“Do What Feels Right”

When I was growing up, my dad did something that bothered me immensely: He made rules and said that because the Bible says “Children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right,” it meant that if we didn’t do what he said, it would be a sin. It would be morally wrong for me to not do what he told us to do, just because the Bible said so.

The Bible, of course, was the highest authority. What the Bible said to do was morally right, and what the Bible said not to do was morally wrong. (I’ve written about that elsewhere).

This frustrated me immensely. There was no way to tell right from wrong, only obedience from disobedience, and the two concepts were fused together. Continue reading

The Dictionary of Evangelical

Dear friends,

A while back I shared some of my favorite passages from The Book of Evangelical. Well, funny story: I was at a yard sale last weekend and happened upon a rare copy of The Dictionary of Evangelical. Naturally, I snatched it up. I had to share.

-David

Latin dictionary

Continue reading

Charity is not a Substitute for Justice

It was the same summer that Trust and Obedience Landed Me in Hell – and the same camp.

I’d worked out in the sun that summer with my little sister to make enough money to pay for all that was to be had at Camp Kanesatake.

The day of the lesson about charity, my fellow campers and my sister and I trudged up the ridiculously steep hill and lined up outside the dining hall after a long day of… whatever it was we did there. Probably going to chapel and learning to sing “Hallelu Hallelujah” in another language.

Normally, they would say a blessing and let us in. Today was different: the leaders handed out little slips of paper with numbers on them as we went in.

When we reached the food line, the servers asked for our slips. I flashed my slip with “1,” scrawled on it, and they gave me plenty of everything. Others weren’t so lucky. Those with twos got only beans and rice. Those with threes got only rice. My sister, who had worked just as hard as I had to pay to come to camp, received a two or a three.

My eleven-year-old brain was not happy about the situation, but the powers that be had decided that I was to get more food while others didn’t. I trusted and obeyed, and I ate my dinner, but I felt guilty about it.

Suddenly, from halfway across the dining hall, a girl with a “1” asked, “Are we allowed to share?” They said yes. There was a whirlwind of activity as ones rushed the counter to get more food to distribute to their friends with twos and threes.

Before the end of dinner, the camp leadership said everybody could come up and get whatever they needed. They had taught their object lesson.

The point, of course, was that some people are born in first-world countries like the US, some in second-world countries like Russia, and some in third-world countries, like places in Africa, and those of us who had it best had a responsibility to give up some of our food so the people who weren’t well-off would have enough.

And I felt guilty. Horribly guilty. Why hadn’t I thought of sharing my food?

I’ve carried that story around in my heart for the past twenty years. I’ve hated it since the moment it happened.

Then today while I was doing dishes, two things clicked.

  1. There was enough food for everybody the whole time.
  2. Everybody deserved a whole meal.

Everyone had paid to come to camp. This included all the meals. But the people running the camp had decided to arbitrarily and randomly select some of us to receive a decent meal, and some of us not to, and they expected those of us who did to patch the injustice by sharing with those who didn’t.

These grown-ups expected us 9-12-year-olds to fix the injustice they created with our private charity.

And their counterparts in America are still doing it.

We’re expected to donate money and goods to food pantries to help people who work minimum-wage jobs so the owners and stockholders can get rich.

People working minimum wage jobs have paid for a full meal at the camp of America, and they’re getting beans and rice. And there’s enough for everybody, but the people in the front of the dining hall are hoarding it.

We’re expected to front taxes for social services for people who are already working 40 hours a week – that is, people who deserve to have a place to live and enough to eat, but can’t because the people at the top need more money. As President Obama has said, “Nobody who works full-time should have to live in poverty.”

We have to give money to help starving children in Africa while we share a country with people who have generational wealth because those children don’t have enough to eat.

We can – and should – share with those who were born with twos and threes.

But it’s long past time to overrun the dining hall and demand that the people in charge give everyone the food they’ve worked for.

The Hypocrisy of the Other

Liberals are hypocrites.

They complain about how climate change is manmade, but then they still ride in planes and drive cars, and Leonardo diCaprio flies around in a private jet to lecture people on being more environmentally friendly.

