Helping the Poor Isn’t Biblical. . .But Serving Them Is!

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I spent five years of my ministry among the poor.  The first three were as an authority figure in a homeless shelter.  The next two were as a rural pastor in one of the poorer counties in the country.  It was with weeping but with a deep sense of calling that I left those settings to move to a wealthy suburb to pastor mostly wealthy people where I have now been for two years.

It will come as no surprise to any of you that the number one thing I have learned is that the wealthy are clueless when it comes to poverty.  And it isn’t their fault.  Our society is built to separate the poor from the rich at every level.  Our culture has named politicians who do not know the poor as our poverty experts.  Our TV shows, novels, movies and songs all confirm our deepest stereotypes about poor people.  We have been brainwashed to believe on a very deep level that the poor are worthless sinners.

We are taught that those with money  are perfect in every way.  Those without money are flawed.  The “have’s” are godly.  The “have-nots” are worthless.  The rich are smart.  The poor are dumb.  The wealthy work really hard.  The poor are lazy.  Even if we consciously know this to be untrue, we (and yes, even I) still act in ways that show we do believe it.

As long as we don’t know the names of the poor, it is easy to continue to believe these things.  One of the great ironies of our hypocrisy is that we claim to know everything about the poverty but very few of us can even tell you their names and the names of their children and their favorite ice cream and sporting team!

In the last few decades, the Evangelical church has discovered a very clever way of baptizing this ignorance.  We have very casually changed one of Scripture’s most important words.  Scripture tells us to “serve the poor.”  We have interpreted that as “help the poor.”  Over the last couple weeks I have done a survey of Scripture’s most prominent poverty passages and books (The Good Samaritan, James 1, Joel, Hosea, Job etc.) and have discovered that “help” is not there nor is it implied.  But through that little four letter word “help” a lot of evil has entered into our thinking and tainted our otherwise loving acts of service.

The word “help” implies I am the rescuer.  It means I am here to save you.  The word “help” confirms our biased suspicions that I have IT all together and you have none of IT together.  I am the knight on the white steed.  You are the damsel in distress.  I am worthwhile and you are worthless.  Lucky for you God sent me here to show you how to be like me.

With that thinking in mind, it is not surprising that there are tons of books on “helping” the poor.  Ironically, all those books begin with telling us that Jesus was wrong.  The first chapters of those books explain that “We know that Jesus said, ‘Give to everybody who asks of you’ but God surely wouldn’t want you to do that.  What if they spend the money on drugs?  What if they waste your gift?  You don’t want YOUR money going to drugs do you?  We know Jesus said God shows kindness to the wicked (Luke 6:35) and gives rain to the just and the unjust (Matthew 6:45) but you shouldn’t do that.  What if they ruin your rain or take advantage of you?  Jesus doesn’t want you to be taken advantage of.  It’s not like he was taken advantage of and crucified or anything!  So Jesus was wrong and we wrote our book to tell you the true way that God wants you to ‘help the poor.’  Step 1: Ignore everything Jesus said.”

Then they go on to talk about “tough love” which is neither patient nor kind nor biblical.  But it turns the impoverished poor people into responsible, white, American capitalist citizens!

The problem with “tough love” is that it doesn’t come from Scripture but from Darwinism, and a very archaic Darwinism at that.  It comes from the idea that only the fit and the strong survive.  So it is my job to help you become fit so that you can survive.   I have to be tough because the theory of evolution only chooses the tough!  So I can save you by teaching you to save yourself so that we can continue thriving and evolving.

That ancient form of Darwinism isn’t even alive in science any more but we have sure preserved it in the church. And it is not Biblical.  In Scripture the fit do not survive.  They perish.  The righteous and the faithful, those who call on the name of the Lord survive and thrive.  The crucified criminals are saved.  The poor and the down and the out and the beggar at Lazarus’ gate survive and thrive.  The wealthy, the fit, the pretty only are saved as they empty themselves of all but love and admit their own horrific sinfulness and wretchedness and fall on the throne of grace.  Of course, that is how the poor are saved as well but it is so much easier for them to do.

We do not help the poor.  But we do serve them.  We do wash their feet.  We do associate with them (Romans 12:16).

And we do this as a means of allowing God to help us and to save us from our pride and our arrogance and our wretchedness.

So what’s the difference between helping and serving?  Let me give a few examples:

Helping says, “Can I tell you why what you are doing is wrong?”

