The Problem with Pulpits Today

lead_720_405<BTW: all of these quotes are paraphrases, not verbatim, and cobbled together from a few like emails>

“We personally like you,” the email said, “but we leave church services more frustrated than anything, and so we’d rather just stay home.”

It was sent after I offered an email saying that I hadn’t seen them in a while, and after hearing bits and pieces of them “being unhappy.”

I mean, it’s OK, people get unhappy with their pastors sometimes.  That’s part of the deal of leadership.

But why were they frustrated?

Because they heard political undertones in my preaching.  Which is strange to me, because I meant them to be political overtones…

Not partisan, mind you.  Partisan tells you what party to vote for; I don’t care what party you affiliate with, if any.  And although I might struggle with your vote, I’m not going to tell you who to vote for…I struggle with my vote, too.  I wasn’t partisan in my preaching.  I am not, to this day, partisan in my preaching.

But political?  Well, yes.  That was there.  Because the Gospel is political.

The Gospel is about God and people, and people in community are political. So if you’re upset, blame the politician, not the pastor…I didn’t make those laws. I didn’t say those de-humanizing things.

Because this was all going on during the so-called “Muslim ban” (which nations are being added to as I write this).  The ban continues.  You forgot about it?  Huh.  Guess who hasn’t: Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, as they try to fight this ban tooth and nail.

And this was all going on as talk of wall construction continued to be shouted about, even as children were being separated at the border, and some dying.  You forgot about it?  Guess who hasn’t: the families affected by this mean-spirited legislation, perpetrated under administrations of both major parties.

And this was all going on as the nastiest, meanest, overtly racist rhetoric (remember Charlottesville?) was being spewed from our nation’s top office.  You forgot about it?  No…who could forget white yuppies with tiki-torches marching without masks through the streets of a Southern city, newly emboldened in their racism because the fish rots from the head.

And if you are a pastor in those waters, and you’re not talking about any that, shame on you.

Seriously.

Do you think Isaiah wanted to say the things he said about the powers that held sway at his time?  No.  But he had to.

Do you think Amos wanted to call from the fringes of society to point to the underclass and the rural poor, showing how they suffered under the foot of the powerful?

No…but he had to.

Do you think Jesus wanted to point out the hypocrisy of the Pharisees, call his local ruler a “fox” (or, a “sly liar”), or run toward the danger of Jerusalem rather than live safely, quietly, in Galilee?

No, but he had to.  You have to, pastor.

“Never trust a pastor who tells you how to vote,” the email went on to say, “or a politician who tells you how to pray.”

I think it was an attempt at levity, but all I could do was scratch my head and wonder what was happening in our society.  I’ve heard many politicians, especially recently, tell people how to pray (just Google “prayer in schools” legislation recently brought up in the courts. Again.).

Remember the age of women’s suffrage.  Remember the era of Civil Rights (did we ever leave that era?).  Remember, pastor, and speak.

Pulpits cannot be partisan.  And pastors have a responsibility to bring people along as much as possible when it comes to difficult and divisive issues, listening and leaning in.

You can be partisan on your bumper with that bumper sticker, but not on your stole.  The stole is reserved for God’s mark, alone.

But pastors, remember also, in our baptismal rite, have a responsibility to “work for peace and justice” throughout all the world, as do all baptized persons.  And part of that work is calling out oppression and danger, especially when it is aimed at those who are already disenfranchised.

The email was right: no pastor should tell someone what party to vote for. I never did and never will from the Office.

But the pastor must tell people the truth: votes have consequences, some you may not like, some that go against the ideals of a God who is love.

And if that’s the case, preach. From the Office, from the pulpit, preach.

That’s the problem with pulpits today: people will leave over them. And that’s OK.

It’s sad, but it’s a sign of our times, and you have to preach anyway.

Hi. I’m Pro-Life but Not Anti-Choice

1-1578136179258Hi.

I’m a father of two, and I consider myself pro-life, even though I’m not anti-choice.

