“God Enters In” now available

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Last year I wrote an Advent reflection series. Several wonderful people told me I should turn it into a book–they’re wonderful independent of that they like my writing, by the way–so I took good advice. I know, will wonders never cease? I polished them up and edited them and added a bit and voila! an Advent devotional book.

So you can now get God Enters In on Kindle, including with the free Kindle reader app, so you can read it on basically any screen. For those of you who have never tried that, the link just to the right of the book cover on the same page, where it says “Read with Our free app.” You can get there by clicking here, then clicking on the link when it pops up.

Speaking of the book cover: my brilliant, artistic nieces Aislyn and Annika designed the cover for me! Feel free to leave a comment telling them how great it is.

I’m working on getting both this and Something Like Faith out in paperback. I’m a bit challenged in this area, so if anyone is handier at the whole digital revolution, I would accept help gratefully and pay you in chocolate or free books.

Of course, you can also still read the Advent reflections here on my blog. I haven’t taken them down, in case anyone can’t afford the book right now or just prefers the blog version.

Thanks for all the encouragement and support for my writing. I hope you have a blessed and healthy Advent season. I always remember this is not the easiest time for everyone and, some years, has been the most difficult for me. I do believe God is with us.

“A sane person to an insane society must appear insane.”

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― Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House

My wife Kim teaches kindergarten. Some children begin kindergarten already so at risk, so behind, with such severe behavioral problems that their chances to succeed are minuscule. Kim has one right now.

We live in an insane society in which people have agreed that certain behaviors qualify as sane and, so long as you follow those behaviors, you will escape scrutiny.

The terrifying part of “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which likely doesn’t occur to you when you hear the story as a child, is: what if you can’t get the people to admit what you see so clearly?

How long can you keep saying, “But…he doesn’t have any clothes on” while everyone else goes on praising his finery and telling you you’re wrong, you’re blind…

You’re crazy.

How long are you sure you’re right? How long can you stand there being shouted down? What if you see the Emperor on television, day after day, stark naked, and every single day the newscasters tell you “He’s dressed to the nines, astounding what good fashion sense he has, bold and daring yet not overbearing or garish, just…so tasteful.”

But he’s not. Wearing. A damn. Thing.

I’ve lived this before. I’ve been criticized because I wasn’t fitting someone else’s crazy and could not, for the life of me, see how it made sense, how it could possibly make sense. I had my whole life of experience that this was gonzo and joining in wouldn’t make it any less crazy but would certainly make me more crazy.

But even when you know, it’s hard to stick to your guns.

Here’s another complicating factor: to learn, we have to acknowledge that we could be wrong. If you can’t be wrong, you can never learn anything new. If you can’t be wrong, then you better already know everything and be right about everything.

But he still doesn’t have anything on.

I want to be open-minded and humble and educable. But all the open-mindedness in the world isn’t covering his nether regions.

Wisdom and experience, which are cousins, tell me there are certain beliefs I need to carry humbly and hold loosely, while others are more objectively true. Rain is wet. Open-mindedness to counter arguments might appear more diplomatic, but you don’t really mean it because, come on, water is wet.

“The Party told you to reject the evidence of your eyes and ears. It was their final, most essential command.” George Orwell, 1984

But what if they tell you it isn’t? What if they tell you it isn’t and mean it?

Here, then, is our situation, our conundrum, and no, none of this is hypothetical, not one syllable:

What if you know what you see with your own eyes but others insist you don’t see it, including some you once trusted? What if they tell you that you have some condition, some mental problem that causes you to overreact and start to see things that aren’t there (or not see things that are)?

What if they tell you he’s fully clothed and the rain you’re standing in isn’t drenching you?

What did any of this have to do with that child in my wife’s class?

That child I’m describing isn’t hypothetical, either. Kim has a student in exactly that situation and is struggling mightily to find some way to help. That’s real.

I want us to invest our time and energy and resources to help children who should not be doomed at five, rather than diverting these into trying to convince people that the guy strutting around with no clothes on is, in fact, starkers.

