanted a king “like other nations” (1 Samuel 8:5) instead of being satisfied with trusting in God to lead them and provide for them. The prophets continually warned the kings against making political alliances in order to guarantee the safety of the people. But those political alliances, while temporarily useful, led to the destruction of Jerusalem and exile for the people. Be assured that if we trust in our political leaders to be the source of our strength, we too will fall.

I strongly suspect that we want to think of the U.S. as a “Christian nation” so that we do not have to take responsibility for Christian action ourselves. Here are some examples:

Take for instance teachers or workers who complain that they not able to have a bible on their desk or wear a cross in the classroom or workplace. These things mean nothing. If you think your rights are being violated, I ask you this: Are you praying for your students or your co-workers by name each night? Are you treating them with love and grace? If you are not letting the bible form your life then don’t complain that you can’t have it on your desk. It needs to be in your heart, not on your desk. If you are not praying for those around you, then don’t complain about not being able to pray in public. Jesus tells us to go into our room and pray in secret. I am not opposed to praying where people can see – I pray in restaurants. But Jesus was clear that our public prayer was not to convince others of our piety.

Are you against abortion, calling yourself “pro-life?” Have you adopted or at least fostered a child who is unwanted? Have you spent time getting to know and care for teenagers who might be vulnerable to having an early pregnancy? Are you serious about providing for the children who are already in this world? We need a holistic pro-life policy; if we believe that each child is precious to God and want to save the unborn, then we also need to save the born. I say this as someone who identifies as pro-life.

You may be one of those who owns a business and doesn’t want to serve those of other faiths or other lifestyles. As a citizen of the United States of America, I personally think you should have the right to refuse service. But as a Christian, what is the more powerful witness – refusing service because of religious conviction, or humbly serving those with whom we disagree even while being clear that we disagree? And if you decide the former is a better witness in your situation, then you must be prepared to pay the price for your witness. And to your Christian brothers and sisters who agree with you, I say this: for those who are suffering from their witness, be the Christian community. Pay their mortgage. Make sure they have food to eat. Find them work that will not conflict with their consciences. Surround them with care. And, if you wish to change the laws as an American who is guided by Christian principles, then do that using our political system. But do not think that working through the political system is the only way to change things. Do not think that as Americans you have rights that do not apply to those of other faiths or no faith. And do not confuse being American with being Christian.

Are you horrified at the shootings that have occurred in all kinds of public places? Be horrified that we think of more guns as the solution to this problem. We are to be about the ministry of reconciliation, (see 2 Corinthians 5:18-19) not the ministry of open carry. We cannot stop evil by using the same methods as evil. Which brings up another point. 

We see the conflict in our society, in our country. And we don’t want that conflict to have an impact on our lives. But we, as Christians, have let ourselves be co-opted by the methods and agenda of the Enemy. We have been fooled into thinking that we need something we call “power” in order to change the world. We don’t. While you were reading in 2 Corinthians 5, did you notice what followed in chapter 6? Paul was willing to suffer for the sake of the gospel, because he knew that the glory of sharing Christ with the world was far more than any suffering he might endure. At some point Paul used his “rights” as a Roman citizen, yes; but not to avoid suffering. He used his standing as a Roman citizen to gain the ability to go to Rome to preach the gospel at the center of the world – or the ends of the earth.

Take a look at Philippians 2, where Paul reminds us to " Let the same mind be in you that was1 in Christ Jesus,  6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,  7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death -- even death on a cross." (Phi 2:5-8 NRS). My friends, we follow a crucified Messiah. We are not called to be powerful in the way of the world, but to call upon the power of God to fight our battles. And then to trust that God will do so. We may not always understand what that will look like, but we can be assured that it will happen.

In the meantime, we are to be a blessing. We have been told how. " 8 He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?" (Mic 6:8 NRS) We are called to work for justice for the immigrants, to provide for those who cannot provide for themselves, to enable each person in our society to live out the image of God that is given to them.  Even if you believe you are persecuted because of your faith, seeking your rights is not the biblical way:   "39 But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40 and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41 and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42 Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you. 43 "You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.' 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you," (Mat 5:39-44 NRS)

We promise in our baptismal vows (at least in the United Methodist Church) to resist evil and injustice in whatever forms they present themselves, but we resist those things for the sake of the world, not for our own sake. And we also promise to remember that it is God who gives us the power to resist, not our own power.

My confession and my sorrow is that I am not very good at taking all this to heart. I desperately need both the word of God in the scriptures as a daily part of my diet, and intense pray time. But I also desperately need the Christian community to help me in my faith. We are called and gifted (all of us, not just the pastors) to build up the body of Christ. Without the other Christians in my community of faith using their gifts to build up the body, I am a lesser Christian. 

