Crafting areas of belonging- What would Jesus truly do?

When looking at how we, as followers of Jesus, ought to behave we have no greater example than the man we follow.  The issue of crafting areas where people can belong is one I’ve addressed here before.  But something I haven’t really talked about is how far from the ideal of Jesus’ behaviors we’ve truly fallen. To demonstrate this point, I’ll talk about a few different groups of people that are close to my heart.

  1. The punks, the goths, the scattered remnants of culture on the edge of society:  I can’t just point to one youth movement and say “that one”, there are too many.  So whether it’s the guy getting high in the alleyway or the tattooed beauty throwing down dance moves in the club- where do they belong in relation to us?  How do we get close enough to share God’s heart with them?  We can’t say, “come to us, all who are thirsty,” and just wait for them to show up on a Sunday morning…   especially since if they showed up looking like they do on Friday night, we’d just throw them out.
  2. The single parents and couples choosing to live together without marrying:  They don’t have relationships like the Good Christian Standard, and they are painfully aware of it.  Talking about their kids or their partners means talking about how very much they’ve fallen short of what is expected, should they become Christian.  They may miss the faith of their youth or just know there is something missing from their life…  but trying to build a relationship with the church is full of discomfort and feeling judged and found wanting.  One might argue that this is part of how God “convicts” them and shows them their need for him…  but do you think God really wants to convict them right out of ever even trying to worship him?  How can we show them his love?
  3. Gay people.  Do I even need to say more?

Jesus ministered to people in three major ways:  He went to where they were (by eating in their homes), he went to places where they had easy access to him (by preaching on hillsides, at the docks, or in the marketplace), and he performed miracles for the desperately needy.  All of these ways of ministering were revolutionary.  A good priest would not eat at a tax collectors home, most certainly not in the company of drunkards and other sinners, as Jesus did  (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5) as this would make them unclean.  A good priest spoke from a place of authority- such as the temple or the city gates.  Going out into public arenas that were the province of farmers and tradesman would have been an act of lowering onesself- but these were the arenas in which Jesus gained all of his power.  Why?  Because the people flocked to him.  Because they were welcomed by him.  The dichotomy of Jesus versus the religious leaders sees no greater example than this, as women and children were not even allowed into the temple proper, and thus could never be taught in the way men were.  But the Bible shows so often that women and children were also welcomed into Jesus’ world, never more clearly than in Luke 18 when Jesus so famously says, “let the children come to me… The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

Then, of course, there are the miracles.  People like the Man born blind (John 9) whom people saw as recieving his judgment through his blindness, and thus avoided.  Or the woman who was subject to an issue of blood (Matthew 9) who touched Jesus’ cloak- an act which could have been seen as horribly offensive.  A woman who was bleeding was not to leave her home or to touch a man, as this was unclean.  But yet this woman had faith that Jesus would pity her, she thought, “I will only touch his cloak”, and he turns to her and says, “take heart.”

That must have blown her world apart.

So Jesus created three arenas in which the people belonged with him (or he belonged to them, as one might see it)- in their homes, in their public world, and through meeting their immediate needs and taking pity on them.  How can we, as Christians, do the same?  Are we brave enough to dine at the home of a gay couple?  To pass out water at the door of the blue-haired girl’s favorite bar or club?  To give diapers to the teenage mother, or groceries to the couple living “in sin”?

Are we brave enough to take off the WWJD? bumper sticker and really ask ourselves what our Father is doing?

Go and sin no more

Once upon a time I wrote about how Jesus always accepted people where they were.  One faithful reader (correctly)  pointed out that Jesus was in the habit of commanding people to sin no more.  So there is a balance to be struck- a balance between meeting people where they are at and helping get them to where they need to be.  Take, for example, the man by the pool of Bethesda (John 5):  Jesus met him where he was and took pity on him.  When the man explained that he could never be healed by the pool’s water, Jesus simply told him to pick up his mat and leave.  Here is the interesting thing:  Jesus told the man to pick up his mat and walk away- this command was a command to technically sin by the law of the time.  It was a sabbath, and carrying one’s bedclothes from one place to another was sin.  But Jesus also told the man to stop sinning before something bad happened to him.  So…  How could the Son of Man tell someone to sin out of one side of his mouth and to stop sinning out of the other?  Or perhaps this story (like so many in the New Testament) is supposed to illustrate that God’s law is not man’s law- someone whom man may judge to be a sinner by their standard may be righteous in the eyes of He who is called I Am.

