9.18.2013

"Unaffiliated"

In the last few years, I've made a conscious and active attempt to stop using ideological labels (conservative, liberal, etc.), especially for myself. You can probably find them in my earlier writing, and you may have heard me do it. I confess my past guilt on this front. But today, I avoid assigning an ideological label to any person, organization, or resource, including myself. Or, even if I do assign a label, I try to engage their content instead of using an ad hominem attack. And today I take much pride in a word that appears on my voter registration card: "unaffiliated."1

Others can put me where they want me, and I can't control that. But for me, being "unaffiliated" and label-less has become a vital aspect of my writing as well as my pastoral ministry, for three main reasons.

1) Labeling myself invites you to ignore what I say. If I start writing or get up to speak and begin by telling you that I'm about to give you the conservative/moderate/liberal viewpoint on something, I have just told you to ignore me. If you share my label, you'll be happy and satisfied before you even hear what I say, and you'll only pay attention to stuff that supports your view. If you don't share my label, the hair on the back of your neck will stand up and you'll be suspicious of me before hearing me, and you'll only pay attention to the stuff you disagree with. But if I don't use a label, you might have to listen to what I say, consider my supporting evidence, and make a merit-based judgment. And I as the speaker/writer have to make sure I've done my homework. On occasion, I've been called out because I did not examine all the relevant facts, and I appreciate that, but it makes me a better researcher. This is harder than just rallying your base. It is easier and safer to play to one's "itching ears" (2 Timothy 4:3), something corporate media and politicians are very good at.

Of course, the not listening stuff happens anyway, whether I like it or not. Recently, when a gentleman in my congregation came up to me to express disagreement with a sermon, he prefaced his remarks by saying, "Clearly, you're a _______" (insert supposed political party affiliation). After informing him that I have no political party affiliation, I listened respectfully to his critique. What he revealed is all too common and something I've gotten used to: he had heard me say a bunch of things I didn't say. I used a word or phrase that apparently tipped him off to which camp I belonged to and he didn't really listen to anything I said after that. This is where labels have gotten us. So though I can't control others' thought processes, I'm not going to contribute to the problem by using labels for myself.

2) Refusing loyalty to a group or ideology encourages critical thinking. Outside familial relationships or close friendships, the value of unconditional loyalty is questionable. Tying ourselves to a particular ideological brand or political party is like getting a tattoo of a love interest. What if the relationship goes sour? Anyone who knows something about political or religious history can attest to how drastically things can change...and have changed. It seems more prudent to weigh facts and circumstances in each situation...and each election. Comedian Chris Rock once made it clear what he thinks of ideological loyalty: "Anyone who makes up they [sic] mind before they hear the issue is a damn fool." I'm particularly puzzled by the ways in which I've seen loyalty make people forego ethical distinctions that they would make in any other area of life. For example, take the United States' uncritical support of and loyalty to Israel. I watched in May of 2011 as members of Congress on both sides of the aisle stood and applauded Israeli president Benjamin Netanyahu as he made statements that directly contradicted previous statements and broke previously made promises...which Congress had also applauded at the time. Hello?! I've got a better idea. Let's try to get a little closer to what God did in the Old Testament: support Israel when they behave well, and oppose them when they behave badly. That's how fair minded people operate. Even if Israel is a "friend" of the U.S., every solid friendship involves accountability, not just "multiplying kisses" (Proverbs 27:6). Our society is so polarized into camps based on loyalty that people who see nuance and try to look at all the issues are often ideological misfits. One of the best examples for me is the abortion debate. I see many problems with both of the major "camps" and once wrote an "open letter" to them.

3) Refusing other labels leaves room for the only one that truly matters. I am a follower of Jesus Christ and a citizen of the Kingdom of God. All other labels fall subordinate to that identity. "But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well" (Matt 6:33). I am shocked by how often we Christians go along with the policies and positions of a political party while giving scant consideration to what our faith speaks to the issue. Do we have different interpretations of scripture and things we choose to emphasize over others? Of course. There is no such thing as an objective view. But people of faith must at least start the conversation there. When a political issue or policy decision has no clear right and wrong (which is often), we at least need to be mindful that we are choosing between the lesser of evils out of necessity, and that what is "American" is not necessarily "Christian."
  • "It costs too much money," while potentially true, is not a biblical2 reason for opposing something (Matt 6:24).
  • "This person is not here legally," while potentially true, is not a biblical reason to treat someone as if they don't matter (Ex 22:21; 23:9).
  • "This person is poor and needs help," while potentially true, falls short of the biblical distinction between the poor who are oppressed and the poor who have "idle hands" (Proverbs 6:6-11; Ecclesiastes 10:18).
As I carefully analyze the facts and circumstances of each situation, being aware of my own interpretive lenses, my stance may very well fall in line with or come out opposed to that of a particular leader or party. But the important part is that I start with the question, "What action is more faithful to the Kingdom of God?" Or, if you like, we can use the very important and poignant question that was unfortunately made into a fad: "What would Jesus do?"

