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.

Is the Church a prison?

So what is the point of church?  A while back I heard one particular church described as a hospital to rehabilitate sinners, and I cringed.  Because, in my ears, that sounded more like a prison.  Are we really supposed to drag our sin-riddled friends and neighbors to Sunday services, Wednesday evening small groups, Saturday brunches and various extracurricular activities in order to (ahem) rehabilitate them?  Perhaps it was just a poor choice of words, but sometimes I feel as if it’s appropriate.  Worship services are touted as a celebration, but often they are treated as a duty or a punishment. The point often seems to be to remind people of what is or isn’t sin, and to “convict” the sinners to change.

I can’t count the number of fiery sermons I’ve heard on this thing or that thing being a sin, a danger to society, a threat to one’s children, a harbinger of the apocalypse.  The embers in the preacher’s eyes seek to burn the sin from the sinner, and invigorate the growing flames in those already in agreement.  And, you know what?  To me those kinds of churches feel like a prison.  A trap.  It can feel an awful lot like a place where you go to feel not the love of God, but the seeds of hate and mistrust being sown in your neighbors.  The “milk” of the Gospel is definitely in danger of curdling, and the “meat” of the true word… is… uh…  Where’s the beef?

I suppose it may seem like I’m exagerrating a little, maybe I am.  It may seem like I’m being hyper-critical.  I don’t know, maybe I am.  People who don’t know me or my work who read this may think I hate God…  but of course that’s not true.  It’s precisely because of the fact that I love God and am so stupidly devoted to him that I take offense at anything that may bar people from knowing him fully.  How unfortunate that in this case the culprit is his Bride.

So I sit here, on a Tuesday morning full of the promise of green things growing outside, and I wonder about things.

God help me.

My Easter Message.

So… Easter always puts me in an odd mood. Note that it has taken four days for me to talk myself down out of stated mood enough to write a post about it.  When I mention this fact to other Christians, I get asked questions like, “What?  Don’t you want to celebrate your salvation?”  Or possibly just a wide-eyed slightly terrifying victory call of, “HE IS RISEN!”  To which I must bite my tongue in order to stop myself from replying, “yes.  I’ve known that since before I ever gave my life to him.  Getting so fanatically excited about that fact makes about as much sense to me as choosing a single day of the year to celebrate loving your spouse.  Do it ALL THE TIME.  They are ALWAYS there, you don’t need an EXCUSE to get excited about it.  Only having one day of the year that you DO celebrate them makes it seem more like obligation and peer pressure than genuine desire.”

But I hold my tongue, at least for the remainder of the day, because it seems rude to do otherwise.

Then I talk myself down out of my fugue, and I’ve got to ask myself why I got so far up into it in the first place.  Here’s the thing:  Yes, He is Risen.  He is Risen Indeed.  But what does that really mean to us?  Now, I’m going to sum up years of NT Wright’s finest work in a few short paragraphs.  Please note that while NT Wright has explained to me far more about what I’ve always believed than I could have ever understood on my own, this is not solely my scholarly work or opinion.  Vast tomes have been written on the subject, and you should buy them.  (Link)

In the Beginning, God created the Heavens and the Earth.  Creation fell away from it’s original glory.  Not just Male and Female, but all creation.  There came a separation, a disconnect.  All things were bent from their purpose.  The ground, the fields, the male and female- they were all cursed.  And from that moment, the Biblical narrative tells the story of a God that will stop at nothing to see all things redeemed.  Please, note here that I am not saying you and I only- I am emphatically stating that ALL things need redemption.  Creation itself is calling out to its creator.

Just look at this:

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. (Romans 8:22)

There’s a big emotional impact to saying, “Jesus suffered all of this for YOU!”  One cannot discount the awe and wonder invoked when a preschool lesson ends with, “and who is the person who God did all of this for?  Let’s look!” to the unveiling of a mirror, and the knowledge that we all matter intensely to God.  But I think that as powerful (and true) as such dramatic statements are, they discount an aspect of our faith that is accutely necessary.

All of creation has been groaning.

On the first day, God created.

On the sixth day, Jesus died.

The seventh day there is silence…

Then comes a new day, a risen Christ, the redemption of creation.

But what does it mean?

See, this is what I want Easter to be about.  Not about me, and my needs, and my salvation, and the sinner’s prayer.  I want it to be about the Kingdom of God.  About us being the hands and feet of the body.  About our work to continue what the early church started.  Spreading redemption.  Not through pamphlets and the sinner’s prayer and passion plays, but through real, quantifiable actions.  Through feeding the hungry, clothing the needy, holding up the heads of the oppressed, fighting injustice, spreading equality.

Salvation is NOT simply about eternity.  It is about living out the new creation in our own lives.  Being “born again”, being changed beings.  And if we do not see the fruits of that change in our lives we judge ourselves lacking.  Judge the vine by what it produces.  If I am redeemed, I will leave the fingerprints of God’s work in my life on every single thing I do. My art will breathe life.  My work will breathe life.  My writing will breathe life.  If this is not the case for all of us, there are serious questions to ask.

And, in my mind, what better time to ask them than on Easter?

Celebrate your salvation every single day.  And when the time comes to build a monument to it, to be reminded of it, what better thing to do than to issue a call to return to our higher purpose?  To be the creation that God intended us to be?

Breathe life.

