fear, lies, and truth

i intended to write a post about the myths we believe. however, i realized that myth was the wrong word. myths can be good and essential components of our lives and cultures. a myth doesn’t have to be literal or factual in order to be true. in fact, the conflation of truth and factuality is a product of the enlightenment, and not a helpful one.

so, instead of writing about myths, i want to write about lies. it seems that, too often, we fall hook, line, and sinker for things that just aren’t true, and then we end up creating entire meaning-giving narratives around these lies.

there’s reality. there’s truth. and then there’s a steaming pile of lies. usually we blame the media, and they surely play a role. but, the reason the media can spin and twist information so easily is that they are just giving us what we want. we want what they are selling because we are afraid. fear drives our economy, our relationships, and our approach to the “other.”

here are a few of the lies we’ve been sold (this list is incomplete, and definitely not comprehensive) :

  • america is the moral superior of the world, and god likes us best. how could this not be true? after all, look at our prosperity and success. yet much of the groundwork for all this was laid by atrocities committed against native and african americans. and many americans today have a hard time even admitting how morally repugnant these events in our past are. and before you say “the past is the past,” let me suggest another cliche: “those who don’t learn from the past are doomed to repeat it.” and based on what i’ve seen people saying online recently about refugees, we aren’t that far from it.
  • all muslims are bad, but all christians are good. the reality is that there are really wonderful people in all religious traditions, and there are also people who use religion as a mask for all the worst human actions and intentions. do i agree with everything muslims believe? of course not. do i agree with everything all christians believe? of course not. we must learn to be more nuanced in our thinking. instead of evaluating people based on a label they wear, perhaps we could, instead, make discernments based on the content of their character. we should be known, jesus insists, by our fruit, by what is produced in our lives that is really just an overflow of who we really are.
  • you can’t be a deeply committed christian and have open, constructive, compassionate dialogue with people who aren’t. this is just not true. the truth is that we can be deeply committed to the christian tradition, or better, to jesus, and still be open to learning from and sharing with people from other traditions. in fact, i have found my own faith enhanced, not diminished by such occurrences. (brian mclaren has written an important book on this called, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road, and i highly recommend it.)
  • with all the problems we have in america (homeless veterans, for example) we have no business helping syrians or any other group. it’s absolutely unacceptable that our country would send men and women to risk their lives in war, and then not provide for them when they return. i agree, that is just wrong. however, we have bought into a system of thinking that is either/or based. we either help our vets, or we help refugees. this kind of thinking is limited, and it is not an honest assessment of any situation. rarely do we actually find ourselves in either/or circumstances. a more holistic approach is called both/and thinking. we can help both our vets (and anyone else in our country who needs it) and those who are fleeing violence. we would desperately hope others would make space for us, if the situations were reversed. deep down we know this, but fear is speaking louder than reality right now.

the truth is that we can be deeply christian, gratefully american, and concerned about the pain and suffering of every human being in the world. and we must acknowledge that we can’t solve or fix everything, but we must try to do what we can. we must reject the lies that fear wants us to believe, and embrace the truth that sets us free.

can you think of any other lies that we believe?
feel free to share in the comments. 

sometimes i’m embarrassed to tell people that i’m a christian

well, the cat is out of the proverbial bag now, isn’t it?
sometimes i’m embarrassed to tell people that i’m a christian.

this isn’t always true. christians do many beautiful things in the world; things that i am proud to be associated with and part of. when christians stand up for justice, dignity, and compassion, i want to be in on that. i’ll wear that t-shirt.

other times, however…
like this morning, when i saw that a prominent christian pastor had delivered a sermon that called bombs a “christian response.” while he tried to couch this in terms of government vs individual responsibility (i.e. you don’t kill people, but it’s ok to support killing if the government does it), it still left me feeling sick.

