This Matters.

church-for-saleAs Jesus and his disciples traveled along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.”

58 Jesus replied, “Foxes have dens and the birds in the sky have nests, but the Human One[a] has no place to lay his head.”

59 Then Jesus said to someone else, “Follow me.”

He replied, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.”

60 Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead. But you go and spread the news of God’s kingdom.”

61 Someone else said to Jesus, “I will follow you, Lord, but first let me say good-bye to those in my house.”

62 Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand on the plow and looks back is fit for God’s kingdom.”

-Luke 9:57-62 (Common English Bible)


Yesterday, I stumbled upon an article on Patheos wondering why Liberal Protestantism is dying.  The writer, Connor Wood, is not the usual writer that tends to look at the downfall of Mainline Protestantism as the fault of social justice or a more friendly approach to gays.  He actually sees a need for this species of Christianity and would like to see it preserved.

Wood wonders why Liberal Protestantism seems like its going down the tubes while conservative and evangelical Protestantism are at least holding its own or thriving.  He thinks he has zeroed in on the answer; Liberal Protestantism doesn’t do as a good a job of forming community as its more conservative brethren.

Before I go any farther, I have to say there is a lot of truth to this.  While there is a lot of talk against individualism in liberal churches (and castigating conservative churches for being individualistic), the talk is more focused on the role of government in society, not the spiritual community.  People are allowed to believe mostly what they want.  Wood explains:

Well, the first thing we have to realize is that conservative churches are almost always stricter than their liberal counterparts. They demand more investment, require their members to believe in more rigorous, exclusionary creeds, and don’t look kindly on skipping church four Sundays in a row to sleep in.

In the early 1990s, a political economist named Laurence Iannaccone claimed that seemingly arbitrary demands and restrictions, like going without electricity (the Amish) or abstaining from caffeine (Mormons), can actually make a group stronger. He was trying to explain religious affiliation from a rational-choice perspective: in a marketplace of religious options, why would some people choose religions that make serious demands on their members, when more easygoing, low-investment churches were – literally – right around the corner? Weren’t the warmer and fuzzier churches destined to win out in fair, free-market competition?

According to Iannaccone, no. He claimed that churches that demanded real sacrifice of their members were automatically stronger, since they had built-in tools to eliminate people with weaker commitments. Think about it: if your church says that you have to tithe 10% of your income, arrive on time each Sunday without fail, and agree to believe seemingly crazy things, you’re only going to stick around if you’re really sure you want to. Those who aren’t totally committed will sneak out the back door before the collection plate even gets passed around.

And when a community only retains the most committed followers, it has a much stronger core than a community with laxer membership requirements.

 I thought that was an interesting look at modern religion and I tended to agree with it.  I saw this article on Facebook and decided to share it with no comment.  It was interesting what the response was.  I think the respondents were focused on Woods use of the word strict, because most of them saw his prescription in negative terms.  I tend to think when liberal Protestants like myself see the word strict along with any mention of conservative or evangelical churches, we tend to think of a religion centered in works with no mention of grace.  The implicit thought here is that our churches are filled with grace and are not so ruled-centered.
Coming from an evangelical background, you can see in some place an emphasis on following rules over grace.  But I think my friends were not really looking deeply at what Wood was talking about here.  He is not saying that liberal churches should give up what makes them liberal to be like conservative churches.  What he is saying is that liberal churches have to be able to demand something from their members.  There is an old fancy word for this: discipleship.  Liberal churches tend not see their faith extending past the doors of the church or beyond the voting booth.  Conservative churches tend to see that all life is under God’s rule and we have to live up to those demands.  Does that mean there is no grace?  No.  I think conservative churches can be places of grace, of that unearned love from God.  Liberal churches tend to say they are based on grace, but I wonder if a grace that doesn’t ask or compel us to be better is nothing more than cheap grace.
Liberal churches tend to fear any change, thinking any change will be to make them a carbon copy of conservative churches.  I don’t think that has to be the case and it shouldn’t be.  We have to create our own unique way of discipleship, not just copy what has been done.

Can Christians Support Torture?


This week, we saw the release of the Senate Democrats report on torture in the CIA.  I’ve already written a post about my views on the Torture Report at another blog and you are welcome to read it.  One note, if you are looking for a clear and ringing viewpoint, you won’t get it from that post.  You probably won’t get it here either.

What I want to talk about here is something more related to the church in relation to torture: can someone be a Christian and support torture?