Call me crazy.

Kindess is More

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“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”

One job of preachers is to call out when we’re nodding and smiling but not actually applying things to our lives.

Honestly, I think a lot of us read this and think, “Yeah, they should be more kind.”

Grammatically, of course, this does not address “them.” The subject of the sentence is “you understood” (thank you, Mr. Knox). So it would read, “In a world where you can be anything, [you] be kind.”

It’s talking to us. It’s reminding us. It’s exhorting us.

What does it want us to do?

First, let’s distinguish between “nice” and “kind.” I’m not a big fan of “nice.” “Nice” generally strikes me as superficial. It’s difficult to be superficially kind. I don’t know if kind works at a superficial level. Nice tends to be about how we want others to perceive us, whereas kind requires a commitment to care about the other person. Grace is kind but we don’t tend to associate it with being nice. When I speak harshly to someone and, instead of snapping back in turn, they ask, “Are you okay?”–which I’m not–I would not label that as “nice.” They show me grace by being kind, by caring about how I am and why I am behaving this way, rather than retaliating.

Kind is paying enough attention to see what someone might need from us, even if they don’t ask. Kindness is doing good to people to whom no one else pays attention, to people who might even make us look bad if we associate with them. Nice doesn’t do that. Nice might say “hi” to the person holding the sign asking for help, but nice doesn’t stop and enter a conversation, make eye contact, ask for a name and remember it. Kind does that.

In a world where you can be anything, be someone who stops to talk with a person holding a sign asking for help.

“But Mike–“

Yes, I know. So many objections. Some of them reasonable and well-argued. But that’s what I’m telling you, kindness doesn’t make those arguments. Kindness doesn’t dig a trench to fight over why I shouldn’t help someone. Kindness sees with different eyes.

We can’t be kind in the abstract or from a distance to people with whom we have no connection. If I feel bad that Syrian refugees are suffering, that doesn’t make me kind. I might imagine that it does. I might take that as part of my picture that I hold up for myself and say, “Oh, Mike, look how kind you are! You feel bad for people.” (Or “badly,” if I want to imagine myself both grammatical and kind.)

Again, I’m not looking to quibble on this. It’s a good thing to feel bad(ly) when we see others suffer, and sure as heck better than feeling indifference or superiority or that insidious “somehow they’re getting what they deserve and I, here not suffering, am also getting what I deserve.” Yeah, that one is grotesque. I’m not naysaying a soft heart. I’m just discussing how being kind is reflected, always, in action, in choice, in volition. By their fruit, you will know them. By our fruit will we know ourselves, if we’re honest and in this for more than appearance. I hope we are.

In a world where you can be anything, be someone who looks for opportunity to affirm others, who looks for strengths to call out, not weaknesses to exploit or mock. Look for good in people that they can’t see and call their attention to it. Again, kindness thinks about the other, not just myself. In a world where you can be anything, encourage, affirm, appreciate, empower. Don’t flatter, compliment. Don’t be creepy about it. Don’t get offended if they don’t take it the way you want them to. Kindness understands that in this moment it’s about them. If you affirm something about which they feel sensitive, a sore spot or an area in which they’ve been criticized or feel insecure, they may not know how to take it. They may try to fend off the affirmation, or argue, or dismiss it.

“Well screw you, I was trying to be nice!”

Guess what. Kindness doesn’t say that. Nice does. Because nice wants to look nice and be recognized for it. Kind knows that some of the most impactful affirmations get some of the worst initial responses. Kind understands that wounded people don’t always trust motives, don’t always believe a compliment or take it at face value. Sometimes they can’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve said something I hoped would encourage and the other person turned it around to be a put down* (and, in fairness, I’m kind of a master at this, myself). Sometimes that means clarifying; other times, we just need to let the seeds grow and look for more opportunities. When you tell someone who feels stupid that they are smart, you set off some serious dissonance. This is good, because that ugly thought needs to go, but now there’s an internal battle going as the negative voices attack the intruder, the kind word. And maybe you.