Serving says, “What do you need me to do for you today?”

Helping lectures.

Serving listens.

Helping gives money to a local service organization.

Serving spends money to take the poor out to eat.

Helping invites them to your self help event, or easier still, just gives them a self help book.

Serving enters their home and laughs with them around a dinner table.

Helping gives them a list of criteria by which they can be accepted.

Serving accepts and associates with them regardless.

Helping tells them your personal success story as if it could be easily replicated.

Serving tells them about this gracious God who gives to all who ask.

And finally,

Helping doesn’t care about their name.

Serving learns their name.

In closing here is a quote from Soong Chan Rah’s book “Prophetic Lament” which helps me incredibly as I try to purify myself from my suburban wretchedness and associate anew with the lowly:

I was listening to the speaker before me when he dropped this little gem: “It’s not about a handout, but a hand up.”  Actually it’s not about either.  A handout means you think you are better than me and you’re handing me something.  A hand up means you think you’re better than me and you’re trying to lift me up from a bad place to your wonderful place.  Actually if it’s a choice, I would rather have the hand out.  If you’re going to be condescending, I might as well get a direct benefit out of it instead of being told I need to become like you.  Forget the handout or the hand up.  Just reach a hand across.  Let’s be equals and partners.  I don’t need you to rescue me, just like you don’t think you need rescuing by me.  My rescuer is a Jewish carpenter.”

The True Problem With “Legalism”

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I am a pastor in a holiness denomination, maybe THE holiness denomination.  We were the largest and most successful grouping of churches to arise out of the 19th century Holiness Movement and our favorite hymn “Holiness Unto the Lord” is truly our watchword and song.  I find myself talking and thinking about holiness a lot, a lot more than, say, my reformed siblings.

One of the things I find myself pondering as I think about our watchword and song is that nasty four letter word, “legalism.”  The word is used so much by so many Christians these days that I am not sure it means anything any more other than, “bad Christian.”  With that said, it originally referred to a short lived period of US church history where the ethics of various denominations became fundamental.  In college I learned it was my generation’s job to repent of that time and help lead the denomination in a new direction, but not so much that we turn to another four letter word “antinomianism” or lawlessness.

A fascinating side note in all of this is that in the “Legalism Era” other Christian denominations were just as legalistic as we were.  Today, many of them still are if not more so.  I often wonder how the Baptists, who often don’t seem to have any theology of holiness at all, still throw people out of their churches for things like playing Magic: The Gathering or reading Harry Potter.  All that to say at least legalistic Nazarenes have an excuse and a theology that pushes us towards legalism.  After all we are not the ones saying, “everybody sins every day in thought, word and deed” and then throwing people out of our churches for sinning every day.

Thinking beyond that interesting side note, I often wonder what the real problem with “legalism” is.  I really don’t think it is having a biblically based, church established ethic.  Every social gathering ever known to humanity has had an established ethic.  It is what makes communities possible.  For example, I recently ran past a Yacht Club who seems desperate for new members and is advertising heavily in our community.  Desperate though they are, if you don’t buy a new yacht they still won’t let you join!  Are they legalistic or do they just not want their yacht club to turn into a “whatever vehicle suits your fancy club?”

I think our problem isn’t really that we enforce and hold ourselves to a biblical ethic.  I think the problem with legalism is the age old problem of treating good advice as if it was biblical mandate.  I think as we try to be a holiness people in the world, we hit several gray areas, times when a simple yes or no doesn’t seem to suffice.  In those areas we survey all our options, pray and come up with some good advice about what might be the best way to act in that situation.  Many times we are right.  But then we begin to apply that advice to others as if this is the only absolute right thing to ever do.  Then we practically force others to follow suit or else we begin talking and thinking about them as “lesser Christians” not because they won’t follow the commands of the Bible, but because they won’t listen to our obviously good advice.

To further explain what I mean I want to think through 2 case studies.

The first is the “Focus on the Family” parenting and family advice.  In 1977 a Nazarene psychologist named James Dobson began “Focus on the Family” as a way of helping parents raise better children.  Dobson was and still is a very accomplished psychologist and for the most part did an okay job at fusing biblical parenting ideals with the 1980s North American culture.  Many parents have read his books, followed his advice and seen great benefits.  It was the kind of awesome thing that can happen when a Christian takes both Scripture and their cultural context seriously.

