An Open Letter to My Non-Church Going Neighbors

Dear Neighbors,

I am that Christian guy living next door.

You might have heard I’m a preacher, a pastor, or something of the sort.

It’s true.  I believe in what Alcoholics Anonymous call a “Higher Power”.  We United Methodists call this power “God”.

I’m the guy who stands up front on Sunday mornings in the church down the street.  When people die, I cry with them.  When people get married, I laugh with them.  When children are born, I sprinkle water on their tiny heads.  I think rituals matter to the life of a community.  Rituals provide sanity when the world feels out of control.  Church gives our little corner of the world a place of peace when the chaos won’t let go.  If you don’t believe me, just ask the any of your other neighbors who hang out here.

Despite what you see on the news or read on the internet, all Christians don’t believe the same way.  We get painted with a broad brush.  In case you are confused, I thought I would take the opportunity to clear up the record.

I think you should know some important facts:

I’ll never say you’re going to Hell.

I will tell you that God is proud of you and loves you unconditionally. 

No matter who you love, I’ll welcome you to church.  I don’t believe God cares who you love or who you marry.

I believe science and religion have more in common than Bill Nye will ever admit.

Jesus is not an American.  He doesn’t speak English.

I don’t qualify my Christianity with adjectives.  I’m simply a Christian.  

Professional atheists are as annoying as professional Christians. 

If I believed in the God you believed in, I probably wouldn’t go to church either.

The Bible is full of inconsistencies and violence.  It’s also full of amazing tales of love and redemption.  It’s not a perfect Book but it’s the defining story of western civilization.  Let’s read it together.    

Your neighbor,

Richard (the preacher next door)

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Food for Thought-Jesus and the Rich Young Methodist Preacher

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As Jesus continued down the road toward his eventual execution, he was approached by a religious “know it all”. You know the type. The kid who went to all of the youth groups at every church. He was super UMYF kid. He had the best t-shirts, a WWJD bracelet before anyone else, an assortment of Bible covers, and knew all of the apologetic answers to every theological question. Before long, he was a youth pastor, plugged into Young Life, and rolling in the evangelical big time. Eventually he became a United Methodist Minister. His parents were incredibly wealthy. They had so much money they could afford for him to be educated at a swanky private college as well as an expensive divinity school. When he graduated and was sent to a huge downtown church as an associate pastor they bought him a fancy Toyota hybrid. God (or his parent’s wealth) had been good to this kid. They even sent him to several third world slums to “learn more about himself” and do self-deprecating slideshows featuring himself and others bonding with befuddled natives.

Despite his innate awesomeness and his readiness to acknowledge how a good God had blessed him through accident of birth and his parent’s wisdom to choose the United Methodist Church as the place to raise him, something wasn’t right. Hence, he felt the need to go talk to Jesus directly. Jesus was outside of the denominational structure. Someone could file a complaint against him with his District Superintendent or Bishop for even speaking to Jesus. The religious hierarchy and some of the other pastors weren’t so keen on Jesus. Up to a point they would give him lip service. Jesus, though, didn’t offer long term pension security. Jesus didn’t even have a creed or mission statement. Jesus claimed to have never heard of John Wesley, John Calvin, or Jacob Arminius. Jesus didn’t care if pastors paid their temple apportionments. Despite these objections and his own fears, he decided to take the risk.

His encounter with Jesus didn’t get off to a great start. “Why do you call me good?” Jesus asked. He was only being polite. Good teacher, isn’t that what you should call an honored figure? Jesus began by making the point we’re awfully loose with how we throw the term “good” around. Goodness, Jesus says, is how one refers to God. Maybe, the pastor thought, this is why Jesus is so minimalistic. Perhaps in the United Methodist Church we’re deeming too much as “good” or from “God” that’s really neither? Jesus then asked him about the commandments. Of course he knew the commandments! He’d been learning these since his first day in Vacation Bible School! He spouted these off with a precision only a top graduate of a United Methodist VBS can attain. Jesus looked at him like he was really impressed. For someone who had spent his entire life trying to impress people with how smart he was, he thought he’d made it, he was in with Jesus. The pastor thought too soon. Jesus wasn’t impressed.

Jesus said, “You did a great job but there’s one thing missing.” “What’s that?” he asked. Jesus wanted him to get rid of his most valuable possessions and follow him. “That means you must sell the car, donate the money, resign the plum appointment, and get rid of the Book of Discipline.”

