What Does It Mean to Be Authentically Pro-Life?

In the great debate over legalized abortion, I have consistently stood my ground as passionately and unapologetically Pro-Life. Several years before becoming a Christian at 18-years-young, I started gravitating towards Pro-Life values. It all began one day when a friend asked me, “Hey Chris, do you think that a healthy, unborn baby should be killed by a medical procedure before it’s born?” I had never thought about that before. Horrified, I replied, “No way! That’s awful.” Soon after that, this same friend invited me to go with him to some local Pro-Life rallies. The day after one of those rallies, I even found myself on the cover of a local newspaper! Then over time, as I immersed in the Pro-Life movement, I became utterly convinced that terminating an unborn life is an act of murder.

It’s been crystal clear to me how fundamentally immoral and unjust it is to terminate a viable human life in utero, a life that otherwise would be born and grow into childhood and adulthood. If consciously taking someone else’s life is murder, how could abortion on demand be any less murderous? And then I heard stories of people whose mothers seriously contemplated aborting them. My heart sank at the thought of not having these people’s presence and gifts in the world– people like Steve Jobs, Oprah Winfrey, and Celine Dion.

Becoming Pro-Life at such an early stage helped me to recognize the truth that all human life is important, beginning with the lives of the unborn. So valuing and protecting the lives of the unborn would naturally lead Pro-Life people to champion the wellbeing of human life wherever it is found, right?

Well…

For me, that’s when things started to get complicated. Very complicated.

As I worked through my Pro-Life views, I could not ignore the life and welfare of mothers bearing these children. There was no escaping a growing moral conundrum: how can I call myself Pro-Life if passionately protecting a mother’s life and wellbeing is any less crucial than passionately protecting her unborn child. Life is life, isn’t it? So then, what is the best option for an expectant mother who has suffered the horrific trauma of being raped and is now carrying the child of her assailant? What is the best option for mothers who are victims of incest? What is best option for mothers whose long term health or survival is in peril if she carries full-term? What is best option for mothers expecting a child who is severely malformed and will suffer and die soon after birth?

Seriously regarding the welfare of life outside a mother’s womb widened my frame of lives that are worth protecting. This bigger frame also revealed an inconvenient truth that things are rarely as black and white as we pretend they are. While I remain adamantly opposed to abortion on demand as a means of birth control, I found that being Pro-Life requires us to bear the agonizing tension of valuing the life and welfare of both the unborn and the women who carry them. There are indeed terrible circumstances no mother wants to face when either her own wellbeing or that of her unborn child demands that a legal form of abortion is still available to her. All life is life worth valuing, after all. As a Christian Pro-Lifer, I affirm that every life, both the unborn and the born, is precious to us and especially to God, the Author of life.

But my widening Pro-Life frame of did not stop there.

We have been engaging in a national moral struggle to define whose lives truly matter to us. As a Christian Pro-Lifer, I was challenged once again to widen my frame when I first heard the phrase “Black Lives Matter.” My initial reaction to that was, “Well yes, but all lives matter, don’t they? Black lives. Brown lives. White lives. We all matter. Why single out just Black lives? What’s the point?” Many of us sang as children, “Red and yellow, black and white, they are precious in His sight. Jesus loves the little children of the world.” And that’s true.

Still, my Christian conviction to love my neighbors as myself and my ongoing commitment to Pro-Life values led me to explore more deeply what “Black Lives Matter” means. What are we really saying?

Black Lives Matter became the rally cry of the Black civil rights movement after the police shootings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in 2014, and gained even more powerful prominence after the police killed George Floyd this year. As a wordsmith, I have to admit that “Black Lives Matter” is an ingenious phrase— pithy, pointed and highly evocative— as evidenced by the surge of support and resistance it has received. In just three words, it says: “The lives and wellbeing of Black people are sacred. However, the actions and policies of American systems of justice, law enforcement, housing and education have time and again demonstrated that Black wellbeing and survival is of secondary or even little importance to America. We’re here to say that Black wellbeing and survival matters. Black lives matter, and since they do, policy, attitudes, and behavior must reflect that reality.”

Once I understood what Black Lives Matter means, it occurred to me that my definition of Pro-Life must widen to include the protection of Black lives.

If I am willing to advocate for the abolition of laws, policies, and attitudes that proliferate the evils of abortion on demand, how can I not also advocate for the abolition of laws, policies, and attitudes that harm the lives of my Black neighbors?

I say all this as an urgent plea to my Pro-Life friends and neighbors. To be authentically Pro-Life, our frame of focus must encompass more than the plight of the unborn. It is a cognitive and spiritual dissonance to be passionately in favor of the unborn while remaining apathetic to the plight of the born. How can we exert so much effort to lovingly empathize with the feelings, health, and potential of the unborn and not extend that same loving empathy to to the feelings, health, and potential of the born, and in this case, of our Black neighbors, who are urging us to see that their lives matter, too.

Or to put it another way: we Pro-Lifers would go to any length to protect unborn Black babies, right? After all, in principle at least, unborn Black babies are just as sacred as unborn White babies. Once these unborn Black babies are born, how can we say to them and their mothers, “Well, you’re on your own now. Good luck, and God bless. And don’t you dare bother me with all your talk of systemic injustice and racism.” How can we ignore the fact that statistically speaking, a White baby will be healthier, more educated, make more money, and live longer than a Black baby, and not ask why that is, beyond our basic assumptions? How can our Pro-Life compassion and empathy co-exist with this kind of callous disregard? We want laws and polices in place to severely limit or even completely eliminate the evil of abortion on demand. How could we not also want laws and policies in place that dismantles the the evil of racism that hurts Black lives?

We Pro-Lifers have argued for years now that there is a pervasive culture of selfishness, violence, and death in America that proliferates the evil of abortion. This death culture has severely eroded our moral obligation to cherish the sacred worth of the unborn. Amen. I would add that this same culture spawns the kind of selfishness, apathy, suspicion, and arrogance that keeps our country from recognizing and dismantling the evil of racism that denies the sacred worth of born Black lives, too.

Fellow Pro-Lifers, expand your frame of compassion more widely to include Black lives. We go to great lengths to name, and to single out, and to fight to protect the lives of the unborn. Many of us Pro-Lifers are proud to name and single out Blue lives, too.

However, if you cannot just as passionately name, and single out, and fight to protect the lives of Black people, who for 400 years have suffered a racism that has denigrated the presence and worthiness of Black lives, then for heaven’s sake, don’t call yourself Pro-Life anymore. Be more honest, and just settle for anti-abortion.

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I Was Wrong to Post This

A few weeks ago, I found a meme that uses tongue-in-cheek satire to call out typical, racially-tinged things that people say, specifically white people. I knew it would garner some response and debate, but I was nowhere near prepared for the volume and kinds of responses it got! It went on for days on end, too.

The meme I should not have posted…

That meme got under peoples’ skin and opened a huge debate on race, racism, and whether or not people like me play any kind of responsibility for it. I learned a lot about how difficult and painful a conversation this is.