The problem arises when in 2016 Dobson has a massive group of followers who have turned his good advice into biblical principles.  I personally know several parents who have been driven from their churches because they didn’t agree with Dobson’s advice or just didn’t have time to read his books.  When I talk to some of Dobson’s people they seem to believe that James Dobson’s books should be added to the canon of Scripture and are normative for faith and practice.  If his advice isn’t followed you are considered a bad parent and a horrible Christian.   This is one case where our good advice has supplanted the gospel in the lives of our church.

Another example would be protecting ourselves from false accusations of sexual misconduct.  Unfortunately this has become a major area in clergy education.  I have had to and will again have to sit through many seminars about how to protect myself against accusations.  This is badly needed for our day.  We live in a very anxious and paranoid time and the most harmless of accusations have ended otherwise successful pastors and even closed down a few churches.

The advice in these seminars is extremely valuable.  Don’t be alone in the same room as a child.  Don’t drive a child home alone.  Don’t drive alone in a car with a member of the opposite sex.  Always meet with a member of the opposite gender in public.  When you do have to meet alone in public by all means make sure your spouse knows all the details about it.  I try to live my life by these rules.  It is unfortunate that our society is so judgmental that I have to but I do have to!

But these are not biblical.  Nowhere are any of them even suggested in the Bible.  In the Bible Jesus draws water from a well with an adulteress in the middle of the day when no one is around!

The problem here is that when we tell someone, “well you might be innocent but you were stupid for not following MY advice about how to avoid accusation” we are putting the most judgmental people in control.  And whatever you want to say about the Christian ethic, one of its foundations is “do not judge or you will be judged!”

In fact, the Hebrew word “Satan” literally means the “judger” or “accuser.”  When we falsely accuse people and then declare them innocent of the crime but guilty for making yourself susceptible to accusation, we are basically telling the Satans in our church, “you can have free reign!”  We are literally handing the keys to our kingdoms over to Satan.

So follow good advice.  Do the hard work of deliberating about what is best in any given situation.  Pray for discernment always and often.  But don’t punish those who do not follow your good advice and by all means do not hand the keys of the gospel over to the most judgmental, accusatory people in your church.  Instead they need to be reminded that bearing false witness is a crime against the commandments and those who judge may wake up in a very hot, dark place on the other side of death while those who are just ignorant will finds themselves in the arms of mercy.

Why I Like Paul More Than Jesus (And Why That Might Not Be Good)

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I have been reading and studying the book of Acts since right before Easter.  Other than Revelation, Acts stands alone in its uniqueness compared to other New Testament books.  If Revelation is the blond headed step child of the New Testament, than Acts is the tall, dark and handsome eldest child who seems to do everything well.  What I mean by that is Acts isn’t really one genre but it does all the genres.  If you want epistles, you will find them in Acts.  If you want crazy gospel miracle stories you will find them in Acts.  If you wants sermons, Acts has them in plenty.  And if you want apocalyptic visions, Acts even throws a few in there for you.

But it is not just the weird confluence of biblical genres that makes Acts unique.  Also helping Acts stand alone is its main protagonist, the Apostle Paul.   The famous apostle and letter writer is introduced in the 9th chapter, making the previous 8 seem like prologue.  He becomes the main character in the 12th.  From then on out the book is not so much about the Acts of the Apostles or the Acts of the Early Church but the Acts of the Apostle Paul.

With that said up until last month I had not spent much time studying Acts’ portrayal of Paul.  I have read through Paul’s letters hundreds of times.  I have memorized a few of them.  I have led Bible Studies and sermon series through most of them and even claimed some of Paul’s words as my “life verses.”  I absolutely adore the Apostle Paul.  I even thought for some time of becoming a Pauline Scholar.  This dream was undone by a wonderful and blunt mentor who said, “oh, those are a dime a dozen.”

Still I am a Pauline Scholar, just not in the formal academic  sense.

And yet I have never truly read Paul in Acts.

And yet, to no surprise, as I have studied Acts’ Paul this last month I have fallen even more in love.  The Paul in Acts just as attractive as the Paul who wrote to Philipi, Corinth and Ephesus.

Speaking of Ephesus, Paul’s speech to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20 is beautiful, every bit as beautiful as his letters.  I am planning on preaching on it in a couple weeks and excited for that sermon.  So too is Paul in Athens.  He begins his sermon there with a very typical Pauline sarcastic insult and then weaves it into greater truth.

