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.
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.
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 hometonight.
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.”
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.
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.”
“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.”
…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.
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!
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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).
[The content of this post was written for the 2019 Lenten devotion for my alma mater, Wesley Theological Seminary. It’s inspired by Psalm 13. And due to the writing parameters for this publication, it is purposefully and uncharacteristically short. Enjoy!]
How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, Lord my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death, and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,” and my foes will rejoice when I fall. But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing the Lord’s praise, for he has been good to me.
In the world of religion and faith, doubt has traditionally been an unwelcome guest. After all, we typically equate faith with unwavering certainty in an apostolic orthodoxy that stands the test of time. People of faith tend to find a great deal of security in these kinds of immovable absolutes.
Yet doubt, like a constant shadow, never seems to disappear. Etymologically, the word doubt derives from the Latin duo, as in the presence of two things. Doubt is the uncertainty and fear we experience when vacillating between oppositional notions. The author of Psalm 13 was surely at this critical juncture between belief and unbelief, hope and despair, a God who self-reveals and hides, remembers and forgets. How do we navigate this terrible tension?
In the midst of our doubt stands the crucified and risen Jesus. He embodies the paradox of defeat and triumph, the failure of sin and the victory of righteousness, divine perfection and human frailty, loving embrace and hate-filled rejection, all mysteriously conjoined within the balance of his life and death. God has opened the door for the disparate tensions of our lives to find their rest in Jesus, for “…in him, all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17).
In Christ we find an unconditionally safe, understanding place to wrestle through our doubts and inconsistencies. Eventually, we emerge from the struggle absolutely affirmed by the love and blessing of God, in deeper, far more profound ways. Thus the Crucified One transforms our gravest doubts into lasting wisdom.
I am a heterosexual male, legally married to one woman. We were married by an ordained pastor in a church. I made a vow to God and to my wife to remain her faithful husband until we are parted by death. Nearly 12 years later, I have honored and kept this vow.
Nevertheless, the Bible clearly condemns my marriage and fitness for ministry as a pastor of Christ’s church. This is something we should all take quite seriously and soberly.
In May of 2006, after a two-year separation from the woman who is now my ex-wife, I filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce. There was no adultery or abuse committed by her or me. In the legal language stated in our divorce decree, the grounds were “irreconcilable differences.”
Some time after that, my (current) wife Blairlee filed for and was granted a judgment of divorce from her now ex-husband. They had been separated for well over 4 years, and the legal grounds for their divorce were similar to my own.
The Bible has some explicit things to say to people like us about our choices, the consequences of our choices, the condition of our lives, and my ministry.
In regards to those serving as priests/clergy,
“ ‘The woman he marries must be a virgin. He must not marry a widow, a divorced woman, or a woman defiled by prostitution, but only a virgin from his own people,’
As to the harm of divorce,
“The man who hates and divorces his wife,” says the Lord, the God of Israel, “does violence to the one he should protect,” says the Lord Almighty. So be on your guard, and do not be unfaithful.”
The above verse from Malachi can also be translated this way:
“For I hate divorce, says the Lord, the God of Israel…
Malachi 2:16 (NRSV)
As for the grounds of divorce and remarriage, Jesus said,
“But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, makes her the victim of adultery, and anyone who marries a divorced woman commits adultery.”
Yet in another place, Jesus said,
“Anyone who divorces his wife and marries another woman commits adultery against her. And if she divorces her husband and marries another man, she commits adultery.”
Pertaining to a church’s overseer [clergy],
“Now a bishop [overseer] must be above reproach, married only once, temperate, sensible, respectable, hospitable, an apt teacher,”
1 Timothy 3:2 (NRSV)
These are just a handful of the 33 times divorce is mentioned in the Bible. While the Bible has a number of things to say about divorce, and at times metaphorically uses divorce to depict God’s relationship with his people, divorce is never cast in a positive light. At worst, divorce is flatly condemned as a God-hated practice and at best offered as a concession to human hard-heartedness (Matthew 19:8).
Yet just a cursory reading of the Bible verses I’ve cited above would lead us to the following conclusions about my life, marriage, and ministry:
By divorcing my ex-wife, I have done violence to her while also, by biblical implication, having demonstrated some degree of hate.
God hates our divorces.
Because my ex-wife did not commit adultery, I have made her a victim of adultery.
My wife Blairlee has committed adultery by divorcing her ex-husband, making him a victim of adultery.
By marrying my current wife under the grounds of our divorces, we are living in adultery.