Another example of this would be the woman caught in adultery (John 8).  Someone caught in adultery was to be stoned- this was the law.  To fail to stone her would be to usurp the law.  Yet Jesus disobeyed the law’s command and spared her- but in the same breath, told her not to sin.  So what is the answer?  To obey the law, or disobey it?

In John 9, shortly after Jesus heals the man born blind, we see the Pharisees saying that Jesus’s miracles must be false because “he is a sinner.”

Jesus, the Son of God, the perfect Lamb, is judged by his contemporaries as being all full up of sin.  He desecrated the Sabbath, he flaunted his lawlessness, surely this man could not speak for God!

Pick up your mat, and stop sinning.  This would be, to someone of the time, the equivalent of ordering someone to stand perfectly still while jumping up and down.  Surely these two things could not be done simultaneously- not without a miracle.  But that is precisely what Jesus was, a miracle.  He delivered his people out from under the law while simultaneously teaching them the law.  The law, that is, that is fulfilled through loving the Lord thy God with all your heart, soul, and mind- and loving thy neighbor as thyself.

Try, for a minute, to imagine how revolutionary it must have seemed for the people of the time to hear the disciples teaching that Christ had freed us from under the law while at the same time telling them to remain pure.  Remain pure?  Without the law?  Be innocent as doves but be allowed to eat meat sacrificed to idols?  How is that even supposed to work?

I think we’ve forgotten the magic of the gospel, the miracle of being not condemned.  We must have, because we still want to cling to legalism and systems as our salvation, we still want pat answers about who is and isn’t okay.  We’re still afraid to be seen in the company of tax collectors and whores.

Retreating back to legalism in the face of Jesus’s sacrifice, for me, would be an act of treason.

What in the world to do about Sin in the Church?

In yesterday’s post there were a lot of hypothetical questions.  One of the biggest was “when is it okay to kick someone out because of persistent sin?”  This started an interesting comment thread, and I felt the need to research one formula that was mentioned.  The common wisdom in most church circles is that if you have a dispute with a fellow believer, you approach them alone.  If they fail to be convicted by your words, you take an elder and try again.  If this is unsuccessful, they face castigation by the greater body.  If they are belligerent, they are asked to leave.

Why is this a common formula?  It comes from the Bible!

Matthew 18: 15-17 (NIV)

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

I think there are many times these verses are abused in the name of doing right.  Firstly, I’d like to point out the stipulation that this formula is for when a brother sins against you.  If I, in the quiet of my own home, watch an inappropriate movie or choose to drink, I am not sinning against you, I’m sinning against myself.  If I were to have an attraction to people of my own gender, that is between me and myself, not the larger church  body.  If I tend to hold grudges, or wallow in depression, or over eat- these are all sins which carry an internal consequence.  I harm myself. No truly quantifiable harm is happening to anyone else.  Were I to tbe cast from my local church body for these personal foibles, then, more harm would be done than good.  The larger church body would not benefit from my being gone (in any sense other than feeling more holy for lack of me) and I myself would be deprived of the very people that could be my salvation.  Note that I  say all of this in a purely hypothetical sense- I make every attempt to cast out pervasive sins God reveals to me, and I’ve never been deliberately kicked out of a church body.  I do not make this argument to defend myself or as a rebuttal to a wrong the church has committed against me.

I just think Christians ought to seriously consider the long term affects of rebuking a fellow believer out of self-righteousness.

Not that there isn’t any use for those verses or for practicing them.  If a fellow believer does sin in a way that wrongs his body, action should be taken.  If a believer is a bullier, a gossip, flirts with another believer’s spouse and does not desist when asked to, is caught in adultery, shows up on at church functions drunk and disorderly, seeds fear or discontent knowingly and creates a bitter spirit… such a person should be approached in exactly the manner proscribed by the Bible, to it’s fullest extent if necessary.

My biggest problem with these verses and this formula is that I’ve more often seen them used against people guilty of sinning against themselves (despite their attempt to change, or their need for compassion) or as a justification for bigotry, but I’ve not often seen them used against the people who most need to be confronted with the malicious nature of their sin.