One pastor, Brian Zahnd makes a bold claim; no, you can’t be a Christian and support torture at all:

You cannot be Christian and support torture. I want to be utterly explicit on this point. There is no possibility of compromise. The support of torture is off the table for a Christian. I suppose you can be some version of a “patriot” and support the use of torture, but you cannot be any version of Christian and support torture. So choose one: A torture-endorsing patriot or a Jesus-following Christian. But don’t lie to yourself that you can be both. You cannot.

(Clearly you do not have to be a Christian to reject the barbarism of torture, you simply need to be a humane person. But to be a Christian absolutely requires you to reject the use of torture.)

I remember when Pew Research released their findings in 2009 revealing that six out of ten white evangelicals supported the use of torture on suspected terrorists. (Patton Dodd talks about that here.) The survey stunned me. I spoke about it from the pulpit in 2009 and have continued to do so. I said it then and I’m saying it again today: You cannot support the use of torture and claim to be a follower of Jesus.

Any thoughtful person, no matter their religion or non-religion, knows that you cannot support torturing people and still claim to be a follower of the one who commanded his disciples to love their enemies. The only way around this is to invent a false Jesus who supports the use of torture. (The Biblical term for this invented false Jesus is “antichrist.”)

Those who argue for the use of torture do so because they are convinced it is pragmatic for national security. But Christians are not called to be pragmatists or even safe. Christians are called by Jesus to imitate a God who is kind and merciful to the wicked.

“Love your enemies! Do good to them.…and you will be children of the Most High; for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. Be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” –Jesus (Luke 6:35, 36)

I don’t know of a greater indictment against American evangelicalism than the fact that a majority of its adherents actually admit they support the use of illegal torture on suspected terrorists!

The issue of torture has always been at least in public a very black and white argument, even though there are surveys where the general American public seem to view this in more shades of grey. This one issue tends to inflame passions, to have people drawing lines in the sand and determining who is moral and who is not.
I will say up front that I don’t support the use of torture but I also think those that it has “worked” on occassion (which doesn’t mean it should be used).  I think the torture done a decade ago was shameful.  But I am hesitant to go the next step that Zahnd does because if we start to decide that someone who holds a certain view is no longer a follower of Jesus, there are consquences that have to back that up.
Maybe it is the literal nature of my autistic brain, but I tend to believe that words have consequences.  If we say something, especially if we say something like Zahnd does, then it can be just left there.  If you are saying that someone who supports torture is not a Christian, then we have to ask some hard questions.  If this is the line that if crossed you are no longer a Christian, are you allowed to come to church?  Should such a person be expelled from the fellowship?  Should we do as evangelist Charles Finney did (he banned slaveholders from communion) and bar these folks from the communion table.
It’s one thing to say that if one supports torture that you wonder about their faith.  It is quite another to say that someone has created a mortal sin, one worthy enough of no longer being in fellowship.
I get where Zahnd is coming from.  I do wonder about the faith of those who might support torture.  But before I start excommunicating people, I want to understand why they support this practice.  How do they think it lines up with Scripture.
But I also wonder where grace fits in.  Or are these folk too far gone to save?  And what about other unsavory practices like the use of drones to kill suspected terrorists?
What I’m getting at here is that if you are going to point a gun at folks, you damn well better be ready to pull the trigger. Don’t sit here and talk tough but then fail back your words with action, because that is basically saying you don’t really mean what you say.
Maybe there are cases where you have to draw the line.  But I want to at least hesitate before I pull the trigger, because this is not a simple thing.  Not a simple thing at all.
Note: The cartoon is by Brazilian artist Carlos Latoff and is called, “It’s not torture when U.S. forces are doing it…”

Repost: Out of Place

Note: I wrote this earlier this year about relationships. One thing I’d like to add: tell people that you care for them or that you are their friend. For someone like me with autism it can make all the difference in the world.

lonely childWhen I was in high school, I ran track. I didn’t run well, but I did run track. Practice would take place after school. I remember heading into the locker room to change, and passing by this front room set aside for physical therapy. Every time I passed by there were people my age chatting and having a good time.

One day, I decided I was going to join in. I came in after practice and walked into the room. Unlike other days, the room was mostly empty save for one student who was being attended to by a teacher. I walked in and sat down hoping to engage in some conversation. The teacher stopped what he was doing and looked at me. “What are you doing here?” he said. I gave him a confused look and started to think I had made the wrong decision. He pointed to the door and ordered me to leave. I walked out feeling ashamed that I had even bothered to come in.

