A Potter's Perspective on Life, the Church, and Culture

Stop Domestic Violence!

Tony Stewart, Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, Greg Hardy, Jameis Winston and I have a lot in common and it’s not football or NASCAR, and it’s certainly not domestic violence. What we have in common is that they made bad choices and so have I. We all have, but is that an excuse for more bad behavior? The Scripture (Romans 3:23) says that we have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There are no exceptions, but I’m not in a confessing mood about my personal preferences and penances. Therefore, although we may not have committed the same shortcomings, we have all made mistakes. However, is knocking a woman out cold a mistake or allegedly committing a sexual assault, stealing crab legs, or yelling obscenities about women sophomoric hijinks? Will there be more facts added to the ongoing sagas about a racetrack death or child abuse by NFL players?

The answer is, “Probably,” and all of the above are more than “mistakes.” When I do something wrong, we need to call it what it is – “sin.” We need to recapture the appropriate word for our actions in our loosey-goosey society. We need to use the language of sin to reinforce that wrong is very, very wrong. A culture of permissiveness has encouraged too many people to shirk personal responsibility and want to let bygones-be-bygones, turning sin into miscues, mis-statements, and misogyny. South Carolina is the worst state in the US in terms of misogyny and violence against women and it is SIN! The two-word phrase “domestic violence” doesn’t even begin to capture the despicable nature of this epidemic.

Well, as United Methodists we don’t believe Jesus saved us to let us wallow in our same-old-same-old condition. We believe in sanctification – that God saves us through Jesus Christ to transform us for the transformation of the world. We believe it when Titus 2:11-12 says that God’s grace teaches us to say “No” to sin and empowers us to live new lives.

Differences in theology make a difference in whether or not we accept personal responsibility. If I think that it’s definite that I’m going to heaven no matter what I do then what I do doesn’t really matter in final analysis. If a person has a “low” view of sin they sometimes slip into a moral coma and think live and let live is an okay philosophy for everyone; i.e., “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Then there are those who think if there’s no hell, there are no consequences. Just keep smiling away.

Let me give you an inadequate illustration of all three views. Maybe you heard the semi-humorous story about the difference in Baptist, Methodist, and Humanistic Positive Thinking attitudes about Judgment and Hell. Three men went out fishing. The first was a Baptist who believed, “Once saved; always saved.” The second was a Methodist who believed one could backslide and lose salvation, but there was little clarity about why and when that might happen. The third was a Positive Thinker who followed the doctrines of ministers like Robert Schuller and Joel Osteen.

A storm arose and the three men drowned. They were shocked to end up in the fires of hell. The Baptist cried out, “I thought I had it, but I didn’t. I thought I had it, but I didn’t.” The Methodist wailed, “I had it, but I lost it. I had it, but I lost it.” The Positive Thinker was curled up in a corner with his hands over his eyes, chanting, “It’s not hot, and I’m not here! It’s not hot, and I’m not here!”

But we are here, and it’s not funny. Baptist “What’s-In-It-For-Me” indifference, Methodist over-emphasis of grace over sin, and Positive Thinking’s prosperity theology makes it difficult for us to counter-attack our primary culprit to holy living: Sin. Sure, I know that all Baptists, Methodists, and Mega-church Perpetual Smilers aren’t the same and simplistic labeling probably isn’t helpful and I apologize, but I sincerely hope that all of us who call ourselves “Christian” will get our acts together and fight back against sin. We have let it go on for one reason or another for too long and it’s winning.

We all need Jesus to save us and no one sin is worse than another from God’s perspective, but we need to stand up today for respect, love, covenantal faithfulness, and common decency before it becomes utterly uncommon. If we don’t do something then we have failed all of our wives, women, daughters, sisters, mothers, and sons. The violence needs to stop NOW!

coffinposter

Taking the Rat Up!

I need hope to conquer worry! The Great Recession has knocked a dent in our ability to fulfill the so-called “American Dream” of home ownership. Our doctors and medical experts are great but new diseases are cropping up every day. Ebola and the new viral respiratory disease attacking children are real fears. On the political front, Isis is a new threat that President Obama wants to eradicate. Real and imagined fears consume us every day.