But there was one other lesson folks were trying to tell that I was too stubborn to hear.

This morning, I was having a conversation with one of my pastor colleagues, and I was reflecting on the need for us to address difficult issues like race and racism with a non-anxious, clear, respectful approach. To that, my colleague said, “You know Chris, I need to say this to you as a colleague and friend-“

Uh oh. The classic set up! So I leaned in and listened.

My colleague continued, “You might want to check the sarcasm on some of your posts. They’re not exactly the kind of non-anxious, clear, respectful approach you’re suggesting.” Ouch. Yet I couldn’t deny it. I knew exactly what this colleague was pointing to.

I believe clergy have an obligation to address and not skirt the hard stuff. The gospel of Jesus Christ does indeed shape how we see and how we respond to the issues of our day, in deeply biblical, uniquely Christian ways.

And yes, people will denounce these efforts in all kinds of ways. I do get it. These things are not easy to hear or talk about. It’s whole lot easier to just leave them alone, because there’s peril at every turn. To top it all off, I am not a confrontational person. (Most clergy are not, by the way.) This task is nothing I relish.

Yet that said, there is no room at all for sarcasm, snark, shaming, cynicism, or making light of very serious things. The meme I posted did all of that, and as a result, I pulled myself and the conversation backwards, not forwards.

There is a lot of wisdom in something many of us were told as kids: it’s not just what you say, it’s how you say it. I would add one more thing. Why we say it matters, too.

So, while I don’t regret addressing the issues of race and racism, I do regret how I did it. It just doesn’t belong. It cheapens our discourse. It unnecessarily raises the temperature in the room.

I was wrong to post that meme. And I sincerely apologize.

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Life As We’ve Known It Is Canceled… And That May Be Okay

Are you still shocked by how drastically our lives have changed in these past few months? I am. For most of us, confined to our homes, our formerly free and bustling lives are at a screeching halt. For lots of others deemed to be “essential workers,” every day is a perilous encounter with an anxious, volatile public. For a rapidly growing number of folks filing for unemployment benefits, life is spent every day on the phone for hours on-end or navigating a hastily constructed government website on the verge of crashing, desperately striving for the means to put food on the table and pay off a growing stack of overdue bills.

As for me, my “all important” planner which used to be chock-full of meetings, appointments, church events, worship services, my son’s Special Olympics games, and lots of other family happenings is now a loose assortment of Zoom meetings and phone appointments. Meanwhile those once-immovable, sacrosanct functions like Sunday morning worship services, Holy Week services, and an all-important annual conference I am required to attend have all been deleted— canceled, indefinitely postponed, or pre-recorded for live streaming. Simply unreal.

Once in a while, I break from home confinement to venture out to the store for groceries or medications. Every trip feels like a special ops strike force mission. I glove up, mask up, and make my way into a store plastered with signs enforcing social distancing, masks, and product rationing. Grabbing up whatever is left on the shelves, I rush to the checkout line, stand on my socially distanced floor marker, and above all else, avoid getting anywhere near those other masked shoppers who are just as eager to stay away from me. The word “surreal” doesn’t begin to describe all this.

Welcome to life in the midst of a once-in-a-century, global health pandemic. Life as we’ve known it is canceled. And when we begin to slowly emerge from this COVID-19 crisis, our lives will look very different. Again, because it’s worth repeating: life as we once knew it has been permanently canceled. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that one day we’ll all “get back to normal,” whatever that was. While it remains to be seen what life on the other side of COVID-19 will look like, perhaps we can take some cues from what’s happening right now to begin to sketch a picture of it.

But before we get to what the future holds, let’s pause a moment to take stock of how we’re feeling right now. How are you feeling? I would imagine it’s some murky stew of loss, anxiety, boredom, thankfulness, bewilderment, hopefulness, disorientation, sadness, anger, frustration, and dread. All of this is understandable. These are all the common feelings of grief.

After all, we are living through a sudden, traumatic death— the death of life as we had known it. Grief and bereavement always follow death, and the feelings I listed above are very much what grieving people move through. (Notice, I did not list stress. Stress is often a socially convenient cover word for the real feelings we have but can’t or won’t acknowledge.)

So what’s next? What lies beyond the shadows of death?

While fully appreciating that we all hold different spiritual beliefs, I’d like to gently offer a Christian paradigm to our current situation. It’s called life-death-resurrection. We live. We die. God raises us from death into a new life that somewhat resembles the old, but has been radically transformed by death and resurrection into something freer, more powerful, more lively, more loving, more purposeful, and no longer confined to the restrictions and limitations of the old.

You don’t need to be a Christian to see this life-death-resurrection pattern everywhere you look. We see it in the pattern of the seasons. We see it when a seed dies and is buried, sprouting into a new plant that yields lots of new seeds (see John 12:33-36). We see life-death-resurrection when a person is transformed by trauma into a new person, recognizable but radiantly different, too.

Yet we Christians take this a giant leap further. We believe that life-death-resurrection is best understood within the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In our Eucharistic celebrations, we call this the Paschal Mystery and “the great mystery of faith”: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We adore the Christ as the perfect icon and the perpetual, divine flow within every incarnation of life-death-resurrection. This incarnate, resurrected Christ openly calls each of us to share in his own life, death, and resurrection by taking up his cross and following him through life into death and resurrection, which happens partly now and completely fulfilled in the life to come.

But again, even if you don’t embrace Christian faith as I do, I would invite you to see what’s happening in our lives and world as a significant incarnation of life-death-resurrection. The life we lived just a few months ago has died. We’re now living in a Good Friday-Holy Saturday mode of sitting quietly in the tomb of what used to be. We have every reason to hope for an Easter Sunday-like resurrection into a new life of freedom, wisdom, compassion towards suffering, and a greater capacity to absorb and give unconditional love.

So what might resurrection from the COVID-19 crisis look like, assuming that we’ve fully died to the life we used to live, grieved it, and are ready to rise up into something new?

I’d like to propose seven things:

  • We would see time very differently. Time would no longer be a commodity to be used up, but a gift to enjoy. For most of us, how we’re spending our time now is remarkably different. Our pace is slower, scattered and less predictable. This dramatic deceleration of pace encourages us to focus more on being than doing. Living in slower motion, operating from a sense of being, we can then become far more aware and present to ourselves, to others, and to God. We could become more engaged, understanding, and empathetic listeners who cultivate healthier relationships.
  • We can live with far less. Disastrous economic upheaval and scarcer resources naturally force people to live frugally, conscientiously, and gratefully. The Builder generation, those who lived through the Great Depression and World War II, learned these lessons well. Perhaps it’s time for us to learn them, too. Living with less and unburdened by the compulsion for more and more has consistently proven to make people happier, balanced, freer, and more generous.
  • We can become emotionally and spiritually mature. In our old pattern of life before COVID-19, most all of us lived as worker-consumers which kept us far too busy, overly stimulated, addicted to all kinds of things, and quite frankly, spiritually and emotionally immature. Too many adults do not emotionally mature much past middle-school development. That may sound harsh, but it’s no exaggeration. I would define a majority of today’s adults as self-absorbed, image-conscious, politically, religiously, and culturally cliquish while hostile to people outside of their cliques, erratic, largely self-unaware, compulsive, and relationally insecure and stunted. Furthermore, we applaud this kind of immaturity in media celebrities, entertainment, in politics, and in the people we elect for public office. We award them with money and votes. Yet now, with most of us confined to our homes with a whole lot more time on our hands and with significant, life-altering challenges we cannot ignore, we can finally dig down deeper within ourselves, and come to grips with the wounds, pains and fears we have been carrying but unable to confront and process. In this healing, we can unearth love and strength we never knew we had. In the midst of all this, we can re-discover and develop a more lasting, significant relationship with God. Through reading, prayer, contemplation and meditation, therapy, and spiritual direction, we can finally grow up to become the mature, happy, and wise people God has created us to be.
  • Health care can become more community-centered. Up until now, health care has been hyper-individualized. We’ve been primarily concerned with our own immediate health and the health of our families. But like anything else, when we move from I/me to us/we, we only become stronger together. Because of our new normal of social distancing, extra sanitation practices, and greater health awareness in general, COVID-19 is inviting our society to better value and protect the health and wellbeing of the whole community, not just our own. The results of this new consciousness in terms of practice, policy, and law could be staggering. We could accelerate the availability and excellence of health care for all of our neighbors, especially if we can take extra measures now to protect primary medical care practices who are suffering.
  • We can make far better use of communication technology. For years now, we’ve been moving at a buggy’s pace towards telecommuting and teleworking which we know would significantly reduce the time and energy resources we consume, while greatly decreasing our impact on an overly-burdened transportation infrastructure and the environment. COVID-19 has quickly completed that shift. Have you seen the pictures of major cities with less smog and emptier roads? There’s no reason we couldn’t continue to vastly shrink our commuter footprint by taking advantage of the telecommunication capacity we have in place now. And if we could lessen our reliance on fossil fuels to do much less traveling, all the better.
  • Public schooling can become both home and classroom-based. In recent decades public schooling has become largely test-driven and teacher-centered, all aimed at meeting national and state education standards. That has left parents and families increasingly sidelined in their children’s education. (If you don’t believe me, ask anyone over the age of 25 to explain Common Core math.) Very suddenly now, we are discovering a new partnership between school administrations, faculty, parents, and families. If students could do more learning at home, if parents could keep a more flexible work schedule by telecommuting, and if public schools could retain parents and families as co-educators through online instruction, imagine the tremendous burden we could lift from cash-strapped school systems, overly crowded school buildings and school transportation systems.
  • Faith communities can become more nimble, authentic, and community-based. Before COVID-19, the name of the game for most faith communities had been “attract people to our religious buildings, consume our religious products, and help us pay for it.” It’s admittedly self-centered and very expensive. Community presence and service has always played second fiddle to our frenzied efforts to attract people to buy up our religious wares. Well, those unholy games are over. COVID-19 has quickly morphed faith communities into nimble, local community and home-based service stations that make use of every bit of available technology and practical strategies to connect to the wider world. More faith communities are responding to the needs of the poor with food drives, financial assistance, and justice work. They are re-framing their new online worship services to be more timely, relevant, honest, and intimately personal amongst a vast, more interactive population than they’ve ever had before. Speaking for the church, we’re finally learning that the church is a people, not a building. (We used to say that before, but only half-heartedly. Now we’re living it.)

I may be wrong about some of these things, or even many of them, but I sure hope not. Let’s put it this way: we have every opportunity to grow into these new ways of life which are right in front of us, unfolding into a significant, life-giving transformation of our old lives. If we can work through the discomfort of the liminal space we’re in now– as in a new, uncertain, painful, messy, and disjointed interim time between old and new– then God can certainly raise us up into a powerful, new life that dwarfs the old by comparison.

In the meantime, let us all give ourselves plenty of time and space to be, to explore, to grieve, to struggle, to learn, to create, to discover, to experiment, to fail, dust ourselves off, and try again, and to dream, not in a nostalgic longing of our old way of life, but in hopeful expectancy of life to become, in the midst of and on the other side of COVID-19.

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The Super Bowl Halftime Clash

The Super Bowl is an American cultural phenomenon. It’s a super-hyped event– glitzy, loud, overdone, and completely commercial. When it’s game time, everything else comes to a grinding halt, including church activities. Stores are barren. Emotions are rampant. It’s truly an unofficial American holiday.

No matter who is playing, most of us tune in to watch. The game itself is only part of the spectacle, of course. The commercials and the halftime show are every bit as significant, and my goodness, they certainly were last night.

For years now, the National Football League has found itself in the midst of several volatile culture wars. I don’t need to review them here. (Well okay, I’ll list off the big ones anyway: player safety, drug use, and behavior on and off the field, fights over mascots, patriotism, freedom of expression, race, standing or kneeling during the National Anthem, and… what to do with the Super Bowl halftime show.) The NFL has certainly capitalized on all these controversies. Some would say, “Don’t let a good controversy go to waste,” and the NFL in all its excessive flamboyance hasn’t at all been wasteful with its inherited and self-imposed controversies. Then again, I don’t entirely blame them. Much of what I see in the NFL is a mirror of the state of our country, culturally and politically.

halftimeThat is especially true in the case of last night’s halftime Super Bowl show when so many of us were tuned in and watching the same thing. Jennifer Lopez and Shakira, two superstar Latina artists performed. It was an explosive performance. And our responses to their performance have been even more explosive!

People have tried to describe what happened in the halftime show. But describing what happened is not nearly as important as answering this question: What did you see?

If you didn’t actually watch the halftime show and went by what people said they saw, you might wonder if we were watching the same thing. Trust me, we were.

Here’s a sampling of what people observed:

  • A celebration of Hispanic culture, led by two Latina women (a first for a Super Bowl halftime show)
  • A soft porn show
  • Further objectification of women
  • Empowerment of women
  • An anti-Trump demonstration
  • A lewd, disgusting display of sexuality
  • A fantastic dance and music production
  • A totally inappropriate show for families
  • A family celebration empowering young people
  • Entertainment that’s really no worse than anything else on TV

Look again at these descriptions. Why are they so vastly different? Could it be that they say more about the eye of the beholder than the show itself? I think so.

(Quick time out: if you’re tempted right now to write me off as a wishy-washy moral subjectivist, resist that urge. I had a definite, strong moral reaction to what I saw. Just keep reading.)

Our conflicts didn’t stop with our differences over what we saw or didn’t see. It got worse. We then had to navigate through our differences. How do we respond when a passionate perception of ours runs up against someone else’s perception? That’s where we failed so badly.

Let me illustrate.

I watched the halftime show. Admittedly, I knew very little about Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. Their music is just not in my wheelhouse. So right at the beginning of the show, I did a quick search, and I learned that they are both middle-aged Hispanic singers and dancers. No, I’ve not been hiding under a rock! It’s a big world, and I know what I know. (Can you list the entire discography of Rush from memory while rattling off Bible verses and the details of coffee roast profiles? I can. But I digress.)

