What I Learned About Myself During Election 2016

It’s Thursday evening, and my four kids are watching Netflix after dinner… I believe they are watching Goosebumps. My wife and I just had an impassioned conversation about the aftermath of #Election2016. Like many Americans, I was surprised by the results. While I thought it would be closer than the pundits and pollsters were saying, I was still surprised. Admittedly, I had probably equal disdain for both of the major candidates. In my opinion, Republicans and Democrats had both nominated people I couldn’t imagine being deserving of the office. Others had run on both sides that I could’ve supported. So I could morph into whatever political conversation in which I found myself… pro-… anti-… I understood the talking points.

But now it’s Thursday, the election is over, and a whole lot of people are upset, fearful, confused, hurt, and maligned. Don’t get me wrong… I’m cynical. I have little doubt that had the election gone differently, the aftermath would have been similar… equal fear, equal gloating, equal ugliness on Facebook by some, equal despair by others. But it didn’t go differently, and here is where we are. So where do we go from here?

There are many voices saying people should just move on, accept the loss, lick their wounds, and come back the next time. Fair enough. You’re right. They will have to do just that, but not yet. It’s only Thursday. And their fear is legitimate, even if it doesn’t make sense to you. It doesn’t have to make sense to you. I’ve already heard stories of little kids being bullied in school for being non-white, asked if they were “illegal” and will they have to leave, women who feel uncertain about their safety in a culture that elected a man who said what he said. And sure he apologized, but that doesn’t take away the hurt. Give them space to mourn, grieve, doubt, scream, protest. Your “christianese” words aren’t helping. It’s only Thursday after all.

At the same time, we can’t forget that millions upon millions of people felt so disenfranchised with the current political system, so abused and forgotten, that they latched on to an outsider who told them they weren’t stupid, backward, or forgotten. They were, in fact, valuable and worthwhile… this mass of white, black, asian, and hispanic people who felt ostracized and dictated to by a foreign culture that came across arrogant and elitist. I grew up in the heart of “Trumpland.” I know exactly how it feels to be labeled as soon as someone finds out you’re from West Virginia. Do you know how many times I’ve heard the statement, “I can’t believe you’re from there… how is that possible?” While I was not a Trump supporter, I can understand the attack on your identity when you’re called a “basket of deplorables.” And sure she apologized, but that doesn’t take away the hurt. Give them space to celebrate, cheer, believe, hope. They feel like they’ve been heard, finally. Your attack on their intelligence isn’t helping. And besides, it’s only Thursday.

And yet… as I sit here listening to the chatter coming from my living room, I’m still bothered by something, something that has struck me like a knife in my own heart – I don’t listen very well. Sure, I follow the general courtesy of not talking while others are, but that’s just being polite. That’s not listening. The more I think about it, the more I realize I don’t listen to understand. I listen to respond. I listen to critique. I listen to find the hole in your argument or narrative, exploit it, and win the argument.

As I look at #Election2016, the darkest thing I see hides itself in my own heart. I’m a horrible listener. I am the exact opposite of James 1:19… too often I am “slow to listen, quick to speak, and quick to become angry.” I’m the one who hears the cries of my brothers and sisters, and even if I don’t say it, I’m thinking in my own heart… “move on, accept the loss, lick your wounds, and come back next time.” I hear the voices of those calling out in “Trumpland” and I look down my nose at them with contempt, thankful that I’m no longer “one of those” and that I “got out of there.” But I’m not listening, at least not with the intent to understand. I’m usually listening with the intent to correct. Because if I’m right, you must be wrong, and I’m always right.

I need to listen more. I don’t need to view every conversation as an argument to win. That just makes you my enemy. I don’t need to have the final word. My voice is not that important. I don’t need to comment on every Facebook post and correct the thought process of its author. Who do I think I am? Instead, I need to simply respond with, “Why do you feel that way?” Then listen… and actually listen. And when they finish, I don’t need to respond defensively but inquisitively… “Tell me more about that. What was that like? How did that make you feel?” I need to learn the true meaning of James’ words… “be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”

Perhaps I’m not alone in this. Perhaps we could all listen a bit more to the people with whom we disagree, or especially, the people we don’t understand.

