Category Archives: incarnation

Christians Have an LGBT Dinner Party Problem

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Who are the “notorious sinners” today? (Brennan Manning and his friends don’t count, by the way.)

In the time of Jesus, one group of “notorious sinners” would have been the tax collectors (Matthew 9:9-13). It’s kind of hard to relate how much people hated them. We don’t love the IRS in America, but calling them “notorious sinners”? Goes a bit far, right?

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Well, a tax collector wasn’t just taking money from the Jewish people in order to build them roads and schools. Their tax money was being collected for oppressive Roman rulers and puppet governors. Their money financed palaces and ports that primarily benefitted the most wealthy. As if their betrayal of their nation wasn’t bad enough, they were often skimming a little extra for themselves. The tax collectors represented exploitation and oppression. They were the daily reminder to the Jewish people of their captivity in their own land.

To make matters more sinspirational, it’s likely that most tax collectors weren’t “Law abiding” Jews. They may well have kept company with sexually immoral characters—the exact kinds of people an observant Jew would want to avoid. They represented a blight on the land of Israel, a shameful pocket of sin that could prevent God from blessing them.

They were ostracized from religious gatherings in every way possible, not that they would be all that eager to hang out with people who hated them and blamed them for potentially incurring the wrath of God on their nation. If there was one thing a God-fearing, law abiding rabbi knew at the time of Christ, it’s this simple practice: AVOID NOROTIOUS SINNERS… especially tax collectors.

Jesus didn’t.

In fact, Jesus did such a terrible job of avoiding “notorious sinners,” that he squeezed a dinner party invitation out of them.

By the time Jesus settled down for a meal with the tax collectors and other sinners, the religious authorities of the day were livid. How could a heaven-sent Messiah spend time with the very same people who were drawing the wrath of God down on their nation?

We’ve come a long way since then. Haven’t we?

Who are the notorious sinners today?

If you ask most Christians, we often jump right to sexual sins. Sure greed, fraud, and gluttony are bad, but if you want to rise to the status of “notorious sinner,” sex is the surefire way to go. If you ask most Christians in America, they will most likely say…

Sex outside of marriage is bad.

Sex outside of marriage while married to someone else is super bad.

Sex with someone of the same gender is extra, super, terribly bad—notoriously bad.

And whether or not one considers same sex relationships super sinful or not (I’m not trying to attach labels or argue), we can all agree that conservative Christians would label LGBT individuals as “notorious sinners” or plain old “sinners”? (depending on your translation). In fact, some view LGBT folks as so notoriously sinful that they can’t bear to bake them cakes, host their weddings, or take their pictures.

The more “notorious” the sin, the greater the need to share a meal together.

Sorry. It’s in the Bible. It’s filed under “Love your neighbor.”

And it’s not just a matter of having “notorious sinners” over for dinner in order to brow beat them.

The “sinners” in Matthew 9 invited Jesus over. They were having a great time with him. It was going so well that the Pharisees fumed about it. In fact, his acceptance of these sinners was one of the main reasons why they “unfollowed” Jesus.

There are things Jesus asks us to do that are really tough.

Visiting prison inmates can be time-consuming. All of the volunteer training and travel took a bite out of my schedule. It was also hard to know how much I could trust certain guys who struck me as pretty smooth talkers.

Providing shelter for the homeless is really expensive and also time-consuming. It requires a real investment in people. One of my former churches tried to help people find shelter, and it was extremely difficult to find a housing solution for people in dire financial straights.

Visiting the sick can be difficult if you have panic attacks in a hospital like me, and it’s hard to be reminded that you too will one day most likely suffer from a life-ending illness and pass away slowly into eternity. It’s kind of a downer really.

Out of all of the things that Jesus asks us to do, this is the low hanging fruit of Christian living.

Step one, find people who are ostracized by the religious establishment as “notorious sinners.”

Step two, hang out as equals.

Step three, share a meal.

I don’t know who has been labeled a “notorious sinner” in your community, but whether folks are LGBT or they’re Christians discriminate against people based on sexual orientation, it’s time to have more dinner parties.

It’s an example from Jesus that is so simple and obvious, it’s possible that we just may overlook it.

 

For more about this topic, see…

Zack Hunt

Rachel Held Evans

Preston Yancey

The Relationship Between Sin Prevention and Hating Survivors of Abuse

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I first learned about my youth group’s “hands off” policy when a leader ripped my girlfriend’s arm off my shoulder. We were just standing around in a circle having a conversation, she put her around me in a very casual way, and then the leader struck.

