Thursday, August 19, 2010

Where is the Love?

"Wookin pa nub en aw da wong pwaces, wookin pa nub ..."

For those not familiar with those lyrics, they are from a "Saturday Night Live" skit with Eddie Murphy playing the part of the old Little Rascals' "Buckwheat" pushing a compilation album in his later years. He used Buckwheat's accent and speech impediment to radically alter the lyrics of some familiar tunes of the day. It was a good skit and Eddie Murphy has since gone on from SNL to bigger and better things. The rest of the nation "wookin pa nub" (that's "looking for love" for those of you still trying to connect the dots); well, not so much. The digression of this nation's attitude and moral fiber is more than a little unsettling but before you begin to think I am about to go off on homosexuality, serial divorce and remarriage, teen sex, casual sex, adultery, or any of the other sex issues out there, think again. And read carefully.

"Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh ..." Romans 8:5a NKJV

Be honest. Do you wonder how many Christians believe this passage to be solely devoted to issues of sexual ethics? Do you yourself see this passage, read "flesh" (and "carnal" which comes a little later in the chapter in the NKJV) and immediately think "sex" but fail to more broadly consider what the Bible means when it warns against "the things of the flesh? My guess is that many, if not most, actually do think exclusively about sex issues though I have no data to support such a contention. What I do have is the intent of so many Christians who are up in arms about the proposed Islamic Center to be built a few blocks from Ground Zero in Lower Manhattan and their very hate-filled words, but they're not homos or adulterers so they're good to go; still acting righteously. Right?

What I also have is a stale collection of Christians who are gathered in nearly every church setting cursing their "neighbor" for one thing or another, but at least these accusers are not up to no good in someone else's bed so they, too, are righteously good to go. Liberals are "too damned liberal", and conservatives are "too damned conservative" (I'm being kind, by the way) but as long as we are not straying or doing anything weird with someone else's body and bein' all nekkid, it's all good. Right? Remember that I am not talking about Washington DC and partisan politics; I am talking about the many churches of many denominations in many settings, rural or urban, who have somehow come to believe that righteousness is strictly defined by sexuality or nationalism.

"Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil. Cling to what is good. Be kindly affectionate toward one another with brotherly love, in honor giving preference to one another, not lagging in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord ..." Romans 12:9-10

I have discovered, much to my dismay, that proposing to be fair about the "Ground Zero Mosque", as it has come to be called, has gotten me cursed from both sides and from all angles of the issue, the curses coming from - you guessed it - Christians. And to defend the president's remarks "in all fairness"? Forget it. I wondered if I would be tarred and feathered first by the hateful Christians who demanded that the president and the Muslims (or is it our "closet Muslim" president? I forget) be cursed. From the more liberal Christians who think I was not strong enough in my defense of the president come equal wishes that I die! To say that I am profoundly disappointed would not quite touch on my feelings but to be perfectly honest, I am not even sure how to feel especially when it is suggested to me that perhaps I should worry more about what is "right" than what is "fair". I am such an idiot. I thought "fair" was "right".

Allow me to express that given the nature and source of the well-coordinated attacks on this nation that fateful day in 2001, a new Islamic "anything" in Manhattan is in extremely poor judgment and taste and will not play well now; maybe ever. It may even be, as some have insisted, an intense if deliberate lack of respect for the feelings of those who survived the attack or who lost loved ones. But let me also express that those who planned and executed that attack on the people of the United States that dreadful day were, and are, as clueless about Islam as Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist people are about Christianity. These international criminals may well have been shouting "Allah Akbar" as they hit their WTC and Pentagon targets, but those proclamations did not express Islam, faith, religion, or anything even closely resembling righteousness. These were expressions of intense anger and raw hatred by murderers and cowards, pure and simple. The damage these murderers caused, however, may not be as profound or as long-lasting as the damage that is continually done in the name of the Lord yet "with malice in my heart".

"Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things." Romans 14:1

The American Church has been in steady decline for the past 40-50 years, and church leaders - both laity and clergy - continue to scratch their heads and think through the persistent decline. Some try to think of new "bells and whistles" that might be attractive. Others are trying very expensive media ad campaigns that seek to reintroduce their churches to the general public but in relevant ways. Sometimes it is "about the numbers", but we must always be mindful that each "number" represents a soul that may be in distress and on the verge of collapse, a soul the Church is called in mission to reach out for. These absentee souls, however, are making a profound statement that reverberates throughout the Holy Church but does not seem to resonate well with church people. What are the absences telling us?

