The Best Way to “Stand Up” For Jesus: Revisiting Romans

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Just in case you are one of those incredibly wonderful people who has been living on a remote island without technology lately or who has the metaphorical equivalent of their head in the sand, there is a pretty massive culture war going on regarding homosexuality and its place in our society.

It all started about 30 years ago but the Gettysburg was just recently won when the Supreme Court finally decided to allow homosexuals to marry.  This means that if you are an evangelical, conservative, Republican, Fox News watching, straight, middle class white American your side lost the battle.

And like most sides who lose major battles, it has made that demographic angry, resentful, bitter but most of all desperate.  Also, like most wars, the two sides have wanted to do anything possible to win.  The so called “bible believing” Christians have shown themselves more than willing to tell lies (a violation of one of the 10 commandments) to gossip and slander (repeatedly forbidden throughout Scripture) to ignore certain parts of Scripture and to sin in their anger.  More than that the sun has now set about 100 times since the Supreme Court’s decision and they are still angry.

They feel justified in all this because, as they put it, “we need to take a stand for the Lord and not let ‘them’ win.”  This apparently justifies violating all of God’s commandments in order to get others to follow one prohibition repeated only about 4 times in the Bible.

Their go to text has been Romans 1 where the Apostle Paul seems to be the most ardent about homosexuality.  Not surprisingly, even my non Christian friends who have never opened a Bible in their lives can give me a rough outline of it.

The premise drawn from Romans 1 (and I would encourage you to actually go read it here) is that if we allow homosexual behavior to become “normalized” then God will destroy us, and probably enjoy doing it.

The desired result is that us good, Bible believing (or ignoring) Christians should boycott the goods of any company who disagrees with us.  We should gossip and slander anybody who is not on our side.  We should excommunicate those Christians who believe differently than us and, of course, we should not vote for politicians who seem to be even wavering on the issue.

Interestingly, none of these are biblical practices.  Actually, I have done some research lately and found the idea of boycott is not even mentioned in Scripture.  Never in Scripture are we commanded not to make cakes, process paperwork, bank with or buy goods from people who sin differently than us.  In fact Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 addresses those who are refusing to buy meat from idolaters.  He tells them to go ahead and purchase and eat freely, even if the owner of the shop sacrificed the meat to idols.  Some Christians today would have burned all copies of 1st Corinthians for that one suggestion.

Those Christians, of course, have never read Romans 2 or 3 or 4 or all the way until chapter 12.  I don’t even think they have read to the end of chapter 1 where Paul describes “them” as, “Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters,[f] insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, 31 foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless.”  There are 17 adjectives there and to my count 13 of them describe conservative Christianity”

More than that, this list ends a long tyrant against “them.”  In the NRSV translation there are over 20 instances of “them” and “their” between Romans 1:18 and Romans 1:32.  Clearly this passage is not about “us.”  That is, until we reach Romans 2:1 where Paul suddenly swaps the pronoun on the poor Roman Christians by declaring, “Therefore YOU are without excuse.”

It is one the most shocking turns in all of Scripture.  Anybody reading this for the first time would be completely caught off guard by Paul suddenly turning on us after decrying all the “thems.”

Paul goes onto explain that we are actually the hateful, insolent, slandering gossips who are under the wrath of God and then concludes in Romans 3:23, “all have sinned and fallen short of giving God the glory that God is due” (my translation).

But don’t worry because in Romans the answers to God’s wrath is not destruction or punishment or even discipline.  It is love.  While we were yet weak, unable to save ourselves, completely cut off from God and experiencing the consequences of our idolatry, Jesus died for us. (see Romans 5:6-8).

Then we hit Romans 12 where the letter comes full circle.  Just as all of our minds were darkened when we worshiped the creation over the creator, Paul now explains that our minds can be enlightened, renewed, restored.  So Paul pleads with the Romans and with us to offer ourselves (not “them” selves but “our” selves) as living sacrifices so that God can renew our hearts and minds.  Then Paul spends 3 chapters talking about what a mind renewed by the grace of God looks like.

