This.

“If change and growth are not programmed into your spirituality, if there are not serious warnings about the blinding nature of fear and fanaticism, your religion will always end up worshiping the status quo and protecting your present ego position and personal advantage as if it were God.”

― Richard Rohr

To my eyes, ears, and heart, this could be our current, collective spiritual diagnosis.

#DearWhiteChristians:

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“…I have been disappointed with the church. I do not say this as one of those negative critics who can always find something wrong with the church. I say this as a minister of the gospel, who loves the church; who was nurtured in its bosom; who has been sustained by its spiritual blessings and who will remain true to it as long as the cord of life shall lengthen. When I was suddenly catapulted into the leadership of the bus protest in Montgomery, Alabama, a few years ago, I felt we would be supported by the white church. I felt that the white ministers, priests and rabbis of the South would be among our strongest allies. Instead, some have been outright opponents, refusing to understand the freedom movement and misrepresenting its leaders; all too many others have been more cautious than courageous and have remained silent behind the anesthetizing security of stained glass windows…In the midst of blatant injustices inflicted upon the Negro, I have watched white churchmen stand on the sideline and mouth pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities. In the midst of a mighty struggle to rid our nation of racial and economic injustice, I have heard many ministers say: “Those are social issues, with which the gospel has no real concern.” And I have watched many churches commit themselves to a completely other worldly religion which makes a strange, un-Biblical distinction between body and soul, between the sacred and the secular.”

– Martin Luther King, Jr.

Arrogant, Overfed, and Unconcerned.

(… continued from here):

My next opportunity to take a class with this professor was in the fall of 2004. The title of the course read “Prophetical Books of the Old Testament”.

For many weeks the class proceeded quite predictably. There were reading and writing assignments, and wonderful class discussions about historical and contextual criticisms of the text. I remember spending many enjoyable moments discussing the Hebrew-to-English-to-modern English problems of translation. For a big ole Bible nerd like me, this was all perfectly sublime.

One day, while reading through the book of Ezekiel, our professor asked the class to participate in an out-loud reading exercise. I felt transported back to elementary school as I listened to others read from the text, paying extra attention to each word, in order to be ready to do my part when the moment arrived. Before I had the opportunity to impress my peers with my spoken word skills, someone read the following verse aloud:

“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy.”

(Ezekiel 16:49)

Immediately after the last syllable of the last word in that verse was spoken by my classmate, my professor interrupted. “Wait, wait, wait a minute”, he said.

We waited.

“Could everyone please take out your pens?”, he asked. “Pens, not pencils. We should be sure to make this permanent”, he added.

He didn’t speak again until every single person’s pen was poised over their new, expensive, annotated Old Testament textbooks.

“Alright then, if you would please start crossing out all of the words following ‘the sins of Sodom were…’”.

No one moved.

“Go on. Put your pens through the words ‘She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed, unconcerned, etc., all the way to the end of that sentence”.

Some people tentatively appeared to draw lines through the words.

“And then write in the word ‘HOMOSEXUALITY’”.

No one moved again. (Thank God).

“I mean, that’s what I heard in church, didn’t you?”, my professor said with the slightest, almost imperceptible hint of mischief in his voice.

“I mean, God’s good but he’s not always right, right?”. The mischievous tone was a bit more obvious.

A few people put down their pens.

“I mean, sometimes I’m arrogant, overfed, and unconcerned. I’ve certainly ignored the poor and the needy at times”, he confessed while pointing his finger into the center of his chest with each confession. “But – and this is important – I am not a homosexual”. As he said those last five words, “I”, “am”, “not”, “a”, “homosexual”, he reached out his arm and began to deliberately shake the same finger, previously pointed inwards at himself, outward and away from himself.

After a moment or so of stunned silence, someone sitting a few chairs to my left let out a slow, self-recriminating whistle.

I felt like scales had fallen from my eyes.