Last thing… if you’ve been reading this, and the whole time thinking of people who you think need to read it, you’re probably a lot like me and need to learn to listen too. But it’s only Thursday. We can talk about that later.

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The Problem with Comparing Donald Trump to the Persian King Cyrus

Another week and another scandalous set of remarks by Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump. This time it’s from a 2005 “hot mic” video with Billy Bush. I’m not entirely sure why people are shocked and stunned by this reveal – we’re talking about a guy here who was repeatedly interviewed by Howard Stern, and I’m not sure if you’ve been paying attention, but Howard Stern interviews typically have a certain… shall we say, bend to them. Anyway, that’s not what this post is actually about.

In an attempt to excuse the actions of Donald Trump, I keep seeing Christians compare him to the Persian King Cyrus (or Cyrus the Great). It usually goes something like “Hey, God used a foreign king in the Old Testament to free the Jews and called him ‘Messiah,’ so who’s to say Trump isn’t a modern-day Cyrus?” In my mind, I’m usually thinking… “Ok, and God used a jackass to speak to Balaam in Numbers 22, so which analogy best fits the situation?” I digress.

Anyway…

Back to King Cyrus, I think there are several problems with this line of thinking. Now before I list those, let me make a disclaimer. I am not a political strategist and this isn’t an endorsement of any candidate. I’m a pastor who tries to help people read the Bible with integrity. I’ve had a bit of training in that area, but I make no claims about expertise. Having gotten that out of the way, here are the top 4 problems I see with comparing Donald Trump to King Cyrus the Great.

  1. God’s people did not chose Cyrus. They did not vote for him to be the leader of the Persian empire. They did not endorse his military conquest of much of the known world, including the Babylonian empire where they lived as exiles. This seems obvious, but I think it’s a pretty important distinction.
  2. Cyrus the Great was a foreigner (from modern-day Iran) with an anti-Yahweh religious background. In fact, many Iranians refer to him as “The Father.” Strange, right? Surely the irony isn’t lost… Iran, Trump, Cyrus, Father… On another note, Cyrus was also known for his religious tolerance and advancements in human rights. Again, irony.
  3. God’s people did choose a leader once. His name was Saul, and it didn’t work out so well. He absolutely looked the part of a great leader. But his character couldn’t keep him where his talents took him.
  4. This is 2016 AD, not 539 BC. And this is the United States of America, not the ancient near east, and you’re not living as an exile in a foreign country. I’m all for a narrative reading of the Bible that puts us into the action… “What’s the Red Sea in your life that you need God to part… trust in Him, stretch out over the uncertainty in your life, and watch God bring deliverance…” I love that reading and I especially love that preaching. But as they say on Monday Night Football… C’MON MAN!!! Or better yet, to quote the famous theologian, Inigo Montoya, “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So that’s it. I don’t think Donald Trump is a modern-day Cyrus the Great, and there are my reasons. It’s not an exhaustive list, and I’m sure you can list more reasons. In fact, I’d love to hear them in the comments below.

P.S. You may disagree with my remarks at the top, and you may be quoting Jesus’ words to me – “Let him without sin cast the first stone.” Now, I can’t take credit for this thought, but I think it’s very appropriate… “When Jesus said: Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. He was using those words to defend a woman from powerful men who sought to destroy her humanity. Don’t use His words to defend powerful men who want to destroy the humanity of women.” Thanks @micahjmurray.

In Which Leaving Seems the Only Solution

To those brothers and sisters in the Church of God who are frustrated, fed up and ready to leave –

From a son who has already walked part of that journey… just a few words I’d like to share with you.

I see you. I hear you. I get your frustration. I can’t fully understand it as a male who’s never had a lid placed on my leadership because of my gender, but I try to listen and seek to understand. Admittedly, I am a bit surprised by your shock and disbelief at the results of the vote for Item 8 on your General Assembly Agenda. In the words of Dennis Green, “They are who we thought they were.” (If you’re not familiar with that, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SWmQbk5h86w – There are some bleeped out words, so be mindful.) I know you were hopeful for change, but “they are who we thought they were” seems to be an apt description. You were seeking a two-thirds majority, and you found it, just not in the way hoped. And now you’re talking of leaving. That’s where I want to share some words of experience.