The young preacher couldn’t believe his ears. He guessed he could sell the car, donate the money to the poor and ask for a smaller church but get rid of the Book of Discipline. Was Jesus crazy? The Book of Discipline is what defined his identity as a person and as a Methodist. Without a Book of Discipline how would he know how to think, live, breathe, or interact with his friends?

He couldn’t do it. He needed the book. He yearned for the book’s wisdom for without it; how would he know who Jesus wanted to be married or be ordained to the ministry? He thought for a moment, he could have asked Jesus directly but there was the matter of Jesus’ pension plan. Walking and talking directly with Jesus was far too big of a risk, especially for a United Methodist.

Food for Thought-Why Is Kim Davis In Jail?

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1. She wants to be a martyr for her cause, however you define her cause. It has nothing to do with the Supreme Court. She’s made a conscious decision to be behind bars.

2. Being divorced three times, married four, and having heterosexual relationships beyond the bounds of traditional marriage are OK in her world view because a) it’s heterosexual and b) hetero anything, in her eyes, is far better than homosexual anything, c) her idea of sin and forgiveness only applies to the limited understanding of her own life-not the overarching grace Christ offers to everyone. This is her worldview.  It’s not so much a double standard as a theology of justification, common to many Christian traditions today.  In many churches, when it comes to issues of human sexuality, people do believe and live as if one “sin” is worse than another.  In other words, my actions can be justified, because my sins were and are not as bad or inherently wrong as someone else’s.  Churches like this may say, “we’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God”,  but the fact remains; they believe some of us to be worse sinners than others.  This is the religious tradition from which she emerges.

3. She probably has a limited idea of what “Christian beliefs” she’s upholding or what the Bible actually says about relationships between men and women or that polygamy is the norm throughout the Bible, and there’s no standard Biblical definition of marriage.

4. She’s worshiping a Book, not a Savior who said anything about gay marriage. The Bible is not the same as God whose stories it relates. Christians do not worship a book. As much as her lawyers remind us the constitution says nothing about gay marriage, neither does Jesus Christ. She can’t stand before a federal judge and say signing a marriage license goes against what Jesus Christ said or taught.

5. If she’s hurt people, she should be forgiven.  The Bible gives the rough estimate of seventy times seven times. Essentially, our forgiveness should mirror the indefinite love we receive from God each day.  That’s a standard outlined by Jesus. We need to follow it.

Food for Thought-America Is An Angry Place Right Now

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People need something to angry about. So the world would seem.  If it wasn’t the Confederate flag, gay marriage, or Donald Trump’s position on Mexican immigration it would be something else. America has an anger problem. Even churches are angry places.  Denominations are angry with themselves.  We are one angry bunch of people. Some blame Barack Obama. Others blame the media and racist undercurrents in our culture. Apparently you have to blame someone. I don’t know why we have to blame anyone. We’re way past playing the blame game. It doesn’t do much good anyway. At this moment, I’m blindsided by the abundance of anger running through our culture. The anger is here and exploring its source is a waste of time.

People, good people, do seem taken with the idea of hating each other in the name of God, country, cakes, misquoted Bible verses, and Jefferson Davis’ flag. Why is that? Why now? Do we have nothing better to do? Is the economy that good that we’ve can focus on these issues? Do people have that much money in the bank and food on the table that fighting about a flag is a luxury they can afford?

Part of me wants to call it sin. I think that answer is too easy and too simplistic. I know people have hated each other for years and sinning a tad longer. At the risk of dipping my toe in the sea of irony, simplistic answers, in this climate, make me angry. Now, it seems there’s little check on the anger or the feelings of other people. Scratch the sunburned surface, you’ll get cussed out. Look at someone wrong, you might get punched. We live in rough times. Everyone is ready to offend everyone else and gladly so as a matter of pride. Empathy, love, neighborliness seem to have been beaten beyond recognition and left for dead. My solution, for the moment, is this: hug someone with whom you disagree. Tell them you love them. Then walk away.  You might still get punched but it will confuse the hell out of whoever you hug.  Do the Jesus thing. It’s the only way I know how to deal with this anger.

Food for Thought-Saint Valentine’s Day as a Political Act

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Today is Valentine’s Day. There are many legends surround Saint Valentine. One of the most common tells the story of a third century Roman priest who converted to Christianity shortly after the reign of Nero.

