Whereas Real Love Happens in the Middle of the Storms

Last weekend, I had the privilege of a fun evening with a family in our church, where we took advantage of their new Karaoke Channel on Uverse. Unfortunately, my “privilege” was everyone else’s pain. I definitely have a chorus voice

My old friend and I turned back to a song from that oh-so-classic 80s group, New Edition (feel free to pause your reading for a laugh). Yes, we selected the timeless classic, “Can You Stand the Rain?” Please forgive the excessive 80s references here and take note of these lyrics:

Sunny days,

Everybody loves them,

But tell me baby,

Can you stand the rain?

Okay, so it’s a cheesy 80s pop/r&b song. And it’s a lot more Bobby Brown than U2 (if you don’t know who Bobby Brown is, then you may be too young to read blogs. And if you don’t know U2, get to Google ASAP). In spite of my inability to find a musical point of reference beyond 1989, those lyrics struck a strange theological chord in me.

Churches thrive on telling people what a loving group of people they are. Quite often, this might be true…IF things are going well. What happens when the storms come and it’s pouring down rain? How much do we love one another when the challenges of being a 21st Century church are pouring onto our hearts and minds?

Is our love strong enough to move us when we are called to love others as we love ourselves?

If you walk into most churches on a Sunday, you will encounter people who love one another. Oh, they may not love YOU right away (at least not until you fill out a visitor card), but they will exchange conversation and prayers and hugs and Christian concern. Our family attends a church where an outpouring of love is obvious.

But how much do we love others when we get down to the hard work of making decisions and discerning what the Lord wants us to do, and the very hard work of being Christian?

It’s very easy to talk the language of faith, love, unity and diversity. What happens when we are called to put those values into practice tells the truth about who we are and how real our love is, both for Christ and one another.

Faithfulness is simple when it only demands a couple of hours of our Sunday. As long as we don’t change the music too much and the preacher keeps us ahead of the Methodists at the buffet, we can keep that loving, caring atmosphere. We can love everybody, as long as most everybody looks like we do.

What happens when He says, “Pick up your cross and follow me?” Or give up our earthly wealth? Or wash the feet of others? And yes, Jesus commands all of that in the Bible, so take it up with him if it’s a problem.

FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE is a calling that pierces our heart. Can we–WILL we–continue to love even as we are called to be and do more in Christ?

Here’s the thing: Christians all over this country are facing crucial decisions about the future of the church. We are learning that Christianity is dirty and messy and difficult. The future of church demands the hard work of discipleship.

We are called to decide if we’re willing to put in the hard work of being disciples. And the only guaranteed “Return on Investment” is that things are going to look very different from the church we once knew.

We are now dealing with the fact that we cannot sustain our big, beautiful church buildings, much less utilize them to further the Kingdom of God. We can’t drive from our safe, suburban sanctuaries down to the inner city to get a dose of diversity, or wait until our summer mission trip to encounter people of color or the struggle of poverty.

Diversity is now sitting on our doorstep, and joining us in the pews. We are being called to engage with people who are not like us, and loving them just as we love one another in Christ.

We can choose to close our hearts and close our doors, protecting our particular brand of love just for those that we select. Or we can realize that Christianity was never supposed to be easy or white or managed or controlled. We can let Christ lead us to love even when the path He shows us is littered with challenges.

Please do not take this as some arrogant, self-righteous rant. There are days when I am chomping at the bit to race towards this new kind of Christianity. Then there are days when I encounter people and problems that make me say, “Really? This again?” I have plenty of times when I long to simply preach and teach and visit and love on people without the challenge of letting Christ radically change my heart.

 But those days are gone. The true test of our love for one another is our willingness to seek the way of the Lord and the leadership of the Spirit beyond ourselves. ANY church that will do this has a chance to continue a legacy of faithful ministry. If we close our doors and our hearts, the Holy Spirit will move past us.

There is one singular hope for the church in the midst of this identity crisis. You know what it is before I even say it, and it may even come across as a corny cliché. But the unity of spirit is only possible with a singular focus on the Living Christ.

We are being called to decide if we love the Lord enough to love one another as we are called to abandon our personal comfort zone of what church is supposed to be. And we must ask ourselves: If we can only love when there is no challenge, is it really Christ’s love that brought us together in the first place?