And actually, I view access to safe, legal, and rare abortion as part of women’s healthcare…which is about life.  So I see this all as being very consistent.

What I don’t see as consistent is the idea that being “pro-life” strictly means being “anti-choice.”  That’s not pro-life at all.  That’s pro-fetus.  That’s different.

See, I’m pro-life because I not only trust environmental science and scientists when they tell us the Earth is warming at an alarming rate, I try to do things and support legislation that will slow, if not reverse, that tide.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro universal healthcare.  If we had universal healthcare, you know what?  There would be fewer abortions.  I’m almost certain there would.  Universal healthcare is pro all life.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro public education.  In fact, I’d love more of my tax dollars to head that way.  An educated public is in my best interest, and yours, even if you don’t have any children.  I want my baristas reading Kant, knowing long division, and well-versed in politics.  You should, too.  It makes for a better society.

I’m pro-life because I’m for a social safety net that helps those who are stuck in cycles of poverty and oppression.  I’m pro-life because I’m pro breaking those cycles at every turn. The biggest farce of the traditional so-called “pro-life” movement is their abandonment of those already born in deference for the fetus.  If you force people to have babies, you should be willing to support those children to adulthood.

I’m pro-life because I’m against the death penalty, in all cases.  You might see a contradiction there between not being against abortions but being against the death penalty, but here’s the thing: I know that the person on death row is a living, breathing, human.  It’s unquestionable.  I do not know that a fetus is…none of us do.  But we do know a living, breathing, post-birth person is, regardless of what they’ve done.

I’m pro-life because I’m anti-war.  I’d love to designate the majority of my tax dollars to education and public safety, and give as little as possible to public defense.  Not because I do not enjoy the merits of a free and well-protected society, and not because I do not respect our people in uniform…I certainly do.  But because I believe we have over-compensated in that arena since the days of Eisenhower, and have left our children and our homeless and our hungry and our lonely to get the scraps of our social love.

And what’s more: those who do fight in our endless wars, which are well funded, in too many ways become homeless and hungry and lonely and sick when they return from war.  We fund them while they’re fighting, and abandon them while they’re mentally and physically and emotionally dying. This is duplicitous on our part, and we can do better.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro-immigration.  I don’t believe in open borders, but I certainly don’t believe in walls, either.  And I don’t believe in family separation, no matter if a Democrat does it, or a Republican enforces it.  Anyone who claims to be “pro-life” but wants to build a wall is playing a game of semantics and lying to themselves.  They are not pro-life; they are pro their “way of life.”  That is very, very different.

I’m pro-life because I’m pro female healthcare.  Women can choose what happens to their bodies.  So few abortions happen because a child “isn’t wanted.”  So many happen because a fetus isn’t viable, or there are other risk factors involved, and though I cannot imagine ever counseling someone to end a pregnancy, I do not think it is my right to tell them they have to continue it. You just walk with them, give them the best information available, and support them.

The choice is too personal, and too difficult, to legislate in the negative, so we must protect the legislation of the positive, of choice.

We need a re-definition of pro-life in this nation, and I say this as thousands gather in the “pro-life” march at this moment.  Our popular definition is far too narrow.

Because here’s the thing: I don’t like that abortions happen, but I understand why they do. I don’t think anyone likes that they happen. I don’t think anyone is “pro-abortion.” I cannot, as a man, relate to having to make the choice, but I can empathize for sure. It’s always tough, always sad, always personal, and, as a medical procedure, should always be legal.

Because sometimes difficult things happen in life, which means difficult choices have to be wrestled with.  And the only way to safely wrestle with them is…well…this way.

It’s about safety and healthcare in the end. It is.

You cannot “protect” the fetus in the womb and abandon it the moment the umbilical cord is cut.  That’s not protection at all.  That’s forced abandonment. That’s pro-fetus.

I think you can be pro-life but not anti-choice.

In fact, I would say that’s the most consistent way to be.

