Jesus

Why Does Jesus Have to Be Such a Lousy Role Model?

By Derek Penwell

WWJD? If you read the Gospels, apparently not much that would please the Family Research Council.

Given the pressing social concerns about the “war on Christmas” and the first amendment travesty visited upon America's evangelical wedding cake industry, Jesus’ regard for the poor and oppressed seems laughably myopic.

I mean, if you believe that you’ve been put on this earth to skulk about pointing out everyone else’s sins, Jesus doesn’t set a very good example. Oh sure, he cracks on the self-righteous and the hypocrites, but usually because he feels a moral responsibility to shine a light on the self-satisfied, those who seem way too pleased that they’re “not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like [the] tax-collector” (Luke 18:11).

Interesting that Jesus not only doesn’t feel the need to scour the countryside in search of people to condemn—for fear that surely someone’s ruining the fabric of “traditional society”—but, ironically, he seems to find those who are most publicly religious (that is, the folks who do scour the countryside in search of people to condemn) the folks most in need of a good verbal smack down.[1]

So, if you believe your Christian mission centers on identifying sinners to steer clear of, Jesus is a really crappy role model. If you think that the demands of Christian purity require you to shine a bright light on the those people the church ought to be busy hanging scarlet letters on, then Jesus is bound to be a disappointment to you.

At this point, someone will surely object, “But we’re just calling attention to sinful behavior. We don’t hate the sinners, just the sin. What we’re doing is actually the loving thing to do. We love them; but we have a responsibility to make sure that they change.”

But let’s just be honest—when some group utters “love the sinner/hate the sin,” everybody knows they’re only talking about LGBTQ people. (Frankly, I don’t think being LGBTQ is a sin, and I don’t like the phrase. But if you’re going to wield it against someone you don’t approve of, at least try to be consistent.)

Franklin Graham wouldn’t advocate keeping rich people, for example, from full participation in the life and ministry of the church—in anticipation that they’ll, you know, renounce that which prevents their tricked-out camels from fitting through the eye of the needle.

I’m pretty sure Tony Perkins isn’t launching any campaigns meant to publicize the socially corrosive sin of anger evinced by road-ragers who terrorize rush hour traffic, proudly displaying their “Jesus” fish and their “God is my co-pilot” bumper stickers.

Jerry Falwell Jr. isn't leading the charge against hypocrisy, calling out the white-washed sepulcher lobby who claim to follow Jesus, but who still embrace violence, selfishness, and deceit in their political leaders.

The truth of it is, we’re extremely parochial about the “Biblical” sins by which we’re determined to be aggrieved.

My suspicion is that “love the sinner/hate the sin” language operates practically as a convenient mechanism by which one can appear morally superior to those whose sins most offend one’s particular sensibilities—all for the purposes of public consumption.

But the specificity with which we apply “love the sinner/hate the sin” bothers me. I guess my question would be: Have you actually talked to someone who’s been “loved” to death by all this concern for the particular sin of being LGBTQ? Young people are killing themselves from this kind of “love.”

Yeah, Jesus is a lousy example if what you care about are the sins that vex much of popular Christianity. In fact, not only didn’t Jesus make it his mission to fish about for people to be offended by, he sought out the people that most of the rest of polite society saw as offensive, and then proceeded to go to the bar with them.[2]

So, Jesus is exactly the wrong guy to appeal to as the inspiration for a 21st century version of the personal morality police.

And it’s kind of sad, really. For a large segment of Christianity, Jesus’ lack of moralistic rigor cannot but appear embarrassing.

On the other hand, if you want to pattern your life after a person who befriended the folks who always seem to get picked last in the game of life, Jesus works perfectly as a role model.


  1. See, for example, Matthew 23—a chapter dedicated to calling out religious pretension.  ↩
  2. See Matthew 11:19.  ↩

A Short Rant on the Conceit of Always Being a Moderate or Why You May Be All Wrong Because You Think Nobody Can Be All Right

It's been another hellish week. More people dead. The temperature of the country is elevated. People on both sides, #BlackLivesMatter vs. #BlueLivesMatter, have brandished their rhetorical swords. The intensity of the debate seems always threatening to burst into something more violent, even apocalyptic given the right frame.

It's difficult to witness so much raw emotion competing for the moral high ground. The discourse itself strikes many as frightening.

But you know, I’m growing a little weary of a particular brand of centrist who feel themselves to be so above the partisanship that afflicts the rest of us. Not all centrists, of course. I'm talking about the folks who are always sniffing around the edges of debate, arguing that the problem is as much to be found in the format and tone of the debate as in the issue in dispute.

From their standpoint — so conspicuously removed from the theological and political sty in which the rest of us wallow — the “left” and the “right” are merely dupes of liberal and conservative overlords. Whereas these kinds of moderates and centrists see through all the parochial agendas the rest of us are just too simple to perceive.

This heroic cast of self-justifiers glide through life unburdened by a need to take a stand on anything — except on what they believe is the meritoriously self-evident issue of not taking stands. Their orthodoxy can be summed up simply: There is no issue so nuanced that it can’t be cleaved down the middle, leaving two halves that correspondingly (and by definition) miss the truth, which can always be found at some point equidistant from both poles.