See, I was born Church of God (only 2nd generation though, not sure if that counts), on a Sunday morning, and I’m convinced my mom stopped to have her Sunday School class pray for her on the way to the hospital. I was saved, sanctified, and baptized in the Holy Ghost before I was 10 years old. I was called to preach at a Church of God Youth Camp and preached my very first message in a Church of God at 17. I went to Lee University and the Church of God Theological Seminary. I helped plant a Church of God in North Carolina, served as a Youth Pastor at a Church of God in east Tennessee, and accepted a staff position at a large Church of God in Virginia that was rapidly dying after a pastoral affair and shady money practices. It closed. We started something new, something non-Church of God.

I never actually set out to leave. Leaving kinda just happened. I found myself part of a community that had been deeply hurt by Church of God leadership and didn’t trust them anymore. It’s a long story, but I decided to walk with them because, honestly, that’s just what I felt the Lord wanted us to do. I have no real animosity toward the Church of God nor any of its leaders. I still have friends (hopefully) in the denomination, so I don’t say this accusatorially, but this is something you need to know… no one called. No one. In the previous 6 years, I don’t know that any Church of God leader or friend has initiated a conversation with me. It’s not that I expected them to. I understand who I am and who I am not. And perhaps it is partly my own fault (I struggle maintaining relationships). And I don’t say this to garner any kind of sympathy or words of encouragement or to have someone call now. I say this only because I don’t want you to be surprised when they don’t call you. Maybe your experience will be different. Maybe the culture has changed. Maybe it’s more about me and my personality. Maybe it’s not. I just don’t want you to be surprised by the feeling of being forgotten. It happens, and it can be difficult to realize.

On that note, being forgotten isn’t all that bad either! Like Gandalf said (nerd alert!), “Home is now behind you, the world is ahead!” There is a certain freedom you’ll experience. Freedom to step fully into who God is creating you to be. Freedom to explore, to think differently, to befriend people you wouldn’t before. Be careful that you don’t let your new found freedom take you off course though. I’ve seen that happen too. People lose that layer of accountability and go buck wild. Cultivate friendships with people who love Jesus more than they love you, and you’ll be fine.

It can get lonely too. A denomination gives you a certain level of connectedness. If you want to join another organization, I get that. Find a new home. There are plenty of networks and denominations that can give you what you’re looking for, and I’m sure they’d be thrilled to welcome you. Don’t throw up on them too quickly though. That’s not the first impression you want to give.

I’ll let you know, if you choose not to go that route, finding community with other local church leaders can be tedious at times. People are skeptical, especially pastors. But you’ll want to push through that. I’m still working on it, so if you discover something new, let me know!

All of that to say, this isn’t the end. There’s life after this. If the framework that has ordered and made sense of your life is shifting, be encouraged! This is an incredibly creative time for you. You are reimagining life, restructuring your frame, dreaming and hoping again. There’s a lot of power and creativity there. And know that there are others of us out here with you. We left, some by choice, some by circumstances beyond us. You are not alone.

God bless.

Same-sex marriage and the SCOTUS decision: Why are you angry, really?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard that the SCOTUS released a pretty controversial (at least in some of my circles) yet landmark decision, effectively legalizing same-sex marriages throughout the US. For some people, this was a huge win – the culmination of years of hopes, dreams, and work. For others, it was yet another sign of the declining morality in America.

Immediately, it seemed that everyone had an opinion. My Facebook news feed filled up with links and shares about it faster than Kim Kardashian could fill up a photo album of selfies. Obviously, and to absolutely no one’s surprise, this struck a nerve, especially in the evangelical Christian community. A lot has already been said, and I certainly don’t want to add to the noise. However, after spending much of the day thinking about it, I do have just a few thoughts I would like to share.

Regarding the anger – I totally get it. I understand why you’re angry. We get mad when our gods get punched in the face. Does that sound offensive? I really don’t mean it to be. As evangelical Christians, we have pledged our allegiance to a vision of America that simply doesn’t exist. We have worshipped our position at the center of political power and rejoiced as leaders sought our approval for their decisions. But things have changed. We have lost our position of power and influence (if we ever really had it, but that’s another blog). Our god, this vision and position we covet, took an uppercut to the chin with this decision. It’s not the first time, nor will it be the last. Our god is dying, and this terrifies us.