then, i had this moment of clarity. maybe bombs are the christian response. since constantine (when christians first had the power of government available to them), christians have had a penchant for using the weapons of the day to further their goals. as sad as it is, i might have to concede that sometimes bombing is the christian response.

but it isn’t the jesus response.
the jesus response calls us to love, seek peace and reconciliation, and find creative ways to non-violently resist aggressors. sometimes the christian response isn’t the jesus response, and i think this has been true for a very long time.

can you imagine jesus, who was publicly condemned and executed by government, then encouraging his followers to support the government sanctioned killing of others? whatever decisions our or any government may make (and i don’t assume the answers to the awful events we see happening in the world are easy), let’s not conflate that with the path of jesus. or the way god dreams the world would be. or the way through which god would bring this dream to fruition, on earth as it is in heaven.

it’s not even close.
and as people who seek to follow jesus, the state of the world should weigh heavy on us. we should seek to support the victims of all tragedy and suffering. regardless of whether or not they wear our label. but a christian doesn’t lead the charge for bombs. a christian mourns that we’ve gotten so far away from god’s dream for the world.

and before someone quotes Mark 8:38 (if we are ashamed of jesus, he will be ashamed of us), let me say that i am in no way ashamed of jesus. i love jesus. i think jesus is brilliant. i think we should believe him (that he was right about how to live and be in the world) and we should follow him.

but sometimes, sadly, owning the label of the religion that began in his name is tough.

why we’re thrilled to be OPEN

being part of a non-denomination church has both advantages and disadvantages. for mcc, one of the advantages has been not being tied to a specific tradition or framework. this autonomy has allowed us to, i hope, beg and borrow the best from the wide spectrum that is the christian tradition, all the while shaping and reshaping it to be part of our ethos and uniqueness. one of the reasons this works so well is that mcc is comprised of a wide range of people. our backgrounds include baptist, methodist, presbyterian, episcopalian, catholic, and a growing group of people who would answer “none.”

and while i love being free to experience the benefits of all these traditions, there are disadvantages to being a “free agent,” so to speak. the biggest for us has been a sense of isolation from similar church communities, especially during times of difficulty and adversity.  as we’ve grown and changed over the years there have been times that it felt like we were all alone on an island. this might shock you, but there aren’t a ton of churches (that i know of) in small, rural towns that identify as “progressive.” the challenges that our journey presented us with were, at times, overwhelming. one of the benefits of a denomination is having the support of both the organization, and the members of said group. we had none of that. the feeling of isolation was very real, palpable.

this is why i’m so excited to be part of the OPEN network. OPEN is a new web of relationships that seeks to connect those of us who identify as “progressive evangelicals” (even though we can be uncomfortable with such labels) into a community of sharing and support:

OPEN seeks to make visible what is often invisible – the progressive Christian expression of faith in the United States; to resource the groundswell of churches, leaders, organizations and people who are expressing a just and generous expression of Christian faith; to create pathways of connection and belonging among existing and emerging churches, individuals, organizations and networks of those who represent Progressive Evangelicals, Post-Evangelicals, Non-denominational and Free-church traditions and all who wish to live in progressive Christian ways.

for me, as the pastor of a progressive evangelical church in a rural community, OPEN is like a deep breath of fresh air. the relationships we’ve been able to build are already giving us life and hope. the partnerships and sharing that will emerge from these relationships will be mutually beneficial and good for the world.

i’m thrilled to be part of OPEN, and if you are part of a progressive evangelical community, i hope you will consider connecting with us as well.

to join the network, or for more on OPEN, visit www.theopennetworkus.org.

learning to sink

almost eleven years ago i was a twenty-three year old pastor beginning a new opportunity at mcc. at the same time, my life and faith were beginning to unravel in ways that were alarming. what i didn’t know then, and what i’m learning now, is that this dissonance i was experiencing (and still experience in many ways) wasn’t my enemy. it could actually be a trusted friend. 

