Friday, May 11, 2012

When We Are Crumbling Inside

Social media and news networks are buzzing following President Barack Obama's historic statement in support of gay marriage. Passions are high, emotions intense, and battle cries for both sides reverberate around the country. To be completely honest, I had to shut off my computer and walk away yesterday. I'm on "light technology" duty today, meaning that apart from an occasional e-mail check and the writing of this blog post, I'm staying away from Facebook and Twitter.

I can't stand to watch Christians tear each other apart. I can't stand how uncivilized we are behaving. I am appalled by the message we are sending to the world.

In the book Choosing Civility, P.M. Forney offers many rules and suggestions for giving the gift of civility to others. One of those rules is "Don't Speak Ill," which is built off of our human tendency to point out the shortcomings of others. We do this because pointing out what we think ails others is easier and less painful than dealing with our own stuff. But to live in this uncivilized way is to inflict violence on those around us in an effort to spare ourselves. Jesus addresses this in Matthew 7:4-5. He says, "Or how can you say to your neighbor, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye."

The church in the United States is crumbling from within. Our numbers are declining. Our buildings are deteriorating. Many congregations can no longer afford full-time pastors. In-fighting, disagreements, and straight-up apathy for the good news of Jesus is killing congregations. And we focus on gay marriage as we are falling apart? We picket, lobby, and speak forcefully to try and get the United States to govern by the assertions of one segment of society. We rally around those who speak eloquently and unashamedly because we feel safety when we are surrounded by those with like opinions.

I'm not going to do it. I'm not going to give in to the frenzy and be swept up by the largest distraction to come across the American church's radar in many years. Instead, I want my focus to be on things like this:

*49.1 million people in the United States are living in poverty

"How does God's love abide in anyone who has the world's goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." -- 
1 John 3:17-18

*Bullied teenagers in America take their own lives because they see no way out

"Speak out for those who cannot speak, for the rights of all the destitute. Speak out, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy." -- Proverbs 31:8-9

*34 million people are living with AIDS

"'I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me'...and the king will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.'" -- Matthew 25:36, 40

*1 in 4 girls are sexually abused by the age of 18

"If any of you put a stumbling block before one  of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea." -- Matthew 18:6

*There are over 123,000 orphans in the United States alone

"Learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." --Isaiah 1:17

*Body image disorders are on the rise in teens

"For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made..." -- Psalm 139:13-14a

*Many people feel unlovable

"For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life." -- John 3:16

*48 million Americans are food-insecure

"When you reap your harvest in your field and forget a sheaf in the field, you shall not go back to get it; it shall be left for the alien, the orphan, and the widow, so that the Lord your God may bless you in all your undertakings." -- Deuteronomy 24:19

*1 in 6 people in the world lack clean drinking water

"Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and you that have no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price." -- Isaiah 55:1

On that day when Christ returns in his glory, I highly doubt the first question on his lips will be, "Did you lobby in support of Amendment 1?" The church is not crumbling because of American legislation for or against gay marriage. It is crumbling because we have forgotten our fundamental calling to be the hands and feet of Christ in a broken and fallen world so loved by God. Rather than casting stones at others, let's take a deep look at ourselves. Where is our passion for God's good news? How are we serving? Are we giving and living generously? Who are we waking alongside? Whose needs are we meeting?

God promises that God's Word will not return void. So, let's get out there and share it - by our words, and especially by our deeds.

Friday, March 16, 2012

It isn't enough to define who you're not

This past week I read several blog posts that were born out of an "evangelical renaissance" of sorts. Many evangelical Christians have sought to fight the decline of the traditional Christian church by returning to stringent stances. Groups have been formed, blog wars waged, names called, lines drawn. I will not get into the specifics of the stances these groups espouse, but I have noticed a trend in the communications I've read and heard.

Nearly 100% of what I've read rails against what these groups do not believe. Thousands of words have been typed, countless sermons preached, hundreds of emails exchanged on the topic of what Christians should not believe. The rhetoric is strong, winsome, and backed up with a hodge-podge of Scripture verses yanked from their contexts. Their reach is far, and their message broadcast widely. And, that's all well and good. My intention is not to dismiss the work of these groups entirely,  or to call them all flawed or sinful. I am sure that many have been ministered to by these groups, people have been brought to faith, and churches have been started by these groups. I celebrate along with them the places where God's kingdom has been visible on earth through their work. With all of that said, I think that their tactics have an unintended consequence that ought to serve as a warning to the rest of us.

Defining yourself based only on what you do not believe is completely and totally weak. It is unhelpful. It says to anyone who disagrees with you that you have no desire for conversation, understanding, mutual up-building. It claims sovereign rights to what constitutes the truth, and it alienates anyone with a different way of thinking. When a person's credal statement is made up only of what the person does not believe, it is reactionary. The group only exists because of opposition, and without opposition, the group has no staying power.