Conservatives are hypocrites.

They say they care about babies, but the second those babies get born, they don’t want to pay taxes so all children will have access to food or healthcare, or pay medical bills for moms for whom abortions are the oh-so-much-more-affordable option.

Liberals are hypocrites.

They say they care about babies, but they don’t care about them at all until they’re born. They’re just an excuse to expand government, which is all liberals care about (if I’m reading the conservative websites correctly).

Conservatives are hypocrites.

They say they’re the party of small government, but they want the government to regulate your sexuality and women’s bodies and where which people can pee.

Liberals are hypocrites.

They say they believe in civil liberties but they won’t even let teachers pray in schools.

Conservatives are hypocrites.

They say they want America to stop shipping jobs overseas, but they nominated a guy for president who got rich(er) by shipping jobs overseas!

Liberals are hypocrites.

They say they want everyone to get paid a fair wage, and then they buy things that are made by underpaid labor under awful conditions in other countries. Because those things are cheap.

Conservatives are hypocrites.

They say they believe in sexual morals and biblical standards, and then nominate a thrice-divorced man to lead their party.

Liberals are hypocrites.

They say they don’t want money in politics, but that WikiLeaks email leak exposed the DNC as having offered positions to people who donated lots of money!

Conservatives are hypocrites.

They say “All Lives Matter,” but only when they’re trying to silence people of color who feel like their lives don’t matter in American society.

Liberals are hypocrites.

They claim black lives matter, but only when those black lives aren’t wearing blue.

Conservatives are hypocrites.

They worry about women being raped, but only by transgender people in bathrooms.

Liberals are hypocrites.

They worry about making sure everyone has equal protection under law, but don’t worry about perverts in bathrooms.

Conservative Christians are hypocrites.

They say they believe in the Bible, but they cherry-pick and ignore everything it says about social justice and taking care of the earth.

Liberal Christians are hypocrites.

Some of them say they believe in the Bible, but they cherry-pick and don’t listen to what it says about ordaining women, homosexuality, and eternal damnation.


And on, and on, and on it goes.

Naturally, both sides will want to explain their positions, and nuance them, and neither would agree with my phrasing… about themselves. I nailed The Hypocrisy of the Other, though, I bet. Just nailed it.

And that’s it, isn’t it? We’re all delighted to see hypocrisy exposed, but only the hypocrisy of people with whom we don’t agree.

I’m as guilty as anyone in being one-sided. I hope I’m guilty in being one-sided on behalf of the marginalized, but I’m definitely one of those liberals who wears clothing that was probably made by overworked and underpaid folks in Bangladesh because it was cheap. I meditate on the evils of capitalism, but at the end of the day, if it’s cheap, I’ll buy it, and I prefer restaurants where I don’t have to tip. I want everyone paid a livable wage, but I don’t want that wage to come out of my pocket directly.

Maybe we all have blind spots.

Maybe that verse that says “There is none righteous, no not one” is about how even those of us who have the best of intentions, and I like to think that’s most of us, are capable of ignoring how certain things we do perpetuate things we don’t believe in.

Maybe we shared that link about how people on the opposing end of the political spectrum are hypocrites because maybe one of them will read it and realize their hypocrisy and change to our way of thinking. (Has that ever happened?)

Or maybe we did it because if they’re so ridiculous and awful, maybe we can feel a little better about our own duplicity.


God of truth, guide us into faithfully following you with our whole hearts, not just our words and aspirations. Save us from our own self-righteousness. Help us to live with more integrity, and remind us to attribute good intentions to those with whom we disagree. …And help us be just a little bit less delighted by the hypocrisy of the Other.

Amen.

Are We Called to be “On Fire”?

A few years back somebody described me as being “on fire for God.”  I was surprised. Me, “on fire for God?” But I was just me! Apparently I was, though. It showed.

I read a book by Eric Ludy once in which he wrote about talking to an older Christian about his fiery passion and the older Christian telling him that it fades. He really didn’t want it to fade. He pledged that it never would.

I think it was Diana Butler Bass who lamented that the options for Christians seem to be knowledge on ice and ignorance on fire. I repeated that quote to an Assemblies of God friend, and he commented that the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary slogan is “knowledge on fire.”