Consequently, the only cause over which it is worth getting exercised is getting exercised over causes. Any conviction, on this account, must take a back seat to the primary conviction, which is that no one should hold any conviction more strongly than the conviction that no conviction is worth holding strongly. The tone police brook no opposition on this.

And it is somewhat understandable. Staying so decidedly in the center is the most convenient place because it often requires no real action; it often requires doing not much more than staying in the middle, passing casual judgment on those convinced that some action or another is necessary—that the most important virtue is saying nothing that might be perceived as offensive. And it has the added virtue of looking wise, since by its own definition, it possesses the only real wisdom, which is that the truth of any issue cannot wholly exist on either the left or the right.

But even a casual reading of the Gospels suggests that Jesus worried more about doing the right thing than about being perceived to be doing the right thing. He cared more about speaking the truth as it regards loving one's neighbor than about maintaining a studied neutrality in the face of religious or political partisanship.

Let's be honest, sometimes the truth can be found hovering in the middle. Centrism isn't wrong by definition any more than setting up shop on the left or the right.

But here’s the thing: While those on the left or the right are obviously beholden to narrative structures that offer views of the world from particular perspectives, those in the center are too.The difference, however, is that those committed to life in the center as an end in itself are often the least likely to recognize the debt they owe and the masters they serve.

And when it comes to masters, Jesus repeatedly expressed a few strongly held opinions about that too.

 

"I Love the Sinner" Is Often What Abusers Say

By Derek Penwell

“I love her, but she’s got to learn right from wrong,” he said … after beating her half to death. And there she lies, one foot in this world and another in the next—but fully “loved.”

I imagine that’s what LGBTQ folks hear when yet another Christian says, “I love the sinner, but I hate the sin.”

Now, I can imagine that immediately upon reading the connection between those last two thoughts, cries of righteous indignation will rise as a chorus unto heaven. “We’re not abusers, simply because we hate what homosexuals do with their private parts. We’ve never actually, physically struck a gay person because of their gayness.”

Hmmm … Maybe not, I don’t know you. In fact, I’m perfectly willing to believe you’re not part of a roving band of homo/transphobes out trolling the streets for fresh bodies on which to work out your frustrations with the dismal state of America’s godless culture. Nevertheless, I don’t think that gets you off the hook for the violence that is done in the name of your religious commitments for two important reasons.

First, when you fight against anti-bullying laws written to keep LGBTQ kids safe from being abused, you are propping up a system of violence that steals the dignity, and often the lives of those children you say you love. If a gay or trans kid commits suicide because you want to retain the right to loudly and repeatedly announce to the world your moral disapprobation, giving energy to a system dedicated to never letting LGBTQ kids forget that they are sinful aberrations for which the fires of hell are regularly stoked hotter, you bear some responsibility for their death. When LGBTQ kids get beaten, when they’re kicked out of their homes and forced to live on the streets and struggle to do some of the despicable things they have to do to stay alive, you may not be raising a hand against them, but you’re certainly massaging the muscles that do the damage. When you support a vision of the world in which LGBTQ people daily have to live in fear for their livelihoods, their homes, their right to a peaceful and flourishing existence just so you can proudly announce your doctrinal purity and your commitment to a world where only your religious beliefs matter, you may not be drawing anyone’s actual blood—but don’t kid yourself that there’s not blood on your hands.

Second, physical violence isn’t the only kind of violence. The abuse that takes place in families, for instance, is often not physical abuse. You can lay claim to having never physically harmed a person, while at the same time being guilty of killing that person’s soul. As anyone who’s suffered abuse by an abuser who claims to love them can tell you, some of the worst things that can be done to you have to do with being humiliated, devalued, dehumanized, made to feel alone and crazy. For how many years, for instance, did we gaslight LGBTQ people, makinghomosexuality a mental disorder? [Answer: Even though homosexuality was removed from the DSM-II as a disease in 1973, it wasn’t until 1987 that it was completely removed as a disorder, “ego-dystonic sexual orientation,” from the DSM. In other words: “Gay people are crazy or, at least aberrant” gave shape to the world we now inhabit.]

Take a casual glance at a list of behaviors considered emotionally abusive in personal relationships; then, read that same list through the eyes of someone who is LGBTQ, and try to persuade them they’re not victims of “loving” abuse. As one of my favorite theologians, Fred Craddock, said, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words … can kill me.”

Now, someone might object: “We really do love them. We just think what they’re doing is wrong.”

Fine. The problem is that if you talk to many abusers, they will say the same thing … and mean every word of it. Punching someone in the mouth because you “love” her and “want to correct” her, can’t help but be heard by the person being so punched as a blatant form of patriarchy (i.e., I know better than you do what’s appropriately “not sinful”; you’re just going to have to trust that I have your best interests at heart), or as a way of justifying the hatred and violence of the puncher, or simply as a cynical lie. Whatever the case, your attempts at “loving” the object of your disapproval always seem to come off as a self-righteous assertion of your moral superiority (at best), or downright antipathy (at worst).

Let me see if I can make this any clearer (and I know it doesn’t feel good): Participating in a system that belittles, punishes and commits violence against those who are often in the weakest position to defend themselves, frames you as an abuser in the eyes of those whom you claim only to be trying to love.

Here someone might wonder: “But how can they not know I love them? I said I love them, didn’t I?”