“But Mike,” someone objects,” this is complicated. I just wanted to…”

Be nice. I know. That’s what nice says. I’ve said it. Absorbing someone’s lashing out for trying to love them is one of the kindest things you can do. It’s not rewarding, certainly not initially.

It is, however, loving. Kindness asks more of us.

One more. In a world where you can be anything, be the person who takes the side of the bullied. Standing up to and confronting bullies might be a different word and blog post that goes beyond “kind.”** Refusing to bully is kind, especially when you feel pressured to join in. So is looking for those who get bullied or abused and letting them know you see them, you hear them, you validate their hurt.

This especially matters when the bully denies wrongdoing or the world seems committed to affirming the bully, which, to an injured person, sounds a whole lot like “What happened to you doesn’t really matter. What really matters is them!” This takes many forms. We’re seeing a lot of evangelical leaders caught in/confessing abuse recently. I shudder to think how many more haven’t been stopped. I seek to be about grace, but do you wonder what it sounds like to a person who has been abused when the discussion focuses solely on “How soon can we get this [abusive] person back into ministry?” What does this sole focus on help for the abuser say to those still getting abused?

Kind sees that. Kind hears those words as a person trying to survive and recover would hear them. Kind reaches out, speaks up, embraces and offers ears to hear, space to scream, validation. Nice might say, “Well, all sin is the same and we all sin” (a theological twisting of Scripture, by the way), but kind says, “That was evil and you have every right to feel this rage; God doesn’t expect you to stuff it down or repent of your emotions from being abused.” Kind understands that healing is messy. Nice doesn’t want mess. Kind enters in and wears a raincoat and waders, if necessary. Kind is in.

In a world–okay, sorry, I have to do this–in a world in which you can be anything: cool or indifferent, self-centered or self-serving, superficial or self-righteous or nice,

Be Kind.

And may God change us, all of us, as we try.

* This is a separate category from “You thought that was an affirmation when you told the stranger/co-worker/waitress ‘Hey, Baby, nice hips’ and she glared at you.” If you don’t have that one figured out yet, we should talk privately; you may have some ground to cover before “kind.”

**This is a powerful form of love, of course.

I’m not giving up my idealism

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I spent a lot of time cleaning the kitchen this past weekend. I scrubbed, mopped, wiped down, and put away for at least three hours on Saturday alone. I don’t like cleaning, I’m not particularly good at it (yes, neat freaks, in this context I grant you that this is the same as saying “I’m lazy about it”), and my eyes don’t tend to see the same messes my wife’s do. But this time, the more I cleaned, the more I recognized things needing to be cleaned, so I kept going.

The kitchen was dirty again Sunday night. I mean, we had our weekly family dinner, eight guests in addition to the four of us, so twelve times soup and corn bread plus a three-year-old in the mix and that critical mass of enough people that no one really thinks its their job…until it’s 11:40 PM and I still need to clean the kitchen. Again.

So I did.

The kitchen will never stay clean. I can’t fix that. But even I know you still have to keep cleaning the kitchen. Is that idealism? No one seems to think so–until you have this same conversation about other things that can’t be fixed but still need to be changed.

I won’t surrender my idealism. I will share it with you. But you can’t take away my hope that things can be better nor my commitment that we can improve. No.

Just because politicians have been lying and stealing doesn’t mean that politicians must lie and steal. I refuse to believe that. I refuse. Politics have become horrible–or maybe have been horrible and are getting worse–but I am believing in, praying for, and working toward better.

How about pollution? This week someone told me how ridiculous she thinks the idea of banning straws is. Such a tiny step, banning the smallest thing when our pollution problem is so severe. She concluded that she knows it’s all a big problem but she doesn’t have any solution.

I understand, and feel the same frustration and futility, but I will not stop there. I don’t know how to clean up this world that we’ve trashed, but we did trash it; we are responsible to clean it up and live in it more responsibly. I refuse to shrug my shoulders and utter an expletive (‘cuz you know I would never) and decide it’s hopeless. No.

