Category Archives: Cultural Quakes

Major shifts, trends, disruptions and re-alignments within American culture.

The Abundance of Self-Emptying

More, faster, richer, bigger. Go for the win. Those are the highest aspirations of our Western culture. It’s what drives a capitalist economy in which you and I are most valued, not for who we are, but for how much we buy and consume. And as consumers, we look for prosperity and happiness in the acquisition of material wealth.

That’s the reason why we Western Christians tap-dance around some of Jesus’ central teachings. When he talks about denying ourselves, losing our lives in this world, emptying ourselves, being content with being last and lowly, personally identifying with the marginalized, and bearing our cross, we have a very hard time even imaging what it would look like to embody those principles. I think some of us admire these qualities in the “super saints” we idealize (the St. Francis’s and Mother Theresa’s of the world), but we simply cannot fathom taking on these traits as our primal way of living. It turns out it’s much easier and less costly to idealize than to emulate.

That brings me to a Holy Week story from Jesus’ last days. He’s in the Temple courts with his disciples, and Luke tells it like this:

As Jesus looked up, he saw the rich putting their gifts into the temple treasury. He also saw a poor widow put in two very small copper coins. “Truly I tell you,” he said, “this poor widow has put in more than all the others. All these people gave their gifts out of their wealth; but she out of her poverty put in all she had to live on.”

Luke 21:1-4

Let me just say right off the bat, preachers just love this passage. Oh my, do we love it. It’s a favorite go-to Bible story to turn to when we’re trying to fill up the offerings plates. Even if you’ve never sat through a “stewardship sermon”, I’m sure you can figure out how we preach from this passage.

“Now, everyone,” says the preacher, “if this poor, poor widow who had nothing else to live on could give her last two cents for the work of the Lord, then really now, what more could you give?”

After a final amen, the sermon is followed by the singing of “Take My Life and Let It Be” which contains this little gem: “Take my silver and my gold, not a mite [the widow’s mite!] would I withhold.”

Isn’t that brilliant?

You might be relieved to know that this typical approach glances off the more significant meaning of Jesus’ teaching.

Let’s look again at the timing of this story of the widow’s offering. Jesus is mere days away from his death. On that day, Jesus would demonstrate once and for all what it means to give up everything he had to live on. He gave away his entire life. Put the story of the widow’s offering in that context, and what more is he trying to say to us?

Jesus and his cross are teaching us a counterintuitive truth about life and abundance: self-emptying always leads to abundant life.

Let’s be clear, this is not abundant life the way our Western capitalist culture defines it. It’s far more profound than that. Abundant life is a pattern of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22). Abundant life is an intimate connection with all created things, subject to subject, enjoying it all for its own sake and inherent beauty. Abundant life is a life without ego, control needs, power-trips, self-centered wants, judgmentalism, and non-forgiveness.

The more we cling to things— to anything, really— as our private possession, the more separate we are from the rest of the world. We must then assume the stance of having things to protect, to compete for, and to differentiate from everyone else’s. It’s very difficult, it not impossible, to love unconditionally within protective, “me versus them” dynamics like these.

While shielded within our self-protective silos, giving of ourselves becomes a metered, tempered and calculated risk assessment based on merit and return instead of an ongoing, unlimited and abundantly gracious outpouring of our very best. Which of these modes do you think most resembles Christ?

Jesus was indiscriminate towards those whom he healed and gave to. He never turned away anyone (if you don’t believe me, look again), never judged anyone’s worthiness, and gave to each whether the recipient was grateful or not. The ultimate expression of this outpouring of unconditional graciousness was his death on the cross.

And just days before, an anonymous poor widow whose name we would never know, whom everyone would have missed save for Jesus, epitomized all of this in a humble act of giving.

So the rest comes down to our response. At every moment we face a choice. Will I consume and protect or will I let go and give? Will I live in full embrace and communion with all things, or will I fence off myself in the name of self-preservation? Will I judge or will I love? Will I live in the “system’s” false understanding of abundance or in Christ’s? Will I give life or withhold it (while losing it eventually anyway)?

Holy Week teaches us some invaluable, timeless human and divine truth about what it means to live, die, surrender, and thrive. We would do well to be students of the One who revealed himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6), not merely as a religious precept, but as a total way of living and being. Then we will discover the abundance of self-emptying.

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Spiritual Growth and Practice

Christchurch: We Are All Perpetrator and Victim

I woke up this morning, as many of you did, to news of the massacre in Christchurch, New Zealand. At least 49 Muslims were murdered while in prayer at two different Christchurch mosques by a gunman. Christchurch is known for being a peaceful, tolerant town within a nation known for peace and safety. Once I learned that, I immediately thought back to the massacre in Squirrel Hill. There are so many similarities.

A Christchurch, NZ Mosque

Yet I admit, when I heard the news, the usual things began to happen. At first I was numb. Then as I looked harder at the news, I was shocked. Then I began to slip into numbness again. After all, it’s just one more incident in a long succession of ideologically and racially motivated acts of mass terror. What more is there to think and say? It will happen again and again. So, in my instinctual way of handling things, because all this is just too horrific to comprehend, I began to check out.

Checking back in for a bit, I noticed this “incident” was followed by the usual obligatory responses. Outrage. Condemnation. Calls for thoughts and prayers. Gun control debates are coming. My Bishop issued yet another pastoral letter. (I wonder how she can find something new to say each time. Eventually, I’m waiting for her to say, “Click on the link to my last letter.”)

That’s when I came to again.

Maybe it’s time to admit that none of our responses are working. Not a one. No one is healed. No one is protected. More violence is almost guaranteed.

