My Jesus Question

My Jesus Question

jesus-question-copy So…I’m considering this question.  I work at a church and there are a lot of things a church might be about.  But in my mind one of those things, maybe the most important thing…but maybe not (I’ll grant that possibility to someone that might have a better answer)…is to better follow Jesus.

I’m submitting this question to whomever might choose to read this little post.  I’m not necessarily looking for public comments (although they are welcome).  I’m not interested in laying a guilt trip on anyone.  I’m not wanting to convert anyone on this post.  I’m simply asking this question of myself and inviting others to consider it as well.  Grace and peace.

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Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & SaintI LOVED this book.  And that’s odd because I probably can’t recommend it to all my friends.  Many would be strongly offended by it.  They would quickly react to Nadia Bolz-Weber‘s application of sailor language to godly topics.  Many would take offense at her welcoming and affirming stance on LGBTQ issues.  And I’ve come to a place that it’s ok if they are offended.  I can’t control that.  Don’t read the book if you fear you’ll fall in that category.  I honestly don’t want to be the one that riles you up and disturbs your peace.  (I would like to point out that LGBTQ is about people long before it ever became an “issue”. Like every “issue” out there, when it’s your starting point, you often end up somewhere Jesus isn’t and you walk on a lot of people whom Jesus loves on your way to the smug destination you’ll find at the end of such a path.)

Because of my reading of Pastrix, I recognize the smugness of that last sentence.  It comes across as if I’m the one enlightened and all who disagree with me are intolerant and bigots.  Now, don’t get me wrong…I absolutely stand by the sentence I wrote above.  However, there is a heavily underlined paragraph on page 57 of my copy of  Pastrix that says:

Matthew once said to me, after one of my more finely worded rants about stupid people who have the wrong opinions, “Nadia, the thing that sucks is that every time we draw a line between us and others, Jesus is always on the other side of it.” — Nadia Bolz-Weber

To further quote Nadia, “Damn!”  Pastix shined a light on all the lines I’ve drawn between me and people with whom I disagree.  And in so doing, it shined a light on Jesus that I’ve needed turned on for a while now.  What I continually discovered in Pastrix was resurrection.  It was a continual stream of stories of death and resurrection.  Persons and lives dying deaths large and small only to encounter the risen Christ and be raised to new life again in profound and graceful and loving ways.  It’s a resurrection that one can and should experience daily.  (That’s what Jesus meant!)

Reading Pastrix was something of a cathartic experience for me.  It was hard to put my finger on what continually resonated with me as I turned page after page.  But as I reluctantly put the book down this morning I recognized a long lost itch (p. 204) that I had continually and unconsciously been scratching all these years but had slipped from my awareness.  I realized that I had rediscovered a distant call to ministry that animates my life.  It’s a call we all share and it manifests itself in all sorts of different jobs and vocations and roles.  But it’s absolutely a call.  It’s a call to discover who we were created to be.  And its a call to death and resurrection.  Thanks Nadia.

living in exile…a voice in the desert!

It was the title that caught my eye…”What do low-income communities need?” Intriguing. Definitive. Hopeful? Maybe…I clicked the link and read the article in hopes of finding the answer.

After reading it, I’m not sure I necessarily “liked” what I read. But, I still felt compelled to post the link on both Facebook and Twitter. Megan McArdle’s perspective was frankly pretty dark and cynical in some respects. As I read it I found myself torn. There are ideas here that rub my liberal sensibilities the wrong way and others initiate a loud AMEN from those same sensibilities. I also found my more conservative impulses reacting almost exactly opposite my liberal side in precisely those same places.

Ultimately, the writer didn’t answer the question posed in the title. And that was sort of a let down after all of the opposing visceral reactions I experienced while reading the piece. Don’t get me wrong. McArdle’s point is well taken, specifically as she stated it in her last paragraph:

“Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.”

And there’s the rub. Just like so many other things in our culture, we want to apply some kind of pharmaceutical remedy to all our problems and make them disappear. We don’t necessarily care how the drug works, just so it takes the pain away. It is in that spirit that we attempt to apply social policies to issues at the whims of elected officials whose main goal is not to solve the issue at hand but to be re-elected. Lets just say the “results” of these politically motivated prescriptions pretty much read like the foul side affects that are hurriedly read following the utopian myth offered by the drug ads we are constantly barraged with on TV (would anyone like to recall the first time you heard “please call your Doctor immediately if you experience an erection lasting for more than 4 hours” with your kids in the room? For a funny digression, check this out.)  All of the efforts from “both sides of the aisle” to solve these problems seem to be more effective at inducing cynicism and resignation that any sort of hope for real solutions.

However the false promise of the article led me to another thought. I was reminded of a passage of scripture we read in our Corner Bible Study at King’s Cross Church a couple of Sundays ago:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
—Isaiah 61:1

It was a prophetic word to a people who had lost everything: their homeland, their culture, their religion. They were returning from exile in a foreign land to rebuild their lives from the ruins of Babylonian conquest. And it was very good news.