As far as studying the Bible goes, this has been a great month!

But therein lies the problem.  You see, I stand in the now old Protestant tradition who has placed the words of Paul above the words of Jesus.  At first the Protestants claimed “Sola Scriptura.”  Then they began claiming “Sola Paul” and then “Sola Romans.”  In fact I have spoken and read books by several biblical inerrantists who claim that the rest of the Bible has to be true only so that we know that Romans is true.  None of Scripture is formational except Romans.  It just helps us prove Paul knew what Paul was talking about.

At one point several people have even said that nothing Jesus said was binding for us.  Jesus just preached the sermons to show us how hard earning our justification by works was so that we would listen to Paul in Romans.

Under that thinking we shouldn’t love God or our neighbor or our enemies.  We shouldn’t pray in prayer closets.  We definitely shouldn’t mimic the good Samaritan or the prodigal’s father.  Silly Jesus was just letting us know how hard it is so that we wouldn’t do anything he told us to do.

I was raised in this tradition and so it is of no surprise that when Jesus says, “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of the needle than for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 19:24) I laugh it off as silly Jesus just setting us up for failure.  But when Paul says, “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith” (Eph. 2:8) I yell a hearty “amen!”

I am not implying we set up a dichotomy between Paul and Jesus.  Paul words are sacred Scripture and it is because I believe that, that I also truly believe he was following in the very teachings of Jesus and even pleads with his audience to “follow my example as I follow the example of Christ.” (1 Cor. 11:1)

If you read Romans 12-15, you find it is nothing but a sermon about the sermon on the mount.  This comes after all the saved by grace stuff in Romans 5-8 which implies that the saved soul follows Jesus’ teachings, and yes it is not the other way around.  We are not saved by following Jesus’ teachings.  To put it perhaps too simplistically we are saved to follow Jesus’ teachings.

Or to put it another way, true Paul scholars should never minimize the teachings of Jesus, only maximize them in their lives.  A good reading of Paul should cause us to stop, reflect and then flip back a few books to the gospels and read Jesus again.

Speaking of reading Jesus, it is only fitting that I close with these very true words of His from Matthew 5:19: “Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.”

My Honest Evaluation of the Culture of “Honest Evaluation”

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My very first college major was “Business Management.”  I had this pipe dream of one day owning and managing my own publishing company and I figured I would need some business savvy to pursue it.  I only took one year of business classes, which I enjoyed very much.  The next year God had different plans and I changed my major to pastoral ministries.

Then, as fate would have it, I married a brilliant and beautiful business management major who now works in economic development.  My repentance from the idolatry of business was quickly undone!  Be that as it may, I have actually read more books from the business world than she has, especially lately.  The reason for that irony is that there is still an expectation that pastors be half-CEO’s who are knowledgeable of modern movements in the corporate world and can employ them in churches.

Several pastors agree that one of the best modern movements is towards a culture of “genuine feedback.”  This culture creates and maintains the expectation that every person in an organization should be evaluated consistently and sometimes constantly.  Every executive is expected to evaluate their employees and be evaluated by them.  In turn, every employee is to be evaluated by their peers and their executive.  The hope of all this critiquing and judging is that meaningful conversation can occur about strengths and weaknesses and relationships in the organization.  But, ironically, one recent book I read claimed the honest conversations never happened.  (see “Leadership Divided” by Robert Carucci).

Churches adopted similar strategies.  We just used higher sounding terminology to justify it.  Instead of “evaluation” we call it “spiritual accountability.” Instead of “suggestions of improvement” we talk about “opportunities for repentance.”  We couch the whole thing in a “God who expects us to change.”  Don’t let the spiritual words fool you.  In practice it looks the same.  Everybody should have feedback conversations with everybody else.  We create forms and surveys that everybody can fill out about each other.  We are expected to “evaluate” our ministries, our pastors, our board, our lay leaders.  Over time everything about the church becomes fair game for human criticism.  We show up to church with our mental scorecards prepared and we check boxes and circle numbers in our heads, waiting for the moment to share the results with others.