I share this story because it serves as an example of the ups and downs of one person with Aspergers trying to be social. Looking back, I probably should have known that social situations change. But in my mind, everything repeats. If there were people goofing off one day, then they would be there everyday. Obviously there were time it was okay to be in the room and times this wasn’t possible. But that nuance was lost on me.

Relationships for someone with Aspergers is like walking into a room that’s pitch black. You can’t see anything. The darkness is scary and you feel very alone. The result is that you are always scared, scared that something in the darkness is coming after you.

This all makes it hard to simply be. You are constantly worried you are going to say something stupid and when you do, all hell breaks loose. So, you withdraw feeling more alone and isolated.

It’s not just that you don’t know how to act with potential friends, it’s also that you don’t know how to act with fellow co-workers. A conversation that I intended to be helpful was interpreted as being hostile. I nearly lost my position because of it.

And let’s not even talk about romantic relationships.

In many ways, I’m still that 16 year old boy trying to figure out human relationships and failing miserably. It’s trial and error, finding out what works and what doesn’t.

The thing is, after being rapped on the nose more than once you start to become risk averse. You feel like a trapped animal with eyes darting about; seeing others as a potential threat or potential friend.

Blogger and fellow aspie Penelope Trunk has said that people with Aspergers don’t have friends and don’t have the emotional need for friends. I tend to disagree with this. I want to have friends, especially close ones, I just don’t know how to start a friendship let alone maintain it.

Macro and Micro-Racism

2014-12-01-16448702mmmainEver since the grand jury in Ferguson, MO failed to indict officer Darrell Wilson in the death of Michael Brown, I’ve been wondering what to say about all of this.  That desire to say something grew this week when another grand jury failed to indict the policeman involved in the death of Eric Garner.

Being an African American male, which seems to be the target of cops these days, I wanted to say something.  I need to say something because this issue involved me.  Eric Garner was only two years younger than me.  That means that it’s not only young black men that can face brutality from police, it could be a middle aged black man like myself.

To put it more starkly, it could be me.  I could be stopped for speeding (as I have been every few years or so) and could face danger from someone that is supposed to keep order.

I’ve been wondering what the response should be to these incidents where black men are being gunned down by the police.  More specifically, I’m wondering what the church’s response should be.  Right now, the options being offered from the left and the right are not the best.

Let’s take what conservatives are saying first.  The response to these cases has been mixed.  Many conservatives tended to look at these issues from a “micro” view, meaning they look at each individual case to determine judgement.  So with the incident involving Michael Brown, they focused on the fact that Brown had stole cigarillos and was responding to Wilson in a way that made Wilson fear for his life.  In the Garner case, there is shared outrage but the reason is different.  Here is what Robert Tracinski said regarding that incident:

…one of the most insidious errors you can make is to turn each case into a symbol of “systemic racism” rather than an individual case to be judged on its own merits.

What did the facts show in the Staten Island case? They don’t show deliberate murder. The video of the police arrest of Eric Garner shows no evidence of malice or specific intent to harm Garner. Rather, it shows a callousness toward his obvious physical distress when the confrontation goes wrong. The killing is less malicious than officious. I mostly agree with Sean Davis, who argues that it was a reckless use of force that caused Garner’s death, which means that there is a good case for prosecuting the policeman responsible on charges of manslaughter.

Despite the damning video that brought the case to national attention, it is not totally cut and dried. The autopsy showed that Garner was already on the run from the grim reaper. The choking action (which may not technically be a “chokehold” but was, er, a hold that choked him) was found to be the primary cause of death, but Garner had major health problems, including asthma. So you could imagine a defense attorney making the case that this just happened to be an unfortunate situation in which a guy resisted arrest and was in such bad shape that he didn’t survive the altercation. There is a conceivable defense that the choking made no difference and Garner would have died anyway just from the stress of resisting arrest. But that’s a defense that ought to be made in court, not pre-emptively endorsed by a grand jury.

That’s why so many on the right have come down on a different side in this case than they did in Ferguson.

For many on the right, each case has to be argued by their own merits.  It makes no sense to look at some “macro” cause like systemic racism.  So, in the Garner case the issue at hand is that the police used excessive force, not racism.

I personally think there is much good to take from this.  The Brown case is different from the Garner case and that should be taken into account.

That said, this view tends to play down more macro-issues like racism to the extent that it’s made to appear that they don’t seem concerned with race or see it as a settled issue, a relic of the 1960s.

