Does Our Church Heal or Harm? God’s Love, Part 3

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Yesterday was my birthday. Today feels like a day to say some things I’ve been holding back.

My friend Tim and I talked yesterday about how many people are hurt and wounded and damaged and traumatized by the church that follows Jesus Christ.

I can’t tell you how sick this makes me. I haven’t words to express that sufficiently.

But I’m certainly going to try.

I’m supposed to be bipolar, alcoholic, or both. Those were my genetic predisposition. I have anger issues and unforgiveness. Then there’s the depression. My cards were stacked heavily against my doing well. I’m smart but emotionally oriented in the world (ENFP) and so wildly skilled at sabotaging myself I should teach classes, or perhaps become a consultant. If only there were money in that.

But yesterday, as has become tradition (if something 15 years can properly be called “tradition”), I got outpouring of greetings and affirmation that come with a birthday on social media. I laughingly wonder if I could have a normal person’s self-esteem, if only I received that level of attention and encouragement every day. Probably not. I’d still hear criticisms louder than affirmations. <eye roll> But for today, I’m feeling clear on who I am and what I’ve done in the world, and for whom.

I should be a profoundly broken, damage-inflicting human being. Those were the odds for me, if Vegas had picked me up as a bet. Instead, I bring light and healing into the world. I called two of “my” young adults yesterday. They were happy to hear from me. They’re doing great. In my small way, I helped them to be doing great.

Know how I got here? Jesus healed me.

What wholeness and light and life I have and bring, Jesus gave me and gives me.

That’s how this works. Broken, small, wounded, hateful, hardened people meet Jesus and grow. Heal. Change. Jesus restores and redeems and transforms.

So what, in the holy and healing name of Jesus Christ, can we be doing wounding people in church?

My standard answer to this has always been “Well, the church is the gathered sinners, so of course we do bad things when we’re gathered together.” I know that’s true and accurate, but I’m sick of that answer. And I’m sickened by the results. I’m sickened by #ChurchToo–not by the courageous women and men speaking up, but by the horrific acts that made us need this movement–and I’m sick to death of Christians looking away from abusers when they find them “profitable.” Profitable due to their political power, financial giving, or their charisma. That’s called “making a deal with the devil.” It’s buying into Satan’s temptations in the desert, letting the end justify the means, which never, ever applies to following Jesus. “Where your heart is, there also your treasure is.”

Every day, every freaking day, churches cover up for pastors who sexually abuse parishioners. Each day, abuse victims are told by pastors and elders that they caused their own violation. They “tempted” the abuser, they dressed provocatively or in some other way caused their own harm.

I’m not Southern Baptist. I’m not Roman Catholic. I’m not pretending this happens only in their churches. And sexual abuse is only one form of the abuse that churches commit and cover up.

If 200 of you read this, then 50 of you know a woman being abused in some relationship right now. Just in case you thought we were talking about “those people.” Abusers more frequently target females. But we need to remember that males and transgender people also get abused in churches.

I’m going to give you my thoughts on how we address this as Jesus followers. If what I say offends you, I’m fine with hearing your counterpoint, but I ask this of you: care more about stopping abuse and fighting for the abused than about arguing with me. Other people who read this may be able to help someone with this information, so your attempt to rebuke or shut me down had better be pretty amazing, both to help abused people and shut me up.

God is not angry at people. God is not angry at people. God is not outraged at sin and feeling a need to punish and hurt sinners. Not the God I know. Not the Jesus who healed me. Do you get that? Angry God Theology contributes to abuse culture. God did not lash out at Jesus to punish him for the sins of humanity, as if they are separate entities. God, in Jesus Christ, took our sins upon God’s self. God is Trinity, so God both sent Jesus and came as Jesus, not one or the other.

Does God punish sin? Sin punishes us. We are not punished for our sins but by our sins. Does God hate sin? Yes, God hates seeing us being hurt, the same way you hate seeing your child hurt. NO, check that, more than you hate seeing your child hurt, as much more as God’s love is greater than our love.

God designed us and forbids sin because, in our design, sin damages us. God doesn’t have to punish us for hating; hating damages us, hardens our hearts, shrinks us, diminishes us, steals our joy. The punishment for sin is in the design. There’s no “getting away with it.” I can’t get away with resting my hand on a hot stove, no matter how sneaky I am nor how well I can justify my actions. The hot surface will burn my hand. Sin hurts us. Always.

Implication: we need to know what sin is and what sin is not and we need to stop talking as if God is angry at sinners, especially at those sinners, meaning the ones whose sins we don’t struggle with, the ones that the church often treats as especially unwelcome.

Abused women are shamed and threatened and manipulated to stay in their abusive relationships by being told that they deserve it, that this is what love looks like, that if they would behave better it wouldn’t happen to them. Holy Lord God, forgive us for talking the same way to women about their relationship with you!

God doesn’t love you by punishing you. Yes, I know, Hebrews 12, “God disciplines those he loves.” God disciplines us by not covering us from all consequences of our sins (stop and consider, for a moment, how many of your prayers for yourself were for God to prevent the consequences of your own sin). “Endure hardship as discipline.” Here again, God is not doling out a caning with his favorite beating stick. Understanding that we suffer and struggle and that God is with us in this and teaching us through it–including what part we may have played in inflicting the damage, which is maybe none and maybe more than we want to admit–that is enduring hardship as discipline.

