A nation of Sodomites

The story of Sodom and Gomorrah in the book of Genesis is often cited as a story about how wrong homosexuality is, and God’s desired punishment for such “crimes.” The story has angels coming to Sodom, whom Lot welcomes into his home as honored guests. When the men in the village find out that Lot has visitors, they come to his house and demand that he send the visitors out so that the men of the village may “know” them (aka, have sex with or, in this case, rape). Lot refuses, the visitors pull him inside the house before Lot gets hurt and tell him to gather his family, for the Lord is going to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah “because the outcry against its people has become so great before the Lord, and the Lord has sent us to destroy it.” The common cultural understanding of this story is God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. It is such a common understanding that laws outlawing sex between gay men (and sometimes just anal sex in general) are referred to as anti-Sodomy laws and one of the epithets hurled at gay men is “Sodomite.”

This understanding is wrong.

God did not destroy Sodom and Gomorrah because of gay sex. That’s not what this story is about.

Lot welcomed the visitors into his home — welcome being a high cultural value of the people of God, iterated again and again throughout the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament. This is Lot’s saving grace, his display of welcome. The men of the village destroyed that welcome. They were going to violate these visitors, running counter to culture, custom and the word of God. They were going to commit violence against the stranger, being about as unwelcoming as one can be.

The book of Ezekiel (16:49) makes the sins of Sodom plain, “This was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”

God did not destroy Sodom because of gay sex. God destroyed Sodom because they had everything they needed

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means. I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
I mean, cool, you want to criminalize not caring for the poor, be my guest!

and more and did not help those who were in need, because the people of Sodom did not welcome the stranger.

Sound familiar?

As I think of the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, I think of the new law in Indiana that allows business to deny service to members of the LGBTQ community, I think we need to redefine the word Sodomite.

Those who would not show welcome to visitors, regardless of the differences they may have: those are the Sodomites.

As I read about continued efforts to kick people out of this country because they didn’t come here legally (even those who were brought here as children, those who did not have a choice), those who would not welcome the alien as the Bible commands (Ex 22:21, Deut 10:19, Lev 19:34, Rom 12:13, Matthew 25:40), those who exhibit the sin of the men of Sodom: those are the sodomites.

Those of us who would cut benefits to the poor provided by our government, who would tell those in need to fix themselves, who would deny help to those in need (particularly those of us who live in plenty): those are the Sodomites.

The God who revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ is a God of radical welcome. In the gospels, Jesus speaks of drawing all creation to him through his death on the cross. He tells his followers that that which you did to the least of your brothers and sisters, you did to me, to love your neighbor as yourself, to love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you. Our God is a God of radical welcome and inclusion, who will turn away no one who knocks on God’s door — and God asks us to do the same. Over and over again, throughout the laws, the prophets, the gospels, and the letters. Not showing this radical welcome and love was the crime of Sodom and Gomorrah, for which the punishment was death.

It’s not about gays. People who engage in sex with those of the same gender are not sodomites.

But far too many of us are. Far too many of us are willing to kick out those who think differently, and act differently, as well as people who we feel don’t “deserve” to be here. Far too many of us ignore the plight of the poor and the marginalized to aid our own gains. Every day many of us are indifferent or even hateful as we walk past others on the street who are in great need. We keep what is ours for ourselves. We prop up structures that benefit the privileged while we ignore, shun, demean and oppress those who have little. This is Sodomy.

We are a nation of Sodomites. Our public policy is Sodomy.

If I didn’t believe in the God who will bring all people to God’s loving grace, I might wonder: what will be our fate? Will the fate of a nation that consistently refuses to welcome the stranger and care for the poor end up like Sodom and Gomorrah? If angels were to come to take those who show radical love and hospitality to safety, how many of us would be invited to go with?

What would the God of the prophets have to say to us, as we continue the ways of Sodom and Gomorrah?

Maybe something like this:

Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day and oppress all your workers.

Look, you fast only to quarrel and to fight and to strike with a wicked fist.

Such fasting as you do today will not make your voice heard on high.

Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble onself?

It is to bow down the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Will you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

Is not this the fast that I choose:

to loose the bonds of injustice, to undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and to break every yoke?

Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house, when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?

Then your light shall break forth like the dawn and your healing shall spring up quicklt; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and he will say, Here I am.”  ~ Isaiah 58


How do I get (my) kids to go to church?!

This picture kind of scares me. But, hey, kids in church!

This picture kind of scares me. But, hey, kids in church! Why are they crying? Is it that bad?!?!

This past fall I received quite a few emails that went something like this, “I really want my child to be involved in campus ministry, but s/he just isn’t interested? What can I do?” Pastors, youth directors, church leaders and parents hear and ask this question a lot. How can we get kids and young adults to a) go to church b) not hate it and c) keep coming into adulthood? As the church frets about declining numbers, it is a reflex to try to do whatever we can to get young people in the pews. We start new programs, look to hire young pastors, change worship and do all kind of things to get children and young adults into the doors. Parents cajole, they bribe, engage in yelling matches, and I don’t know what all to get kids to church.

For generations, church was something people just did. There was immense social capital involved in going to church and not going to church made people wonder if there was something wrong with you. This is no longer the case. We cannot assume that young people will come to church or that once they leave they will come  back when they have kids. Some will, but, for many, when they leave the church as a teen, they will not come back to us. Because they don’t need to. They can have their community needs met elsewhere, they don’t need church for career connections and, for far too many, haven’t seen life in the church as being any different from life outside of the church. As a campus pastor, I think about this a lot. Getting college kids through the door is a really, really difficult thing to do. As I have conversations with youth workers, pastors, and other people of faith about the declining presence of young people (and, um, just people) in our congregations, I have a few thoughts. When I talk about young people, I mean babies to 30’s, ’cause that’s all young in church world.

1) Why do you want young people in your church?

Seriously, why? Is it because you are afraid the church is dying and, if we don’t get them in the door now, our centuries old way of doing things will die? If that’s it, find other reasons. Young people can sniff our desperation and they know that our desire to have them in church is far less related to who they are as human beings than it is to our need to play the numbers game and justify both our current existence and salvage our future. And they aren’t interested in propping up an institution at all, much less for the sake of just propping it up. What are some good reasons to want young people in church?