Don’t get me wrong, the feedback culture sounds really good on paper.  For example, consider the scores of “isolated” leaders whose moral and executive failures were the result of an absence of “truth tellers” surrounding them.  They are in the church with just as much frequency as in the business world and they all prove to us that un-evaluated leaders become spectacular failures.  I do believe that one of the ways to “help” them is to criticize them.  That means that one of the ways to help me is to criticize me.  Receiving feedback is a means of grace.  It enables humility and forces us to “not consider ourselves more highly than we ought.”  In fact, I love the Apostle Paul’s words that “when we are cursed, we bless.  When we are persecuted we endure it.  When we are slandered, we answer kindly.”  (1 Cor. 4:12-13)  It would seem even receiving harsh or unfair criticism is an opportunity for spiritual growth.

But still I worry for the spiritual health of the critics.  After all with the expectation that I will be evaluated comes the opposite expectation that I have the power and authority to judge others.  Under this expectation, insulting, slandering and persecuting others becomes my “right.”  All ready we are seeing scores of people in the business world and the church world abusing that power.  I hate to say it but I am sometimes one of the chief abusers.

Coworkers have used peer to peer evaluations to settle personal vendettas.  More disturbingly, managers have too.  And that happens in the church world too.  When the District Superintendant comes to town some parishioners use it as their opportunity to “fill them in” on just how great or lousy this pastor is.  Humorously one parishioner once tried to use the DS visit as an opportunity to complain about my wife.  It did not go well for them but the very fact they felt obligated to “express concerns” to the DS about her shows how out of hand the feedback culture can get.

The feedback culture has a very deep problem of god-making.  Because of the feedback culture we now believe that not only can we evaluate but we get to choose the criteria by which you are evaluated.  This produces feedback that is not rooted in any sort of ethic other than the critic’s own selfishness.  It is the complaints of bathroom use or bad hand writing or ridiculous email etiquette producing lines in the comment section like, “didn’t put toilet paper on roll the right way” or “can’t tell if her I’s are actually P’s” or “You should always put your phone number in every email you send” or “doesn’t text me back soon enough.”

In the church these comments take a slightly different form. Parishioners feel very qualified to say that the pastor’s tie was not tied right (too long, even touched the belt buckle, gasp!) or that the lettuce at a potluck wasn’t chopped correctly or that the lighting in the sanctuary was too dark or the paint colors not welcoming.  They do not realize that Scripture says nothing about sanctuary lighting or chopping lettuce and ties weren’t even invented yet.  But they don’t care because the feedback culture has made them the gods and their made up evaluation form are the new sacred scriptures.

In their thinking the pastor or interior decorator or lettuce chopper is entitled to hear their opinion.  This attitude reveals a very disturbing inner life that has been malformed and misshaped by our “expectation” of feedback.

With that in mind the feedback culture also runs counter to one of our deeply held Christian values, “do not judge or you too will be judged.” (Matt. 7:1)   By applauding the culture of feedback we are giving into the myth that you are the consumer god who deserves to be appeased and to give “honest feedback” when you are not.  But in the real kingdom of God we are not gods.  We are grateful servants who live lives of gratitude, even foolish gratitude.  This gratitude gives thanks for your pastor even when their tie looks absurd.  It thanks God for the lettuce that was chopped all screwy.  And it enters the sanctuary doors with thanksgiving even if it is “too dark.”

I wonder if rediscovering a culture of gratitude might offer a powerful counter to the god-making culture of feedback.  I wonder if our culture of thank you might be a powerful witness to the poor employees who are stuck under the oppression of constant evaluation.  I wonder if our poorly lit and painted sanctuary with absurd pastors and weird lettuce could be safe places for those who need a rest from constant evaluation.

As an experiment I’ll take the first step into that world by saying thank you for reading this today.  Every click I get is a wonderful gift from God and I do believe that.

And if you want, you can leave your evaluation in the comments below.  Just know that I will be blessed when you do, but that you will be cursed 😛

Do Not Judge Lest Ye Be Judged

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About 2/3rds of the way through the best sermon ever preached (the Sermon on the Mount) right after a wonderfully poetic and tiny bit judgmental section about not worrying, Jesus drops this bombshell on us, “Do not judge or you too will be judged!”

That verse peaked in popularity about a decade ago after a crazy 30 year run built off of the Jesus movement.  As the newly baptized hippies were inducted into the membership of the church they reacted strongly against the crazy legalism of their parents and grandparents and held up high the “do not judge” banner.