In order to survive we need an overwhelming awe of God, faith in Christ’s love, and an assurance of the Holy Spirit’s presence so that faith and hope will sustain us in troublesome times. Several years ago a teacher assigned to visit children in a large city hospital received a routine call requesting that she visit a particularly sick child. The teacher told her that the class was studying nouns and adverbs and hoped that the child would not fall behind the other students by being in the hospital.

The teacher went to the hospital and found the boy in the burn unit. She wasn’t prepared to see the young man in such pain and obvious agony from his burns. He and his situation looked terrible. She was about to run to the door in horror when she stammered, “I’m the hospital teacher, and your regular teacher sent me to help you with nouns and adverbs.” The next morning a nurse on the burn unit asked her, “What did you do to that boy?”

Before she could finish with an abundance of apologies, the nurse interrupted her: “You don’t understand. We’ve been very worried about him and his will to live.  But ever since you were here yesterday, his whole attitude has changed. He’s fighting back, responding to treatment… It’s as though he’s decided to live.”

The boy later explained that he had completely given up hope until he saw that teacher. It all changed when he came to a simple realization. With joyful tears he expressed it this way: “They wouldn’t send a teacher to work on nouns and adverbs with a dying boy would they?” Everyone needs hope! It motivates us. It encourages. It pushes us beyond the bad news and helps us grasp new possibilities. It stops worry in its tracks.

In the pioneer days of aviation when planes were little more than mere fabric held together by piano wire, a pilot was attempting a flight around the world. After he had been gone for some two hours from his last landing field, he heard a noise in his plane. He recognized it as the gnawing of a rat. He realized that while the plane had been on the ground a rat had gotten into the fuselage.

For all he knew the rat could be gnawing through a vital cable or control of the plane. It was a very serious situation. He was both concerned and anxious. At first he did not know what to do. It was two hours back to the landing field from which he had taken off and it was more than two hours to the next field. Then he remembered that a rat is a rodent. It isn’t made for heights; it is made to live on the ground and under the ground.

Therefore the pilot began to climb. He went up a thousand feet, then another thousand and another until he was more than twenty thousand feet up. The gnawing finally stopped. The rat was dead. He could not survive in the thin atmosphere of those heights. More than two hours later the pilot brought the plane safely to the next landing field and found the dead rat.

Worry is like a rodent trying to crash our planes, dash our hopes, and make us give up. Our job is to inspire others like the teacher with the burned boy, and find encouragement ourselves by taking the rat up into the rarefied heights of heaven where we can reach out and touch the face of God through prayer and praise. Worry can’t live when it’s that close to God. I am going to try to take the rats up today to God and let them die because they don’t compare to the power of God that seeks to work his wonders and way in our lives. Have hope and discard worry. God is greater than both! Today is going to be a great day if we will believe it!

biplane

This past week I was in Washington, D.C. to work with a colleague at the United Methodist General Commission on Religion and Race as we were writing legislation in preparation for the 2016 General Conference. We were incorporating GCORR’s ministry model into its legislative mandates: Intercultural Competency, Institutional Equity, and Vital Conversations about Faith & Race. Too many things in the news demand that we excel at all three.

We finished our work a little early one afternoon so I decided to walk down behind the Capitol and check out some museums. I especially wanted to go to the National Holocaust Museum. I was breath-taken by the solemnity and horror of what I felt and experienced. Walking through the railcar that transported people to death camps was worse than chilling. Seeing the thousands upon thousands of shoes taken from people about to be murdered was overwhelming. Not a soul in the place spoke louder than a whisper, if that. Holocaust survivors were present with tattooed arms. The visit really put my work with the Commission on Religion and Race into perspective. We must say “Never Again!” to all genocide, racism, and murderous atrocities. The Islamic State must be stopped from beheading people. Russia must retreat from Ukraine’s sovereign borders. Christians in Iraq, Nigeria, and China must be protected from persecution.