No hearts are truly changed by our public outrages, our pious thoughts and prayers, and our endless debates on mental health, safety and security. All these things are blood-soaked band-aids.

I think we must step back and own what’s happening in a whole new way.

In the face of all this violence, perhaps it’s time for us to humbly and soulfully confess something fundamentally true: each of us is both perpetrator and victim.

It is not enough to simply stand in solidarity with the victims. It’s a good first step, especially when the victims are of a different ideology, religion, or race than we are. But that’s still too easy, and we can get awfully self-righteous while doing something that began as compassion. I know I have.

The harder, perhaps more necessary step, in addition to identifying with the victims, is to name ourselves as the culprits. We may not have pulled the trigger, but we all have done our share in creating the climate that leads to the kind of carnage we have witnessed in Christchurch. If we want healing, this is something we must recognize and change within our basic attitudinal stance towards our neighbors.

It’s the I vs. you, us vs. them, dualistic way of seeing our neighbors in contrast to ourselves. On the one hand, thinking like this is inevitable. In the necessary growth work of self-realization, differentiating ourselves from others is part of the process. It’s the reason why teenage children push away from their parents; it’s their first step towards developing an adult identity away from home.

As we work, play, raise families and make a name and a life for ourselves, the nature of the game is Survivor, and competition to stay on our islands is an unavoidable dynamic. We compete for life, liberty, and happiness. We want to win. We want success. And as we strive for it, we develop this us vs. them way of seeing. From fighting fellow drivers in traffic, arguing a political point, griping about the idiots and despots, and competing for that job we want, it truly is a tribal warfare life we’re told we must live if we want to succeed in the world. It’s pervasive, and for most people, it never stops.

The next, often hidden, necessary step in human maturity is to see the world, not in terms of rules, boxes, groups, classes, good/bad, winners/losers, saved/damned, black/white, red/blue… but in terms of we, as in the interconnectedness and vital necessity of all people and all things.

Practically speaking, what does this mean? As a Christian, it means that I see and recognize Christ in all people. To break that down some more, it means that I endeavor to see that every person is made in God’s image, that each one is very good (because God said we are), and that Christ is at work in each of us to transform us into God’s likeness, no matter our religion or beliefs.

Everyone. Me. You. The homeless woman walking down the street. The family crossing the southern border in the cover of night. The co-worker I can’t bring myself to like. A child born in a meth house. Everyone in my neighborhood. Everyone in Christchurch. The white nationalists. The Muslims in prayer. All are in God’s image, all are created very good by God, being transformed by Christ into God’s likeness, in God’s time and way.

That kind of solidarity gives us the freedom to love the perpetrator and the victim because each of us, in our own way, are perpetrators and victims of our world’s violence. We have all contributed to the kind of us vs. them tribalism that feeds the violence in our world. We have suffered from it to varying degrees. And we all have the choice to opt out of the game when we’re mature enough to do it.

So do we simply stop calling out evil and injustice? Of course, not.

That said, if that’s all we do, or even half of what we do, then we’re simply exhaling negativity into the air, ironically enough becoming the kind of badness we hate to see in other people.

For every negative, there must be double or even triple the positive. If we don’t or can’t do that hard work, then we continue to deepen our collective human addiction to all things negative, gloomy, dark and problematic. As they say in the news room, “If if bleeds, it leads.” In an oddly perverse way, we just love bad news.

For me, unconditional, gracious, bridge-building, self-and-other-identifying love is the only remedy to our world’s violence. It sounds so simple and naive to even type those words, but it’s true. Love for the victims. Love for the perpetrators. Seeing God and ourselves just as clearly in the victim as in the perpetrator.

We are all both monster and saint, innocent and guilty, Pilate and Jesus, heavenly and hellish, all wrapped up in a tragically beautiful, divine creation called you and me.

With the most sonorous YES I can sing— just as it was in the beginning, as it is now, and ever shall be to the end, that everyone and everything in creation is all inherently, intrinsically, collectively good, because it is in God, and God is in it. And in some mysterious way I can’t quite comprehend but know to be true, God is all in all (1 Corinthians 15:28).

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Judaism and Other Religions, Race and Culture, Spiritual Growth and Practice

#GreaterLoveAnnapolis

268FA8B7-F952-49BB-B0CB-2EC1AE6C4608A week ago today, a man armed with a shotgun walked into the office of the Capital-Gazette newspaper, opened fire and murdered 5 people, wounding two others. This kind of atrocity is unthinkable for a warm, charming town like Annapolis.

Annapolis is my hometown and the place where I now serve as a pastor. Violence like this quite literally- emotionally, spiritually- hits home deep within me.

And it got me to do some soul searching.

For far too long, most people would chalk up our societal challenges as cultural or political struggles. In a way they are. However, on a much deeper level, our problems are spiritual problems. I’ve always known that, but in the last week, I’ve relearned that powerful truth.

Spirituality centers around four main questions: Who are we? Whose are we? What is our purpose? What’s our destination?

To simplify things even more, I believe that spirituality centers on our ability or inability to love and our ability or inability to do good and avoid evil. Increasingly more of us are at a loss for how to do these things. We see our shortcomings, not just in the physical violence some people commit, but in the verbal violence, self-centeredness, and apathy many more of us struggle with.

The answer to our dilemma, quite simply, is love.

Also running in the soundtrack of my thoughts has been a deep desire to connect with people to talk about deep things and to do meaningful life together, but so often barriers like religion (I’m a Christian and a pastor) get in the way. Cultural and political differences throw their weight around, too.