The teenager who falls and finds herself pregnant needs compassion and a strong arm to lean on.  The Elder who uses the prayer tree as a way to gossip and cause division needs to be confronted.  The wife who leaves an emotionally manipulative and cruel husband needs someone to help her heal, not force her back into the arms of her abuser-  the man who constantly seeds discontent and division in the church needs to be rebuked.  The teenager who questions their sexuality needs a hand to hold and a sympathetic ear- The man who persists in misogynistic behavior and becomes a stumbling block for the women in his church needs to be reigned in.

And I could keep going.

I guess what I am ultimately saying is that when judgments must be made about sin, they need to be made with forethought as to their consequences, through compassion and intercession and discernment- not based off of a formula.  The thought must not be for the eradication of sin, but for the health of the body as well as the individual.  It must come not from a place of discomfort or disgust but from a place of love for all people, not just one’s self and one’s own opinion.

Count the cost, every day.

Count the souls lost to a system that values the appearance of purity more than the pursuit of salvation.

Convicted (and forgiven)

One of my role models growing up was convicted of manslaughter.  I say “convicted” in the sense of tried, and convicted, in the judicial system.  While in jail he experienced God’s forgiveness and became “on fire” for God, as Evangelicals like to say.  He was so convinced that everyone he knew needed to experience God’s love that he would literally grab men by the ears and beat their heads against the wall screaming “ask God to forgive you!”

Of course, they would.  John was a strong man, and sort of frightening when he got his fires up.  He was that way even later in life when he understood love and mercy.  I can only imagine what he was like when he was still young and DIDN’T fully grasp the concept of God’s love.

Over time he changed.  He started to understand our own free enterprise and our personal rights to remain in sin if so desired.  You can’t FORCE repentance out of anyone.  So over time John grew to understand a better way, and once he was out of the system he started traveling the country from jail to jail, talking about what forgiveness is and isn’t and how important forgiving yourself and accepting God’s forgiveness is in growing past the temptations of sin and becoming a productive member of society.  Regardless of what one may or may not believe about God, seeing this man whose face was still hardened from years of hatred and greed tear up while talking about the beauty of forgiveness is a powerful thing.

Everyone respected him, even the ones who disagreed with him.

I bring this all up because my current church has ties with a halfway house for people moving out of the jail system.  So from time to time we’ll have people come join our church who accepted Christ while behind bars.  And there are people who get very uncomfortable around them.  They wonder what they were in jail for.  The only time I really care to know what they were convicted of is if it’s pedophilia.  I think there’s a certian amount of pragmatism that needs to be involved- I’ve heard of churches being grafted by groups of users who claimed to want to kick the drug habit but actually used the church as a shell for their drug activities- but that isn’t every single person and you shouldn’t expect the worst out of someone who says they wish to change.  Be prepared in case the worst should happen, but don’t expect it.

Churches often confuse compassion and naiveness.  Compassion doesn’t mean you give a homeless man fifty dollars to get a hotel room, not if he smells like Vodka.  Compassion is taking him to get a sandwich and letting him talk to you.  Compassion isn’t giving a drug addict a blank check and hoping they use it for something good, it’s putting them in contact with people who can intervene and get them cleaned up.  Compassion isn’t bailing out someone who constantly abuses their finances, it’s giving them a place to land when they destroy themselves and then teaching them better patterns.  And there ARE times when people MUST suffer the earthly consequences of their sins.  If a man beats his children, he SHOULD lose all rights to them.  Should we still show him compassion if he claims repentance?  ABSOLUTELY- but compassion isn’t giving his children back, it’s teaching him to cope with the consequences of his failings.

And when it comes to the people in the halfway house, we have to understand that our attitude towards them helps feed into how successful their reentry into society will be.  If we expect that they should fall, we heap fuel on to a fire that is already burning (as most of them are afraid of falling already, and some of them have established that pattern firmly).  Yet if we call out the good in them, affirm their best intentions, and help to give them tools to break the negative patterns in their lives- we can be an integral part of their recovery.

They may have been convicted, yes.  But we should trust in God’s forgiveness and power to redeem.

(This one goes out to Amber, who mentioned the fact that I’ve never posted on this particular subject)

Forgiveness and love

“Forgiveness doesn’t mean escaping earthly consequences”, my father says, “you can forgive a man on death row, but he still serves out the penalty accorded by the courts.”