If giving up plastic straws helps us to grasp that we have a problem and starts us down the road to cutting down on our use of plastic, especially single-use, then it’s a good step. It will take us in the right direction. Yes, it’s only 4 percent of our plastic that enters the ocean, 2,000 tons of the nine million tons. We are, collectively, dumping nine million tons of plastic into our oceans each year. That should make us scream in horror and change our habits. Cutting back by two thousand tons won’t fix this, but doing nothing won’t fix this, and making fun of the idea while doing nothing sure as expletive won’t fix this. This concept is obvious when we talk in terms of the kitchen. But pollution is like the massive dinner party that makes a huge mess but whose responsibility is it to clean up, anyway? Unless it’s killing you. Or your children.

Or our planet.

On Sunday, an older woman (that term is changing, now that I’ve hit fifty-one) approached me to tell me that her husband, who has been struggling severely with depression, is doing better. He seems to be coming out of it, has found energy to be active again, and can smile now. She wondered if I would be willing to talk with him sometime?

I told her “Of course, I’d be very happy to. I absolutely get it, since I struggle with depression, too.” I had assumed she was asking because I can relate. She did a double-take. Then she said, “You do? I would never have guessed that. You always seem so positive.”

I don’t always feel positive. A good percentage of the time, I’m discouraged by many people’s suffering, some people’s cruelty, and my own negative, self-critical thoughts. But I believe God is good and faithful. I believe Grace is somehow greater than all this evil swirling around us and battling inside us. I try to be as honest as I can–as honest as I believe is helpful–about my own struggles. It’s good to hear that people see me as positive. I want to be honest about my struggles and give people hope in the world. Yeah, this world is a crazy, ridiculous, tortured, miserable mess, but it’s also our God-saturated, achingly beautiful, hauntingly sacred home, and for each time I feel tempted to check out, I am also called back by something much deeper, and convicted to defend fiercely the ones I love. God’s work in me is to expand that category of whom I’m willing to love.

If I wax poetic here, you’ll have to excuse me. It is, after all, a post on idealism. I refuse to surrender mine. I’ll share it. I’ll give it away freely. I’ll call it out in others and wear myself out trying to fan the tiniest, weakest spark of it that I detect–in you–into flame.

Cynicism masquerades as wisdom, but wisdom is a deep, running, crystal-clear stream. Wisdom may knock the breath from our lungs but it leaves us more alive and grateful to be alive. Cynicism is small and shriveled and self-protecting, a dirty puddle, or perhaps a brittle shell in which to hide and pretend to be untouchable. If love believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things, cynicism doubts all things, questions all things, disputes all things.

“All is not lost. 
Reject hopelessness concerning humanity.
Hope is resistance.” –Bernice King

We are seeing the worst of humanity and yet I do not believe the worst about humanity. I do not believe God hates us, or finds us vile and unlovable but then Jesus changes God’s mind. I believe God loves us passionately, desperately, relentlessly, and God’s love makes us lovable, God’s image makes us beautiful–and we are born in God’s image.

I’m not hopeless about humanity. If a five-year-old girl can survive her father’s murder and grow to become a voice of love and reconciliation, I’m not hopeless. God redeems Yes, there are people given over to hatred. Yes, we resist them. We resist them with hope. We resist them with an immovable belief that this cloud of hatred will pass. When I say “immovable,” I don’t mean we never doubt; I mean we never quit, we never despair. God’s love will have the last word. It is tempting, every day I am tempted to return hatred for hatred. I am angry at so much of what is happening and it is but a small, sideways step from anger to hatred, at least for me.

But I am loved. God saved my life by loving me and love sets me free, not hate.

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” “Perfect” here may translate better as “compassionate.” Either way, Jesus calls us to this idealistic, impossible life…then enters into this life with us and starts changing us into people who love instead of hating and fearing, who love others and ourselves as he does.