“Hands off!”

That event in and of itself wasn’t a big deal. It was more of an eye-opener that I’d entered a different world where men were expected to open doors for women, boys were supposed to “court” a girl only when they were prepared to marry her, physical contact could lead to “something else,” and all dating decisions were filtered through the girl’s father.

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As a guy I had it pretty easy, really. I just had to keep my hands to myself. OK, maybe as a teen that required a bit more will power, but compared to the girls, I didn’t have to worry about the cut of a shirt, the fit of a bathing suit, or the length of a skirt. Young women were under watchful eyes to ensure that they didn’t “lead on” guys. Some eyes were more watchful than others.

I have since learned that such “sin prevention systems” can cut us off from those who aren’t quite as fortunate, killing our empathy for others, and even leading to hatred of those who endure abuse.

***

I knew during my youth group days that some people in my church listened to the teachings of Bill Gothard, but it wasn’t until this year that I finally learned what exactly he teaches about dating and relationships—basically, hands off to the extreme. While most people in my church were on the looser end of Gothard’s influence, I can see the ways his strict rules about courtship and relationships filtered into the “biblical” way that I tried to pursue relationships.

O hai, Joshua Harris and your book about kissing without dating or whatever it was about…

In addition, I’ve seen how Gothard’s teachings and other variations of Christian legalism impacted the ways young women dressed and viewed their bodies. I remember how I used to have such disdain for young women who dressed immodestly. It was real disdain, like, “How could you do that to me?”

I saw girls worry endlessly about the ways they could make boys stumble.

In our dating relationships we were so worried about “slipping” or “stumbling” if we made the one bad decision that would lead down a slippery slope toward some kind of sexual contact.

If I faltered in just one way, everything could come crashing down.

Looking at the friends I still know on Facebook from my youth group days, they all turned out pretty great. Some even got married to each other. They have happy marriages and support each other. Based on the people I know, I haven’t seen much fall out from Gothard or groups who teach similar rules.

However, recent reports surfacing about Bill Gothard’s ministry from the Recovering Grace website and an article about Partick Henry College have amply revealed the dark side of legalism and the culture created by sin prevention systems. While we can point to the people like me who turned out just fine and left that kind of thinking behind, we need to consider the culture that legalism creates and the ways it can harm and oppress.

***

Bill Gothard has never married. That’s kind of odd for a guy who has buckets of advice on dating and courtship. I’d like to know if he’s ever taken his ideas for a test drive.

In fact, while Gothard’s teachings have focused on restraint and purity, his personal and professional lives have been anything but.

The man played some wild games of footsies after convincing his teenage entourage in a van to take their shoes off to get more comfortable during road trips.

AWKWARD.

He had a habit of touching young women on the back as they walked by.

He met with young women in his hotel room late and night and regularly initiated physical contact.

One young woman who came from a sexually abusive family was even preyed upon by Gothard, who regularly sexually assaulted her over her clothing before reaching under her clothes on one occasion.

While the young women at my youth group worried about presenting themselves properly and keeping themselves pure according to Gothard’s standards, he was traveling the country with a team of young women whom he sometimes touched inappropriately.

Nice job Bill.

While families kept themselves pure by avoiding rock music with drums and women made sure their clothing was baggy enough, he was buying bras for a young woman that she could wear to make her more sexually appealing when he wanted to grope her.

The board at Gothard’s ministry knew that something wasn’t right, but they just removed the young women from Gothard’s clutches when things got too hot, protecting their leader at all costs.

Lost in all of this was the dignity of the young women, any sense of justice, or a life-giving spirituality that could counteract the rampant legalism Gothard taught. While he created an empire around character, restraint, and rules, Gothard himself moved beyond the limits of common decency, let alone his own moral code.

***

Not to be outdone, Patrick Henry College, the elite homeschooling paradise outside of Washington D.C. holds similar standards about physical appearance and relationships.

Young women who were sexually assaulted and groped by male students were blamed for being in the wrong place, hanging out with the wrong guys, or leaving themselves vulnerable because they’d been drinking. In fact, the drinking was a MUCH bigger problem than sexual assault.

School administrators repeatedly brushed off reports of sexual groping from young women because they had allegedly put themselves in harm’s way by drinking, staying out beyond curfew, or laying down in the same room as young men.