That is the platform from which I speak. From there, if you need your labels, put me where you want me.


1 Not to be confused with the recently formed organization called Unaffiliated Party. 
2 For insight into what I mean when I say "biblical," see my previous post: Being Biblical: Principle or Precedent?

9.11.2013

What Is It We're "Never Forgetting"?

"Never forget," we say on this day.

Sometimes it includes the words "never forgive." When I see that part posted by Christians, it makes me wonder if we think Jesus' teachings only apply when someone cuts you off in traffic or steals your lunch from the break room fridge. "For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins." (Matt 6:14-15)

Perhaps we misunderstand what forgiveness is. Forgiveness is not saying, "What you did is OK." Forgiveness, as the late Ann Landers suggested, is refusing to let someone live in your head rent free.

But let's get back to the "never forget" part. What is it we're not supposed to forget? It can't be that people are afraid we're going to forget it ever happened, because we are reminded of it every time our politicians use it as a reason to restrict liberty in the name of security or go do something in a Middle Eastern country. It seems to me that the terrorists have occupied quite a bit of rent-free head space in the American psyche.

So what's the meaning behind "never forget"?

If "never forget" means that we should remember and repeat the bravery, comradery, and service to our neighbor that the tragedy spawned, and honor the self-sacrifice of emergency responders, then I'm on board. If "never forget" means that we should reverently remember those who lost their lives and the pain and grief felt by the family members, then I'm on board. That day represented a horrifying loss of life that shook our nation to its core. There should be no dismissal of the raw emotional pain we suffered. If "never forget" means that we should remember how that day reminded us of life's brevity and the way in which it brought us to our knees in prayer, then I'm on board.

But if "never forget" means that we should annually rekindle our anger and thirst for revenge, I'm not on board. If "never forget" is some sort of veiled threat that we can be counted on to meet violence with violence, I'm not on board (Rom 12:17; 1 Peter 3:9). If "never forget" is a rally cry to bring us into the streets waving our flag, denouncing our enemies and caring only for our own, then I'm not on board and don't really see how that distinguishes us from others we condemn.

We say we "never forget," but there's actually quite a bit we've forgotten about 9/11 and the circumstances surrounding it.
  • Most have forgotten that then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld announced on September 10--the day before--that the Pentagon could not account for $2.3 trillion in transactions. That's a lot of money. Like, 12% of the national debt. Where is the outrage from the penny-pinchers on this one?
  • Most have forgotten that 15 of the 19 identified hijackers were from Saudi Arabia. None were from Iraq or Afghanistan. 
  • Many have forgotten, judging by the ongoing hatred and suspicion of Muslims, that all prominent Muslim groups in the U.S. condemned the 9/11 attacks as well as other terrorist acts. One website documents when and how the groups announced their condemnation, and it uses the same "never forget" graphic near the top of the page. Close to 3 million Muslims call America home and love it as much as all its other citizens.
I have a feeling we wouldn't take too kindly if we were on the other side of the "never forget" rhetoric. Something tells me we wouldn't be as understanding if we heard "never forget" from an innocent Yemenese family who lost loved ones in one of our drone strikes. Something tells me we wouldn't want to hear it from Iraqi victims of U.S. chemical weapons. Something tells me we wouldn't want to hear it from the people of Chile after we backed a coup there 40 years ago that brought to power a military government that killed 3,000 people and imprisoned 27,000. Oh, how we have turned a blind eye to our own sins.

Here's what I hope we don't forget. I hope we don't forget that there is more to being on the side of truth and right than striking back harder. I hope we don't forget the words from Proverbs: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the Lord will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them." (Prov 24:17-18).

