Are You Not Entertained?

The more I read the Gospels, the historical accounts about Jesus in the New Testament, the more I see just how masterful he was at teaching people. Very often Jesus’ points were constructed in such a way that his listeners, no matter who they were, left without a question as to what he was talking about. Well, except for those pesky parables that were designed to stump his listeners. Those who got him, got his message. Those who did not get him, continued to see a mere rabble-rouser.

At one point, he actually pokes fun at his opponents, and compares them to spoil sport kids playing games in the street. “We played a dancing game, but it was the wrong tune. We played a funeral game, but it wasn’t quite gloomy enough.” His point was that his opponents were never satisfied, unless they got to call the shots.

To put his words in a more modern context, here’s how I would say it: “To what shall I compare the American Church? You’re like kids playing Street Preacher. When we emphasized grace, you said we needed more truth. But when we did emphasize truth, you said it we had no right, since we had previously put such an emphasis on grace.”

The 2016 election exposed a line of hypocrisy in the Evangelical Right. They don’t desire people to believe the truth – that which describes reality correctly, such as the sky is blue, and the grass is green. Instead, they want people to believe the truth that they have deemed important.

There was public outrage against “Pussy Gate” (The leaked tape of Mr. Trump and Billy Bush on the bus). I don’t know about you, but the response I heard most often from evangelicals was, “You didn’t have this reaction when it came to Fifty Shades, or Beyoncé or whatever fill-in-the-blank sexy thing you can think of, so you have no right to complain now.” The very same people who lament that “this world” doesn’t care for truth, the very same who threaten people’s salvation because of a perceived lack of absolute/objective truth, became whole hearted relativists in 2016. (More like they brought their relativism into the light, for all to see.)

Sexual assault (“I just grab ’em, I don’t even ask, I just do it.”) became “locker room talk” and “boys will be boys.” “Baby Christian” became a license to dismiss the conscience and morality,  and embrace irreverency and outright immorality and indecency.

When Jesus compared the religious elite of his day to mere children playing a game, the point was that they always had to change the rules to make their game fit, and ensure that they would win. It’s no different with the American Evangelical Right. They accuse the culture of embracing relative truth – that which is true for me, but not for you – and not having a moral compass. But then a whole wave of people wakes up, and starts to show a moral compass and that truth does actually matter, and the accusation became, “you embraced it too late.”

Always needing to up the stakes.

It makes me think of the scene in Gladiator, where maximus looks around the arena after killing his opponent, and balks, “Are you not entertained? Is this not what you came here for? Are you not entertained?” Maximus was booed for killing his competition too quickly. Evangelical leaders booed the culture for not standing up against their version of wrong. It wasn’t enough! They had to change the rules.

So it’s not just a general sense of right and wrong, it’s gotta be biblical truth that people must embrace. (Which I’m always curious about: what exactly makes biblical truth different, or more truthful than non-biblical/extra biblical truth? Is it more truthful than regular truth?) You can’t get mad at a presidential candidate for advocating a sex crime (and so much more), you have to be mad about every example in which sex was used in a non-procreative way. It has to be their idea, not the culture’s. They had to be the ones to call out sexual immorality, not the culture. Because what? that might give people the impression that truth really is universal, and wrong means wrong, even when a non-Christian states that it is? (I wonder what modern evangelicals would’ve thought about the Nuremberg trials – where other countries put German officers and leaders on trial for war crimes.)

It became increasingly clear: for evangelicals, it wasn’t enough for people to say Trump was lying, or that he was a moral disaster. Since they didn’t stand up for truth that one time, whatever that one time is, this time doesn’t count. It doesn’t matter that this may have been the circumstances that “woke people up,” and showed them that there are things that absolutely should be labeled as wrong or evil, “You are speaking ill of God’s candidate!” If we couldn’t embrace the man, we needed to at least embrace the Party. (Never mind the fact that the Party embraced and endorsed the man!)

So to those evangelicals – the ones who aren’t satisfied – I ask this: when will it be enough? How much truth do we have to embrace, before you believe that we embrace the truth? How much needs to labeled wrong by those outside the faith, before you start to heed the warning, and calling it wrong yourselves?