Once I got more familiar with Shakira and Jennifer Lopez, it all began to click. Aha… yeah, their music and dancing indeed looks culturally Hispanic. Okay. Amazing talent. Still, what in the world am I watching?

The following is a recollection of my various reactions while viewing the show with my wife and son:

Wow… Shakira is a beautiful woman, but gosh, she’s wearing very little. She came out with a red rope which she rubbed across her body. Was that some kind of S&M thing? That’s… unsettling. Where is this going?

Wait a minute. She’s doing a lot of very fast, sexually suggestive pelvic thrusts, like she’s having sex in midair! At one point, the cameras were positioned right under her dress as she was thrusting around. Her crotch was right there, for crying out loud! Hey, stop the bus! Did Jennifer Lopez just rub herself down there? Yeah, I think she did. Several times. What is this?

Some guy was grinding Shakira. More very erotic, sexually suggestive dancing and flailing. Hey, Jennifer Lopez! Wait a minute? Is she pole dancing?? Yes, she’s wrapping her body around a pole. Strippers do that. What the heck is this?

But wow… amazing dancing and choreography. “Born in the USA” with Jennifer Lopez donning a Puerto Rican flag. That was daring!

Kids in cages? What’s that all about?

Wait a minute… Why am I seeing so many bare bottoms… on national TV… with my son watching all this? Why all this blatant sexuality on my TV screen? This is just more-of-the-same flagrant selling of sex and women’s bodies for corporate profit while furthering the objectification of women and women’s bodies as sexual objects. It’s well known that human trafficking is a colossal problem around Super Bowl venues. These women, as talented as they are, are only contributing to this human travesty, all in the name of greed, fame, and power.

And this is 2020?? Yup, it sure is.

Those were my responses. In my gut, they still are. Then on Facebook, I asked the question, “Soft porn halftime show?” I thought it was. Yet I was totally unprepared for the numerous, varied, passionate, and argumentative responses I got. It was like I inadvertently waded into a shark pool. Then I jumped right out of that pool and began to ask myself, Whoah, what did I just get myself into? Did I miss something. Did they?

A little later, I read the posts from friends who clearly saw the halftime show very differently than I did, and they labeled people with my kinds of perceptions as racists, sexists, prudes, policing brown bodies, snowflakes, “white boomers,” and vulgar descriptions I won’t share here.

This is a clash of cultures, pure and simple. And, worse still, we just do not know what to do with our cultural differences.

Within the comments of folks who responded to my “Soft porn halftime show?” post, I saw at least 11 different cultural, ideological and demographic representations:

  • White Christian culture (religious and non-religious)
  • Hispanic culture
  • African-American culture
  • Feminism– representing at least two very different points of view
  • Generation X and older
  • Millennial and younger
  • Married with children
  • Married with no children
  • Single
  • Male
  • Female

To make things even more complicated, people from these various cultures, ideologies and demographic groups did not all agree, but they clearly diverged from the same starting point.

My personal cultural descriptors are male, white Christian, married with children, Generation X with particular feminist leanings. That should explain a lot. Modesty, especially female modesty, is very important to my white Christian culture. As a father with feminist leanings, I taught my daughters to be very careful about how they dress. There is way too much sexual objectification and sexualization of women (my particular feminist leanings). Sexual expression is to be shared between two married people behind closed doors. So be careful about how you present yourselves to others. Be strong, independent, pure, and wise enough to show your beauty, inner and outer, with modesty, respect, and discretion.

Now, is my particular cultural view superior to someone else’s? It has historically been the majority view. But does that make it intrinsically better? That’s a pivotal question. And here is where we get into trouble.

Hispanic culture is far more openly erotic and sensual than my own culture. They might find my culture to be too formal, quiet, reserved and discreet. And there are many feminist voices who see women like Shakira and Jennifer Lopez as empowering. They are choosing what to do with their bodies, the argument goes. They are not at all ashamed of their bodies and are resisting a Western patriarchy that has sought to constrain how women use, show and treat their bodies.

I obviously don’t see things that way at all. But are they wrong? Am I? We’ll probably never agree.

Therefore, the more pertinent observation from last night’s halftime show is our collective failure to navigate through the storms our cultural differences without demeaning, dismissing, or fighting against other cultural perceptions and the people who hold them.

Think about this and be honest. What are we really accomplishing fighting this brutal cultural war of attrition where the unstated goal is to name, ridicule, belittle, blame, and destroy people from different cultural understandings? These arguments almost always end in a stalemate and at the expense of respect and trust.

What if more of us, myself included, could pause, take a breath, step back, and attempt to comprehend our differences and, just as importantly, to mutually discern the reasons why those differences exist? Instead of holding an attitude of suspicion, could more of us approach differences with an attitude of curiosity? Instead of cultural arrogance, could we practice cultural humility? Rather than engaging in fruitless arguments, could we listen, seek to understand and share? Instead of needing to be victoriously right and righteous, can we strive to be empathetic? (It is extremely difficult, if not downright impossible to do both.)

Last night, when I finally calmed down a bit and listened to other folks’ points of view, I (re)learned several things. First, disagreements are often misunderstandings in disguise. Our initial and untested perceptions are often wildly inaccurate. Secondly, I can learn things from other points of view that I didn’t know before. In some cases, that has changed the way I think. In other cases, I’m just as convicted as I was before, but at least I can understand and respect a different way of seeing.

So I did learn. And hopefully, that has made me a more understanding and compassionate neighbor. I am who I am. They are who they are. In the meantime, I’ve had enough of football and halftime shows… until next season!

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How Eddie Money Helped Me Pray

Let me say this right away. I am NOT an Eddie Money fan– never have been, never will be. Whenever I think of Eddie Money or hear his music, the words total cheese about sum it all up for me. Nothing more to be said.

Eddie Money March 21, 1949 – September 13, 2019

Nevertheless, when I heard today that Eddie Money died, I immediately thought of a blog post that never got written because… yeah… I thought it would be cheesier than my summation of Mr. Money or his music. And by the way, for you highly offended Eddie Money fans, I’m about to share something that just might make you smile. It’s my story of how Eddie Money helped me to pray one day. (At the very least, you’ll be smiling at my cheesiness.)

So it all began this summer on my family’s vacation down to the Outer Banks. Blairlee and I like to listen to a variety of music on long car trips, and while our tastes in music diverge at times, there’s one Sirius station we both enjoy: the 80’s station! 80’s on 8. We love it. It’s one song right after the other of every hit 80’s song you can think of, including those you’d totally forgotten and would rather remain forgotten.