Be More Vulnerable

The second meditation on overcoming obstacles has to do with vulnerability.  This one isn’t based off of a Bible verse, but instead sparked from a recent conversation.  Someone asked me what I thought a local GLBT&Friends group could do to spread equality on their campus.  We talked about a lot of different approaches- but the biggest point, the one that haunted me for the next few days, was that one has to risk being hurt.

You don’t fight a battle, even a spiritual one, without risk of damage.

And the kinds of battles so many of us find ourselves in- battles for hearts and minds- require demonstrations of one’s own heart and faith.  And you can’t lay bare your heart before someone else without risking pain.  If I want to share the depth and wonder of my faith, it means letting people into my past.  It means telling stories that are embarrassing, painful, sometimes nothing short of humiliating.  If I want people to understand why I believe in God, I have to tell them how God has worked in my life.  If I want to tell them how God has worked in my life, it means exposing a point of weakness.  If I have to expose a point of weakness…

True Evangelism does not come from a place of strength, but instead from a place of vulnerability.  It entices people and draws them in.  It is not exhibitionism or flagrancy- it is shy and tender, it is done with love and knowledge of our own fallibility.  One of the greatest impediments to overcoming obstacles is not our weakness- as God makes us sufficient- but misplaced pride.

The need for vulnerability is especially noticeable with Christian homosexuals.  Explaining how they feel their sexuality doesn’t bar them from faith means exposing the wholeness of their being.  This is something that can be incredibly painful to do, as many people attempt this kind of honesty only to be attacked intimately as a result of it.

But yet vulnerability is still required.

Jeremiah 23:9

Concerning the prophets:
My heart is broken within me;
all my bones tremble.
I am like a drunken man,
like a man overcome by wine,
because of the LORD
and his holy words.

A short inspirational message

Recently events in my life have reminded me that miracles still do happen.  (Those who also follow me on Facebook and Vox will know what I’m talking about, otherwise email me if you want in on the mystery.)  Sometimes, life backs us into a corner.  We find ourselves at the bottom of the well and the string is broken.  We angrily remind God that the Bible says if we ask for bread He won’t throw stones.

And God laughs.  We may mistake this for cruelty, but it’s not.  See, we’ve forgotten about the magic and the mystery.  We’ve turned faith into a twelve step program.  We’ve tried to boil everything down to cause and effect.  But life isn’t like that.  Sometimes, if you’re willing to believe, we fall into the well and we wake up in Wonderland.  We lock ourselves in the wardrobe, and stumble into Narnia.  We think there’s no hope, but that’s just because we don’t see reality the way that the Divine does.

We’ve forgotten about the mystery.  We, in our modern world, think that everything is programmable and able to be penciled in on our day planners.

But you don’t plan for Narnia.

So, my message for you today?  Don’t allow yourself to believe that this is the end.  Don’t allow yourself to be trapped by the thinking that each day will carry on like the last.  If you’ve asked God for bread and he hasn’t given you any, then trust that it’s because there’s a time of plenty in store and you don’t want to fill up on bread.

Just believe.

rabbit trail: born again

What does being born again really mean?

I found myself thinking about this last night as I lay in bed awake, unable to sleep again after my son had woken up with a messy diaper and needed to be cajoled back into his bed.  I don’t know why my mind went there, but I was thinking about a gruff southern preacher proclaiming loudly that gay men needed to be willing to be “born again” and leave the “lives of their past”.  And I thought, “when people say that, they really just mean that they need to be willing to not be gay anymore.”

After that thought, my mind just wouldn’t shut off.  It’s generally my habit, in those times, to pray quietly or to walk around the house a few times until my mind shuts back off.  But not last night.  No, instead it just kept beating itself up against something it couldn’t make sense of.  See, when I became a Christian and was “born again,” I didn’t become a new person over night.  I didn’t really change at all.  For years I was still suicidal, still self-destructive and self-loathing, and it was years and years of work and struggles and tears before I found myself coming out of my chrysalis and becoming something new.  I would have to say it’s just been the past seven years or so I’ve felt like I’m growing into my own, and only the past six months or so that the shape of who I’ll become has been any more clear.  And I may keep saying the same thing for the rest of my life- that I’m not done yet, that I’m only just beginning to make sense of things.  This whole “being born again” thing isn’t like emerging from the womb fully grown.  You go right back to being a baby and have to grow up all over again.

And even making sense of what I feel of that, what I feel about being born again, I still can’t make sense of what those words are generally intended to mean.

A church tells a gay man he needs to become a new creation.  They really mean he needs to stop being gay.  They say the same to a homeless man, but don’t they really want him to take a shower, get a job, become not a different spiritual man but also a different physical one?  And isn’t the same thing true of the blue haired tattooed beauty?  They want her to stop being herself, to be something other.

It’s as if they think that God got it wrong the first time around, he made us the wrong person, so he’s got to give it a second shot.

And I wonder, why do so many people get “born again” only to keep being exactly as they are?  The overworked father gets born again, so he starts going to church and gets preachier and uptight- but he still ignores his children, does paperwork during the family meal, belittles his wife and makes her feel lost and insufficient.  He’s got some new habits now, but he’s still the same essential guy.

So what is it?  Do we have to become someone else, or just…  I don’t know.

I think, like so many pet phrases, it means what people want it to mean.  The reality of fundamental truth has been brushed under the carpet of convenience.  Sometimes I feel that way about the entirety of my religion.

My faith I like.

My religion I tolerate.

Like the boy at the end of SLC Punk, I have discovered that it’s easier to dismantle the machine from the inside.