We must all do our part, wherever we are, to stop heinous acts that take the lives of the unborn, the elderly, the Roma, and not to forget those innocent Hispanic children at our borders or those African-Americans who have been profiled and targeted. Indeed, Ferguson, Missouri is a tragic reminder of the U.S.’ racial history and a microcosm of the genocidal acts that have been perpetuated across the planet. Turks tried to wipe out Armenians in the early 20th century; Nazis tried to kill all the Jews; and the evidence of hatred goes all the way back to Cain killing Abel. We can say “that” would never happen in our community, but sadly it does every time I look over my shoulder and profile the people around me as I get in my car. When does careful vigilance cross the line into profiling?

We don’t want to call it discrimination or racism but we really do cling to what our differences are as human beings. Being unique is cause for celebration most of the time – until you’re the only one who thinks differently or doesn’t look like the majority. What a challenge for the church! We believe and preach Colossians 3:11 and Galatians 3:26-28 that in summary say that, in Christ: skin color, gender, and social status don’t matter – what matters is Jesus! Unfortunately, however, churches are mostly homogeneous like-minded clubs of similar people. Even with the rich diversity of the United Methodist Church, one of the most diverse denominations in the world, we are 92% white in the U.S. and 60% white worldwide. How do we create community when we would rather separate into different ethnicities? It begs the question of whether it is in our DNA to be prejudiced and want to be with own kind.

In D.C. I also went into the Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian. Talk about mistreated. I was hoping to find a T-Shirt that said, “Fighting Terrorism Since 1492,” but I didn’t. It was a somber place to me. If the majority of this country doesn’t “get it” about the Washington NFL team that has a nickname that American Indians NEVER call themselves, then we’re in serious trouble. I am even more offended by the Cleveland Indians mascot “Chief Wahoo” whose cartoon-like features are blatantly insulting.

 I have other questions in the wake of Ferguson, Missouri.  I wonder why most persons of color assume the police have an agenda of targeting them, and why most persons who are white trust the cops. I’m torn, too. I want to believe that the authorities are just doing their job, aren’t racial profilers, and want to keep the peace. Unfortunately, our experiences differ when it comes to the color of our skins, the neighborhoods we’re from, and the accent of our voices.

People assume Southerners are ignorant because we speak a drawling version of Elizabethan English. Others assume Yankees are rude and impatient with their fast clipped dialects. Why do we assume that Asian kids are better at math, black kids are better at sports like basketball and football, and white kids are football linemen, the occasional tight end, fullback, or quarterback and little else?  Why in the world do we somehow think that Latino/Hispanic persons have a corner on the landscaping market? Are these facts, or are we racists of sorts?

We have turned the American melting pot into a salad bowl where we do our best to keep the tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and lettuce separated. With that kind of attitude we don’t need to wonder why Ferguson, Missouri happened, Wounded Knee, or the Holocaust. Look at the facts and know that out of nearly 3 million people incarcerated in the U.S. 38% are African-American and that 1 in 3 African-American males will be imprisoned at some point in their lives. What makes these stats even more disturbing is that African-Americans only make up 13% of the U.S. population. Why is there such a high rate of incarceration? Is it due to a lack of opportunity? Are African-Americans somehow ill-equipped by nature or nurture to break the cycle of poverty? Is it because of the lack of a male presence in families? Is it institutional racism?

By the way Hispanics are 17% of the U.S. population and 21% of the prison population. Asians are around 5% of the U.S. population and 2.5% of that of prisons. Whites comprise 78% of the population and 35% of prison inmates. What are we to make of all this when thinking about Ferguson, Missouri and the museums on Constitution Avenue in D.C.? Have you ever heard of the phrase “white privilege?”

Privileged or not, the U.S. is made up of all kinds of people from all kinds of places and I am not ignorant of the fact that there are millions of white people who are poor and marginalized, too.  The bottom-line for me is that we must take individual and corporate responsibility for the ways that we treat people. We must look critically at systemic causes of poverty, discrimination, and racism. There is no easy answer to any of the questions raised. We live in a complex world where people learn early to discriminate between themselves and others. Maybe God had it right in becoming flesh in Jesus, a Jew from the Middle East – not African, not European, Not Asian – from right in the middle of all humankind. Jesus ably represents all of us, and gave us the words to combat racism and genocide in Matthew 7:12, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

Holocaust Museum

 

 

The “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge” combatting Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis has been the craze on social media the past few days with people being doused all over the country. I have done my part and made a donation and so have many of you. The Challenge has worked so well that ALS research has received over $40 million dollars! Last year their total for the year was around $2 million. Wow! What if we did the same for every dread disease? As a matter of fact, I hope that’s exactly what we do. I also hope that we will remember that we must fund faith-based ministries, because without faith and hope, we’re completely sunk!