Discipline is inherent to being a disciple, but Jesus doesn’t beat his disciples. Jesus leads us away from self-inflicted harm. We do also suffer for the Gospel, for following Jesus, but that harm comes from those who hate and strike out against the love offered to them, or for giving up comforts and taking risks to reach those who don’t yet know God loves them. Jesus never beats his disciples and God does not beat Jesus. God-in-Jesus-Christ took on the torture inflicted by hateful, racist men acting on the orders of hateful, proud, blind religious leaders. Jesus asked for forgiveness even for them.

To be clear, I have not changed the subject. I’m still talking about how the church must stop harming instead of healing We need a healthy theology rooted in God’s love for hurting, damaged people, not in “God’s rage at those who offend him.”

Beth Moore, an extremely popular and respected leader in the Southern Baptist church, recently and courageously called attention to one contributing factor–and symptom–of abuse within her church/denomination:

“Women who are being abused by the system itself, or within it by people that are in places of power, don’t even have a female to turn to,” she contended. “They don’t even know where to go.”

She explained that she means specifically “visible areas of leadership.”

Women should be in leadership at every level of the church. Women should be in leadership precisely commensurate with the gifts, abilities, and calling they have to lead. Period.

I don’t care if your theology doesn’t agree with that–No, I take that back. If your theology does not agree with advocating for women to lead, then go back to your church and figure out how to show women which women to whom they can turn when they are abused. I say “when” because it’s happening now in all our churches.

For those of us who believe women should lead, advocate for women in leadership. Affirm women’s callings. That’s a concrete way to combat abuse. When women who are called and qualified step into visible positions of leadership, other women who are abused will have a better chance to “know where to go.”

Now I’m going to tell you that I’ve experienced a woman who wanted to blame the victim of a sexual abuse situation and protect the violator. And yes, there are those who make false accusations of abuse. To deny an epidemic because of these statistical anomalies (two percent according to RAINN, whereas sixty percent of sexual assault goes unreported) goes beyond irrational into something far scarier and more evil. Therefore,

BELIEVE VICTIMS.

Three out of five victims of sexual assault do not report the violence because they are shamed, traumatized, and don’t think they will be believed. Historically, they’re right. For our churches to become safe places, places of healing and not places that inflict and cover up abuse, we have to believe those who found the courage to speak up. We have to convey beyond a shadow of a doubt that they are neither responsible nor guilty for being violated. If you have to choose between standing with the victim and staying in the church, I guarantee Jesus is walking with the one who got abused. And just to be clear, I communicate every day with people who have suffered such abuses and have been thrown out of church for being abused and trying to report it. Don’t imagine for a moment any of this is hypothetical.

I know this is a hard message. I know it’s tempting to close our eyes or turn our heads, especially if the abuse has not impacted us personally, directly. But it has. We are the Body of Jesus. That temptation is a big part of how we got here in the first place. Any message on the love of God rings hollow and mocking to women and men being abused by people who get to claim they speak for God.

This is how we communicate God’s love: we make the church a place that heals, not harms.

I would love to hear from you, either publicly or privately, if you have a personal response to this. If you’ve survived abuse, inside or outside of the church, I’m so grateful you’re still with us and I admire your untold courage. You are mighty just to be here.

Pam and Tad

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There are posts I feel I must write and others I really want to write. This one is both.

Saturday, Tad and Pam got married. So maybe I can die happy now. Perhaps I can die content. At the very least, one of my most desired and long shot bucket list items got checked off, and better than I ever dreamed it would. Oh, me of little faith.

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PC: Melissa Bird

I wrote an entire post about Tad three years ago, on his 29th birthday, because he is perhaps my favorite redemption story. You should probably read that one first to appreciate what has come to pass. I know Tad much better than I know Pam, but Pam is a person whose soul you see immediately. I don’t mean she’s superficial; I mean the opposite of that. Some people, you see the externals they put forward and maybe, eventually, you get to glimpse their souls. Some people, you have to remind yourself they do have a soul in there. But for Pam, from the first time I met her a couple years ago, I could see her depth, not because she shows that off, but because it simply shines through. She’s soulful.

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PC: Melissa Bird

Tad and Pam had their wedding in the woods. It was a camping trip and a party and a wedding ceremony next to a stream where salmon were struggling and spawning and dying right behind us, literally as Pam and Tad exchanged vows. The symbolism could not have been more perfect.

Life.

And death.

And life again.

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PC: Melissa Bird

The groom was helping construct the cake an hour before the wedding (was supposed to have) started. Picture six layers and frosting trowels. It came out wonderfully. It’s possible there was a separate cake with different ingredients. If so–and I confirm or deny nothing here–that cake may have been color-coded with green frosting.

There may have been a few hiccups. There may have been an item or two that didn’t arrive. We may have spent a little while tracking down the rings. It’s possible that someone forgot his vows and had to run back to the yurt and get them (a little under a mile–in the woods, remember?) just as the ceremony was about to start. It’s also possible this was the most beautiful wedding I’ve ever done.

