Thursday, March 22, 2018

Your Own Personal Jesus?

The theology behind almost every one of our ecclesial disputes is Christological. Simply put, church conflicts cannot be resolved when we make Jesus into an abstract idea, rather than a living, breathing, incarnate reality.

It is my belief that almost every disagreement within the church arises because each of us has created a particular Jesus, one who sees the world much like we do, and in doing so our “own personal Jesus” has become an idea, rather than the embodied presence of God. We love our idea of Jesus, especially because that idea always corresponds to our own way of thinking in the first place.

Why is this a problem? Well, here are a few thoughts:

There is no room for an abstract idea of Jesus to challenge your thinking. The real flesh and blood Jesus challenges human ideas all the time.

There is no way for an abstract idea of Jesus to empathize with suffering. The real flesh and blood Jesus suffers alongside people, meeting pain head-on.

It is not possible for an abstract idea of Jesus to relate to diverse human experiences. The real flesh and blood Jesus can talk with fishermen, tax collectors, lepers, disciples, prostitutes, centurions, children, grown-ups, the rich, the poor, the Jews, the Samaritans … and on and on.

In other words, when we reduce Jesus to an abstract idea, we lose the essence of who he is. When we impoverish our Christology to the point of abstraction, we make Jesus into no more than a weapon to wield against those with whom we disagree. And that’s just not okay.

The dispute du jour in the United Methodist Church is whether or not same-sex couples should be allowed to be married and whether or not gay people should be allowed to be ordained. (Yes, for you non-UMC people, we are still debating these questions - *sigh* - What can I say? Navel-gazing amuses us.)

The denomination is polarized over the questions, with one pole saying “You just can’t” and one pole saying “You have to,” and I can’t help but think that the theological gap between their positions is and impoverished Christology. Each has created a version of Jesus that fits their own viewpoint, and appeals to that abstract idea of Jesus in their discussions on the issues.

So each pole cites Scripture, each pole emphasizes the mission of the church, each pole laments becoming a “dead sect” instead of a vital, vibrant church. People from each pole, in other words, have created faith-based frameworks that use very similar language from which to make their case. Each pole has created a Jesus who sees things like they do, and appeal to him as their source of authority.

And now each pole is unable to vary from their positions, lest they be considered unfaithful. There is no compromise for those on the poles, because to do so would be to admit that they might be wrong, which would mean that the Jesus they created might be wrong, which of course we could never say – Jesus can’t be “wrong,” can he?

In the meantime, there are a lot of people in the center of the dispute du jour, who would say “You can but you don’t have to” about marriage and ordination of people who are gay.

In this large “center” of the church there are people who are more ready for the real live Jesus to challenge their perspective and to change their minds. There are people who have experienced how the real live Jesus suffers alongside people instead of callously dismissing them. There are people who are open to how the real live Jesus might relate to people differently in different situations, even situations that are very different from their own.

I honestly do not know what exactly is going to happen over the next year or so in the United Methodist Church. Will the majority of us in the “You can but you don’t have to” center of the denomination be able to fashion a workable compromise? If we do, will the poles then split off and become their own thing? And then if they do that, will the hard work of the compromise prove to be a waste of resources and energy, if they were just going to split off anyway? There is so much speculation and guessing going on in the denomination right now, but the truth is that nobody knows anything for sure.

What I do know for sure is that Jesus is Jesus, and the heart of this dispute (and many others) is our inability or our unwillingness to allow him to be so. Rather, we insist on creating a personal Lord and Savior who sees the world exactly like we do, and then we use that version of Jesus to attack one another.

We’re coming up to Palm Sunday, when we remember how a whole crowd of people created their own personal Jesus, a Jesus who was going to conquer the Romans and drive them out of Israel, a Jesus who saw the world very much as they did. As they marched into Jerusalem with this abstract idea of Jesus, they shouted his praises and waved victorious branches in the air.

But then, Jesus was Jesus. Jesus refused to be an abstract idea. Jesus had no intention of conforming to human expectations. And even though he told them several times that it was going to happen, his followers were nevertheless stunned when he was killed.

This season, what might happen if all of us followers of Jesus who think we know him so well would empty out our Jesus bottles, so to speak, and allow him to do what he does? What might happen if we surrendered our preconceived notions of Jesus, started with a clean slate, and just let Jesus be Jesus?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

"Split the Baby" - Seriously?