That’s the whole point. Saying you love someone as you punch them in the mouth, or standing by (while cheering or remaining silent) while somebody else punches them in the mouth or loudly fighting for laws that will continue making punching them in the mouth legal in the name of “religious freedom” isn’t love.

A cursory reading of the Gospels suggests that, for those of us who follow Jesus,love isn’t the perpetual need to make everyone else conform to our understanding of righteousness; it’s the merciful realization that Jesus has freed us from the responsibility of thinking that’s even our job.

Looking For Jesus In All The Wrong Places

By Rev. Evan Dolive

(This post originally appeared at evandolive.com)

Starbucks has been in the press a lot recently over a design choice. Traditionally November is the start of “red cup” season at Starbucks as they begin their journey into the holiday season. This year, however, is causing a stir.

Joshua Feuerstein is a minister and has millions of followers on Facebook and Twitter. He and his backward red MLB hat take to the Internet in an effort to “rally” others to his point and his theological framework. He has ranted on subjects like evolution, same-sex marriage and even Target’s decision to make their toy section gender neutral.

Recently he took to the Internet to complain about Starbuck’s “attack on Christianity” in this so-called “era of political correctness.”(video above)  In Feuerstein’s mind, the removal of snowflakes, reindeer, snowmen and the like is akin to trying to remove Christianity from the public sphere. His solution? Instead of telling the barista your actual name, tell them your name is “Merry Christmas” (so lying is ok?) in an effort to “force them” to say “Merry Christmas” to you.

This argument of a hostile corporate removal of Christianity is one that has no basis; Christianity is not under attack from a coffee company or any company for that matter. Sure I do not like the commercialization of Christmas but not having “Merry Christmas” on a cup or a Christmas tree in the mall is not something I worry about, it doesn’t prove or disprove my faithfulness, it is not a threat to my relationship with God and Christ.

The story of the birth and ministry of Christ is not Starbucks’ (or any corporations) story to tell. This story of the coming of the Messiah is one of all people of the Church to tell through their life, their sharing and their embodying the teachings and actions of Jesus.

Starbucks’ previous red cups did not have “Merry Christmas” emblazon on them and the company still sells “Christmas Blend” coffee and even has a Advent Calendar. So just because the words “Merry Christmas” do not appear on the actual cup, this is an attack on Christianity?

The problem is Jesus is not found on the outside of a red cup from a multi-national coffee chain. If Jesus and all that Jesus stands for is not found at the bottom of a bottle or in prescription medications, then why would Jesus be found on a cup?

Jesus is found in places we would never expect.

Jesus is found at bed 57 at the homeless shelter.

Jesus is found at the bedside of an ICU room or at a hospice.

Jesus is found in the glassy eyes of a single mom receiving food assistance for the first time from the local food bank.

Jesus is found in the undocumented worker who harvested the food we eat.

Jesus is found when people of faith set aside their theological differences on Sunday mornings and strive for a more just and loving society.

Jesus is found in the laughter of children.

Jesus is found in the cool wind of fall.

Jesus is found where ever the faithful for God gather to worship.

Jesus is found when we give.

Jesus is found when we serve.

Jesus is found when we love unconditionally.

Jesus is found when we liberate.

Jesus’ love, grace and mercy cannot be confined to a single Sunday or even a red paper cup.

We cannot and should not limit the movement and presence of Christ to the four walls of a stained glass building or even a red paper cup.

If we are going to claim to be Christ’s followers then how we work, where we serve, the things we give need to emulate the ministry and movement of Jesus the Christ.

Having a barista write “Merry Christmas” as your name on a red paper cup for your triple venti toffee nut latte is not helping the cause of Christ. Rather take the $5 you would have spent on yourself and give it to someone who needs it is the definition of selfless giving and the gospel.

So the next time you are in Starbucks and you order a drink in their pretty red cups, do not look for Jesus on the cup, look for the Jesus in the world around you; you never know where you might see him.

In Christ,

Rev. Evan

An Open Letter to Jesus, Apologizing for This RFRA Mess

By Derek Penwell

Dear Jesus,

I feel like I should apologize. I mean, for all the bad press you’ve been getting lately because of us. It must drive you nuts.

We’re a fallible lot, your followers. We make mistakes. We misunderstand. We hurt one another. That’s true across the board. All of us.

But apart from the garden variety meanness in which all your followers engage, now you have to deal with a bunch of us enacting legislation that will allow us not just to behave like our ordinary screwed up selves when we hurt other people, but to commit that spitefulness in your name.

No. I’m not kidding. Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) are springing up all over the place. These religious refusal ordinances allow people to ignore laws that they say are in conflict with their personal religious beliefs. The sponsors of these acts wink as they argue that this groundswell of religious legislation isn’t specifically targeting LGBTQ people. That same gender marriage is experiencing its own groundswell of support (both culturally and legislatively) is apparently only a coincidence. But everybody knows it’s about the gays. (It seems that the thought of baking LGBTQ people cakes and renting them tuxedos is more than any pious person ought to have to endure.)

“I shouldn’t have to serve anyone I don’t approve of,” is pretty much what it boils down to—which is bad enough. But then they baptize this bigotry, anoint it with oil, and send it out into the world as a herald announcing to everyone that this is what you’re all about, Jesus. So, it’s not just “I don’t approve of you,” but more importantly, “Jesus doesn’t approve of you. And if you don’t like it, too bad. You can just go buy your cake of abomination and lies from some other reprobate who doesn’t love Jesus as much as I do.”