  • They ask amazing questions and challenge assumptions. This can be really hard, but also, if they are listened to, can bring about much needed change in church. Old things may die. New life will happen.
  • Young people bring a different kind of energy to church and are really excited about community and intergenerational life.
  • Young people are a part of a cultural shift that we as individuals and a church need to understand. We can’t understand “kids today” if we aren’t talking to them.
  • Because they are children of God and a part of our family and it is sad when part of our family isn’t around.

2) Why do you want your kids (or any kids) to go to church?

Like the former question, do you want them to go because they should just go? Because you always went? Do you even know why you want them to go? If you haven’t thought about it before, take some time and think about why you go to church. What does it give to you? How does it feed you? What is the importance of gathering weekly with a group of others seeking to praise God and to hear God’s word in our lives today? Once you have figured some of that out, tell your kids. Tell them why faith is important to your life and how the church community has fed your faith and your life. Tell them again and again. Tell stories of times when faith lived out in community has helped get you through something hard, has connected things for you in a new way, helped you celebrate… If you don’t know why you go to church, you won’t be able to pass it on. If the children in your life don’t hear stories about the importance of Christian faith lived in community, all they will see is a rote attendance out of obligation. Most young people just aren’t into that. They are seeking, and if they know that you are seeking, that church has helped you in your journey and you want to journey with them, that can go a long way to encouraging them to develop a faith life of their own.

3) Don’t remove the kids from worship

This is a huge thing for me. I grew up going to a church that I love dearly. I always felt cared for and supported. I also grew up in a church where I was shuffled out for Sunday School. I didn’t know this at the time, but I implicitly learned that church wasn’t for me. To this day I struggle to sit through a whole church service (if I am not leading). In high school, I tried to help out in the nursery, at coffee hour — whatever I could do to not be in church. I am not the only person who has had this experience. This is a story I hear again and again — I have even heard kids say that that is how leaving church makes them feel. If you are in or lead a church that takes the kids out of worship for Sunday school, YOU ARE TELLING THEM CHURCH IS NOT FOR THEM, implicitly teaching that church is for grown-ups and they are not needed or wanted in church. You are also (probably) creating a worship service that is strictly for adults, so if the kids came back in, they would have little to do/relate to and few role models for leading worship. There are a ton of ways one can make church work for kids — from setting expectations that they will sit through the service to creating play areas in the sanctuary to involving them in worship from a young age. I have seen very high liturgy churches do this as well as churches that are lower on the liturgigeek scale. There are ways to make young people feel included in worship that fit every church. Include a young person on your worship and music committee, find out what they would like to see in worship and how they like to praise God. Keep them in worship. Help them participate and see that they ARE a part of the church and worship IS for them too.

4) Don’t make it a battle

I know this is to every parent’s discretion and I don’t know your kids, but my experience with kids is that when you make them do something they don’t want to do repeatedly, they just come up with more reasons to hate it. Express to them why it is important they go. Maybe make it into a family outing once a month followed by an awesome brunch or something fun. But, at some point, if you feel like you are driving them further and further from church, maybe let it go. Have faith conversations. If your kid doesn’t believe in God, talk about why. Some people just don’t have the faith gene. However, their doubt could be a huge gift to your family and your church by asking questions that need to be asked and starting deeper conversations about faith. If your kid just hates worship, find out why. See if maybe they might be interested in trying other churches or if you can bring up your kids dislikes with the pastor (if they are reasonable). Faith exploration is a healthy thing, and maybe you can have some awesome new experiences too.

5) Make church time meaningful time

As I said above, young adults can get a lot of the things previously provided by the church, such as community and connections, in many other places. What they can’t get elsewhere is Jesus. What we need to do as a church body — pastors, leaders, parents, everyone in the congregation — is to communicate to young adults why Jesus makes a difference. Sermons need to be good: to challenge, to exhort, to praise, to make the readings applicable to what people face in their daily lives. Churches should help young people (all people) develop a life in the spirit that changes, moves and guides them through every stage of life. Church has to be more than a social club and to provide more than good music and sacraments. Are we teaching our children to pray beyond the Lord’s prayer? Are we teaching them the purpose of prayer? Are we helping them draw connections between worship, prayer and service in the world? If we are not doing these things, if we are not showing them why a life in Christ matters, we are just another extra-curricular activity that is way too early on Sunday mornings or conflicts with stuff that will help them get into college. If we are, they know God is working in them them in ways that they know will help them walk through life and shape them into people who will spread God’s love in the world. They know that they are in community with others seeking God, people they can share their story and life with. That is something to keep coming back for.

6) Get intergenerational

In the 80’s and 90’s there was a huge move towards splitting everyone up for age appropriate programming. This makes sense — different ages have different needs, and not everything is developmentally appropriate (or possible) for kids. However, this move separated youth from adults and created a chasm in our congregations. Now, in may places, youth barely interact with their elders. Intergenerational relationships are deeply formative. Some of my best memories in church are Mr. McNerney, who sat in the pew in front of my mom and I, checking in on how I was doing. So many of the older members of my congregation were mentors for me, second grandparents. I cherish those relationships and knowing that those people cared about me deeply. Find ways to bring those relationships back to church if they don’t seem to be naturally occurring. Start a mentoring program. Invite older members to help out with youth events, create opportunities for relationships to be built across age groups. This will show younger members that the adults care, show older members that the youth are integral to the life of the church and have really good ideas, and help share stories and build relationships that will help guide and nurture faith for years to come.

7) Listen to the young people and those who work with them

I cannot tell you how many incredibly discouraging conversations I have with youth and youth workers about how their views are treated in church. I have talked to young people who have been laughed at and shouted down in council meetings, as well as young people who are constantly told they should be on the youth committee even if that isn’t where their gifts, skills or desires lie. Here’s what that says, “Your voice doesn’t matter. Your gifts don’t matter.” I have talked to youth workers whose announcements get pushed out of the bulletin or announcement time because of time/space. Here is what that says, “There is no room for young people here.” I know this is redundant, but if you want young people in your church you have to actually want them in your church as more than just a number. You have to want them as full human beings and allow them to participate fully in the life of the church. That means young people on council and in committees, it means lifting them up in prayer and in announcements, and having them serve in various ways in worship and service as soon as they are old enough to do so. If you have youth staff (paid or volunteer), show them that they matter. Work with them. Help them go to trainings. Too often, being a youth director means you are at the kids table. This helps no one. Invite your youth staff to the big table. Invite the kids too. After all, we all share the meal. Together, at the table, as the full body of Christ. Let’s set the table together.