In an article in the Springfield News-Leader today, Representative Steve Helms is quoted as saying, "I think we split the baby as best we could." Which is apparently his incredibly bizarre and theologically questionable way to say "compromised," I guess.

In the article, Representative Helms lays out some thoughts about tweaking the regulations around predatory lending practices in the state. Among the ideas are
            - Lowering the number of times a loan can be renewed from six to two,
            - Creating conditional extended payment plans,
            - Lowering the total amount of interest and fees that can be charged from 75% of the loan total to 35% of the loan total.
            - Lowering the licensing fee for a payday loan store from $500 to $300.

Helms is quoted as saying that more regulation that this would put lenders out of business, eliminating a much-needed resource for people who need a short-term cash loan.

Of course, Representative Helms is repeating industry talking points, rather than working for the common good. His bill (HB 2657) may seem on the surface to make meaningful changes, but the reality is that such incremental adjustments will have very little impact. As our legislature continues to be influenced by the predatory lending industry, the working poor in our state continue to suffer.

Notably, North Carolina has enacted very strict regulations on short-term lending, capping the interest rate at 36%, for example. Yes, several companies went out of business as a result, namely companies who were preying on the poor and basing their business models on loan rollovers, exorbitant fees and penalties, and triple digit APRs. I am not mourning their loss. And today it is still possible to get a small, short-term loan in North Carolina. The companies that chose to comply with the regulations are in business.

Representative Helms says he wants to "split the baby" on this issue. He means he wants to both make the corporations happy and also protect people from their predatory practices. He is attempting to cite scripture in making this analogy.

Solomon didn’t split the baby, though. Compassion, love, and justice are crying out to save the baby's life. We must cap the rate; lives are depending on it. May our legislature display the wisdom necessary to do what is right.

HB 2657 (Helms' bill) was read on March 1st, got its second reading on the 5th, and was assigned to committee on the 7th. A well-greased machine.

HB 1541 (which I wrote about yesterday) caps the interest rate at 36%. It was prefiled on December 7, read on January 3rd, got its second reading on January 4th, and HAS YET TO BE ASSIGNED TO COMMITTEE.

What's the hold up, I wonder? I suppose it's that HB 1541 doesn't "split the baby," but rather does everything it can to keep the baby alive, and safe from the deadly cycle of the debt trap on which predatory lenders base their profit margins.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Missouri HB 1541 - MOVE IT!!!

This morning I called the office of Missouri House Speaker Todd Richardson - (573)751-4039 - to ask him to please assign HB 1541 to committee. It really needs to happen THIS WEEK, before the Missouri Legislature adjourns for the season.

My call was a follow-up to the email ( I sent last week:

Mr. Speaker,

I am writing today to ask you to please assign HB 1541 to committee as soon as possible. 

As a pastor, I have seen how the exorbitant interest rates of "payday loan" and "title loan" companies can pull families into a cycle of poverty from which it is very difficult to escape. In addition, the companies are by and large out-of-state corporations, and the financial drain to our state is estimated to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars, as Missouri families send their hard-earned money out of state to pay off these unjust loans.

HB 1541 sets a limit on these interest rates at 36%, which would align our state with the seventeen other states that cap "payday loan" interest rates at this level or lower.

This policy is good for people, good for families, and good for our state. Please send this bill to committee before the upcoming break. Thank you for your time.

Andy Bryan, Pastor
Campbell United Methodist Church
Springfield, Missouri

The injustice of predatory lending is rampant. The oppressive system traps people in poverty. In fact the business models on which such lending companies operates is based on forcing people to renew loans over and over again, or face the legal ramifications of defaulting.

Payday loan companies, title loan companies, used car lots that advertise "automatic credit approval," and on an on and on... Such companies are not just "meeting a need," as their supporters would have you think. It us usury, pure and simple. People of faith used to really, really care about usury. And yet somehow we've drifted away from our focus on that horrific injustice, probably from the fear of being "too political" or some such nonsense.

Missouri House Bill 1541, filed by Republican Representative Lynn Morris, has not yet been assigned to committee, which is the exclusive responsibility of Speaker Richardson. I invite and encourage you to call his office today and ask him to assign this bill to committee so it can proceed. 