We’re angry because we’re confused about the Kingdom of God. The way we talk just highlights this. As if this or any decision gives God more or less cause to bring judgment. We are not Israel of the Old Testament. Our country is a kingdom of this world – comprised of both the potential and frailty that comes with such a distinction. Our best days are still filthy rags compared to God’s Kingdom.

We’re angry because we have defined ourselves by what we are against. Our identity is carved out over and against a variety of socio-economic and political issues. This is not uncommon nor even totally avoidable. However, when taken to the extreme, it means that when the issue we are fighting against wins, we lose. And nobody likes to lose. But it’s a little more complex than simply losing. Our identity loses – and it leaves us heartbroken. Because again, nobody likes to lose.

Finally, we’re angry because we don’t see the potential staring us right in the face. We have an opportunity that hasn’t been seen in generations – the opportunity to be counter-cultural. The opportunity to be a prophetic voice calling out from the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” The opportunity to be a peculiar people, to be light in darkness. The opportunity to declare the praises of Him who has called us out of said darkness and into His wonderful light. The opportunity to once again be known by what we are for – the light of the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Hello! My name is…

What’s your name?

Isn’t that one of the first questions we ask someone when we meet them? It’s generally how we identify each other, by our names. You can only go so long saying “Hey buddy” or “What’s up girl” until it becomes a little awkward. Now what can get really confusing about names is when you are known by a name that is not your real name. I once knew a guy in West Virginia that we all called Chunk. His real name was Jason, and he was a fairly large guy, which is why we called him Chunk. This new name became how everyone knew him. He even began signing his name on birthday cards as Chunk. The name his parents had given him virtually disappeared, replaced by this other name.

Who has the right to name a person? Usually, the parents right? (Hopefully after they’ve given it some thought… I knew a family that named their kids after the day of the week they were born, which was kinda weird having two Tuesdays in the same family.)  The ones responsible for creation are the ones also tasked with naming, giving an identity to this new being. There’s a certain power being exerted when you name someone. Used properly, it can be a beautiful moment filled with meaning, heritage, promise, hope.

But naming has a dark side.

Often times we will rename people, and in doing so, push upon them a false identity that is far too simple and monochrome for any human being. For example, we have the tendency to name things we don’t understand in order to define them and have power over them. We do this all the time, particularly with groups of people with whom we disagree: liberals, conservatives, gays, homophobes, racists, republicans, democrats. We even do this in the church: missional, attractional, traditional, universalist, Calvinist, Arminian. If I name you, I can argue with you and ultimately dismiss you based on the name I’ve given you, never really needing to actually hear you or consider what you are saying. With the power of renaming you, I can turn you into a caricature of who you really are, and then dismiss you.

Now, I understand that often times we have embraced these names and used them to formulate an identity, and even find pride in that. But we are so much more complicated than the names that have been given us. And all I have to do is put the word “just” in front of it to convey the idea… You’re just a Calvinist… you’re just a universalist… you’re just missional. Get the idea?

In Mark 5, there is this very bizarre story of Jesus’ interaction with a demon-possessed man in the region of the Gerasenes. (You can read it here.) In that story, Jesus asks the man, “What is your name?” The man responds, “My name is Legion…” Pause. Do you really think that is the name his parents gave him? As if Mr. and Mrs. Demoniac-guy sat down on the day their son was born and proclaimed, “He shall be called Legion.” If that sounds ridiculous to you, that’s because it is. This man was living his life under a name that was given to him not by his parents, but by some outsider. Maybe it was the demons that invaded his life that renamed him. Or perhaps the people of the nearby villages ran in terror screaming, “Here comes that Legion!” and it stuck. I don’t know how it happened, but this man has fully assumed an identity that is foreign to who he was created to be. An outsider has named him. An outsider has defined him.

But names forced upon us from the outside never really convey the truth about us, or the true reality about our identity. 

I don’t think Jesus called him Legion. Because calling him Legion would have affirmed the false identity and caricature that this man had become. Jesus didn’t want to dismiss this man based on his flawed theology or argue with him on the finer points of the doctrine of demon possession. Jesus hadn’t come to dismiss, argue, or write off people – He had come to heal.