So, the final word is this: be a part of your Christian community. Like it or not, you are a part of the body of Christ if you claim to be Christian. Like it or not, you are needed in your Christian community. To deny that is to deny God. But remember that the Body of Christ exists to bring blessing to the world. We build up the Body of Christ so that we may bless the world.

Friday, April 28, 2017

Lord, Hear Our Prayers

I am fasting and praying today. Hunger and prayer can focus the mind. It occurred to me as I was praying that hundreds, perhaps thousands of people around the world who are connected to the United Methodist Church are fasting and prayer for the same reason as I am today: because the Judicial Council of the UMC will soon be making a ruling on the legitimacy of the election of a lesbian bishop. I know that so very many of us are praying – but as I prayed I realized that others are praying for the opposite outcome to the one that I want. We are all fervent in our prayers. We all want the Holy Spirit to work. What happens when the decision comes down?

Will the “losing” side believe that God did not hear their prayers? Will they claim that the Judicial Council did not listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit? How do we answer those questions?

As I prayed, it occurred to me that maybe we are all going to lose. And maybe that is God’s answer. Church, maybe this is a Babel tower time for us. The story in Genesis 11 tells us that the people of the time were trying to build a tower to reach the heavens. Contrary to what we often think about this, they weren’t trying to get up to heaven – and the gods – they were trying to provide a path for the divine to come down to them. They wanted to make a name for themselves as the ones through whom the divine entered the world. But God doesn’t work that way.

In fact, God has already entered the world and we keep trying as hard as we can to forget how and when and why that happened. We have been focusing on making the UMC the right kind of church that will provide a path for the divine to come to us. But God is already here. And the initial command was to spread throughout the earth, filling it with the fruits of our labors and the knowledge of God and wisely overseeing the beautiful creation of God. Instead of going out into the world, the people collected together. Instead of sharing knowledge of God with the world, they wanted to share how great they were.  And here we are again.

Regardless of the outcome of the Judicial Council ruling, maybe we are being scattered for a reason. The call to Abraham – the remedy for all of the sin and evil in Genesis 3-11 – was to bring blessing to all the families of the earth. Now we get to choose: will we be sons and daughters of Babel or Abraham?

God has already entered the world in the person and work of Jesus. The church was inaugurated at Pentecost. Nothing and no one can stand against the true church of God, the body of Christ. Are we a part of that body? Both sides? Yes! If there is anything to be gained from a study of the Hebrew Bible (not to mention a study of the history of the Church) it is that God can use highly imperfect people – selfish, greedy, quarreling, proud people – for God’s purposes and to somehow further God’s blessing. I’ll admit I don’t always get it. But somehow God has continued to work regardless of how humankind has resisted.

I spent two years studying the Acts of the Apostles with a group of pastors. Now I will be moving to a new church and a new town that I have been warned is “very secular.” More secular than the Roman Empire? Not hardly.

God has already entered the world. Evil, sin, and death threw their full weight against God who came in Jesus. We just celebrated Holy Week and Easter. We remembered on Good Friday that the fully human man who was also fully divine died on a cross. We think about the miracle of the resurrection, but do we recognize the miracle that we are talking about when we say that God died? But here’s the good part: Evil, sin, and death threw their full weight against God who came in Jesus and they failed. Evil, sin, and death were overcome. God raised Jesus from the dead and began at that moment to reclaim the earth. To bring together the heavens and the earth. To make Jew and Gentile one people again. And at Pentecost, God began again to create a people who would be – not perfect – but sent out to be a blessing. Sent out to spread the word that Jesus is Lord of the heavens and earth whether anyone acknowledges it or not. That means Lord of the straight and the gay, Lord of the Democrats and Republicans, Lord of the atheist and the Muslim, the Buddhist and the Christian, Lord of the United States of America and North Korea. Oh, we’ve a long way to go before that Lordship is acknowledged and God’s perfect rule is finally made real everywhere. But the new creation, the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated and if we are anything, church, we are supposed to be the bearers of those glad tidings!

We also have to remember that the fruit of the Spirit is "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control." (Gal 5:22-23 CEB) Which means that even though we will continue to disagree and we might scatter after the Judicial Council ruling comes out, we are called to act in very particular ways. Which means that we all lose if we fail to preach the Gospel with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Which means that we all win if we find a way to shower the world with God’s blessing. This will be difficult, because we don’t always agree on what it means to bless the world. So that is what we need to focus on.

I am praying and fasting today. But my focus has changed. I am praying that God will show me, and the rest of those who identify with the UMC, how to bring blessing to the world. I am praying that we will learn to see that God is working through all of us on different sides of a difficult issue and that the Holy Spirit will work regardless of the decision of the Judicial Council. I am praying that I will be able to live as a disciple and preach as an apostle in my new appointment.