Herod’s Bargain: Evangelicals are the Herodians in the Trump Era

You read the scriptures, especially the Gospels, and you come across these little sects of religious folk that Jesus keeps running into.

There are the Pharisees, of course. They’re probably the most well known because they’re often the foil for Jesus in these little narrative episodes, especially in John’s Gospel. What we forget, of course, is that Jesus was of the Pharisaic tradition himself…which is probably why he hung out with them so much.

The Pharisees believed in a mass resurrection of the dead when the Messiah arrived, and awaited the Messiah fervently.

There were smaller subgroups within the Pharisees: those who followed Rabbi Shammai, who believed all the laws had to be followed to a jot and tittle, and those who followed Hillel (Jesus’ tradition), who claimed you could follow all the necessary laws while standing on one foot. And other small divisions in the Pharisees; too many dogmatic points to enumerate, but you get the picture.

Then there are the Sadducees, another sect that was at odds with the Pharisees. They didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead, and this was one of their big beefs with Jesus. It’s why they asked him, “In the resurrection, whose wife is the woman who was married multiple times?”

They didn’t ask out of curiosity, but with a wink and a smile.

Jesus tells them it’s a stupid question…

And then there is this other group, the Herodians. The Herodians are the religious people close to Herod. They are largely wealthy, or attracted to wealth, and are largely powerful, or attracted to power.

They abandoned their religious convictions for the sake of political expediency and power consolidation at every turn. Herod, the puppet king of Rome, was known as a ruthless ruler, betraying his religion in order to be in bed with power.

And here’s the thing: Herod knew Rome was using him to keep control, and Rome knew Herod didn’t care about Rome at all, but just was using Rome to keep power.

And here’s my point: modern conservative evangelicals (and their leaders like Graham, Falwell, and…name one), are the Herodians of the modern age.

They know Trump isn’t a Christian; no more a Christian than Caesar was a Jew. But they don’t care; he gets them what they want: power and appointments.

Likewise, Trump couldn’t care less about evangelical principles (really? He once read from “Two Corinthians”…the man has never cracked a Bible), but uses them to get control.

And here’s the dirty, emperor-has-no-clothes truth: they both know they are using each other, and don’t care.

They don’t care!

Their deceit is whispered behind doors, but it’s plain as day, and the rest of the world suffers over this Herod’s Bargain. Power is gained as ethics, principles, and morals are sacrificed like a lamb on the altar of the world’s stage.

When we read these Gospel stories, it’s important to find yourself there. I’m usually with the doubters and the skeptics. But the modern evangelical?

Well, read Mark 3:6.

Would You?

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Terry Funk-“Barbed-wire Jesus”

What if Jesus came back today

in Kentucky?

But came as a little girl, skin as bronze as a penny, named Julia.

And that “laughing Jesus” picture you have

hanging in your hallway,

is laughing at how mistaken the depiction you’ve been looking at for years

turns out to be,

Would you follow still?

 

What if Jesus came back today in Honduras,

wandering homeless,

hands torn by barbed wire

eyes burned by tear gas

traversing borders,

…like God did that first time, trespassing over space and time,

the cosmos, reality…

struggling through the desert in Arizona,

deemed illegal by people who took this land from

other people who looked more like this wandering Honduran

than the Herod in the White House,

would you follow even then?

 

What if Jesus could care less

-actually didn’t give a shit-

about your “personal freedom,”

but rather wanted you to care about

everyone’s safety and right to live safe…

…and healthy…

…and honest…

…and righteous lives…

which would mean that you actually don’t get to

“do whatever you want”

but rather would have to first ask

“What would the Divine maker of a Divinely-loved humanity want me to do?”

And in response

you would have to give up your guns

and a good bit of your wealth

and challenge your voting record…

Would you still follow?

 

What if it turns out that Jesus cares less

about what you do with your body,

and more about how you treat

other bodies?

 

What if Jesus turned out to be sexually marginal

LGBTQIA+

because, he totally could have been, you know…

because we don’t know.