Using social media while pastoring

all the devices

Pastoring using all of the devices. There is a super modern fax machine just off screen.

I first started using Facebook while I was a youth director. It was a wonderful way to keep up with what my students were up to. I could learn about the joys and sorrows of their lives and dispense advice like, “You probably shouldn’t post pictures of you chugging a handle of vodka where everyone can see it. Also, you probably shouldn’t be chugging a handle of vodka. Let’s talk.” I knew when break-ups happened, who had events coming up, and could organize and disseminate information in an easy to use platform. Then it became a great way to keep up with the friends I have all over the country, sharing our joys and sorrows and keeping up on one another’s lives. Now everyone seems to be on it, at least everyone my age and older (younger folk are moving away from it because everyone else is doing it). Over the past few years, I have watched as colleagues embrace social media, using it for support and important conversations, as well as to communicate with congregations, do education and even find ways to worship on-line. So many things that are happening on social media (and the internet) are enhancing how we care for and communicate with our congregations and the church at large.

There is, however, a dark side to the ways in which clergy use social media (as for all who use it). Where social media can join people together, it can also tear them apart. Where it can be a wonderful place for people to ask questions and hold meaningful conversations, there are too many incidents where conversations turn into attacks or one-upmanship. As much as social media can be used to care for people, it can also be used in ways that are wholly inappropriate. Some of this is a difference between being more of a social media native and someone who is still learning the technology, some of it is a result of people being lonely/frustrated/depressed, and some of it is bad manners getting worse over social media. I would like to offer some thoughts using social media as clergy (though I suspect most of this is applicable to everyone), based on what I have seen and what I have studied (I have done social media strategy for some non-profits and spent a fair amount of time studying it just because).

This may not all be correct, they are just my thoughts. But I hope these thoughts are useful and/or encourage more intentional use of social media platforms. It’s all ministry.

1) Don’t put anything on the internet you wouldn’t put on a billboard — or your church sign

This is advice I have given to my students for years. Even in “private” groups/pages, nothing is really private. Someone in the group can grab a screenshot of what you wrote and place it somewhere totally public, someone can get let in your group who isn’t your intended audience, etc. Social media is really, really helpful for us to figure out how to deal with situations in our congregations, for sure. But be careful. Be kind. Be loving. If what you want to ask about isn’t something you want put in the local newspaper, don’t put it on the internet. Ask friends and colleagues what you should do on the phone or in a clergy group. If you don’t have that kind of support locally, find some or find a way to create some. Create a group of other clergy who are way away from others — offline. I have seen conversations in clergy groups that are horribly insulting to congregants and to other clergy. If you really feel you will get the best advice on an online page, be as careful and as grace-filled as possible. Think about what would happen if someone from your congregation called you out on what you wrote — would you be able to talk about it? Would they be able to see that the post had grace in it?

2) Vent as little as possible

We all need to vent. Being a pastor is hard. We face really hard situations and decisions, it is our job to work with really broken people, situations and systems. Venting on social media feels good. We get support, validation, and sometimes helpful suggestions. However, venting on social media can actually be really harmful to our state of mind. Recently on an Invisibilia podcast, they talked to a researcher who said that initially, venting on social media can feel really good. But that leads us to vent more because we are receiving positive affirmation for our venting. Then we vent more and start looking for things about which we can vent. Venting on social media can actually increase our general anger and lead us to become angrier people. Again, vent to friends and family and if you don’t have that where you are, find ways to make that happen. Create a support network so you don’t fall into a trap of anger feeding more anger.

3) Check yourself before you wreck yourself (or someone else).

Ask yourself, “Am I being graceful? Is this loving?” or if you feel like you need to lay the truth smack down on someone, ask if that person is in the place to hear your words or if you have the social capital/ authority to be a messenger of truth.

Some people have a tendency to be their worst selves online. Something about the internet, even without anonymity, brings out the anger and frustration people hold inside that they can’t express to their congregations. There are places where clergy gather on the internet and, in those spaces, I have seen some amazing conversations and watched really cool theology happen. But the same page that birthed the #usemeinstead idea has also had some pretty awful toxicity. In that same space I have seen some of the least graceful, least loving, angry, shaming behavior ever (truth be told, I do not frequent my denominations main clergy page after getting so flamed a pastor in NJ I have never met messaged me to apologize for how I was being treated. There are far too many people with a similar story). There are, it would seem, trolls in clerical collars. There is much hubris, one-upmanship and mansplaining in the places where we, in theory, would like to go for support and advice. It is to the point where there are clergy groups that have broken off because the initial group people belonged to has become too toxic and feel unsafe. We need to support each other. Our jobs are hard. Let’s not make them harder by harshing on one another. Even critique can be done in a way that is kind and loving. Use that stuff you (theoretically) learned in pastoral care, chaplaincy, or through years of actively providing pastoral care. We can, in fact, use our social media pages to learn how to talk to people with whom we vehemently disagree. We can use these spaces to engage in conversations and ask genuine questions based out of a desire to understand the other person’s point of view. It can be an amazing exercise. But if what is happening is everyone trying to prove s/he is right, no one will learn anything and everyone will walk away annoyed.

4) Do not use social media for deep pastoral care.

Social media is a jumping off point to see that someone might need pastoral care. It is not the place to provide it. Yes, you can use messenger to check in on someone. Yes, you can make comments of support under someone’s status message. But don’t use someone’s Facebook page to schedule a pastoral care appointment (yes, I have seen this done) or to try to actually provide deep pastoral care. Give a call or a text/message (I work with young adults and they don’t do calls — I have adjusted to providing pastoral care via text or messenger on occasion).