If there was a lengthy class discussion that followed this exercise, I don’t remember the details of that interaction now. However, I do know that ever since that moment I have become incapable of seeing the church’s decision to police other peoples’ sexuality as anything other than a smoke screen. A smoke screen designed – specifically – to deflect attention from the ugliness of our indifference towards the suffering of others.

** For a bit more on this topic: click here.

From book, “Healing My Religion”.

During the spring semester of my freshman year of college, I decided to enroll in a class being taught by one of the most popular Religion professors at my university. The class was called “Psalms and Old Testament Wisdom Literature”. The course title alone was enough to convince me that by the end of the semester I would become a 19-year old near-expert on ancient biblical wisdom.

Turns out, here is the only thing I remember from that 4 1/2 month long experience: President George W. Bush declared war on Iraq.

My professor, an Ivy League educated Baptist minister and Vietnam War veteran, walked into class the morning after President Bush made his announcement with a guitar under one arm. After closing the door behind him, he was silent for a long time. When he finally spoke, he invited us to pray with him. When he prayed, his words were thick with grief. After he finished praying, he got out his guitar and put melody to the most mournful of the biblical Psalms:

Be merciful to me, LORD, for I am faint;

O LORD, heal me, for my bones are in agony. My soul is in anguish.

How long, O LORD, how long?

Turn, O LORD, and deliver me; save me because of your unfailing love.

No one remembers you when he is dead.

Who praises you from the grave? I am worn out from groaning;

all night long I flood my bed with weeping and drench my couch with tears.

(Psalm 6:2-7).

My 19-year old self was stunned.

No “man of the cloth” – and certainly no professor in a business suit – whom I had ever known had engaged with a political crisis in this way. The only explanation I can really remember him offering to our class on that day was this: “How many of you have been to war? None? Well, I have. And let me tell you this: war is hell. Hell on earth”. He said this with a kind of solemnity that shocked me.

My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring?

O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.

(Psalm 22:1-2).

“You’ve heard people say, ‘there are no atheists in a foxhole’?”, he asked us. “Well, in my experience there were only atheists in foxholes. The idea of benevolent God seems impossible when you are surrounded by hell”.

My heart is severely pained within me,

And the terrors of death have fallen upon me.

Fearfulness and trembling have come upon me,

and horror has overwhelmed me.

(Psalm 55:4-5).

He continued to sing until his singing faded into silence. The silence that followed continued until the clock on the wall signaled the last second of our scheduled time together. I don’t remember who left the room first, or how we managed to do this at all, but I do remember that when I did finally walk out of that classroom, I felt ill.

“Of course war is hell”, I thought. “Why has no one else ever said this to me before?”, I wondered. “And why in God’s name have I never really let myself consider this before?”. The day before when I had learned about the President’s declaration of war, my response had been very detached. I remember that I said a quick prayer of protection for the troops, resolved to trust God with the outcome, and reminded myself of the promise of eternal peace in the after life. “What the hell was wrong with me?”, I marveled.

Suddenly – and I do mean suddenly – I was extremely troubled. Troubled by the thought of war, and troubled by the realization that I had never been truly troubled by it before then.

The idea of war was so far removed from me – both historically and geographically. Born in 1983, I only had vague recollections of yellow ribbons being tied around trees during the Gulf War. My dad had been drafted to Vietnam, but was excused from duty because of legitimate health concerns. My maternal grandfather had done clerical work in WWII, and my paternal grandfather had served in the Navy in WWII. Yet, neither one of them had ever discussed it with me – other than to tell me about their visits home, their relief when the war ended, and the people they met along the way.

The following Sunday while attending church, my pastor mentioned the war, and prayed that the men and women fighting in the war would “seek God’s face”. He then invited us to trust in “God’s sovereignty” and the promise of eternal life for those who believe in him, and then moved on to the regularly scheduled programming.

I sat in my row of chairs feeling supremely disappointed. “Is it possible that I learned emotional detachment from the church itself?”, I wondered.