Well, lo and behold, somewhere in the rotation, what should play? It was one of my absolute least favorite 80’s songs ever: Eddie Money’s “Take Me Home Tonight.” That song for me is the epitome of 80’s cheeseball music– stupid lyrics about a guy who wants to get it on with a girl he’s got the hots for, a soulless female vocal part who pretty much says, “yeah, baby, bring it on”, electronic drums with way too much reverb, a sleazy sax solo that comes out of nowhere, some weird Asian-sounding keyboard part that doesn’t fit the song at all, and I could go on and on.

After I suffered through that song– wouldn’t you know it??– that loathsome tune became an ear worm that would not go away! Every time I had a moment of quiet, “Take me home tonight, I don’t want to let you go ’till you see the light!” would start playing in my head. It was pure torture.

Every morning at the beach, I got up early before the rest of the family to have some quiet time reading and praying out on the porch. It was such a special time. The sun was coming up. I could hear the waves, the birds, smell the salt water, and have some precious moments of quiet solitude with God. Me, a cup of coffee, the beach, spiritual reading, prayer, and God. Life could not get any better.

That was until… I went to pray.

My favorite form of prayer is contemplative prayer, which is basically praying without words. I sit in silence, clear my thoughts, and focus on my breathing. Slowly but surely, my spirit comes to rest and I can feel myself sinking down into God, and into myself, almost like sitting in God’s lap, being nourished, cherished, and divinely loved. Praying like that doesn’t need any words. Stillness, waiting, and breathing are much more powerful than any words I could utter.

After reading, I went to pray, clearing my head, enjoying the silence, but then, like a ballgame beer vender at a fine dining restaurant, I began to hear, blaring in my head, “Take me home tonight, I don’t want to let you go ’till you see the light!”

I tried over and over again to push that wretched song away, which would only crank the volume even louder in my head. It was frustrating and humiliating all at the same time.

But then the Holy Spirit nudged me a bit, and I thought, clearly this song is not going away. It will not be ignored or pushed out of my head. For some reason, it’s demanding my attention. What if this song could become part of a prayer? What that make it happy???

Reluctantly, I took the chorus of “Take Me Home Tonight” and edited it just slightly to become a prayer. (I once had a friend who insisted that love songs are half-siblings of prayers. This song is more of a lust song than a love song, but could it still baptized into a prayer?)

Take me home. Don’t let me go until I see the light. That became my prayer to God. And I prayed it very slowly like this:

Take me home. Don’t let me go until I see the light.

Take me home. Don’t let me go until I see.

Take me home. Don’t let me go until.

Take me home. Don’t let me go.

Take me home. Don’t let me.

Take me home. Don’t let.

Take me home.

Take me.

By the time I got to take me, I was close to tears. A song I had scorned as pestilence became a gift from God. I clearly needed that. Then the ear worm vanished, and it never came back.

So, thank you Eddie Money and Holy Spirit for helping me to pray in a way I most definitely needed. Rest in peace, Mr. Money. May God in his infinite mercy take you home tonight.

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On Coming Back to the Mother County

There is nothing like returning to a place that remains unchanged to find the ways in which you yourself have altered.

Nelson Mandela

The Phone Call

My phone rang on a Sunday afternoon after church. It was Sunday April 28, the day it was officially announced that I would be the new Lead Pastor of First Saints Community Church in St. Mary’s County. I looked at my phone and saw that it was John Gatton, a lifelong, born and raised St. Mary’s County resident, about as “County” as anyone can be, a dear man, brother in Christ, and friend.

“Hello?”

“Chris! I just saw the news. Welcome home! I can’t wait to have you back down here.”

And on the conversation went, steeped in typically wonderful St. Mary’s County hospitality. “You know we’re all here for you. You let me know if there’s anything you need. You don’t worry about a thing” I thanked John over and over again, a man whom I once fondly dubbed the Unofficial Mayor of Hollywood, MD. John is a semi-retired barber, the son and father of barbers who have all worked in the same little barber shop on Hollywood Road for three generations. John knows countless numbers of people in the County, and with a phone call can immediately connect his neighbors to just about anything you can imagine. That’s St. Mary’s in a nutshell.

Then all my thoughts began to race back 18 years to the first time I was appointed to St. Mary’s County as the Associate Pastor of Hollywood UMC. It was my very first appointment. And yes, during most of that time I could truthfully say that I lived in California and worked in Hollywood! (Go look it up if you don’t believe me.)

Like most people who end up in the County, I did not go willingly. In fact I dreaded it. There’s a common County folk saying that aptly applied to me, “People hate coming down here. But once they get here, we can’t get rid of ’em!” Well, after three years of serving there, I was appointed to my next church up the road in Upper Marlboro. But the County really didn’t leave me.

About “The County”

St. Mary’s College and City

Compared to the rest of Maryland, St. Mary’s County is a peculiar, beautiful place filled with surprises and anomalies, and yet isolated from literally everywhere else. Recently, one resident described it to me as “The Land Time Forgot”. Most Marylanders have never been here and really don’t have any burning desire to visit, let alone live here. That’s because St. Mary’s County, the southernmost tip of the Western Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, is at least two hours away from the hub of Central Maryland. (If we bother to even think about the County, a lot of us Marylanders mistakenly presume it’s on somewhere on the Eastern Shore!)

Situated on an extreme perimeter of the state, it’s a peninsula, not a place you’d ever travel through to get anywhere else. There are no major cities here, no sports teams, no popular vacation destinations, no must-see, must-do things that Marylanders particularly care about. And yet it has its own distinctive culture (stuffed ham and fried oyster dinners, anyone??) and history that is truly the deep heart and soul of Maryland. Most Marylanders have just forgotten that.

And yet, St. Mary’s is the Mother County of Maryland. In 1634, Leonard Calvert, son and brother of the 1st and 2nd Lords of Baltimore, with about 300 other settlers aboard The Ark and The Dove, landed and settled the colony of Maryland and became its first governor. They quickly established St. Mary’s City, which became the first capital of the Province of Maryland. They made their new home the very first place in the Americas established on religious freedom and tolerance. In fact, one of the honorific titles of St. Mary’s is “The Birthplace of Religious Freedom.”

There are 385 years of history in the County, spanning from the beginning of the American colonies, through the founding of our State and Country, key events of the War of 1812, the Civil War, and the critical supportive roles the County has played in every American war since World War II.

St. Mary’s County is also one of the fastest growing places in Maryland with– as I’ve recently discovered!– one of the most hyper-competetive real estate markets in the State. That’s because St. Mary’s County is home to the Naval Air Station Patuxent River, simply called “PAX” by local folks, which has become the Naval test flight center on the eastern seaboard, bringing in people from all over the world, military and civilian.

Piney Point Lighthouse

Through the years, however, community, tradition, history, maritime and agricultural life, miliary support, faith and family are all hallmarks of the County.

I have to admit, when I left St. Mary’s County 15 years ago, it went largely out of sight and mind from my day to day life. But it never really left my heart. There was a part of me that never left there.

Coming Back

So here I am again. Never, ever, in my wildest imagination did I think I’d find myself back in the Mother County. I think of all that’s happened to me since I was here last. After a divorce and marriage, two new children, three congregations with a couple of years on Conference staff thrown in, and lots of very necessary, often painful seasons of growing up to do, yes, I’m back in the County.