The kitchen will never be perfectly clean. Banning straws will never solve pollution. Loving our enemies will never make them our friends.

Of course not, of course not…and it just might.

Stopping cleaning the kitchen because we can’t get it perfectly clean and make it stay that way sounds ludicrous. Also, bad for marriage. Giving up on solving pollution because it’s too big and small measures don’t help–but who wants to agree to big measures?–is the same as saying, “I don’t care about the next generations.” I do.

Loving our enemies is every bit as idealistic and unrealistic…and is also the core of Jesus’ Gospel. Why don’t we call this “idealism?” Because we have faith God can work through love to make the impossible happen. If that’s not idealism, I don’t know what is. All my idealism is rooted in faith. It’s simply believing, by faith, that things can be better in spite of how bad they are now and have been before. “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

This week, my friend Tim told me a story about his friend Jaideep. Jaideep directs a New Song school in India. There was a problem with one of the students, so he and his father went to pay the family a visit–and the student’s father and uncles pulled Jaideep and his father from their car and beat them. Of course, the children stopped going to school

Jaideep later returned to the family’s house. The father met him at the door.

“Where are the police?”

“I didn’t bring the police.”

“Then why are you here?”

“Your children need to be in our school. You need to let them come back.”

The children are back in New Song school. Jaideep loved his enemies.

I’m going to try–cleaning, fighting pollution, and loving my enemies–and I hope you are, too, because the alternative will lead us on a path away from hope and love. I won’t go there. Don’t you, either.

I hope I get to hang out with that older man coming out of his depression. I hope I can see beauty where others do not and then help them to see it, too. I hope by standing up against injustice, we change things for the better–including the injustice inside of us and the injustice of our making.

I’m going to hope for all this. I’m going to believe in the world Jesus calls us to see, through faith.

Join me.


You Can Do This: Finding Hope in Dark Political Times

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Today I’m writing to you. You might be a Jesus follower. You might be spiritual and seeking light in this darkness. You might feel alienated or rejected or even orphaned from your community. Trust me, I know a lot of people who feel as you do. I talk to them every day. I talk with us every day.

I’ve got two things to tell you, and I’m going to sound irrationally hopeful and confident. I’m here on my couch with our dog Nicki sleeping on my arm. Maybe a sleeping dog with the lightest of snores–okay, not the lightest–makes one feel like everything could turn out alright after all. And I do mean all.

Jesus remains faithful. I can’t explain why people who pray to the same God as we pray can see things, facts, faith, diametrically opposite to how we see them. I’ve tried and tried to understand and I concluded–maybe five minutes ago–that it’s not my job to understand. I can’t persuade them. I need to keep speaking the truth that God shows me. I need to show grace and kindness in disagreement. I’m learning to do those.

You can do this. That’s the first thing. You can be light in this darkness. You’ve done it; you can do it; you’ll keep doing it. I’m not debating in this one whether we’re in darkness. Part of what makes us feel crazy every day is that somehow we have to debate this fact. That’s exhausting. Today’s was “human scum,” but it’s a new one every day. Every day an outrage and every day spin and justification. Every. Freaking. Day. But we know what’s right and this is wrong. Not that we know everything, not that we’re perfect or have infallible judgment. But this is clearly wrong and we have to speak and act against it. We have to and we are.

The worst time in my life came after my father died and three weeks later our infant son, Isaac, died. Darkness closed in on me. They died in late June and early July and I remember smiling in December, maybe even laughing a little, and thinking how strange it felt, how odd on my face and in my throat. Three years I walked in darkness after their deaths and I didn’t know if I’d come out the other side. But I did. Each day that I survived and found reasons to hope and smile, hell, found reason to breathe, I was moving closer to coming back out into the light. It wasn’t all at once. But I did wake up one morning to discover that my sense of God’s presence had returned. Theologically, I don’t think God showed up again after checking out for three years. But experientially, it was a lot like that.