5) Be intentional about how you use social media

Think before you post. All the time. If you are friends with parishioners on Facebook, if they follow you on Twitter, Instagram, etc, think about if you want them to know these things. Are you showing your wounds or your scars? How are you presenting things to people? It is a careful dance to be real with your congregants without allowing them to see everything about you. Are you struggling with your call? Call counsel to clergy, talk to colleagues, your bishop, don’t put it on the Facebooks. This leads me to the next

6) Who are you on social media?

I know a lot of clergy who have two social media accounts — one for their personal life and one for their professional life. I am not a huge fan of this approach (see #1). As pastors, we should be behaving that way no matter what online and off. If you don’t want to be friends with your congregants, create a policy about that and maintain your church FB page with updates you want people to know. It also seems like a lot of energy to me — curating two different Facebook accounts shaping them to two different aspects of who you are/what you want to show people. Social media platforms are excellent evangelism tools and whatever you do online can and should be you representing yourself as not only a Christian, but a Christian leader. By no means am I saying you must have a sparkly clean image on social media — the Lord knows I don’t. Show your brokenness and humanity, be real, be approachable, be YOU. Just remember to be intentional, and that whatever we do, wherever we are, we are public representatives of the church and of Christ. Whether is it under your Pastor Awesome Person profile or your regular Awesome Just me Person profile. You know that moment when you flip off a driver or lose your temper in public then realize you are wearing your collar and get all weird/embarrassed? That x 1000. Everyone online knows we are pastors. Remember that.

In light of some of the things I have seen clergy do/say on Facebook, I think that a lot of us are lonely, stressed out and depressed. If your primary interaction with people is online, this is a problem. If you are posting all the time, you might be lonely. I know this is really, really easy for me to say as a clergy person living in a rather large city, but it is imperative that we take care of ourselves offline, in real life. It is important we have people we can physically talk with about the stresses of ministry and life in general. I have never lived in rural anywhere, so I genuinely have no idea how to do this and admit that I have no idea how hard it is.

Some of these things might hit you as way off base. That’s fine. What I am hoping is that we will all think more about our words online and how we use social media to further Christ’s commission to us as Christians and leaders. Is our online behavior furthering Christ’s mission in the world? Is it loving? Is it kind? Are we remembering that we are not called to judge? Is there humility (she writes as she advises others on how to use social media)?

If you are interested in learning more about social media in churches, check out Keith Anderson & Elizabeth Drescher’s excellent book Click 2 Save, follow them on social media, and check out the work of the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary.

Did I get something wrong? Forget something? Do you have other words of wisdom? Share in the comments :-)


Who are our heroes?

A few weeks ago, I went to see Selma with my students. It is an amazing movie. Beautifully shot, well acted, excellent writing… It’s the kind of movie that, when you walk out, you are just quiet for a while, letting it all sink in. It was, at times, very difficult to watch. Selma is a reminder of how far we have come and how far we have to go, and an examination of the power of love in the struggle for justice.  This powerful film could bring about a time of soul-searching for an American. We have an ugly history when it comes to race relations, and there is still much work to be done.

I wish all of America would see this movie and be stirred into contemplation about racism, activism, and the power of love in making change. To date, Selma has made $48 million , and is currently being shown in only 566 theaters, down from a little over 800. People are not watching it on a grand scale. I imagine it is hard to watch, but moreover I imagine that people do not want to be challenged to think about race in spite of it being so very necessary RIGHT NOW to think about and talk about. But I wish more people would take the risk to be disturbed and inspired by this film.

When I was walking out of Selma, deep in thought about Dr. King’s calling out of white church leaders for their silence while black folk were being killed just for being black, I noticed another movie on multiple screens at the theater: American Sniper. American Sniper is the story of a sniper, American soldier Chris Kyle, in war and his struggles to readjust to life at home. By all accounts, it is also an excellent movie. Good acting, writing, directing. I haven’t seen it. I can’t stomach war movies. I cry and cry about man’s inhumanity to man, how we end up in war, our inability to see the other as a human being (which is necessary in war, I get it, but I don’t have to like it). I thought about going to see it so I could write this post, as I know it is dodgy to write about something I haven’t seen, but I am pretty sure I would be curled up in a ball for days on end if I did. But this isn’t about the movie, so much, as the idea of the movies, and what we value as a people.

american-sniper_612x380_1American Sniper, a movie about war, warriors, and facing violence with violence, a movie that from what I read in comments and chat rooms, leaves one with quite the strong Go America! spirit, has made over $300 million at the box office. It is still being shown in over 3,000 theaters.

And I am disturbed. Not that people want to go see what is, by all accounts, a good action flick/drama, but that so many more people would rather watch a movie about continuing war than working for peace. I am disturbed that Chris Kyle, a war sniper, can be so much bigger a hero than Dr. Martin Luther King, a man who shrewdly led a peaceful movement to grant freedom and equality to black Americans. I am disturbed that we would rather watch something that makes us tread deeper into blind and unbridled nationalism than something that leads us to examine the darker parts of American history so that we might work for a brighter future.

Who are our heroes? What is important to us as a nation? War or peace? Loving action or violent action? What kind of Christianity do we claim?

Chris Kyle was a Christian. He embraced the kind of black and white good vs. bad Christianity that seems to be everywhere today. He believed that the people he killed were evil, that Jesus would be okay with his kills. He, himself, felt like killing was no big deal. It didn’t trouble him to take a life. He believed that he was fighting evil individuals.

selmaDr. King and those who worked with him were (largely) Christian. Dr. King believed in using love to fight hate, he believed that inside every one of those racists who hurled epithets at his brothers and sisters, there was a shred of humanity, a little bit of God. He tried to appeal to a person’s better nature, to call that little bit of God out so it could take over a person and banish hate. He believed in evil, for sure, but not without a spark of hope.

We, it appears, would rather buy into the American Sniper view of the world. Everyone else is the enemy, violence wins, God would be cool with us killing. We prefer a world in which there are three kinds of people, “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs,” instead of the complex reality that there is a little of each in everyone, that we are all simultaneously sinner and saint. We would rather our heroes be strong warriors who go to battle with guns, kick ass and take names, shoot first, ask questions later, etc. than men and women who fight hate with love and patiently endure beatings without fighting back so they can reach an ultimate goal. We would rather soak in nationalistic fervor than take time to reflect on the darker parts of our history and ask question about who we are and how we can change. We would rather have black and white than gray (and we would rather a terrible movie about an abusive relationship than Selma as well, but don’t get me started on that one).