A mind renewed looks like love without hypocrisy.  It looks like owing nothing to anybody except love to everybody.  It looks like showing hospitality to strangers (i.e. those who are not “us”, i.e. those who sin differently than “us).

It looks like blessing those who persecute us, blessing them without cursing.  It looks like feeding our enemies (maybe even making cakes for their weddings) and clothing the naked.  It looks like submitting ourselves to everybody, especially authorities and even those who misuse their authority.

If you want to “stand up” for Jesus in these bizarre and changing times, the best way to do that is not boycotting, slandering, gossiping or returning evil for evil but to live your life by the precepts of Romans 12-15.  When we bake cakes for those who sin differently than us we are showering the love of God down upon the heads of those who have not yet received and accepted grace.  When we enter into polite conversation with them at grocery stores we are showing them an engaging God who is seeking the lost.  Heck, we might even try letting them use our buildings.  What better way to start a conversation with them!  We don’t do any of this in the hopes that “they” will become “us” but that all of us may become more like Christ.

So please stand up for Jesus.  Do not be ashamed.  Do not back down from loving everybody.  Do not shy away from embracing those different than you.  Do not stop trying to love without hypocrisy, (which is a Greek word meaning hyper judgmental).  Do not stop showing honor and service to everybody you meet.

Or at the very least please stop re-posting all those ridiculous and hurtful articles, memes and posts.  You have to start somewhere after all.

Why The Church Scares Me Half To Death

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Have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met?  They said the right thing at the right time.  They told the funniest jokes but with appropriate tact.  They dressed in the most fashionable ways and liked all the right hobbies.  Compliments poured out of their mouth at every turn and they even volunteered at orphanages and animal shelters.

Then you met their spouse.  .  .who was all right but less than awesome.  But you figured, I will hang out with the spouse if it means getting to know this incredible person all the more.

That is kind of like how it is with Christ and the Church.

But then again, have you ever met someone that was instantly the most awesome person you ever met and then you met their spouse and their spouse was the meanest, most cruel, vindictive person ever?  They regularly drove away well meaning people.  They hated everybody who wasn’t them?  They held extremely controversial political views that they were willing to share, more like yell, at everybody they met?  And then as you got to know them you discovered they moonlighted as a hooker on the weekend, selling their body and soul to the highest bidder?

That is actually how it is with Christ and the Church.

I love Jesus.  I just spent a couple of months getting to know Jesus more in the Gospel of Mark and I am planning on spending the next couple months getting to know the Risen Jesus in the last chapters of all four gospels.  I want to hang out with Jesus.  I want to love Jesus more and be more like this awesome God who has found me in empty tombs and on roads to Emmaus and hilltops in Galilee.

But Jesus’ bride, the church, scares me half to death.

Last week as I journeyed with Jesus to the cross, a professor was terminated at one of our institutions.  This professor was often called Dr. Love as he has written some of the best works out there on theologies and philosophies of love.  He also holds controversial philosophical views, views that I value but ultimately disagree with.  Since the university hired him, there has been a growing group of reformed fundamentalists who have issued all kinds of threats to the university for having him on faculty.

According to official announcements the threats to the university had nothing to do with the termination.  Instead the university needed more money for capitol improvements and marketing.  If I take that announcement at face value, which many are not, it is still quite troubling.  Our university cares more about buildings and raising money than we do about quality professors.

This flows out of a trend in all universities (public and private) to turn higher education into a glorified pyramid scheme.  Over the last 30 years higher education tuition has skyrocketed, fundraising has never been easier and professional sports have poured millions into the coffers.  All this time, faculty wages have remained flat while administrative costs (buildings and executive positions) have skyrocketed.  It seems like higher ed is now a market that raises money so that it can raise money so that it can hire people to raise more money.  As a whole the market has forgotten it is there to educate students, not to raise money and build bigger buildings and win football games.