The young men were virtually given free passes. They couldn’t help themselves it seems. Once these young women moved outside the bounds of legalistic purity, they were apparently fair game. The administration couldn’t help them.

They’d broken the rules and suffered the consequences. Did they expect to be “protected” and “cared for”?

You broke the rules and, now you expect grace? Just follow the rules next time, im kay?

Rule breakers are not given grace when they fail to prevent bad things from happening to themselves.

***

The problem with legalism is that it majors on the minors and leaves us vulnerable to the much bigger problems we could face.

So long as you’re obsessed with personal appearance, what your musical tastes are, and whether or not you drink alcohol, you’re likely to overlook the far more important things. When a young woman reports sexual abuse, the focus is immediately on the ways she violated the rules to arrive at that point. The focus is on the rules as the first priority.

That’s how a dean of students can end up telling a victim of sexual assault that she should keep quiet since her assault happened at a party that involved alcohol or that she shouldn’t have been sitting on a bed near a boy.

Can you see the “logic” here?

Lost here is the fact that a young man overpowered the will of a young woman in terrible act of personal violence. The focus is on what the woman should have done TO PREVENT IT.

When all you have is a system of “sin prevention,” there’s no grace for those who failed to follow the rules of the system perfectly.

How many young women have kept silent after being abused or assaulted by men because they either feared being shamed by their leaders or because they held themselves personally responsible? How many women have failed to give themselves grace or have the peace of knowing that their abusers have been neutralized?

The women of Patrick Henry College and Bill Gothard’s organization were held to a series of standards that they violated at their own risk. There was no grace for those who failed, who made mistakes, or who were victimized.

Bad things aren’t supposed to happen to those who follow the rules.

And it’s not just that such legalism kills empathy for those who suffer abuse or who make a mistake. Survivors of abuse, whether they broke the “rules” or not, become the enemy. They represent a flaw in a tightly guarded system that takes little to no account for men forcing themselves on women. Never mind that the system of sin prevention is destined to fail, as illustrated by someone like Gothard. That just causes the gate keepers to fight harder and to demand complete loyalty and obedience.

There’s no way to repair a sin prevention system. There’s no patch for legalism. We have to ditch it all. The only way out is the presence of the Holy Spirit who both convicts us of the ways we neglect God’s grace and shows us the path to life. The Spirit leads us to Christ our vine who brings good things to bear in us, who teaches us to love, who heals our wounds, and who shows us how to heal others.

Two Things That Will Not Change This Coming Year

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I’m not sure what I was thinking last year around this time, but I’m sure I had some kind of optimistic notion about all of the ways that 2013 would be better than 2012, just as I’m trying to be optimistic about 2014 being better than 2013.

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Looking ahead, there’s all kinds of stuff I want to change like being more efficient with my work so I have more time for my family or finding more reliable ways to earn freelance writing income. I want to be more generous with others and less self-serving, as well as less focused on my own little world with my insecurities and anxieties.

Actually, my goals kind of look the same from last year.

OK, they’re a carbon copy.

Fine.

Whatever.

It’s not that I haven’t made progress. We have a lot of great stuff going on in our family. Ethan is a true joy, and I love him more than ever. My wife and I survived a really demanding fall semester for her, and we’re looking forward to several road trips this coming year that are work-related but should be fun to do together. I’ve written/co-written 3 books in 2013, and I’m excited to share them with the world in 2014.

So many good things happened in 2013. I want to be grateful for it all, but I also have this way of focusing on the stuff that didn’t quite work out. The stuff that I wish was different about our circumstances and about myself.

It’s easy to focus on the failures because they have a real weight. They sit on your heart, driving home the depths of my failures and inability to REALLY change. It’s all slow, incremental progress.

I saw a Twitter hash tag for “#BestYearEver” the other night, and it just made me depressed. Maybe I’m becoming a pessimistic New Englander at heart, but gosh, that’s a lot of pressure to put on yourself.

We all want to snap out of it. We want to make progress by leaps and bounds. We want to fly out of the mire and make bold new amazing life-affirming changes. We want to leave our struggles and problems behind.

I want all of that. Don’t you?

But I wonder how many of us will just feel a bit defeated and weary at this time next year. As the optimists and life coaches on Twitter cajole us into seeing bright sparkly wonderfulness in the coming year, we’ll look back at all of the ways 2014 wasn’t the best year ever. It was just the “#MehYearEver.”

