Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Life is Too Short ...

Complete this sentence: “Life is too short to … “

How did you finish it? “ … hold a grudge?” “... be boring?” “... worry?” Or maybe something practical, like “...drink bad coffee?”

The Beatles think that “life is very short, and there’s no time for fussing and fighting, my friends.” That’s a line from their 1965 #1 hit, “We Can Work It Out.”

What if we could all adopt that attitude? How would the world change if more people believed that life is just too short to fuss and fight with one another?

Or, as the apostle Paul might put it, what if more people would “lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Actually it isn’t that Paul “might” put it that way. It’s that he DID. That’s in the book of Ephesians, right at the beginning of chapter 4.

A life “worthy of the calling” of Christ is much too short “for fussing and fighting, my friends!”

Why does it seem to be so difficult for people to avoid animosity? Maybe it is because we think “unity” means the same thing as “uniformity,” and that means if we’re not in lock-step agreement with one another, we must be bitter enemies?

I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that life is far too short to think that way. I’d rather work it out. Life is very short; surely we can work it out!

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Money For Nothin?

Dave Ramsey’s website points out that there are over 800 passages in scripture that deal with money. That clearly makes it one of the Bible’s most important topics. Money thoughts appear in the Torah, the prophets, wisdom literature, the Gospels, the letters of Paul … throughout the entire Bible.

Money is a subject of Jesus’s own teaching. It is Jesus who says that we cannot “serve two masters,” and if we try to serve both God and wealth, we will fail (Matthew 6:24). He throws down a challenge for his followers, saying that none of us can become his disciples without giving up our possessions (Luke 14:33).

Jesus’s thoughts on wealth might be summed up in one big idea: “One’s life does not consist in the abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).

How quickly we forget this profound truth!

I look at our house, our cars, our various screen devices, our closets filled with clothes. I think about our bank accounts, our insurance policies, our college funds, our retirement plans. So. Much. Stuff.

I wonder, does my life consist in an abundance of possessions? What would my life be if all of these things were gone?

It’s easy enough to answer those questions about wealth and possessions while I’m enjoying their benefits. “Of course I’m not ‘serving two masters!’” I might say … from the soft couch in my warm and dry living room, with my full belly, dressed in clothes appropriate for the weather.

Will there ever be a time I can honestly say that “I don’t care too much for money, ‘cause money can’t buy me love?”

Or am I stuck with “Money can’t get everything it’s true – but what it don’t get I can’t use!”

There’s a great documentary called “Happy.” (Available on Netflix.) In it I heard an idea that changed my thinking about money.

“Anybody who says ‘money doesn’t buy happiness’ should go talk to somebody living under a bridge.” And immediately following that, “But anybody who says ‘money buys happiness’ should go talk to Bill Gates.”

“Neither of those things is actually true.” This was according to Daniel Gilbert, PhD.

It turns out that there is a noticeable increase in a person’s happiness when they have sufficient resources to meet their basic needs. After that, there isn’t much of an increase at all.

In other words, “The difference in happiness between a person who earns 5,000 and 50,000 is dramatic. The difference in happiness between a person who earns 50,000 and 50,000,000 is not.”

So having a whole boat load of money doesn’t actually make you happier. But being able to eat does.

One’s life does not consist of possessions. But having a safe and warm place to live sure helps.

Or maybe we say it this way: after our need for food, clothing, and shelter is met, even the richest person in the world cannot buy what they truly need. 

Thursday, January 15, 2015

Freedom, Humor, and Violence: The Charlie Hebdo Mixture

Until now, I haven’t written anything about the Charlie Hebdo attack. Nor did I address it specifically in Sunday’s sermon. (Though I did say, “If it is not loving, it doesn’t come from God,” so that pretty much covers it, I suppose.)

I haven’t really said anything yet because, frankly, I’m having a hard time processing it. For many people, it is simple. Freedom of expression was attacked, and those attackers are evil because, beyond the senseless killing of 17 people, they were attacking one of the core principles of a free democratic society.

To be clear, I abhor violence. Nothing I write here should indicate otherwise. The murderers/terrorists who committed the Charlie Hebdo killings were in the wrong and there should be clear consequences. Violence never resolves conflict, and I will never condone a harmful act.

And at the same time, also on my mind are the limits that society places on freedom of expression. Simply put, you cannot just say anything you want at any time to any person. And as a person of faith myself, I believe one ought not ridicule, demean, or belittle another’s belief system. I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to do so to my own.

But on the other hand, I have no trouble laughing at some of the more absurd satirical presentations of Christianity. I love Betty Bowers, for example. So snarky! And Lark News is always good for a laugh (Headline: “Man Tired of Being Used in Sermon Illustrations”). I usually get a kick out of Jesus when he appears on South Park, too, although you can’t really watch that with your kids, if you know what I’m sayin.