And you, now knowing that, would have to

upend all your moral inclinations…

Would you still follow?

 

What if this Christmas Jesus came back

demanding not your soul

(because that wasn’t the demand the first time around)

but your attention?

And when he got it he pointed it toward

those you overlook as you do your Christmas shopping

(and every other moment)?

 

“But Jesus,” you protest, “I’ve given you my heart!”

“Right,” he says, “and now that it’s mine I’m giving it to them…”

(and “them” is whomever you like the least in the world).

Would you still follow?

 

What if it turns out that everything you thought you knew

about Jesus

is wrong.

Would you still follow?

 

 

Why I See It As Part of My Job As a Pastor to March in the Teacher Rally in Raleigh

downloadOmar was smart.

He never really got good marks, but he was smart.  And he never studied, but had he studied, those marks would have reflected that brain more fully.

I remember when Omar walked into class one day, head down.  His usual smirk was gone.  His eyes were red.

We started instruction, but he wasn’t into it.  As I gave the class an assignment, I invited Omar out into the hall with me.  We stepped out, I shut the door, and he started crying into my shoulder.  It was unlike him.  My quiet class clown, my jokester, my star basketball player.

His friend had been shot and killed ten hours ago.  Chicago alleys, turf warfare, all of it could get dangerous, and it didn’t matter your age.

He cried. I hugged him. He wiped his eyes.  And we went on to Algebra.

And then, a few weeks later, I remember when Omar didn’t walk into class that one morning.

Because he had been shot ten hours earlier.  His leg, shattered.

I went to go see him in the hospital. I brought McDonald’s. As he ate it I spoke to his mom in broken Spanish, and she to me in broken English. She was afraid to be in the hospital long because she was not a legal resident.  He had to heal, and she knew that, but she also had to sell tamales every morning, and how would they pay for the hospital bill?

They wouldn’t, of course.  No insurance, and tamales wouldn’t cover it.  Family would cobble together some funds, but it’d be a bill hanging over their heads.

In my classroom that year I also delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing.  I pulled up in my car, with a frozen turkey in the backseat.  My student, who lived there, was riding shotgun.

“Mr. Brown,” he said as we started to get out of the car, “when we walk in don’t say anything to anyone, OK?”

“Ok,” I said.  We walked up to the tall building, with people hanging around outside.  They called names at me, carrying the turkey and the bag, and to my student.  But I kept my eyes forward, keeping my promise.

Up the stairs, the elevator was broken, to the fourth floor.

His grandmother there, smiled widely.  She was so grateful for the Christmas gift. We sat and chatted, and then my student walked me out, gave me a hug, and I left.

The next time I’d see her was at her funeral, a few months later.  She was the only caretaker for my student, and so I attended the funeral, hugged his shoulder as he cried down the aisle, and a little while later he went to live with other family, elsewhere.

I’m not a professional teacher anymore, but tomorrow the teachers in Raleigh will be marching downtown.  They’ll be marching for better wages, more funding, smaller classes.  They’ll be coming in from around the state.

Someone asked me if I’d ever consider teaching in North Carolina, using my Masters in Education again.  “Not in North Carolina,” I said.  “I loved the classroom, but I can’t teach here.”

No longevity pay anymore.  Starting salaries, even with Masters degrees, are some of the poorest in the nation.

But even though I’m not a teacher anymore, I will be marching with them tomorrow.  And even though I’ll be taking a comp day to do so, I still see myself as “on the clock.”  It’s part of my job as a pastor, I think.

Because the classrooms of America are not just places of instruction.  They are places where social work happens.  Parenting happens.  Unofficial aunts and uncles sit behind those desks. Grief counselors lead children through stages of loss, all while being judged on whether or not their kids are performing on standardized tests.