The true test of our faith is the ability to keep our heart focused and unified in Christ even when the waters are the roughest. Or, in the cheesy words of New Edition: Can we stand the rain?

Requiem for Fred Phelps Sr.

Fred Phelps is dead. Yes, the man who promoted the idea that “God Hates Fags” and made a ritual out of picketing funerals to spread that message has now passed into the great beyond.

 

This Bob Jones graduate, who turned against his alma mater because it had become “too liberal”, was eventually consumed by his own fundamentalist Christian revolution. Apparently, some months before his passing, Phelps himself was excommunicated from the Westboro Baptist Church that he founded and maintained.

 

Phelps languished for at least a week as others spread the news of his health concerns as well as his ouster from the church. Reactions have been mixed, from a show of compassion to somewhat less than sympathetic tweets and Facebook comments. More than one even suggested that there was a “special place in Hell” for Phelps if he didn’t get right with God before his death.

 

 

How should we feel about a man who spread innumerable messages of hate in the name of the all-loving Lord Jesus Christ? Is there a special place in hell for him?

 

Everything in my own heart tells me that there should be such a place for Fred Phelps, although I doubt it truly exists. At least not unless I believe that there may be a similar location reserved for me. None of us are nearly as blameless as we’d like to believe.

 

I cannot honestly say that I feel sadness at this event. The man said and did things in Jesus’ name that made my skin crawl and my blood boil, and many of my Christian friends felt the same way. As his clan continued to protest, even on the evening of his death, it infuriates me that we even know who he was. It enrages me that he told the world that God authorizes us to hate.

 

 

We can choose wallow in our hatred and loathing for Fred Phelps, and create a legacy and attitude that may end up resembling him (perish the thought). Or we can actually move on and learn from the lessons that he taught us.

 

Yes, Fred Phelps taught us a lot.

 

He taught us that hate sells. Fred Phelps enjoyed poking a bear with a stick, and he got more and more attention every time he did it. That attention was profitable to him and his cause in a variety of ways.

 

He taught us how to use the media to let someone else’s righteous indignation drive the conversation. He knew exactly what buttons to push to get us to play his game, and all of our outrage did little other than bring publicity to a little Kansas church of less than 100 people.

 

He taught us ways to band together against that hatred, well beyond the media. Stories of people banding together to protect military families from his methods actually brought out the better side of our humanity.

 

He taught us how to hate back. There are times when I hated Fred Phelps and his church, which is exactly what he wanted me to do and the opposite of what Christ called us to do. By recognizing this teaching, we can learn to do the opposite and follow the path of Christ.

 

He taught us to look at others rather than looking at ourselves. We could always say, “At least we’re not like THOSE people!” Then we could ignore the plank in our own eye a little bit longer.

 

He taught us to be “against” rather than “for”. Christians are already pretty good at that, but once again we can oppose Westboro’s brand of bigotry without dealing seriously with our own. It’s not enough to not be like Westboro. We have to learn to be the opposite of that, and to stand up on behalf of those that are targets of hate.

 

(And no, I don’t always do this, and I’m not even sure how to do it at times).

 

He taught us to be sad, for many things and for many reasons. We are sad because a man lived an entire life with what seem to be bitterness and anger at everyone who did not agree with his brand of Christianity.

 

We are sad because people who needed grace and peace, who were sometimes the victims of unspeakable violence and tragedy, bore the brunt of his wrath. We are sad that a version of Christianity met the public eye by claiming some strange, convoluted interpretation of the right and command to hate, somehow coming from the living and loving God.

 

Finally, Fred Phelps taught us to love. Yes he did. In fact, he taught us that the only option is to love! When staring in the face of those who take the Lord’s name in vain by claiming the right to hate, love is the only valid response. You cannot possibly hope to argue down such hatred, but can only hope that love will overcome evil with good.

 

I do not want to mourn or be sad or pray for this family. But I have to do it anyway. Following Christ is not about obeying only the commands we like or going along with Jesus only when we feel like it!

