Thursday, August 31, 2017

Reclaim the Rules: "Do Gooder" (Post 2 of 3)

I have often wondered why the word “do-gooder” is often spoken with such bitterness. What could possibly be wrong with someone who does good stuff all the time?

Of course, the word means more than that. A “do-gooder” is a term for a person who means well but may be naive in their expectations or maybe actually ends up doing more harm than good, more getting in the way of a solution than actually helping.

Nevertheless, we cannot fault a “do-gooder” for their intentions. Scripture tells us to “not grow weary in doing what is right,” and John Wesley picked up that theme with General Rule #2, which is quite simply “Do Good.”

In a sermon titled, The Law Established Through Faith, he said, “Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. Neither is love content with barely working no evil to our neighbour. It continually incites us to do good: as we have time, and opportunity, to do good in every possible kind, and in every possible degree to all men.”

His intention was that help would be offered to those in need, both physically and spiritually. He made that crystal clear in his direction to give food, give clothing, and care for the sick and those in prison, in addition to “instructing, reproving, or exhorting” those around us.

In other words, love incites us to be a do-gooder! In the best possible meaning of the term, of course, which may be something like “helping people who need help in a way that is actually helpful to them.”

But the idea of “goodness” is subjective, it seems. What one person considers a “good” action may not be considered “good” by another. It is yet one more trait we lose as we age, the certainty of the “good guy” and the corresponding “bad guy.” An eight year old playing with action figures harbors no moral ambiguity.

Despite its subjective nature, there are tests by which goodness can be assessed. In “Three Simple Rules,” Bishop Job wrote, “Every act and every word must pass through the love and will of God and there be measured to discover if its purpose does indeed bring good and goodness to all it touches.” The love of God, and the will of God are two powerful checks on the relative goodness of an action or a word.

Of course, the most obvious filter to run an act through is Rule Number One itself – “Do No Harm.” If the action or the word (or the inaction or the silence) actually does harm, then obviously it is not doing good, and another option ought to be selected.

So let’s be a bunch of do-gooders! Let’s do good things for God’s sake, making the world a more loving and gracious place, helping people in need in the way they themselves have identified, and sharing all of those collective “good deeds” and “random acts of kindness” that people do every single day.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Reclaim the Rules: Staying Silent (Post 1.5 of 3)

President Donald Trump is coming to Springfield, Missouri tomorrow, August 30. There are people of faith who are planning to protest his presence. So I’ve been thinking about protest as it relates to John Wesley’s General Rule #1, Do no harm.

Is protesting “doing harm” and therefore to be avoided? Is there some intrinsic quality to protesting that makes it automatically harmful? I mean, protests can turn violent, right? And violence is never a viable long term solution, as history has proven again and again. So should a person of faith protest at all?

Here it is helpful for me to listen closely to the words of Bishop Rueben Job in his prophetic book, “Three Simple Rules.” He makes a point to mention how one’s silence can “add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation” (p. 31). In other words, staying silent when harm is being done is, in fact, doing harm to another.

I am also reminded of Martin Luther King’s powerful quote, “History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamor of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people.” What was true in his day is certainly true in our present times.

Sinful silence is also a part of the liturgy of the church, as in the World Methodist Social Affirmation, which says, “We confess our sin, individual and collective, by silence or action…” There is a familiar prayer of confession that reads, “Most merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.”

Thus it is clear to me that people of faith should not stay silent in the presence of injustice. To do so would be sinful, a clear “sin of omission.” And many people of faith believe wholeheartedly that many of the policies, priorities, and stated goals of the current administration are unjust. And so, to refrain from speaking would be to allow the harm being done to continue, something “left undone,” a sin by silence.

So protesting, if it is truly speaking out against injustice, seems to me to be a faithful act in which a follower of Jesus may very well feel called to engage. And rightly so.

Now let me make things more complicated. A while back, a group from Westboro Baptist Church was going to be in Springfield doing their abhorrent, hateful, and decidedly non-Christian thing. At that time, I advocated for people to not protest their presence, as that would only feed their voracious attention-seeking appetite. How is this week different?

It is different, in my humble opinion, because Westboro is a tiny fringe group and Donald Trump is the President of the United States. To protest Westboro is to metaphorically add fuel to an ember. To protest the President is to throw a few buckets of water onto an already raging fire.

Rule number one is still, “Do no harm.” But following rule number one is not passive. If our silence contributes to the harm being done, then following rule number one would compel us to speak, to protest, to make our voices heard. Yes of course, to do so peacefully, non-violently, but with strength and with clarity, boldly and without fear.

I don’t know what will happen in Springfield tomorrow. I hope people gather, hold signs, chant, sing together, even link arms and march through the streets. I just pray that no harm is done. There’s already enough of that happening. In fact, that’s exactly why so many people of faith will be there in the first place. Because Rule Number One is “Do no harm.”

Monday, August 28, 2017

Reclaim the Rules: First, Do No Harm (Post 1 of 3)

The first rule is to do no harm.

