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!