So, I’m apologizing that some of my brothers and sisters have seen fit to act like toddlers who pout when they don’t get their way, sharing their marbles only with pre-approved playmates. Again, that kind of reaction is irritating enough. But what’s even more exasperating is the fairly common assumption that all your followers are simply waiting around trying to figure out against whom it is now permissible to discriminate.

Remember that church where the young teenage girl got pregnant? Then when she decided to keep the baby, some of us suggested that the church should throw her a baby shower, let her know that we loved her and were excited to welcome her child into our community? But there were a couple of people who grumbled, “If this church throws a party for her, it will be like I’m personally endorsing her pregnancy?” Remember that?

And then another young woman stood up and said, “Look, this isn’t about you and your endorsement. This is about a young woman who’s getting ready to face the most difficult time in her life. And we just want her to know that she doesn’t have to face it alone. She’s a follower of Jesus too. In fact, if I recall, Jesus always seemed to go out of his way to support those questionable folks all the religious people were busy not approving of.” You remember that, right?

We’re bad at this stuff sometimes, Jesus. Too often we privilege purity over faithfulness—which seems odd, since we claim to follow the guy who told the story about the Good Samaritan. Unfortunately, it seems that too many of us make a habit of passing by on the other side of the road in the name of not dirtying our consciences.

Unfortunately, we claim to invite everyone to your table, but we hang a big sign with asterisks on the front of that table, listing the kinds of people we reserve the right not to serve.

Unfortunately, too many of us are more concerned with being right than in getting it right.

And, Jesus, we’re hurting people in the process. Humiliating people. Telling folks that they’re somehow defective, somehow unloveable.

So, I apologize for those who call themselves by your name, but who commit acts of cruelty while brandishing that name like a weapon. Forgive us (myself included) when we act less lovingly than you expect. Grant us the courage to stand with those who, too often, find themselves standing alone.

Challenge us to be better than we are, to love more than we can imagine, and to seek a justice more expansive and inclusive than our wounded hearts can dream.

Love,

Derek

(A special shout out to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), who have vowed not to hold its General Assembly in Indiana in 2017, because it's a state that just passed a version of RFRA!)

Reclaiming the Prophetic Voice & Reclaiming the Straight and Narrow

By Douglas C. Sloan

The prophetic voice does not predict the future. The prophetic voice warns us about the path we are traveling and invites us to travel a different path, to embark on a different journey. The prophetic voice is one that takes us to task for not being the Love and Grace, the Justice and Compassion of God in the world. The prophetic voice calls us to listen for God in different places and in different ways. God does not speak through war, violence, or oppression. God does not speak through empire, nationalism, patriotism, wealth, exclusion, or isolation. The voices and words of people – whether verbal or written, ancient or contemporary – are not the voice of God. It is through the lostness of the coin, the lostness of the sheep, the lostness of both sons that the voice of God is heard. God speaks to us and calls to us through injustice, oppression, bondage, exile, hunger, thirst, nakedness, homelessness, imprisonment, and the need for healing. When we find the lost, deliver justice, save the oppressed, release those in bondage, return those in exile; when we feed, quench, clothe, house, heal, and visit the prisoners – it is then that God speaks and God acts and God is clearly present in the world. It is then that there is no thin place and the curtain that hides and separates us from the Divine is torn asunder and the presence and glory of God is plainly visible for all to see, for all who dare and care to look. It is then that God is more immanent than transcendent. And there is more. When it does occur that there is compassion for the widow and orphan and alien and stranger, when the lost are found, when there is justice that repairs and rehabilitates and restores and reconciles, when the oppressed are freed, when the exiled are returned, when we feed and quench and clothe and house and heal and visit the prisoners, then God celebrates enthusiastically and extravagantly and all are invited to the party. That is Good News.

Jesus is a prophetic voice who invites and directs us to a different path – the middle path. The middle path is narrow and one of constant tension. Thus, Jesus does not dismiss us from the Law. Walking the middle path is about maintaining that tension by walking straight and narrowly between the way of God and the way of the world – by maintaining the tension between a life of Divine Love and Grace and a life of legalistic obedience and ritual purity. Walking the middle path is not about indecision or balance. Walking the middle path is not about weighing the options and analyzing the arguments and making a choice. Walking the middle path is about immersing and subjecting ourselves to the tension and conflict of the middle path and allowing it and enabling it and participating in it as a purgative experience, a purifying fire, a death – our death. To be fully human – to be fully what God created and intends for us to be, to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, to be a child of God – is not about choosing or living into a better way. We do not reject or abandon or suppress the ways of the world. We have to die to them. That of us that needs and desires legalistic obedience – and rituals of magic and absolutes and divisiveness – and empire and wealth and vengeance and war and violence and oppression and hate and exclusion and jealousy and gossip and cold hearts and mean spirits and idolized certainties – that part of us has to die. When that part of us dies, we are inescapably left with resurrection and transformation and new life. That is Good News.

Send the Crowds Away

By Morf Morford

We all know this line as one of the opening scenes of one of Jesus’ most well-known miracles – the feeding of the five thousand.

Most commentators use this verse to highlight the contrast between Jesus and his disciples; the disciples show their lack of faith in God as the provider, while Jesus steps up, fully relying on, and ultimately proving God’s ability, even eagerness to provide – and not just adequately, but with gleeful abundance (Matthew 14:20).