And tell me who makes those standards?  If they haven’t had a kid cry on their shoulder because their friend was shot, or if they haven’t brought McDonald’s to a kid in the hospital and spoken in broken language to a family who doesn’t know what they’re going to do with that massive bill, then they’re unqualified to tell on-the-ground teachers what the standards are and what their pay should be.  If they haven’t delivered a turkey to Section 8 housing, and wondered at night what would happen to that kid now that his grandmother was dead, then they aren’t qualified to comment.

Even if you don’t have kids in school, or kids at all, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Even if you’re not a teacher, you should be out on the street tomorrow.  Because we all have an investment in an educated society, in teachers compensated well, in a nation that actually cares about real education.

I may not be in the office tomorrow, but I’ll be on the clock.  Join me.

Both Biden and Trump Just Reinforced Why We Can’t Have Old, White Men in the Oval Office Anymore

shutterstock_233563201jpgSay it ain’t so, Joe…

Joe Biden has been, and continues to be, my favorite.

“Favorite what,” you ask?

Favorite most everything. Almost all of the things.  Favorite comb-over, favorite smile, favorite wink, favorite glad handing, favorite meme generator, favorite politician, favorite arm-chair theologian about life and death, favorite Catholic, favorite Delawarean (an admittedly small category).

But this most recent blustery mix of machismo and stereotypical masculinity was met by my mix of eye-rolling and head shaking.  And they both went back and forth, with Trump’s favorite weapon, Twitter, locked and loaded.

Yes, old white men, we get you…you’re going to beat each other up.  It’s how you solve problems.  And we’re oh, so impressed. And, sure, Biden was talking about taking Trump to physical task in defense of women…or so he said…but the appeal to violence, no matter how on the face noble, is simply, and unquestionably, ridiculous in this hypothetical world that these talking suits live in.

Our addiction…no…our incessant NEED for violence, our cheering on of violent rhetoric and schoolyard chest puffing is just. so. exhausting.

And as a parents raising boys, I am just. so. frustrated.  Because this is the stupidest example of “My dad could beat up your dad” kind of back and forth, except these guys are supposed to be adults.

Supposed to be.

Violence and bluster will only remain the answer to all of our problems as long as we put people in power who see it as the answer to all of the problems.

And for me, as a theologian, this whole line of thought is especially prescient because we’re heading into Good Friday where Christians will hear how the only thing Jesus “takes behind the woodshed to give a butt whooping to” is violence and death, the very thing both of these men are appealing to for power.

The disciples surely would have followed Jesus’ lead in the Garden if he had started fighting back.  They were ready for it; Peter had his sword.

What they weren’t ready for was the idea, the wisdom, that that kind of response doesn’t work in the world of the Kingdom of God.

And, as one who will one day be an old(er) white man, I have to say that unless we change our trajectory, nothing else will change, and so it has to start with me and my boys and how we raise them and how we talk about violence and death.

And how we vote.

I’m not an advocate for being doormat; by no means.  But I am an advocate for getting rid of these machismo, idiotic, schoolyard braggadocious nonsense.  No one takes it seriously, anyway.  And the people who do take it seriously aren’t worth taking seriously.

And for everyone finishing this little article thinking, “But white men aren’t the only violent people in the world…and why does he bring race into it?” I say that I hear you, and some of what you say is true.  When thinking of non-violent older, white men two of my theological crushes, Richard Rohr and Parker Palmer, come to mind.

All cultures can be violent; surely.  But not all cultures are the dominant power.

And this white, male culture is, at least here in the states, and it needs to take a break.

Let’s give it a break.  It keeps reinforcing how inadequate it is to lead in these present times.  How much more proof do we need?

The Church of the Future is Full of Good Feels. Only.

kham-pha-nhung-cong-dung-tuyet-voi-cua-vitaminDA friend and colleague recently posted this article about Zoe Church and their mass baptism on the streets of LA.

The location is no doubt double-edged: they probably couldn’t host those baptisms in the night club their church meets in.  Blood is allowed on the dance floor…but not water (and if you don’t get that reference, check your Michael Jackson albums).

