Monday, April 20, 2015

Love Means (Often) Having To Say I'm Sorry

Warning – incoming honesty missile. This may be TMI on my relationship with my husband, but here goes. Trust me, I'm not telling you anything he doesn't know.
Yes, that church is made of bullets.
And other violent-type stuff.

The biggest issue I am having with my dear spouse right now is that sometimes, I just want an apology. You know, when you mention something that bugged you, or something that didn't get done that was promised? And the response is, “But I . . .” “Well I did that because . . .” or “If you hadn't . . .”

I really, really hate that response. Here is the truth of our conflict. I don't need to be right. I don't require a lifetime commitment to change. I just desperately want to hear “I'm sorry,” with no excuses. I want to know my concerns and needs have been heard.

Defensiveness makes me crazy. (Plus, I am really good at it.)

Hearing words that immediately defend, justify, or condescend does things to a human soul. Words and actions of defensiveness shut down all potential communication. Any relationship that may have developed dies. They say, “I don't want to hear your heart.” “Your experience is invalid.” “My need to be right outvalues your need to be recognized.”

Imagine actually saying those things to another human being.

Yet that is exactly what a lot of us church people do. We don't use those precise words, but we might as well. What is true for us interpersonally in our closest relationships is true in all relationships – when we put up our defenses first, we lose all possibility of hearing another person's heart. When we refuse to hear, we refuse to be the image of God we were created to be.

Because God is all about seeing and hearing. Always.

God is given the name “The God who sees” almost from the beginning (Genesis 16). in the same verses, He declares that he is also the God who hears. From the very first covenant with His people, God sets himself up as the One who sees and hears his people. And for God, these are active verbs. They mean to deeply see, to recognize, to delve for need and hope and hurt and to provide for their remedy.

God is not the spouse who nods and assents, “Yep, I hear you,” all the while checking text messages and Buzzfeed. God is the one who looks you in the eye and sits until it's all out there, vulnerable and raw, and then begins to heal. That's his version of hearing.

How good are we at that?

  • Jesus saw the woman at the well's thirst, when no one, never mind Jewish men who were not “supposed” to see her, would look her way.
  • Peter heard Cornelius' faith when by law he should not have stepped into his house.
  • God saw a lonely, homeless, hopeless single parent when those responsible for her refused to take responsibility.
  • Jesus saw Zaccheus' shame when his neighbors overlooked and despised him.
  • God heard Hannah's pleas when no one listened to a woman in pain.

We must see and hear, too.

In all the sins that have been recently cast on the church, deserved or not, the common denominator seems to be this defensiveness. We are so busy defending ourselves, we forget that Jesus never told us to do that.

In this world you will have trouble.

But to you who are willing to listen, I say, love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also. If someone demands your coat, offer your shirt also. Give to anyone who asks; and when things are taken away from you, don’t try to get them back. Do to others as you would like them to do to you.

“If you love only those who love you, why should you get credit for that? Even sinners love those who love them! And if you do good only to those who do good to you, why should you get credit? Even sinners do that much! And if you lend money only to those who can repay you, why should you get credit? Even sinners will lend to other sinners for a full return.
“Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked. You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate. (Luke 6.27-36)

It seems Jesus told us, repeatedly, to do quite the opposite of defending ourselves. But still, we don't get it.

I understand. It's so counterintuitive to what we believe. All that we've been told. Everything that screams the American way. We've been immersed in a culture of rights, independence, and individualism our entire lives. We equate it with “right” naturally, because it's all we've ever known. That's what all people everywhere do. Humans see what is as what should be, because no one else's reality has ever been part of their experience.

Unfortunately, that means white, (usually male), American Christians most often see the status quo that retains their position as what is right. It is what has always been. How would we know any different?

The only way to know is to listen. To hear. To see. To look someone else in the eye and say, “I want to know what your experience is. And I want to keep my mouth shut while you tell me.”

I know this is true because it's true in my own house. And human relationships are all basically the same. We just want to be heard.

In the last few months, how many issues have drawn the defensive shots of Christians?

*Millennials are leaving the church? Well, they just want a watered down gospel. They're looking for weak truth, and we aren't compromising.

*Gay people want wedding cakes or photos? They're targeting and persecuting us for our beliefs.

*People of color still believe white privilege exists? They're delusional hoodlums.

*Christians should be accountable for their historic atrocities? How dare anyone suggest that? We don't go around starting holy wars or abducting people and enslaving them. Now.

Here's a radical response: What if all many of these people really want is to be heard?

What if they're not saying Christians today are responsible for it all? What if they're not demanding we find a solution? What if they're not insisting we agree? What if they don't need a lifelong commitment to change our ways but simply a recognition that this is their experience? And it's worth hearing?