It is one of the central stories of the New Testament – and it’s not a parable.

The scriptures stake Jesus’ identity, and our own identity as ambassadors of the Kingdom, on stories like this.

I, like many Christians I know, sometimes wish I lived in these times to witness miracles like these.

But I forget that, along with the miracles, will be a first, almost reflexive burst of faithlessness.

And I also forget that if the issues, concerns and values of the Bible were ever true, they still are.

And I look in horror and shame at the living, breathing expression of faithlessness on our southern border as my people, using images and quotes from my faith, curse, threaten and spit on desperate, fearful and abandoned children.

Jesus told his disciples to “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these (Mark 10:14, Luke 18:16). But somehow, so many, in the name of Jesus, would gladly shut our doors in the frightened faces of refugee children.

How did faith turn into an expression of fear, cowardice and hatred?

I find it fascinating that so many seem so eager to publicly betray their own individual and national beliefs and values. I see them wave their flags as they send our vigilante groups along our border. Could there be anything more contrary to our nation’s most iconic symbol, Statue of Liberty which carries the lines (carved in stone lest we forget): “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of our teeming shore. Send these, the homeless tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

And how many of these would call themselves ‘pro-life’ and admit, in a calmer moment perhaps, that every one of us is created in the image of God, and every life is sacred.

But somehow we see personal faith, national identity and even basic human decency trampled and ignored in the spirit of a nameless, fearful frenzy.

I am sure that these people at home, are ‘good people’ who care for their own children, but somehow, like the two ‘good people’ in the parable of the Good Samaritan, they find it easy to turn their backs on their own humanity.

Like the ‘Good Samaritan’ (Luke 10:25-37) our acceptance in God’s eyes has little, or even nothing, to do with our mastery of theological minutia, but everything to do with our direct, specific and peculiarly human response to the always unpredictable and ever-demanding needs of the broken world around us.

But couldn’t we imagine an alternate reality where Christians were the ‘first responders’ not in menace or hostility, but in compassion, welcome and practical assistance?

The heart of the parable of the ‘Good Samaritan’ is not so much about being a ‘good neighbor’ or even redefining who one’s ‘neighbor’ is. The core of the story is that being a ‘good neighbor’ is never an abstraction; ‘loving one’s neighbor’ is immediate, practical, difficult and infinitely (literally) rewarding.

It seems to me to come down to a simple equation; are we bearers of the ‘good news’ or willing representatives of even more ‘bad news’?

As Jesus warned us, one way is easy, while the other way will continually challenge us – and those around us.

And perhaps above all, we dare not forget God’s clear priorities; 

The Lord watches over the foreigner
    and sustains the fatherless and the widow
. Psalm 146:9 (NIV)

Anyone who has been in Sunday School in past 30 years knows this song;

Jesus loves the little children
All the children of the world
Red& yellow, black & white
they're precious in his sight
Jesus loves the little children of the world
Jesus cares for all the children
All the children of the world
Black and yellow, red and white
They're all precious in His sight
Jesus cares for the children of the world

It’s good to know that Jesus loves all the children of the world, especially when, sometimes, we forget to . . .


Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.

We Need Another Barefoot Prophet

By Morf Morford

 

Sometimes we know the answer,

Even when we’d rather not,

And even when we’re told,

Even when we’d rather not listen

In fact we, most of us at least,

Would rather kill the prophet

Than listen to what we know he will tell us.

 

And even then

That voice will never die,

Even though human history

And nearly every human heart

Would far rather kill

Or even die,

Than hear someone who would tell us,

Not only to hear the truth but to live it.

 

We need another barefoot prophet

To remind us that love is the only answer

And our hands are given to hold and to heal.

But if we had another barefoot prophet

Maybe, just once,

We’d listen

And walk

As if we too were treading on holy ground.


Morf Morford considers himself a free-range Christian who is convinced that God expects far more of us than we can ever imagine, but somehow thinks God knows more than we do. To pay his bills, he’s been a teacher for adults (including those in his local county jail) in a variety of setting including Tribal colleges, vocational schools and at the university level in the People’s Republic of China. Within an academic context, he also writes an irreverent ESL blog and for the Burnside Writers Collective. As he’s getting older, he finds himself less tolerant of pettiness and dairy products.

"No Other Way To The Father: Challenging a Common Interpretation of John 14:6"

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

I am sharing with you a sermon that I recently preached at my congregation.  The text is John 14:1-14.  The particular focus of this sermon are the words found in the sixth verse, “Jesus said, ‘I am the way, and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.’”   In our pluralistic world, these words are often understood to be problematic.  I challenge the interpretation that creates this problem by seeking to understand these words in their context.  They are part of what is known in John as the “Farewell Discourse.”   In that context, these words were never intended to be a polemic against others, but a way to understand God’s presence in Jesus.

On the day it was preached, at the communion table even before worship was over, I was met by a church member who said that over the past several years she has been able to make the movement in her own faith that this sermon describes. It was very touching as her pastor to hear her say that.  Several weeks have passed since this sermon, and I have had other conversations with other members about it.  For some of those folks, it has been as if a theological weight has been lifted off of them.  For that I am grateful.  Maybe you can find something useful for yourself in these words.       