But no doubt at work was the optics, too.  LA loves to roll out and walk red carpets, and what better way to design a baptismal service than to entice the cell-phone paparazzi?

The whole article, while well written, smacks of gimmick and glam.

And trust me, I don’t say this without some self-conviction. I’m not far from receiving similar accusations.  We in the mainline get accused of being into gimmick and glam when we suggest a credit-card kiosk for offerings (because who carries cash anymore?), logo-label coffee mugs, or (gasp) suggest a coffee station in the Narthex.

I’ve been called arrogant and artificial a few times (this week).

I figure most pastors my age aren’t far from such accusations.  When you lead, people will call you arrogant, even if you don’t see yourself that way. When you try new things people will accuse you of being self-serving and gimmicky, even when that’s not your intention.

Doing things differently or with a new set of eyes and ears and minds is not gimmicky.

What is gimmicky?

Leveraging Sunday to purely provide the shot of feel-good that humans say they want. Like a drug, we’re addicted to the feel-goods.  And we’ll come back for it week after week, but never feel any better, ultimately.  It will work for fooling yourself, but won’t work for what you want from it.

Read the article.

See the ending where he notes that, at the end of the day, he’s “here to preach good news. To give humanity hope…When I come to church, you know what I need? I need encouragement.”

But here’s the rub: his idea of good news, of hope, has more to do with consumerism than it does with Christ.  It has more to do with individual dreams than with Jesus.

His good news is good news for the celebrity who stars in each of our individual plays, not for the world at the center of God’s drama.

Narcissism and the current Christian culture go hand in hand.  The Jesus who you invite into your heart becomes your indentured servant in this story, granting wishes and giving you unending personal encouragement as you deal with being an adult…

That’s the story, right?

Right now in Austin, people are being targeted by a serial bomber.  How is your personal Jesus going to help them?

Right now in Syria little boys and girls are being bombed. Weekly.  It’s far from you, but do you think Jesus has a thought about it?  Or is Jesus only about encouraging you?

This is the problem with the church of the future.  Pretty soon the self-help shelves will meld with the Christian Lit shelves in the book stores (which will soon all be electronic, anyway, save for the few who have a cult following), as Jesus becomes more and more the personal talisman of the believer.

Hope is not the assurance that in the end you’ll get what you want.  Hope is the assurance that, no matter how it ends, you won’t be left high and dry by a God who cares deeply about you, your story, but also everyone else’s story, and deeply cares about how you will intersect and interact with their story.

You will be encouraged, because you won’t need the drug of the feel good every week when the true story of the wandering prophet from Galilee is seen.

You will have hope because you’ll see that the whole world can be moved and changed, not just your world.

And when the pastor in the article mentions he wants to avoid politics…well, what are we to do with church and politics?

Friend, we’re about to come up on Palm Sunday.  If you want to talk about a political march, about resistance theater done in public, read this story about a Galilean who rides on an ass instead of a white horse to snub his nose at Caesar (who would enter cities on a white horse), effectively calling Caesar the ass in the play.

You might be able to take politics out of church, but you can’t take it out of the Bible.

Is this the future of the church, the “church of the good feels”? Yes.

And no.

Because it’s the current reality.

I’m not against good feels in church.  But I am against an uncritical faith. I am against stripping the Bible of it’s power to change the world because you want to make it about solely changing your life.  I am against public theater that serves the self over the whole community.

The church is a place to know and be known.  It is a place to receive comfort and be made uncomfortable.  It is a place where your wounds are healed and the wounds of the world revealed (and, often, the ways you’ve caused such wounds whether you wanted to or not).  And it’s a place where you learn that the Good News is both about you but also about everyone else, and that should be jarring to you.

The church is about the feels, but they aren’t always what the world would call “good.”

But they are good in the same way we call “Good Friday” good…

The church of the good feels is alive and well, but I wouldn’t call it “good.”  And I wouldn’t go there.

But I would eat an acai bowl with you.

Because I like acai…not because I think you’d think I’m cool if I did.