the deconstruction of the faith i grew up with didn’t happen over night. it actually took years. it also wasn’t something i chose, as if i woke up one morning and said, “i think i’ll go on a soul-shaking journey of deconstructing my faith today.” it was much more natural and subtle. it all began during a span of six months in the early 1990s.

in 1993 i lost both my great-grandmother and my grandfather. i was eleven, and these two happened to be my entire world. this loss raised so many questions about god, prayer, and how the world worked. i didn’t know it then, but that six-month span of loss would shape my theological journey in deep ways.

there were more experiences, of course.

i took old and new testament classes during undergrad that introduced me to scholarship and ideas about the bible that resonated deeply. it was almost as if i had this unspoken intuition–unspoken because i feared it–that was confirmed by what i was learning. 

in the early 2000s i saw my first NOOMA (short films by Rob Bell), which was all about the context of the stories in the bible. or at least that’s what i heard. i had no idea that context was a thing, or that it mattered. for all i knew, jesus lived in eastern kentucky and spoke elizabethan english with a southern twang. this new idea, context, was like a drug. i had to learn more about the bible, where it came from, and the sitz im leben to which it pointed. 

i could go on and on about this journey, but the point is that little by little everything was unraveling and being deconstructed. i carried this deep, foreboding sense that i would lose my faith if i kept pursing this. yet, i couldn’t not pursue it. i had to find out where this rabbit hole led. 

at some point i realized that i had been living with a false dichotomy. my understanding was that there are two choices: blind, unquestioned belief and godless doubt. what my experience has taught me, however, is that there are more choices. doubt and dissonance can actually lead to a robust, meaningful faith.

there’s a story in the new testament about jesus and one of his disciples, peter. jesus’ disciples were on a boat out in a lake that was being battered by wind and waves. early in the morning, the disciples saw jesus walking toward them. on the water. like you do. and peter’s response was to join jesus out on the water. 

which he does, for a least a couple seconds. then, when he saw the wind and waves, peter became afraid and began to sink. of course, jesus catches him and helps him back into the boat. 

most of my life, i’ve heard sermons that were critical of peter: he didn’t have enough faith, he doubted, and he sank. but recently i’ve been thinking differently about this story.

what if sinking is the best thing for us? what if, in honestly pursuing our doubts and the dissonance we feel, we actually create space for faith to grow?

this has been my experience. in losing the faith i grew up with–in sinking–i have found something so much more fulfilling and life-giving. it’s not the same faith i had, but it’s more meaningful. and it’s still growing, changing, and emerging. 

several years ago i tried my hand at surfing for the first time. i was in the pacific ocean (which was super cold) and the waves were really intense that day. i tried for almost an hour to stand up on the board, but i ended up being tossed around like a rag doll. then, finally, i did it. i rode a wave. for two and a half seconds. then i tumbled into the water. 

i happened to go under when a series of big waves came crashing in. every time i tried to surface for air, the waves would come down, pushing me onto the rocky ocean floor. i began to panic. i really thought it might be curtains. then i had this moment of clarity: i just need to stop struggling against the waves. i need to let them be. then, when there’s a break, i’ll surface. 

and that’s exactly what happened. 

perhaps it is in the embracing of our doubts, fears, and the dissonance we feel that we actually create space for a new, meaningful, and life-changing faith to emerge. 

so, may we learn to sink well.

Why Your Pastor Can’t Always Tell You What You Want to Hear

I have a confession to make. Usually, I don’t like to speak for other people, but for this post I am making an exception. Now, I’m not claiming to speak for all pastors/clergy/speakers. That would be ridiculous. However, I am speaking for people like me who have some explaining to do. 

So, here’s the confession: Sometimes your pastor can’t say the things you want him/her to say. I know this is disconcerting and alarming. I know there’s a comfort that comes from going to church and having the interpretations and understandings of God/Jesus/the Bible you’ve always held or assumed to be true reaffirmed. And when we can, we do just that. 