What if my knee-jerk reaction was not to defend my way of life but to be the image-bearer of God, to be the eyes and ears of the One who sees and hears?

You are someone worth listening to. My need to be right does not outvalue your need to be recognized. I see you as a fellow image of God. And however flawed we both may be, the one thing I must commit to is “acting as a child of the Most High, and being compassionate, just as (my) Father is compassionate.”

Acting as His child is irrevocably linked to acting with compassion. Jesus would not separate them, and He did not put my rights above that command. if I find one thing necessary to defend, that could be it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Searching for Sunday -- Why So Many Are Looking and Why Evangelicals Needs to Listen

“Wrapped now in flesh, the God who once hovered over the waters 
was plunged beneath them at the hands of a 
wild-eyed wilderness preacher.”

She got me at the beginning with the sheer beauty of that sentence and never let go. Rachel Held Evans, in her new book Searching for Sunday (out today), calls the church to regain its sacredness, passion, and yes, even its weirdness. As an evangelical who dearly loves my tradition and (usually) its people but has her eyes wide open to its harmful aspects, I breathed this book in. I live her frustrations and her passions about the church.

I don't always agree with Ms. Evans. But I always love her humor, her willingness to “go there” on tough issues, and her heart for God. This book is no exception.

This book is above all a call to listen to, respect, forgive, and love beyond all of our abilities and even preferences for the greater reason that there is a Kingdom at stake, and we are spending too much of our time arguing over who should be in it and far too little making it look like Jesus.

We spend a lot of energy, time, and research in pinpointing why younger generations are leaving the evangelical church. I know I do. It's a writing project I'm working on now, plus a topic dear to me as the mother of three in that generation and a former high school teacher with an unaccountable enjoyment of young adults. Yet the church tends to get defensive whenever someone actually tells them the truth about they 'whys' we wring our hands over.

Ms. Evans tells the truth. Her voice speaks for thousands who are feeling the same doubts, concerns, and fears but who simply leave without voicing them. Of course, “simply” is a poor word choice, because that decision is often anguished, never simple.

An excerpt of that truth in her own words:

“I was recently asked to explain to three thousand evangelical youth workers gathered together for a conference in Nashville, Tennessee, why millennials like me are leaving the church.

I told them we’re tired of the culture wars, tired of Christianity getting entangled with party politics and power. Millennials want to be known for what we’re for, I said, not just what we’re against. We don’t want to choose between science and religion or between our intellectual integrity and our faith. Instead, we long for our churches to be safe places to doubt, to ask questions, and to tell the truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. We want to talk about the tough stuff—biblical interpretation, religious pluralism, sexuality, racial reconciliation, and social justice—but without predetermined conclusions or simplistic answers. We want to bring our whole selves through the church doors, without leaving our hearts and minds behind, without wearing a mask.

Millennials aren’t looking for a hipper Christianity, I said. We’re looking for a truer Christianity, a more authentic Christianity. Like every generation before ours and every generation after, we’re looking for Jesus—the same Jesus who can be found in the strange places he’s always been found: in bread, in wine, in baptism, in the Word, in suffering, in community, and among the least of these.”

To flesh this out, she discerns our sacred need through themes such as baptism, communion, confession, and marriage. In each section, she poetically, theologically, and compassionately examines why we find these sacraments meaningful. What attracts Christians through the millennia to these same rites, these same words, these marks of Christ in life?

And how can we come to them trying to bring reconciliation and renewal to a church that desperately needs to see and hear those who don't feel welcome in its doors?

In the chapters on baptism, for example, I love the bottom line truth of what it stands for that we can and should all agree on, whether or not we agree on dunking, sprinkling, or just about anything else.

“Baptism declares that God is in the business of bringing dead things back to life, so if you want in on God’s business, you better prepare to follow God to all the rock-bottom, scorched-earth, dead- on-arrival corners of this world—including those in your own heart—because that’s where God works, that’s where God gardens.

In the ritual of baptism, our ancestors acted out the bizarre truth of the Christian identity: We are people who stand totally exposed before evil and death and declare them powerless against love.
There’s nothing normal about that.”

The book is a cry to the church to stop trying to fix people or give them checklists to make them 'OK' before God (and more importantly, before us). It's a call to come beside people and hear their faith cries. It's a passionate request to be with God being with people, not over them.

Searching for Sunday should be read by anyone in ministry, and there are many definitions of that, whether or not the reader is an Evans fan. In fact, I'd say especially if not. If a person truly wants to be a minister, he or she needs to delve into the truths of how the next generation (and many above it) are feeling about church and all its baggage. We dare not ignore the warnings that people are giving up on the institutional church (and their faith). We cannot pretend the reasons behind it have no basis – not if we say we are people of the Word who speak and believe the Word. We need to have the courage to listen.