Is this who we want to be?

Moreover, for those of us who are Christians, is this who we are called to be? Those of us who follow a man who said to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, is this who we were created to be? Our Savior and our scripture again and again command us to love above all else. Not to love until we feel threatened, then to shoot. Not to kill the evil (because God takes care of that).

I know this isn’t good foreign policy. I know war leaves little room for gray. But I also know that the revolutions that have lasted the longest and led to the most change, have been peaceful revolutions. I know that killing upon killing leads to more killing. And I know that God in Christ asks us to go against the grain and to love unto death.

And, ultimately, it’s he who is my hero and it is he who I will follow to my grave.


Please stop with the threats of hell and damnation, you’re making my job harder

Ooooo! Yeah! Tell me about Jesus!

Ooooo! Yeah! Tell me about Jesus!

People who threaten others with hellfire and damnation, people who scream, preach, or carry signs that tell people without conversion one faces an eternity of torment: please stop. You are making my job (and the jobs of all who wish to spread the good news of God’s love) harder.

I am a campus pastor at the University of Washington — a liberal school in a liberal city in the middle of the spiritual but not religious demographic. Thanks to the work of the hell shouters, a majority of the students here, the students my community seeks to love, embrace, support, feed, teach — to engage in any way, really, are allergic to any mention of the word Jesus. They are, in fact, afraid of even coming near something that might be affiliated with Christianity.

Today I was tabling with my students in front of the student center. We had coffee, tea, cookies and a dog with a sign saying “FREE (really) coffee, tea, cookies, puppy love.” The dog drew many in, but they were still tenuous, afraid to take our coffee or cookies because they might have to listen to a spiel about Jesus or salvation or hell. One students straight up asked, “Can I just, like, have a cookie, or do I have to hear about how I am going to hell first.” Over and over again, I had to reassure students that we weren’t there to tell them about Jesus, we weren’t there to threaten them to hell, we were just there to give out things the students need/want: caffeine, cookies, warmth, and love. Some students asked about who we were, why we were doing it. The Muslim Student Association folk asked us about what kind of Christians we are, what we believe in — they gave us the opportunity to speak to them about our faith. However, they did this after twenty minutes of talking about other things, after learning about the Eid party they are having. Our openness to who they are created space and trust enough for us to tell them about who we are. This is how witnessing the gospel works.

I have students who have tried to invite friends to our fun activities, but the friends are afraid to come because of what they have seen and heard about Christians. Some are unwilling to come because of their own bad experiences. I so badly want to tell these students about God’s loving grace but all of the hellfire and damnation, the God Hates… rhetoric, the misogyny of many public voices of the church have made it so that I cannot even begin to talk about Jesus until I/we have spent months gaining the trust of those with whom we wish to share God’s message of redemptive grace.

I'll get right on that.

I’ll get right on that.

A few weeks ago while tabling, I decided a good way to get to know students was to give out coffee/treats but ask a question while doing so. Some students were game (the question was, “What do you value most?”), but one practically ran away as soon as I started to ask a question. I realized that I had gone too far too fast. We need to build up trust with these students before we can even ask some of them to tell us who they are, much less tell them who we are or who Jesus is. They have heard too much hell talk, been threatened with damnation too many time and been witnessed to without invitation too many times to be open to conversation with us. They do not trust us. The is the effect of all of those threats of hell. Not conversion, but alienation and separation.

What is the point of telling people that without conversion/repentance they will be damned to hell? Has that ever brought anyone to Christ in the modern era? At one time that might have worked, when most people (at least outwardly) believed in God, when people were walking with death on a daily basis, when hell was depicted in so many stories and so much art. But our lives are very different today. It is acceptable to not believe in God, we are separated from death, and hell is as much mocked as it is feared. Here’s the thing: most people who don’t believe in God don’t believe in hell. They are not afraid of a place they believe is imaginary. They just think those yelling about it are idiots, at best, hateful jackasses, at worst.

church-sign3

Succinct, topical and not helping. So not helping.

I don’t want to argue the existence of hell, how a person gets there, what hell is, if it is a here-and-now kind of thing or an afterlife kind of thing. That’s not my point at the moment. My point is if you are someone who believes that those who do not accept Jesus Christ as their Personal Lord and Savior, or those who are not baptized/born again are going to hell, and you sincerely want people to be saved from this torment, telling people they are going to hell is not the best strategy. If you want to witness to people about the love of Jesus Christ, if you want people to be turned around or born again by the glorious word of God’s redemptive, transforming love, show that love. Demonstrate what God’s love looks like. Act in ways that reflect that God’s love lives in your heart. Do what Jesus did — eat with the outcasts, listen to their stories, heal their wounds, feed the hungry and THEN tell those that ask that you are doing these things because of Jesus. Get arrested for feeding the homeless. Protect someone from racial/ethnic/homophobic slurs. Act on/in the love of Christ. Give people a chance to get curious; let people invite you into their hearts and into their lives. Wait for them to offer an opportunity to speak truth to them. Then they are more likely to have ears to hear, more likely to be able to listen, and more likely to open their hearts to God.

We are charged with bringing the good news to the world. The good news is the saving grace of God as found in Jesus Christ, not the damning anger of God for those who don’t believe.

Help people open their ears and hear. Love them. Care for them. Hold them in prayer. And remember, Jesus is the final judge of who goes where. You aren’t.

Help me help you. Help me help you. Help me help you bring the gospel to the world.


Longing for reformation

I've got a lot to put on this door, put up my my friend Jeremy Serrano at his congregation in CA.

I’ve got a lot to put on this door, put up my my friend Jeremy Serrano at his congregation in CA.

a sermon on Matthew 22:34-46. sorta.

I love being a Lutheran Christian. I have tried other things, wandered down other spiritual paths to see what they are all about. I love being a part of a Christian church founded by rebellion through speaking truth to power. A church that began with someone seeing something very wrong with how the church was behaving and expressing the kingdom of God and doing something about it. You see, I have always aspired to be a rebel. I have never really fit in anywhere (even church), and I often have a hard time keeping my mouth shut when I think something is messed up. The Lutheran church is my spiritual home.