Are you not entertained? Is this not what you desired? Are you still not yet entertained?

Looking Beyond Mere Letters

“Doom to you who buy up all the houses and grab all the land yourselves – evicting the old owners, posting No Trespassing signs, taking over the country, leaving everyone homeless and landless.” Isaiah 5:8

What does this look like today? 

Gentrification. The real estate market. Monopolies. CEOs who are paid multi millions, while their employees barely scrape by. Indian reservations. Black neighborhoods and schools. Wall Street. Agesm, where the elder looks down upon the younger. Certain denominations (like the PCA) requiring their ministers to have an M.div, knowing full well that people of color rarely have the financial means to pursue such a degree (especially when it comes to the seminaries that these denominations trust, such as RTS,  where financial aid is not available). Lawmakers who make $180,000+ a year, and limit programs for those who make $25,000 or less, and tell them, “This is America, the Land of Opportunity.”  Corporate lobbyists. Apple, Walmart, and the like getting massive tax breaks despite being billion dollar companies. 

We must learn to look beyond the mere letter of the text, and grasp the heart and spirit of its meaning. Jesus was the MASTER of this!!! “You’ve heard it said…but I say…” 

Because Isaiah’s text continues later: 

“Doom to you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness in place of light and light in place of darkness, who substitute bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! Doom to you who think you’re so smart, who hold such a high opinion of yourselves! All you’re good at is drinking – champion boozers who collect trophies from drinking bouts. And then line your pockets with bribes from the guilty while you violate the rights of the innocent.” Isaiah 5:20-23

I’ve seen verse 20 used a lot by Christians who want to accuse other Christians of backsliding. “You want homosexuals to have civil liberties? That’s calling evil good!”

Is it? 

Meanwhile, these same folks vote for legislators who steal civil rights from people just because they can. My current home state of North Carolina is so ethnically gerrymandered, it got national attention! “This is unconstitutional!” was met by “Obama is such a divisive President!” What the what?!?

I’ve heard the argument that socialism leads to laziness.

Does it?

Isn’t that more of a smokescreen to cover up the real reason you don’t like universal healthcare and college tuition? It’s “your” money? Never mind the fact that you send your kids to public schools, have a bank account, or have insurance (all of which utilize a form of socialism). 

It’s easy to use this verse to remove the speck of dust from your brother’s eye, when there’s a whole blanking building sitting in yours. All because “sin” has become “bad stuff,” like murder and theft, and not also “good stuff” done for the wrong reasons.

Just this week, on two separate occasions, I’ve heard Christians defend their love of God, by propping up all the things they do for him. “I have been a minister for 25 years!” “I’ve been in prison ministry!””I do biker ministry!” Propping up their own resumes as if God is giving them a standing ovation! Not once taking into account that Jesus and the prophets more often than not throw resumes in the garbage, because they see right through them!!! “You didn’t do that for Yahweh! You did that for you! Your heart is far from me!” Which is promptly met by a, “How dare you judge me! You can’t say things like that! I am FILLED with the love of God!” It happened to the prophets. It happened to Jesus. It still happens today. 

I always want to respond, actions speak louder than words! I have yet to meet a well respected Christian who had to reassure people of their love for Jesus. It tends to go without saying. 

Challenge for the day: What are you propping up to appease your conscience, and appear good? What do you hope people will pay more attention to, so that they’ll take you at your word, rather than your lifestyle? What do you call good – in yourself, in the church, in the culture – when, if you do some research, is pure evil? 

Exposed

“So you will again see the difference between the righteous and the wicked, between one who serves God and one who does not serve him.” Malachi 3:18

How this passage comforts you depends largely on what “team” you’re on.

If you see this world as full of sinners who hate Yahweh, this passage gives you hope that he will fry those evil people like sausages. No longer will you have to endure the heartache and frustration of people who mock Jesus with their words or actions or even inactions. God will show ’em. And sinners will be exposed for what they truly are. 

If you’re like me, if you’ve seen so much hypocrisy in the church that you want to scream, this verse gives you hope that the fakery will come to an end. Liars and posers will be exposed for what they really are. 