While we cannot whitewash those differences or pretend they don’t exist— they most certainly do!— could there be a common ethic which could form new community for the purpose of inner- and interpersonal change and transformation? Could we learn to recognize and treasure our differences and diversity, all the while sharing in the greatest yearnings of our common humanity?

I firmly believe that the answer is yes– a resounding YES. That yes is the basis of Greater Love Annapolis.

With Greater Love Annapolis, I envision the establishment of a network of neighbors committed to something I call “the ethic of Greater Love”. That ethic is centered on four main principles:

  1. Unconditional Love
  • Living by the Golden Rule: loving our neighbors as we love ourselves, and expressing that love in thoughtful, intentional, practical, and ongoing ways
  • Seeking to build relationships of cooperation and friendship with all of our neighbors, regardless of culture, race, nation of origin, sexuality, economic status, religious or political affiliation
  • Offering our neighbors the gift of deep listening for the purpose of understanding and empathy
  • Striving for forgiveness and reconciliation wherever there are broken relationships
  • Operating out of a profound respect for the dignity and worth of every neighbor, recognizing in them our shared humanity
  1. Personal Integrity
  • Safeguarding ourselves from self-harming behaviors and addictions while actively seeking healing from any of these personal defects
  • Nurturing a spiritual life that leads to personal growth, wisdom, and greater integrity of character
  • Honest dealings with ourselves and others, both publicly and privately
  • Making our lives fully accountable to a network of trusted friends
  1. Humility
  • Considering the dreams, aspirations and welfare of others before ourselves
  • Speaking only that which builds up all of our neighbors, refraining from language that tears down and belittles them
  1. Solidarity with Our Most Vulnerable Neighbors
  • Raising awareness of the attitudes, systems and powers that marginalize and prey upon the most vulnerable members of our community and all those whose voices are not heard.
  • Peaceful, loving, and persistent confrontation of those attitudes, systems, and powers.
  • Establishing new community and systems that protect and empower our most vulnerable neighbors

From here, I anticipate conversations and discussions about what our network would look like and do. I see an organized effort to create community Greater Love Annapolis groups for the purpose of hanging out, conversation, learning, accountability, and planning for advocacy/community organizing. I see a movement of transformed and transforming people of mercy and justice, lived not in tribalism and self-righteous anger, but with loving passion and fearless strength for greater equality, dignity and opportunity for all people.

I see an Annapolis community with a deeply spiritual, shared conscious.
I see awakening and revival, rooted in love.

“Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”
‭‭John‬ ‭15:13‬

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Let Us Eat Cake

709A57AC-3F0B-42D0-974B-EE81608A0480Six years ago, I can’t imagine any of us would have predicted that the Supreme Court of the United States would issue a ruling involving a wedding cake (or lack thereof), but it’s a sign of the times in which we live. And in all times, often the most fundamental Constituitonal issues are decided within the scope of seemingly trivial, mundane, everyday things.

For example, six years ago, David Mullins and Charlie Craig went into Masterpiece Cakeshop in Denver, Colorado to order a cake for their upcoming wedding. Shop owner Jack Phillips refused to make the cake citing his particular Christian belief that does not recognize same-sex marriages. In his view, homosexuality and same-sex relationships are sinful, so he could not apply his craft to contribute to an event he found to be religiously objectionable. From there, complaints were filed with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission and suddenly the case became a struggle between religious liberty/freedom of conscious vs. equal treatment/anti-discrimination, a struggle which made its way to Washington, D.C. and into the hall of the United States Supreme Court.

The Court ruled in a stunning 7-2 majority decision that Jack Phillips was in his right to refuse to make the cake, citing the First Amendment and freedom of religion. No governmental agency could compel him to act or produce something that violates his long-established religious beliefs. There was also some heavy consideration given to the fact that the same Colorado Civil Rights Commission which had upheld other cakemakers’ religious freedoms to not produce products that violated their beliefs declined Jack Phillips’ own religious objection, establishing a clear bias and disparity.
Understandably, the reaction has been swift and passionate. Some are celebrating a victory for conservative values and freedom of religion. Others are condeming a decision that upholds bigotry and economic discrimination under the guise of religious belief.

As for me, I’ve made the argument multiple times that the kind of biblical theology espoused by fellow Christians like Jack Phillips is a poor, shallow reading of the Bible that does incredible harm to people. I predict that the days of the church shutting its doors on the full inclusion of LGBTQ people will come to an end within my lifetime. When that finally happens, the church and the whole world will be so much better served with the good news of Jesus that affirms grace and redemptive love for all people. Period. No if’s, and’s, but’s, or fancy qualifiers.

In the meantime, however, there are Christians like Jack Phillips, and as much as I reject his reading of the Bible, he has every right to believe it and to do nothing that violates his conscious. That is the definition of religious freedom.

America was established to be a liberally generous nation, but we are living in quite illiberal times. People want freedom, but they don’t tolerate the freedoms of those whose speech and actions offend their their convictions and sensibilities. In a related though slightly tangential way, we’re seeing this same struggle playing out in the NFL with football players who have refused to stand for the National Anthem.

Timeout!

Let me stop right here and state as emphatically as I can that by no means am I placing Jack Phillips’ conservative views on same-sex marriage and black football players’ protest against racial injustice on the same moral plane. Not at all. But that’s not the point.

The point is that these are Americans exercising their freedom of conscious, freedoms which are deeply American and enshrined within our founding documents. (The NFL as an employer recently made its decisions, and we’ll see how well they play out economically, politically, and legally.)