Searching for Sunday is an informative and beautiful step in doing that.

I have been privileged to be on the launch team for Searching for Sunday, and I am lucky enough to have read its words before everyone else. But now -- you no longer have to wait.

Find it on Amazon now.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Do It Again

A week ago was Easter. Today is Easter. Every day is Easter, from my point of view (and the point of view of some pretty reliable historic sources). True story. Because if what the Christian church says happened on Easter really happened, then every day after that is a repeat celebration. An encore. One more chance to stare up into the heavens in what really should be daily freaked-out surprise and say, "I can't believe you did that for me!" 

If Jesus truly--physically, spiritually, historically, existentially, and any other 'ly'--was dead and then wasn't anymore forever,  then today is still Easter. And that needs to mean something. Quite honestly, if such a thing happened, and you don't think it merits more than one day's notice in 365, you're not taking this whole life and death thing we're all in very seriously. 

At one point in my life, I did look at that cross in freaked-out surprise and say, "I can't believe you did that for me." I cried, right there in front of late night TV. No one had ever told me about Jesus, but somehow I knew. It happened when I was watching the movie Jesus Christ Superstar. Not a conventional conversion, I admit, but a fact. It took a few years of being around better people than I to realize exactly what that belief meant. I'm still working on it.

One thing a conviction that Easter is a daily celebration means is that we face those days with anticipation, not fear. My personal ministry revolves around helping people be freed from fear. Easter is the ultimate release from fear. Without Easter, I'd have nothing to say about fighting fears. I might try, and I might unleash all kinds of pop psychology to make you feel better temporarily, but really, without Easter, I've got nothing.

On Easter, it seems appropriate to point out that fear comes from somewhere. It was never innate to human nature. Humans started this gripping emotion called fear by running away from God in the Garden of Eden. Why? Because they knew they had messed up, they knew He knew it, and they didn't know what He was going to do about it. 

It's the same basic principle that caused me to hide in my closet when I was eight and I skipped out on dishwashing duty to go out and play even though I knew that my name was clearly on that chore chart and my mom would find me. No one who knows in her soul that she has deliberately opted to go against the established order of rightness feels good about that choice for long. We may go through all kinds of emotional gymnastics to pretend and believe we do, but eventually that delusional behavior bites us from behind. How long we choose to run from it depends on how stubborn we are. 

We don't like accountability for our actions. We don't like the notion that any behavior could actually be wrong. (It's just different.) And we certainly have lost all enchantment with the word 'sin.' It's quaint but irrelevant. 

Except no matter how far or fast we try to run away, we have soul-deep-knowledge of a variety that won't be suppressed that there is wrong; that in fact, there is wrong in us, and it scares us. We hide, because our Parent might notice our name on that chart at any minute and realize we aren't doing our job.

Then hiding hits the blinding light of Easter, and it has to make a choice. Run farther into that dark closet, or stare at that cross in the morning sunlight and surrender to the inconceivable surprise that it happened because I couldn't stop hiding. And now I don't have to. 

Personally, I've come to realize that hiding in the closet because I'm afraid of the consequences of my own behavior comes with a few problems:

One, the anxiety about what my parent might do imprisons my soul. I could just go and find out and get it over with. But why do that when I can spend hours imagining it? Or a lifetime. (God's reply--“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6.23)

Two, It locks my relationship into the realm of fear, when it could be transformed into the heathy thing it was meant to be--a parent and child teaching and growing. (Which is what God wants, too. “So you have not received a spirit that makes you fearful slaves. Instead, you received God’s Spirit when he adopted you as his own children. Now we call him, 'Abba, Father.' For his Spirit joins with our spirit to affirm that we are God’s children.” Romans 8.15-16)

Three, hiding becomes my default whenever I don't want to face something, robbing me of experiences outside the closet. (Which is not what God wants. “The Lord is my light and my salvation—so why should I be afraid? The Lord is my fortress, protecting me from danger, so why should I tremble?” Psalm 27.1)

Four, it's really hot and stuffy in an upstairs closet in a century-old house with no air conditioning. I think this may have been the beginning of my claustrophobia issues.

It's Easter. Still. Running was never part of the nature God intended for us. He proved it by walking straight into the consequences of our behavior, facing the terrors there, and blasting them to bits with one shove of a stone away from a tomb and a sunrise beyond our craziest dreams. Today, instead of turning around and going about your day like it's a normal day, look up. Stare into the sky. Say in freaked-out surprise, "I can't believe you did that for me." Yell it if you want to. Then close your eyes, and let the Easter light do its freeing work.