 

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This may be the best response to Westboro Baptist, even if we have to make ourselves say it

Some may say that such expression are fake and disingenuous. Doing what is right and acted as scripture commands when we feel like doing the opposite may be the most genuinely Christian and human thing that we can ever do. It is the picture of the conflict that we find within ourselves on a daily basis, as we seek to live love and grace in the face of malice and judgment.

 

Ironically, the family of the man who protested the funeral of Mr. Rogers is asking the public not to repay them in kind. Beyond that, some of the very groups that Phelps and his Westboro Church clan despised are calling for wisdom and restraint in reacting to his passing. And they are right. The last thing that anyone, particularly Christians, need to do is follow the model of Westboro Baptist Church.

 

If we treat Fred Phelps and his clan as he treated others, we become a haunting reflection of the very thing that we claim to oppose. And that is a long way from the image of Christ that we want to see when we look in the mirror.

Whereas Diversity Is Difficult

I have a confession to make, and it may shock some of you.

I am probably a liberal.

Oh, I know that this is shocking because I hide it so well, don’t I? I really hate being labeled, but it’s the world in which we live.

I say “probably” for a couple of reasons. One is that I don’t necessarily call myself a liberal. It’s how others have described me, but I also try not to let that singular and very loaded term define me.

The other reason is that the definitions of these labels varies greatly from person to person, state to state, or region to region. In South Carolina, I am a liberal. In Pennsylvania, I might be a moderate. In New York, I might be a conservative. In the Pacific Northwest, I might be a right-wing radical. It’s all relative to the lenses people use to view you, isn’t it?

But I live in South Carolina. It is my home. It is the people and place that I love, and I am called to serve in the name of Jesus Christ. It is a calling to do so, with all of the good and the bad and the baggage and stereotyping (which annoys me to no end) that comes with it. Yeah, I complain about my state; but I don’t want to hear it from those “carpetbaggers” on the outside (tongue partially implanted in cheek here). So, for now, “liberal” it is.

Here’s the thing:  I am called to pastor in a place that doesn’t have many pastors who are labeled as “liberals”. I pastor a wonderfully strange church where there is tremendous diversity in almost every aspect of life, including our views of Christianity.

We have black people and white people in our church. We have older and younger people. We have political liberals and social conservatives. We have people who are Southern Baptist, others who are Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, and still others who really don’t care much either way. Some people struggle financially, while others seem to be doing okay. We have people who battle poverty, mental health, and addiction.

The one thing we don’t seem to have–at least not that I can see–is anyone that is super-rich, at least not in a financial way. We pretty much work for a living, and don’t seem to have many people just waiting on the will to clear probate. However, if anyone who is in that category would like to add another layer to the church, we would be thrilled to have you.

And therein lies both the hope and the problem. Our church “pillars” are Faith, Love, Unity and Diversity. While those sound very good, they are four elements that sometimes struggle to live together. As long as we are willing to open our arms to welcome those who are different, we will have struggles.

Diversity is difficult. We all bring our own lenses, our own baggage, and our own vision for how to live with all of those perspectives. It’s much easier to live in similarity than to live with contrast.

Some say that opinions are like bellybuttons:  Everybody has one. Yes, I chose the clean version of that phrase. But for Baptists, opinions are more like the hairs on your head:  Everybody has a bunch of them. Make that a very diverse group of Baptists, and you can multiply that x2, at least.

At times, it is disheartening to live in the difficulty of diversity, not to mention trying to be a pastor through it. Some days, I wonder if it’s even possible to maintain the idea of unity AND diversity. There have been a few days when I’ve decided that it may not be worth it, even if it can be done.

Then, I remember that faith and love come before the unity and diversity. And I remember that the promise of Christ is not ease of life and convenience, but “Take up your cross and follow me”.

Disagreeing with one another? Differences in opinion and perspective?  That’s a pretty light Cross compared to a lot of people in the world. While people may get mad and frustrated and even discouraged, we are called to live in faith and love first and foremost, as a way to help us find unity in our diversity.

It would be easier if we all just agreed or found ways to avoid the uncomfortable subjects of faith and society. But that’s not Augusta Heights. We’re not big enough for each group to find its own little pocket of support and avoid everyone else. We look each other in the eye every Sunday, and we have to learn to live together.