Still, I don’t feel like the same person whom many folks here are glad has returned. (I’m grateful folks have fond memories of me. I’ll take that, at least.) Since announcing my return, I have been quietly dreading the refrain of “Chris is coming back!” I think, “Yes, I’m coming back, but if you’re counting on the 27-year-old kid you once knew, you might be disappointed.”

Meanwhile, folks had been telling me how much the County has changed. There are more people, more stores, more homes, more traffic, etc., etc. Yes, places and people change. But could St. Mary’s County truly change all that much??

In the many times I had to travel down the nearly 2 hours from Annapolis to meet with the new church and hunt for a home before my July 1 start date, I drove around the County to re-acclimate myself. I could definitely see the new stores, the increased traffic, and more homes built. However, the true character and charm of the County I knew back then really hadn’t changed all that much. It was still good ol’ St. Mary’s County.

Perhaps the same is true for me after all. We all grow and change. Hopefully we mature in wisdom and inner strength, too. I think I can say the same for myself. Even then, when all is said and done, I am who I am, and, well, this place is what it is, too.

Returning to the Mother County after what seems like a lifetime ago, I am reminded of that old cliche that is laden with more ironic reality than I can understand: the more things change, the more they stay the same. For me, and for this County I’m loving again, that could not be more true.

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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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From Judgmentalism to Compassion

It’s the comparisons game. At least that’s where it begins. I see differences between myself and you and then assign values to those differences— good and bad, right and wrong, better and worse. Often, these value-weighted differences tip the scale in my favor, putting myself, at least in my own eyes, in a position of moral, intellectual, or spiritual superiority to you. That is judgmentalism.

We do this all the time. It’s our way of making distinctions between ourselves and others in some vain effort to validate ourselves. At the root of all this self-validating judgmentalism is pride, which many of the the ancient spiritual masters say is at the root of every sin. I would carefully dig down a step deeper and say that at the root of pride itself is fear and insecurity. If not that, then why harbor pride at all?

I was thinking about all this again after meeting with a small group of folks who are about to take on the momentous task of working with a person for a whole year, to transition this sister or brother out of homelessness. It’s a coordinated effort with The Lighthouse, a local homelessness prevention charity, and The Open Table. (Take a moment to read how another local church is doing this work. It’s really amazing!)

To prepare themselves for their work, they went through an exercise in which each member was invited to take personal stock of their judgmentalism. How judgmental are they in general? What kinds of “trigger” behaviors in other people set off their judgmental attitudes? It was a fascinating discussion, and I was struck by how gut honest everyone allowed themselves to be with each other. They wrestled with how to walk the line between evaluating someone else’s behavior and being judgmental. How fine is that line? Does that line even exist? I have a feeling they will continue to wrestle through these crucial questions through their year-long journey with a homeless brother or sister.

As they were discussing these things, an oft quoted and badly misunderstood teaching of Jesus came to mind:

“Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:1-5

“Do not judge!” I could probably write a whole book dissecting this teaching, addressing the various popular conceptions of what it means to judge versus what Jesus meant. (I’d probably drive myself crazy trying to figure it out, too!)

For now, however, what stands out to me is the second part of this passage addressing the speck and the plank. As I read it again, it has occurred to me that Jesus was an absolute genius of human psychology. He’s talking about what Freud would later call “projection.”

According to Wikipedia Almighty— don’t judge me!— psychological projection is:

…a defense mechanism in which the human ego defends itself against unconscious impulses or qualities (both positive and negative) by denying their existence in themselves while attributing them to others.[ For example, a person who is habitually rude may constantly accuse other people of being rude. It incorporates blame shifting.

Another way of saying it is this: we despise in others what we most despise in ourselves. We see this negative thing acutely in others (the speck in their eye) because we struggle with it so intensely within ourselves (the plank in our own eye). Otherwise, why would we care so much? And, considering the full range of things we could choose to judge within others, why else would we consistently judge certain things within other people?

Ouch. If that steps on your toes as much as it does mine, that’s because it’s meant to. If we want to grow and mature as people, we must stop in our tracks long enough to look within at our shadowy side, the part of us we of desperately try to avoid and deny.

This is why Jesus gives us the admonition to spend all the time necessary— usually the span of our lifetimes— to call out our own shadows, to remove the plank from our own eye. Then we’ll possess the unfiltered clarity see our neighbors more clearly, fairly, and compassionately.

This leads me to my other revelation about judgmentalism. In addition to addressing our own shadows, the best antidote I know of for judgmentalism is compassion, which I understand to be the ability to see myself reflected within another person, both my strengths and my liabilities. Compassion is a mirror. Within my neighbor I see a mirror of my strengths and liabilities, and I can choose to humble myself and offer that same mirror to them. Then we no longer stand apart; we are siblings.

How does this work?

Let me share a rather painful, personal example. I tend to despise arrogance in other people. My gut reaction to it is, “How dare they carry on like that? Who do they think they are?”

Why do I respond that way? It’s simple. We’re competing for space! For all the recognition and attention they soak up, I feel like that’s less for me. I don’t want someone to be overly recognized while I sit in their shadow because then I won’t be as deservedly noticed and appreciated. Shame on them for taking up what is rightfully mine!

Here is the plank in my own eye: it’s my “shadow self’s” need to be appreciated and recognized for the good which I self-perceive I am and do. Through years of painful shadow work, I have learned that this is a fundamental insecurity within me. When I choose to cast a light on this shadow and expose it for what it is, in other words, remove the plank from my eye, I then have the ability to “get over myself.”

It’s also enabled me to empathize with the same kinds of traits in others, the ones I happen to judgmentally label as arrogant show horses. So now when I spot what I sense to be arrogance in someone else and it triggers my judgmentalism, I can choose to turn off the judgment, empathetically gaze at that neighbor, and perhaps see a mirror of myself. And that allows me a degree of compassion. I don’t have to judge them for being right or wrong or good or bad. They just are who they are, as I am who I am.

If I’m feeling especially neighborly, I will seek out this “arrogant” person, and genuinely encourage them for the good I treasure in them. That’s my mirror back to them. Why would I bother?? It’s for one simple reason. It’s the way I like to be treated. (Love your neighbor as you would love yourself.) And if they genuinely share the same shadow I do— the need for appreciation and recognition— I might have met and soothed that same unspoken need within them. I could speak real value and love into their life.

That’s compassion. It’s the polar opposite of judgmentalism.

Now, please, please don’t hear what I’m not saying.

I’m not saying that this is easy. Along with forgiveness, and perhaps this is another form of it, choosing compassion over judgmentalism is one of the hardest things we can ever do. We cannot even begin to do it before calling out our own shadows.

I’m not saying that we throw out any sense of right and wrong. Of course, there is good and evil. There is right and wrong. There is righteousness and there is sin. We all do both good and evil, right and wrong, righteousness and sinfulness. But that’s not the point.