Every person is different, but here’s what I’m at with all of this…

We all live with this tension of who we are and who we hope we’ll become. We want to do big things for God, but we also struggle to pray and discern God’s will. We know the good we should do, but sometimes our sense of self-preservation, greed, or self-righteousness get in the way.

We will fail. Even if we do end up making big bold leaps forward, there will be low moments. Sometimes those low moments stretch into long periods of time that feel defeating and endless.

That’s what will never change. We’ll always struggle to one degree or another with our aspirations and God’s best for us. We’re going to fall short. At one point or another, we’re going to need to confess something, maybe even something really big. We’re going to have to face shame, disappointment, and self doubt.

We could give up right now. Who wants to mess with all of that? Isn’t it safer to just scroll through Facebook in search of the outrage of the day?

As certain as it is that we’ll struggle and meet disappointment, it’s just as certain that God is right here with us in this mess. this presence of God among us is why we need Christmas every year.

We don’t need a new gadget, pair of pants, or gift card. We need the grace-filled, hope-infusing reminder that Jesus has come into our mess. He’s not surprised that we’re high maintenance and dripping with drama. He’s not disgusted by our envy, greed, or anger because he’s come to heal it all.

Don’t jump right to the cross during Christmas. Take some time to dwell in the crowded stench of the manger. If you have children, that should be really easy to imagine.

Here is God incarnate entering into our world of political intrigue, children written off as collateral damage, people enslaved, families broken by addiction, parents distracted by smart phones, and children searching for something to believe in. God is right here in our disappointments, anxieties, and fears.

This coming year may not be the best year ever. But I wonder if we are using the wrong measurement for the “best year ever.”

We can’t change the fact that we will struggle.

By the same token, we can’t change the fact that Jesus has come to dwell among us and is here right now.

We can’t control everything that will happen to us. We’ll catch breaks, we’ll work hard, we’ll make smart moves, mentors will support us, and we’ll fail miserably.

If we stake everything on the results of the coming year, we’ll most likely be disappointed in one way or another. At the very least we’ll stir up a lot of anxiety trying to control circumstances in this big chaotic world.

Do you want the best year ever?

Try this: Convince yourself every morning that Jesus is with you.

This is not rocket science. It’s the big promise he made to his disciples before his ascension.

He’s with us until the end of the age.

I know that the Star Wars prequels were terrible and Miley Cyrus was almost voted TIME’s person of the year, but shockingly the world has not come to an end. What can I say? God made this world of sturdy stuff.

Try as you may, you can’t change the presence of Jesus. We will struggle to pray. We will doubt the presence of Jesus. We will go through circumstances that make it appear untrue.

But Christmas is our annual opportunity to once again take hold of the truth that God is indeed among us and is mighty to save us even if we’re going through the worst year ever.

Whether you face storms or sunshine in the coming year, Jesus will be there.

We cannot change our struggles, but that doesn’t change God’s presence.

Was Jesus the Worst or Greatest Platform Builder?

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I’m a full time freelance writer, and part of my job is getting noticed. I need clients and readers to notice me and to then hand over their money.

My job description as a writer most days is basically this: GET NOTICED.

In the publishing industry they call this ability to get noticed your platform. If you’ve attended a publishing conference, you’ve no doubt wept through a session with a somewhat surly literary agent who sighs heavily when you share that you have over a hundred Twitter followers and your mom reads at least half of your blog posts.

marketing-get-noticed

You need to get noticed if you want to publish, if you want to make money, and if you want to get enough blog hits to grow your site.

The other day I imagined Jesus attending one of these conferences. What if he wanted to get his message out to a wider audience. I’ll bet we’d all get a kick out of how bad he was at platform building.

How many followers do you have?

About 12. Actually, more like 11.

Do you know anyone influential?

There was John the Baptist, but he’s dead. I did raise a guy from the dead who is kind of a big thing.

Do you have funds to self-publish?

I need to ask some ladies I know for a loan.

Will you be able to sell books in your home town?

Well… that’s complicated. The people in Nazareth tried to throw me off a cliff. I sort of threatened Capernaum with fire and brimstone.

Do you think your family will at least buy a few books?

Oh, heavens no. They think I’m a mad man.

Can you get the high priest or teachers of the law to endorse your book?