It is also farcical to think that UNITY should mean UNIFORMITY. We don’t have that in scripture, in the early church, or in the modern church; and the notion that we do is a front at best. It’s not about creating sameness, but finding a way to keep Jesus above and over even our differences.

I am reminded that the disciples followed Jesus together. That group had a rich tax man and working-class fishermen. There was a murderer. There was one who was prejudice against Nazarenes. There was a big mouth, a couple of hotheads (named “Sons of Thunder”), a cynical skeptic and perhaps the world’s worst back-stabber. Yet Jesus spent most of his time with them, ate his last meal with them (INCLUDING the back-stabber).

He challenged them to find a mission and a hope that was bigger than their differences. How can we have a community in Christ that is not willing to do the same?

Sure, life would be a lot easier if everyone just agreed with my “liberalism” and we could all have the same point of view. But that wouldn’t be REAL life, that would be FantasyLand. And it would not be preparation to reach a world that is full of diversity.

I am called to pastor all of these people, even those who may get the label of “conservative”. That means that I have to think about how I express my beliefs and what forum I use to express them. It means that I have to think about not only what I say, but how I say it. And that’s not a bad thing at all! It holds me accountable and keeps me from thoughtlessly pressing Send. I am grateful that I live in community with those who disagree with me, because they give me additional lenses with which to view the world. Those are often very important, Christ-centered lenses.

If we dismiss those who disagree, then we are essentially refusing an opportunity to move towards spiritual maturity in our walk of discipleship. I have come to the conclusion that spiritual maturity is becoming a rarity to the point of crisis. Living with those who disagree with me–on politics, scripture, Christianity, or culture–pushes me to think and develop a maturity as both a disciple and a pastor.

So thank God for our diversity! The road of discipleship is supposed to be difficult, and diversity makes it that much more so. But just because it’s difficult doesn’t mean it’s wrong. By attempting to follow the “road less traveled”, I am convinced that God is challenging us to be better disciples and a stronger community.

Thank you to my friends and community that differ from my views. You make me better, and challenge me to BE and DO better in all things.

Whereas We Get Married so We Can STOP Dating

You pick up a lot of material by reading re-tweets and Facebook posts. If you ever need a reason to go on some kind of a rant, I highly recommend starting with one of these two social media elements.

One of the latest to catch my attention was a post by blogger Jarrid Wilson called “I’m Dating Someone Even Though I’m Married”. He starts off with a wonderful description of the girl that he’s “dating” before cleverly confessing that this girl is, of course, already his wife. It’s a little corny and obvious, but he is doing so to make a point.

The problem is that I’m not exactly sure what that point is. I think he is attempting to say that spouses should “pursue” one another in a positive way, by continuing to make one another a priority and treating one another in special ways. We should continue seeking to know more and grow closer to our spouse throughout the marriage.

I’m afraid the point that comes across is that marriage should maintain those same “butterfly” moments that we get in a dating relationship. It seems to glorify the giddiness of dating, and implies that the feeling of dating should be the same in marriage. The idea is a nice one, but it also happens to be completely unrealistic.

I don’t mean this to be insulting towards Jarrid Wilson because I don’t know him at all. I’ve read a few of his blog posts that I liked and checked out the bio on his page. He’s a young seminary student who appears to be fairly recently married, and I see no indication that he has children. He also needs to be a little more careful about handing out marital advice.

Wilson attempts (I think) to make the point that guys should treat their wives well, appreciate them, not take them for granted–all good things, right? The problem is that he equates these things with a dating relationship, and maintaining the same elements of dating as they go into marriage.

Wilson says, “Way too many times do I see relationships stop growing because people stop taking the initiative to pursue one another“.  There is certainly truth here. But then he continues to say, “Dating is a time where you get to learn about someone in a special and unique way. Why would you want that to ever stop? It shouldn’t. Those butterflies you got on the first date shouldn’t stop just because the years have passed”.

After 23 years of marriage and 15 of pastoral counseling, I have witnessed the evidence that way too many relationships stop growing because people are pursuing those “butterfly feelings” instead of pursuing a marriage.