So back and forth and back again; this whole thing is really complex for me.

The Vatican has officially denounced the attack while at the same time asking media outlets to treat religions with respect. And that would mean ALL religions. Pope Francis is quoted saying, “There are so many people who speak badly about religions or other religions, who make fun of them, who make a game out of the religions of others. They are provocateurs.”

Okay, but in no way shape or form does that mean they deserve to die. The staff of Charlie Hebdo was murdered in cold blood. They did not “have it coming to them.” It was shocking, appalling, an act of evil and hatred. And the Pope also said that it is an “aberration” to kill in the name of God and that religion can never be used to justify violence.

Now, a lot of religious satire seems to point at the way religious principles have been altered by practitioners of said religion. In that sense, the humor can be prophetic. I absolutely love the South Park scene where Cartman forms a “Christian” rock band and replaces the words “baby” and “darling” in pop songs with the word “Jesus” in order to make them “Christian,” for example.

Stuff like that illuminates truth, and if we can manage to laugh at it without taking offense, it can be quite helpful in our spiritual growth.

Comedians can be prophetic, too. People like Louis CK and Ricky Gervais and Nick Offerman sometimes say things about religion that might sound pretty harsh. But those things resonate because they are grounded in truth. I often end up laughing and wincing at the same time.

Of course also in the mix here: I had never heard of Charlie Hebdo before last week, so I was curious. Looking at their stuff now, it just really isn’t all that funny to me. It is crude, defiant, bold, all-inclusive, yes. But I guess I’m not really in the right context to find it amusing. And lacking the humor, the bite of the satire isn’t quite as illuminating.

So you see, all of that is tumbling around in my head, which has made it impossible to form a clear and coherent response. Freedom of expression. Humor. Violence. Prophetic words. Humility. Religious diversity. Truth.

So here’s where I am:
- You can’t just say whatever you want and expect no consequences to follow, especially if it is demeaning or insulting or harmful.
- To be able to laugh at yourself and your own absurdity is a gift and sign of maturity.
- Nobody should ever be killed for expressing an idea, no matter how crude and offensive it may be.

I guess what I’m saying is, we need to somehow figure out how to have all three of these ideas held together, always.

Friday, January 02, 2015

"Unconditional Love" and Leelah Alcorn

Let’s talk a bit about “unconditional love.”

First, why don’t we start with John Wesley’s pithy definition of love: “…to desire and pursue their happiness as sincerely and steadily as our own….” This definition appears in Sermon 139, “On Love,” focusing on 1 Corinthians 13:3 as the text. (You may read the text here if you wish.) This is my favorite definition of love, in part because it is active. In this definition, love isn’t just “the way I feel about a person.” It means that I want them to be happy, it makes me happy to make them happy, and will do all that I can to ensure that happiness.

Now let’s apply the word “unconditional” to that idea. This phrase appears nowhere in the Bible, by the way. In fact, if you look online, there are plenty of articles that reject the idea. However, I believe the concept is certainly present in Scripture. For example, Jesus removes the conditions for “love” by asking his followers to love those who do not necessarily love in return (Matthew 5). Paul affirms that God’s love is not conditional to our behavior, but rather is proven in that “while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5). Even in the Hebrew Bible, no conditions are placed on the idea that God has chosen the Hebrew people. Of course, having been thus “unconditionally chosen,” behavioral expectations are applied. But no conditions are placed on God’s initiative in their lives.

So that would mean that “unconditional love” means that I want that the one I love to be happy and I act and speak in such a way that the one I love will be happy, no matter what they do, who they are, what they say, how they act … right?

Okay, now, it gets tricky.

What if my loved one’s actions are harmful? What if their words are hateful? Would expecting them to change these actions or words be placing a “condition” on my love?

In general, I don’t think so. In fact, expressing my desire that they change may in fact be an act of love, if it prevents harm from being done or hate from being expressed.

So how far can I take that? Where’s the line? If a parent believes that being gay is sinful, and their child tells them he or she is gay, could it be considered an act of love if the parent insists that the child change? If a child is born a girl but her body is male, but her parents do not accept her transgender identity, would their continual reference to her as a boy be considered “loving?”

These are not hypothetical questions. This is real - Leelah Alcorn is dead now because of how real this is.

My own belief is that being gay is not sinful in any way, shape, or form. If you peruse my blog you’ll find plenty of posts describing why I believe the way I do. However, for the purpose of this post, that isn’t the question.

The question is: What does unconditional love really look like? If someone you love comes to you and says, “So, I’m gay,” what does a truly loving response look like?