Ha! That’s a good one. They’re actually plotting to kill me. I guess that would cut my book tour short as well.

 

Yes, that would not be a pretty meeting. Does Jesus have anything to teach us about influence and getting noticed?

You bet he does, and it’s not going to be a pleasant lesson!

Here’s the thing, Jesus got noticed. He was certainly influential. It was hard to miss him during his ministry in Israel, and then his followers carried his message to the ends of the earth.

I’m not saying that we should all copy the ministry of Jesus in order to become mini-Messiahs. I mean, I may give that a shot at some point, but you certainly shouldn’t do that. It was my idea first.

I’m saying that Jesus achieved results beyond the wildest dreams of any marketing genius: Jesus GOT NOTICED. And looking at his life, he reveals both where we fall short and where we can go next.

 

The word that stands out to me is that Jesus served others, and his influence came from emptying himself for the sake of others. In other words, Jesus became a powerful public figure because he used his power to benefit others. He also spoke up against the rulers of his time and the status quo for the sake of religious and societal outsiders—a practice that stirred plenty of controversy.

A couple centuries of Messianic expectations didn’t hurt either.

There are many reasons why Jesus got noticed, but the big one for me is the radical ways he served others—miracles, feeding, washing his disciples feet, teaching when he was exhausted, etc. More than that, Jesus served others because loving others through service was the goal. He didn’t serve in order to get noticed. He served because he actually loved people, and he wanted to demonstrate God’s love for them.

We rarely see people serve others today without some other motive at play.

I see commercials these days that attempt to tackle our perceptions of beauty or women in the workplace, and I think they’re doing a lot of good things, but we shouldn’t forget that they are still marketing campaigns aimed at connecting us with products, serving the bottom line of major brands.

Jesus didn’t have an ulterior motive. He served and that was it.

 

Some days we can become evil geniuses who poach life lessons from the Jesus story in order to use them for our own gain.

Get noticed by serving others, you say? Count me in!

This is why Jesus told us to do stuff like giving without telling your right hand what your left is doing.

I feel this tension so much each day. I want to get noticed and to publish books. I have a family to feed here. Getting noticed is the key to my professional success. I’m tempted mightily to turn serving others into part of my strategy to get noticed, but of course that wrecks my connection to Jesus and others.

As I think about 2014, I’m facing the prospect of marketing some books I’ve written, and I’m thinking about what it would look like to serve others as a writer… period. It’s hard to draw that line where I’m not sharing my books for the hope of personal gain. I’m not even sure that I can walk that line.

But I think it’s a line worth a shot.

What does it look like to serve others as a writer?

I’m still figuring that out, but one thing I’m trying to do each year is to give away a short eBook about an important topic. It strikes a balance between serving my readers without going broke as I work on a massive book that I give away for free.

I can think of no topic more central to the Christian life than the love of God. However, I often avoid God because of shame, doubts, or a busy schedule. My new eBook this year is called Why We Run from God’s Love.

You can download it for free at Amazon through Thursday the 19th.

Also, if you want to think a bit more about platforms and Christian publishing, Scot McKnight wrote a challenging post yesterday that is a must-read. I actually had my post for today written and scheduled last week, but I added Scot’s post to the end here because it hits on the dilemmas authors and editors face. There are also some great replies in the comments.

Will Churches Protect Themselves or Their Victims?

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church-broken-lifeA few years ago I attended a church that was on the brink of closing down. A previous pastor had left the church in a difficult situation that he’d successfully hidden until it was nearly too late. I was heart sick over the thought of losing our church.

Where would we go if it closed? Would we lose touch with all of our friends?

I really liked our pastor and the simple liturgy they used each Sunday with a focus on communion. They had a lot of great ministry partnerships with groups outside the church. I felt like I was surrounded by people who were on the same page with me.

This was the church where I began to heal from my previous wounds and missteps from evangelicalism in the past, and I hated the thought of losing it.

As I look back at my attachment to that church, I’m both nostalgic and uneasy. Is our attachment to our churches and our leaders part of the problem today? Is our first instinct to preserve our communities even in the midst of scandal?

 

In following up on my previous post about evangelicals’ permissive culture toward sex abuse, author Mary Demuth sent some news stories my way that show we still have a long way to go in protecting women and children rather than our denominations and churches. (Trigger warning below for a wide variety of sex abuse crimes.)