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PC: Melissa Bird

A writer’s job is to make it so you didn’t “have to be there” to be there. For Pam and Tad’s wedding, I feel challenged to accomplish this. Some descriptions would break confidentiality while others would defy credibility. Some of the best details I simply can’t share; they have to stay at Pam and Tad’s wedding. Let go of the image of theme colors or bridesmaid dresses. The bride and groom, in their wedding attire, shucked oysters for

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the guests. Some of the superficial things might have caught your eye. One guy was wearing a full-body fuzzy onesie that included a hood with ears. I thought, more than once, “If all these people walked into a church, the regular attendees might feel a touch unsettled.” I would pay to see that happen. My guess is, most of them don’t.

But I want you to understand that a wonderful, unusual community of people gathered, who didn’t care if they got their shoes a little muddy, who likely hadn’t bought their outfits at The Gap, who were happy to carry chairs down a trail or sit on logs or stand for the ceremony, who came together to celebrate two simply amazing and profoundly fascinating individuals who love each other with their whole hearts. Tad is a former World Champion Oyster Shucker. Pam is the guitarist for the band Post/Boredom. That doesn’t scratch the surface for either of them. They wrote the best vows I have ever heard in my life. Kim and I felt bizarrely normal* in this setting, which is not a sensation to which I am accustomed. I also felt, for a moment of my nearly 51 years, that I had walked into precisely the right place at the right time. I was the guy to do this wedding.

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PC: Melissa Bird

Speaking bluntly, I never thought I would see this day happen, because A)I wasn’t certain Tad would live long enough to get married, B)I’m not sure I believed Tad would grow into the man whom Pam would want to marry, though I certainly prayed for it, C)in my wildest dreams, I didn’t picture the Sternin-Stearns being so well-suited for each other. When I say that, I don’t mean “the myth of the perfect match,” where you find someone whom you make perfectly happy just by being you, who makes you equally happy with no effort involved for either of you. I mean they are perfect for each other in how committed they are to each other’s happiness and to loving each other, in how much they get each other. I mean loving Pam has made Tad grow into the man he could be and now is. I mean a guy whom I wasn’t sure would survive himself or live to see 25 is now the perfect match for a woman who thought she would never meet someone she could commit to for life.

I broke one of the cardinal rules of weddings by asking the bride and groom a spontaneous question in the middle of the ceremony. But we weren’t exactly sticking with tradition for every detail.

“What do you love about the other person?” They kind of froze up for a moment or two. They were both pretty emotional. There’s a reason you don’t do this.

“Her patience,” Tad said, after a bit.

Pam had a harder time answering, not because she couldn’t think of something but because she was struggling to speak. I had a moment of wondering if I’d completely screwed up.

“How he’s always there for me, every day and every night,” Pam said.

How did Tad become the man who could fit that description? How did Pam see that in him and help bring that out? How did Pam realize about Tad, “I’m the lucky one to be with you?” which is also completely true. How did we find our way to a world where Pam and Tad could recognize each other and know, “You’re the one.”

Redemption stories are everywhere.


I’m not taking credit for Tad being Tad, or surviving his twenties, or becoming a man who has earned Pam’s trust and love. I could not have envisioned this, fifteen years ago when I got that phone call. But God is able to do immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.

PC: Melissa Bird

That’s what happened Saturday.

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*If you’re the only one who is “normal,” doesn’t that make you…

Will You Go to the Party? God’s Love, Part 2

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(Anthea Craigmyle, The Prodigal Son and his Father feasting)

Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love. God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. 10 In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. 11 Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us. I John 4:7-12


Imagine for a moment that when you hear, “Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love,” that this isn’t a shaming statement, but a simple declarative sentence, a statement of fact. If you don’t love, you don’t know God. If you love, that means you know God, for God is love. You can’t know God and not love. Everyone—hear this, everyone—who loves is born of God. That means you can’t love and not know God. There is no love in the world separate from God’s love. There are things we call “love” that are very different than this. But love comes fro God because God is love.

We are called to love one another. We learn what love is when people love us. “Oh, I get it! That’show it works!” We learn to love by experiencing love.

“God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him.” Now we believe in a Triune God, so this shouldbe a little mind-bending to us. If it’s not, that means we aren’t understanding it. “Tim’s love was revealed among us in this way, Tim sent Mike into the world.” Is that a parallel of what John is saying here? Nope, on somany levels. 

Tim and Mike are separate people. When we read that God sent his only Son into the world, we’re also reading that God chose to enter into the world. Separate, but not separate, because alwaysthe same, alwaysone. Whenever we hear anything about “God sent,” we have to remember that God chose to go as well as sending. In the same act. Tim sent Mike, so Mike goes. God sent Jesus, so God-in-Jesus goes. Tim doesn’t go when Tim sends Mike. God does go when God sends Jesus. Because God isJesus. 

How’s your brain? Need more coffee?

This is how God revealed God’s love among us, by this action: God-in-Jesus entered into our world. God sent Jesus into the world. God came into the world as Jesus. I don’t understand this perfectly, but I know it’s true and I know it makes a huge difference. All the difference. Again, if it feels clean and separate, that means someone took a break from thinking trinitarian, which is easier on the brain, but has the small drawback of being…inaccurate. God didn’t just enter into our world as a means of showing love, like a nice example; God entered into the world so that we might live through Jesus. We aren’t just learning by watching, we are entering into relationship with the Trinity. We are entering into love so that we, too, can love. We are living through God. All of that together is how God showed us love. 

