Monday, June 29, 2015

Noisy Gongs

Social media exploded in the wake of the SCOTUS decision on marriage equality. My Facebook feed filled quickly with lots of opinions, some expressed with kindness but many were not so kind. This didn't surprise me. More important, though, was the number of people who expressed how silenced they felt by the public discourse, how uncomfortable they felt expressing their own opinion for fear of provoking an avalanche of hate from "the other side."

We live in America. Freedom of speech is an inalienable right. Yet so many people feel alienated right now that it breaks my heart.

How we use our words matters. "If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging symbol."

Have your words added to the cacophony, the mud-slinging, the hate? It's so easy to get sucked into the trenches of this world; the battle lines seduce us with the sirens' song of power and righteousness and indignation: I'm right, you're wrong so screw you all the way to hell!

When we have to push others down to lift ourselves up, both sides lose.

Let's take a look at the entirety of I Corinthians 13, an oh-so-familiar passage that is forgotten oh-so-often in the times of conflict for which Paul wrote it. I invite you to read the words slowly, meditatively. Let them sink in.

13  If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast,[a] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10 but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12 For now we see in a mirror, dimly,[b] but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13 And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.

In this chapter, Paul addresses the subject of spiritual gifts. He's responding to conflict in the church at Corinth over which spiritual gifts are "best." Who is better? Who is right? Today's universal church in America seems a lot like Corinth in the first century, and Paul's message of love seems particularly relevant.

Consider verse 6: love "does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in truth." Many Christians feel that marriage equality for the LGBT community is wrongdoing based on their interpretation of the Bible. Many others feel that marriage equality is the truth of love in action based on their interpretation of the Bible. Both sides feel so strongly opinionated that love has been lost. The church is stuck in conflict.

Who is right? God only knows.

We see through a glass darkly, and we know only in part. I could share in excruciating detail why I support marriage equality. I could bring in scripture and personal experience and reason, like a good follower of John Wesley's Methodism. I could describe how my reading of the Bible leads me to support love in all things. I could share stories of my gay and lesbian friends, of my transgender niece, of love and acceptance and my conviction that God doesn't make mistakes.

But in the polarized environment of social media (which includes blogs like this one), those who disagree with me wouldn't listen. Those who agree with me would gather my words up, twist them into sticks with which to flog their opponents. This is the lesson social media teaches us. There is no conversation anymore. There is only yelling...the rhetoric of the closed fist. The rhetoric of trench digging. The rhetoric of military victory and defeat.

How do we talk with each other any more? Where has love gone? How do we bring it back?

Let's begin by striving for patience. For kindness. For humility. After all, none of us sees truth clearly. We could all be wrong in our opinions as we peer through the dim glass of our imperfection. At the last supper, Christ made very clear--with no equivocation or qualifications or loopholes of legal opinion--what His followers were to do in the world: love one another.

Love is the lesson Christ teaches us.

If we don't have love, we are nothing. Let all Christians be unified in sharing God's song of love in an age of noisy gongs and clanging symbols. Choose your words carefully, kindly, compassionately, constructively. The complete Kingdom Love will come. Let us choose to be a part of it.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Anger and Forgiveness

Many of us who have been victims of some wrong take years to forgive those who wronged us. Some of us never do forgive, and we hold onto anger and hate until they turn us bitter and eventually separate us from God.

As Christians, we are often taught to forgive as easily and quickly and generously as Jesus forgave those who crucified Him. In forgiving, we let go of anger and hate and a desire for revenge. We gain peace and the ability to move forward only when we let it go of these negative feelings. In this view, anger is always a sin.

I'm not so sure about this.

It's big news when victims of violent crimes forgive perpetrators of evil, as the families of the victims in Charleston have publicly done. I can't help but feel awe of their faith and their trust in God to do such a thing, and I am comforted that their words of peace will work against the public retaliation and vengeance that could all too easily spring from such a crime. They have gained peace for themselves and generated peace for their city. At least, I hope that's the case.

