Biblical writers suggest that God loves a holy mess. They compare God’s creative spirit to a strong wind, and we all know what happens when a powerful wind blows through our windows or through our lives — everything gets upended! One image in Genesis has God scooping up a bit of earth to create us. Yes, God had to get some dirt under the fingernails in order to bring us about.
Jesus was creative in how he touched and healed people, often making himself ritually unclean in the process. He embraced his uncleanliness.
Sadly, many religious institutions discourage us from doing the same.
The “secular world” has liars and thieves, adulterers, cheaters, and hypocrites. It’s a place full of child molesters, domestic abusers, and addicts. Where loneliness is rampant, mental illness is on the rise, and individuals routinely try to numb their pain via drugs, alcohol, and sex. Divorce is everywhere, pornography infects the minds of millions, and infidelity occurs on a regular basis.
The church often presents itself as an alternative to the “real world,” a place where these things don’t exist.
Many churches refuse to admit that these problems are affecting them. In reality, there is little statistical difference between Christians and non-Christians relating to these issues. Christians don’t receive a special pass that protects them from experiencing mental illness, suffering, struggling with addiction, abusing other people, being abused, or failing.
Our faith in Christ gives us hope and strength and courage, but it doesn’t erase reality, and it isn’t meant to create a flawless utopia where we can escape from the world’s problems. But many churches attempt to do just that — trying to create the perception of perfection.
In some church communities, there is the appearance that porn, sexual abuse, and rampant sin don’t exist. Even non-sinful things (mental illness, poverty, etc.) are treated as stigmas that are intentionally shunned. This is often misinterpreted as holiness — it’s not.
WASHINGTON — What’s one way to ensure that a new Hebrew-immersion public charter school isn’t a Jewish school? Hire a priest to run it.
Sela, which means “rock” or “foundation” in Hebrew, opens in Washington, D.C., on Aug. 19. As a public school, Sela may not teach or show preference to any religion. But the intimate connection between Hebrew and Judaism makes some people wonder whether the separation is truly possible.
The question is not just for Sela, but for the dozen or so other public Hebrew charter schools from Brooklyn, N.Y., to San Diego that have started since the first one opened in Florida in 2007. And more Hebrew language charters are in the design stage.
Making things even more complicated is Hebrew’s ties not only to Judaism but to Israel. When the Sela staff began naming classrooms for major cities in Israel this summer, the school’s executive director, Jason Lody, said there would be no class named after the disputed capital of Jerusalem.
“We want to be a public school of excellence,” Lody said. “We don’t want to be sidetracked by political conversations that don’t focus on getting our 4-year-olds ready for kindergarten.”
The truth is that our faith and spirituality is often dependent on hundreds of different relationships, factors, institutions, and circumstances that we directly correlate with God.
When our Christian expectations are shattered, it’s easy to blame God. We mistakenly idolize the things that are associated with God, and assume that if one of these aspects failed then God failed.
“Christianity” will fail us. Our churches will attack, our pastors will lie, our mentors will manipulate, our friends will betray, and when this happens, our beliefs will be shaken to their core.
I live in Texas. To many of its millions of residents, it is the greatest state in the union. We like things big and we like them to be bigger than every other state blessed to be in the Union. Texans are proud of their state; chalk it up to early indoctrination of Texas history throughout the life cycle of Texas Public Education.
But being in Texas, especially East Texas, means that we are sitting squarely and firmly in the buckle of the Bible Belt. The Bible Belt is a term used to describe the area where conservative Christianity is the prominent player in the state’s religiosity; generally this term refers to a high level of conservative, evangelical Christians. This does not mean that you can’t find conservative, evangelical Christians outside of this arbitrary boundary, but for some reason they seem to cluster in these areas in high concentrations.
I didn’t grow up in a church that beat people over the head in church or judged people for they way they acted. I felt loved and welcomed in a place where people were friendly and they loved serving God. I learned about Christ and God’s love for humanity. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to hear more Christians speak more and more on the necessity of evangelizing to people or even being “saved correctly.” I can remember on several occasions a certain church in the town I grew up in going door to door and asking people if they were to die tonight would they go to Heaven. I can remember thinking that it was an odd tactic to get people to come to church. It seemed so stand offish and so self-righteous that it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Rather than a Third Great Awakening I believe we are standing in the threshold of a Great Grace Awakening. It’s a move of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from legalistic and fear-based beliefs to a place some of us would call grace.