Since my wife— if I could even call her my wife under these circumstances!— and I are living in adultery, we are not legitimately married in the eyes of God, which means our son Jacob was conceived and born out of biblical wedlock, making him, in the eyes of God, illegitimate.
As a pastor, I am expressly forbidden from marrying a divorced woman.
As a pastor/overseer of the church, I am only allowed one wife. (I have had two.)
For these reasons, it is clear that the Bible condemns not only my divorce, but the legitimacy of my marriage and my ordination.
Other than the personal anguish from enduring a separation and divorce (which Blairlee and I will never face again), do you know how many consequences I have faced as a result of being divorced and remarried to a divorced woman? Zero consequences.
Let me say it again: the church, specifically the United Methodist Church, has not condemned me for my divorce and remarriage to a divorced woman. My divorce did not disqualify me from being remarried in a United Methodist Church by a United Methodist pastor, and there was no prohibition in place to prevent me from marrying a divorced woman. The church has not barred me from being ordained a Full Elder. No church I have served has ever refused to receive me, a divorced man married to a divorced woman, as their pastor. In fact, I have never been interviewed, questioned, or interrogated over my divorce and remarriage by any Staff Parish Relations Committee, District Superintendent, Bishop, or Board of Ordained Ministry.
There’s one simple reason for all this. While the UMC discourages divorce, calling it “a regrettable alternative in the midst of brokenness,” there is nothing in our Book of Discipline that forbids me from getting a divorce, remarrying a divorced woman or being ordained, even though, biblically speaking, my divorce and remarriage are clearly “incompatible with Christian teaching.”
Where does that leave me?
If we were to fully adhere to clear biblical teaching on divorce and remarriage, then one must conclude that I am unrepentant, living in abject rebellion and sin, deserving to have a millstone tied around my neck and drowned in the depths of the sea (Matthew 18:6). For I am leading others into sin through my sinful example and tacit endorsement of divorce, remarrying a divorced person, and living in adultery… with an illegitimate child, too! In fact, why not condemn and drown the whole United Methodist Church in the depths of the sea for allowing and condoning sin that God has quite emphatically said he hates?
So, to my sisters and brothers who vigorously argue, based on six biblical passages, that the “practice” of homosexuality is a sin, while condemning same-sex marriages and “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” from becoming clergy, I ask you to be just as vigorous and as intellectually and morally consistent in your condemnation of my divorce, remarriage, and ordination.
Furthermore, I ask you to submit to our 2020 General Conference:
…a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy or laity to divorce, unless it can be absolutely verified that there was sexual immorality or adultery. (Keep in mind, however, that this would still violate the Mark 10:11-12 prohibition on divorce. I’m not sure how you would settle this discrepancy except to prohibit divorce for any reason.)
…a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for clergy to marry people who have been divorced for any reason.
…a petition deeming it a chargeable offense for a clergy person to marry a divorced person.
…a petition that would bar divorced persons from being received as candidates, licensed, recommended, commissioned and ordained as Elders or Deacons, or consecrated as Bishops.
…a petition setting the penalty for violating any of the above restrictions as a year of suspension without pay for first offenses, and a termination of conference membership and revocation of credentials for licensing, ordination, or consecration for second offenses.
If you are not willing to exercise due diligence in submitting these petitions, then I ask that you withdraw your support for maintaining our Book of Discipline’s restrictive language concerning homosexuality.
Let me tell you a story that’s been passed down in the church of the West for centuries. If you’re at all familiar with Christian religion, it’s a familiar one. It goes like like this.
God made the heavens and earth and called it good. The crowning moment of creation on the last day, Day 6, was the creation of humanity, male and female. God looked at everything he made and said that it was (note the past tense “was”) very good. Everyone and everything lived happily, wholly, and in perfect harmony within the Garden. Everything was flawlessly perfect.
But then… [cue the da-da-dum music], Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, whereupon they unleashed the curse of sin, reducing all humanity and the rest of creation to a fallen, less-than-ideal state, separated from God, from one another, and from themselves. Sin corrupted everything from its original, idyllic condition.
Skip ahead to the New Testament. To fix the problem of sin, God had to send his Son Jesus Christ to die on the cross so sinful humanity could be redeemed from the curse of sin. All who believe in Jesus and repent will be restored to a heavenly Paradise upon their death or at the return of Christ, whichever comes first. In the meantime, we live as sinful, less than ideal beings in a cursed creation. But all that will go away one day when all of God’s saved people will be gathered with God in heaven. The End.
For many of us, this is the story of the Bible. It’s the traditional narrative construct that frames the whole biblical cannon into roughly five distinctive parts: creation, sin, fall, Christ, church.