                "No One Comes To The Father Except Through Me: What Does That Mean?"

The opening words of our reading are some of the most beautiful in all of scripture, “Do not let your hearts be troubled, . . .” They are often read at times when we are indeed troubled.  When we have suffered a loss and our hearts are heavy with grief.  Maybe some of the comfort in these words comes not just from who says them, our Lord Jesus, but when he says them.  This is the night when Jesus stands at the edge of his own grave.  It’s Thursday night. Tomorrow is Friday. The day of his crucifixion.  So when Jesus says, “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” we know that this word of assurance comes from someone who is not unfamiliar with the most difficult parts of our journey. 

Now, because we most often encounter the words of the 14th chapter of John as words of comfort, we are able to avoid the theological quagmire that is present in other places in these verses.  Like when Jesus says that those who believe in him will do even greater works than he has done.  I mean, just a little earlier Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. He was in the tomb three days and Jesus gave him back his life.  Before that, Jesus had fed five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish. Before that, he had turned 180 gallons of water into the best wine imaginable.  Now I believe the church does a lot of good in this world and that’s what we are called to do, but what does it mean that we will be doing greater works than Jesus?  His works are pretty high up on the ladder in my mind.  Are we supposed to be miracle workers in the same way Jesus was or do we redefine what his words actually meant?

Then there are those last couple of verses that can cause a lot of trouble. “I will do whatever you ask in my name, . . .  If in my name you ask me for anything, I will do it.” Listen friends, in our westernized version of Christianity, with our consumerized culture and our service-oriented mentality, there may be no more problematic words than these. There is a brand of Christianity out there, you can find it without much problem, one that has turned Jesus into a divine maître de.  Just standing ready to do what whatever you ask.  Name it and claim it. Claim it in his name, of course, and unless your faith is weak, it will happen.  You come across that brand of Christianity and it won’t be too long before you hear these words from this chapter of John, “I will do whatever you ask in my name.”   There are some sticky situations in this 14th chapter of John that are often glazed over because of how we most often hear the words from this chapter.

Then there are those words that occur earlier. Words that are closer in proximity to the words of comfort. Thomas asked Jesus, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?’  Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one comes to the Father except through me.”  It is the last words – “No one comes to the Father except through me” that create a matter that we have to deal with – thoughtfully, honestly and in a straightforward manner.  Because in our increasingly small and pluralistic world these words can seem embarrassingly exclusionary and narrow minded. 

Back in my first congregation in Dublin, Georgia – a town in which on St. Patrick's Day the local country club sponsored a “Green Grits Breakfast” (all the food was dyed green, not just the grits – the eggs, the ham, the pancakes, everything was green – even the orange juice was green); well, back in Dublin we welcomed a family into our congregation, the St. John’s, who came to us because they had heard someone in the church they had been attending say, “Isn’t it a shame that in this community of 25,000 people there are only ninety of us who are Christians.” Meaning, of course, the ninety people who were members of that particular church, who had their particular practices, traditions, and understandings.  Those ninety were somehow the sole possessors of a pure and unadulterated Christian faith.  That is quite a bombastic and arrogant claim isn’t it? One that pretty much thumbs its nose at those of us who claim to be Christians but understand things in a different way. The St. John’s did not want to be part of that type of church and I don’t either.   

I do wonder, however, if the way we often use these words of Jesus about being the only way to the Father often comes across to others outside of the church with that same sense of bombastic arrogance – “We’ve got the truth and you don’t!”   We have to ask, were these words originally intended to be a polemic against others?  Because too often that’s the way they are used.  I’ve encountered it numerous time.  I have seen some of my colleagues paralyzed by these words.  They set in an interview with an ordination council or a church search committee and somebody who wants to defend the faith and make certain that the new minister is doctrinally orthodox, asks “Do you believe that Jesus is the only way to heaven?”  A question which when asked that way means this beautiful Christian faith has been reduced to a prize we get at the end IF we get our ticket punched properly. 

In the New Interpreter’s Bible we find this commentary about these words of Jesus:

We have turned them into a weapon with which to bludgeon one’s opponents into theological submission.  A litmus taste for the Christian faith in a myriad of conversations and debates within the church.  Church triumphalism, proof positive that Christians have a corner on God, and everybody else is completely and utterly lost. (Vol. 9, p. 743).

Now let me ask, in the midst of these beautiful words of comfort and hope that have brought such peace and assurance to countless people through the centuries, does Jesus then turn on a dime and offer a word of eternal damnation on people who aren’t part of the church as we come to know the church.   Is that what this is? Because I’m afraid that is often what we have made it.

A few things to say about this.  First, don’t ever forget when these words are spoken.  In John it is known as the “Farewell Discourse.”  In all of John 14, 15, 16, and 17, Jesus is speaking to the disciples or praying in their midst.  Then with chapter 18 comes the betrayal and arrest.  These are some of Jesus’ last words before his passion.  Some of his last words before the betrayal, the denial, the beating, the mocking, the desertion, his crucifixion and his death.  He is emphasizing to his disciples that this path he is on, a path in which he does not respond with vengeance to the evil he encounters, a path of self-sacrificing love, a difficult path of grace and forgiveness, that this path is indeed the path to God.  That this journey is the way.  This journey is truth.  This journey even through death is where true freedom and life is to be found.