I love that Lutherans are so comfortable in the grey space of life, that we acknowledge that life is hard and complex, that there are no easy answers. I feel at home in a place that talks about how we are all both saints and sinners at the same time. Luther’s railings against theologies of glory are more necessary than ever in our world that prefers self-aggrandizement to self-sacrifice. Most of all, I have been formed from the beginning by the idea that God’s loving grace is for everyone, there is no earning it, there is no being “good enough” to earn God’s love or eternal life. No one is good enough, so everyone is good enough. Sinners of the world rejoice! There is a place for us in the kingdom.

These things are all a part of my Lutheran identity, and I would assume they are a part of yours too. There is another thing that is a part of our Lutheran identity, a thing which we celebrate today: Reformation. We are a church that was founded in rebellion. Martin Luther spoke out loudly about what he saw going on in the church. He pointed out to the church its brokenness, the ways in which it was courting the world’s favor instead of Gods. To do this meant possible death. He did it anyway. Lutherans are steeped in the words, “Here I stand, I can do no other.”

While this is our heritage, this is not exactly our culture.

A joke I have heard since I was young:

“How many Lutherans does it take to change a light bulb?”

“None. Lutherans don’t like change.”

I grew up knowing this joke and it’s reality. I grew up hearing about all of the hubbub of switching from the red book to the green book — for those of you younger than I or not raised Lutheran, before our current hymnal (which is cranberry, btw), there was a green one. Before that, a red one. And hoooooooo boy, was the switch to the red one a big deal. I was little when the ELCA was formed and remember all of the hand-wringing over joining churches of different ethnicity and polity even though we were, in theory, rooted in the same faith in Jesus Christ as viewed through the lens of being saved by grace through faith.

Throughout my life I have heard story after story of altar guilds being torn apart over paraments and candles, of congregations splitting in two because of a move towards more modern music. I have watched the greater church split because of the ordination of women – in the process witnessing two of my pastors receive hate mail because of their gender – and again because of ordination and marriage rites inclusive of LGBT folk. I have heard tell of congregations that stick their heels in over all kind of issues, congregations mired in harmful politics and in gossip, of clergy who would rather stay safe than challenge their parishioners (to be fair, it’s our jobs if we challenge and that’s not what people want). I have known church members, staff and clergy to react in fear disguised as disgust to the possibility of new music, of guitars and screens in church. I have witnessed younger clergy and younger members get treated and pushed aside like children because their ideas just didn’t fit in with what the older generations thought of as church.

We have become a people tied to the law. And not even tied to God’s law, though we are tied to that – but to things we have decided are law. Ritual, ceremony, heritage, doctrine, the way things have always been done – we, over time, have turned so much of this into laws that must be followed. We have developed this idea that if this thing or if that thing isn’t present, it isn’t church. No organ, it’s not church. No procession, it’s not church. No pews, it’s not church.

The only things necessary for church are word and sacrament. That’s it. Nothing else matters. All of the rest of it is what we churchy types call audiaphora — matters not essential to faith.

So far as the other things we cling to as law, some of which is actual scripture and can be found in our reading today from Leviticus, allow me to give you some Luther.

“Therefore, when the law impels one against love, it ceases and should no longer be a law; but where no obstacle is in the way, the keeping of the law is a proof of love, which lies hidden in the heart. Therefore ye have need of the law, that love may be manifested; but if it cannot be kept without injury to our neighbor, God wants us to suspend and ignore the law. Thus you are to regulate your life and conduct.

There are in our day many customs, many orders and ceremonies, by which we falsely think to merit heaven; and yet there is only this one principle, namely: the love to our neighbor, that includes in it all good works. I will give you an example we recently heard. Here is a priest or monk, who is to read his prayers or the rules of his order, or to hold mass, or say penance. At this moment there comes a poor man or woman to him who has need of his help and counsel. What shall this priest or monk do? Shall he perform his service, or shall he assist the poor man? He should therefore act prudently and think: True, I am required to read my prayers, hold mass, or say penance; but now on the other hand, a poor man is here; he needs my help and I should come to his rescue. God commanded me to do this; but the others man devised and instituted. I will let the mandates of men go, and will serve my neighbor according to God’s commandment.”

What matters, what really matters in ALL THAT WE DO is that we love God and neighbor. If we are not doing that, we are not fulfilling the law. What if we, and all Christians, evaluated every law with the questions, “Does this show love of God? Does this show love of neighbor?” What if we asked this question regarding the things we argue about? What if we asked this question about our jobs, our behavior on the freeway, how we treat those with less than ourselves? Think about the image of Cristendom is we all evaluated the law in this way. If we all looked at all of the laws – the laws in scripture, the laws we have chosen, the laws of our society – what if we lived this way? What a glorious world this would be!

This, as we know, is not the global image of Christians. And, at least in my context, Lutheran doesn’t mean very much. It just gets lumped in with the rest of Christendom.

My students and I need your help. The church, the world, needs your help. We need you to live out loud as Lutheran Christians, loving God and neighbor before all else.

A couple of weeks ago, some students and I were tabling in the student union, giving away free coffee and telling people about Lutheran Campus Ministry. I had this idea that we would ask everyone who wanted a coffee a question – what do you value most. An interesting, not Jesus-y, non-threatening question. A young woman approached the table and asked for some candy. I said yes, but would she answer a question for me first. She said, quickly, “No, I would rather not have a candy then.” And she ran off. I realized that she had no idea who we were, that we were lumped in with all of the other Christians she had ever seen or heard about and that we scared her. She had no reason to trust us — in fact, she probably had many reasons to not trust us. I realized that we have to be a presence on campus finding ways to live out Christ’s love without words, finding ways to engage those who are interested in engaging with us and to just move from threatening to innocuous in the eyes of many before they would even come near us, much engage in relationship.

Over the years, the Christian narrative has become a story not about God’s love for all as shown in Jesus Christ, but as a vehicle for selfishness, judgement, and societal transformation into a world of God’s law, not God’s love. We are called to change this narrative. We are called to stop arguing about the things that don’t matter – about paraments and worship styles – and to start showing the world what does matter to us.