The problem is that we aren’t static beings, frozen in time. On the contrary, we are dynamic, living human beings; human beings that grow, learn, and change our interpretations. We, just like you, are on a journey with God–a journey that is anything but a straight line–and this journey demands an openness to rethinking and changing our minds when the evidence and Spirit insist it must happen. We don’t do this because we’ve decided that we don’t like the Bible and we need to change it to match our politically correct, culturally sensitive opinions. We don’t do it because we feel a pressure to capitulate to whatever it is that happens to be en vogue at the moment. Actually, to be honest, the pressure we feel is to just tell you what you expect to hear. After all, our very livelihood often depends on it. Yet, we also have this pesky problem called “integrity.” We have a deep need to live congruently, for what we hold to be true at the deepest levels and what we say to actually match. We aren’t trying to change the Bible; we are often saying, “Maybe we’ve totally misread and misunderstood the Bible in places. Maybe we need to go back to the Bible and wrestle with it afresh.”

Last week Tony Jones put up a post about an important public speaking lesson he’s learned from Rob Bell. Tony writes,

Rob’s main message, however, was this: Live a singular life. That is, if you don’t believe it, don’t say it. Be unified in your message and your life.

Sometimes we can tell you what you want to hear, because we believe it to be true in the depths of our being. Other times, we just can’t. We can’t lie to you, even if it means that you become frustrated, angry, and disappointed with us. We care about you enough to be truthful about our journey. We also care about our own growth and transformation too much to live compartmentalized lives that believe one thing and say another.  We aren’t intentionally trying to mess with your head or heart, or contradict what you’ve heard. We are simply trying, as best we can, to follow Jesus, be transformed by the work of the Spirit in our lives, and live with integrity–and to help others do the same, as we are able.

And, we are grateful to have this opportunity–this calling–to be on this journey of transformation with you. We take our role in your life seriously. We actually believe it’s a sacred responsibility we’ve been given.  So, thank you. Thank you for journeying with us, supporting us, and being willing to hear some things that, sometimes, are a little less than comfortable. Thank you for struggling and wrestling and being open to disagreeing and still loving one another. We are in this together. We need each other. That’s the truth.

Grace and peace.

Brian McLaren: Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, Mohammed, and Christopher Columbus

This past May we were honored to host Brian McLaren at MCC for a day of dialogue and learning. It was a day I will never forget, and I’m still unpacking and thinking through it in so many ways. 

During the afternoon workshop, one of Brian’s talks focused on his (brilliant and urgent) book, Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha, and Mohammed Cross the Road?  Part of this talk speaks to the impact and problem of Christopher Columbus. More and more of us, when learning about the actions and beliefs of Columbus, are becoming uncomfortable celebrating this day that honors his “accomplishments.” While celebrating this man’s legacy is problematic, we must remember all the uncomfortable details. To forget them would dishonor those Columbus and his men mistreated, and potentially doom us to repeating those same atrocities in other ways, on other people, today. 

If you would like to listen to Brian’s talk, you will find it here.

Labels, Walls, and the Divided Church

Our world, particularly here in America, is deeply divided. This division is often expressed through a series of labels:
Democrats and Republicans.
Liberals and Conservatives.
People who see an issue one way versus people who see the same issue differently.

We disagree, we label, and we essentially push those we disagree with aside and write them off as being “crazy,” or some other demeaning adjective. And this isn’t just a problem within our wider culture. This is a problem within the Christian community. A BIG problem. There are, according to some, 20-30,000 plus Christian denominations in the world today. All derived, so we like to think and hope, from the teaching and experience of Jesus. Yet, Christianity is deeply divided on so many issues. And, when we experience a disagreement we often just move to the other side of the road, put up a wall, and start a new church or a new denomination. Sometimes that is a necessary, unavoidable reality. But too often in this separating from one tradition and beginning a new we vilify and condemn the churches and denominations that we leave. Instead of partnering together on the causes we can agree on, we tend to erect massive walls that we hide behind—walls to keep others out, and keep us in.