Our private Christian universities have learned that the best fundraising strategy is to claim that we are not as heartless as the secular universities.  We care about our students.  We focus on giving them quality education.  We like our low student to faculty ratios.  And yet here we are, eliminating faculty to increase our pyramid scheme.

To make it worse, the professor was notified while on vacation in Hawaii.  My father works for a failing technology company who has had scores and scores of layoffs in the last ten years.  In my father’s very dark, somber work place, everybody is afraid to take vacations because they are afraid that the minute they leave town, they will be axed.  I used to take great comfort that at least we respected each other, even our enemies, enough that the church would never do that.  Now I am afraid to take a vacation.

And this latest flare up in the church is only one in a long line.  At another institution, a chaplain was demoted one week, suspended the next.** The spark that lit that fire was a very humble sermon asking people to think about their love for a very violent movie in light of Jesus’ call to peace.  What scares me is that it was a sermon I very well could have preached.

Right before that a friend of mine was forced to resign his pastorate because he asked hard questions about the role patriotism plays in our worship.

Before that a friend of mine was forced to leave our denomination in Wyoming due to ideological differences concerning women in ministry.

Before that another friend was driven out not for any particular ideological “flaw” but just because he was a student of our university and seminary so it was assumed there must be an ideological flaw.

Before that another friend was forced out due to ideological differences with district leadership.

I do not know the full stories in any of these situations, but I do know my friends.  Even if they did make one or two lousy judgment calls (which I am sure some of them did) grace means we should not banish them from our communities.

And all of this makes me wonder, am I next?  It seems like in the Church of the Nazarene, my kind is being killed off quite vehemently.  When will the church’s violent and vindictive sword find me?  What honest mistake or ideological view will it be?  And what will be the price for my family, for my friends, for my soul?

The Church of the Nazarene started as a big tent church.  Every line in our early Manuals was a testament to our willingness to debate, dialog and compromise when needed.  We have always loved and welcomed conservative fundamentalists and progressive liberals.  We have been proud that both could worship under the same tent and engage in fierce but loving dialog with those who think differently.  This means, I have several friends who are very conservative and slightly fundamentalist and I love them and rejoice they are a part of this denomination.  I value their input and opinions and want them to stick around because I love them.

But when members of the conservative fundamentalist group suddenly turn violent and vindictive and start waging ideological wars against those who think differently from them and when they score huge victories through sacrificing the careers and livelihoods of my dear friends I fear for my life.

This isn’t new.  In fact, I remember that one day I was awake in church history class and learned that in the early 17th century, the Calvinists, threatened by Arminian views, banished and executed any followers of Jacob Arminius.  I find hope that it didn’t work because there are still faithful Arminians around today.  Moreover, this event was one skirmish in the middle of centuries of Christians actually killing each other over silly ideological differences.  And I even guess that the fact that today we are just terminating positions and not people is a sign of progress.

Or maybe I am just looking for a bit of that Resurrection hope that says if ever the church should decide it needs my blood displayed on a cross for all to see, at least my Savior hung there first and at least there is the glory of an empty tomb waiting for those whom the mob lynches.

**(I previously wrote that the chaplain above had been terminated, i.e. relieved of all positions, but have since learned he retained his chaplaincy.  I apologize for the mixup.  I thought I had that on good authority.)

Beyond The Talking Points: Of Mayors and Subpoenas

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Before I launch into today’s topic, I want to issue an apology for not posting anything for two weeks.  Last week I was at a retreat in the mountains, learning about discipleship and becoming a better disciple.  The week before that I hosted a High School Cross Country meet that sucked away most of my time.

But I thought I would venture back into the blogging world by discussing the latest culture war to flit across my computer screen.  This one is about as juicy as they come, involving liberal mayors, conservative pastors, the ongoing homosexuality debate, subpoenas, petitions and a very bitter, yet delighted mob of Christians.