I am praying that after this Babylonian tower moment, we will have a Pentecost time, when, as we are fasting and praying together, the Holy Spirit will fall afresh on us all and send us out into a hurting world to be a fresh wind of grace and love.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On the building of walls and Making America Great Again

One of the promises of our new President that most troubles me is the promise of building a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. I oppose the building of a wall, in part because of my orthodox Christianity.
The concept of a wall between us and Mexico is problematic on a number of counts. The idea grows out of the broader notion that we should put America first in all things and that the building of this wall to secure our border will somehow make us better off. Though I am opposed on religious grounds, let’s also look at some historical and economic ones as well.
For me talk of a wall conjures up the images of the Berlin Wall, the wall between North and South Korea, and the wall that the Israelis built to keep out the Palestinians. Are the relationships that were and are represented by these walls the kind of relationship that we want to have with Mexico? Do we believe that Mexico is our enemy and that we should have armed guards along the border wall that shoot first and ask questions later? I have not personally been to any of these walls, but I have known many who have. They describe a palpable tension and sense of animosity attached to those walls.
Walls do not, in fact, seem to make good neighbors. What would make for good neighbors? I suggest that reasonable, fair immigration and foreign worker policies would help. I suggest that good relationships with our neighbors will make us far safer than any wall. Why do I think this?  Think about Canada.
As far as I know, no one is suggesting a wall along our border with Canada. Why don’t we need a Canadian wall as well as a Mexican wall? Perhaps because we have good relationships with Canada. I know some will argue that Canadians don’t come to the U.S. in large numbers such as those we see from Mexico and that is true. Immigrants from Canada tend to be wealthier and better educated than those from Mexico. But if anything, we might should build a wall with Canada to keep our citizens in. Canada is quite welcoming to folks from the U. S. who have specialized skills or who are entrepreneurs willing to invest in their country.[i] Are we “putting America first” when we allow our valuable citizens to leave the country?
From a further economic standpoint, Mexican immigrants, legal and otherwise, are actually good for our economy. According to the Economic Policy Institute:[ii]
Unauthorized immigrants are a net positive for public budgets because they contribute more to the system than they take out.16 Unauthorized immigrants generally cannot receive benefits from government programs, except in some cases, such as when unauthorized immigrant children receive public education, and in some states that allow unauthorized immigrants to attend state colleges at in-state tuition rates. Nevertheless, most of these unauthorized immigrants will still pay taxes. The vast majority pay sales taxes in states with sales taxes, and property taxes through properties that they own or rent. Additionally, most unauthorized immigrant workers also pay payroll and income taxes. The Social Security Administration estimates that 75 percent of unauthorized immigrants are actually on formal payrolls, either using fraudulent Social Security numbers or Social Security numbers of the deceased.17 Unauthorized immigrants pay into Social Security via automatic payroll deductions, but they can never claim Social Security benefits. In 2005, it was estimated that unauthorized immigrants paid about $7 billion per year in Social Security taxes that they will never be able to reclaim.18
I would expect that money spent on a wall and the resources to guard it are going to eat into the net positive effect of immigrants.
The historical, political, and economic reasons that I oppose the wall are important, but what is most important to me is the religious/theological aspect. Rev. Jeffress used Nehemiah as an example of a “builder” that God called.[iii] From reading the book of Nehemiah his takeaway is that “You see, God is NOT against building walls!” But let’s look at Nehemiah in some detail and see if the comparison to Donald Trump is warranted.
Nehemiah was not a builder by profession. In fact, he was cupbearer to the King of Persia. When he heard of the disrepair of Jerusalem -  not only the walls but the city and the temple as well – he wept and prayed. Here is his prayer:
4 When I heard these words I sat down and wept, and mourned for days, fasting and praying before the God of heaven.  5 I said, "O LORD God of heaven, the great and awesome God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments;  6 let your ear be attentive and your eyes open to hear the prayer of your servant that I now pray before you day and night for your servants, the people of Israel, confessing the sins of the people of Israel, which we have sinned against you. Both I and my family have sinned.  7 We have offended you deeply, failing to keep the commandments, the statutes, and the ordinances that you commanded your servant Moses.  8 Remember the word that you commanded your servant Moses, 'If you are unfaithful, I will scatter you among the peoples;  9 but if you return to me and keep my commandments and do them, though your outcasts are under the farthest skies, I will gather them from there and bring them to the place at which I have chosen to establish my name.'  10 They are your servants and your people, whom you redeemed by your great power and your strong hand.  11 O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight in revering your name. Give success to your servant today, and grant him mercy in the sight of this man!" At the time, I was cupbearer to the king.