For now though, we live in a three way tension between cultural tribalism (warring social and political tribes highly intolerant of views or people outside of their tightly defined ideological parameters), the ongoing struggle for civil rights, and religious freedom.

I think it is an absolute travesty that religious freedom and civil rights should ever be in tension with each other, as in the case of a wedding cake. But tragically that is the case.

I also firmly reject cultural tribalism. I will rejoice when we can find an end to this kind of destructive behavior.

For now, however, it is incumbent upon us to uphold both religious freedom for people like Jack Phillips and the struggle for civil rights for our neighbors of any minority group. We need both things, even if when they are at odds with each other. The moment our government denies any kind of religious freedom by dictating thought and behavior which violate one’s religious convictions, we’re living under tyranny. And just as important, it is the role of our government to protect the civil rights of all Americans, including our LGBTQ neighbors. Otherwise, we’re living with injustice.

Here’s the strange stew we find ourselves in. Gay and lesbian people have a protected right to marry. And as terrible as one’s religious beliefs may be, one can refuse to sell a wedding cake to a same-sex couple. Both are Constitutionally just. There’s always another cake store, and as our culture continues to shift towards the full inclusion of LGBTQ people, the Jack Phillips’ of the world will find themselves increasingly on the cultural and economic outs.

For today, we can all eat our cake. Our cake’s batter is made of good religion and bad religion, freedom of religion or no religion, freedom from government sanctioned religion, civil rights and the struggle for civil rights. The icing on this strange cake is our individual freedom to put our money into the businesses and organizations which match our values. Granted, it’s a peculiar cake recipe, and some are having a hard time stomaching it, but like it or not, this cake is oddly, painfully, and wonderfully American.

Hopefully over time, we can build upon and in some cases drastically improve the recipe!

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Human Sexuality

A Christian Call to Action Towards Ending Gun Violence

[This is a letter I shared with my congregation, Trinity United Methodist Church, this past Sunday February 18, 2018.]
img_1795This week, my heart has been very heavy. By now we have all seen the news of Wednesday’s deadly school shooting in Parkland, FL. As a parent, I think of all those parents and grandparents who sent their children to school that morning, never to see them alive again or to discover that they have been hospitalized from gun shot wounds and other related injuries.

I send my children to school every day. To think that this could never happen here in their schools is folly.

Today, I will yet again lead us in prayer for the victims of Parkland, FL, their families, their community, and our elected leaders. I will pray…

…just as I prayed after the Columbine High School massacre,

…and after the massive shooting in a movie theater in Aurora, CO,

…and as I prayed after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School,

…and as I prayed after a large-scale shooting in an office building in San Bernardino, CA,

…and as I prayed after the massacre at an Orlando, FL, night club,

…and as I prayed after the widespread carnage at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, NV,

…and as I prayed after a gunman invaded a church in Sutherland Springs, TX, killing over two dozen worshippers,

…and as I prayed a just few weeks ago for a shooting at a high school in Marshall County, Kentucky.

There are so many others, too.

I have to confess to you that I am getting very tired of simply praying. I’m running out of words, and I have run out of patience. I believe God wants us to pray, yes. I also believe that God has put us on a divine mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. In other words, as disciples of Jesus, we are in the business of bringing about real change and eternal life in a world bent on violence and death. We do this in fulfillment of what we pray every Sunday: “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

In the name of Jesus Christ, it is time for us to act towards ending all this senseless gun violence and death. I know there are controversial issues involved in this crisis- issues such as gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement procedures. I know we all don’t see eye to eye on these hot-button topics, and that may make talking about gun violence and forging a way towards ending it a difficult task. But I also believe it’s time to step outside of our familiar political/ideological belief systems. It’s time to get humble, to listen, and to courageously advocate for some common sense solutions that will most likely touch on the issues of gun control, mental health care, and law enforcement.

We are conservative and liberal and everywhere in between. But we’re not dealing with a conservative or a liberal problem, or a Democrat or a Republican problem. We’re dealing with a human problem whose perpetrators and victims go well beyond any notion of party or ideology.

Therefore, we cannot be afraid of having a conversation about how to end gun violence, and then we cannot be afraid of stepping out to be advocates for the lives of our neighbors, most especially our children.

In the face of this crisis, it’s tempting to sit back and mindlessly watch the endless talking head debates on TV, to point our angry fingers of blame and to get cynical about the state of our world. It’s all too easy to throw up our hands and surrender to the magnitude of the problem. However, it is increasingly clear that we cannot afford to sit in idle fear any longer. To do so puts the lives of our neighbors, ourselves, and our children at grave risk.
In response, I would love for you to share with me your ideas and thoughts. What would you like to see Trinity do? How would you be a part of it? What steps can we and you take right now to be Christ’s disciples who work for an end to gun violence in our schools and communities?

Again, I ask you not to respond merely from within a familiar ideological framework. Let’s put aside bumper-sticker slogans, the usual talking points, and shrill arguments. These tactics are too easy, too unimaginative, and frankly too dangerously safe. Let’s stretch out, because clearly the ideological liberal and conservative trenches that many people shout from are not serving our country well. It’s time to extend ourselves across the breach, stand in the gap, and forge a new way ahead. Nothing short of precious human life is at stake.

In the coming weeks, I will offer us some opportunities to prayerfully discern and brainstorm some Christ-like ways for us to advocate and work for safer schools and communities shielded from the threat of gun violence. I ask you to join me in the effort. And as we pray, may we follow God’s prompting to act in courageous ways for the protection of our communities and schools, all in the name of Jesus Christ, our crucified and risen Lord.