Most faith-based ministries and churches have a “Summer Slump” in terms of people’s giving habits. The ministries are year round operations and have just as many or more expenses in the summer. Most churches stay in full swing during the summer with Bible School, Youth activities, music programs, Sunday School and worship services, but a lot of people are “up and down” in their church attendance – Up in the mountains or down at the beach! Unfortunately their money goes with them and sometimes it doesn’t make it back to the church.

With the heat that we’ve been having, helping agencies and churches need our support now more than ever. I guess what I’m trying to say, as nicely as I can, is don’t forget to catch up on your giving when you return from vacation and settle back into end-of-summer routines. Every church and similar organization needs systematic givers so they can do ministry year-round without missing a beat.

I read about a woman who called up the Butterball Turkey Company’s consumer hot line and asked about the advisability of cooking a turkey that had been in her freezer for 23 years. The customer service representative told her that it might be okay to eat it if the freezer had maintained a below-zero temperature the entire time. However, the flavor would have deteriorated so much that it wouldn’t be very tasty. Said the caller, “Oh, that’s what we thought. We’ll just donate it to the church.” The church has received more than her share of “old turkeys.”

No, we don’t need to give the Lord our leftovers. God has been good to us and calls us to be faithful stewards. I personally knew a man whose family discovered after his death that he had a life insurance policy just for the church. He wanted his church to have a legacy to do future ministry. The Great Recession hasn’t ended for most of us, but there are some of us who have been blessed enough to be able to share, in life and death.

As I ponder the “Ice Bucket Challenge” and all of our charitable giving it makes me assess just how we as Americans determine our self-worth. Do we count our value to society in what we have or what we give? Do we count it in salary or sharing our “widow’s mite?” Sure, I know that there are lots of ways that people give back and pay it forward, but do we come close to following what Paul said in I Corinthians 16:1-2? Paul wanted people to plan their giving and follow through on it so that he could stick to preaching and not money mongering: “Now about the collection for God’s people: Do what I told the Galatian churches to do. On the first day of every week, each one of you should set aside a sum of money in keeping with his or her income, saving it up, so that when I come no collections will have to be made.”

There was a guy who thought more about his salary and fringe benefits than helping others: Reaching the end of a job interview, the human resources person asked a young engineer fresh out of MIT, ‘And what starting salary were you looking for?’ The engineer said, ‘In the neighborhood of $135,000 a year, depending on the benefits package.’ The interviewer said, ‘Well, what would you say to a package of five-weeks vacation, 14 paid holidays, full medical and dental, company matching retirement fund to 50 percent of salary, and a company car leased every two years — say, a red Corvette?’ The engineer sat straight up and said, ‘Wow! Are you kidding?’ And the interviewer replied, ‘Yeah, but you started it.’

All joking aside, will you be missed by the church or not? I have no clue what people give and never will! I do know, however, that we need to have our own “Ice Bucket Challenge” for churches and helping agencies! Who wants to go first?

 

 

 

Coca-Cola Christianity

I have gone over to the dark side! The vending machine at St. John’s has Pepsi and Coke products and my usual preference is Diet Pepsi. However, since Coca-Cola has come out with the customized cans with the names on the side it’s been a no-brainer for me to switch. I’ve been popping coin into the machine just to find out “who” I get. This morning, to my great chagrin, I got nothing, nada, zip – a plain old can. This cool marketing ploy worked. I immediately got more money out to get another can. The soda vending machine has become my very large “fortune cookie” of sorts, inviting me to buy with more than a bit of anticipation. What if the church did something innovative like this in the ways that we share Christ?