 (Neh 1:4-11 NRS)
Several things to note: Nehemiah’s first act in his prayer was to confess his own sins and the sins of his family and his people. Have we heard such confession from President Trump? We might say that President Trump has more in common with the King of Persia than with Nehemiah, but that was not the comparison made by Rev. Jeffress.  Rev. Jeffress also asserts that President Trump has been “called by God” and because of that he has no need to “stop and answer [his] critics.”
However, this is not how God set up the monarchy in Israel. As it happens, the monarchy was always subject to the “critics” that we call prophets. In Deuteronomy, God makes it clear that the King of Israel was obligated to listen to prophets: “I myself will hold accountable anyone who doesn't listen to my words, which that prophet will speak in my name. (Deu 18:19 CEB)” The King was not to listen to “prophets” who led him and the people away from the Lord, but a true prophet was one who called the King to account. In the book of Jeremiah, one of the great themes is false versus true prophecy. At one point Jeremiah faces another prophet, Hananiah. Hananiah promises peace for Jerusalem; in effect, he promises that the king will “make Israel great again.” Jeremiah’s response is this:
5 Then the prophet Jeremiah spoke to the prophet Hananiah in the presence of the priests and all the people who were standing in the house of the LORD;  6 and the prophet Jeremiah said, "Amen! May the LORD do so; may the LORD fulfill the words that you have prophesied, and bring back to this place from Babylon the vessels of the house of the LORD, and all the exiles.  7 But listen now to this word that I speak in your hearing and in the hearing of all the people.  8 The prophets who preceded you and me from ancient times prophesied war, famine, and pestilence against many countries and great kingdoms.  9 As for the prophet who prophesies peace, when the word of that prophet comes true, then it will be known that the LORD has truly sent the prophet."
 (Jer 28:5-9 NRS)
Jeremiah also prophesied the death of Hananiah. That prophesy was fulfilled, despite the fact that Jeremiah was the one who was thrown into the pit by the King.
Does Donald Trump listen seriously to Godly men and women who oppose him? Or does he, in essence, throw them into the pit when they speak words that he does not want to hear?
Rev. Jeffress tells the President that “the true measure of a leader is what it takes to stop him.” This may be true if what we call effective leadership is someone who got done what he/she wanted to get done. However, there have been many “effective” leaders who have not been on the side of God – at least from my perspective. Herod was an effective leader. Hitler, Stalin, Osama bin Laden – all effective leaders who were difficult to stop. According to Deuteronomy, the ideal king is one who does not seek riches or exalt himself over others in the community but studies diligently in order to teach the people the righteous ways of God.
16 Even so, he must not acquire many horses for himself, or return the people to Egypt in order to acquire more horses, since the LORD has said to you, "You must never return that way again."  17 And he must not acquire many wives for himself, or else his heart will turn away; also silver and gold he must not acquire in great quantity for himself.  18 When he has taken the throne of his kingdom, he shall have a copy of this law written for him in the presence of the levitical priests.  19 It shall remain with him and he shall read in it all the days of his life, so that he may learn to fear the LORD his God, diligently observing all the words of this law and these statutes,  20 neither exalting himself above other members of the community nor turning aside from the commandment, either to the right or to the left, so that he and his descendants may reign long over his kingdom in Israel.
 (Deu 17:16-20 NRS)
Well, President Trump is not a king (though he seems to think he is one at times) so perhaps this should not apply.
In the New Testament, Jesus says this:
Whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave;  28 just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many."
 (Mat 20:27-28 NRS)
This would have been a good scripture to use for President Trump as a reminder.
Finally, Rev. Jeffress does remind the President that he only has to call on God for God to give help. However, when President Trump chants, “Make America great again!” I don’t have the impression that he understands great in the way that Jesus would.
If you want to know what Jesus would consider great, re-read the Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. He says things like, “Pray for those who persecute you.” (I am not mentioning the teaching on divorce!)
So how does all of this relate to being against the building of a wall? From a Christian point of view, building a wall is simply not consistent with being the kind of neighbor exemplified by the Samaritan (Luke 10:29-37). It is not consistent with shining our light for all to see. It is not consistent with an attitude of welcoming the stranger, one of the most consistent commands in the Old Testament. I acknowledge that we are not all Christian in this country, and, in fact, would argue that this is not a “Christian” nation and shouldn’t be seen as such. However, that said, I do believe that Christians in this country have the responsibility to live out our faith in the public arena. Even if that gets us in trouble.
So, if you are a Christian who places him/herself under the authority of scripture, even if you don’t agree with the historical, political, and economic reasons for opposing a wall and think that building a wall will contribute to making America great again, I would argue that you have to oppose it on religious grounds.
If you choose to comment on this, I respectfully ask that you please keep comments civil and debate me on my reasoning, not on my character.