Frameworks like these, often called narrative constructs, are necessary tools. They serve to hold together the massive amount of literature— story, poetry, worship psalms, books of wisdom, prophesy, and letters— that makes up the Bible. Without it, it’s hard to see how the whole thing hangs together.
However, every narrative construct is bound to have its flaws, and this one has some major ones, a few having proved to be downright deadly. Here are several of its more problematic flaws:
It assumes that God’s use of “good” to describe humanity and creation means “perfect”, as in fully whole, complete, flawless, sinless, and deathless. I would argue that this is a Platonic usage of the word “good”, implying perfectly ideal. But that is not the Hebrew understanding of goodness, which points more to something’s God-given, good purpose, value and blessedness.
It totally skips over the role and purpose of Israel, i.e. everything else in the Old Testament between Genesis 4 through Malachi. It’s simply not mentioned, back-burnered as non-essential to salvation history. This is very unbiblical, literally, since the authors of the New Testament continually pointed to the whole cannon of the Hebrew Bible, only occasionally quoting from Genesis 1-3. I would also argue that this elimination of Israel from the narrative construct is the product and one of the root causes of Christian antisemitism.
It reduces Jesus’ incarnation, death and resurrection to God’s Plan B. In the Plan B presumption, Adam and Eve screwed up. That doomed the rest of us to screwing up. So God resorted to sending Jesus to clean up our mess. However, Christ’s incarnation, death and resurrection is not a Plan B. From the very beginning, he is the epicenter of creation (John 1:1-4; Colossians 1:16-17), the one who brings unity to it all (Ephesians 1:10) and the herald of the New Creation (Isaiah 65:17). His death and resurrection is part of God’s continuum of Creation and New Creation.
It assumes that the goal of God is to fix a problem by getting everything back to the way it was. (Milton wrote of Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained.) Meanwhile, the Bible tells a different story. It always points forward to something new and better— a new covenant, a new heavens and a new earth, an Eden-esque garden within a new City of God (Revelation 22:1-3). Neither we nor creation will be what we once were. We will be transformed into something new (2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s what the resurrection of Jesus points to, as well.
But to me, the most insidious error of this traditional narrative of the Bible is its notion of “original design.” It implies that a good creation is equivalent to an idealistic perfection, and that we, as as fallen creatures, are sinfully imperfect.
I was recently in an online conversation with a friend of mine who argued (as many others have before him) that defects, disabilities, or a non-straight sexual orientation is less than the ideal norm, and is therefore the result of sin. We’re defective in a variety of ways because we messed up or someone else messed up. God can’t be blamed for a creation that is less than perfect, so somehow, somewhere, the error is within us. We’re the culpable ones.
What bothers me— strike that!— terrifies me about this line of thinking are the implications and unintended consequences.
For example, my son Jacob has Down Syndrome. This is caused by a mutation of his 21st chromosome whereby he has one extra chromosomal part, resulting in the condition of Down Syndrome. (You could argue he’s got more substance than most of us do!) Nevertheless, something like this is scientifically labeled a genetic anomaly. Jacob is classified as having a cognitive disability along with physical abnormalities.
Do you see where this is going? Because of the pervasive attitude in our culture of idealistic perfection, he is seen as less than ideal, less than a whole, complete person. He’s seen as disabled, as in less-than-ideally-abled. People have called him, by words and actions, a “retard.”
My friend tried to argue that he is this way, and the rest of us are flawed the way we are, because of sin. If that’s the case, then one would have to conclude that my son’s life is less blessed than my own, since he has been inflicted with more of the consequential damage of sin than typically-abled, chromosomally “normal” people.
One would have to further conclude that Jacob is less in the image of God than most of us since his condition is further removed from the ideal of God’s “original design.” After all, is God disabled, too? Does God have Down Syndrome? Why, of course not! Jacob’s “less than ideal” condition, is by God’s judgment on our collective sin. Some have even hinted and implied that my wife and I must have sinned somehow. It’s our fault that Jacob is disabled!
Here is the truly terrifying part. (I haven’t even gotten to that yet!) This whole notion of “original design” is more than a coffee house, abstract theological discussion. It’s been acted on quite often— and still is!— to horrific consequences.
In the not-so-distant past, people like my son were left uneducated and institutionalized, completely marginalized from “normal” society. In Nazi Germany, people like Jacob were experimented upon, tortured, and murdered, all because they they were less than the “perfect” Aryan humanity that Hitler claimed to be the superior human race. People like Jacob are still excluded from mainstream education and society. If they cannot adapt to the dominant “more ideal” typically-abled culture, then they are left behind and left out from opportunities that most of us take for granted.