As evidence of this verse’s crazy popularity, note that it is one of few bible verses where people still quote the King James English (see title above).  I also offer as evidence a remark my awesome adult Sunday School teacher made a few weeks back, “Oh, that verse hasn’t come up in a month or two.  Before that it came up at least once a week for years.”

That was ironic because although that verse saturated my youth I hadn’t thought of it in years.  I had kind of forgot it existed.  But one of the joys of being a pastor is that no matter how deep your intellect takes you into the faith, there will always be that baby Christian ready to pull you back up to the surface with kindergarten questions about who we really should judge and under what circumstances.

That last sentence was not as sarcastic as it probably sounded.  In fact, after my Sunday School teacher reminded me of that verse’s existence, I realized that I did not have an easy answer to the questions and concerns about the tension between judging and tolerating.  It is true that Jesus’ command leaves little room for interpretation.  Studying the grammar of the sentence and the meaning of the words leads one to conclude that Jesus really meant we should not judge each other.  Looking at the context of the passage and the history of 1st century Palestine eliminates even more nuance to the verse.  It literally reads and literally means, “Do not judge or you will be judged!”

However, Jesus said some pretty judgmental things here and there and not just to the religious elite but his own disciples.  After all, it was Peter that he called Satan and 9 of his disciples that he accused of having little faith.  In the actual Sermon on the Mount and only sentences after the “do not judge” command, he calls his entire audience evil (see Matthew 7:11).

Then the apostle Paul, addressing a serious issue in the Corinthian church, offers, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside?” (1 Cor. 5:12).

And don’t get me started about the cranky prophets of the Old Testament who were extremely judgmental, as was the Old Testament God they spoke for.  Though Jesus’ actual sentence and context gives little room for nuance, the rest of Scripture does.

Therefore, while comparing Jesus’ simple statement to the nuances in all of Scripture and the complications in our own contexts, I confess that I really don’t know when it is appropriate to tell someone that they are doing Christianity wrong or when I should just keep my mouth shut and “tolerate” their sinfulness.  In practice, I don’t do it well at all.

However, I do know this, judging people is messy.  It gets really sloppy really fast.  Take for example the church gossip who accuses a young couple of being lousy parents.  Or consider the politician who neglects their children for months on the campaign trail while promoting “family values” and accusing the opponents of being “against family!”  Or look at the Christian celebrity who uses Facebook, which is run by a very liberal executive team, to denounce Starbucks for being “liberal.” If you really were going to boycott the liberals, shouldn’t you start with Facebook?  Or take for one last example the pastor who accuses his church leadership of not praying enough while struggling to carve out adequate prayer time in any given day.  Yes, that pastor has been me.

And yes it is true that Starbucks donates money to causes that make some Christians feel very uncomfortable.  It is also true that the church leaders need to be spending hours a week in prayer and, yes, most young parents I know need all the help they can get and our country needs to relearn some old family values anew.

Yet the people pointing these things out have huge planks in their own eyes.  By opening their mouths they are opening up a very messy can of worms because immediately their life gets the spotlight and that spotlight reveals all kinds of nasty viruses and germs lying under their focus group polished exteriors.  Then the argument becomes, “if they can’t live up to the standards they are promoting, that obviously means I can’t!”  So we all continue our destructive lifestyles, but feeling a little more arrogant about it.

In turns out that Jesus is right.  Judging others is the quickest way to get judged, and not just by God but by every one else.  And when we judge others for being judgmental, like all the hippies did, it makes the mess worse.  Now we are all going around pointing out planks in each other’s eyes and playing a game of “Whose speck is it anyway?”

I have played that game and it is really messy and not all that much fun.

But there is an alternative that isn’t messy.   It is neither judging or tolerating.  Instead it is personal repentance.  Personal repentance is the act of judging yourself.  It is the step of faith that says, “I am the lousy one.  I am the bad parent, the neglectful politician, the lazy pastor, the judgmental gossip.  I am the one in need of a savior who can clean all this junk out of my life.  I am the one who has some things to learn about family values and personal holiness and private piety.  I am the one working on these things because I wish they weren’t there in my life.  And only through the strength of God, I am overcoming them.  My life is the mess and I need the great cleaner.”

The goal of personal repentance is not to somehow keep the judgmental people from judging you or even to judge them back or worse, preemptively judge them.  The goal is to turn your own judging spotlight on yourself before they can.  To go back to the Sermon on the Mount, the goal is to get the plank out of your eye before anybody notices it.  Or at least to acknowledge it before they do, saying, “I have all ready confessed the planks exist in my life and am working on them.”