And ironically, even this team has two sides.

One side believing that those who called themselves Christians, but who never obeyed God – antinomian posers – will be exposed. 

And the side I’m on: Those who believe Christian talking heads (celebrities, if you will) will be exposed for their deception. This election season, I officially had to move James Dobson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr to this list. Coincidently, they each belong to the first group above (those comforted by the thought that sinners will be exposed). They each teach their followers that they must be conservative Republicans. And this past election they unwittingly (though the jury is still out on that) told Christians that they don’t need to trust that gut feeling called their conscience, or that common human decency doesn’t matter, so long as that person runs on a Republican ticket, or is a baby Christian who promises to put conservative judges on the Supreme Court. (Because apparently that is the full extent of “biblical values.”) 

Bringing it back…

The truth is, all  these things will be exposed! 

Real sinners will be seen as they truly are. 

Nominal Christians (people who are Christian by name only) will be exposed. 

Hypocritical leadership will be exposed. 

But also, thankfully, so will genuine believers. So will the peacemakers and mercy seekers. So will the radically gracious. So will the ones who put so much trust in Christ’s righteousness, that they were willing to be branded as heretics. 

We will all be exposed as the people we truly are – good, bad, ugly, or beautiful. 

A New Song to Share

I am a musician at heart. If there’s ever one thing that has brought me the most comfort, it’s music. Likewise, if there’s any one thing that pumps me up the most — for better or worse –it’s music. As my old friend Eric used to say, “Music tames the beast, but it also riles it up.”

In addition to its comfort, I have also found music (more accurately, the poetry of a song — its lyrical content) as a way to express the spectrum of emotion and need. A broken man can grab a gun, or he can grab a pen, paper (iPhone in my case), and a guitar. Like David in the Psalms, music and poetry can become the source by which a person can be brutally honest with God that no well worded prayer could ever express. David often went in angry, defeated, and broken, but came out whole, and ready to begin again. 

Likewise, music and poetry is the voice of protest. As I learn more and more about how the Irish and Scots fought against the tyranny of England, I have found that their greatest fighters, fought through song and poem. You might recall the scene in Braveheart, “Outlawed tunes, on outlawed pipes.” (The English weren’t stupid, ya know! They knew what those songs meant.)

So it is with great fear and trepidation that I share the poetry — the lyrics — to a song I wrote recently. Why so fearful? Because, it is a song about my frustration with the American Church in general, and it is also a personal lament about a dark time in my life when I was outcast by a church. (I would venture into specifics, but there will come a time for that in future posts.) 

This is a song that I am currently calling “Liars and Thieves.” (And no, it is not a reprise of Jennifer Knapp!)

I was told to leave on a Tuesday.

” You can’t stay here, as long as you’re friends with ‘THEM.'”

“Just pack your bags, we’ll handle it from here.”

And they read my letter on Sunday, that I didn’t even write.

“We’re not sure what happened, but we wish him well.”
Liars and thieves at the altar of Grace. 

Thin veneers leave a bitter taste. 

Don’t you try to hide it anymore!

You played the bride, but you’re just a whore. 

But I still wonder why it came to this. 

I just hope it was worth it to you.
I see them while grabbing coffee. 

They smile and wave like nothing is wrong at all. 

“Let’s just pretend like everything’s alright.”

All the fake pleasantries that I can hardly stand. 

“How’s your wife? What’s her name again?”
Liars and Thieves at the altar of Grace. 

Thin veneers leave a bitter taste.

Don’t you try to hide it anymore!

You played the Bride, but you’re just a whore. 

But I still wonder why it came to this. 

I just hope it was worth it to you!
You’re just a lying  hypocrite!

You’re such a lying hypocrite!

But I guess I “don’t recall!”

The Problem with Theological Righteousness

nonviolence-101-word-cloud-4I always say that it is a miracle that I am a Christian. I grew up in a home with an atheist, a recovering catholic, and an “open for discussion.” There was a brief time when Recovering Catholic, Open for Discussion, and I all went to a Methodist church, but when the family moved from Connecticut to New Mexico, any kind of spirituality was promptly ended.