HB 1541 makes sense, and brings Missouri in line with seventeen other states with interest rate cap laws on the books. If you have any questions about it, I'd be more than happy to talk with you. 

It's time to move the bill!

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

We Have to Get Smarter

I heard a news story this morning on NPR about how Russian bots have been amplifying the extreme positions in America. I do not understand the technology fully, but apparently these programs scan social media for extreme positions and highlight them and spread them so that they seem more mainstream than they really are. The result is that we as a nation end up constantly fighting with each other, which is exactly the point of the whole process - to keep us at each others' throats.

As I listened, I couldn't help but think back to October of 2017, and the sermon that I preached immediately following the Las Vegas shooting. ...

At 15:00 minutes, I say, "If you listen to how the conversation is framed, you would think there are only two possible ways to think about it - either 'no guns for no people' or 'all guns for all people.' That’s the way our 'national conversation' has been discussed. But it is just not true! It isn’t reality!"

I also published a blog post with the full text of that sermon - Click this.

In that sermon last October I posed the following question: "Who is framing the conversation that way? Maybe that’s where we need to spend some time and energy. Who benefits from keeping us at each other’s throats over issues that aren’t really issues in the first place? That is where the power resides, after all. And they stay hidden, under the surface, in the shadows."

Now, I am not claiming any kind of prophetic insight, but there is a resonance that cannot be ignored.

And of course, the more important point to make here is this - We have to get smarter.

When it comes to discussion and debate about public policy, there will naturally be disagreement on what is the best way forward. But we cannot allow the hidden powerful elite to define the conversation for us. That has to stop.

We have to get smarter about how we speak with one another about contentious issues.

We have to get smarter about who is truly holding the power in our nation, and what is actually at stake here.

We have to get smarter about fixing the gun crisis in America.

We have to get smarter about what the vast majority of us believe are the core values of our nation.

I started this blog (oh so many) years ago with the premise that "The Conversation Matters," an idea I flat-out stole from the title of a book by Hal Knight and Don Saliers. I still believe that. The conversation matters. HOW we talk to each other is just as important as what we say.

And we are failing miserably at HOW we are talking to each other. That is, if we are talking to each other at all. We seemed to have recused ourselves from any responsibility for framing the conversation, and are just allowing that work to be done for us, by strangers we will never meet.

Honesty, integrity, humility, and compassion are in short supply these days - they have been stolen from us. It's time to take them back. We have to get smarter.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The Kids are Going Off Script

The people in the government who were voted into power are lying to us. And us kids seem to be the only ones who notice.” – Emma Gonzalez, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Student & Self-proclaimed Kid

 There isn't any tragedy that justifies taking away the rights of innocent people.” – Austin Peterson, Candidate for Missouri Senate & Definitely a Grown-Up

Mr. Peterson apparently believes that the right to own a piece of property, namely an assault rifle, is more important than the right of a person to be alive.

Ms. Gonzalez apparently sees things differently.

I’m with her.

One week after the latest mass shooting in America, the script is changing. At this point we are in the scene in which we all are supposed to be reacting to the reactions of the people around us, telling them how their reaction is ridiculous and won’t work and how they are so na├»ve to think it ever would and how our reaction is obviously the more correct and reasonable one. 

This is the scene in which we forget that our neighbor's reaction isn't actually the problem, that the problem is that 17 people went to school last Wednesday and were shot and killed while they were there. But, you know, projection.

This scene is supposed to transition into the next, in which the conversation devolves into mindless yelling and nothing changes. Which brings us inexorably back to scene one again, and I think we all know what happens in scene one.

But this time, some really brave people are going off script. They are ad-libbing this scene, and it is glorious and terrifying and wonderful to see.

The actors who are going off script are mostly students, high school students. Led by people like Emma Gonzalez, high schoolers around the country are lifting their voices in smart, articulate, and courageous opposition to the status quo. With laser beam focus they are staying on message, and are showing a relentless determination that ought to have NRA politicians sweating bullets.

People kill people, the grown-ups say, not guns. Yes. Right. You did a logic thing. Groovy.

See here’s another logic thing: People with guns kill a lot more people than people without guns.