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Trying to Be Reasonable in an Age of Hotheaded Sloganeering

Facebook is a funny place to be sometimes. That’s funny as in weird, conducive to eye-rolling, and even downright frustrating. All you have to do is dropkick any public issue into the fray and watch what happens. Every issue becomes hot-button. People post and repost memes and videos to spout off their views. If you have a view, you probably have a hashtag. (Hashtags are the new bumper sticker.)
DebateAll of this is symptomatic of folks talking at each other and past each other without truly listening to each other. Many of us don’t seem to have the time or the interest to have open, respectful conversations anymore. Or perhaps our cynical natures have written that off as a worthless endeavor. Some tip their hat to it and dabble in a meaningful conversation here and there, but then go right back to ranting out their viewpoints.

This is an angry, fearful, sardonic, pessimistic era in which we live. We question and make assumptions about everyone’s motives. If you voice an opinion, prepare yourself for the backlash. Everyone wants to be heard, but few choose to listen. Compromise is a pathetic word for sellouts and the noodle-spined. Humor and sarcasm are barely distinguishable. And any attempt to be a calm voice of reason in this climate requires an endless supply of patience and persistence. I’m finding that out for myself.

Now I don’t want to saint myself as the wise, reasonable one among a crowd of sinful loudmouth partisans. I don’t want to be the curmudgeonly hermit who holes himself away as the virtuous remnant of reason. In other words, I don’t want my contributions to unwittingly add to the swarm of negativity I think I perceive in others.

But if we’re all going to behave differently, we have to diagnose the problem and give it a name. The name I give it is Hotheaded Sloganeering.

  • Hotheaded– easily angered, easily offended, quick to jump to conclusions about the opposition
  • Sloganeering– the repeated use of soundbite-sized arguments and statements to solidify support for a view or a cause

For example, last week I wrote a piece about Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand for the national anthem. I offered what I thought was a reasonable approach by saying that Kaepernick is well within his rights to free speech, and that what he did represents the very best of our American liberties for which many have fought hard to protect. Note: I did not evaluate the merits of Kaepernick’s actions or the appropriateness (or lack thereof) of what he did. I simply hopped off the bandwagon of criticizing Kaepernick’s fundamental rights as an American to not honor his country’s flag or anthem in the name of protesting the injustice of racism.

However, I’ve since then heard a lot of the following: “Sure, he has the right to do that, but he shouldn’t have. If he’s a real American, a grateful American, then he should be standing for the country who lets him do that. He should be barred for doing that. He’s totally out of line. If he doesn’t like this country, then he should leave it.”

And then I heard others say, “All you flag wavers are always telling black people to protest peacefully. Kaepernick does, and you demonize him, too. You just want black people to sit down and shut up, or in this case, stand up and shut up. That’s because you feel threatened if black people should rise up and become equals to you.”

[Sigh…]

While we’re busy shouting at each other we’ve failed to see that we are all trying to figure out the same thing- what it means for America to be America and for all of us to be Americans with dignity. Racial equality and patriotism. Two aspects of this same issue. Yet people take their aspect of choice, hold it up high as the sole battleground of the American struggle, and charge full steam ahead.

Meanwhile we find ourselves caught in a web of cognitive dissonance, character assassinations, and competing angles of the same issue.
The only way to break this logjam of unreason and disrespect is to make a concerted effort to experiment with another tactic. Humility.

Humility is tough to pin down because the moment we think we have it, we’ve probably lost it. That results in a self-assuring pride parading itself as humility. There’s a lot of this false humility out there, and I have to admit I’ve been found guilty of possession, too. Yet despite the lesser angels of our nature, I have discovered that the test for genuine humility is the ability to listen with the purpose of understanding.

Let the guard down. Put aside fear and suspicion. Bring a curious mind and heart. Look for reasons to respect different voices. Be open to the possibility that our ingrained presumptions are incomplete and inaccurate. Let others be themselves and show grace towards the unintentional things they do or say that cause us pain. At the same time, learn where others’ wounds are and the unintentional things we say and do that throw salt into those wounds. Respect that those wounds are real. Expect that the way forward will take some time to discern and that it will be a lot more complex than we think. Hang in there, anticipating that there will be some bumps and bruises along the way. But if we can do all this, the way forward will be life-giving and will bring more of us onboard together.

It’s tough to be reasonable in this age. Peacemaking is not for wimps. Sometimes it seems like an elusive quest to find people who will partner with us and stay in it for the long run. However, I’m convinced that no matter the issue or challenge we face, our work will stand the test of time. It will certainly long surpass the shallow notions and futile efforts of all the hotheaded sloganeering we hear around us… especially on Facebook.

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Politics

Is It un-American to Sit Out the National Anthem?

There are very few things closer to the American spirit than football. If anybody wants to see quintessential Americanism, they need to hang around during football season. They’ll get a dose of American hyper-competitiveness, parties, wagers, fist pumps, plenty of yelling at the TV and just 60 minutes of the fun, fast brute violence of highly paid gladiators slamming, pushing and scraping for points on the gridiron. Now that’s America. (Oh yes… Go Skins!)

Equally American is a certain pre-game ritual at almost every sporting event. For a few moments there is absolute silence as a lone voice performs one of the most difficult songs for a vocalist to sing, our National Anthem. One is expected to stand, gentlemen to remove their hats, and face the flag while placing their right hand over the heart. That’s the standard thing for any American citizen to do. At the bare minimum, everyone in attendance is expected to stand as a sign of respect. Refusing to stand is often scorned as dishonorable and decisively un-American.

Or is it? Can we give that another look?