Look, I get it. We tend to get lazy, especially the guys. We forget to “wine and dine” our significant other, forget to appreciate the good things we have. Worse yet, we refuse to change or get help after it’s brought to our attention that we’ve neglected these things for far too long. Taking one another for granted is a recipe for marriage fiasco.

But the answer to this is not to maintain some one-hit wonder cheesy love song relationship, because that will fade almost as fast as a one-hit wonder cheesy love song. Marriage is not a romantic comedy where people can fall in and out of love in 88 minutes, and there are always happy endings. Marriage happens in real life, in real time, and it is real and raw and joy and pain.

And I wouldn’t trade if to go back to dating in a million years.

I don’t want a relationship where I have to spend every minute as if I’m in a job interview. I don’t want to have to dress up every time that we’re together and worry about every word I say and get scared to death if we go out for mexican because I’m worried about the post-meal intestinal backlash. Wilson says that dating is where we go to learn about one another. We learn some things in that relationship, but marriage is where we go to BE with one another.

It is the place where we can be the most real, the most vulnerable, the strongest, and the weakest. It’s not a place where we walk away when the butterflies are not as strong as they used to be. Instead, it is the place where we stick together to work it out even when life just gets in the way. While we cannot let life beat us down to the point that we don’t appreciate our husband or wife, we also cannot go into marriage with the naivety that life changes and jobs and children will change how we interact in our relationships. It will certainly change from our dating days.

And that’s the somewhat frightening thing about this article, or others like it. My fear is that reading how marriage should be like dating is setting people up for unrealistic expectations.

Unfortunately, we exist in a world where marriage “wisdom” comes from seminary students who have been married for 17 minutes, have no children, and perpetuate what they’ve heard from the latest Youth Ministry Sex and Dating curriculum.

I don’t think Wilson is trying to pass himself off as the latest megachurch pastor who has decided that he is qualified as a sex therapist. Or following the latest pastoral trend of referencing a “smokin’ hot wife” from the pulpit (a slightly creepy, rather narcissistic and largely objectifying tactic).

I think effort here is much more innocent, but not necessarily less damaging.  I saw this blog posted and retweeted among young adults and older youth who may be on the verge of long-term relationships and marriage. If they are listening, then it’s absolutely critical to be careful what we say on this subject.

Ministers offering themselves as marriage experts and sex therapists borders on unethical. Personal experience is relevant in discussing marriage, but it is not nearly as relevant as long-term experience, training, and education.

We have some training, experience and accumulated knowledge about marriage; however, we are NOT full-blown relationship experts! (Some are less expert than others). Our main skill is listening and helping people talk through their issues rather than telling people what their marriage is supposed to be.

Yet, people listen and pay attention to what we say on the subject.

This is why the Apostle Paul says in 2 Timothy 4:2:  “Preach the word…with GREAT PATIENCE and CAREFUL INSTRUCTION.” It is also wise for us to LISTEN to those who preach the Word with that same patience and care.

That’s also why Wilson and the rest of us need to be a lot more cautious about what we say on the matter marriage and relationships. Especially when “speaking” on the internet. Young people who are just married or hope to one day be married are paying attention.

By venturing too far into areas where we are not experts or even well-educated, we risk doing more harm than good.

No, marriage is not dating. And I don’t want young women and men to look forward to a marriage full of moments that are like the Senior Prom in Pretty in Pink. (Yes, that’s an 80s reference–insert the high school movie from your particular era here). In reality, my senior prom pretty much stunk, I didn’t marry the girl I took, and I rarely ever think about it.

At least I married the girl I SHOULD have taken to the prom.

But marriage and relationships are often that way. Things happen in our lives that stink, and they don’t turn out the way we planned. Mature relationships learn to move past those things and seek something greater for the journey to the future.

We don’t prepare for that by hoping that we’ll still get queasy when we look at our spouse 23 years down the road. We prepare for that by seeking mature relationships with Christ and others, rather than trying to re-create our dating days.

“But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice…”  Hebrews 5:14.

I’ve had enough of dating. I’m glad to be married. Our relationships would be a lot better if we stopped trying to date our husbands and wives and worked on learning to be married to one another.