The words Jesus says here about being the way, the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through him, spoken on this night before his crucifixion, are John’s version of what we find in the other gospels when Jesus says to his disciples, “The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands and undergo great suffering and be killed.”  And the scriptures read that the disciples did not understand what he was saying.

Jesus is trying to tell his disciples that in all that is about to happen to him, God is present with him and in him.  These words spoken on that night before his death we’re not spoken by Jesus to give the church through the centuries a line in the sand to determine who is in and who is out. They are words that are to help the disciples understand that in all he was about to experience and they were about to witness – God was not absent.  God was present in the very midst of it all, consuming into the divine heart all the betrayal and cruelty and evil that could be thrown at it and yet continuing to love.  These words are ultimately about the character of the God we claim to believe in and is present with us in Jesus.  And shame on the church, shame on us when we have turned these words of our Lord Jesus, who loves this world and gave his life for this world, shame on us when we have used them to bludgeon others.

We should also remember that Jesus says he is the way, the truth, and the life – not the doctrines of the church.  The theologian Paul Tillich in his sermon “The Truth Will Make You Free” writes it this way:

The church, very early forgot the word of our gospel that he is the truth, and claimed that our doctrines about him are the truth.  But these doctrines, however necessary and good they are, proved not to be the truth that liberates.  Soon they became tools of suppression, of servitude under authorities; they became the means by which to prevent the honest search for truth – weapons to split the souls of people between loyalty to the church and sincerity to the truth. (“Twenty Centuries of Great Preaching” Vol. 10, p. 71)

I remember a few years back meeting with a group of pastors who started getting together because we were concerned about some things happening in the larger church.  I think some of our concerns were legitimate and we met over a course of a few months.  I remember how uncomfortable I got, however, when one of the pastors said, “You know it may not be enough any longer in Disciples churches for people simply to express faith in Christ.  We need to know what they mean by that.  We need to have it clearly defined exactly what folks believe. We need ourselves to line up with the historic orthodox beliefs of the church.”  He said that as if there is one completely pure, unadulterated faith that is out there for us to get in line with.  That statement by that pastor made me so uncomfortable that I quit attending the group.  I knew if that pastor started drawing lines about who was in and who was out based on how they explained their beliefs, he was very likely to draw the line in a way that would not include me. 

Presbyterian Minister and author Fredrick Buechner, writes this about these words of Jesus in John:

Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth and the life; no one comes to the Father but by me.” He didn’t say that any particular ethic, doctrine or religion was the way, the truth and the life.  He said that he was.  He didn’t say that is was believing or doing anything in particular that you could “come to the Father.” He said that it was only by him – by living, participating in, being caught up by, the way of life he embodied, that was his way. (“Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC”, p.14) 

I believe Jesus is the fullest revelation of God the world has even known and I believe that we experience the Sacred and Holy by participating in the life of Jesus – his teachings, his healings, his feeding of others, his life, his death and his resurrection.  That belief is not intended to be a polemic that sets Christians apart from others. If anything, participating in the life of Jesus should help us to be people whose arms are open as wide in love as his are.  Amen

    

On Being a Disciple/disciple Today

By Mark Poindexter

The 4,034 people who attended the recent General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, Florida composed a group that was more than 60% smaller than the 10,492 that attended the first General Assembly in 1968.  It was less than half the size of the first assembly after I was ordained, the 1991 Assembly in Oklahoma City which had 8,774 registrants.  The attendance at the General Assembly reflects the decline that has happened within the life of the Disciples of Christ and the majority of our congregations over the past several decades.

In the Indian region, where I have been in ministry for the past 22 years, our regional staff has been reduced during this time from a Regional Minister and four full- time associates along with several full-time support staff to one full-time Regional Minister, several part time ministry partners and three part time support staff with the regional office being closed on Fridays.  And honestly, with 13 congregations leaving the denomination since Indiana’s most recent regional assembly where the decisions to remove the language that prohibited folks who are gay and lesbian from being ordained, more cuts to staff are very possible.  Another place where the reality of the decline has been experienced in Indiana is in the camping program which over the past 20 years has seen a decline of about 50% in the number participating in this program.  That decline, of course, involves the loss of financial resources which are used for the maintenance of the camping facilities.  And some of our facilities are in need of great repair.

The reality of this situation has been with us for quite some time.  It has been part of the landscape of doing ministry the entire time I have been involved in congregational leadership.  When I first started as a full-time pastor back in 1989, there was a lot finger pointing and blaming going on about the decline.  Some claimed it was because we were too liberal.  Others claimed it was the price we paid for being a church that tried to speak and act prophetically.  Some pointed to the fact that we tried to create a structure for our denomination just like other denominations, instead of being true to our roots of local congregational autonomy.  The Church Growth movement became big in some circles of clergy and a lot of us became immersed in the culture of church marketing.  I did my fair share of finger-pointing and blaming – for which I am deeply sorry.  I also worried a lot about what I needed to do to help stop this decline and “get the church headed in the right direction.” 

Well, I have come to understand that the numerical decline of our denomination and much of the church in America is a much more complex matter than I originally thought.  Though the matter of our faithfulness or unfaithfulness may well be a part of the decline, so are societal factors such as the American consumeristic mentality.  Thus, our devotion to “church marketing.”  