“In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins.” 

This is what we mean by “love.” Not any version of “love” that we might substitute, but God’s definition of love, as best we can comprehend it. Nothing we initiate, nothing we do in our own power or summon up out of our own goodness. God loved us first. That’s where I started this series. You haven’t and can’t do anything to make God not love you. God loved you first. God loved you and you did bad things and God loved you. God loved you and God chose to become the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Remember, God sent, but also God came and God is. It has to be all of these for us to believe in a Trinity. If we separate them, we don’t understand God as Triune, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. (By the way, all the Hebrew references for Holy Spirit are in the feminine, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

I appreciate how The Message translation expresses this: This is the kind of love we are talking about—not that we once upon a time loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to clear away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God.

God cleared away our sins and the damage they’ve done to our relationship with God. God atoned for our sins. Atone means “make amends or reparation.” God heals and repairs what we’ve damaged in our relationship with Jesus by repairing it. We aren’t fixing this; God is fixing this. God has fixed this and is fixing this. That’s what love means. God’s Love means “I will not let you be separated from me by your own self-injury and bad choices and sabotage.”

How does the father of the prodigal in Luke 15 welcome home his son? Yes, the son walked home. That means the son chooses to have the relationship. The father then does all the reparation. The son offers his version of the reparation–”I could just be a slave here and you could keep me from starving and treat me like you don’t love me–” and the father just waves that off, interrupts, interjects his plan for restoration: robe, sandals, ring, party!

“Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another. 1No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.”

Now what if, instead of hearing this as a burden, or as one of those “Oughts” and “shoulds” that make us feel guilty, we heard this as the invitation to the party? 

What if our situation is this: God-in-Jesus-Christ comes rushing out and restores the lost, miserable child, gives back identity which was never lostbut was rejected—the child didn’t become not-the-son, but did start living as if he weren’t the son, though he always, always was; you can tell the father never disowned nor disinherited him. That’s how our God treats us; that’s how our God treats everyone else who is lost.

What if our situation is simply that we are deciding whether we will invite other people to the party and attend it ourselves? What if “We also ought to love one another” simply means, “Tell people they are welcome to God’s party?” Tell people who don’t believe God wants them attending that they are, in fact, the guests of honor. In a kind way, let them know their “Yabuts” make no difference to God.

“Yabut, I’m no longer worthy–”

“Sorry, just let me interrupt you right there. Yes, you are. You always have been. You’re still a beloved child. You always have been.” 

What if our decision is whether we will attend the party or refuse?

What if “we also ought to love one another” is a decision whether we insist on standing out in the yard, with our hands on our hips, judging our filthy failure of a younger brother while telling our loving father off

or

instead welcoming everyone to the party as we, ourselves, are welcomed? 

I’m not saying by this that loving is easy. Often it’s not. Sometimes it takes more than all we have and then we pray God gives us more. It’s not easy. But often it is simple.

Join the party. Or Refuse. Simple.

“No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God lives in us, and his love is perfected in us.” 

Last verse, last point. Again John is giving us an “if…then” statement. First, no one has ever seen God. Period. But God is more present than our merely getting to see God or even getting to hang out with Jesus. Ifwe love one another, thenGod lives in us. If we love one another, then God’s love is perfected in us. 

That’s a mighty big promise. 

If we love one another, then God lives in and andGod’s love is perfected in us. 

I’m going to tell you the truth right now: I can’t grasp what “God’s love perfected in us” means. I can believe that God is perfect, but there’s nothing about me that feels perfect. But I do know that God lives in me. I do know that in my own feeble, imperfect way I try to love others. So here is a crazy promise, given to us by John, who knew Jesus, hugged him, and laughed at his jokes: when we try to love like Jesus loves, when we accept our invitation to the party and invite others, God will perfect his love in us. I don’t know how long that will take. That might be the work of eternity. I’m in. 

But for now, since “perfected in us” might be more than we can grasp, take this along with you: As we love one another, all those reasons you had that God wouldn’t invite you to the party? God is transforming those to make you more and more like Jesus. 

When we love one another, God lives in us. Because God is love.

Without Love, Where Would You Be Now?

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Sermon at New Song Community Church. 9-29-19, on Luke 15 and I John 4:7-12

https://www.newsongcc.org/category/sermons/mike-rumley-wells-sermons/

Yesterday I preached at New Song, our church. I don’t preach there very often, but it’s our home church and I preach there as a part of the body, not as a “guest preacher.” I’ve also preached there, once in a while, for around 15 years now. It is home.

This one was good. I’ve learned that how I feel about a sermon afterward is a limited and often skewed perspective. I felt a little wonky after I preached–yes, that is a technical sermon-assessment term taught in most seminaries)–in no small part because Kim wasn’t there to squeeze my hand and tell me “Good job” or “It’s okay,” as the situation requires, as she has been for about 85% of my sermons.

But the feedback I got afterward, and having a day’s distance to re-evaluate, convinces me that God did a lot more than I realized.