And of course, there’s the misattributed John Wesley quote about how if you’re on fire for God, the world will show up to watch you burn.

As I fought to get a campfire going a few weekends ago, I remembered the lyrics to the song “Settle on My Soul,” as performed by the band The Martins. The song envisions faith as fire as well: “Before the embers fade, stir the ashes of my faith.”

I’m not sure which way it came, but culture also celebrates fire – particularly, the fires of romantic love. In the song “Remind Me,” Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood take on the persona of a couple for whom the fire has faded. They sing about how they used to be “So on fire so in love,” and regret that their relationship has dimmed to embers.

I don’t think this is quite right.

fireBig fires with high flames are exciting. If you don’t know exactly what you’re doing (and probably even if you do), it can take a while to build a fire, though. Dry wood is important. You also need plenty of air. And it requires work to keep it going the way it is in the picture. A lot of work.

I don’t think anybody has time for that.

The fire in this picture took a while to build. It’s this high because we had just tossed on a bunch of new, dry wood. But it didn’t stay that way. Eventually, it faded down until it looked more like the second picture.

And that’s good.

Big roaring flames are sexy, but you can’t cook much over them besides marshmallows and hot dogs. They look exciting, but as Kristen often reminds me, you can’t cook anything substantial on them until they’re down to hot coals. And I think coals might be a better metaphor.

Kristen and I have been married for over three years now. We’re still delighted to see each other when she gets home from work, but we don’t have that “whoosh” of excitement that we did when we were dating and I was working at Jumonville and only got to see each other once a week. That would be an exhausting emotional roller coaster ride if we did it every day. We still stir the embers and occasionally put on more wood, but our relationship doesn’t require embersthe constant second-by-second attention it did then. There’s still fire, but it’s less fireworky. It’s more useful now. It’s something you can sit around and hold a good conversation with close friends around. It’s something we can build a life on. It’s not a paper fire that’s all whoosh and then everything’s gone. The big logs have caught.

My faith has shifted down to embers too. Ignorance is paper. Knowledge is hardwood. It burns slower. Sometimes you get fireworks, but usually, it’s a slow, unimpressive burn that is capable of doing the work it’s meant to do.

By all means, let us celebrate the whoosh and roar of fresh fire – and let us hope that it will come to have the valuable strength of a slow burn that’s been going a long time and will be sustainable for a long time to come.

“God’s Not Dead”? Then Stop Acting Like It.

A horrifying number of Christians say they believe God is not dead, but lock God in solitary confinement where God is unable to say anything that disagrees with what inspired Christians from the past have said about God, or insisted upon on God’s behalf.

I remember my dad saying something along the lines of “So many Christians today think God is dead and the Bible is a history book.” Then he proceeded to behave as though God is dead and the Bible is God’s last will and testament.

This position is unfaithful to the witness of scripture. But what would it mean for God to not be dead? God would inspire human beings to look back at the tradition and reflect upon it and find the spark of inspiration, just as God does in scripture. God would lead people to say that others before them did not speak rightly about God. Just as God does in scripture.

God corrects. God pulls people forward. “An eye for an eye” is a good start, but “Don’t seek revenge” is better, and “love your enemies” better still.

But revelation cannot progress because the Bible is a textbook, not a story, not a witness, not a series of witnesses. It’s a love letter God sat down and wrote to individual modern (American) Christians over a long weekend in Patagonia, not the writings of countless inspired writers over hundreds of years to people who were growing and learning and didn’t yet know all the things we know, or all the things human beings from the future will know.

God is not allowed to have employed human beings in all their humanity, but was required to strip away their ability to err while they wrote God’s perfect book. Why? Because modern Christians said so, and we require God to toe the line to our notions about God.

God’s not dead, but if you listen to many Christians these days it sure seems like God is in a vegetative state. But don’t worry; God will one day wake up and review the security tapes and punish those who disobeyed and reward those who obeyed.

Is this what faith in God has come to – just the affirmation that God is not dead? Continue reading

Guest Post: A Letter to the Church I Left

One of my closest friends left his beloved home church recently. He started describing what he’s been going through and I asked if he would be willing to share his story here because I think it might resonate with some of you.