But ignoring that race might play a factor (at the very least a hidden factor) is telling a good chunk of the population (African Americans make up about 12% of the US population)  that has had to learn to fear the police that their concerns are silly.  It ignores that there are have been several incidents over the years where black men have faced harrassment from white police.  Here in Minnesota, a black man sitting in a downtown St. Paul skyway waiting for his son to finish school was harrassed and tased by St. Paul police for no apparent reason.

While I don’t think there is some conspiracy, it’s hard not to see a disturbing pattern taking shape.  What conservatives fail to see is that racism isn’t just a bunch of guys wearing bed sheets and standing around a flaming cross.  It can also be a silent bias that people are not even aware of.

If conservatives tend to focus on the micro to the exclusion of the macro, then liberals do the exact opposite.  They are rightly focused on the racism that takes place but sometimes miss the particulars.  They also tend to not really have a realistic way of solving our problems both near term and long term.

Tim Wise is a well-known anti-racism speaker.  In his most recent article he hits the problem (macro) but doesn’t really offer any solutions other than being angry.  Here’s a sample:

Nice people do not protest, angry people do; and right now, I’d trade every nice white person about whom Chris Rock was speaking for 100,000 angry ones. But not those who are angry at black folks or brown immigrants or taxes—we have more than enough of them. I mean 100,000 who are angry enough at a system of racial injustice to throw ourselves upon the gears of the machine, as Mario Savio once insisted. A hundred thousand angry enough to join with our brothers and sisters of color and say enough. A hundred thousand who are tired of silence, tired of collaboration, tired of nice, and ready for justice.

In short, and though I know it won’t strike some folks as particularly, well, nice, it really must be said: fuck nice. And the fact that there are many who would be more disturbed by my language here than by the death of black men at the hands of police, tells us all we need to know about the poison that is niceness, and about the dangerous souls who cling to that self-concept like a badge of honor. They have made clear by virtue of their silence what side they’re on; and that will not, cannot, be forgotten.

Wise has some good points.  But his angry prophet pose doesn’t always help.  Yes, white Americans are somewhat clueless at times about the plight of African Americans.  Sometimes you have to shout at people, but not all the time.  Sometimes yelling at people ends up turning people off instead of allowing them to listen.

Another problem with Wise and other liberals is that they too often are preaching to the choir.  So liberals, especially white liberals can pat themselves on the back, thankful they aren’t like those SOBs who are so blind to racial injustice.

Wise isn’t the only one doing this.  Susan Thistlewaite, the head of Chicago Theological Seminary, has a long piece repeating the problem of white privilege in America, but offers no solution either.  If conservatives can’t see a problem, liberals can’t see a solution.

America has a problem and doesn’t have a solution to racism.

I think the church has to offer an answer that is beyond the conservative and liberal offerings.  As Christians, we have to be committed to diversity and racial reconciliation.  But far too often in my own experience when the church tries to deal with racism, it ends up having blacks talking about being victims and white people being made to feel guilty.

I don’t have a grand theological solution.  What I do think is that during Jesus’ earthly ministry he talked with people.  He invited himself to different tables; tax collectors, religious folk and “sinners.”  I think the way to help at least break down some of the walls is by churches coming together in fellowship.  Maybe predominantly white and black churches could start worshipping together on occassion.

Churches could also focus on solvable solutions instead of dealing with the big macro issue of racism.  Churches should press for reform of local police departments and also pursue changes at the national level.

The church should be able to speak against the macro issue of racism and also work on the micro level for real solutions.

After the last 10 days we have seen that unfortunately we don’t live in a “post-racial society,” at least not yet.  But we can get there. As followers of Jesus we have to work and work on both a macro and a micro level so that one day we won’t hear anymore stories of white policemen harrassing and shooting black men.

We can solve this as long as we have God on our side.


Sermon: Make Me Wanna Holler

Habakkuk 1:1–4, 2:2–4 and 3:17–19
First Sunday in Advent
November 30, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

10394468_10152874227258609_1259331830004991987_nMy dad was always concerned whenever I did something with one my white female friends. I never really understood what was the deal. I had no interest in dating them, just hanging out with them. I went to a Catholic high school in Michigan that was predominantly white and it so happened that a lot of the people I knew were white women.