Of course, that’s a laughably massive understatement, in the sense that God always does so much more than I can see, including often working through me in spite of me and my fumblings. God is good and grace is greater.

But I’m also celebrating this one because I’ve been more or less a mess since I moved back from Nicaragua and this felt like I’m finding me. Not “finding me again,” not going back to the me who left for Nicaragua is 2011, nor the shellshocked semi-monk who moved back in 2018, but the me God has been healing and piecing back together and reconstructing through the whole journey. It’s been a messy process for me to figure out how I’m walking with Jesus now. It always is. Jesus is faithful and I’m finding my stride again, as this “me.”

Most importantly, I’m remembering and relearning what it means that Jesus loves me. Hope this helps you know, too.

PS The random laughter you’ll hear came because I was using a music stand for my manuscript and it kept lowering, imperceptibly but determinedly, and for the life of me I couldn’t figure out how to adjust it. The fourth or fifth time it became pretty funny.

Who Says You Are Not Worthy? God’s Love, Part 1

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I’m “supposed to be” (according to me) working on my novel, but this blog post is erupting from my brain and has to happen right now. Possibly because someone needs to see it right now.

First, any thought you have that God cannot or will not love you is a lie. God can and does. Now.

Sin damages us. When we sin, we act against our design and hurt ourselves. If you hyperextend your knee, you’ve bent it the wrong direction, against design, and it hurts. You strain or tear tendons and ligaments. It takes time to recover. It may need surgery. It will hurt for a while. You may walk with a limp.

Sin hurts us. God hates sin because God loves us and God hates to see us damage ourselves. 

I know, some people want to insist that God is so offended by sin that he can’t look on us when we sin.

Jesus seemed very able to “look on” people when they sinned. In fact, Jesus told the story of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15 because the religious leaders got offended with all that “looking on” sinners that Jesus kept doing, eating meals with them, hanging out with them, going to their parties, making them feel loved. It really pissed them off, not to put too fine a point on it.

So Jesus stopped and addressed them. He told them three parables, specifically to address their gross misunderstanding about God.

Everything we know about God that we take from the lost sheep, the lost coin, and especially the lost son (“was lost and is found, was dead and is alive”) we heard because the Pharisees wanted to say, “No, these are shameful people! God can’t stand them! You have no business spending time with them! Come be with us clean, godly people and get away from them!”

Therefore, when I tell you that God loves you right now and any thoughts you have to the contrary are lies, I’m telling you “read Luke 15!” I’m telling you, “The Pharisees are wrong!” I’m telling you, “Don’t agree with the Pharisees about yourself!”

If we focus on how God is “offended” by our sin, we make God into a Pharisee. The Pharisees wanted to do that. Jesus upset them by telling them how wrong they were. If you read carefully, you’ll recognize that the elder brother in the parable looks and sounds an awful lot like..,them.

Sin does not separate us from God. I’m going to write that again.

Sin does notseparate us from God. 

“But Mike, the Bible says…”

Sin damages us. Sin makes us think wrong. When we sin it makes us think God doesn’t want us, or that we would be better off without God. But our sin does not make God go away. And we only go if we choose to.

The Bible says, Jesus says, the Father, who was watching for his son, saw him from a long way off, ran like someone unconcerned about his dignity, threw his arms around his pig feces-smelling child, and held him tight. It says the Father couldn’t wait to listen through his beloved son’s apology/self-rejection. 

“I’m not worthy to be–“

“Bring the robe and the ring and the sandals right now!Prepare the party! We are celebrating this boy!” 

You know who wouldn’t be around that young man? The elder brother.

“Now you listen to me, Father! All I’ve ever done is slave for you, I never got even a pathetic goat-roast party with my friends, and when this son of yours comes back from his whoring ways after devouring our fortune, you welcome him! I’m not coming in to his party! I’m offended at him and you! I can’t even look at him!” 

Get that? I’m paraphrasing, but I believe I’m accurately conveying the tone and attitude. It’s the elder brother, not the father, who can’t look, who turns away, who wants to hold us to our shame. The hardest thing in the world was for the younger son to come back. Do you think it got harder or easier once he arrived? Why?

Of course it got easier. The son knew the father wanted him home, welcomed him home, rejoiced in his return. I can’t think of any way he could have made that more clear, including confronting the brother who wanted to reject him.

Yes, I get a lot of my theology from Jesus. I’m supposed to. Jesus is God. I’m consciously christocentric and trinitarian. Jesus is the full revelation of God. Don’t read Jesus through Paul. Read all the rest of the Bible through Jesus. God is one, and God is consistent. If God loves you, then God loves you, not this part of God loves you but that other part rejects you.

And you know what? 

God loves you.

Back to us and our shame.

You may have done some bad things, some things you feel horrible about, maybe even some things you hope no one ever finds out about. 

Maybe these were things someone did to you. Maybe they are thoughts you have. Maybe they’re things you’re still doing and still hiding.

I’m not trying to out you. Being outed is just another version of being shamed. Being outed is violence.

The Bible says “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” I John 1:9

I’m telling you: God loves you right now, knowing what you’ve done, knowing what you’re doing, and you have neither alienated God nor made yourself unlovable. I’m telling you that shame you may feel is how you feel about yourself, nothow God feels about you. Ever. I’m telling you the lie is that your feeling toward yourself equals God’s feeling toward you. 