What happened in Houston, or rather is happening, is nebulous at best.  Even the bipartisan articles (like Snopes) are being accused of bias.  Many conservative Christians, riled up by a FoxNews COMMENTARY (not article), are jumping up and saying, “Yes!  We told you so!  We were right and we love being right!  And finally, someone is persecuting us!”  Although nobody really is persecuting us quite yet.

Meanwhile Houston stations and papers are trying to set the record straight.  But the problem is that the record is so complicated that setting it straight is impossible.  In fact, this situation is so entangled, curvy, and bent that to set it straight would be to deny the complexity of the world around us.

But first let me try to state the facts, as I have pieced them together.

First, Houston tried to pass a law that enforced non discrimination (especially against homosexuals).  This law exempted churches but not businesses that are run by Christians.

Second, many Houston churches and their pastors protested the bill and got 50,000 signatures on a petition to stop it from being signed into law.

Third, the city rejected the petition because it argued over half the signatures were acquired under false pretenses (which I think means the churches lied to people about what the bill actually said).

Fourth, the pastors filed a lawsuit AGAINST the city saying the signatures were valid.

Fifth, the city, in defending themselves against the lawsuit, did what everybody in a lawsuit does:  They subpoenaed everything the judge would allow them to, including sermons pertaining to the issue.

I want to put an aside here to say that if my church sued our city over something as banal as property usage, I would fully expect the city to subpoena any manuscripts or recordings of sermons or announcements pertaining to the lawsuit.  That is just how lawsuits work.

Sixth, Fox News published a commentary that made it sound as if the subpoenas were filed in offense (not defense).

Seventh, most conservative Christians were overjoyed and angry at the same time and posted the link everywhere with a gleeful “I told you so!”

Eighth, I read the Fox News commentary myself and was almost fooled by it until the last few paragraphs were suddenly an angry and hasty call to action with a hearty “I Told You So.”  So I decided to ignore the situation.

Eighth, a very prominent leader on my district whom I love and trust, saw the Fox News article, was fooled by it and emailed it to all the pastors, meaning my efforts to ignore it were thwarted.

So how should a devout, committed and sane Christian respond to all this.

I have zero idea.

But here is what I did.  I sunk my head in despair at the foolishness of it all.  I shook my fist and screamed in the air at the stupidity of those in my own faith tradition.  I tried to post articles that helped Christians understand the messiness of the situation, only to realize that most Christians have zero understanding of the American legal system, nor do they want to understand it.  They just want something to be mad at.  It is how they seemingly entertain themselves.

I shook my fist in the air again.  Then I went looking for someone in real life to argue this with, armed with all the facts, only to realize that even the best arguments would not stand against the invincible ignorance of my Christian siblings.  Instead it would only increase the aggravation and break down Christian unity.

I slammed my fist against the wall.  Then I started practicing what my response would be if someone brought this up on Sunday morning during worship, only to conclude any response other than, “yeah, okay” would violate my principles as a loving pastor.

I hung my head in despair again and prayed for the church.  I begged God to forgive us for our misinformed rage and our eagerness to break all of the commandments (like, “thou shalt not lie”) just to get our nation to litigate an obscure command in Leviticus.

Then I felt better and took a deep breath, reminded myself that Christians have been stupid for 2000+ years and yet the Holy Spirit has continued to do wondrous things through the church despite its very broken sinfulness.

Finally, I sat down to write this blog in the hopes of reminding my readership of two things:

1) The world is incredibly complex.  To boil a situation like the one in Houston down to words like, “persecution” and “right” and “wrong” is to engage in the sinful practice of lying and manipulating.

2) Despite how incredibly stupid and bitter the vocal Christians are, the Holy Spirit’s work continues unhindered.  We serve a big God who covers the multitude of our sins.

So take hope my friends for our God is much bigger than us!