A few years out of high school, I started to understand what Dad was getting at. My friend Cherie and I had both moved to Washington, DC she to go to graduate school and I to an internship and hopefully a future job. We had decided to drive the 12 hours from DC to Flint. Somewhere in Western Maryland was when the muffler decided to give out. We kept going until we crossed over into Pennsylvania to stop at a Chevy dealership to get the muffler replaced. We decided to get something to eat while we waited for the car. As Cherie and I were chatting and eating our lunch, a looked over to an elderly man who was looking at me. He had this scowl on his face like he was disgusted about something. It was then that I realized what my father was talking about. You see, having grown up as he did in Jim Crow Louisiana, he was aware of the dangers of a black man seen in public with a white woman. Now, this wasn’t Louisiana in the 1940s, it was Pennsylvania in the early 90s. I don’t think this man was planning on gathering his neighbors to do something to me. But that scowl reminded me that even though we have made advances in the civil rights, there were still lingering threads of a nightmarish past.

Click here to continue reading. To listen to the sermon podcast, please go here.

Is Discipleship Quibron or Dimetapp?

ZFVTV.jpgWhen I was a kid, I remember having to take two different liquid medicines for my asthma.  One was called Quibron.  It. Was. Nasty.

Quibron had to be the most foul thing I have ever tasted.  It was hard to keep it down as Mom tried to dispense it.  I can remember one scene from my childhood where Mom kept giving me a dose of Quibron and I would keep spitting it out.  I wasn’t trying to be mean, it was just a reaction to how gross this medicine was.

Then there was Dimetapp.  This medicine is used mostly as a cough medicine, but it could also be used for allergies and asthma as well.  Dimetapp was heaven compared to the hell of Quibron.  It was grape flavored, which was good in helping kids take their medicine, but possibly bad if kids start pretending they have a cough or an allergy to get another taste of that grape elixir.

Both medicines helped me when I was younger.  The only difference is one tasted really good and the other tasted foul.

For some reason today, I’ve seen a few things on the internet that dealt with the costs of following God.  God wasn’t all sweetness and light, no, God expected things from us and to follow God, it meant more about sacrifice than success.

All of this sounds good to me.  And yet, each time I heard this I felt uncomfortable and remembered my past.  When I was in college, the God I dealt with seemed to be one that said “no” a whole lot, especially when it came to anything sexual.  But it also seemed that God would make you do things you didn’t want to do.  God wasn’t fun.

I’m not advocating for a nice, benevolent God, one that is part and parcel of the Moral Theraputic Deism that seems so prevalent in American society.  And yet, I don’t want a God that is a joyless taskmaster, one that is calling me to a joyless life as well.  I don’t want to live with the guilt I faced as a young man, but I don’t want a God that has no impact on my life.

Is discipleship all about what we can’t do?  Or is it something more?  Can God expect more from us and it not always be about what we must give up?

I don’t have answers.  I just wanted to share my own thoughts.

It’s Been a Privilege

There is one word that has been batted around lately that I would like to see being used less.  That word is “privilege.”

white-privilegeActually, what I want to see used less is a more specific application of privilege.  It has been used in issues dealing with race to talk about the invisible ways that whites tend to be privileged because of their race.  It is important to talk about privilege and devise ways to lessen it in our lives.

But lately, I’ve started to see people abuse the word.  Instead of talking about privilege as a way to help us become a more authentically diverse society, the word is being used to attack anything that people don’t like when it is told by the “oppressor” meaning mostly white males.

As I’ve said, privilege is something that happens in race relations, issues involving gender and other areas.  We all have an inherent bias, something that needs to be addressed and corrected.  As Christians we should be able to do that lovingly.  The person showing privilege is most of the time not an evil or hateful person, they just need to be made aware of their bias.

But more and more, the use of the word has become a weapon to shut people up.  Instead of restoring a fellow child of God, it is used to shame them. It is being used in ways that divide more than heal.

A fellow pastor recently told me that he couldn’t speak on a topic because he would be criticized as being privileged.  So, this man could not share his viewpoint because he would be dismissed as an unenlightened white male.

The problem with attacking others as privilege is that it also exposes the arrogance of the one calling others privilege.  They see themselves as having made it.  They are enlightened.  They love everybody (except Republicans and evangelicals).  They don’t see that they too are flawed, that they might have biases of their own.  They are so busy shaming those with specks of wood in their eyes to ignore the tree in their own eyes.

As I’ve said, I think privilege is real.  But I think as Christians we have to use it to help us as a church and a world, not as a way to dismiss or disrespect others.  If you don’t like someone, fine, just don’t hide behind the rhetoric of privilege.


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