The lost son believed he was no longer worthy to be his father’s son. He was wrong. He wasn’t wrong that he felt that way–he did feel that way. He was wrong that it was a true, objective fact. He was wrong that his father felt that way about him. Ever. He was wrong that his father wanted to punish him and would take him up on “Yes, let’s humiliate you by making you my servant and you can sleep in the servants’ quarters and wait on your elder brother every day.” Guess who would have been satisfied with that judgment? The elder brother would have come to a “Let’s abase and mortify my (disowned) younger brother” party. 

Think about this for a moment. I know I’ve got my tongue in cheek a little here, but honestly, the brother who would not come to welcome his younger brother home, would he have attended a ceremony to punish and debase him? I’m almost certain he would have come in from the fields for that. Or just a good old informal reckoning where his shame and guilt were shouted out and he was stripped of everything (as if he had anything left to be stripped of)?

If you think that’s how God feels about you, you have the wrong picture of God.  If that’s how you feel about yourself….you have the wrong picture of God. What do I mean by that? God is not the elder brother. God gets the last word about you, not you. Otherwise you’re God. God decides if you are still worthy of being called “child.” Just as the father decided about his returning son.

God says “Yes.”

Post-script: After I wrote this post, I realized it was the sermon for Sunday. It became the first half. So I didn’t post this until after church. Part two will be the second half.

Light in the Darkness

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This is the darkest time in U.S. politics I’ve yet lived through. What do I do in response?

I’ve tried different things. I’ve gotten angry. I’ve gotten depressed. I’ve cussed a lot.

I tried to ignore what’s going on. I’ve immersed myself in the news. I’ve read the news from varying political positions. I’ve read international news on what’s happening here.

The last three days, I got to help some friends move by driving from Burbank, CA back to Wenatchee, WA. In doing so, I got to spend a ton of time with one of the best people I know. I’m not saying he’s one of the best people in the whole world, just one of the best people I know personally. He and my friends who were moving (his son and daughter-in-law) thanked me profusely and repeatedly, as well as feeding me well and putting me up in luxury accommodations. Don’t tell them, but I might have paid for two days of getting to hang out with this guy.*

As you might imagine, we talked about everything under the sun, though primarily sports and following Jesus. Not in that order.

We talked a lot about the grace series I just completed and our discussion drove home this one fact: now is the time to share more light.

The news is horrible and gets worse every day. Ignoring it feels unfaithful and following it depresses me.** I’ve given serious consideration to developing a new addiction. “Ooh, Mike, that’s dark humor and insensitive to those who deal with addictions.” Yeah, it would be if I were kidding. I decided I have enough challenges without that.

But what people need, always and especially now, is hope. Encouragement. Kindness. Reminders that they are loved.

You are loved.

Right now, in this moment, reading this blog post, you are loved. I don’t just believe that, I know that, with absolute certainty. Not that you will be loved when you make yourself lovable, stop doing the bad things you’ve been doing, or finally start doing the right things. Not when you have the correct views on politics or an accurate understanding of the world. Not when you get people to treat you better or more respectfully or as you deserve. You are loved right now.

YOU. Are loved. Right freaking NOW.

That’s the light.

How can I convince you of that? I can’t. I don’t have that power.

But I’ve realized I plan to do this with my one wild and precious life:

God, Jesus who is Christ, the Great and Holy Spirit that flows through all things, loves you more than you will ever know and more, perhaps, than you will grasp in an eternity with God.

For those keeping score, that’s one God, not three (Trinity and all that jazz) who does not have conflicting views on you. God isn’t angry with you and taking it out on Jesus while the Spirit tries to win Him over. God isn’t biologically male, either, though Jesus was as a human and God incarnate. But that’s just my best understanding and if that throws you off or pisses you off, don’t let it sidetrack you. The point is, God loves you. You don’t need a perfect understanding of who or how or why; you need to know it’s true. You need to know it’s real. Being loved and knowing you are loved changes us. Maybe not instantly–though sometimes it does–but inexorably, i.e. “in a way that is impossible to stop or prevent.”

That’s pretty cool.

“Yeah, but–“

Believe me, I have “Yabuts” about God’s love, too. Again, I can’t convince you. What I can tell you is this: in my fifty years of life it’s the one constant I’ve known. God redeems. God heals. God loves.

You know why that guy is one of the best people I know? He’s been hanging out with God for sixty-some years. He told me he’s never felt closer to God or been more excited about God than he does and is right now. He started out with a theology that did not focus on God’s love. At all. It gave him guilt and shame. Lots of rules. Plus, a clear message that anyone who didn’t believe right, meaning exactly like his church did, would burn in hell for eternity.

But God’s love? Inexorable.

This many years of hanging out with God and he exudes God’s love. Even when he’s making fun of me (not so hard to do), I feel loved. How would you not want to spend time with a guy like that?

Cuz you know what that really means? I spent 1200 miles being reminded that God loves me. Talking baseball and theology and singing along to Bob Seger and Bad Company and The Doobies and, underlying it all, that constant reminder. God does love me. It was a great way for me to spend three days.