But then Jesus found a way to save me.  I was saved in the late 90s (February 4, 1999 to be exact), when True Love Waits was at the height of power, Christian music was beginning to sound more like music and not a camp sing-along, and my Youth Pastor’s favorite question was, “Did you do have your quiet time today?” The sins to be avoided were drugs, alcohol, cussing, sex, abortion, and homosexuality.  And greatest of all, I could go to church dressed in street clothes, and no one would look down on me.

As I grew up, I began to find out that to be a Christian meant that I was to vote republican, because they were the ones who were against homosexuality and abortion.  And somewhere along the way there was the great battle between absolute and relative truth; liberalism verses conservative evangelicalism. Suffice it to say, there was always a battle to fight in the name of the Lord, and something had to separate Christians from their heathen counterparts.

I went to school for a Christian Studies degree, and discovered the great disciplines of theology and apologetics. These greatly helped in separating myself from the evil world, because I knew exactly what I was supposed to believe, and I knew how to prove people wrong in theirs.

Theological rightness became the cornerstone of my life. The goal for every Christian was to get their doctrine right, because without proper doctrine there would be no spiritual growth. It was okay to admit the struggles of believing this or that, just as long as there was a concerted effort to get it right—and when I say right, I do mean RIGHT.

Lately, I have been finding that the problem with such thinking is that I was basing people’s standing with God on something other than Jesus. The only distinction that the New Testament makes between people is those who are in the Kingdom, and those who are outside the Kingdom (and usually the people who thought they understood that distinction had it wrong!). There is nothing that makes someone less of a citizen of the Kingdom. Or to put it another way, once God has adopted a son or a daughter, that is exactly who they are. And no sin patterns or wrong belief changes that.

I say this with a little bit of pride, the Keith of even a year ago would have looked at the Keith of today, and called him a heretic who was slandering the teachings of Scripture. But the Keith of today is much softer, kinder, and gracious towards even himself than that other one.  There is less need for me (and others) to get it right, and more need for me to actually have a relationship with God. And that relationship is being built, not on the academic study of God, which has a habit of making him more into a set of facts, but on the contemplative disciplines—silence and solitude, meditation over Scripture, fixed-hour prayer.

And I don’t have it all together. That old Keith likes to come out every once and a while, and go a round or two. But I find him showing up less and less. I’ve made my goal to be like the leader that Henri Nouwen writes about:

Christian leaders cannot simply be persons who have well-informed opinions about the burning issues of our time. Their leadership must be rooted in the permanent, intimate relationship with the incarnate Word, Jesus, and they need to find there the source of their words, advice, and guidance. . . . Dealing with burning issues easily leads to divisiveness because, before we know it, our sense of self is caught up in our opinion about a given subject. But when we are securely rooted in personal intimacy with the source of life, it will be possible to remain flexible but not relativistic, convinced without being rigid, willing to confront without being offensive, gentle, and forgiving without being soft, and true witnesses without being manipulative.

Henri J.M. Nouwen, “In The Name of Jesus”

Obedience: A New Perspective

I started a new semester today. And the language I often hear from classmates, teachers, and textbooks often freaks me out. I cringe at the sound of people, who seem to forget the Gospel as they prepare to lead the people of God.

More often than not, I am wanting to throw my textbooks at a wall, because like most textbooks, they formulate God and the Christian life. But one paragraph from one of my books really took me by surprise today. (We’ll have to wait and see about the rest of the book.)

“What does it take to know God more clearly? The two essential ingredients are time and obedience. It takes time to cultivate a relationship, and unless we set aside consistent time for disciplines such as solitude, silence, prayer, and reading of Scripture, we will never become intimate with our Lord. Obedience is the proper response to this communication, since it is our personal expression of trust in the promises of the person we are coming to know.”

That last sentence in particular really jumped out at me. Given that I’m all about grace, any talk of obedience makes me tense up. Normally when I hear talk of obedience, it’s usually in the context of wanting God to be pleased. In such talk, there is always an inherent misunderstanding of God’s acceptance and pleasure based on Christ’s finished work. So person X wants to obey out of a fear of displeasing God, which, honestly is rather terrifying.