Can you imagine if we took the same approach in our world today? As followers of Jesus, what if we skipped out on the power of renaming people in order to dismiss them and instead embraced the grace of God in order to engage them and see Jesus heal them? What if in our conversations with each other there were no liberals or conservatives, pro- or anti-, jews or greeks? What if we chose to relate to other people as authentic human beings, complex and nuanced, rather than a caricature of some ideology?

Would it make a difference?

Our First Inclination

In a world where we are all infatuated with our voice and the delusion of our self importance, where the first inclination is to speak and voice our opinion on any and every matter, often times the best response is to simply listen. Listen to those who have gone before. Listen to those who have experienced what you’re wanting to talk about. Listen to first-hand accounts. Listen to their cries, their longing, their frustrations. Listen without formulating a response to defend your beliefs and ideals. Listen without creating a point-by-point checklist of how you will respond.

Listen to understand. Listen like you would hope they would listen to you.

If you do chose to speak, ask questions. Ask them how they feel, what they’re thinking. Ask them to tell you their stories, to share their hopes and fears. Ask, and then return to listening.
And no matter what they say, resist the temptation to become angry or defensive. We’re not listening in order to win an argument. We’re listening in order to build a relationship. Everyone who speaks quickly often speaks out of anger. But when we choose to listen first, we have the opportunity to replace the anger with compassion and healing grace.
Admittedly, these thoughts are not original to me. Centuries ago, a man named James, probably the brother of Jesus, penned these words:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.”

James 1:19-20

Why I Choose to Trust People

Being a cynic is for the weak. It takes strength and courage to live at the intersection of hope and trust.

As a pastor, I have been privy to all sorts of conversations.  And as often is the case, we end up talking about people.  Not in the gossipy, “bible study prayer request for a friend in need” sense, where we divulge all of the rumors and insider knowledge that we have acquired about a person – who may really be in need, but probably doesn’t want all of their dirty laundry aired.  I’m sure you know what I mean there.  We end up talking about how people hurt others… betray, lie, insult.  More often than not, the pain experienced is both legitimate and completely understandable.  I’ve seen terrible wounds inflicted upon the hearts and souls of men and women – some times physical, other times emotional, always painful.

It’s easy to experience the damage that we can inflict upon each other and become cynical… believing that everyone is just motivated by their own self-interests, leaving us full of distrust of human sincerity or integrity.  It makes perfect sense.  How do you protect yourself from future hurt at the hands of those you trust?  Simply stop trusting people.  If you don’t place your trust in people, then those people can never betray that trust and bring you harm.  This attitude is so prevalent in church circles that we’ve even given it a spiritual twist, a “Christianese” way of saying it all.  We’ll talk about how you can’t place your trust in people, only God.  That if you place your trust in people, they will let you down because they are immoral, ignorant, insecure, immature, etc.  We’ll quote scripture to support our growing cynicism:

“Do not put your trust in princes, in human beings, who cannot save.” – Psalm 146.3.

“This is what the LORD says: “Cursed is the one who trusts in man, who depends on flesh for his strength and whose heart turns away from the LORD.” – Jeremiah 17:5.

I get the main idea, and I agree that people are often untrustworthy, full of insecurity and immorality.  But I don’t think that means we don’t trust them.  I don’t think it gives credence to being a cynic.

Simply put – we trust people because Jesus trusted people.  Jesus surrounded himself with people, friends that He lived life with.  It wasn’t by accident.  Nothing Jesus did was by accident.  He trusted people, and people crucified him.  When He rose from the grave, fresh off of the betrayal, He still trusted people.  Jesus refused to give up on the trustworthiness of humanity.  Jesus invited us (people) into His Father’s mission (see Matthew 28:18-20) knowing all too well what lies in the human heart.  Even today, He’s still trusting people.  He’s still entrusting us with His message, with His Spirit.

Being a cynic is for the weak.  It doesn’t take large doses of creativity and insight to discover the evil that lurks within.  It’s not particularly courageous to live your life separated from friends because you fear they may turn on you.  It doesn’t take strength to live in that kind of fear.

It does, however, take strength and courage to live at the intersection of hope and trust.  To live, as Christ lived, with the reality that the same people you are trusting today may, in fact, be the mob that cries out for your crucifixion tomorrow.  It takes audacity to stare fear in the face, and choose to trust anyway.  It isn’t ignorant or naive to choose trust.  It may be one of the most daring choices we can ever make.