I wish the same for you. Maybe not sitting in a car for twenty-one hours over two days, but to that same depth.

This doesn’t magically solve the feces storm we’re in right now. I’m not claiming it does. It doesn’t instantly heal depression or take away our responsibility to fight injustice happening all around us. For that last one, quite the opposite.

But this is the light we need to remember so we can keep going through this darkness. It’s the light that reminds us the whole world isn’t darkness. In fact, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

There are people given over to evil doing evil things and many other people whom I believe have good hearts who are going along with it. I can’t explain this and it grieves me to my solar plexus. Discourages the hell out of me. Makes me want to scream. Tempts me to give up on humanity.

But the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not and will not and cannot overcome it.

God’s love shines through this evil. God’s love shines through my darkness. God, astoundingly, loves those people given over to doing evil. God loves those people who are going along with it.

Most astoundingly to me, God loves me.***

Therefore, now is the time to shine.

The next series will be on God’s love for us and how that love changes us.

*Certainly don’t tell him that, or he’ll start charging me to hang out.

**That’s for me. You decide the faithful balance for you.

***I’m not being facetious. I know me better than I know them and I know more clearly what is (to me) unlovable in me.


Eighth-Day grace

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Today, I’m flying to Burbank to help my friend Tim’s son, Joe, move up to Washington. I’m in Sea-Tac airport right now.

This past week, we had two separate house guests, Adrien and Ari, each of whom gave us what many would consider minimal (or even insufficient) notice that they were coming. I say “notice” rather than “request” because I would welcome each if them if they gave me ten minutes’ notice and our house were on fire. To be clear, I had given previous–and evidently successful–open door policy to both. Ari dropped me at the airport this morning as she continued on with her travels. I know some people have busier and less flexible lives than we do. But after seven years living in a place where we could rarely see some of the people we dearly love, I consider it a privilege to hear “Hey, I might be at your house in eight hours to stay for a few days. That okay?” It’s more than okay.

Friends are grace.

I don’t deserve my friends. In more cases than I care to describe, I have given my friends reason to give up on me. They haven’t.

Today, I get to help Tim, who has been faithful and supportive when others have been blasé, indifferent, or plain rejected me and us. This isn’t “payback.” This is getting to love a friend who has loved me when I needed it most.

True friends are grace.

I love having friends who live very different lives than I do. I love being part of their lives, even when I can’t always understand their lives. I love getting to live vicariously through their adventures. My friends make my life bigger and more real. My friends help me see the world I’m living in. Of our two friends who just stayed with us, Adrien is an artist and Ari is…an artist, in a very different way. All my friends are artists take it slow.

When I recently posted a humorous comment that I am not an adult, another of my friends, Jake, jumped in and debated, as he tends to, arguing that I am one of the most adult people he knows–as no one has ever argued before. Now the arguments that I’m not-so-very adult are easy to make and involve things like organization and punctuality and willingness to answer the telephone…or own a telephone. When I pick on myself this way, I’m being self-deprecating and taking easy shots at myself. I’m also talking about things I dislike about myself which, were I doing that to someone else, you would call “cruel.”

But, you know, self-cruelty is funny. Right?

This friend argued that “adult” is more about character.

I’m not going to wade further into whether I’m an adult or not. My friend swept aside my self-mocking to call attention to positive and empowering characteristics he recognizes that I offer the world.

Friends. Are. Grace.

I’m not trying to teach you any new insights about friends or friendship with this post. Maybe that will be another series. I’m about to board the plane. Today, I’m reminding you of this simple truth that we “know” but take for granted most days. I’m not taking it for granted today.

Most of what I’ve experienced of God’s love, I’ve experienced through other people.*

Friends are grace.

*I always thought Anne Lamott said that, but I’ve never been able to find the quote…so maybe I said that. If you know the original source, let me know.

Sunday grace

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Sunday grace is the grace of rest.

I had planned on leaving it at that and concluding with a seven-word post.

But there is at least one other thing to be said about rest: not all resting is equally restful. Not all down time is equally restorative. We can “take time off” and end up more tired and emotionally drained than when we began.

There is a big difference between resting, escaping, and numbing. (There’s also a big difference between dead and mostly dead. I’ll address that another time.) I suspect this varies with each person, so I will just describe it for myself. There are times when I am tired and what I need most in the world is exercise. I need for my body to move and my mind to stop spinning. Those are not times for me to “rest” by getting online and checking out the latest political happenings. Or I need to move in order to reflect and let God speak. Those are not the times to binge on the latest Netflix offering.

To “recreate” is to re-create. That makes “recreation” much more important than mere “down time.” How do we re-create ourselves? How do we let God re-create us? When we are torn down, when we are dulled down, when we are stomped down, we need re-creation. What re-creates you?

We have to find our own recreation. I love to hike. I love to be in mountains, where I see God, where God speaks to me and reminds me that I was made for more than hunching over a computer.

Sunday grace.

By the seventh day, God rested. God did. God had completed the work of creation and God made that day holy with rest.

A day of rest is holy. Rest is grace.

God commands us to rest. Rest is grace.

What allows you to rest? What do you have to turn off to rest? Do you know when you need to re-create for deeper rest?

Why does God make a specific day holy and say “Come, rest with me?”