This post contains strong language. Breaking up with your church hurts, and I have chosen to leave it in.

Someone from church called me.

I want to call back.

Because I respect this person.

But I don’t want to have to tell him how I feel.

I don’t want them to know how badly they’ve hurt me – because we all make mistakes and I am sorry for mine.

Because if I did, here’s what I would say: Continue reading

It’s Easter. Is Jesus Alive?

It is Sunday morning.

Jesus, so far as we know, is dead. Death is a constant. It tends not to change. When people die, they stay dead. This is not on our minds, at least not until some women arrive proclaiming an empty tomb and visions of angels and some wishful thinking nonsense about Jesus being risen.

Peter and John run and find the tomb empty. Mary says she saw Jesus but thought he was the gardener.

But you and I know how the world works. We’ve been around to know the sad realities of our world. When the 10 see Jesus in an upper room, we shrug and roll our eyes and attribute it to a mass hallucination. We side with Thomas. We won’t buy it until we can put our hands through the holes in Jesus’ hands and feet.

But then Thomas sees Jesus too. “My lord and my God.”

And 500 others at another point.

And it slowly starts to feel like we’re the only ones who haven’t seen Jesus – or maybe as though the risen Jesus is like Joseph Smith’s golden plates: attested to by many wishful liars.

The two from Emmaus come back announcing that they walked home with Jesus and he explained how all the scriptures point to his resurrection, and our modern apologists write books about how the resurrection of the Messiah has been foretold since time immemorial.

But we have read the prophecies that everyone says are about the resurrection of the Messiah. And you and I are good exegetes. We know this is a load of crap.

And then he’s gone. 40 days later, like Joseph Smith’s golden plates, Jesus is taken back up into heaven, never to be seen again.

There’s no proof of the resurrection. It’s just hearsay from gullible first-century peasants.

But something has happened.

The world has somehow changed in a fundamental way.

Peasants become powerful preachers. A man like us, who knows it’s all a lie, does a 180 and then takes beatings and does time in prison and risks his life to announce that Jesus was executed and raised from the dead – like he believes it with everything he has. Of course, he expects that Jesus will be back within his lifetime, but he expects those who believed in Jesus will also rise, like he believes Jesus did.

Centuries march on. Rome falls, but the church of Jesus Christ lives on. It is everywhere attacked. People try to destroy it from without and from within, but it lives on – sometimes strong, sometimes weak, sometimes in obedience to Jesus, sometimes in cowardly conformity to the world and the sad realities of the world. The church fights for slavery, for discrimination, for killings, but somehow slowly through the centuries, the church lives a little more and a little more into the trajectory of Jesus. It takes 1500 years for Luther and Calvin to discover and be overwhelmed by the radical grace of God, and when they do they write pages upon pages but still do not quite live into it.

Almost as though Jesus was alive.

We can’t prove it, of course. We are good children of the enlightenment, and we know people do not rise from the dead as a general rule.

But what if this one did?

What if, that Sunday morning two millennia ago, the women did in fact meet the risen Jesus? What if he did appear in the upper room, and offered his hands and feet to Thomas a second time? What if the law and the prophets really were about Jesus in a way that the original authors never intended?

What if Jesus has been alive ever since, invisibly pulling his church along, helping us live more and more in line with the trajectory his life set the world on?

And what if you and I believed it?

We couldn’t prove it, of course.

But our lives, like the lives of those before us, could be signs along the way, that not only did Jesus rise that Sunday morning two thousand years ago, but that Jesus is alive and with us today.

Is Socialism Unbiblical?

This morning, one of my wife’s friends sent her a link to a blog post condescendingly titled “Dear Liberal ‘Christians’: No, it’s Not ‘Christian’ for the Government To Redistribute My Money“. I call the title condescending because the word “Christian” is in scare quotes. Like a frightening number of other blog posts from all across American Christianity on both sides of the political spectrum, in the title alone, this post suggests that those who do not agree with the author are not Christians.