Take the Apostle Paul as an example.  In the lengthy introductions Paul writes in his letters, he quite often begins by sharing his own credentials, beliefs, and points that are important to him. As merely one example, in Romans 1 Paul describes himself as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God. We gain insight into his beliefs regarding the importance of the prophetic writings and Jesus' fulfillment of those prophecies. Paul confesses faith in the death and resurrection of Christ, and also in the call to bring the good news of Jesus to the Gentiles. We read what  Paul is for, what he is about, why he is writing, who he is. Yes, Paul later opens up conversations regarding schisms, heresies, and deviations from the Gospel, but this is not his starting point. Paul's faith has staying power. It is not a reactive faith; it is a proactive one. Paul's faith has staying power because it is truth, steadfast and immovable.

Instead, let's define our faith by what we do believe. Let's search the Scriptures, pray, and seek God's guidance. We can and should speak out against things that are unjust, and things that are contrary to God's Word. As it concerns points of doctrine and theology, Christians should have conversations. These are not matters to plaster all over the internet.

A few remaining thoughts in bullet points:

1)  Defining yourself in opposition to others is an angry and reactive way to live.

2) Defining yourself in opposition to others makes conversation and reconciliation with those who believe differently impossible.

3) Defining yourself in opposition to others is a sure-fire way to get the other person to stop listening.

4) Defining yourself in opposition to others is grace-less. My beliefs have grown, changed and developed over time. I am ashamed and embarrassed by how quickly I judged others before knowing the foundations of their beliefs...especially now that I believe many of the things I used to condemn.

5) Defining yourself in opposition to others makes everything a battle. As a parent, I know well the importance of choosing my battles. I cannot possibly tackle every little thing my kids do that frustrate me, irritate me, or bother me in some way. There are issues of character that cannot be ignored, values that need to be instilled. But is it worth waging war if my child wants the purple unicorn Pillow Pet rather than something more basic? Should I waste away in anger and bitterness if my children do not share my personal preferences for music, fashion, or hobbies? To be sure, there are battles worth fighting, but for reactionary groups, every difference is a battle to fight.

6) Defining yourself in opposition to others is only possible when you surround yourself with like-minded people who will continually stroke and inflate your ego. I would vastly prefer to accept my brothers and sisters in their differences and be part of a community that may not always agree on every jot and tittle, but comes together in the worship and service of Christ.

7) Defining yourself in opposition to others has no staying power. When the group you oppose ceases to exist, so do you. Think about it. If you exist to oppose others, you cease to exist when the opposition does.

Jesus said, "Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God" (Matt. 5:9). My prayer is that God would use me as a peacemaker. So many battles that are being waged in the church are over adiaphora (non-essentials), and someone I spoke with today actually said to me, "It is this petty arguing that drove me away from the church altogether." I was heartbroken to hear that, but I know her experience is not alien to many. May God make us - God's children - instruments of peace in this world rather than weapons of war, and may we have the strength to weather our differences. I believe we'll be stronger for it.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

You keep using that word...

I don't normally stick my nose into issues of politics, but here goes...

This past week Sandra  Fluke, a Georgetown Law student, advocated that women should have access to contraceptives. She stood up in front of a panel filled with many men, and she shared her opinion. Sharing her beliefs took courage. Women's reproductive health care and the issues surrounding the best ways to provide it have long been topics of heated discussion. The issues are polarizing, and it can be embarrassing for women to discuss reproductive health concerns - especially in mixed company.

Rush Limbaugh heard that Sandra Fluke spoke her mind, and he called her a "slut" and a "prostitute." When confronted by others for his usage of these words, rather than apologize, Limbaugh used the words again and again when referring to Fluke. I'm not sure what Rush Limbaugh means when he uses those words, but I am certain that he does not mean by them what he thinks he means by them.

When I was 16 years old, I was trying to make my way in a new high school. My family had recently moved, and as I tried to integrate into my sophomore year in a new environment, I found myself on the receiving end of hurtful words and actions. I won't call it bullying because that is a different issue, and I do not want to take away from the point I'm hoping to make here. I remember coming out of the girl's locker room after gym class and hearing three girls laughing at me. Tears welled up in my eyes and I said, "What did I do?" They said, "You don't wear any make up. You're ugly. That makes you a slut." What? Not wearing make up made me a slut? I didn't think that was the meaning of that word. All I knew was that when they said it, it hurt. A lot. The words stuck in my throat, and I couldn't say anything. They walked past me down the hall, and their laughing continued.

The usage of that word was not to call into question my moral values. They wanted to silence me. They wanted to pull out the most hurtful word they could think of and lob it at me so that I would have no ability to defend myself.

What I hear when Rush Limbaugh calls Sandra Fluke a "slut" is that he does not value the opinions of women. He does not want to hear what women have to say. He hopes that by using this playground insult - a jab that causes tears to well up in the eyes of women as they remember taunts from school days - that women will stay "in their place." I'm offended that Limbaugh feels so insecure in his own views that the only recourse he thinks he has is to use juvenille and sexist remarks to bolster his own ego. I won't even get into the sexual indiscretions in Limbaugh's history, and whether or not he has any right to be pointing out the morals in the lives of others. I'll save that for another blog post...or better yet, another blogger.

Most of all I am horrified that women are applauding him for saying these things. Regardless of how one feels about access to contraception for women or whether organizations should be required to have insurance that covers birth control, we all need to support women who courageously speak about their healthcare without embarrassment. Sandra Fluke, I applaud your courage to share your viewpoint, and I hope that you continue to exercise your First Amendment rights  regardless of ego-maniacs and the immature things they say.