This particular blog isn’t about my personal life, and thus personal details are often left out.  The very, very observant readers may sense themes and put one and two together, but, anyway…  Forgiveness is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately.  What does it mean to forgive someone?  Certainly it can’t mean acting as if the deed forgiven never occurred.  One should forgive a priest who molests an altar boy but one shouldn’t act as if it never happened.  So what DOES forgiveness mean?

For me it means choosing to love past something.  Choosing to release anger and judgment and allow God to be the authority, instead of my own taste for vengeance.  Forgiveness sometimes means not seeking justice, it sometimes means releasing one’s own need for satisfaction, and it sometimes means finding comfort in God rather than in justification.

There is nothing harder than forgiveness, nothing harder than grace, nothing harder than loving through a cloud of pain.  But there is nothing better, as well.  Justice can be lonely, justification can be cold, consequence can be cruel.  Forgiveness itself can be bloody at times, but there’s a kind of warmth and comfort that comes from the stripped nakedness of one asking for forgiveness and the sudden contact of the other consenting that brings out this kind of intimacy that cannot be found anywhere else.

Because the truth is that real, total intimacy comes not from trust but from figuratively being seen naked in all of one’s human, flawed, and sinful reality and finding that love still endures.  True romance is not in loving someone because of their perfection, but loving them while knowing just exactly how imperfect they are.  It’s sad that as Christians we seem to want perfection all the time, to the point where people are ashamed to admit their shortcomings.  This creates a syndrome that prevents real intimacy.  The intimacy of saying, “I love you, knowing who you truly are.”

And isn’t that God?  “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  THAT should be our flagship verse.  John 3:16 is sweet, but 1st John 4 is honest.

Sorry my thoughts are so scattered.  Ironic that in a post discussing total intimacy I’m forced to be withholding, but life is strange.

The Church and Homosexuals

Yes, that’s right. For the constant readers who have followed me from blog to blog, this issue is definitely old hat. So I apologize. For everyone else, I have a story:

A few years ago I was an assistant youth pastor at a moderately small rural church. There was a fairly large and vibrant youth group, and in that group were two kids. We’ll call them Jane and Henry. Jane was a slightly sweet but kind of mean pretty girl, who was found to be having sex with her morally squishy boyfriend. Henry was a sweet-as-candy gentle boy who was kind to everyone, not in a relationship but questioning his sexuality. He faced these questions with an immense amount of guilt and fear, wondering why he couldn’t just be the way he was “supposed to”, terrified that God would judge and punish him, and horrified that he was a disappointment to his church and family. Which one of these kids should have been embraced by the Church, loved and comforted? The answer is simple because the answer is BOTH. Yet Jane was brought back into the fold with tears and sympathy despite the fact that her attitude belied her words and she was more or less unrepentant. Henry, despite his ambivalence and self-hatred, was ostracized.

I feel that I shouldn’t have to explain how wrong this is, yet this scenario is played out from church to church without a second thought to its rightness. Sin is Sin and God is God, and may I remind everyone that 1st John makes it INFINITELY clear that God is Love. We are to love, first off, we are to allow God to be our Judge secondly, and we are to forgive all as we wish to be forgiven. I am baffled by the fact that people live as if homosexuality is somehow on a plane above and beyond other sins. I have seen murderers and child abusers welcomed back in to the fold with less questions that one would ask of a reformed homosexual- and yes, I said reformed.

I have also seen adulterers and gossips embraced while unrepentant. And yet… must I keep repeating myself? I don’t even care if the homosexual says they are at peace with their lifestyle and deny conviction- if a heterosexual came in to the church saying that they were at peace with living in sin, we’d accept it. We should do the same, across the board, equally- or we should judge all the same.

I know as well as all of my dear readers that most churches aren’t ready to be heavy handed about demanding repentance, because most churches realize that we are a flawed people and we all live with some kind of sin. The churches that are heavy handed (May I just say… Westoboro) are largely ostracized and condemned. We know why that is. It is because we realize that only God should judge.

So why, oh why, do we continue to judge when it comes to homosexuality? We should love and embrace, forgive and respect, see the good and not the bad, with the same temperance we do to any multitude of sins every day.

So there you have it, WordPress. The gays are not my enemy. In fact, some of them are my very good friends.