Let us not say "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9) while using rhetoric that divides and angers. Let us not say "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21) and continue to repay evil with evil.  Let us not say that God loves the world (John 3:16) and wants all to be saved (Ezek 18:23) while wishing for and taking pleasure in the destruction of our enemies.

Some hear such words as weak, mushy nonsense that is a call for us to sit back and take a beating. Not at all. It would be irresponsible not to defend ourselves. But if you think the best way to defeat evil is to strike back harder and faster, you have not understood the gospel.

9.04.2013

Guest Post: The "You" in Prayer

This guest post comes from Rev. Dr. Joe Kutter, a retired American Baptist pastor who served 5 congregations over the course of 39 years. He's the author of Praying for Ministers, a collection of prayers he wrote and sent to colleagues in ministry during his time as Executive Director of the American Baptist Ministers Council. The following was originally written as part of a sermon series called "Pronouns of Prayer."

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I was in the hospital following surgery on my neck. Effective pain killers meant that I was feeling no pain nor was I feeling much of anything else. I was not eager for visitors. Floyd walked through the door and up to my bed looking like the retired Army Colonel that he was. We exchanged greetings and then he announced, “Pastor, you prayed for me and I am here to pray for you.” He studied me for a brief moment and then put his hand on my arm and he prayed. And then he left. The entire encounter took less than five minutes. Brevity at that time in my hospital stay was a very good thing and he was brief.

So what happened in those brief hospital moments? He demonstrated his care. He showed his sensitivity and good sense about the realities of being a hospital patient. He prayed for me.

And what happened in that prayer? Allow me to confess that there are lots things about prayer that I do not understand, so this represents my best reflection on an experience that is really too big and complex and mysterious for me to understand.

What I do know is this. In that moment, Floyd became a present reminder of the love and grace of God. To be honest, I hadn’t thought much about God during that stay. I was too drugged up and too uncomfortable to think about much of anything. Well, I did spend a fair amount of time wondering if they would ever take the tubes out of my body or just how open my robe was when the nurses or visitors walked in. Hospital thoughts tend to be very very basic.

But Floyd reminded me of the larger context. Floyd’s presence reminded me that God had promised to be with me and that God’s promises are good. If you like sacramental language, Floyd became a means of grace. He asked God to make me well. I would love to report that I pulled out the tubes and jumped out of bed and immediately returned to work full of energy and enthusiasm. But the truth is that I went back to sleep and getting well took weeks if not months. 

Now, here is the part that I do not understand. I do not know what went on in God’s mind as God listened to Floyd’s prayer. Did God need to be reminded that I was a patient in the hospital and in need of some help? That doesn’t seem right to me. Or did God hold back on the healing until somebody like Floyd prayed and asked for my healing? That doesn’t sound like the God who was represented in Jesus to me.

Here is my confession. I do not understand or pretend to understand the physics or metaphysics of prayer. I cannot explain the dynamics of what happens in God’s mind when we pray. So I am left with these observations.

The scriptures are full of prayers in which people ask for help for themselves and others. Jesus prayed. The church has two thousand years of experience with prayer. Praying is an integral part of our relationship with God and one another. It was William Temple, the Arch-Bishop of Canterbury , who wrestled with the mysteries of prayer and finally offered this simple observation. “When I pray, coincidences happen.” When we pray, things happen and those happenings are rooted in our relationships with one another and God.

The writer of the little New Testament book of James has some powerful words to say to this. "Is anyone among you sick? Let them call the elders of the church to pray over them and anoint them with oil in the name of the Lord and the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise them up. If they have sinned, they will be forgiven." (James 5:14-15). James is clear. He believes that when the seasoned saints of the church pray together, things happen. Healing happens. Sins are forgiven.

Now these words from 1 Peter 2:5:  "You also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God though Jesus Christ." This is not quite 21st century language! What does it mean?

Let’s break it down. "You." Who is the "you” to whom he is writing? It is the church, the “body of baptized believers.” The "you” is the group of people who have accepted Jesus’ invitation to follow him in the life and way of God. 'Like living stones, you are being built into a spiritual house.' It’s a metaphor, a picture. We are being led by God into a relationship with God and with one another that is of such a quality that God lives within the midst of our fellowship with one another.

Do you remember the old hand game about the church? “Here is the church and here is the steeple. Open the doors and here are the people!” Peter might have put it differently. “Here is the church and made up of the people. Open the doors, and here is God!"