Whether or not they follow your example is really up to them but at least you found a way through it all.  And that is a lot easier and cleaner than the mess of judging.

 

My First Foray Into Performing the Scriptures: The Sermon on the Mount

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There is a neat trend hitting modern day Christianity where clever interpreters and actors memorize and perform a large portion of Scripture in an engaging way.  You can watch some of these live performances on Youtube.  When done well, they are quite engaging.

A few weeks ago I decided to give this a try with the Sermon on the Mount.  I memorized it and performed a dramatic reenactment of it for my congregation, complete with Powerpoint slides and props for the kids.

I would love to take a week and write a whole book of posts about this experience but I am way too busy and all ready a day behind because yesterday I was in bed with the stomach flu.

However, here are a few things I learned/gained from memorizing and performing the Sermon on the Mount.

First, I learned way more memorizing it than I did studying it.  Last year I spent a few months preaching through the Sermon on the Mount.  I read a few books, looked up a lot of Greek words, realized some Old Testament connections and poured over the structure.  All that was really useful.  However, I learned more memorizing it out loud.  I saw things I would never read in a book.  These were things like subtle transitions, rhetorical devices, tonal changes and sarcasm.

Second, you make 1,000 more interpretive decisions reciting a text than you do preaching it.  When I preach I try to focus on explaining just one or two interpretative moves from the text.  However, when I spent 15 minutes reciting the Sermon on the Mount, I found I made and conveyed over 1,000 interpretive moves.  When does Jesus raise his voice and lower it?  When is Jesus standing or sitting?  What props did Jesus have handy?  Was there a snake in the distance he pointed to?  Did he have a loaf of bread in hand?  When did Jesus’ voice convey sarcasm?  When did it convey compassion?  When was Jesus being ironic?  When was he being solemn?  Then there is the wonderful ending to the sermon when Jesus says the house fell with a crash!  Do you yell “crash!” or whisper it?  What do you do after you say, “crash?”  Do you get up and leave?  Do you issue a call to follow Jesus?  Do you add an “amen” or a “so be it?”  This brings me to.  .  .

Third, I had to work my tail off not to add words.  I do believe the Sermon on the Mount has an internal structure that made sense to 1st century Jews.  I think that structure is something like:

Describing the World as God Has Made It (5:1-5:20)

Commandments for Living Well in God’s World (5:21-7:6)

Various Metaphors Imploring You To Live Well (7:7-8:1)

With that in mind, there are still some really awkward transitions.  I had no idea what to do with the transition from “do not worry” to “do not judge” or from “salt and light” to “I have not come to abolish the law.”  So I found myself adding “and’s” and “but’s” and “oh’s” to help the audience out a bit.  I felt really uncomfortable doing that, like I was adding to “God’s Infallible Word!”  Still, I didn’t know how not to do it.  After all, that is what I would do in any other sermon or even in blog posts.

Fourth, when Jesus says, “if your right hand is causing you to sin, chop it off” he is definitely talking about masturbation.  I read that in a book over a year ago and didn’t believe it.  But after memorizing it in the context of looking lustfully after a woman and after learning a little bit more about those addicted to pornography.  .  .yeah that is exactly what Jesus was talking about.  This brings me to,

Fifth, parts of this sermon are quite mean.  Everybody loves the poetry of the “do not worry” passage but when read out loud it comes off rather insulting.  “Don’t worry about food and clothes!  The pagans run after those things!”  “Who of you by worrying can add one single hour to your life?!”  In another part, Jesus says that anybody who makes promises is evil, taunting them with, “you can’t make one hair on your head white or black!”  Then there are the obvious ones like, “Be perfect!” or “Your righteousness must surpass the Pharisees and the Teachers of the Law!” or “Any man who marries a divorced woman commits adultery!”  It is hard to say this stuff out loud and not sound like a jerk, especially when your congregation is full of guilty addicts, remarried divorcees and gray haired worriers!  Still I should add that my personal favorite is, “if you then, though are evil, know how to give good gifts.  .  .”  Wait, did he just call his entire audience evil?  Yes, yes Jesus did.