We are moving through this darkness. Today we are closer to being out than were yesterday. I don’t claim to know what coming out of this will look like. But I believe this is how we survive and how persevering feels. Some days it feels that the only news is bad to worse and then worse again and we’ve all lost the ability to be shocked anymore (which feels awful, by the way). Other days, the dog snoozes on my arm and the polls suggest people might be coming to their senses and I remember more clearly that Jesus has walked with us all through every bad ruler and dark time and while this is new and appalling for us, it isn’t new to him.

That’s the first thing: You can do this and we are doing this.

Second, how we walk through this darkness matters. We can fight our way through it and do the right things and come out angry and hardened and even hateful. We could fight for the right things and become something other than what we’re called to be, what we hope to be. We can fight the darkness and let the darkness in. We have to choose not to this. As I’ve said before and will keep insisting on, in following Jesus the ends never justify the means.

We need one another to keep speaking hope and love and truth and empathy and compassion. No one is beyond redemption. Love transforms. Truth will set us free. Love our neighbors as ourselves. Love our freaking enemies. If you’ve been part of a church and right now those in your church tell you that everything happening is wonderful and God’s plan and the pastor tells you to pray for God’s protection for this unfairly persecuted President, look for the people who can speak truth and life to you. By the same token, if you have a faithful, supportive community right now, whether your gang of friends or your part of Christ’s body, watch for those who feel cut off and isolated, rejected and adrift.

That’s the second thing: How we walk through the darkness matters as much as that we walk through the darkness. We need one another to walk through this with Jesus, in love. We need one another’s encouragement and succor (don’t get to use that word enough!) and refuge. We need to pool our hope and our strength. We need to lean on one another’s faith on the days when ours gets shaky. Today mine is strong; tomorrow might be a different story. I’ll check in with you.

I’m writing this because friends keep telling me how I’m encouraging them in the midst of this darkness. Of course I’m glad to hear that. I get, more clearly all the time, how much it matters right now. As I said, it’s not my job to understand* people who approve of what’s going on; it is my job–maybe even my calling right now–to help give voice and validation to all of us who obey Jesus by resisting.

*It remains my job to love them (perhaps you), of course.

Uncircle the Wagons God’s love, part 4

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[David Heyward, The NakedPastor]

There are many dirty little secrets within Christianity. Some would say the whole things is dirty little secrets, start to finish, and nothing else. That view comes down to “does God exist or not?” If God does not, then yes, it’s all dirty secrets and manipulation and facade. I understand that if you believe no God exists, the church becomes a nightmare of self-deception and a greenhouse for abuse.

But why does that perspective matter, if God is real? Aren’t those the people trying to destroy our culture by rejecting all the values God teaches us? Isn’t part of our motive for keeping our dirty laundry hidden the fear that these secular atheists will just use it as more ammunition to attack us and pass laws to restrict our freedom to follow Jesus?

I’ve just described where the battle lines have been drawn in the U.S. Those are generalized groups, but trust me, both are well represented: people who think Christianity is a fraud that harms our culture and people who think that those attacking the church are our enemy who hope to criminalize being Christian.

God’s love says “no.”

“No” to these battle lines. “No” to this battle.

People who hate Christianity are not God’s enemies.

Let me say that again louder: People who hate Christianity are not God’s enemies.

This is an old mistake, but we keep getting fooled by it. “Master, shall we call down lightning from heaven on them?” Why no, let’s not do that.
God doesn’t hate the people who hate God. God is real, God is love, and God loves enemies.

I mean, us.

Read Romans 5 again. We were God’s enemies. We got to be Jesus’ followers because Jesus refused to hate his enemies; Jesus refused to have enemies.

We aren’t fighting some culture war. No, let me put that differently: We aren’t following Jesus faithfully by fighting some culture war.

I know a few things about Jesus and this is one: Jesus did not send us to fight a war against the people who don’t believe in Him.