This isn’t old news. This stuff keeps happening over and over and over again. And the fact that they continue makes me wonder if our first instinct is often to protect our churches rather than the people who are abused. Here’s a round up of just a few recent stories:

A Roman Catholic Diocese had hidden potentially damning images collected from a priest’s computer and then fired the whistleblower.

One blogger documents several cases where churches have protected their pastors from prosecution after molesting minors.

The president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary encouraged churches to keep their affairs private and to avoid reporting potential crimes to the local news media or legal authorities.

 

What if saving our faith communities has replaced the call to save people?

If our leaders have caused damage, there’s no doubt that our communities could be at risk. They could be legally liable. They could face court cases. They could go bankrupt.

And so a trade is made in some cases.

It’s much easier to sacrifice a few wounded people than deal with the toxic infections in a faith community.

However, there’s one big thing that is overlooked in the situations above: a church with abuse or a culture of abuse is already falling apart.

I think I know how the people in these communities feel.

Speaking for myself, I personally struggle to confront my own issues. It’s hard to call my sins out, to put real, powerful words to the sources of my shame. In addition, I don’t want to disrupt a place where I’ve found friendships. However, I end up only perpetuating a charade where I never truly address my problems, take upon myself the needs of those suffering in my midst, or make it possible to heal.

Personal confession is the only way to heal and move forward in wholeness. Pretending that I don’t have problems to confess and deal with only pushes back the date of my break down. At a certain point it’s impossible to keep running.

The same goes for our communities.

 

When the pastor of my previous church announced one Sunday that the church would be able to stay together, he also took a bold and important step: he told the truth. It was bracing to hear a pastor speak so openly about past failures (I also want to make it clear that the past failures were not illegal or involving abuse that required contacting the police).

Our pastor spoke frankly about the ways the leadership and members of the congregation had failed. He recognized that hiding past failures would never create an environment where growth and healing can take place.

Past pain and abuses will destroy community without honest confrontation.

I’m grateful that I got to spend some time in that church. With the failures of the past in mind, our leaders set a new course with greater accountability and transparency. They brought themselves under greater accountability, created a new culture, and essentially planted a new church in many ways.

It wasn’t easy. It took years to iron things out. Sometimes people leveled accusations or left the church. However, I saw life emerge from a difficult situation. I saw the people of God process difficult realities from the past even if confronting them meant they could risk losing their church.

In a sense, they did lose their church. The church of the past was gone, but once we faced what needed to change, we found hope in the new things God could do with people who have been healed.

We all fear the unknown, but the fear of the unknown should never prevent us from pursuing healing and safety in our communities.

Abuse or indiscretions among church leaders are significant wounds that threaten our communities in multiple ways. However, if we want to preserve our communities, we need to rethink what “preserving” means. Moving forward with true confrontation and healing demands confronting our real failures and making things right with those who have been wounded.

Anything less just assures we’ll limp along, certain to dramatically fall one day soon. Worse yet, we may never rise again.

Is Jesus Greater Than the Stuff Jesus Cared About?

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cross-Jesus-discipleshipLet’s just talk about Jesus for a minute, shall we?

We’re just going to talk about his love, kindness, and forgiveness.

Mind you, if we’re really just going to focus on Jesus and Jesus only, we shouldn’t think too hard about who Jesus loved, who Jesus forgave, or who Jesus showed mercy to. And we really shouldn’t think about how that impacts how you and I live, right?

If we started to think about those things, then we’d have to start thinking about changing our relationships and being kind to people we’d rather not talk to. And then we’re talking about things that sound like “social justice” and “mercy ministry.”

Gosh, can’t we just talk about Jesus for a minute here? Isn’t Jesus greater than all of this other “stuff” that gets tacked onto Jesus. Aren’t these things like loving our enemies, caring for the “least of these,” and being kind to society’s outcasts the extra stuff?

I just want to talk about Jesus for a minute. Just Jesus. Nothing else.

If we care about how we’re supposed to live, we’re not talking about “Jesus.”

And for heaven’s sake, don’t bring up the way Jesus healed Roman officials, welcomed tax collectors, and confounded the rebels and collaborator’s of his day. We can’t talk about Jesus and POLITICS. That’s divisive and troubling.

The minute we talk about political engagement, we’re not talking about Jesus.

In fact, let’s just make this really simple. Let’s just talk about the cross and the empty tomb.