Sixth, there are softer parts too.  The aside about settling matters quickly before your adversary takes you to court is just Jesus giving us some good, loving advice.  Out loud, it almost sounds fatherly.  The question, “are you not much more valuable than sparrows?” is full of compassion.  The beatitudes are beautiful.  There are lovely assurances of God’s provision in statements like, “your father knows what you need before you ask” and “ask and you will receive.  Seek and you will find.”

It turns out these are not just descriptions of God but invitations to express our holiness in the way that God does.  The unseen God insists our “acts of righteousness” remain unseen.  The God who forgives sins insists we forgive sinners.  The God who shows mercy insists we be merciful and yes, the God who is perfect insists we be perfect as well.

In closing, this was a very worthwhile practice for me.  My congregation also seemed enjoy it, and not just because I offered a kid a loaf of bread, only to actually throw a rock at him.

Therefore I will definitely do it again, but maybe next time with one of the minor prophets.  That will fill up a sanctuary, only to empty it out just as quickly!

Blessings on your weeks!  May they be full of God’s provision and protection.

A Pastor’s Dilemma: When People Are Wrong on the Internet

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Someone was wrong on the internet this week.

I will let you have a couple moments to calm down from that shocking realization before I tell you who it was.  .  .

It was a wonderful human being with a heart of gold.   They were perusing their feed when they read something they found fascinating.  The title probably made them laugh and they thought they could brighten your day by sharing it.  They were probably in a hurry, having more important things to do than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes.  So in a moment of weakness they forgot to run the article’s title through Google or Snopes before posting it and now it is out there for everyone to see.

And you judged them!  Or chances are you did.  After all, I did.  I read their dumb meme while thinking to myself, “I don’t see anyway on earth that that could be true.”  Because I apparently have nothing better to do with my time than obsess over the facticity of Facebook memes, I took a minute or two or thirty to read the incredibly lengthy Snopes explanation of why this meme is mostly false.

After that I went back to Facebook, with the copied Snopes URL in hand (or in the cloud) ready to prove my superiority over that kindly but naive person who still has not learned to use the internet.

They won in the end on account of being a decent human being, albeit a less informed one.

None of that really happened to me this week but I have done it in days past and I see people doing it all the time.

And yes, we should be careful about what we retweet, repost or rehash for each other.  A lie is a lie no matter what media we share it with.  Yet at the end of the day there are greater sins than being wrong on the internet.  Take for example, the sin of judging people who are wrong on the internet.

In fact the other day I was reading over that Matthew 7 passage about not judging people.  I found that after Jesus’ rather blunt command, (Judge not!) he has a lot of fun with a plank of wood and a speck of sawdust.  I am not quite sure what Jesus would have classified as “plank” and “sawdust” but I am pretty sure being wrong on the internet has more in common with the latter.

Therefore I am trying to get God to heal me of my incessant need to prove my Snopes surfing abilities to all those who are wrong on God’s good internet.

Here are some guidelines that might help us all out with that:

  1. Don’t correct people’s spelling or grammar.  God did not invent the rules of language.  They are not legalistic markers of holiness that when violated give Satan keys to your kingdom.  They are just some silly but important rules we made up in order to communicate well with each other.
  2. Ask yourself if there is a legitimate debate to be had or just points to be scored for your pre-chosen side.  This especially comes into play in political debates.  Most of us are fact checking each other in order to prove our “side” was right all along.  Instead we should be seriously tackling and debating the underlying issues.  Yes, agreement on correct data is important for serious debate.  However, if I am willing to correct your data but not willing to let mine be corrected, than that is sheer arrogance.
  3. Be gentle and private.  If you feel you must really fact check someone, send them a private message.  Or better yet, bring it up with them in a one on one meeting (if people still do those).  It is much better to be rebuked privately than publicly.
  4. Don’t fight invincible ignorance.  In Matthew 7, Jesus adds,  “Don’t give to dogs what is sacred.  Don’t throw pearls to pigs.”  The traditional interpretation of this passage is don’t waste your time and energy arguing or judging those for whom it will do no good.  I am not entirely sure I like that interpretation but I do like another oft quoted maxim.  “Don’t argue with a 3 year old.  In no time at all those watching will not be able to tell the difference.”  Or even better, “Don’t argue with an idiot.  They will drag you down to their level and beat you with their experience.”  No matter how I put it, there is much wisdom in choosing your battles and your opponents very carefully.

In closing. please use discretion and kindness when engaging your fellow internet travelers.

And remember another favorite cliche of mine, “You don’t have to show up to every fight you are invited too.”