After the service was over, I sat alone for awhile and tried to recall a time the church had invited me to weep and groan in response to human suffering the way my professor had earlier that week. I knew that I had cried quite sorrowfully over my own ‘sinfulness’ on many occasions, and that I had shed happy tears during baptisms and faith conversions, but I couldn’t remember having ever been shown how to get down onto the ground level of human despair alongside those who were feeling it.

Later that evening, during my regular end-of-day reflection time, I thought about how Jesus responded to the pain of the world.

I didn’t doubt that he had faith in God’s goodness, of which he preached about regularly. Nor did I doubt that he trusted God during times of great pain, which he demonstrated quite dramatically. And yet, when confronted with human pain and suffering, he wept. He healed. He reached out. He cried out. He touched the people no one would touch. He talked to the people no one else would talk to. He lived amidst pain. He died in pain. He went willingly into hell himself, and he emerged with physical, touchable scars. Nothing about his life, ministry, death, or resurrection was removed from the pain of being human.

He was human himself, after all.

It took me weeks, maybe months, or perhaps years to understand why and how my “Psalms and Wisdom Literature” professor’s real-world engagement with the Bible impacted me so viscerally, but it made me feel thirsty for more of the same.

 

 

Who Is The Good Samaritan Today?

On this Christmas eve-eve day, I want to honor Jesus by remembering one of his most famous teachings, the parable of The Good Samaritan. If this story is familiar to you, please resist the urge to be bored for a moment. I promise I am heading somewhere new….

About two weeks ago, I published this holiday card on the internet, and it got a bit of a viral reaction:

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An overwhelming majority of the responses to this card were positive, and many people let me know that the card’s message encouraged them to make a donation to organizations assisting Syrian refugees. However, I also had the unfortunate opportunity to read through a surprising amount of anger and hostility. Some of it was directed at me, but most of it was directed at Middle Easterners, Syrians, and Muslims.

As I’ve attempted to make sense of those comments, I’ve often thought about Jesus’s story about “The Good Samaritan”. Let me set up the context for you here:

On one occasion an expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he asked, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

“What is written in the Law?” he replied. “How do you read it?”

He answered, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

“You have answered correctly,” Jesus replied. “Do this and you will live.”

But he wanted to justify himself, so he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?”

(Luke 10:25-29)

And how does Jesus respond? By telling a story that portrays a Samaritan – a religious and cultural group despised by most Jews at the time – in a positive light.

In reply Jesus said: “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, when he was attacked by robbers. They stripped him of his clothes, beat him and went away, leaving him half dead.

A priest happened to be going down the same road, and when he saw the man, he passed by on the other side.

So too, a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side.

But a Samaritan, as he traveled, came where the man was; and when he saw him, he took pity on him. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he put the man on his own donkey, brought him to an inn and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii [a decent sum of money] and gave them to the innkeeper. ‘Look after him,’ he said, ‘and when I return, I will reimburse you for any extra expense you may have.’

(Luke 10:30-35).

This story would have left Jesus’ audience with their jaws on the floor.

A Samaritan as a spiritual hero??! Two noble Jewish professionals cast in a less than esteemsble light??! These two ideas alone would have turned the world upside for many of the people standing there that day.

So, then Jesus turns the original question back on the questioner, an “expert in the Law”, and asks him to answer for himself:

“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”

The expert in the law replied, “The one who had mercy on him.”

Jesus told him, “Go and do likewise.”

(Luke 10:36-37).

To me, this story has several lessons:

  • One: the people outside of your cultural and religious groups are also your ‘neighbor’.
  • Two: your assumptions about others can often be wrong.
  • Three: if someone needs help, and you are able to offer it, do this.
  • Four: your own religious identification is meaningless if you are unwilling to practice it’s decrees.

Now, for the millions of people out there that don’t believe in Jesus’ teachings, I have absolutely nothing to say to them about how they should or shouldn’t feel about these instructions. But for the people who claim Jesus as their savior or their teacher, it seems pretty clear to me.

I often wonder if we might be well-served to imagine updating this story with modern references, and renaming it “The Good ________”. (Fill in the blank with whatever your personal, cultural, or religious biases may be).

How then would we be able to respond to each other?