In the Roman Empire, Christian marriage was a political act; a way to undermine the long held religious values of Roman state. In Rome, there was no separation of church and state. The emperor was a God. For a Christian magistrate like Valentine to defy civil law he was risking death by also defying God’s law. This is why he was martyred. Valentine believed that everyone (including Christians) had the right to be married in Rome according to their own traditions. Christians and pagans should have been able to be married freely according to their own conscience. Valentine didn’t want anyone to suffer religious or political discrimination. One legend holds that Valentine officiated at the services of pacifist Roman soldiers who no longer wanted to fight in Rome’s far off wars of imperialist aggression. For these radical ideas he was executed at the behest of the Emperor Claudius.

So how might one best celebrate Valentine’s Day in 2015? Cards, chocolates, flowers, and prayers aren’t bad ideas. It’s hard to go wrong letting people know how much you love them. However, the underlying reason we remember Saint Valentine is because of his stand on marriage. We need only look at Alabama earlier this week and remember marriage is an inherently political act. Saint Valentine was executed by the state because he wanted everyone to have the opportunity to marry.  So what does a Methodist clergyperson do to honor the religious and political legacy of Saint Valentine? A United Methodist minister (especially one living in a popular ocean front wedding destination), might say that until marriage equality is the law of the land and the law of the church allows him to perform all weddings in good conscience, he will honor Saint Valentine’s legacy by performing no marriages inside his church. It’s a Valentine’s Day idea and one I’m starting to like.

 

Food for Thought-It’s Hard to Be a Bigot When You’re Realize Jesus Loves Us All Equally-A Sermon on Romans 14:1-12

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I have a confession to make.  I am pathologically incapable of ordering food in a restaurant without first knowing and discussing what everyone else is planning to eat.  My first question is typically, “So what are you having?”  It is, as if, I can’t make my decision until I know what other choices are being made.  There’s something in my head that tells me, “We must have culinary variety.”  So if I’m leaning toward steak and I know you’re also thinking about steak, well then, I’ll have to change my mind.  Maybe I’ll get the fish or chicken.  In the food utopia I’ve created in my mind, two people can’t order the exact same thing.  What if I want to try what you’ve ordered?  Even though we’re not in a Chinese restaurant (a whole other ball of wax) and won’t be served communal dishes, I want to leave open the possibility of sharing. Then there’s that one person who orders something, weird, askew, and maybe a bit gross.  This throws the whole ordering process off.  Because then, everyone at the table has to comment on what an informed culinary selection has just been made or how gross “fondue squid” actually sounds.

No longer are people simply ordering what they want.  It’s now about approval, making a decision from the choices of others, and then judging what sounds strange of different to you.   If you’ve ever gone out to eat and had this experience, you’ve had a snapshot of what life looked like in first century Christianity.  People were big into food and they attached huge religious significance to what and how they ate.  Eating was a life or death issue and I don’t mean just for the cow, sheep, or pig on your plate.  And like any issue in the church, whether then or now, it was never all about eating.  There were much more important theological and religious concerns just below the surface.

Paul is writing a letter to the Romans.  The Romans are “the” Christian community to be a part of.  They represent the intellectual vanguard of the growing Christian movement.  In the capital of the most powerful empire the world had ever known, they represent the hope of the church in more ways than one.  If we were to enter the door of First Church, Rome, we would find Latin speaking Roman converts.  There are Jews who have heard Jesus’ message and believed.  You will find immigrants from all corners of the empire who have made it to Rome and now identify themselves as Christian.  They are multi-lingual, multi-ethnic, and some bring with them other Christian experiences.  Some have been to Jerusalem, Alexandria, or Damascus.  Others knew nothing of the Christ until they entered the fellowship.  And yet, they are all here, under this single roof, and claim Jesus as their Lord and Savior.

Their connection to the wider world and other Christian communities has been largely fostered by Paul.  Though Paul has never visited this church, he knows their mindset, he understands them, and is trying to support them as they become the disciples they have been called to be.  He anticipates making a journey to Rome and this letter is a word of encouragement written for their whole community.  When he gets there, he wants to meet them at their best.

Our letter and this snapshot from the 14th chapter, is an insight into the life of this early church and how Paul was attempting to guide them beyond a superficial faith into something more substantial.