Let me say it again. If we relate to one another as disciples of Jesus, if we love one another and together we love God, then like stones being brought together to build a building, we will form the place where God lives. We will be a spiritual house. We will be a house of the Spirit. We will be a temple. The temple is where God lives.

Now Peter changes the metaphor. Now he refers, to the disciples, to the church, and to us as a royal priesthood that offers spiritual sacrifice. Each of us is a priest and together we form a royal priesthood. You are a priest and I am a priest and together we are a priesthood. So what does a priest do? In the ancient temple, the priest was the one who made the sacrifice to God. For animal lovers among us, this may be a bit tough to take, but this is how it worked. If John wanted to be forgiven of his sins then he would buy an animal and take it to the priest and then the priest would kill the animal and sacrifice it as a gift to God. In effect, the priest said to God, “Here is John. He is a sinner. He has brought you a gift and he asks for forgiveness. And in response to the gift, the sacrifice, the priest would say, “John, God forgives you." The priest is the one who has the privilege and responsibility of approaching God. The priest is the one who bridges the gap between God and God’s people.

We Baptists have joined with most Protestants in affirming a phrase derived from Martin Luther's theology: “The Priesthood of Believers.” We believe that every disciple of Jesus is one who is invited by God to bridge the gap between God and God’s people. For a lot of people, the phrase "priesthood of believers” meant, "I don’t need any priest or pastor to pray for me. I can pray for myself and I don’t need anybody else.” This is only partially true. Each of us has been invited to go to God individually and personally and while we are intentionally standing in God’s presence, we can indeed ask God for forgiveness or ask God for wisdom or even ask God for a parking place in a busy mall. As for the part about not needing anybody else, that's a load of narcissistic and self-centered nonsense (but other than that, it's fine)! This line of thought is found nowhere in the Bible. Never has the priesthood been about “You and me, Jesus, just you and me." The primary role of the priest is always to pray in behalf of somebody else.

Let me refer you to something that you see every Sunday. At some point in the Sunday morning service, your pastor will offer a prayer. It may be called the Morning Prayer or the Pastoral Prayer or the Prayers of the Pastor and People. Whatever it is called, your pastor is praying for you. In that moment of corporate worship, your pastor is the voice of this church as together you speak to God. It is as if your pastor is standing in your midst and saying, “God, here we are." But, your pastor is not finished when the prayer is offered. In another part of the service, your pastor will read scripture to you. And then, with that holy reading firmly in mind, the pastor will preach. Your pastor is saying to you, “As you hear me, listen for the truth and wisdom and love of God for you." In so doing, he or she is being the priest.

Do you see how it works? The priest is the one who represents the neighbor to God and God to the neighbor. I am not saying that the pastor is the priest and you are not. I am saying that in this process, the pastor is illustrating what it means for all of us to be priests.

When Floyd visited me in that hospital room, he became a priest to me. He spoke my need to God and he was God’s reminder of grace to me. For a moment, he stood in the gap between God and me.

Now, I can sense it, somebody is nervous. “I’m not about to preach any sermons to my neighbors.” If that's what you're thinking, my response would be, “Good. You would probably alienate your neighbor rather than helping him or her to find the presence of God.” Most of the time, we represent God by doing as Jesus instructed; by deeds of compassion and kindness that the neighbor is most likely to experience as the presence of God.

But remember, to pray for your neighbor, you must pay attention to your neighbor. You cannot love your neighbor while ignoring your neighbor or without knowing your neighbor. Prayer for the neighbor always involves listening, as best one can, to the neighbor. The priest not only speaks for God, the priest is the one who stands in for God and listens as God would listen. And, if it is within your capacity, you represent God in responding as God would respond, with love and forgiveness.

Do you remember Michelangelo’s image of God and Adam in the Sistine Chapel? God is in heaven reaching down towards Adam and Adam is reaching up towards God but their fingers never quite connect. There’s a gap, a separation that will never be quite overcome. The priest is the one who lives in the gap! Jesus is there, our high priest, bridging the gap between God and us (Hebrews 4:14). And, from time to time, as followers of Jesus, we venture into that space ourselves and offer to connect our neighbors to God. We do the kind deed or we say the word or we offer the prayer that may remind them of the grace and goodness of God. And we say to God, though God already knows, "Please take care of my neighbor. . . and help me to do my part."


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Guest posts are for the purpose of sparking discussion and hearing from diverse viewpoints on topics that interest me, and do not necessarily reflect my own views.