However you personally answer this question, I hope you would agree that a loving response wouldn’t be one that itself inflicted harm or expressed hate. A loving response would support and encourage and lift up. A loving response would listen and affirm and validate. A loving response would seek to know and understand and empathize.

Unconditional love never says, “I love you, but...” Unconditional love says, “I love you, and…”

And so EVEN IF you think being gay is a sin, if your response to another person’s sexual identity causes them harm, it is NOT unconditional love. You can't say, "I love you unconditionally, as long as you are straight." That's actually a "condition." If you really love them, your response will be to listen to them, to respect who they are, and to affirm that you’ll be with them no matter what.

I grieve for Leelah Alcorn, even though I did not know her at all. I grieve for a sacred life that is no more, and I grieve for her parents whose pain must be unbearable right now. I cannot imagine what it must be like to experience the death of your own child.

At the same time, it breaks my heart that the response of other people, her parents included, likely led to her death - and that response was falsely labelled “unconditional love.”

Monday, December 15, 2014

Love, No Matter What

This season at Campbell UMC, we have considered how our lives are illuminated by hope, peace, and joy. These ideas have taken us through three weeks of Advent, in preparation for the coming of Christ.

And this week we light the fourth candle - the candle of love, Of all the lights that shine in this holy season, the light of love shines brightest of all.

You know you love someone if the room seems brighter when they walk in.

Love connects people together. Love connects people to God. The connections of love are like wires closing a circuit, the current flows and the energy surges and (if there’s a light bulb attached) there is LIGHT!

In a similar way, when a relationship is one of love, there is energy flowing. In a loving relationship, there is light. The light of a loving relationship will illuminate the darkest places of life; the darkness of conflict and disagreement can never overcome the light of love.

Helen Keller said, “Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.”

Even if the future is uncertain, even if what lies ahead is intimidating or the path is going to be difficult to follow, having someone you love by your side always makes it better. And on the flipside, even if life is certain and comfortable and the future is clear ahead of you, if you have to go it alone it just isn’t as good.

Love illuminates our lives by connecting us together with a light that refuses to be overcome.

Therein lies my hope for the future of the church. I believe with all my heart that things will be okay if we can just manage to remember that we love one another.

And even more, if we truly practice scriptural hospitality, we are reminded that we love not just those who already love us. We are to show the same love to "strangers" (as in Hebrews 13:2 - Gk. philoxenia: love of strangers, also in Romans 12:13) as we do to family and friends.

The light has come into the world. The light is Christ. The light is love. And although we seem to forget it and tend to act like we don't believe it, no darkness of any kind will ever be able to overcome it.

Love - No matter what.

Wednesday, December 03, 2014

I Wish I Didn't Have to Write This...

I got a letter this week. It begins:

“Once again the Family of Faith in Springfield, MO is under attack.”

Whoa! Excellent attention-getter, right? “UNDER ATTACK!!!” I was hooked immediately! So I read on…

“Our City Council, on October 13, 2014, passed General Ordinance No. 6141, which prescribes exclusionary rights to individuals aligned with the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Transgender (LGBT) movement in our community.”

Yeah, I had to read it again, too. Feel free to take a moment.

As near as I can tell, “exclusionary rights” means the right to have a job and a home. So, there’s that.

And “individuals aligned with the Lesbian, Gay, Bi-Sexual and Trans …” … yeah, that phrase. That means gay people.

So to interpret that sentence in actual words, it says the Springfield City Council passed an ordinance to ensure that gay people would have the right to hold a job and live in a home.

Still looking for the “attack.” Right? Because I sure haven’t read it yet. But maybe he’ll illuminate.

Next sentence: “Even though an overwhelming majority of Springfieldians spoke out in opposition, our Council voted 6 to 3 in favor of implementing this ordinance with its un-Biblical, anti-Christian bias and its un-Constitutional provisions.”

So now I am genuinely confused. This must be the description of the attack, but it isn’t clear who the letter writer is actually mad at.

Does he mean “un-Biblical,” like ignoring Romans 13 when it suits us? Or does he mean “un-Biblical” in just leaving off the entire chapter of Matthew 25, or any other part of the Holy Word of God that instructs us to care for those who are in need by … oh I don’t know … maybe making sure they have full access to a job and a home?

And “anti-Christian bias,” meaning that we ought to use the tenets of one particular expression of faith to measure what our government does? Like as in one of the key things the founders of our nation were attempting to avoid in setting up our amazing system of government in the first place?