On the surface, it may seem to fly in the face of some traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. But it is aligned with a broader, more universal ethic that seems to be developing around genuine Christian love and grace — the very essence of Jesus’ ministry and what makes it so revolutionary — as guiding principles.
Grace is the reason for the incarnation. God became human and walked in our sandals because God knows us and wants us to be known.
Grace says that there is nothing we could ever do that would make God love us less. And grace tells us that there’s nothing we could ever do that would make God love us more. You are loved simply because you are and for all of who you are. Full stop.
Our church is right in the heart of the city and as such, many who make their home outside find their way into our worship services on Sunday and throughout the week for various reasons. The first year Amy and I were here, we made a concerted effort to allow people to sleep on the steps and in the courtyard of the church if they so chose, as it seemed to be the bare minimum offering of hospitality required of us.
In the past few months, however, things have gotten a lot more complicated. Several fights have broken out over turf, a couple of people have fallen and lost teeth or broken ribs, and at least three times, people have broken into the boiler room to sleep. At least once or twice a week, we catch a group of younger folks shooting up heroin in the courtyard, their needles scattered about in the midst of the greenery. We have found every kind of bodily waste one cares to imagine in the common area, and this Sunday during our annual church cookout, I had to escort one man out of the restroom for masturbating to pornography in one of the bathroom stalls.
There comes a point when the hospitality afforded to those we are trying to welcome in has to be weighed against the safety of those already present in the community. Although the sanitation issues and the vandalism were less than pleasant, the violence, drug use, and sexual indiscretions finally pushed us over the line. We met with the Portland police and had a notice posted that said any loiterers who refused to leave upon request would be arrested.
"And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:1, 16
Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young, 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Fla. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment, and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again, and began to set his life straight.
After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you?"
Sojourners president Jim Wallis was recently a guest on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher." In the course of the show Maher confronted Wallis on the Bible, asking him some very pointed questions about some of its more troubling texts. You can watch the exchange HERE.
Maher asks, "How do you reconcile this idea that it all comes from the Bible, but the Bible is so flawed... I mean, it's just so full of either nonsense or viciousness." In response, Wallis steered the conversation back to the topic of social justice and compassion, often overlooked Biblical mandates. Maher objected several times, accusing Wallis of "cherry-picking the good parts" of the Bible while ignoring the bad parts.
I'm a big fan of Jim Wallis (heck, I blog for Sojourners!), and I appreciate that he moved the conversation away from Maher's attempted divisiveness and back to caring for the poor and immigration reform in this country. He's totally right that caring for the marginalized should be the priority of us Christians, and I understand that he wanted to stay focused on that.
At the same time, I think the question Bill Maher was raising is an important one, too, because it ultimately has to do with caring for the marginalized as well. That is, when the Bible is read in a hurtful way, it can and has been used throughout history to justify horrendous violence and mistreatment. That matters, and consequently it matters how we read the Bible. So as someone who has focused on confronting those "bad parts" in Scripture, I wanted to take a stab at addressing Maher's questions.
Last night, my wife Janny and I had the honor of sharing a table with a gathering of local Muslims for an Iftar meal. It is currently Ramadan, which means the Muslim community around the globe fasts everyday day from sunrise to sunset. No food. No water. No tobacco. No sex. Each night they have a celebration feast to break their daily fast called the Iftar meal. It is sacred, joyous, and a time to sit with those they love to worship the One they love, Allah (which is simply the Arabic translation of God).
It was into that sacred gathering that they expanded the table and pulled up a seat for us and a few other Christian and political leaders throughout San Diego. Their hope was simply to create space in their daily practice for their neighbors to experience life with them. They were both acknowledging city leaders who have been proactive in creating an environment of dignity and mutual relationship, and creating a space for new/renewed understanding of one another. Acknowledging our core faith differences, they made clear that it should in no way detract from our ability to share a common vision for the good of our city. We are neighbors who live, work, and play on the same streets with a common desire to see deep, charitable relationships, sustainable economy, and mutual understanding and a celebration of diversity.