But in a world mired in sin, anger--but not hate--can be healthy and useful when it serves justice. Think of children who are always forgiven as soon as they do wrong. Do they ever understand what they've done? Do they learn, change, repent? We are stubborn in holding onto our sin, aren't we?

An important component of our faith journey is accepting just what sinners we are. In realizing the depth of our sin, we realize how dependent we are on Christ, who took our sins--and the sins of the world--onto Himself. Only in recognizing how sinful we are can we ask forgiveness from the One whose mercy and grace are infinite, and only then can we truly forgive those who trespass against us. The families in Charleston are clearly well along this path of spiritual growth.

Too-quick forgiveness, however, can send an unhealthy message to criminals. Dylann Roof has heard families of those precious people he murdered in cold blood tell him they forgive him. Already? Eventually, yes. But how can he understand what he has done, the horror of what he has perpetrated, the depth of his depravity and the hurt he has inflicted? How can he ask forgiveness and repent?

Forgiveness is a process, much like grief. Some people move quickly through it, and others take longer. But the dead are unaffected by their loved ones' grief while criminals are affected by their victims' forgiveness.

I worry that other victims of violence will feel that they must meet the same standard set by the families in Charleston...especially victims who are also persons of faith, who feel that they are "bad" Christians because they cannot forgive right away. A healthy and just anger can carry victims through the awfulness following a crime, the slowness of court systems, the unfair loopholes and caveats that allow the guilty to escape earthly punishment. It can help abused children survive their abuse.

Anger isn't always bad, especially when it is coupled with wisdom and self-control. Scripture even gives examples of God and Jesus being angry at wrongs committed. Here's what Adam Hamilton, United Methodist pastor and author of a wonderful book on forgiveness, has to say about this kind of anger:

"I think anger is a normal response to something horrible that someone has done...and that's actually healthy to have, to feel that. At some point you have to figure out, 'How do I let that go?'"
Anger, unlike hate, can be like fuel. When allowed a controlled burn for good purpose, anger can give energy and motivation to change. When it gets out of control and is coupled with hate, as recently happened in Baltimore, anger becomes an evil itself.
So righteous anger can be good as part of the process of forgiveness, but as Hamilton points out, you have to know when to let it go. The Dalai Lama once met an angry woman who had survived horrid child abuse at the hands of her father. He asked her, "Do you feel you have been angry long enough?" What a powerful and important question we all need to ask ourselves!
Wisdom comes from knowing when to let go of anger, when it has done the good it can do and now just holds a person back. Like a two-stage rocket system, we can use the anger to get free of the gravity of the situation, but eventually we need to let it go and use a different system for moving forward. God is our guide in the timing of letting go.
If you are experiencing anger toward someone who has done evil to you or your loved ones, don't panic or feel bad about yourself because you're angry. Invite God into that anger, and let Him direct your energies toward justice and ultimate healing for yourself and for those who wronged you. Fight hate and revenge, but let your anger be righteous and serve Him. Invite Him into that process of forgiveness.
And evil will be overcome.

Note: If you're struggling with forgiveness in any situation at all, I strongly recommend Adam Hamilton's book Forgiveness: Finding Peace through Letting Go. It's not a long read, but it is a powerful one.

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

The Golden Rule

We like rules. We like to know what's expected in a complicated and messy life. Unfortunately, rules have a tendency to multiply exponentially: sometimes because they aren't always fair without caveats, and sometimes because we want all sorts of exceptions and loopholes. The rules themselves become complicated and messy, as those of us who do our own taxes know all too well!

Messy rules are not new. Just think how God gave His chosen people ten rules on stone tablets, and then He had to add a whole bunch more rules because applying those ten to real-world situations got complicated. What about how the Israelites needed to treat slaves? Cut their hair? Punish adulterers? Boil their meat? Divide their year?

Over time, rules multiplied, and keeping track of them all became a burden, not a blessing.

There are two signs of broken human systems...when the rules are never followed and when they are followed rigidly to the letter. Chaos arises from the first and cruelty from the second. We need the structure that rules give us as a culture and nation, but we also need to deploy checks and balances on that structure so that its rules don't become oppressive.