I think the Church may do much better by talking more to those who are outside rather than to those who are inside. Attending a "listening session" some months back with some of the lay leaders of the congregation I serve as pastor, we got an earful from many other church folks who were insisting that the Church must return to its biblical foundation and "preach the truth". I heard the words they spoke, but I felt the utter disdain they seemed to express not only toward those who sponsored the "listening session" but also toward those who would not agree with them. What they - and many others, myself included - seem to overlook is that one can be technically correct when it comes to expressing biblical philosophy or doctrinal truth while simultaneously being spiritually so far off the mark as to render the biblical Truth ineffective, at the very least.

People don't respond with love and gratitude to threats, and it must be noted that contempt breeds nothing but contempt. Many among those who are outside the Body of Christ feel they have been threatened one too many times with hell fire from self-righteous Christians who are painfully devoid of love and grace. The so-called "or else" theology does not carry a sound biblical message for lack of one simple element: "speaking the truth in love"; witnessing to this Truth by our actions rather than by our demands. The Christian message is no message at all if we use the Bible as a weapon to destroy rather than as a tool with which to build. The meaning of Holy Scripture is without context if we can quote chapter and verse but do not have the Word of the Lord written in our hearts by the Holy Spirit.

It may sound as though I am giving those who have left the Church and those who keep the Church at a safe distance an excuse for staying away. To the contrary, I am telling - and have told - these many absentee disciples that the Church is in its current state because self-righteousness is as much the harm and cause outside the Church as in. These missing souls have gained nothing in any sense by removing themselves from the corporate church, and they have placed themselves at grave risk by refusing to participate in fellowship with other believers - SINNERS ALL, mind you!! - and holding the many wayward and backward-thinking Christians accountable for their hatefulness and spite or downright complacency.

This accountability alone gave rise to the Methodist movement whose founder was intent not in creating a whole new church but to strengthen the existing Church. Such a philosophy is no less true of the first century Church that grew and spread so quickly because so many were eager to share this wondrous Good News! And the Church has continued to grow for some 2000 years even with us "hypocrites" at the pulpits and other "jerks" leading the Bible study schools.

Let's face it. We are all in desperate need of the Lord's grace for none among us is worthy. And we are not made more worthy by pointing out the faults of others. We are indeed heaping curses upon ourselves as we curse our neighbors. Where is the love in that?

Thursday, August 05, 2010

Dazed and Confused

A federal judge has struck down California's ban on same-gender marriage, and I have no real sense of how I should feel or what I should do. To say that I am troubled about the ruling would be an understatement because I am unequivocally opposed to same-gender marriage taking place in the Church (and more than a little resentful that I sometimes feel compelled to defend my stance against those who call me "hater" or "narrow-minded" or "bigot"), but I am a little lost when it comes to acts and demands of government because I am no longer the political animal I once was. I found it difficult to serve government functions and processes and the Lord simultaneously, so a choice had to be made. This is not to say that government workers, politicians, and lobbyists cannot be pious and faithful. And this is certainly not to say that church folk cannot practice faith and personal piety while in government service and lobbying efforts especially when it comes to issues of social justice; indeed they must. I only found it awkward for myself.

Those within the Church who claim to be fighting for social justice on behalf of homosexuals don't seem to have a problem incorporating their faith into the work they do, but I often find their arguments and understanding of Holy Scripture substantially flawed and their public conduct and behavior often reprehensible especially when they publicly claim to be acting in Christ's behalf. Often their own words are hateful; and contrary to Scripture, they answer what they perceive as "hateful" acts of mere opposition with hateful words and, often, hateful actions. Jesus and Paul both admonish the faithful NOT to fight fire with fire ("do not return evil for evil") but to "bless" those who hate. Now I do not for one moment believe that standing in opposition to such issues as homosexuality and abortion, for instance, are hateful acts in and of themselves anymore than I believe that advocacy for such things is hateful; not inherently so. Regardless of which side of the issues one stands, however, opposition is often perceived as hateful and antagonistic only because each side is already defensive and cocksure they are "right" and that whatever they choose to say or do in defense of their argument is "righteous".