Paul is giving the Romans, the church that really believed they had something going on by virtue of their geography, an extended lesson in how be welcoming, friendly, and hospitable.  He’s teaching them how to be better people, better Christians, and how to have a better church.

Paul’s first rule: Christians welcome everybody; especially those who are weak in their faith.  This is gesture of love and done in love.  We don’t welcome people to church, especially those Paul refers to as “weak in faith” (i.e. people who are in different places in how they understand what it means to be faithful) because we want to argue with them.  Paul wants the early Christians in Rome to see that differences of belief are something to be embraced and welcomed.   Clearly, he doesn’t want people be threatened by people who say or do things differently.

Here’s how he puts it (and he’s using a dietary example to make his point-which tells us that there were probably people in the new church who wanted to keep Kosher or follow Jewish dietary restrictions-a very important discussion-and those who did not.  There were people who believed that in order to follow Jesus one still had to follow certain Jewish practices.  Others did not share this belief.):  “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables.”   So some were kosher and some were vegetarian.  He goes on in verse 3, “Those who eat must despise those who abstain and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them.”  In other words, kosher people can be mean and vegetarians can’t be snobby-this is God’s party.  God gets to decide who is let in, not us.  And apparently, God’s got much bigger things to worry about than what people are eating.

Remember, “food” or “who ate what” was just the issue they used to mask the true nature of what they were upset about.  They might look like racists or bigots if they said, “we don’t like people because those jokers from Asia Minor because they speak a different language and they have darker skin.”  Instead, they said, “We’ll just get them on the food thing.”   So when the issue came up they said, “It’s not because you’re new and different, you just don’t eat right.”  Though everyone knew what they really meant.

So, if we were going to put this into today’s language, what would it look like?  Would we still phrase this as a discussion about food?  Is that the example Paul might use today?

He might say something like this.  “Some were straight, some were gay, some were republicans, and some were democrats, some were white, and some were black but in church and in life, those who are straight must not pass judgment on those who are gay, and those who are gay must not pass judgment on those who are straight, democrats must not pass judgment on republicans, republicans upon democrats, white upon black, and black upon white.”

As important and meaningful as those issues are to us today, people were living and dying by the same concerns Paul highlighted in his letter.

The same concerns that plagued the Roman church are also in our churches today, it’s just that the terminology has changed.   The issues of judgment, grace, and getting along with one another have not changed, they remain the same.

Paul goes on to say, and here’s where it gets really good, that in our own ways, our differences bring honor to God.  God honors our differences and our differences honor God.  That’s the second big point he’s making. 

He says some people have a more positive outlook on life, “Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike.”  In other words, we all have different perspectives.  That’s who God made us.

If you honor the Sabbath or a particular day over another, you’re doing that in honor of the Lord, Paul says.  “Also, he adds, “those who eat, eat in honor of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain (the vegetarians), abstain in honor of the Lord and give thanks to God.”

Do you see what he’s saying?  If you’re acknowledging God as the root, saying thanks, whatever you do and how you do it honors God.  Are you genuine in how you live and give thanks to God?  Paul indicates that if your heart is in the right place, you’re honoring God?  That’s his big third point, “Who are we to judge other people?”  He asks this quite bluntly:  “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister?  Or you, why do you despise your brother or sisters?”

Because, “we will all stand”, he says in verse 10.  Yes, it’s a verse about judgment but God’s judgment is based on our equality with each other.  People read that verse and go straight to that word judgment. Judgment is not our business, it is God’s business. God sees and embraces our differences while also saying, “We’re all equal.”

Our lives are about offering God praise.  Paul closes by telling us, “It’s hard to praise God on bended knee and with your words (your tongue) when you’re distracted by your definition of the sins of others and you’re using your tongue (your words) to judge people.

How about us?  Are we able to focus on worship, service, praise, and gratitude to the level Paul was encouraging the first church in Rome?   Are we able to say when something is not about the eating or whatever people want to call the issue of the day?  That being a person of faith is about not judging, forgiving, and living in community.  You can fight about anything.  The question is, are you willing to not judge the people you are fighting and remember that God died for all of us equally, no matter what issues we have deemed to be life and death or sink or swim?

So how do you praise God?  How does one worship God if your attentions are focused elsewhere?  It’s hard to worship and praise God if you’re too busy doing God’s job for God.  You can’t praise God and judge the people around you.  The two actions are mutually exclusive.  One cancels the other out.  This is what I want you to remember and hold on to today.