The American experiment has been a struggle between competing values. That has built our greatness and has continued to define American excellence. For example, at our founding, we made a radical declaration that all people are created equal with inalienable human rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; meanwhile 20% of our population were forcibly enslaved. Even after the abolishment of slavery 151 years ago, we have still struggled ensure equality and dignity for all African-Americans. That struggle has pushed us to live into our credo.

Another example: We want and need efficient representative government, but there’s also this keen vigilance in the American spirit to be on guard against any governmental intrusion into our lives. We celebrate our freedom and rugged individualism while despising even a hint of tyranny. However we expect our government to protect those freedoms and “promote the general welfare”, with force if necessary. Just don’t tread on me.
Colin KaepernickRecently a national football player put himself into the middle of another clash of competing American values- American patriotism vs. our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech. Enter the San Fransisco 49ers starting quarterback Colin Kaepernick, a very talented athlete who at times has been no stranger to controversy.

During the playing of the National Anthem at a preseason game, Kaepernick refused to stand with everyone else. His sit out was widely noticed and roundly booed. Later he stated,

“I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color. To me, this is bigger than football and it would be selfish on my part to look the other way. There are bodies in the street and people getting paid leave and getting away with murder.”

As expected Kaepernick has been fiercely criticized for his sit out of the National Anthem. People have accused him of being un-American and furthering disunity. We’ve heard the usual refrains of, “If he doesn’t like our flag, he’s free to leave.” “There are thousands of soldiers and sailors who have died under that flag protecting his freedoms. He’s dishonoring them!” And of course, the internet trolls came out en masse to graffiti his Twitter account with racial epithets.

Were Kaepernick’s actions and statements justified? Was his behavior un-American? Those are two separate questions.

Without commenting here on the justifiability of Kaepernick’s sit out, I do say this:

Colin Kaepernick’s conscientious sit out of the National Anthem demonstrates what is best about America.

There have been and continue to be kingdoms, empires, and nations who would have severely penalized Kaepernick’s behavior as disloyal and even treasonous.

But that would never happen in the United States. In fact, embedded in our founding documents are Kaepernick’s rights to freely speak, even against his own country. He can pontificate. He can refuse to participate in patriotic exercises. He can even burn the flag of the country who guarantees his right to do so. And while he does any of that, his country’s law enforcement and entire legal system stand by to arrest and prosecute anyone who threatens his wellbeing or his ability to speak freely.

As a Christian, I have had brothers and sisters throughout the centuries who been restricted by their government to assemble, worship, and speak out when necessary against the evils and injustices of that country. I am blessed to live in a nation that protects my right to conscience, even if my loyalty to Jesus ever kept me from participating in patriotic exercises.

That reality alone builds my pride in what is best about America.

So Colin, as a fellow American, I salute your right to sit out our National Anthem as a very American thing to do. For my own reasons I won’t be joining you, and later on I might share why. But in the meantime, you have my support to exercise your conscience. I will defend you for it, too. But far more importantly, the United States of America, including those who defend and uphold your liberty, stand behind you, too.

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I Want More Carol Burnett Comedy

This past Friday night Blairlee and I had the rare gift (thanks to a very kindly aunt) of seeing Carol Burnett in person at the Strathmore Music Center. We had center-stage second row seats, too! I don’t think I’ve ever had concert seats like that.

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

Carol Burnett Live on April 15, 2016

When Carol took the stage, she electrified and captivated the entire audience for a full hour-and-a-half. Not bad for an 82-year-old comedienne. And Carol did something which only a seasoned, veteran entertainer would ever do. She took the stage with no script. Only a handful of video clips anchored her show. Everything else was live Q&A with her audience. Audience members could ask anything they wanted, and she called on people from all over the theater. As a public speaker, believe me, that takes guts… and a wealth of talent.

I can’t remember going to a show and laughing so hard. In all the years I’ve known Blairlee, I’ve never heard her laugh that hard, either. From the moment Carol took the stage until her final bow, we were both non-stop smiles.

A friend of mine commented that Carol Burnett is a comedic genius. That she is. I think it’s a combination of her charm, her wit, the way she uses her body and face, her timing, voice inflection, and this uncanny sense that she’s the everyday woman next door. You can relate to her and deeply appreciate her, too.

And then another thing struck me. Carol Burnett put on a full show without using one vulgarity or profane word. It never occurred to me while she was performing. It was so natural. But once I realized how “clean” her show was, it left me longing for more comedians and comediennes like Carol Burnett- women and men who can make us laugh without dragging us through the basest part of our nature. She could wink at it while not taking us all the way there, and to me, that made it all the more funny. It was like telling a clever joke without having to explain it.

For example, Carol told a story about a skit she performed on The Carol Burnett Show which featured her as a character who lived in a nudist colony. That concept could go in a number of directions! Carol’s character was being interviewed while standing behind a fence, and the interviewer asked her what she and her fellow colonists do for evening entertainment. (The eyebrows just got a little higher.)

Without missing a beat, Carol’s character said, “We go dancing.” [Lots of laughter.] The interviewer then asked how a bunch of nudists dance. Carol’s original line said, “Very carefully.”

Well, that line got scrutinized by the TV execs. So at the last minute she changed it to, “We like to dance cheek to cheek.” Apparently, the TV execs were fine with that. Now that’s hilarious!

And notice: no profanity, no vulgar descriptions. Either you got the joke, or you didn’t.

I’m not one to long for the good ol’ days or to wish we could go back to the happier times. Longing for the past is always through rose-colored glasses. We tend to over-inflate the pleasant things while sanitizing or forgetting the less pleasant things. For example, while television was freer from profanity, violence, and nudity, there was certainly lots more racism and sexism. Smoking was widespread and socially acceptable. Would we want to go back to all of that?