John Wesley created three “General Rules” for Methodists to follow, listed and defined in our denominational resources for generations. And the first of those is simply, “Do no harm.”

As the late Bishop Rueben Job puts it, “To do no harm means that I will be on guard so that all my actions and even my silence will not add injury to another of God’s children or to any part of God’s creation.”

Seems easy enough, right? It’s really just a variation of something my mom always said to me growing up: “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” Perhaps you also heard that one at some point in your life?

Medical professionals are familiar with the concept as a part of the Hippocratic Oath. It is essentially the idea of “Ahimsa” in the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, notably practiced by Mohandas Gandhi in the Indian independence movement, the idea known as “non-violence.” Similar principles guided the 1960s civil rights protests in the United States.

Rule number one says, “Hey look. At the very least don’t make things any worse than they already are.” Of course, rule one is not in and of itself a sufficient guide for living. Not many dreams are realized by just trying to not make things worse. That’s why there are two more rules to talk about after this one.

But “do no harm” is a pretty good starting point, isn’t it?

Galatians 5 names our tendency to “bite and devour” each other. The passage contrasts this tendency with Christ’s call to “love and serve” each other. Not only “serve,” the text actually says that we should become “slaves to one another.” In one of the fundamental paradoxes of Christianity, we are told that we are “called to freedom” and at the same time bound inextricably to one another in love.

A part of that binding together includes support, encouragement, and accountability in our Christian discipleship. In other words, we need others to reflect back to us what they see in our lives, and point out where our words, our silence, our actions, and even our attitudes are causing harm to another person or any part of God’s creation.

The reason John Wesley created the “General Rules” in the first place was so that we “should continue to evidence [our] desire for salvation.” This is clearly of more significance than just being nice to each other, which is not a uniquely Christian concept. For a follower of Jesus, Wesley believed that “doing no harm” actually has salvific significance.

When he looked at the Anglican church in the 1730s, Wesley saw people in need of spiritual renewal. He saw a faith that was utterly disconnected from life, with no application of love or grace or peace or justice in the day-to-day interactions of the people. Thus began the Methodist movement.

I believe that the kind of spiritual renewal Wesley began in his time is desperately needed again today. And maybe now more than ever. The polarization of our society has produced a heavy blanket of anxiety and fear that many people are feeling, myself included. What better time to recommit to Wesley’s rules, starting with the first one - “Do no harm.”

Bishop Job’s words in the introduction to “Three Simple Rules,” written in 2007 yet astonishingly on point for 2017, have been rolling around in my mind all week long. I can’t say it any better than he does:
“Most of us never imagined we would be living in such a divided world. People...who lived through the Second World War were convinced that our world would be drawn together in harmony, peace, and plenty. The sacrifices made were so enormous that it seemed certain that we would never again permit our world to become so divided. But here we are in a world where divisions are growing deeper nearly every day. We had this naive expectation that we would just get better as we became educated and shared more of the world’s riches. It looked like a natural and easy path to follow. Forgetting the struggles and sacrifices of the past may have led to a complacency that took community too lightly, individualism too seriously, and neglected our call to faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
That last sentence is prophetic. May God forgive us our complacency. May we renew our commitment to community. May we confess the sin of self-centered individualism. May we remember again and again our call to faithfulness to none other than the Gospel proclaimed in the birth, life, death, and resurrection of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Love Takes a Stand

“Love is not neutral. It takes a stand. It is the commitment to the attainment of the conditions of peace for everyone involved in a situation.” This idea, quoted from the book A Return to Love by Marianne Williamson, has been haunting me all week.

I’ve also been working on a silly little parable of sorts. If you will indulge me…

Imagine that Person A and Person B are looking at a duck.

“Would you look at that chicken!” says A.

“That’s not a chicken. That’s a duck,” replies B.

To which A responds, “Hey man, I just have a different perspective than you do. Why are you oppressing me?”

In this little illustration, there are not two sides to the argument. Person A is wrong. And when B points out that A is wrong, B is not oppressing A.

Now insert Person C into the silly little parable. What should C say?

C could say, “I’m going to remain neutral here. I mean, can’t you two just agree to disagree? Try to see both sides. Everyone is entitled to their own perspective.” Etc. Etc.

Or they could say, “Actually A, that is quite clearly a duck.”

So … of course the silly parable changes a bit when the topic is white supremacy.

Person A says, “Non-white people are inferior and should be eliminated.”

“That’s not true. People are equal regardless of race,” replies B.

“Hey man,” says A, “I just have a different perspective than you.”

And then imagine that YOU are Person C. So, what are you going to say?

Love is not neutral.

For me, saying “Can’t we just get along” is not an option here. No, we can’t just get along. I refuse to “agree to disagree” with a racist.

The truth is, you are NOT entitled to your own perspective if your perspective is that of a white supremacist. You are simply wrong. There isn’t any room for compromise on this issue.

Love takes a stand.