Also, people with semi-automatic guns kill a lot more people than people without those kinds of weapons. If we’re going to use logic here, let’s really use it. Assault weapons are designed for one purpose – assault. Not hunting, not home security … assault.

No one needs an assault weapon. And no, your right to own one is not more important than someone else’s right to be alive. The right to be alive supersedes the right to own property. I feel like that truth should be self-evident, or maybe even that right should be … oh what’s the word I’m looking for … ? Oh yeah – Inalienable.

So maybe the script is being rewritten this time. These kids certainly aren’t behaving in the way they are expected to. And already it is making the grown-ups nervous. Already the reactions are getting ugly. The latest is the right-wing idea that the students are being “used” by bigger political organizations as tools to advance some scary left-wing agenda.

Right, because seventeen year olds couldn’t possibly have come up with this stuff themselves, huh? Surely someone MUST be pulling their strings from behind the scenes. (Read that with a sarcastic tone of voice, by the way.)

The truth is, these student leaders are making sense. They are saying rational, reasonable things that the majority of Americans agree with, and it is making the grown-ups in places of power very nervous. And it’s fabulous!

Kids these days! Thank God for kids these days.

Wednesday, February 07, 2018

A Call for a Bigger Unity

I am so tired of the “my way is the only way” Christians belittling the rest of us who see things differently than they do. Stop, please. Just … stop!

The latest is an absolutely absurd blog post shared by the “Wesleyan Covenant Association” (W.C.A.), a group of United Methodists who doesn’t think gay people should be allowed to be married or ordained. The author's premise is that calls for unity are actually asking for disunity, although the blog's author does not clearly define what is meant by "unity." Here’s a link to the blog in question.

Here is the most telling statement - “It is not fair to ask a global church to sanction the progressive mores of a minority group largely centered in the U.S.”

When I was in elementary school, there was a kid in our class whose go-to response to life was “That’s not fair to me!” He said it any time anything at all didn’t go his way. It was annoying from an elementary kid; it is infuriating from an ordained United Methodist Elder.

But I don’t know if spiritual immaturity is actually what’s going on here. It may be, but it’s quite possible there is something else happening. And I have an idea about what it might be.

There is an illness that has infected the church, one I have dubbed “Obsessive Christianity Disorder.” The symptoms of this version of “O.C.D.” include an inability to validate anyone else’s perspective but your own and a quickness to condemn other ways of relating to God that are unfamiliar or uncomfortable for you.

Happily there is a treatment! It’s very simple, found throughout the Bible, and something that Jesus himself modeled for us. It is humility.

Dear United Methodist Church, if we can foster the ability to “walk humbly with God,” we may very well be able to remain united as a denomination. If we cannot, we will splinter.

Dear Wesleyan Covenant Association, I humbly submit to you that no one will force you to marry a same-sex couple if you cannot find a reason to do so. No one will force you to vote “yes” for a gay person when they come up for ordination, if you cannot find a reason to do so. No one will ask anyone to “sanction the progressive mores” of anyone.

You do you. Carry on.

All the rest of us simply ask that you let us do us. All we ask is that you let us do ministry in a way that makes sense to us, in our contexts, with and among the people around us. And if that means marrying a same-sex couple so that God will indeed be at the center of that lifelong covenant commitment, then we want to be free to do so. And if that means we think a person is gifted for ministry and would be an amazing deacon or elder in our church, then we want to be free to vote for them without taking into consideration the gender of the people they are romantically attracted to.

Again, no one will force you to include persons you find morally objectionable in your worldview. You can say “No” to all the gay couples you want. You can vote “No” on all the gay ordination candidates you want. That will not change. I absolutely trust you in your ministry, when you say that is the best way for you to focus on the mission of the church. I do not agree with you, but I trust you that it is right for you.

I am just asking you to trust me in the same way by removing the denominational restrictions that make my ministry so difficult.

Finally, let me add this. The blog I read today, speculating about the possibility of a UMC compromise, includes this observation: “One pastor would be teaching that the practice of homosexuality and same-sex marriage are unbiblical and therefore incompatible with Christian teaching, while another UM pastor, just miles away, would be teaching the practice of homosexuality is a good gift from God and same-sex marriages should be celebrated.”