It’s tempting for me to join Ms. Kirchoff in saying that my political position is so much closer to what scripture teaches that those who don’t agree are so far wrong that they’re not even Christians. But what happens if I do that? I will insult my fellow Christians by refusing to give them the benefit of the doubt that their faith is sincere. There will be no chance made available for grace, and (if what I am saying is true) it will close them off to being guided into more truth and simply enrage them.

The post in question followed the tone in the title by being patronizing – including the utterly delicious phrase “In short, no. You’re wrong here too. Sucks, don’t it?” which, having admittedly typed similar sentences, I have no doubt felt utterly delicious. Then the author engages in name-calling, referring to a liberal Christian who might be reading her post in the second person as a “miserly crapweasel.”

She ends the post with this: “You’re just being an easily exploited rube with zero critical thinking skills. No, your Jesus fish will not absolve you of this one.” Now, unless this post is only for people who agree with her, she’s wasting her time here because if liberal Christians, as she says, have “zero critical thinking skills,” they won’t even be able to properly engage with her post and will just leave angry comments.


But what of the actual content of the post, tone aside? It’s mostly an argument from silence. The most biblical paragraph in the entire post is this one:

Jesus called his disciples to care for the least of these. The poor, the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit prisoners, etc. This is Christianity 101. We all know it. As Christians we’re called to be Christ-like, to be his disciples, to preach his word. All good things. Put a giant check mark next to your Jesus fish.

So far so good. But what happens next is both surprising and not particularly biblical. It is essentially the libertarian argument that taxation is theft. Essentially the argument here (you can read it for yourself to verify my depiction) is that Jesus’ command “to care for the least of these” is for individuals and not for governments.

The central question, then, is whether Jesus wants the poor uplifted, the hungry fed, the naked clothed, and the prisoners visited, or whether he merely wants Christians to engage in these activities because they’re good things to do. Continue reading

(New) Reflections on the Prodigal

You’ve heard a million sermons on the parable of the Prodigal Son, but when the passage was read in church this morning, I heard three things that I hadn’t heard before:

1. When the younger son was away in a foreign land, he was working – he had a job – but the job was not providing enough for him to get by. What did he say to himself? “How many of my father’s hired hands have bread enough and to spare, but here I am dying of hunger!”

It may be because there was a famine, but nonetheless, the point stands: the father in the story made sure those working to build and maintain his wealth had all they needed and more.

So will we join with the Father in the story, represented by God, and make sure that everyone who works has food enough and to spare? Or will we condemn those who, like the younger son, work in a foreign land as “lazy,” their laziness proved not by their unwillingness to work, but by their poverty?!”

2. The younger son made bad decisions, it is clear. But what is the reaction of his father? Does he shrug his shoulders and say that the boy should’ve made better decisions, and if he had, he wouldn’t be in this mess? Does he provide him with a budget plan and suggest he attend Financial Peace University, and maybe then he’ll be worthy of not starving?

This is not what we find at all! The father immediately brings his son back into attire worthy of a son, and puts food in his belly, and throws a celebration.

So will we join the older brother in insisting that because people may have made bad decisions they are unworthy of a steak dinner or happiness? Or will we join the father in his ridiculous party for an irresponsible person who wasted his money on all sorts of things money shouldn’t be wasted on?

3. How fortunate he was to have a wealthy father. Many people who’ve made irresponsible decisions don’t get have a wealthy father to run home to when they make bad decisions or take a job that won’t support them.

But here’s the twist: The father in the story represents God. (If you think this is going to go Joel Osteen, I have another twist coming for you). The father represents God, whom Ephesians 4:6 declares to be the father of all.

So when we talk about “entitlements,” calling poor people “lazy,” let us remember at least two things: (1) the words of Ephesians, naming God the father of all, and (2) that the son in the story did nothing to earn the celebration. He just came home and there it was.

The older brother was, of course, furious, as he watched his dad, who still owned everything, take away some of the things he’d worked so hard for and give them to his brother who was starving.

The older brother, like many Christians, was confused about what made this son worthy of a celebration and of having more than enough. It was not his labor (he could’ve asked for the party at any time and had it). It was who his father was: the one who owned it all.