Do we receive that grace?

There are, of course, health concerns of overwork and burnout and stress, studies that show how choosing not to rest can compromise or sabotage our immune systems. We have science to back up our need for rest. God knows.

Sunday grace opens us to all other grace. Without Sunday grace, without rest, we still believe that we earn our worth, our acceptance, our love.

Rest, and believe in grace.

Saturday grace

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Saturday grace is beautiful grace. Saturday grace can take your breath away. Sunsets that make you stop whatever you’re doing because, for a moment, taking in their beauty becomes the most important thing. A ranch that takes neglected, abused horses and pairs them with neglected, abused children and somehow both, all, are healed. Saturday grace is the kindness of strangers, especially when we’ve screwed up. Saturday grace is that there are still kind souls in this world.

I started this series because I was seeing too much evil and ugly in this world and I can’t make it go away. I can’t pray it away. I could bury my head in the sand or make myself numb, but doing so wouldn’t solve anything nor help either of us. I can point out where hope remains. I can remind myself why we might hope, in spite of all we see and hear. I can change my focus and look for light instead of darkness. So I decided it was time to talk about grace again.

Mountains and oceans and flowers and birds are grace. Music we love is grace. Dancing can be grace. Practicing your art form and feeling that moment–that moment, when it clicks, when you find the elusive “it”–that is grace, a gift from God-Who-Is-Creator who made us co-creators.

Saturday grace is the unmistakeable grace we still see in the world, the grace that anyone with an open heart, regardless of beliefs, must recognize. When we’ve blown off a friend who, instead of guilt-tripping us, shows us extra understanding and offers their support, this is Saturday grace. We sometimes miss grace because we mistake kindness and generosity for what we have coming to us. Saturday grace is that moment when we know we didn’t have it coming.

Martin Luther wrote, “If you could understand a single grain of wheat, you would die of wonder.”

Saturday grace means seeing the world as full of grace. It means not imagining that this is merely what we deserve–which is the opposite of grace–but grasping that this is how much God loves us and this is the love God wants to show us.

Ephesians 3, The Message:

I ask him that with both feet planted firmly on love, you’ll be able to take in with all followers of Jesus the extravagant dimensions of Christ’s love. Reach out and experience the breadth! Test its length! Plumb the depths! Rise to the heights! Live full lives, full in the fullness of God.

In the end, “grace” is a way to say “God loves you, and God’s love in action looks like this.”

And guess what?

Grace is greater than you think it is.

Friday Grace

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Are you curious what grace is Friday’s? I’m going to keep you in suspense.

This has been a weird week. Of course, one could make a compelling argument that every week of mine is weird. I’m writing a series on grace. I’ve gotten encouraging responses, several shares and thanks, and had three people unsubscribe. This week. During the grace series. As ever, who reads this and why remains a mystery I will never solve. Each day has gotten fewer reads. Why? Do people need less grace by the end of the week?

Another odd thing about this week: I’ve blocked two people on Facebook. I rarely block anyone and grace week feels a strange time to have done so. I block people who send me hate mail. They didn’t. I simply reached the end of what I could carry with each of them. I take everything personally–in case you thought I’ve been kidding every time I’ve said that here–and certain types of criticism, delivered in certain tones, eat at me. I can’t let them go. So they end up taking a massive toll on me.

With that confession, we’ve arrived at Friday grace. Friday grace is grace for ourselves. Friday grace is that we accept ourselves, even love ourselves, with our limitations.

How is that grace? How is that biblical?

I am imperfect. I fail and fall short in so many ways. I know Jesus and I have a pretty good idea what love should look like in many contexts. The thing I know I should do I do not do, and the very thing I know I should not do, that I do. Sound familiar from somewhere? (Romans or your life, you pick.)

Here’s the crazy thing about God: God is not angry at me for falling short. God is not angry with me even though I know better. God does not condemn me for my failures. There is now no condemnation in Christ. No, I’m not taking that out of context. This is precisely the context. Romans 7 goes into Romans 8, thanks be to God. When we complete Romans 8 we know nothing–nothing–can separate us from the love of God, but remember we began at Romans 7 with my massive failure to do what I should do, even though I know better.

Friday grace is I don’t have to hate myself for being imperfect. Friday grace is that I can learn to love my imperfect self because God loves my imperfect self. Is God still working in me to perfect me? Absolutely. But not in a pissy, putting-up-with-this-for-now, kind of passive-aggressive, withholding-approval-until-you-get-it-right way. And if you don’t understand that description I just gave, I’m describing every single one of us who struggles to love ourselves.

God loves me more than I love me, and Friday grace is it’s okay to love myself like God loves me, with the same grace that God shows me.

That may not be radical for you, but it really might be, too. “Loving yourself” by demanding more and treating yourself harshly until you produce is not grace, certainly not the grace we want to show others, the grace we say–and believe?–God shows us.

Welcome to Friday grace.

Love your neighbor as yourself. You know the grace you have been called to show your neighbor. (“And who is my neighbor?”) That’s the grace God offers you. That’s the grace God gives you to show yourself. From you, to you. You can forgive yourself because God has forgiven you. You can show yourself grace because Jesus has taken your sin to show you grace.

Friday grace. You can choose.