My point is that we must be honest enough with ourselves to ask why it is that certain things within other people stand out to us as more scandalous, evil, sinful and unforgivable than other things. Once we understand that about ourselves, we could approach the offending neighbor in a very different— hopefully much more compassionate!— way. We would be a whole lot more humble and happy, too.

So where would be a good place to start if we want to grow from judgmentalism to compassion? Start with Jesus’ warning that the measure we use towards other people will the same measure used towards us, either by God, by other people, or both.

Generally speaking, what comes around goes round. Genuinely compassionate, gentle people tend to invite that same compassion and gentleness towards them. Not always, of course! But certainly most of the time. What we plant is what we sow.

Sow the seeds of compassion, and more often than not, that’s exactly what you and I will harvest in abundance. If for nothing else, let’s allow this simple seed of truth to sink in, grow roots, and do its necessary work within our hearts, for our wellbeing and for that of our neighbors.


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When I Beat My Head Against the Church Wall

Sometimes I get to the point where I’ve had enough. I’m done. I just want to walk away, not look back, and shake the dust off my feet.

I’m talking about the church. On the one hand, I would not be where I am today without the church. It’s my home, especially this church called the Baltimore-Washington Conference of the United Methodist Church. (Try saying that five times really fast.) It’s my family, and as I’ve said before, to disown my family would be in a significant way disowning myself.

But… ugh… does it have to be so hard??

I was given my first church appointment in 2001, and since then I have served 4 congregations as pastor. I have worked with many more as a consultant and coach. In every situation, I walked into a declining congregation, or a congregation on the verge of decline and was charged with helping them to grow.

That’s the expectation. Grow the church! Bring more people to Jesus! Help the church get healthier!

Since 2001, I have taught, preached, coordinated, planned, visioned, pleaded, and even cajoled congregations to do what it takes to grow and thrive. I’ve read books and attended countless seminars on how to lead the church towards revitalization.

Nevertheless, aside from some anecdotal instances here and there of bold, Holy Spirit-led effort and times of growth, I can’t say that I left any of my congregations noticeably numerically larger or more financially solvent.

There may have been marginal instances of numeric growth, and there was always expansion in other areas than the number of people in the pews, such as the renewal of dying ministries, new, more diverse leaders, a new worship service, and new missions. Yet looking at the big picture, I still feel like I left those congregations in their trajectory of numeric decline, no matter how hard I worked to bring about the kind of change necessary to reverse the patterns I inherited.

I’ve known all along that everything always boils down to the heart.

Who do we love? What are our motives? Who or what do we trust? What are we willing to do to love and include people? What are we willing to give up? How receptive are we to change? What do we really want, and can we be honest about that?

All this came to a head recently when at a Church Council meeting someone asked the question, “What can we do to get more people into the church?” As soon as the question was asked, I inwardly groaned, and then braced myself for what was to come. Slowly, the tension and frustration began to rise in the room and within me. And then the same kinds of playbook questions got asked:

“Why don’t we do [this and that] anymore? That used to work.”

“That church down the street— they do [this and that]. Why aren’t we doing that?”

“We need to do things to get the young people here. How do we do that?”

“If we don’t grow the church, how can we keep solvent?”

“If all you do is focus on those outside and don’t pay attention to the folks inside, you’re going to lose the people we’ve got. And they pay the bills.”

So… after 20 minutes of spinning our wheels over questions we can never answer, I tried to make the case I have repeatedly made: we’ve got to get ourselves out of the “attraction” mindset, worrying about trying to attract people to our worship services and our events. That’s not to say that we stop trying, but we’ve got to accept the reality that a growing majority of people just aren’t interested in Sunday morning religion and church life. So we must focus our efforts on going to our neighbors and relating to them where they are, as they are. Don’t go with a self-serving agenda. Just go to love, bless, and be community with them.

I was met with blank stares.

Of course, I get it, and I can’t really fault them for it. The kind of “missional” mindset and behavior I’ve been espousing by no means resembles the way we’re used to thinking about church. For so long we lived with the expectation that if we build it, the crowds will come. Advertise the event, and folks will check it out. Hang up the welcome sign out front, and people will come. Yet that’s not the world we live in anymore, and church folk are having a hard time accepting that.

As expected, the whole discussion went nowhere.

And there I was, once again beating my head against a church wall, something I’ve done far too many times now. My head is aching, my heart hanging heavily. Trying with all the wisdom and creativity I can muster to change the culture and heart of the church, I’ve come to see that I simply cannot do it.

That leaves me with four options: 1) Keep trying new tactics and strategies to bring about change while exacerbating my pounding headache; 2) Shift my role to hospice chaplain for a dying church; 3) Walk away to find something more fruitful to do with my life; or 4) Do something I have never seriously considered during all my struggles to change the church: change myself.

******* ******* *******

It’s hard to believe that 20 years ago, the groundbreaking film The Matrix hit the big screen. It was a movie-making breakthrough whose philosophical implications were riveting. (I can’t say that about its two sequels, but I digress.)

There’s a scene in The Matrix where Neo, the lead character, goes into a strange living-room style waiting before his fateful meeting with the Oracle. There on the floor in front of him is a boy who appears to using telekinetic powers to bend spoons.

Neo sits down with the boy who hands him a spoon.

“Do not try and bend the spoon,” said the boy. “That’s impossible. Instead… only try to realize the truth.”

“What truth?” asked Neo.

“There is no spoon,” said the boy. “Then you’ll see that it is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

From The Matrix (1999)

Perhaps I’ve spent the better part of 20 years doing the impossible task of bending spoons, when all along I could have been bending myself. I’ve been kicking the same immovable goad of trying to change the church. Now I think it’s time to apply that same effort towards changing myself.

In the contemplative world, how we choose to see reality defines everything. Changing how we see God, the world, and ourselves awakens alternative forms of consciousness, and that in turn alters the behavior and the relationship between the seer and everything else.

So, what if my presupposition that the church is a problem to be solved was the wrong way to begin seeing the church? Instead of trying to fix people and things, what if I shifted my motives to loving people and things in their entirety? What if the church is simply a people to be fully loved, not an institution to be fixed?

What if my self-imposed expectations of trying to meet the expectations of my supervisors while simultaneously trying to keep the congregation happy with me have been poor motivations? What if it’s more about seeing God within the people I serve and the community in which I operate, doing all I can to connect with God all around me and within myself, subject to subject, heart to heart, mind to mind, soul to soul?

Lastly, what if I trusted more fully that the health and the wellbeing of the church is Christ’s primary concern, not just my own? If Christ the Good Shepherd is truly head of his church then I am simply following his lead by asking all these contemplative questions, seeing with his eyes, and then living obediently to him.

It’s taken me nearly 20 years to learn that bending spoons is impossible. But now, hopefully, prayerfully, I can learn to bend myself. It’s all in how I choose to see. It’s always been that simple, and at the same time, unlearning is always so difficult!