An acquaintance of mine and fellow pastor is a GWB "hater" and was especially vocal during the previous administration especially in such public forums as in the op-ed sections of local newspapers. The "fruit" of his hatefulness was apparent in the vile comments, accusations, and innuendo he often made. His arguments were rarely of any substance. Though his opposition to the former president was fundamentally in opposition to the president's policies, the acquaintance's attacks were of a more personal and accusatory nature against the man George W. Bush and not the chief executive of the country. When questioned, he defended his choice of words because of the president's apparent "fruits" ("You will know them by their fruits" - by what they do - Jesus teaches). When I suggested to my acquaintance that his own "fruit" was somewhat bitter and poisonous, he attempted to defend his "righteous anger" but each accusation he leveled against President Bush was ultimately an accusation against himself for he was demanding to remove the "speck" from the former president's eye while ignoring the "plank" in his own eye. To varying degrees, there are few persons who can withstand such scrutiny, myself included!

All of this is to amplify the futile nature of such acts and arguments especially when human emotion and personal opinion are injected, facts are often overlooked, and respect for one's fellow man is painfully absent. Nothing is accomplished. In fact it would probably be more accurate to say that far more harm than good is done regardless of which side finally "wins" (if a victory can be claimed at all). As for what the federal ruling in California will finally mean for society in general and for the Holy Church, this has yet to be seen because the issue will be appealed all the way to the US Supreme Court because each side has promised such course of action regardless of the outcome of the appeals court ruling.

My personal sense of awkwardness is in recognizing that the Church must continue to function as the Body of Christ and not as a social agency within our secular society because I do believe the Church is called to serve as a sanctuary and as a means of redemption from the secular culture rather than as a catalyst for assimilation that is so obviously contrary to the Church's "Book", the Bible. The Church was a powerful voice for justice and social conscience during the Civil Rights era and continues to be so in the midst of ongoing immigration challenges - and rightly so on both counts - but can this truly be a fair comparison? No one can dispute that homosexuals are unjustly targeted by some in the form of so-called "hate crimes" and even in off-color and dehumanizing jokes, but the right to marry does not quite seem to compare with the right to be treated as a human being especially in terms of human exploitation. I freely admit that my own opinion and opposition prevent me from seeing such parallels. It is for me "apples and oranges" because the Civil Rights era, immigration issues, and even abortion are fundamentally about the dignity of the human person; the same-gender marriage thing is specific and exclusive. I am no more or less a human being because I am married. My marital status has nothing to do with my sacred worth or my dignity as a human being.

It is equally easy for me to say that even if states choose to offer marriage licenses without restrictions, it has little to do with the federal government which does not issue marriage licenses and nothing to do with the Church and her practices which must remain faithful to the Eternal Bridegroom and not succumb to secular social pressure. As for the call for "inclusiveness" within the Church, this much is true: all those who earnestly repent of their sins are to be included and incorporated into the Body of Christ.

In the final analysis, there is not much more that can be done since this issue is squarely in the hands of the federal court system whose players are appointed for life rather than elected for a term. All that is left to do is in the hands of the faithful prayer warriors to earnestly ask that the Lord's will be done. The will of politicians who will be left to respond after the court system does its duty will not extend much further than the ability to be reelected regardless of right or wrong, religious or secular.

Monday, August 02, 2010

The Kingdom of Heaven

Hosea 11:1-11
Psalm 107:1-9
Colossians 2:6-10
Mark 1:4-20

A recent article from the United Methodist News Service (UMNS) sought to explain the exodus of young people (18-24) from the United Methodist Church (UMC). The reasons cited were as varied as the people whose behavior they attempted to evaluate, but the common theme seemed to be the UMC's loss of identity. While "blame" may be too strong a word, there was an attempt to at least allude to "blaming" youth leaders for putting too much emphasis on attending nondenominational events that obviously did not and would not emphasis Wesleyan theology. Methodism stopped being important, the article seemed to suggest, because Methodist leaders stopped emphasizing Methodism.

Is a lack of denominational emphasis to blame for the continuing downward spiral of member losses and professions of faith in the UMC? Yes and no. Is there something more? There is much more. I would suggest it is not so much the sense of denominationalism that is being lost or watered down, but rather what the Methodist movement - our heritage - sought to restore at its founding. For instance, one young man cited in the article left the UMC because of our practice of and belief in infant baptism. Really? That was his biggest obstacle to fully appreciating what it is supposed to mean to be Methodist? Or is there something much deeper and much more abiding that is being overlooked? I think there is - especially if infant baptism is all he understood about Methodism.

As a result of my purely unscientific observations over the years, including my own experiences, I have concluded that people will remove themselves from the fellowship of the church for a variety of reasons, primary among them being that they just don't feel like going although they will rarely admit to this. These people, including myself at one point in my life, will tick off dozens of excuses which are predominately self-righteous in their nature in a vain attempt to justify their decision, but in the end it can easily be said that something has gone missing for them. It would be downright blasphemous to suggest that true knowledge of the Lord would not overwhelm the human heart.