Keep in mind that dating is supposed to end, but marriage is supposed to last a lifetime. It’s more work, but it’s also a lot more meaningful.

Whereas It Don’t Matter if You’re Black or White

Okay, so I don’t usually start off my blogs with a line from a Michael Jackson song, particularly on one of the High Holy Days of the Christian year. But Sunday a week ago, on Dec. 15, I found a place where these words contained some truth.

On a whim, I walked over from our church to speak to a family in the neighborhood, one where children and grandchildren still gather for Sunday afternoon lunch and watching football and laughter on the front porch. I’ve always wanted to stop by, but never wanted to interrupt the family gathering.

For some reason on that afternoon, I just decided to take a chance. Dressed in my shorts and basketball shoes (as I’m still desperately trying to work my way into shape for church league competition), I walked up to say hello.

I met children, grandchildren, neighbors, and the family matriarch. Grandma took time away from the kitchen to come out and chat. We talked about Augusta Heights, church in general, the community garden, and how people don’t “dress up” for church the way they used to in her day. (I even got a light scolding for that one, because “You shouldn’t go to the Lord’s House dressed any old way!”)

I noticed the grandsons gave a little headshake at that one—not within her view, of course!

She then invited me into her house to see her “Santa Claus” collection, as she announced proudly that she accumulated these without ever spending more than four dollars on any single one. I stepped into a living room where the glorious smell of Sunday lunch still hung in the air, and what had to be several hundred Santa Clauses greeted my eyes.

My mouth nearly hit the floor as I took in the hundreds of statues and figurines depicting Mr. Claus, and his missus, in every size, shape, costume, color scheme…and race or nationality.

These figures depicted Santa and Mrs. Claus as white and black. Some appeared to be hispanic, or middle eastern, or nothern European, or Asian. She shared that she had collected them from stores, yard sales, gifts from friends, etc. And she loved the fact that she had all kinds of Santa Clauses from all over the world.

I don’t know what propelled me to walk down the street that day—perhaps the Spirit—but I was so glad that I did. Not only did I get to meet a wonderful lady and her family, to make a connection within our community; but I also got a reminder that sometimes, it don’t matter if you’re black or white. Particularly when we’re talking about Santa Claus.

A few weeks ago, Megan Kelly made a strange and puzzling remark on her FoxNews show, stating that Santa Claus is white. I suspect that she was simply defending her familiar tradition without considering the true origins of that tradition. St. Nicholas, who is the basis for the modern “Santa”, was actually a 14th-century Turkish Christian monk who loved children with a giving heart and spirit.

Most likely, he was a far cry from the North Pole-pale version of Santa. On top of that, various countries around the world have different stories of who the original “Santa” was and how he comes to children on Christmas Eve.

This Grandmother reminded me of that, and of the danger that comes from defending a single story. For all of its gross commercialization and the popularity of the Coca-Cola or Rudolph versions of Santa Claus, the actually nature of the character goes much deeper than that.

It’s a story that actually transcends our modern, humanized demarcations of race. Santa isn’t black or white or Hispanic or Asian or whatever else, on any kind of permanent basis. The legends we have created (largely for commercial purposes) generate from stories of good-hearted people who love others and want to give to them. Most of these stories originated with a Christian view of love and generosity towards others that existed well before parents felt the need to use the “naughty or nice” list to their advantage.

The truth of the Santa Claus legend has absolutely nothing to do with race, and to declare Santa one race or another, whatever your convaluted reasoning might be, demeans that truth. Christian generosity should never be limited to a joke, or to any one race.

Perhaps that is what made the second part of Kelly’s comments so disturbing, the part where she alleges that she jokingly made these comments, apparently including the identification of Jesus as white. Again, this may be a defense of a single version of Jesus; but it is so far from any truth of the story or purpose that it is absolutely indefensible. And it’s no joke.

I’m not too crazy about the idea of lumping Jesus and Santa together, no matter how Christian the origins of the legend may be. Still, you can do whatever you want to Santa Claus, even if I don’t care for the way you twist the story. It is, after all, a legend that was at one time a supplement to the Christian celebration of the Christ Child.

Cultures around the world see Jesus as He truly is:  One who comes to us wherever we are, meeting us in our place, no matter what our race, as seen in nativity images from around the world.