We have beautiful theology that will become meaningless if we don’t show it to the world, if we don’t stop holding it tight in our quiet, humble Scandanavian/German enclaves. Our acknowledgement of humans as sinners and saints is diametrically opposed to the Calvinist depraved human theology that is spouted by congregations like Mars Hill. People need to hear this word of grace, this admittance that while we are indeed messed up, we are also beautiful (and vice versa)! Our theology of the cross is a cure for the prosperity theology that runs rampant across our land, encouraging people to believe that what is most important is my personal relationship with God and that God wants us to be rich and happy. God wants us to be filled with joy, but that does not always mean being happy and certainly doesn’t mean always getting what we want. We are called to the cross, called to sacrifice for God. God calls us to so much more than our own happiness and we Lutherans (in theory) know this. We need to find ways to show this to the world.

Note that I keep saying show, not tell. Millenials and those who identify with millennial culture are deeply suspicious of institutions and they have heard it all before. “Words, words words!” they are likely to say when they hear a Christian spouting off about God’s love. For too long they have heard those words coming from the mouths of those who would see women stay in the kitchen, and the LGBT community stay in closets or be changed, from people who claim they want to love but really, that love means “change to be like me.” For too long, the world has heard the words of love while witnessing acts of indifference at best, hate at worst. Our words have become meaningless. We have to act. We are called to love God so deeply that we cannot help but love our neighbor because to love our neighbor is to love God. We are called to evaluate law against love. We are called to ask ourselves how we live out the resurrection in our every day lives and to then to act. To live differently than the world while loving the world and, in that way to transform it.

This is not to say we shouldn’t use words to witness, it is imperative. But after we have shown, after we have been asked the question, “Why do you do this? Why do you love so freely, forgive so easily, give without ceasing?” Then we have permission to say, “Because I am a Lutheran Christian and I believe this is who Jesus calls us to be.” Then we are called to shed our quiet ways to bring the good news to someone who has not seen it in action before, who has not witnessed Christ in this way. But only when we are invited into conversation after we have shown who we are will these words really matter and carry any weight.

I long for reformation. I long to be a part of a church that puts as much investment in the future as it does in the past. I long to be a part of a greater community that values youth as much as it does life experience, that is willing to have difficult conversations with love and respect, that is willing to challenge the status quo and is willing to make people uncomfortable in the pews at least as often as it placates them. I long for a church which really means that all are welcome, a church that welcomes people to come in all of their broken, messed up glory and does not require Sunday best to mean putting on a shiny, clean, false “everything is okay” face along with your Sunday clothes. A church which lives out in every day life these words “love the lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and love your neighbor as yourself.”

We can do this. We can be this church. We have the tools, we have the theology, we have the words and we have the Word. Now, let us act. Let us go out into our communities and witness with our actions to the transforming love of Jesus Christ. With the grace of God, the example of Christ, and the inspiration of the holy spirit, we can once again claim the title reforming church. Let this be our new Lutheran motto, “Here I act in love, I can do no other.”


Confessing the racism in our hearts is the first step to recovery for ourselves and our nation

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up like a raisin in the sun,
or fester like a sore, and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat,
or crust and sugar over like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load…
or does it just explode?

-Dream Deferred, Langston Hughes

 

A sermon on Romans 12:1-8

Over the course of the past two weeks, we have once again seen the explosion that results from a dream deferred. The protests

A dream deferred

Another dream deferred

and riots in Ferguson started with the shooting of an unarmed black man by a white police officer. There are many stories as to what happened, little is clear about what transpired. What is clear is that an unarmed black man was killed by a white police officer and then left there in the street, dead, for four hours, as though his life had no worth. His community walked past this body, left there to rot, to stink like rotten meat, a visual example of a dream deferred. The argument about what Michael Brown was doing or why he got shot are pointless to a community besieged by violence and poverty, a community that has seen jobs disappear, that was displaced to build an airport that never was, a community that knows it has little value to the police force or the others in the city. Michael Brown was a human being, a human being left to rot in the street for hours. His death and the actions following are a visceral example of how the black people of Ferguson, and the United States, are valued by the rest of society.

It is so easy to say that this is Missouri. But we know this is not true. We know that our police department has its own issues. We know that our neighborhoods have their own issues, that in spite of our thinking of Seattle as an egalitarian place, we are still pretty darn segregated. A friend of mine has had the n word shouted at him numerous times, not too long ago while walking on Queen Anne. We read in the news about a white man going ballistic and screaming racial epithets at protesters at Westlake center, spitting on a black man, the men trading insults and the black man getting pepper sprayed in the face. White guy going nuts, black man gets pepper sprayed.

Those of us who are active on social media and are paying attention to what is happening in Ferguson have seem the numbers, we have taken in so much news about racial disparities in this country, about the worth of life of black people in the United States.

We watched Melissa Harris Perry do a short piece on the fact that from 2006-2012 a black man has been killed by a white police officer on an average of twice a week. Twice. A. Week. All over the country.

We read about the incredible disparities in our judicial system, where people of color are appalling. 1 of every 15 black men and 1 of every 37 Hispanic men are in prison, compared to 1 in every 106 white men. There are those who would say that this is cultural, even genetic. That people of color are genetically disposed to crime, or that their socio economic background leads them to lives of crime. However, when we look at statistics, this does not bear out. In the war on drugs, blacks have been disproportionately jailed and punished. While African-Americans make up 14% of regular drug users, they make up 37% of those arrested for drugs. African-Americans receive sentences that are 10% longer than whites and are 21 percent more likely to receive mandatory-minimum sentences than white defendants and are 20 percent more like to be sentenced to prison. (source). There are the horrible polling numbers on how different races are viewing the events in Ferguson, the fact that people are more likely to vote for the death penalty if the person is black.

I could stand here all day and quote depressing statistics on the state of race in this country. You get the picture. Something is wrong. But what can we do? I’ll tell you what we can’t afford to do. We can’t get paralyzed. We can’t ignore this if we want any semblance of a just society. If we want this kind of violence and injustice to stop, if we want to put an end to explosions caused by dreams deferred, we must act. We must not conform to our society’s rhythm of spending a few weeks a year thinking about race and then ignoring it until another explosion. We are called not to conform, but to be transformed. Before transformation, though, there must be confession.