But this guy defined obedience in a way the I’ve never heard before. Obedience is an expression of our trust in the promises of the person we are coming to know. There’s no expression of God’s pleasure toward us. No deep seeded fear tactics. It turns the focus on us. Why should I obey these commands? Because the God behind those commands loves me. So obedience to those commands is less about pleasing God, than it is about believing that God is who he said he is.

So the next time temptation comes knocking, and the Commandment stands up in response, could it be that instead of having a moral dilemma about a proper gospel response (Am I obeying because I WANT to, or because I should? If I’m obeying because I should, then I’m not loving God, and if I’m not loving God, the Gospel is t taking root like I want it to.) that we instead focus on the God behind that commandment? Could it be that maybe God really does understand the difficulty inherent in combatting a desire with something that may not be quite as evident? After all, feelings are much louder than a loving God at times, but a loving God far outlasts even the loudest feeling. And through the Gospel we understand that trusting that loving God is our ultimate goal, but as that trust builds, we are accepted even when we call God a liar.

Dark Times

When I look back on my life, I see that each and every trial and tribulation I’ve endured was worse than the previous. It’s like God is up in heaven, smiling with his ever-knowing, sympathetic grin, saying, “If you thought that was bad, just wait till the next one.” This is not to say that I believe God is a cruel slave master who desires to inflict pain upon his children, but rather that he knows a heck of a lot more than I do.

The last two years have been, without a doubt, the worst of my life. I took a ministry job that I thought was a dream come true, but it turned out to be an absolute nightmare. I’ll spare you the details… Suffice it to say, things got so bad that I had to bring in some elders to help my pastor and I work towards reconciling the situation.

At first, I took comfort in the elders’ involvement. I remember telling my wife, after the first meeting, that things were going to be alright… that she and I would be safe, and that finally someone was going to help us. But, things never got right, we were never safe, and no one ever helped. Finally, after months of agonizing meetings and inquisitions, I was told that if employment was taken off the table, my pastor would work towards reconciliation with me. I resigned from my job, but my pastor never fulfilled his end of the bargain.

The very people who were supposed to protect, encourage, and yes, even discipline me, did nothing but continue the pattern of spiritual abuse and dehumanization that I was already suffering. I rapidly lost all hope. Not just the hope of reconciling the relationship (my pastor had been a friend, and I did honestly want to reconcile with him), but I also lost all hope in the goodness of God and his gospel.

When I came to the realization that the very same hope I held for salvation (that Jesus lived a perfect life for me, died bearing the wrath of God for me, and rose to new life for me) was the very same hope for the man who shat upon me and put me through hell, it turned the gospel into the worst possible prank God could ever pull. It turned me into a kind of hybrid Christian. I desired God, yet wanted nothing to do with him. He was my only hope, but I just wished he would leave me alone. I needed this God, but the idea of trusting him was sickening. The words “jaded” and “cynical” did not even begin to describe my attitude. Hopeless is what I was. And it was a lonely existence.

Thankfully, my wife and I were introduced to a wonderful woman, who took us in, cared for us, and re-introduced us to the goodness of God. She taught us to hear the gospel in the voice of God, not in the voice of those men that abused us. It has been a long journey. The silence of those elders has been deafening, but God’s goodness has been blinding.

I know I’m not the only one who has been through hell. There are people out there who have (or have had) it much worse than I ever will. For some people, the evils of this world are evidence that God cannot be the kind lover that he describes himself as. I don’t pretend to have answers for them. C.S. Lewis even said that having all the paradigms of human suffering and divine goodness did not help him at all in the aftermath of his wife’s death. So, I’m not sure giving those folks a definitive answer would even help them. My bout with God only lasted a few months. And it was not my vast knowledge of systematic theology, or my codex of scripture, or any of the books I’ve read, that helped get me through it. Rather the tender, yet firm, care of a woman who had been through her own hell, and came out the other side.

And perhaps that’s the only answer we should ever give. I don’t have much to offer, but I’m convinced of this: One day we’ll look upon the absolute goodness of God, and we, when trying to compare all the darkness this world has ever known, will wonder why we ever dared speak a word.