I don’t intend to list all the reasons that I think this decline has happened.  For this piece it is simply enough to say, I have come to the realization that the decline has many causes that are complex and multi-layered.  

What I want to say here is that I no longer worry about the decline.  And I no longer look for someone, or some attitude, to blame. The truth is, I see this time in the history of the church (and since I am writing as a Disciple – the Disciple Church) as an opportunity, even a gift to us, for us to do some deep reflection about what it means to be the church today.  Maybe this gift has even come to us from God.

Over the past couple of decades of my congregational leadership, I have seen myself move toward a simpler, but I believe a more authentic expression of Christian faith.  It is not rooted in creed or doctrine, or Designs or Preambles either.  It is rooted simply in Jesus – his life and the life he calls us to.  I no longer find myself looking for programs or strategies about how to turn things around.  Studies about target audiences or demographics don’t get a whole lot of my time.  My time instead is given to trying to understand the life of Jesus the best that I can – the fullness of it, his teachings, his death, his resurrection, his living presence throughout history, his impact on the structures of the world.  And then to live as fully as possible the life he calls me too – a life of unconditional love, grace and forgiveness; a life which cares for all but especially the people on the fringes of society; a life which is willing to speak truth to the powers of the world.  This simpler, but for me much more authentic way of understanding our faith, has played a very important role in my congregational leading.  At the church I presently serve our vision statement is “To be a church that thoughtfully and faithfully follows Jesus.”  It has been a blessing to hear that phrase used in elder’s prayers at the Table, in Moments for Mission during worship, in Sunday School discussions, and in the conversations that we are presently having about how to the church in this day and time.  

I believe the life of Jesus and the life he calls should be the central focus of the church in this time.  Communities of faith in which we center our life together in  love for God and all whom God loves, which includes neighbor, stranger and enemy, is our most important, and to me only authentic, evangelistic tool.  

So the decline for me, though it has been painful in many ways and has brought consequences that have to be dealt with, has also been a gift.  It has brought me closer to Jesus and for that I can be nothing but grateful.  None of us can know what the future holds in regard to the denominational life of the Disciples of Christ – but the present journey of being a Disciple has resulted in me focusing more on being a disciple, a follower of Jesus.  Maybe that’s what (who) we should have always been focused on.

                       

 

Fully Human Jesus

By Rev. Mindi

On Palm Sunday, I went to the last show of a six-week musical run at our local little theater.  I went to the last show of Jesus Christ Superstar.   I really wish I hadn’t gone to the last show only so that I could urge others to go see this fantastic production, but the last show was incredible. Amazing. The band rocked, the voices were incredible, and many numbers received applause afterwards or reverent silence.

Did I mention that it was an all-female cast?

I have seen passion plays and other productions of Jesus Christ Superstar that were good, but this is the only production that has ever left me with tears in my eyes, unable to speak.

Just as in Shakespearean days with the actors being all men playing both parts, so in this production, the actors were all female and played all roles. They didn’t change the words of the songs. They still referred to each other as “he,” referred to Jesus and Judas as that “man,” but they told this old story in a new way, even new from the original production.

As I watched this Jesus, beaten, stripped, covered with blood, raised up on a cross writhing in pain and crying out, I saw Jesus. Maybe at first it was the just-below-shoulder-length brown hair, the way this Jesus looked at others, or the crown of thorns, but for a moment, I forgot that this Jesus was a woman.  At first I thought this was powerful: an image of Jesus that transcended (trans-cended) gender.  But then, as this Jesus became a victim of violence, I saw

the woman who was raped in Steubenville

Malala Yousufzai, shot by the Taliban in Pakistan

Mollie Olgin, killed and her partner Mary Chapa injured last summer in Texas

and countless others, named and nameless women raped, injured and killed every day in our culture of violence, specifically the culture of violence against women. 

This Jesus was no longer gender-less, but fully human, male and female.

The suffering of this Jesus was raw, emotional, and right in front of us. Not a story we could skip the page, not a name we could forget, not a newscast we could pass over.  This was Jesus, in front of us, bearing the wounds and scars that go forgotten by so many.  This Jesus that first impressed me by being portrayed in line with traditional renditions, then surprised me by seeming to go beyond gender, lastly brought me to tears because this Jesus was a woman.

This Jesus showed the horror of violence, but specifically because Jesus was being played by a woman, and the actress was phenomenal in her keeping to the role as traditionally played while showing her genuine, raw emotion—no one could ignore the fact that this production seriously calls into question our glorification of violence in our culture, and specifically, our culture that encourages violence against women. 

As we near the Cross of Good Friday, and the empty tomb of Sunday, I know I will visualize the story differently, and I hope as a pastor, I will tell the story differently. No more will I see the women on the sideline until the resurrection.  No more will I only see a crucified man up on the cross. I see Jesus, beyond and inclusive of gender, taking up the fullness of humanity in life and in death, overcoming our violence that leads to destruction and death in the resurrection.  In Jesus, I have hope that we will end our violence, both the spoken and unspoken, both violence against men and women, young and old, violence against gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender—violence against all people. Jesus came in the fullness of human life. All too often, we tell the story of Jesus as God becoming a man, instead of the Word becoming Flesh, God entering our humanity. We must tell the full story of Jesus, and to do so, we must acknowledge the fullness of humanity that has suffered, the same suffering that Jesus went through, in Jesus’ death on the cross.