All of this kind of thinking is a direct result of the terrible theology of “original design,” which has its roots, not in biblical thinking, but in Platonistic idealism.
The truth is, there is no biblical notion of the “perfect ideal.” Everything is always being transformed and renewed. And even if there were a perfect “original design,” would we know what it is? Do imperfect beings such as we have the capacity to grasp what is truly perfect and ideal?
And what if, in some dramatic reversal, people we have labeled as disabled ended up being more abled, more ideal and closer to God’s goodness than typical people? Who is to say they are not? Didn’t Jesus say that to enter the kingdom of God, we must become like children— less sophisticated, less developed, weaker, and far more vulnerable than us adults? Could this be an invitation to become “less than ideal”?
His mother Mary sang of this same reality! In a great, dramatic reversal of power and value:
“[God] has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty.”
And speaking of Jesus, he said something which flatly dismisses any notion of a sinless “original design.” Look at this:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” “Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the works of God might be displayed in him.”
Did you see it? There’s no sin! In fact, this man’s blindness is not a liability or a fault. It’s the other way around. His blindness would be the very thing through which God would be glorified!
Yet every time I read this story, especially the disciples’ questions, I can see the source of all human shame. Shame is a diminishing blow to our worthwhile-ness and value when somehow we don’t measure up to a plastic world of idealized beauty, power, finesse, and wealth. When we don’t— and we never do because the “original design” of perfection doesn’t exist— we shame ourselves or we allow others to shame us into believing that we’re not good enough, not valuable enough, and hopelessly flawed. It’s a fault. It’s a sin, even.
Please hear the truth: Nothing in us is inherently bad. Nothing. God created us and called us good. That does not change. Ever.
Is there sin within us and the world? Of course. Sin mars and distorts our God-given image and separates us from our full communion with God, with others, and with ourselves. Christ’s death and resurrection gives us the freedom to be our true created goodness and to be resurrected into a new glorious body- the New Creation.
Still, we are who we are. God can work in and through anything, no matter how weak or strong, to bring about wondrous good. (See 1 Corinthians 1:27 and 2 Corinthians 12:10). Everything God does, especially within the painful, weaker parts of ourselves, is amazingly glorious.
In God we move from our created good to infinite glory. That is the nature of Christ’s redemptive work. God created us as good. And then, by the merit of Christ’s death and resurrection, we and all creation become a New Creation, resurrecting all of us, including our shadowy, weaker parts, into absolute glory. By his blood, Christ reconciles to himself all things (Colossians 1:20).
True glory will always outshine shallow notions of idealistic perfectionism. That’s because God doesn’t need our delusional notions of perfectionism. I’m convinced it never really existed, anyway.
All of us— abled and differently-abled, weak and strong, gay or straight— shine with the light of God once we realize that it’s been there all along. When we see ourselves as God sees us, then we shine so brightly. We illuminate the presence of God in all people and in all things. God transforms us from our created goodness to divine glory. And the best is yet to come.
Please note— the contents of this post will elicit one of three responses from you: 1) “What a bunch of misguided garbage;” 2) “Thank you for saying that;” or possibly… 3) “I had never thought of it that way.” Reader’s discretion is advised.
Check this out:
Chris Owens says, “I love to wear sandals in the summer months. There’s something about the freedom of open air on my feet that gives me an extra boost.”
Now, you can isolate that first sentence and make some rather strange, false assumptions:
Chris Owens dislikes and condemns closed-toed shoes. (Untrue. I’m wearing some right now, since it’s really cold outside.)
Chris Owens prefers summer. (Untrue. In fact, I love snow and changing seasons.)
Chris Owens would be happier further south so he could wear sandals more often. (Well, maybe. But choosing to live further south would be for reasons other than living in a more sandal-friendly climate.)
You can see how pulling a statement out of context can lead to some far-out untruths. So consider this…
I have a very dear friend and colleague who recently quoted this verse on social media:
“Haven’t you read,” [Jesus] replied, “that at the beginning the Creator ‘made them male and female,’ and said, ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh’? So they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate.”
Reading that passage truly hurt me, and to others I know, it would have been an excruciating gut punch. On the surface, that may sound extreme or even ludicrous. But in this case, context and purpose is everything.
During our agonizing United Methodist Church General Conference session which centered on our 47-year debate over homosexuality, my friend quoted this verse. It’s been bantered around ad nauseam over the years. Knowing my friend, it was used to make an argument that God establishes marriage between only one woman and one man. Therefore, Jesus is upholding traditional marriage, which by proxy condemns homosexuality. Thus, the church should follow Jesus’ teaching and keep our ban on homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and self-avowed “practicing” lesbian and gay Christians from ever becoming clergy.