You could convincingly argue that Carol Burnett’s humor was shaped and controlled by much stronger censorship and different viewer sensibilities. Very true. Without those restrictions, maybe her humor would have been quite different. Perhaps. But Carol and her co-actors managed to be hilariously funny in that (controlled) environment. In 2016, it’s still just as funny.

Carol Burnett demonstrated that masterfully last Friday night.

Carol Burnett proves that we don’t have to gaze in the rear-view mirror to find and create good comedy. She and her kind of humor still have a place in American entertainment. Her comedy uses wit, physicality, charm, and off-the-wall antics to make people laugh. Much has changed in the nearly 50 years since her show took the airwaves. But some forms of comedy, like Carol Burnett’s, are timeless.

I’d like a lot more of that. I’m not asking for her kind of humor to supplant and replace what’s out there now. I don’t want to see Carol Burnett-style humor attempt to prove a point or stake a moral high ground. That’s simply not funny. True humor has a selfless simplicity to it that doesn’t preach or demean. It just brings joy.

Yet there is a sizable audience including people like me who would thoroughly enjoy humor that isn’t demeaning, overtly profane, violent, or pornographic. For me, it’s not moral snobbery. I laugh at all kinds of things. Funny is funny. At the same time, there’s something refreshing and fun about Carol’s humor that would offer alternatives to some of the other modes of comedy out there.

And while comedy is never culturally universal, Carol Burnett’s brand of comedy can unite multiple generations and multiple moral sensibilities to laugh together. Very few things in life can bring people together like laughter. Thank you, Carol, for 50 years of laughter. May others follow in your stead to bring us joy, happiness… and Tarzan yells.

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Fellow Christians, Could We Please Stop Whining over Movies?

NoahSo, the highly anticipated, much derided Noah is playing in theaters now, and no, I’ve not seen it. I’m not avoiding it, per se. I’m just not a big fan of spending $30 for overpriced tickets and popcorn… unless it happens to be a new Star TrekStar Wars, or Tolkien movie. Then I’m there front and center of that 3D IMAX theater with my big tub of $15 popcorn and soda. But I digress…

Beyond the mere movie, I’ve been entertaining myself with all the commentary, much of it negative, from fellow Christians. To be honest, I don’t know whether to sit back and laugh, throw up in disgust, or hide in embarrassment.

It’s like we have this HUGE, insurmountable hang-up with… of all things… movies. When a movie comes out that brushes even slightly against our faith, good or bad, we lose all composure and go berserk.

If it’s something like The Passion of the Christ or that new movie God’s Not Dead, we go gaga over it! We tell all our friends about it. We preach highly marketed sermon series about it. We buy out whole theaters to get as many of our heathen friends there as possible in order to convert them. I mean, it’s as if movie manna has descended from the heavens into the chaotic moral decadency of Hollywood, and we gobble it up for all it’s worth.

Hallelujah! It’s about time we have some God-glorifying, holy movies to watch. Pass that $15 popcorn my way.

But… let’s say it’s a movie like The Da Vinci Code or the new Noah movie.

Shrieks of terror and disgust… How dare those atheistic, money-grubbing Hollywood types make a mockery of our faith! Oh, no… Those poor, ignorant, unsuspecting, unbelieving masses will go and see this piece of heretical trash and become indoctrinated with un-Christian, unbiblical views. Lord have mercy! Bar the theater doors! Sound the alarm! And whatever you do, don’t go see that movie, or it will ruin your faith forever!!!

<sigh…>

Could I interject a little bit of sanity here? I’ll begin with four words. Calm down. Stop whining.

Before you jump on a movie bandwagon, either for a wonderfully godly movie you love or a movie produced by minions of the Antichrist, let’s consider a few things and then re-examine our approach to movies.

Movies aren’t as culturally impactful as we think they are. In a world fully saturated with media, social networking, and instant communication, one 15-second video or a meme could impact the culture more than a multi-million dollar movie. Even then, our media saturated minds have in increasingly short memory span. That electrifyingly hot thing now will be forgotten within a few news cycles. Example: remember Gangnam Style? Seems like forever ago, doesn’t it? So, we need not fret or get too gleeful about the latest-greatest movie to hit the theaters. They will soon be relics of the past.

Information is everywhere. We need to stop fretting about the masses being misinformed by a movie. Most Christians think we’re still in the Modern world in which information is controlled and disseminated by a few institutional sources like school books, clergy, Walter Cronkite, and of course, Hollywood. It’s time we wake up to the reality of the 21st century information superhighway. People can get information about anything, anytime, anywhere. If I want to know the diet of a giant squid, the history of pre-Columbian South America, or the biblical story of Noah, I pick up my iPhone and find what I want in seconds. That reality still fascinates me. All that to say, people who really want to know the correct biblical stories or what orthodox Christian theology has to say can find it without a whole lot of effort. One short-lived movie is not going to leave the masses misinformed, unless they just don’t care. The later is most likely the case.

Even bad movies are great opportunities… if we stop having hissy fits. God has a way of redeeming even the worst things for life-giving good. So let me suggest a strategy for engaging movies that inaccurately portray Scripture and Christian theology: conversation. The world doesn’t want to be preached to about how bad its movies are, but people do enjoy an engaging conversation.