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Trying to Be Good Is Way Overrated

I was talking with a friend a few nights ago who told me something I have heard from many other people: “I don’t need religion to be a good person.” Of course, this is based in the widely-held presumption that the purpose of religion— and my purpose as a pastor— is to help bad people become good.

I have to admit that in years’ past, I would have attempted to push back on statements like those with some version of, “You know, no one can truly be good without God.” Or if I was feeling more gracious, I might have said, “You know, the church at its best takes good people and makes them into better people.” Isn’t that clever?

But I found myself saying something like this to my friend: “I don’t need religion to make me into a good person, either. In fact, that’s not why I am a Christian.” He didn’t respond to that, so I didn’t elaborate. (Lucky for him!)

Later on, our conversation got me to rethink something rather odd that Jesus said. The more I dwell on it, the more relieved I am that he said it.

A certain ruler asked him, “Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Luke 18:18-19

Christians tend to do some creative tap-dancing around this problematic response from Jesus. Was Jesus claiming he was not good? (“Of course he wasn’t!” we reply. “He was just pointing the man to God.”) Oh good… Whew! Moving on.

Heinrich Hofmann, “Christ and the Rich Young Ruler”, 1889

But what if Jesus was trying to say something deeper than that? What if he was trying to edge us out of the moralistic goodness mindset altogether?

This may sound strange, but what if Jesus was really saying, “Stop trying to play the game of being an upright, good, moral, righteous person. Your striving to be good is way overrated.”

Now I know why that may sound strange, even heretical. The church’s predominant approach to human beings has typically been sin management and growth through moral goodness. We’re the moral police… or so we think. So, through Christ, confess your sinfulness, and by grace become less prone to sin, more morally upright using the rules we give you, keeping in mind the whole time that we are nothing but sinners. That tends to be the Christian message.

However, we Christians were not the first ones to take this sin management and growth through moral goodness approach to God and life. The man who approached Jesus, a fellow Jew, asked Jesus what kind of good must be done in order to live eternally. That was his way of asking, “How good do I need to get? What specific good do I have to do to get what I want?” And he presumed that Jesus, being a good teacher, would have known the formula.

Yet the man in the story and most of the rest of us have been unable to grasp this goodness of God that Jesus pointed to and where it is to be found. The rest of the conversation which you can see here was an elaboration on that point.

So what happens when our prime goal of becoming good people is by means of rule following and moralistic perfectionism? Without fail, ego steps in, especially when we believe that goodness is something we don’t have and must acquire from somewhere external— a set of rules, a holy text, a God who is watching and judging us. So we strive for it. We try to change up our behaviors in conformity to the rules and expectations. We throw out and squash what we perceive to be bad. If we’re successful, we feel like we’re better people!

Then the comparisons begin. We reference our goodness against others.

Often, we pride ourselves for being better. Remember Jesus’ parable of the Pharisee praying in the temple? The self-righteous Pharisee thanked God he was not like other people, especially that awful tax collector praying next to him (Luke 9:1-14).

Or, we shame ourselves and others for not being good enough. God knows I’ve spent too much of my life loathing myself for not measuring up to what others or I have claimed I should be. Too often I have felt like Paul who called himself a “wretched man” because no matter how hard he tried to be good, he failed (Romans 7:14-23).

When worthiness in the eyes of God, ourselves, or others becomes a measure of how well we behave and how morally perfectionistic we can be, then we are drawing upon the worst of ourselves, which is our fragile sense of ego. The results are horrific— pride, shame, critical and judgmental attitudes, walking around with squinty eyes estimating the goodness of ourselves and others with a measuring stick that no one can possibly live up to.

Jesus is right. God alone is good. No one can succeed at being good enough.

Let me suggest something to you that is changing the way I look at myself and others:

Goodness begins with the recognition that there are things inside us all that are perpetually good because they are a gift from God, who alone is good.

Within each of us are two things which are good gifts from God— our soul and God’s Spirit. Please allow me some space to try to define what I mean from a biblical and experiential understanding. And keep in mind that these thoughts are thoughts in process!


My understanding of “soul” from the Hebrew and Greek sense is “our essential self.” We rarely see it. It’s often hidden away within us. The soul is like a blueprint from God that defines our very best self. It’s the divine schematic for who we really are. Our soul hums and resonates with peace and joy when we live into being who we were created to be, which is always wonderfully good. It guides us into our vocational and relational purposes as a child of God, and let me tell you, there is no greater satisfaction than living from within the very soul of who we are.

God’s Spirit is that divine essence which was given to Adam when God breathed into his nostrils, giving him life (Genesis 2:7). Within each of us is God’s presence, infused into our very being, enlivening, prompting, loving, nurturing, healing, speaking, guiding us into all goodness. When we tune our full awareness to God’s Spirit within us, we truly come alive. Soul and Spirit work in tandem to love and live in full communion with God, our neighbors, and ourselves.

Thus, our goodness is a gift from God, not a merit badge to be earned. It’s already within us to be treasured and lived into. This goodness is our true self. If we intentionally mine into this essential goodness within ourselves and our neighbors, we take on the humility and compassion of God. We rejoice in goodness wherever we see it, recognizing God’s good presence within all created things. We draw upon and and encourage that goodness from within them.

“What of sin?” you may ask. Isn’t there sin within us, too? Oh yes. Sin is our purposeful disconnection from God’s goodness. For some reason, we simply have a hard time accepting pure goodness and love abiding in us. So we choose what we think is safer and more accessible. We settle for power, pride, and hate, while seeking cheaper, flimsy forms of false goodness apart from the God-given treasure within us. That choice distances us from God, our soul, and others. This self-isolating, lonely distance is the true tragedy of sin.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. If we could only bring ourselves to accept that the presence of God conjoined with our God-fashioned soul is there all along, we would simply fall and rest into that pure goodness, reclaiming the very likeness of God.

That, friends is real goodness! Goodness is not some exterior virtue apart from us that we must acquire. It’s a treasure within— our truest self— into which we ground our mind and heart.

If you’re still not convinced of all this, look back at the story of Jesus and the ruler for a moment. Jesus’ final invitation to the man seeking after eternal life was a call to step down from his elevated social status, sell off his possessions, give the proceeds to the poor and follow Jesus. That was Jesus’ way of challenging the man to strip away his pride, riches, religious accomplishments and social pretentiousness. Abandon the false ego self that struggles to achieve goodness, value, power and distinction, and learn the way of self-giving, self-emptying love. That would have forced the man to part ways from everything false, and to live from within the goodness of God already planted within him— his living soul and the Spirit. If only he had made that choice!

After all, that’s the way Jesus lived. He emptied himself. He became nothing except a lover and servant for the sake of the whole world (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus learned great love through trust and suffering, and from the very depth of his being, he shows us what it means to live in full loving communion with God and all people. For me, Jesus is not just some outer authority to conform myself to; he is a way of life— the Way, the Truth, and the Life (John 14:6)— to emulate within being.

Again, that is goodness. And it’s a far cry from the morally perfectionistic goodness game that too many of us try to play. It turns out, God had made us good all along. It’s time to claim it and live it.

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