As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.
During a layover in the Phoenix airport on Friday, I caught the tail end of President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Struck by Obama’s words, I said to no one in particular, “It’s about time he said something about this.” The man next to me looked in my direction as I walked to get a snack, and I considered for a second going back and asking his impression of the president’s remarks. I kept walking toward the green licorice, but fate had other plans.
Who ended up being in seat 18B next to me? Yep. We smiled as we made eye contact, a mutual recognition that we had an overdue conversation coming and the time to have it.
For a living, I teach and facilitate dialogue. I train others how to — and why to — have challenging conversations that transform relationships and design community change. I have facilitated more than 10,000 hours of dialogue in the past 15 years.
I was feeling confident and curious. We got right into it.
“Well, looks like we are supposed to talk about it,” I said as he laughed. “What did you think of the president’s remarks?”
“I think I thought differently than you did,” John said
Sarah Decareaux was lying on the cold, concrete floor of a barn.
She closed her eyes, curled her knees into her chest, and told herself that what was happening wasn’t real.
She felt claustrophobic. She was having trouble breathing. Her vision tunneled, the same way it had when she’d been in labor. She could see only a few feet in front of her.
The Christian church is full of Christians, right?
Sadly, the answer you'll get to that question is heavily dependent on whom you are asking. Certainly, the church should be seeking to follow Christ, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. However, increasingly, there are those who claim the church is full of hypocrites. They are not saying the church only has hypocrites. That's clearly not true. They are simply pointing out there are surprisingly high numbers of people going to church, calling themselves Christians but whose actions run counter to what Jesus taught. I believe we can do better.
On July 4th I will be attending the annual party at my son and daughter-in-law’s home. They will be serving up smoked chicken and spare ribs while fireworks from neighboring towns inscribe a nearly 360° circle around their backyard. While we are waving our flags with differing degrees of enthusiasm, one member of my family will not be with us: my sister the Jehovah’s Witness. As much as we’ve tried to persuade her that the holiday is just an excuse for the family to get together, she will not give succor to patriotic fervor. By partaking of our celebration she feels that she risks having her attendance misinterpreted as an endorsement. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the trouble with patriotism is twofold: 1) it tempts us to equate God and nation, and 2) it provides a sacred cover for violence.
God and nation are not the same, my sister believes. When a government’s demands come into conflict with God’s, Witnesses obey God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and service to others and that the early Christians refused to become soldiers and fight in wars. In emulation of that dedication to serve God and not governments, Witnesses not only refuse to celebrate national holidays but they are conscientious objectors to military service.
In the Methodist tradition in which I was I raised, there is a concept of perfection. We “strive for perfection” in loving each other and loving God. It is not about avoiding all mistakes. It is about growing in love for neighbor and being hospitable to all we come in contact with. This is the point of our theology: as we grow in faith and love, we become closer to God. In the end, resisting God’s call to love others is pretty hard to do.
And yet we know not everyone we meet is irresistible. We all have moments when some folks are harder to love than others. Sometimes those we find difficult to love are members of our own families. Other times they are friends we’ve had a conflict with. And for some of us, they are hard to love simply because of whom the other person loves.
There are lots of biases and assumptions about Christians out there, many of which are founded in real-life experience. And yes, we Christians have done our share of damage when it comes to tarnishing our so-called “brand.” But there also seems to be this tendency to understand Christianity and its adherents as one generally monolithic group that can be described in simple (often negative) terms that they would never be acceptable to apply to any other group.
Part of this is because of the historic dominance of the Christian culture in the modern Western world. It’s the same reason that stereotypes of men on network sitcoms are pervasively unflattering, while the same stereotypes would cause a firestorm of negative publicity if applied to the female counterparts. Some of this is entirely warranted and necessary in tearing down false or damaging constructs of power. But sometimes, if we’re being honest, they’re just wrong. And stupid.