We put ourselves in a different category of “enemies” than these enemies. We acknowledge that we were enemies but somehow think we’re supposed to treat these enemies differently than we were treated because they’re more enemy-ish. “Yes, I was God’s enemy, yes I was a sinner, yes I believe Romans 5, but this is different…”

No, it’s not. It’s really not.

God loves enemies. You can’t be God’s enemies because God won’t let you be. That’s what God’s love means.

And if you are reading this thinking, “Dang, Mike, you had it with that whole manipulation facade thing,” I respect your right to believe that and not to believe in God. Unfortunately, we who follow Jesus have given you ample reason to think that we’re conning everyone. I believe in Jesus because I have experienced God’s love for me and, I’m convinced, I would be dead or a nightmare of a human being, had I not. I hope you can respect my belief.

The more we Jesus followers buy into this “Circle the wagons! Man the walls! Defend the Alamo!” perspective, the more we will twist the Gospel into something God never intended. A person rejecting–or refusing to do business with–those who believe differently does not resemble Jesus in this action. In fact, that’s the antithesis of the Jesus I know. Jesus doesn’t reject people who believe differently or live differently. God’s love transforms us by first breaking down the walls between us and Jesus, then showing us how we need to love ourselves, then starting with us the hard work of loving others as we love ourselves. Those are the two most important commandments, the ones into which everything else is rolled up. Which others? Well, Jesus, who is my neighbor?

Oh, Dang. Them? All of them?

Now, I am pissed off at people who do not, who will not see how following Jesus has become sickeningly mixed with U.S. cultural values that have nothing to do with what Jesus taught or lived. I’ve made no secret of that. But those people (or you people) cannot be my enemies, or else I have parted company with Jesus. I can’t let that happen and Jesus won’t stand by and let that happen in me. For me to hate them and make them my enemies, I have to keep rejecting and silencing the voice in my head and heart that calls me to love them. I literally have to distance myself from Jesus to do that (metaphysically not possible but experientially it can be done, and therein lies the great mystery of an omnipresent yet ineffable God).

I recently received this comment on (that hellscape known as) Twitter, in response to God’s Love, part 3.

“Thanks for your candor and Christlike compassion directed at gently rebuking an erring church. I’m at a loss for a way to engage with the people of God who have been hijacked into loving a church so much that people become dispensable.”

These words won’t leave my mind. I devoutly yearn to have Christlike compassion. I hope and pray I “resemble this remark,” as my father loved to say. My thoughts don’t feel gentle much of the time. But it turns out we don’t have to voice all of our thoughts (I know, right?) and when we’re telling people about God’s love, it helps not to beat them with a pipe. Think of it as a consistency thing. The delivery of the message should corroborate the message.

So here it is: God loves people and makes people a church. There is no church other than people, and the word “church” doesn’t mean building, it means people who follow Jesus. If you can’t go to church because you love Jesus and find going into that building and hearing what they say about Jesus contradicts with your experience…we are called to love them. If you feel attacked by people who seem to hate the Jesus you know and want to undercut everything decent and moral in our society…we are called to love them. If you have someone telling you that Trump is God’s man in the White House and who won’t stop asking, “Do you believe that God is sovereign and therefore ordained Trump to be President?”…we are called to love them.

God’s love for enemies means our enemies. Because it first meant us. Now we know God’s love for us and therefore we cannot decide that anyone falls outside God’s circle. God’s love seeks to embrace everyone.

If we understand “love,” we understand this doesn’t mean we suddenly agree, or pretend to agree, about fundamental differences. BUT–and I truly pray you will hear this–we have to care more about loving people with Jesus’ love than we care about fighting for our (culturally-compromised version of) Christianity. We can’t “love a church so much that people become dispensable,” because people are the only church and that is not God’s love. Uncircle the wagons. Open the fort doors and come outside. Jesus came to break down the dividing wall of hostility between us, not build it higher.

Following Jesus means loving others as God has loved us.

If we aren’t, then we aren’t following Jesus. That doesn’t mean God stops loving us; it means we have chosen our own direction, away from where Jesus wants to lead us.

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.