I have been active in one way or another in anti-racism work since the 8th grade. I have given speeches, written blog posts, given sermons, taught classes on privilege and race. I have had black friends. I have traveled. I have read. I have studied racism and prejudice.

And yet

I confess to you today that I am still racist.

I don’t want to be. Most people don’t want to be racist. That’s why we deny it so fervently. It is a horrible thing to judge someone by the color of his or her skin. It removes the humanity from a brother or sister in Christ and turns him or her into an object, a mass of skin, something not even worth an ambulance or 911 call. Something that can be left in the streets to decay and stink like rotten meat.

While I was studying the works of Dr. King and Malcolm X, while my parents were working hard to get me to events in Cleveland that would allow me to at least be around people of color, I was growing up in the 4th least diverse city in the nation. I was growing up in a town that had probably 10 people of color, 4 of whom where in my high school. I grew up around people who used the n word as an adverb – it would go before words like rig, knock and lip. People from my high school once joked about wearing white sheets to a basketball game to scare the referee. While I did react strongly to the white sheet “joke” there were so many things around me that were racist that I didn’t even notice. That’s the worst kind, the kind of racism that is so subtle you can’t call it out. That’s the stuff that gets into your bones.

It was not easy to see my own racism. After all, I am a good progressive, I do the work, I had a shirt in 8th grade that said Love See No Color. I had black friends! That’s always the thing, right? I’m not racist, I have black friends!! How could I be racist?

Then I moved to Chicago’s south side and I began to see… I began to realize that those phrases from my childhood were racial slurs – seriously, I head them so often I didn’t hear the n word attached to them – I came face to face with my assumptions about black people and the beliefs I had inherited from the place in which I grew up, the attitudes I had unconsciously absorbed from the media. Many of the things I have thought are far too embarrassing and stupid to share. They are things I confess to God. But I will say that I distinctly remember seeing a young black man running an my first thought was, “I wonder what he stole?”

Yup. I did that.

And, every now and again, I still do.

In spite of myself I have conformed to the world around me.

I am in need of transformation. Each and every day.

How about you?

This is important.

Admitting we have a problem is the first step to recovery. And we have a problem. We don’t like to look into it because we don’t like ugly truths about ourselves. We don’t want to admit that we judge others based on their appearance. It’s so… unprogressive. But the transformation process is never pretty and never comfortable. Transformation is painful. And before we can transform the way our nation behaves about race, before we can really change the inequality in our schools, in our judicial system and in our government, before we can fight the systemic racism that sends people of color to jail more often and longer than their white counterparts, before we can put an end to the school to prison pipeline, we have to look in our hearts and admit to ourselves that we have racism in our hearts. That every now and then we clutch our purse tighter or cross the street when people of color are around, that we occasionally think stupid stuff regarding a person based on their color. We have to admit it and then we have to try to change.

 

This is transformation. This is not conforming.

 

If we want to put an end to the violence, if we want to work to never see an unarmed black person die at the hands of a white person, if we want to put an end to these flare ups in racial tension like we have seen these past weeks in Ferguson, and before that in Florida, and before that in Oakland, Toledo, Cincinnati, St. Petersburg, Harlem, LA, Miami… (These are the moments of racial violence I found on Wikipedia since 1990)… if we want to put an end to the violence, we have got to look at how we contribute to and benefit from the problem. We have to dismantle the racism in our own hearts before we can dismantle the system.

I mean, we don’t have to. We can do what we have been doing. We can get really upset at these images we see on tv, we can protest and post about it on Facebook until we get bored with it or it gets too hard or we get tired of thinking about race all of the time and then forget that it is a problem until the next time it blows up somewhere in our nation. Maybe next time it won’t be in Ohio or Missouri. Maybe next time it will be at 23rd and Cherry.

But when we do this, when we go on pretending that we don’t have a problem we are injuring the body of Christ. The leg is being bludgeoned on a regular basis and we just keep limping along. Occasionally we bandage it or we put on some shin guards, but we do little else. It is too hard, to painful, too much. It is exhausting. Why do we have to talk about race all the time?

This is one example of our privilege. One of many. As a white person, I rarely have to think about my race. From what I hear and read from people of color, this is a luxury they do not have. This is a luxury we should give up, part of our being living sacrifices to the lord. Give up the comfort afforded by ignoring issues of race.

Transform through the renewing of our minds. Learn about racism. Learn about white privilege, break down barriers. There are organizations within the church and in Seattle that work to educate white people about race. Go. Learn. Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Don’t be afraid to call yourself out on racist thoughts. And don’t be afraid to call out people in your life who do it too. Silence is permission. As much as it is easier to not say anything, as it is easier to be comfortable and quiet, we are called to more. We are called to not conform.

I was taught in seminary to always end on a note of grace. You don’t want people leaving thinking everything is awful, I’m awful, this is awful.

And, well, the state of race relations in this country IS awful. But, there is good news.  The grace of God is with us. The grace of God is the power that allows us to look at the ugliness in ourselves and know we are loved beyond belief. The grace of God is what gives us the power to change, the love of God is what shines on the darkest places within us to rid us of our shadows, to clean out the darkness, the sludge, the dirt and to be transformed into people who love without ceasing, who know good from evil, and to transform the world. With God at our backs and in our hearts, we have the power to change ourselves, to be transformed. We have the strength to be living sacrifices, and the love to see each and every other person as a member of the body of Christ. This is the gift of God. Where God challenges, God gives strength. Where God calls, God will travel with us. God wants us to be transformed nonconformists, to follow God’s will against the world’s, and God will give us the strength to do so through prayer and through community. We don’t have to do this alone. We can confront our own racism with our family in Christ, with the people in this very room. We can support each other with the power of the holy spirit that moves through our lives and through our communities. God will not abandon us even as we admit our uglier selves. God calls us to do this. It is why we pray thy kingdom come, thy will be done…

God help us to be living sacrifices, help us to be transformed nonconformists.

Your will, not ours, be done.

Amen

 


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