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We all see Jesus in ourselves; but can we learn to see Him well beyond our story?

Limiting Jesus to a single race flies in the face of everything historical, scriptural and spiritual about Christmas. We worship a God who spent his first hours on earth in some kind of a feed trough. The first celebrants of the arrival were unkept, unclean shepherds that were suddenly welcomed at the feet of God Almighty. Foreigners, who may not have believed in anything resembling the Hebrew God, received a signature invitation to find the Lord and offer their praise.

The legend of Santa Claus transcends race, but the truth of Jesus Christ affirms it. The child in a manger kicks in the door and announces that whatever your skin tone, nationality, place of origin, religion, monthly bank statement, occupation, or level of “sinfulness”, God comes to you. The Christ receives all and is in all, and offers redemption and wholeness to all.

There is no need for Christ to overcome race, because in Him all creation is affirmed as God’s creation, made good and whole by the manger that leads to the Cross that becomes an empty tomb.

When we hold to our cultural definitions of what Jesus looked like, we run the risk of missing who Jesus actually is. Maybe we need to take a look in the mirror and ask ourselves who is truly fighting the War on Christmas.

I am so glad that a kind lady and her family found me and reminded me that Christmas is about so much more than our limited images and experiences. Christ Jesus takes us to a place where our experience is not the only experience, and where the Savior seeks and finds us well beyond our human walls and faces of race, gender, creed, and religion.

Hallalujah! Glory to God in the Highest; and on earth, peace and good will towards all! Not because we find the child in the manger, in the image that we have created for Him. But because the Child finds us, wherever we are, and whoever we are, and sees us for who and what we truly are.

And better yet, He sees us for what we can become.

Whereas I Am a Pastor Who Is Not Concerned about Prayer in Schools

Nothing annoys me more in Christianity than our innate ability to waste time and energy. If we could redirect even half of the time and energy that we spend on things that we cannot change, and really do not need to change, it would not solve everything.

But I bet we could make a lot of difference in the world if Christians traded their righteous indignation and rage for a shovel, hammer, paint brush, or bag of groceries. Not to mention making us a lot more relaxed, more approachable, and generally more pleasant.

This waste floats to the top most clearly in the ongoing debate over prayer in schools. I’m pretty annoyed with the whole “Happy Holidays” issue and the Ten Commandments debate as well, but that’s probably another blog.

The title is a little bit misleading, because I actually DO care about prayer in schools. I just don’t care about it from the same angle that some of my friends think a pastor should.

In our little slice of paradise in Greenville County, we’ve recently had a brouhaha over this very subject. For the record, I personally think the lawsuit concerning Mountain View Elementary’s graduation was frivolous and unfounded, and I have my doubts that there are any legitimate “plaintiffs” in this case, although the actual law analysis is interesting.

The corresponding outrage and chest-beating on Facebook, Twitter, etc. caught my attention. Comments such as, “If you don’t like prayer, then get out!”, or “If you don’t love Jesus, move somewhere else!” These preceded my favorite:  “Let all the atheists go to their own schools because our schools belong to God!”

One of my former high school friends asked why anyone would not want to follow a loving, giving, humble, self-sacrificing person like Jesus (paraphrasing her full post). Considering that the above comments emanate from Jesus followers, perhaps THAT Jesus was never properly introduced to “anyone”.

It pains me and puzzles me to see that kind of vitriol spewed from the mouths of the same people who identify as Christian. Doesn’t seem to match the spirit of God’s commands on how we treat the foreigner or the outcast, does it?

But what truly drives me to shake my head at all this is the notion that denying a graduation prayer could actually “expel” God from schools, or from any other public location. Since when did that loving, compassionate, self-sacrificing Jesus become powerless in the face of a court ruling? Furthermore, when did it become the responsibility of teachers, principles, and school boards to provide for the spiritual development of our children?

I’m trying to figure out why we even bother to worship a God that is so weak as to be subject to a human court ruling.

I’m wondering why we forget that the Bible says, “And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.”

I’m wondering why we think it’s more powerful to make a huge production out of our prayers than it is to spend more time praying in the way that the loving, giving, self-sacrificing Lord Jesus Christ commanded us to pray.