Of course, at first we would have the nay-sayers who repeat the mantra of every dying church, “We’ve never done it that way before.” We’ve got the muddling middling skeptics that are almost in favor of a new idea, but want to know how much it’s going to cost, whether the benefits outweigh the risks, and every other what-if imaginable. These folks can usually be brought along and buy into a new idea if you overwhelm them with positive data. First they have to trust the data and if you’ve ever heard a preacher name a statistic or percentage they probably made it up on the spot. Just saying! In other words, if you’re trying to convince the middlers, make sure to have the right info and the right spokesperson!

Praise the Lord for the risk-takers whose first response is, “Let’s give it a try!” Yes, indeed, I am grateful for the people who DO NOT take the lowest bid on everything and instead say – “You have to spend money to make money!” And that is exactly what Coke has done with their cans. Certainly, it costs more money to produce this plethora of named cans, but it’s worked, at least on me!

So, now that we know it works, in order to know if this is something applicable to the church, we have to ask, “Why does it work?” We don’t need to ask how much it costs, how they physically do it, or anything else for that matter if we know the “why.” If we can answer the “why” question we can determine our ability or inability to extrapolate the Coke can phenomena into something that I’ll call “Coca-Cola Christianity.”

So why does it work? Part of the answer is what I’ve already hinted at in the fortune cookie analogy. Fortune cookies are pretty innocuous things and almost tasteless, yet we compulsively have to crack them open to read what’s inside. Have we made our faith and our churches that irresistible? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we had such a vibrancy, sense of expectancy, and excellence about us that people couldn’t stay away on Sunday mornings! Better yet, wouldn’t it be great if people found us personally so engaging and magnetic that they just HAD to ask us, “What is it about you?” We could and should answer, “Jesus!”

Other things about the Coke can thing that has made me switch brands have to do with the personalization. I have been to www.shareacoke.com and found out that I can do everything from get cans with my own name on them, the names of other people in my life, and much more. Wow, the site even allows me to share a “virtual” can with someone. I like the “What-About-Me” and “What’s-In-For-Me” aspect of the marketing. I know that our faith and church worship are supposed to be about worshipping God, but get real – if we don’t get something out of it, we’re not going to put anything into it. I don’t want to be so crass as to repeat that oft-said statement, “I want to be fed,” but isn’t there some truth in it, however self-centered it sounds?

Making personalization a part of our church mission statement might be a little overboard, but it sure works for the neighborhood bar “where everybody knows my name.” Therefore, we ought to wear our name tags, and preachers (especially new ones like me) should pray through pictorial directories and learn names and faces. I want to be able to call everyone by name whether it is in the communion line or the grocery store one. Man, if people call me by name I get the feeling that I matter. Churches that take Jesus to the streets need to call people by name and make everyone feel important. That’s the Gospel, isn’t it?

Didn’t Jesus say in John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son…?” The Gospel is personalized! God so loved you, and God so loved me. The Gospel isn’t stuck in past tense, either. God currently and forever loves you so much that he gave Jesus for you. That’s my hope with a Coke Can Christianity – to let people know individually and in inviting ways that our faith works miracles and can change attitudes, lives, even our world. Coca-Cola Christianity is sitting right in front of me as I type this. My Diet Coke can says, “Share a Diet Coke with your BFF,” and I know that my Best Friend Forever is Jesus! The whole world needs to hear the same message, and you and I are the Coke can to do it.

imagesTLUG095H

We’re working on a new website at St. John’s UMC, Aiken and getting feedback from a variety of people. What has stirred my thinking this morning is that most of these people are church members. This strikes me as a little odd because it confirms that our target audience is ourselves although we have been trying to ask “What if I were a new person to town…?” But, even the best intentions of trying to innovate our “branding” is a little iffy if we don’t ask the opinions of people without a “brand” – the “nones” who have no religious affiliation, the people who are struggling day-to-day to get by and have no clue that Jesus loves, forgives, heals, and reconciles.

I just finished reading a business genre book titled The Ice Cream Maker by Subir Chowdhury, a famous corporate consultant known for his expertise in helping companies achieve excellence. He suggests in his allegorical story of an ice cream manufacturer that quality is America’s missing ingredient for success.  He has great ideas to help us all reach higher degrees of national, corporate, and personal excellence. Summed up, they are: Listening, Enriching, and Optimizing. The book jacket says, “Chowdhury illustrates what businesses must do to instill quality into our culture and into products and services we design, build, and market.”