Recently, I realized just how hurt my son has been by the rules imposed by the Ohio State Board of Education. New rules, new curriculum, new testing.... Jack and other children with disabilities are getting lost in the chaos of it all. So many rules that apply fairly to typical students just don't work for children who have special needs, and the end result is that disabled students don't have a pathway to graduation in the state of Ohio right now.

When the rules become more important than people, bad things happen to the least of us.

Throughout Jesus' ministry, he faced a Jewish leadership mired in rules and neglectful of the least of the people. The Pharisees were using the rules to keep people out, to privilege a few, to protect their power, to keep themselves pure. They'd forgotten why the rules existed in the first bless God's people in healthy, life-giving ways. After Jesus' death, resurrection, and ascension, the Holy Spirit came down on Pentecost and filled the disciples with power...not of the law but of the Spirit.

Being led by the Spirit doesn't mean there are no rules to follow; it means that the rules are not imposed from outside of us but arise from the Spirit dwelling in us, a Spirit of love and compassion.

Think about that for a minute. It's a big idea, and it leads us to question how we know when we are being led by the Spirit and when our own will or our cultural values are leading us. Discernment is so much harder since God stopped appearing to us in burning bushes or a giant cloud! Fortunately, Jesus, God-made-flesh, gave us a guideline to follow:

Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

As a guide to behavior, this Golden Rule seem pretty straightforward. Would you want to be treated badly because of the color of your skin? Your religious affiliation? Your economic status? Your sexual orientation? Your tattoos? Your clothes?

So why do we treat others badly for these reasons?

Those prejudices have led and are still leading to violence and injustice in our own country and all over the world. And in religious practice today, too many Christians are guarding the temple doors like the Pharisees instead of inviting sinners in to participate in God's mercy and forgiveness.

In this season following Pentecost, let's reflect on ways we can make the rules we live by--from the laws of the land to the laws of our faith, family, and work--more Spirit-filled, more just, more reflective of God's kingdom of boundless love, mercy, compassion, and grace. Let us daily remind ourselves of the Golden Rule, and let the Spirit lead us accordingly.

For Reflection:
What unjust laws are you enforcing in your private life of work, family, friends, and church? Have you excluded someone or judged someone unfairly? Have you been on the receiving end of unjust rules that hurt you, made you pull away from God, or made you behave unjustly in return? How can you be a part of God's love in the world this week?

Saturday, June 6, 2015

His Mercy

The weekly Bible study I attend is nearing the end of Matthew, and as we're closing in on the betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus, I am reminded once again how little we human beings deserve salvation. If one disciple responded to Jesus' arrest with violence, if all the disciples fled the garden at his arrest, if Peter denied Christ not once but three times, how can the basis of our salvation be our behavior?


Paul's letter to Titus reveals his understanding of the human condition. We want to control our lives and judge others, we want to puff up in pride, and we want all glory, laud, and honor for ourselves.

We want credit.

Christ didn't go to the cross because we are worthy of His sacrifice. He went because He loves us with a perfect love. When we experience that love and accept its truth by acknowledging Christ as our Savior, we are simultaneously aware of how undeserving we are and how abundantly blessed we are.

Our salvation isn't about us; it's about God's perfect love seen through Jesus Christ.

Of course, when we come to faith in Christ, we must let that abundant love flow into our words and deeds: faith without works is dead. But righteous works are the product of salvation, not the labor that earned it...and therefore, we should not boast.

Instead, let our lives humbly testify to His mercy and love.

Thanks be to God.