It's not about worship attendance, though; not entirely, anymore than it is about "being Methodist" or even being a Christian for that matter, a simple title we claim rather than a life we choose to embrace. It is the clear indication that something is wrong, something is missing altogether, or something is just out of place. No matter how good the music is or how welcoming and loving the congregation is or how dynamic the preaching is, some will never come. Likewise, no matter how bad the music is or unfriendly the congregation is or how boring the preaching is, some will always come. And each one has his or her own reasons for attending or not. It must be understood, however, that mere worship attendance is only one element of what it means to be a Methodist Christian.

Even John Wesley, the Anglican priest, stood opposed to worship rituals as a substitute for Christ-centered faith. He insisted instead that Scripture study, prayer and good works were far more beneficial for the faithful than rituals that can be reduced to little more than a mechanical response as just something we are "supposed" to do. None of this is to suggest that corporate worship and practices - especially receiving the Sacraments of the Church - are of no value, but they are of limited value, as Wesley put it, as "occasional helps to human weakness."

Though my sum total answer may be a bit oversimplified, I think maybe what has ultimately been lost or misplaced over a period of time is, quite simply, the message. The Gospel of Christ. It is the Gospel itself that has gone missing because it has been overshadowed or, at the very least, watered down. And I am not referring to the condemnatory language about who is going to hell and why because there is plenty of that already being done. I am talking about the GOSPEL, the GOOD NEWS! And because the Gospel of Christ has been watered down or has gone missing altogether, the Church as a whole has lost its footing and, worse, its sense of identity.

It is within this struggle to reacquire and/or maintain our proper balance that the Church seems so clumsy and essentially lost to those outside the Body of Christ so much so that they have convinced themselves - with our help, I might add - that they are better off without us. Make no mistake; they have not rejected Christ necessarily. They have rejected institutionalized religion. And I would suggest they have rejected practices and doctrines of man because the element of the Gospel has been misplaced.

Because this very essential element is misplaced, the core of our pursuit is missing altogether. That core, dear friends, is the knowledge of the KINGDOM OF HEAVEN - the very reason for the Good News! It sometimes seems we would much rather spend time talking about hell and who is already there and who is destined to be there rather than talk about the Kingdom of Heaven and the Lord's desire that ALL join Him there! We have become far too preoccupied with cursing rather than blessing, worrying about what OTHERS should not do vs. what WE can choose to do. More than this, however, we have become far too comfortable to the point of complacency because the knowledge of the Kingdom of Heaven is no longer a point or source of excitement.

It is no less so for Methodism because of the very nature of our heritage and founding. John Wesley never intended to create a new church. Breaking away from the Anglican Church was the last thing on his mind, though it may have been arguably less so when he commissioned preachers for mission in America. The key word in his intent and design, however, was "mission", but that "mission" has been transformed over time to what it has become today, to the point of being very nearly lifeless, the very thing he sought to overcome in the Anglican Church: the complacency of institutionalization.

The "Kingdom of Heaven" is not an institution; it is, rather, a condition of the soul. It cannot be said that the Lord our God is an "institution" because by His very nature He is mobile and dynamic. Very much like a mother with toddlers, He actually has to work very hard to keep up with us, to protect us, to guide us, to teach us, and yes, to correct us! And too often just like toddlers, we have limited attention spans because of all that is going on around us! We become too easily distracted and excited about new things, "shiny" things, so much so that we often run headlong into such things and simply take for granted that our Protector will always be there to pick us up when we fall - if we think about Him at all.

But I think this is the whole point that Jesus is making in His proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven has come near to us. We should be willing to run headlong into this Good News rather than away from it just as a small child whose faith in "mom" is absolute, unquestioning, and unwavering. I think surely this must be the reason Jesus teaches us that unless we become childlike, we can never enter into the Kingdom of Heaven - especially not if we question its validity or doubt its Eternal Promise - or simply take it for granted as "incidental" to all else.

So may we all commit to "repentance", but not in the negative, ominous, and threatening way we've been conditioned BY MAN to believe. May we, instead, see the proclamation of Christ as the PROMISE it is: the Kingdom of Heaven is UPON US ... NOW ... IN HIM! This is the Good News that gives us hope and a sense of peace - there is no substitute. To "repent", then, is to stop running away. Embrace it, live it, and proclaim it. For it is NOT what we do - it is, indeed, who we are.