I’m wondering why we think that the prayers of teachers and administrators are powerless because they’re not offered over the intercom. (Believe me, many teachers pray diligently and often. I should know since I live with one).

I’m wondering why Christians chose to spit venom at the “couple” that brought this lawsuit by essentially telling them to get the hell out rather than praying for that couple, and the organization that used them to bring the suit.

I’m wondering why we expend time and energy chest-bumping and high-fiving on Facebook over a courtroom decision when we could expend that time and energy praying for all students, parents, teachers and schools.

For that matter, I wonder how much might change if we got off the Facebook rant-and-rage circuit and directed our energy towards prayer? Or scripture? Or maybe even volunteering in one of our public schools?

No one will demand that our children stop and pray at the beginning of their workday when they grow up. No one will stop them to offer a devotional lesson on their lunch break. They will have to choose to pray, study the scriptures or follow their own spiritual practices in a society that may well be indifferent to them. In fact, Jesus promises us that government, society, culture and even religious institutions/elites will at some point oppose our faith.

And what does Christ command us to do in the light of such opposition? “Take up your cross and follow me” (Luke 9:23)

In referencing this verse, I do not mean to suggest that the forbidding of prayer is a “persecution” in any way. In fact, I’m pretty sure that most Christians in Egypt would trade for the American version of “Christian persecution” any day of the week. But Jesus tells us that there will be times when people–including religious people (John 7:45-52)–will not be sympathetic to His followers (Matthew 5:11-12), any more than it was sympathetic to Him (John 15:18).

The command to “take up (our) cross and follow” compels us to pray as Christ taught us to pray and follow His direction even when it’s not easy and convenient. Sure, I love a good graduation prayer as much as anyone; but I’m not going to fight for that because it’s a cultural battle, not a spiritual one. We want to keep these types of prayers because they are tradition, and they make it easy for us to say, “See, that’s proof that we have God in our schools!”

Jesus warned us about staying married to those kinds of traditions and making a show of our religious activity (Luke 18:9-14), because we often do this as a substitute for discipleship. It’s not about patting ourselves on the back because we salvaged some religious activity. It’s about doing what Jesus called us to do, without expecting someone else to make it easy, or do it for us.

If the courts designate certain prayers as unconstitutional, we should not just say, “Well, God lost! Guess we can’t pray anymore!” because this is not an either/or issue. If I am a disciple and Jesus says that the silent prayer is the most effective, then why not live that? If I believe that God is powerful, then why does God need the court’s permission to have an impact on people’s lives? Do we believe in a God that is so petty and childish that he would abandon millions of children because he didn’t like a judge’s decision?

If that’s the God we’re confessing to people, then we need to re-evaluate ourselves. Because that’s a long way from the loving, caring, giving, compassionate Jesus that my friend referenced. Maybe we can find a new way to pray, live and love that would show people that Jesus.

Imagine a school where the parents and students prayed diligently for EVERYONE in the building–not out loud, but in the way that Jesus commanded us to pray. Imagine a school where the Christian parents decided to be the presence of Christ by offering their time, talent, and treasure to help the students learn and the teachers teach, rather than fighting for the right of one or two students to pray once or twice a year. Imagine a school where the Christian students are taught at home and in their churches to treat all others with dignity and respect, even those who believe something different than they do.

Ask yourself what the better witness would be towards the “couple” that brought the lawsuit:  Scorching them on some internet post, or talking with them/praying for them as human beings…you know, maybe like Jesus would.

No, our schools don’t “belong to God” because some judge or appellate court says that they do or don’t. Our schools belong to God when we learn to act in a Godly way with our use of time/talent/treasure, both in prayer and in how we act or react to the people who go into that building each and every day.

I am not concerned about court rulings on prayer in schools. I am very concerned that we pray in, around, and for our schools as Christ-f0llowers and not in some effort to maintain culturally displayed Christianity. The latter may make us more comfortable, but the last thing Jesus came to do is make us comfortable. The former is the more challenging but more effective path.

If we can get past this, then maybe we can move on to stop depending on Best Buy to keep Christ in Christmas.