Okay, but wait. The Bible says not to repay evil for evil. St. Francis prayed that “Where there is hatred let me sow love.” Jesus says that peacemakers are blessed. Doesn’t that imply neutrality? Doesn’t that mean we need to respect all sides of a disagreement? Doesn’t that mean Christians should remain “above the fray,” so to speak?

Actually, no. Not as I understand the Gospel. Not as I understand Jesus. Not as I understand the work of the church.

Every United Methodist has promised, upon becoming a member of a congregation, “to resist evil, injustice, and oppression” in the world. Every parent who brings a child for baptism makes the very same promise. Every time we renew that promise, we say it again.

The decision to resist evil revokes one’s neutrality.

Neutrality in the presence of evil is no better than indifference. And as my colleague Rev. Geoff Posegate said recently, “There are times when indifference and silence are in fact acts of violence.”

Jesus was not neutral in his life and ministry. Neither should his followers be. White supremacy is not a "different perspective" with which we should seek a respectful compromise. White supremacy is evil, and it needs to be named, resisted, and utterly destroyed.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

"Sin" & "The Church Today"

I attended an event recently at which several things were said that hurt and offended me. Most of these things began with the speaker saying, “This may not be politically correct, but …”

(Here’s a tip. When speaking to a group, and you feel like you have to start with “This may not be politically correct, but…,” you maybe shouldn’t say it. But never mind, that’s just a tangent to what I really want to write about.)

One of the things this speaker wasn’t “politically correct” about was a pointed criticism of “the church today.” (Another tangent: he never really defined what he meant by “the church today,” but I took him to mean, “Any church that doesn’t do things the way I think things should be done.” But again, a tangent, so here’s the point … )

He said, “This may not be politically correct, but I’m gonna say it anyway. ‘The church today’ doesn’t talk about sin.” Furthermore, he indicated that he believes that is why “the church today” isn’t doing very well in terms of numbers. Because we don’t talk about sin.

He then proceeded to get specific.

Now of course, he didn’t get specific with a long list of actions he thought were sins; he got specific with one. Just one. One singular action he thought was a sin and he thought needed to be highlighted at this particular event. Can you guess which action he picked? Out of ALL the possible acts that might be considered sins, which one do you think he felt led to name out loud?

If you guessed “predatory lending” … thanks for playing, but no.

His sin of choice was homosexuality. “If anyone tells you that gay marriage and homosexuality is (sic) not a sin, they are lying.” That’s a direct quote.

It took all of the gracious hospitality I could muster not to stand up and walk out. And while speaking with others who were there, I heard similar reactions. Bear in mind, this event had nothing whatsoever to do with human sexuality, marriage equality, or any related issues. His comment was random, a non sequitur, and bizarre. (Tangent 3: Does anybody know why, when naming specific “sinful” actions, so many Christians zero in on homosexuality, when there are so many others from which they might choose?)

Okay, so here’s the thing. This is what I believe about “the church today” as it pertains to sin…

It is far too easy to think of a “sin” merely as an action that God doesn’t like, or breaking one of God’s rules. And most of the time, when a Christian talks about sin like that, I have noticed that they are listing actions of someone else, which of course makes it even easier.

Much more difficult is thinking of sin as an existential separation from God that we are totally unable to reconcile through our own efforts. See, if sin is merely an action contrary to what God wants, then it’s in OUR control to fix it; just stop doing the action. Easy peasy.

But there’s absolutely nothing in our control when it comes to sin. Nothing. Total depravity. And we don’t like that very much. Generally speaking, people would much rather be in control of a situation than not.

And what does this have to do with “the church today?” Well, obviously it is not easy, popular, or attractive to say “nothing is really in your control.” And since churches really want people to be there, we tend to avoid things that are not easy, popular, or attractive.

However, it is easy, popular, and attractive to tell people they are in control, even when it comes to correcting a sinful life. And so there are some churches who will say that all you have to do is stop doing the things that God doesn’t want you to do. That keeps everything nicely under your control, and keeps God conveniently out of your way, at least until you die, at which point God will either let you into heaven or not. Thinking of sin this way reduces God’s role to Heaven’s bouncer, and I’m not at all comfortable with that.

Please do not misunderstand me. I do think we need to get specific when it comes to the evil, injustice, and oppression that exist in the world today. I think we need to name it, drag it into the light, and work to overcome it with every ounce of our strength. It’s not the specificity to which I object.

I object to the public naming of someone else’s sexual orientation as sinful, and calling anyone who disagrees a liar. I object to minimizing sin to just a list of actions that break divine rules. I object to thinking of God merely as a divine bouncer, and salvation as just a Get Into Heaven Free card.

And I object to the false characterization I heard regarding the problems of “the church today,” when what the speaker actually meant seemed to be, “Some Christians do not think of sin the same way I do.”

“Those who do not think about their own sins make up for it by thinking incessantly about the sins of others,” wrote C.S. Lewis. And being “politically correct” really has nothing to do with it.