Recall a time in your life when you felt utterly aware of God's mercy for you. Reflect on that feeling of both being unworthy and simultaneously a beloved child of God. How can you tap into that gratitude for salvation and share it with others who are hurting or hungry in spirit, mind, and body? If you haven't felt God's mercy in this way, if you feel unworthy or unforgiveable, pray for understanding and talk to a pastor or Christian friend. No one is beyond God's mercy. No one.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Building Up and Giving Grace to Those Who Hear

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4:29

Last week, I read an article from 2014 reporting research showing that strong, successful marriages have one thing in common: both spouses speak kindly and respectfully to each other...even when they disagree. In unhappy marriages or marriages that ended in divorce, one or both spouses speak unkindly, and their bodies show stress when talking with their spouse even when they seem to be calm on the outside. Their heart rate and blood flow are elevated and their sweat glands activate in preparation for a "fight or flight" response. This sort of conditioned response to another person--especially one you've vowed to honor and cherish--is extraordinarily unhealthy.

Scripture tells us repeatedly to use our words carefully and kindly. The book of Proverbs offers up numerous nuggets such as these three:
  • "A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger." (15:1)
  • "Gracious words are like a honeycomb, sweetness to the soul and health to the body." (16:24).
  • "Death and life are in the power of the tongue, and those who love it will eat its fruits." (18:21).
With scientific evidence now proving Proverbs' assertion that our bodily health is damaged by unkindness in marriage (and most likely in all our close relationships), we have even more incentive to watch our words. Relating unkindly to a spouse or parent or child or roommate or coworker adds to your stress, which weakens your immune system, jeopardizes mental health, and can even shorten your life.

Given this, what possible advantage do we gain through unkindness?

Yet every single person speaks unkindly at some time. James 3:8 gives us a rather humbling condemnation of the tongue: " human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison." Convicted. How many times have I resorted to aggressive or passive-aggressive comments? How many times have I expressed dissatisfaction or disapproval of a family member who isn't behaving the way I think he or she should? How many times have I had to apologize for words spoken thoughtlessly or hurtfully?

Ugh. Too often.

Matthew tells us that after the Pharisees criticized Jesus for allowing his disciples to eat without washing their hands, Jesus "called the people to him and said to them, 'Hear and understand: it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person'" (15:10-11).

What applies to spoken words also applies to written words. That's one reason I haven't posted much lately. I've felt far too much frustration and anger, and have been tempted to vent publicly. I've started a number of posts, only to delete them when I realized how negative, how potentially hurtful or insulting they were. There's enough poisonous negativity on the internet these days, and Christ calls His followers to behave better than that. In Luke 6:45, Jesus says, "The good person out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure produces evil, for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks."

What does your heart produce abundantly: good or evil?  My own heart has been slipping lately toward evil.

Last Sunday's sermon at my church was delivered by a wise layperson in our congregation, and his words were abundantly good. Kirby recalled that wonderful feeling of starting a new job...the excitement and enthusiasm and commitment to learning how to do our best work. Over time, the newness and enthusiasm wear off, and we can get burned out, tired, distracted, and negative. Our faith life, Kirby said, is like that job. When we burn out and let petty stuff distract us, we turn away from God.

God doesn't leave us...we shut Him out.

As Kirby spoke, I saw the to-do lists, the worries, and the frustrations of the past year or so pop into my mind's eye, scrolling like junk code on a computer screen. I realized how acutely those stressors have been distracting me from God. Kirby pointed out that we need to be born again in the spirit not just once, but over and over, and I remembered that repentance isn't a one-time act...nobody is that perfect.

By intentionally recommitting to God when we are tired and negative, we can push out the evil of self-pity or hatefulness or anger, and let the Holy Spirit fill us again with enthusiasm and joy.

Kirby's message fell on fertile ground.

Paul wrote to the Ephesians that our words should build others up, and as a writer, I have needed to remind myself of this. I am drained and diminished when I use words to tear others down, to express anger or frustration. When my words are kind, spirit-filled, loving, patient, full of grace and mercy...that's when I build up others and also when my own spirit lifts and feels healthy and harmonious.

Aware of what my exhaustion and distraction have done, I humbly commit (once again) to sharing words of grace with you here.

With God's help, may it be so.

Are you tired today? Have you been filling up with negativity and worry and anger and frustration? Have you slipped into self-service instead of God's service? How can you reconnect with God, grow in your relationship with Jesus, open yourself to the Holy Spirit?