I mean, talking about the cross is virtually harmless besides the fact that it was an ancient instrument of torture and death that symbolized the unquestioned power of the Roman Empire which Jesus then re-appropriated as the symbol of God’s triumph over the powers of this world.

Besides ALL of that, the cross is really just a symbol of the salvation of our souls. The resurrection offers assurance of new life in heaven. Isn’t it?

And perhaps those things are really what we want to talk about when we say, “Let’s just talk about Jesus!”

Try as we may, we can’t escape the implications of Jesus’ life for us today.

Removing Jesus from his context and the imitation of him that is essential for “disciples,” we’re left with a Jesus who just dispenses salvation, a holy pez dispenser that we pass from one person to another, teaching each other the prayer that unlocks salvation.

It is so easy to reduce Jesus to this hollow caricature, to assume we can just stop at his high-minded ideals of love and forgiveness without asking how he embodied them among others and how I could possibly do the same in my life.

I don’t want to ask myself the hard questions:

What if I’m associated with a Christian living in deliberate sin?

What if I welcome the people considered outcasts by society?

What if I need to use my political voice for the benefit of those who have no voice or security?

What if the way Jesus treated women gives us clues we dare not overlook when we read the rest of the New Testament?

And when I ask these questions, it’s just as easy to assume that my answers put me 100% on the side of Jesus. That’s another risk to following Jesus. It’s a tension we can’t avoid.

When we learn to follow Jesus, we start to love the same kinds of people Jesus loved, and that leads us into all kinds of trouble.

If you’re going to love prison inmates, you’re going to start caring about the “war on drugs” legislation that has become more of a war against black men who are incarcerated at an alarmingly high rate.

If you’re going to love your neighbors struggling to make ends meet, then you need to choose a political side on food stamps and other safety net programs (or at least think of a better alternative for your community).

I don’t claim to know what Jesus would do if we dropped him into America today. We’re all pretty much going to say that he’d care about the same things as us, right?

Isn’t that human nature?

With that risk in mind, Jesus did choose sides to a certain degree. As much as he occupied a murky position or found a higher path at times, a la render unto Caesar, he also took stands. It’s just that we won’t necessarily agree on what exactly Jesus was standing for.

Jesus was an instigator, at times pushing for one side over another. To say you’re going to ignore the gender equality debate and to just focus on “Jesus” misses a part of Jesus’ message and fails to consider the implications of his actions.

Just as Paul fought against the racism that divided Jew and Gentile based on their unity in Jesus, we have a similar calling today to ask hard questions about race in the church. This is not a peripheral distraction from the more central focus of Jesus.

If we look to Jesus first, he should be pointing us toward racial reconciliation and, I would argue, gender equality.

It’s certainly possible to focus on a cause and to lose sight of Jesus. I know I’ve done that, and I’ve seen it done many different ways.

However, I’m concerned that we’ve placed Jesus in an imaginary neutral territory that doesn’t ruffle feathers and only saves souls.

Jesus interacted with complicated, sinful people in a complicated, sinful culture.

He bucked religious conventions by sparing a woman who, according to the Bible, should have been stoned for adultery.

He taught women as equal disciples even though their family viewed them as only homemakers.

He refused to take “sides” in politics, but he also welcomed Centurions, zealots, and tax collectors to his table. 

He didn’t leave us with a blueprint for discipleship. This isn’t easy stuff. We’re making interpretations based on how we understand an ancient culture.

It’s impossible to just talk about Jesus because he lived his life in a way that he calls us to imitate as disciples. We’re going to disagree over what that’s supposed to look like, and some of us will have different callings based on what we learn from Jesus.

The trouble is that we can’t say Jesus is greater than things like loving neighbors, forgiving enemies, advocating for equality, healing the sick, or becoming a neighbor to the poor. We can’t separate his identity as Savior from the kind of life he lived. And we dare not avoid the hard questions that the life of Jesus raises for us today.

The Dangers of Working from Home: My Post for the High Calling

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I’m posting at The High Calling today:

When my phone rang at 10 pm on a Saturday evening, I jumped up to answer it. I have several elderly grandparents, and my mind always jumps to the worst case scenario at that hour.

Instead someone asked me to edit a paper for a conference.

Such is the nature of working from home.

I make my own schedule, but my work also has a way of spilling out of my schedule and into my family time, devotional time, and any other time I tried to keep separate.

Read the rest at The High Calling.