Depending on your views on homosexuality, hearing a scripture quoted like that might rouse you to shout a hearty “Amen, Lord!”
Or, if you’re of a different mind, you might walk away wincing in pain.
So why on earth should a passage like Matthew 19:4-6 elicit a negative response? It’s the Bible, after all. It’s God’s Word! It’s God’s timeless truth! Don’t I believe in the truth and authority of the Bible?
Of course I do. In fact, I have joyfully read this passage while working with almost every couple I have ever married, inviting them to recognize and treasure the sanctity and permanence of their marriage vows.
But let’s take a more careful look at the passage in question. Remember, context is key. Jesus was asked by the Pharisees, the popular religious teachers of the day, whether it was lawful for a man to divorce his wife for any reason. There were Jewish laws being codified, based on scripture (see Deuteronomy 24:1-4), establishing that a Jewish man could divorce his wife under any circumstance, as long as he issued her a certificate of divorce.
(On a slightly tangential note, I had lunch yesterday with a very good rabbi friend of mine who reminded me that there is an entire tractate of the Talmud which establishes the stipulations and procedures for divorce. He told me this while sharing about an Orthodox Jewish friend of his who is about to be married for the fourth time, all in faithful observance of Torah. But I digress.)
So to the problem of an easy, no-fault divorce, Jesus went all the way back to Genesis 1:27 and 2:24 to remind them that it is God who has created male and female for one another. In the sacred, mystical bond of marriage, God joins them together to make, in effect, a new creation— a man and woman who share in one flesh. Therefore, divorce is the destruction of God’s good creation.
That was Jesus’ point. He was not making an argument against homosexuality. He wasn’t even trying to establish a heteronormative standard for marriage. In the travesty of divorce, Jesus was upholding the holy, divine origin of the marital bond.
That’s why I was so hurt by the usage of this passage. It was being terribly misused to condemn the humanity and the relationships of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters. And by the way, if you think it’s over-the-top to say that condemning homosexuality is akin to condemning gay and lesbian humanity, then think more deeply about the nature of human sexuality. It is a core aspect of who we are. To condemn somoene’s full embrace of their sexual identity is to condemn a significant part of their personhood, since we are all created by God to love and be loved— sexual intimacy, both emotional and physical, being one of the most profound sharings in God’s wonderful gift of love.
Back to how we quote the Bible… We’ve talked about context. Now let’s mention purpose.
We Christians have a holy obligation to read and share the Bible’s message with profound humility. We must read Scripture in a spirit of self-emptying respect for God, all creation, and ourselves. We faithfully read the Bible with a constant openness of mind and heart, in ready expectation that as we study scripture, it’s for the primary purpose of changing ourselves, even when it hurts, and especially when scripture challenges our tightly-held attitudes, assumptions, and behaviors.
Yet if any of us, conservative or progressive, open up the Bible simply to carve out self-justifying talking points or a handy sword to advance our causes, we are well on the road to spiritual blindness and deafness. We shut off the Holy Spirit’s guidance, “…having a form of godliness but denying its power…” (2 Timothy 3:5). At that point, our actions do great harm, especially when laced with our pet Bible verses.
Certainly, the Bible has been used quite prophetically to address evil and injustice. Some of our greatest leaders have lived and taught the scriptures in the heat of their struggles. The Bible has given definition and direction to the cause of life over death. Yet in all these cases, the Bible’s purpose was to bring the good news of liberation, freedom, justice, and righteousness for the greater good of our shared humanity. That’s a far cry from using the Bible to subjugate, exclude, condemn, and repress whole groups of people in the name of tribal, group-think “truth.”
I don’t believe my friend was attempting to harm anyone by quoting scripture. That was never the intent. That said, I think we all have a serious responsibility to pause and ask ourselves a few questions before quoting scripture:
1) Am I truly honoring the context and intended meaning of the verse I am quoting?
2) What kind of impact will I leave on those who hear my message? Will it do good or inflict harm? Will it bear any fruit?
3) How well am I mirroring the presence and love of Christ, even when confronting an evil?
4) What kind of accountability is in place to keep myself from self-deception?
It’s my firm belief that if more of us slowed down, calmed down, and exercised the James 1:29 principle— “…everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry…”— we would do less harm to one another with our words, especially with God’s Word. God has always purposed his Word to be life-giving, not life-taking. That’s the nature of genuine, authentic Truth.