But, this isn’t a new problem.

In Luke 9:46-50 (CEB) we find this same kind of mentality present among Jesus’ disciples:

An argument arose among the disciples about which of them was the greatest. Aware of their deepest thoughts, Jesus took a little child and had the child stand beside him. Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever welcomes this child in my name welcomes me. Whoever welcomes me, welcomes the one who sent me. Whoever is least among you all is the greatest.” John replied, “Master, we saw someone throwing demons out in your name, and we tried to stop him because he isn’t in our group of followers.” But Jesus replied, “Don’t stop him, because whoever isn’t against you is for you.”

Jesus’ disciples were, like us, trying to label and separate.

This guy isn’t wearing our uniform, he doesn’t have the T-Birds jacket on (Grease reference, anyone?), or the group tattoo/haircut/whatever…there are endless ways we seek to demarcate and separate ourselves from others.

There’s an us, and a them (everyone who isn’t an us)

One thing we often overlook in this passage is what the guy is actually doing. He is performing exorcisms. This begs the question,  Is it better to have more demons in you, or less?

Jesus responds by saying, “Ugh. You guys still don’t get it? We are both working for the same team. We’re all trying to liberate people from the oppression and bondage in which they live!” (My paraphrase)

These disciples have created a divider, a wall, that essentially separates the them and the us. And often, the only way we can define “us” is by defining them (think about this for a second!).

Who are we? Well, we aren’t them!!!

We construct these walls, and they oddly can become sacred spaces. We defend them at all costs. We set up snipers to take out anyone trying to make it to the other side. No wonder that Christianity is a shrinking tradition in the West. Among other issues, the amount of hatefulness and hostility that exists between Christians of different stripes sends people looking for peace, compassion, and community running the other way. We, humans, have ALWAYS been talented at building walls and then guarding them with hostility.

The bringing down of these walls became a metaphor for the writer of Ephesians.

First, a bit of context. The Second Temple in Jerusalem had several courts–areas that were designated for certain groups. Among them (moving from the innermost to the outermost) was the Court of Priests (the innermost), the Court of Israelites (for the males), the Court of Women (want to take a guess?), and the Court of the Gentiles (this was the outermost area, and Gentiles, i.e. non-Jews, couldn’t get any closer to the action).  Acting as a barrier to the rest of the Temple precincts, reserved for observant Jews, was the Soreq. The Soreq was a five-foot-tall stone-wall that surrounded the inner courts of the Temple grounds. It was designed to keep Gentiles out of the inner courts. 

In 1871, archaeologists discovered an inscription that warned Gentiles against trying to press further into the Temple precincts. Written in Koine Greek, it reads: 
“No stranger [foreigner] is to enter within the partition wall and enclosure around the sanctuary. Whoever is caught will be responsible to himself for his death, which will ensue.”


Isn’t that heartwarming? Yet it makes much sense of the imagery the writer of Ephesians draws upon when he writes these words about Jesus to a church struggling with the chasm between Jews and Gentiles:

“Christ is our peace. He made both Jews and Gentiles into one group. With his body, he broke down the barrier of hatred that divided us.” (Ephesians 2v14 CEB)

The question they had to wrestle with then–and we must wrestle with today–is why do we keep trying to divide what Jesus brought together. 

It isn’t miraculous that people who agree can get together and chant their slogans, create an us and seek to vilify the them who are different. It’s miraculous–the work of God–when people who have divergent opinions and interpretations can occupy the same space and drink from the same cup and eat from the same loaf.

The reality is that we get to choose our responses. When people are hateful and hostile, we are left with a choice. We can choose to return their hate and hostility, to treat them as we’ve been treated, or we can choose to tear down the walls and seek peace and understanding.

As Jesus said (admittedly about a different issue, yet I think the underlying meaning applies here), What God has joined together, let no one separate (Mark 10v9).