I think we often forget that we (all of us) live in exile as well. As I listen to the noise of partisan politics and recognize it’s absolute inability to deliver the good news proclaimed by the ancient prophet, I begin to long for the realm promised by God.  As I become inundated with the call to consumption and materialism to which this season has devolved and recognize the fleeting nature of the “highs” provided by the giving and receiving of stuff, I long for a voice calling out in this wilderness. (With all due respect to my friends who work for Nissan, this particular ad was the last straw for me.  Seriously?…”most wonderful sale of the year“…seriously?)

This Advent season has been a reminder for me to rediscover the true source of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for allthe people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  — Luke 2:10-11

This is what poor communities really need.  Frankly, it’s what all of us need. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love…generously applied in our day to day lives.  Generously applied to the problems of our day.  The empty words of politicians and the fleeting pleasure of the accumulation of stuff pale in comparison.  It is my prayer for my family and for all of you this season that we all absolutely enjoy our Christmas celebration.  All of it…the giving and receiving of gifts, time with family, the lights, the food, the TV shoes, even the shopping (but that was a bit hard to write).   But I also pray that in all of this busyness and activity that you will “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Peace!

WIFI Prayers and Hugs Withheld

My last post focused on the hopeful tone evident at this year’s US Conference on AIDS in Chicago.  While there is still much work to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the end of the epidemic is actually a realistic possibility.  However, with these consecutive posts, I want to be careful and not overstate my own role in this battle against the epidemic.  I’ve merely attended a conference and worked a booth a couple of times.  I’m NOT a hero here.  But I was fortunate to be in the company of several hundred people who are…people who have dedicated their lives and invested their own love and compassion toward eradicating this devastating disease.

Who am I then? I am a person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.  Vocationally, I am an ordained Christian minister tasked to help others along the path of following God, offering God’s peace (shalom) as I go.  Probably the most formative thing for me personally coming out of my visit to the USCA was how institutional religion has come to be perceived among the HIV/AIDS community.  I was made painfully aware of how badly the community of people who claim to “follow Jesus” have behaved in response to this epidemic and to those who are HIV positive.  I’ll grant on the front end that many of the attacks directed toward institutional religion are based on generalizations and are often unfair.  I’ll also grant that there are MANY religious institutions who are doing GREAT work among this community (My two personal favorites are Samaritan Ministry & The Center For Church and Global AIDS).  So, before we go any further with this post, if you count yourself as part of this group of people called “Christians”, I would like for you to leave your defensiveness at the door.  Go ahead…lay it down…I’ll wait…leave that whole “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” thing there too…  Ready?

Samaritan Ministry is always one of the exhibitors at the US Conference on AIDS…the largest conference of its type held in the United States. Until this year, Samaritan Ministry was the ONLY faith based organization who exhibited at this conference.  This year, it was great to have Rev. Donald Messer and the Center for Church and Global AIDS at the conference as well.  (from the CCGA website: “Donald Messer is a 70-year-old writer, United Methodist theologian, and retired college (and seminary) president who tells us here that he believes his career may have begun in earnest only after he retired and began to work full time for the organization he founded, the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.”  His book, Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis was a profound inspiration to Wayne Smith.  He’s also a great guy to hang out with over Chicago style pizza!)

Being a faith based organization attending this meeting always makes for an interesting stream of conversations. Two particular conversations hit me very hard this time.  A young woman came by our booth this year and took our “unofficial USCA IQ test.” This is a simple four-question card that opens easy conversation as well as serving as an entry to our door prize drawing.  After completing the test, Nicole asked what Samaritan ministry was all about. She began to tell us her story. She was HIV positive and worked for an HIV/AIDS service organization (or maybe a department of health…hmmm…can’t remember). One moment she was telling us her story and how her pastor wouldn’t touch her when he found out she was HIV positive.

The next moment Nicole was weeping.

Wayne immediately reached out and hugged her. The conversation continued.  It was deep and moving.  I was honored to have her trust and the opportunity to hear her story.  But I was also struck by the amount of hurt that can me administered by a hug withheld in the name of Jesus.  It was a deep and faith scarring hurt.  I’ll never forget that moment.

About 30 minutes later, an African American man approached our booth. He also took our IQ test.  As we listened to his story, we found out he was a minister who was also HIV positive. He told us about attending a “healing service” at a church. At the front of the church, there was a woman who had cancer and who had gone forward for prayer. The minister and a group of deacons were “laying their hands on her, anointing her with oil, and praying for her” (see James 5:14).

He said, “I wanted me some of THAT!” He went forward, informed the pastor that he was HIV positive and wanted to be anointed with oil and prayed for.  The pastor’s response?

“He looked at me…backed AWAY a step or two…raised his hand in the air in my direction…and began to pray. They laid hands on the woman with cancer…I got the WIFI prayer!“, our friend said with an inviting and friendly laugh.

And we all laughed…except it really wasn’t funny. This pastor’s sanctimonious prayer was an unloving action based on ignorance and poor theology. It was the same action that made one young woman weep in her abandonment and a young man laugh at the unfortunate irony.

I’m going to resist the rant that is poised on the tip of my tongue.  I would hope those stories might speak for themselves.  I’ll say this however in closing: I want to be a part of a group of people who reach out and give Nicole a hug and then walk with her on her journey.  I want to be a part of a people who will never be accused of WIFI prayers.  I saw God very clearly at the USCA this year (and each of the other times I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.) Frankly, I saw “the Church” there as well…very active and engaged. To bad “organized religion” is missing it.

Peace!