Which leads to the “un-Constitutional provisions” part … is he meaning Amendment 5 that says the government cannot deprive anyone of life, liberty, or property without due process? Or maybe he means Amendment 14 that says specifically, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

Okay, enough with the snark. Let’s be clear here. This letter is from a group of people who wants Springfield, Missouri to repeal a duly passed City Council ordinance that essentially inserted sexual orientation and gender identity into all of the city’s anti-discrimination language. And this group wants pastors to encourage the people of our congregations to vote in favor of this repeal effort.

This ordinance, just to be crystal clear, includes this paragraph:

“Nothing in this article shall be taken to prohibit a religious organization, association or society, or any nonprofit institution or organization operated, supervised or controlled by or in conjunction with a religious organization, association or society and whose purpose and character are primarily religious, from giving employment preference to members of its own religion.”

So, if gay people are not welcome in your religion, you don’t have to hire them.

And in the exceptions section of the ordinance, religious groups are quite clearly allowed to give preference to people of their own choosing for housing consideration, as well.

If you can make the case that gay people are not a part of your religion, the city of Springfield will allow your religious group to exclude them as much as you’d like.

Here’s the whole thing if you’d like to read it - click this.

In a nutshell, we have a City Council ordinance that passed with a clear majority (6-3) that seeks to ensure that discrimination is not happening in Springfield for any reason, and yet gives an exception to religious groups who want to include a particular form of discrimination in their own practices.

And still I’m wondering, where is this “attack” actually happening?

The letter tells me that “As a pastor, you are one of the leaders in the church community, which is the first line of defense against the powers of immorality and inequality in our city.” And funny thing, this is a statement with which I completely and utterly agree 100%. Ironically, that is exactly why I feel the need to write and post this response.

To be honest, I wish I could just let this go away and focus on more important things. But I am a follower of Jesus, which means I cannot allow such misrepresentations of the Gospel to simply go unchallenged. I could if it were the fringe, like Westboro. But this is pretty mainline – like First Baptist Church of Springfield. (That’s where the meeting is to be held on Thursday, December 4, to organize the repeal supporters.)

Incidentally, I also sent the following via email. I sent it to the email address I found on the Christians Uniting for Political Action website. That’s the group on whose letterhead the letter was printed:

I'm not sure who is reading this email, but I'm sure you can forward it to the appropriate channel.

I am writing to ask respectfully that you alter your language in your communications regarding the anti-discrimination language in the Springfield City Council issue. Your letter announcing the December 4th meeting seems to assume that there is one, uniform, Christian response to this action.

In truth, our responses are varied and diverse. If you would just change a few words here and there, to indicate that "some" Christians view this as an attack, or that "some of us" are upset by this decision, instead of making it seem as though all Christians feel the same way, I would really appreciate it.

Thank you so much! Peace be with you,
Andy Bryan, Pastor
Campbell United Methodist Church

Like with this post in general, I really wish I wasn’t having to deal with this. I wish I could just be focused on ministry and mission and Advent and Jesus and stuff like that. But if nobody says anything, if stuff like this goes unchallenged, it will be assumed that this point of view is THE “Christian” point of view. So I decided to go ahead and send the email, and see what happens.

At this point, I really don’t even care about changing people’s minds. I just want them to stop presenting their own personal view as if it represents all Christians everywhere. To do so grossly distorts the Gospel, which claims that God is far too big to fit into any one particular human understanding.

I’m gonna let you think what you think, even if I disagree with it. All I ask at this point is that you allow me to do the same, and stop pretending that following Jesus means agreeing about everything.

If there really is an attack going on, that’s it. 

Monday, December 01, 2014


The second Sunday of Advent asks us to think about peace.

Really? Your timing just couldn’t be worse, Second Sunday of Advent. It’s a pretty hard topic to think about just now. Violence seems to be the norm, hatred makes headlines, conflict rules the day.

Peace is not trending.

But honestly, has it ever been? Have you ever arrived, Second Sunday, and found the world to be truly at peace? Has there ever been an era in which peace was the rule of the day? We are fond of lamenting how bad the world is “these days,” and how idyllic the “good old days” were. But is that truthful?

Maybe we just remember things through the lens of sentiment, and maybe that makes it seem better than it really was. Is that how it is, Second Sunday of Advent? Are our memories selective that way?

You come around every year, Second Sunday; why are we so surprised? Shocked, even? Peace is kind of a big deal in the Bible, after all. Even Jesus himself is identified with it, him being the Prince of Peace and all. So why is it that all we can do is cluck our tongues and shake our heads?

Why can we not seem to figure out how to actually live lives of peace? We are supposed to “strive to be found by Christ at peace,” for God’s sake (2 Peter 3:14). So who’s striving?

Okay, Second Sunday of Advent … we hear you! We’ll give it a try. Who knows but if we do, that this “peace” thing might not just be the next big thing?