So as we design a website, a new ministry building, and sanctuary renovations, too – plus the fall kick-off of small groups, Bible Studies, outreach ministries and the like, we must ask as much or more about QUALITY as we do about INNOVATION. If we’re answering questions that the culture isn’t asking we’re wasting time, effort, and breath. If we believe in the mantra, “If we build it, they will come,” it probably isn’t going to happen! Innovative ministries are a must but we have to be excellent, too!

As United Methodists I have often thought that our most excellent theological hallmark is sanctification: that God doesn’t save us through Jesus to leave us the way that God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world. This doctrine of holiness and excellence has inspired the Methodist Movement to seek changes individually and in society so that everything might reflect the Kingdom of God. Like the author of The Ice Cream Maker, we are a denomination that promotes quality, yet I’m afraid that our primary excellence has diminished into taking care of those who already know Jesus and not the ones who don’t. I probably wouldn’t be a Christian if my parents and home church had not discipled me, but if I hadn’t listened and responded to a Billy Graham Crusade on TV when I was an early teenager I know that I would have have ended up as a casualty of misplaced priorities, a nominal Christian at best or not at all.

What are we going to do to be more excellent? I think we need to start by asking the right questions. Who are the customers we need to listen to? What are our strengths that need enriching? How can we optimize and build on our successes? These are tough questions. Many of our churches act as if their customers are the folks already caught in the fish bowl. As a matter of fact, it’s what I do! I want to spend more time reaching those outside our congregation’s walls, but if I had to put percentages on my ministry I would have to admit that I am about 85% focused on sheep tending and 15% on outreach. I believe John Wesley’s percentages would have been the opposite. Sure, he spent a lot of time building small groups and infrastructure, but those groups were comprised of people new to the faith. You clean fish after they’re caught, not before. Most of our programs are directed at people who have already been caught instead of catching fish!

We’re not alone in this either. Look around at America in general, not just religious institutions. Innovation has been part of our country’s DNA but do we insure the slogan “Made in America” means best quality? Think about GM and all of its recent recalls. As a big fan of the show “Shark Tank,” I enjoy seeing how entrepreneurial the average American is. We think up ideas and create new products left and right, but as quickly as we have a new idea some person or company overseas either pilfers the idea through computer hacking or simply makes a copy and produces a better quality product so that the only way the US can stay ahead is by creating something new and the whole scenario gets repeated. Our only advantage is innovation. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we not only were tops in new ideas but also in excellence?

Do you remember when cars made in Korea were almost a joke, and now Hyundai and Kia are both top of the line? Some are old enough to remember that a “Made in Japan” label on something meant it was inferior, yet most of us demand Japanese products today because of their exceptional quality. I wonder which countries that are lagging today will be tomorrow’s premier manufacturers. Doesn’t this sound familiar as we think about the mainline church and the UMC?

Mainline Protestantism cornered the market for 150 years in the US and has been losing “market share” to non-denominational churches and others for quite a while. They have copied Wesley’s small groups and discipling methods (Methodism), and can articulate our theology better than we can ourselves, but they do it all better than we do. They combine innovation and excellence, and I am convicted by it because this was our forte. That is who Methodists are by theology and definition, or at least who we used to be! I personally repent for my lopsided focus, and pledge to start asking and answering questions that are pertinent to everyone. We must offer Christ to the world in the most creative and excellent ways, or die a dead sect.

The Ice Cream Maker

 

Weeds are a pain! It’s hard to distinguish them from good plants sometimes, and by the time you can tell the difference it’s too late to do much about them. I guess you can just use an herbicide to kill everything, but that throws out the good with the bad. Somebody said that the way to tell a weed from a valuable plant was to just pull on the plant and if it’s hard to pull up, it’s a weed. If it comes up easily it’s probably a good plant. From my experience, that’s pretty accurate!

Someone else said, “To distinguish flowers from weeds, simply pull up everything. What grows back is weeds.” Jesus had a different take in Matthew 13:24-30. He said that we should be hesitant to do any pulling up of weeds until the harvest when the Divine Harvester knows what’s what. He doesn’t say there won’t be a Judgment or that there aren’t any standards. I think what Jesus is suggesting is for us to be very careful in our assessments on this side of eternity.