When The Da Vinci Code was released, the star of the film, Tom Hanks, purportedly had this to say to churches, “If they put up a sign saying: This Wednesday we’re discussing the gospel, 12 people show up. But if a sign says: This Wednesday we’re discussing The Da Vinci Code, 800 people show up.” And that’s precisely what many wise churches did. Instead of howling heresy at the movie’s treatment of Jesus, they took the opportunity to reach out and include people in a conversation about the film which included sharing accurate Christian history and biblical theology.

What if we took this same approach to Noah. Everyone knows the story, but most take for granted why the story was told and what it truly reveals about God, humanity, creation, and covenant. Imagine that…

Movies don’t change lives; relationships do. Movies, good ones or bad ones, don’t bring droves of people to the faith, and neither do they lead them away. Relationships make the difference, either in a positive, life-giving way, or a negative, life-diminishing way. I came to faith in Christ, not through a movie, a book, a religious tract, or a sermon. I came to faith through my positive interactions with Christians. And yes, great sermons, good books, including the Bible, and other Christian media helped. But when it came down to it, seeing and sampling Christ in other people is what led me to faith.

And this stands as a warning, too. When the world sees Christians having a cow over movies like Noah, well, you can imagine what they’re thinking. I mean, who wants to identify with a paranoid, reactionary, judgmental group of people? (Oh sure, let me sign up for that happy cruise.) But, open, engaging, humble, inviting, warm, peaceable, joy-filled, loving people… that’s hard to pass up.

*******
It’s time for us Christians to take a breath and calm down about media.

Media is definitely a huge part of our lives and does have a hand in shaping what we think, what we see, and what we value. So let’s take a cue from Jesus who told us to use the worlds’ means for good, and intentionally, humbly engage folks through the things they watch and observe. Movies like Noah, while biblically and theologically inaccurate, can be a gift if we know how to use that gift productively.

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What a Pastor and a Duck Dynasty Star Have in Common

Schaefer and RobinsonThey both are Christians. They both are outspoken. And, they both got fired today. The cause: their stances on homosexuality. The real irony is that their positions could not be any more different.

Rev. Frank Schaefer, (as of today) a former United Methodist pastor, married off his son to his partner in a church wedding. He and his many supporters and advocates saw this  as a sacred act of compassion and love for his son and a necessary, conscientious act of disobedience to church law. After a painful church trial which found him guilty, a 30-day suspension, and massive protest, the Board of Ordained Ministry from his Annual Conference removed his credentials as an ordained Elder in the United Methodist Church.

Phil Robertson, star of the popular reality show Duck Dynasty, also spoke out on homosexuality, calling it sinful and lewd. Today the A&E Network indefinitely placed him on filming hiatus. His numerous supporters call this a breach of personal free-speech, protesting A&E’s actions as punitive, discriminatory, and intolerant. Meanwhile, members of the LGBT community are angered and hurt.

Two men. They represent polar opposite positions of a contentiously emotional debate. Both got fired for standing up for what they believe to be right. Is there a message or at least a lesson to be learned?

I think so.

This message would appeal to most people but offend passionate believers from both sides of the LGBT debate. There must be a way to honor each other, talk and act respectfully towards each other, and give space for each other to exist. Time will continue to bring about change, and I imagine that in generations to come, there will be no relevant debate. But for the time being, we must learn to allow space for all in the same room and at the same table.

In no way do I believe that these polar views on LGBT to be reconcilable. One side finds the views of the other equally appalling and morally detestable. But until the day in which one view becomes the prevailing view of most, we can find ways go forward together without violence or collateral damage.

I believe the church can and should lead the way to discovering a mutual way forward. That’s because in the church, we all claim one Christ, we are one family of God, and we love each other as brothers and sisters… well… ideally. It’s all a work in progress, and certainly the struggle over LGBT is testing our mettle.

But the Apostle Paul just might provide a model of unity we can apply to our struggle. In the First Century church of Rome, there was division among those who ate meat purchased in the market place and those who believed that eating this meat was blasphemous because it was first used in idol worship as an offering. (Remember the Second Commandment!) The division was so irreconcilable that these two groups refused to eat together any longer. That was a big deal because shared meals were majorly important to the life of the church. Why? These meals were the celebration of the Lord’s Table. One group saw that eating meat was perfectly fine; the other thought this to be utterly sinful. Sounds awfully familiar, doesn’t it?

Paul’s solution stated in Romans 14:1-15:13 was ingenious. And I believe it is quite applicable to our struggle to find unity in the church over the presence of LGBT people. Please take the time to read this passage for yourself, but here are the highlights:

  • We are all God’s servants, so who are we to judge fellow servants who belong to God?
  • Whichever side we’re on, as Christians, we are both convinced that what we do and believe, we do for the Lord.
  • Treating others with contempt because of their divergent convictions opens us to the judgment of God.
  • Respect the fact that what one calls sin is to them truly sin. Acting in a way that distresses them is not love. So don’t let something one calls good to be spoken of by the other as evil.
  • Do not let your convictions be a stumbling block to another. Rather do anything necessary that leads to peace and mutual edification.
  • The kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but rather peace, righteousness, and joy in the Holy Spirit. (Could we also say that the kingdom of God is not about sex and marriage? Jesus says as much.)
  • Whatever you believe, keep it between yourself and God.
  • We are called to bear with each other, especially when we find the faith of the other to be weak.
  • Accept each other since Christ has already accepted each of us so that we can glorify and serve Christ together.

That’s the gist of it. But imagine what the church would be like if we operate this way towards each other, in the gracious love of Jesus Christ. Larger still, imagine a world in conflict that loves each other this way… Perhaps if we did, Rev. Frank Schaefer and Phil Robertson would still be employed today.

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Filed under Cultural Quakes, Human Sexuality