Right. And …? I am unclear as to why this is a bad thing. In fact, is it not a strength of our connection, and a reason to work for unity? I am aware of several pastors close by me who have a “traditional marriage only” viewpoint. (By the way, icymi I have a “marriage equality for all people” viewpoint.)

Does it not make a whole lot of sense that, if someone in my congregation cannot abide marriage equality, I would be able to recommend to them a great pastor and colleague down the street that I know shares their view? And vice versa? Isn’t that what Christian unity really ought to be?

Further, I believe that denying a couple their marriage vows because they are the same gender is oppressive and unjust. My colleague down the road does not. Only if we remain connected, unified as the church, would my colleague down the road be able to send a same-sex couple to me to be married. Does that make us uncomfortable? Perhaps. But who promised anyone that following Jesus would be comfortable?

The truth is that ministry context is already taken into consideration when appointments are made in the UMC. District Superintendents and Bishops already know where individual pastors and individual congregations are on the theological spectrum. So appointment making really would not change all that much; we would just be more honest about it.

For me the bottom line is this – The Christians who claim their way of following Jesus is the only possible way to do so are just plain wrong. “Their way” is just one way among many ways to follow Jesus all around the world. I certainly do not believe that my relationship with Jesus is the only possible way for anyone to be in relationship with Jesus. So why does anyone feel that way?

I hope our definition of “unity” is not as small as this. I hope our definition of “unity” finds its source in Christ, not in us. I hereby call for a bigger unity, and I hope we who follow Jesus truly believe the Bible when it says that “all are one in Christ,” and nothing we do can change that.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Work Harder, Preachers

Hey preachers, let me have a moment…

There is a lot of low hanging fruit out there this week. A lot of easy barbs, jabs, pithy snark we might include in our sermons. There is a lot of it, and it’s hanging really, really low.

Work harder. The Word of God needs to be proclaimed this week as powerfully as it ever has been, maybe even more so. Work harder. This coming Sunday’s sermon is crucial; it’s impact will have a lasting effect on those who hear it. Work. Harder.

How many sermons will include the word “shithole” this Sunday? How many times will the line, “Galilee was a shithole country, too” be uttered by how many preachers in how many pulpits?

That’s just too easy, preachers. Work harder.

Don't just negate; create something new. Don’t only deconstruct; let your preaching be constructive. Do not waste vital sermon time reacting; preaching is a proactive moment.

Every one of us needs to invest some significant time this Sunday morning describing the world as God intends it to look and then letting the people know that it is up to us to go out and make it look that way. Creative, constructive, proactive - Preach the Word.

Yes, resisting the evil forces of the world is a significant part of our role, preachers. And yes, we need to name those evil forces. Racism is real, and it is roaring as loudly as it ever has. Bigotry, misogyny, hypocrisy … all on vibrant display in our country this week. Sure, call it out, name it, drag it into the light.

But don’t stop there - work harder!

 Don’t spend your entire precious time slot speaking against something; speak for something. Offer the alternative. Describe God’s preferred reality, and be specific about how we together can bring it to life in the world.

There are dozens and dozens of Biblical descriptions of the world as God intends it to look - the prophet Isaiah, the words of Jesus in Matthew 5-7, the practices of the early church, Paul’s descriptions of unity in diversity. Find them, read them out loud, and then dare people to live like that.

There’s probably a MLK march or rally or event of some kind in your community, right? Whatever it looks like specifically, it is an opportunity to stand in connection with others on behalf of justice and peace and understanding. Tell your congregation to go to it. (Springfield, MO - Click here)

There’s probably a program in your community designed to help people who have immigrated from another country, right? Get the information and put it into the hands of your congregation on Sunday. (Springfield, MO - Click here)

Yes, there is a lot of low hanging fruit this week. Preachers, do not be tempted. To simply negate, deconstruct, and react is antithetical to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Create. Construct. Proactively proclaim the Good News. God has an amazing, gracious, love-filled, just, peaceful, vibrant vision for what this world is supposed to look like. Announce it. Proclaim it. Tell them that it is here! Just sitting there, waiting for us to realize it! Waiting for us to enter it … to receive it.

It’s a big Sunday, preachers. Work harder.

(11:15 a.m. - UPDATED with links for Springfield, MO responses)