Therefore, pulling up everything is usually counterproductive. So how do we distinguish the good from the bad? Haven’t you found yourself wondering sometimes what or who the “weeds” are? We have to ask questions daily that are judgment calls: “Is this opportunity legit?” “Should I vote this way or that way?” “Is this guy/gal the real deal?” Sometimes the answers are iffy, either pro or con, and we hedge our bets and try to abstain. Most often I try to stack up the plusses and minuses and go with my mental winner leaving a lot of room for intuition and God’s gentle nudges.

I know Jesus said to let the weeds and good plants grow together until the harvest and let God do the judging. But aren’t you challenged just a little, if not a lot, to try to go ahead and distinguish between the well intentioned dragons and the good guys, God’s best plans and the train wrecks? Doesn’t judging have as its goal the best interest of God and humanity? So, no matter what, aren’t we supposed to be careful fruit inspectors and discern a tree, a person, or an idea’s legitimacy? Jesus did say that we would know a person’s character by their fruit (Matthew 7:16).

Gosh, that last thought sounds a lot like unchristian judging to me, but aren’t we supposed to discern right from wrong? Paul was pretty plain about it in I Corinthians 5:9-13. He was addressing a situation in the Corinthian church where a step-son married his step-mom and Paul asked the church to show him the door: “I have written you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people – not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy, and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. Now I am writing you that you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a Christian but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a person do not even eat. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. ‘Expel the wicked man from among you.’”

However, before we start expelling all the sinners from the church we must leave room for grace and forgiveness. Paul, writing about the same guy and situation, says in his next letter (2 Corinthians 2:5-11) that the man learned his lesson and says that the church should welcome him back, “I urge you, therefore, to reaffirm your love for him.” Both of these texts are helpful in how to be church! We do have standards and should not turn a blind eye to the shenanigans of fellow Believers, and, if we do our judging with an eye to reconciliation and wholeness, the offending party will find renewal with God and in the fellowship. It’s like parental love. You have to have rules, time-outs, and consequences or you’re raising a barbarian!

To take this a step further, I’m reminded of Revelation 2:1-7 about the church in Ephesus. They are accused of forsaking their “first love.” I have often thought that it meant their love of God, but if you go back and look at what’s written about the church at Ephesus in Acts or Paul’s letter to the Ephesians you might agree that their first love is about their care for each other.

A big clue as to the identity of this lost first love is found in Revelation 2:6 where it says about the Ephesians: “But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.” Note that God didn’t say, “… the Nicolaitans, who I also hate.” We don’t know who the Nicolaitans were but we know that the Ephesians weren’t commended for hating the actual people, just their practices. My problem sometimes and perhaps yours is in hating not just somebody’s actions but the very person, too.

I guess all this is to say that we need to be very careful to separate how we critique things, so that in our judging we never cross the boundary between who someone is and what they do. If we get this right we might just be able to sustain civility and community even when we passionately disagree. The Bible isn’t against judging as much as we think. We must be careful, however, to do it with what’s best for the person and community in mind. That’s a major thrust of holiness anyway.

We have made holiness an anachronistic tired mean pharisaical word when actually it is the promotion of God’s own character in each other, plus it endorses lifestyles and actions that make our lives better. Holiness is not about who’s in and who’s out of our community as much as it is about how God wants us to best live and thrive. It’s like my grandmother who often corrected me by saying about the punishment: “This is GOOD for you.” I hate to admit it, but she was right! Indeed, judging is supposed to help our fellow strugglers know what’s best for them and how they can more clearly reflect God’s image and character.

Therefore, judge we must if we care about people and want them to have the best lives imaginable. The end game is to glorify God and love people. If we don’t stand for something we will most surely fall for anything. So what is right and wrong? I think for the most part we already know the answer to that question about any given topic, but we are either too guilty ourselves or too afraid to have the chutzpah to back it up. We aren’t brave enough to actually try to help somebody by pointing out their shortcomings, and we aren’t that interested in hearing it about ourselves. Well, whoever said being a Christian was for the faint of heart? We have work to do in our garden! Do we want weeds or fruit?

Weeding

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,588 other followers