The Skywalker Letters. #2

Young Jedi,

Roll with me here. As the church becomes more militant and combative in our fight for truth, justice and the American way, the more our commitment to expanding the Kingdom will be compromised.

Come on.  As pastors, is our highest calling to preach the gospel to all nations and reach the lost with the message of hope and grace and healing revealed in the life and words of Jesus or not?  Are we called to follow in the footsteps of Jesus or not? Are we to do what he did…say the things he said…treat people the way he did…and live by giving value to the things he valued or not?

Some people may say that Jesus was an extremist. Maybe you do. I know I did when I was a young Jedi. Some say he polarized people and drew lines and caused his followers to choose sides.  And in a way he did. But he also did something else.

He navigated the middle.

He rubbed elbows with everyone.  He was as comfortable with the prostitute as he was with the aristocrat.  He saw the good, or at least the potential for good, in all. He partied at the wedding feast and he taught in the temple.  He loved the saint and the sinner. How about you?

He was a living bridge and not a wall.  He was a window and not a barricade. He was always the safe middle ground where all were accepted. All were welcome. All were loved. Such a far cry from so many of his followers today.

How about you? Will you be safe?  Will you be welcoming?  Will you listen or are you licking your chops to tell people what you think they need to know?

Will you try to walk in the shoes of the other…to see what they see and feel what they feel and understand why they may think and act the way they do?  Will you do that without judgment and rejection? Do you still have more to learn…even from people with whom you have differences of opinion or conviction?

Will you draw people in or will you push them away with your opinions and corner on the truth?  Will you be known more for you love or for your rhetoric?

Junior, can I offer a suggestion?  The more people are defined by right and left…liberal and conservative…pro this and con that…the greater the need for some pastors who can navigate from the middle.  Followers of Christ and leaders in his church who can understand and articulate and sympathize with both sides of the fence. Any fence.

We desperately need a new generation of pastors who will not be bullied by anybody.  Who will not be intimidated by new ideas or run scared by change. Who will not be frightened by people who are different…philosophies that are different…and even ideas that challenge our orthodox understandings of the church and doctrine.

The world we live in has changed.  Technology has changed. The flow of information has changed.  The rate of change has changed. But people still need to meet Jesus.

And if that’s going to happen in the world as we know it now, we need to have pastors (and people, in general) who can navigate the middle.  The middle is where peace is forged, where compromise is found, where surprising friendships and new alliances are born.  The middle is where people are drawn in, not alienated.

Will that be you?  Will you be a pastor who navigates the middle? We’ve got more than enough of the others!

Shalom, Skywalker.


Writing about writing.

BloggingEvery time I sit down to compose a blog post, I usually spend 1-1/2 to 2 hours writing it.  Not every one.  But certainly most of them.  When I was looking back at my blogging history earlier this week, it started to sink in just how much time I spend doing this.

Years ago, when I would sit down with my pen and spiral notebook, I seldom spent that kind of time.  I would scribble my thoughts and prayers…whatever came to my mind.   I would write what I was feeling.  Good and bad.  It was where I would express my frustrations and take the filter off.  I would I would write things that only God could handle.

Looking back, I’ve come to realize it was in my journaling where I became a more disciplined communicator.  It was where I grew to understand the connection between my heart and my head and the power of expression.

That connection is now part of me.  Journaling to blogging to preaching to daily conversations…my words matter.

When I write, I write carefully.  Every blog post is full of false starts that nobody ever knows about.  Sentences that are written and re-written multiple times.  I want to make sure that what I write is exactly what I want people to read.  If somebody reads what I write, I can never take my words back, once I hit the “publish” button.  Oh, I can go back and wipe it clean, but the screen shot has been snapped.  It’s definitely why I limit my writing on Twitter and FB.

I want my words to be consistent with my own character and personal journey.  I don’t want to be a hypocrite.  I get that nobody’s perfect,  but if what I write and what I do and say don’t match up, the importance of what I write is emptied of its value.  Painfully, I know this first hand.  “Do as I say, not as I do” doesn’t work for writers, any better than it does for parents.

Not only do I want an internal consistency, I also want to reflect the character of Christ in everything I write.  Especially when I am critical.  I take the words of the Bible writers seriously.  There is a time to call out sin.  There is a time to express opinion. There is a time to stand up for righteousness.  It’s not always easy.  “Let no unwholesome words come from your mouth” and “Bless and do not curse” are not outdated religious catchphrases.  They are commands that those who seek to honor Christ will live by…that I choose to live by.

I want my theology to be well thought out.  I want my opinions to be fully informed.  I want my criticisms to be above reproach.  I want my sarcasm to be measured.  I don’t ever want to play out my personal agenda with another person online. I owe them face to face.

I want healthy and uplifting writing to outweigh my negative thoughts and opinions 50 to 1.  I want grace and kindness to be present every time I write.  We live in such a caustic and unfiltered culture, I refuse to be part of that problem.

I generally read and re-read my posts ten or twelve times before I ever publish them.  Sometimes I let them sit for a few days and then come back to them, to see if they are still worth publishing.  I always try to read them from the point of view of the other…to make sure I am not inadvertently hurting or potentially driving a wedge.  I want to do my best to make sure my words and my intentions, will not be misunderstood. Unfortunately, this is never foolproof.

I am deeply aware that something much greater is at stake besides my need to be heard.

Oh my…the day has finally arrived.

sunriseIt’s been nearly six months since I last posted anything here.  And honestly, it’s been almost a year since I have written regularly.  Today, I will offer some explanation and then I’ll move forward.

My blog has never been like a Facebook soundbite.  Or a 140 character Twitter reaction.  I always try to measure my rants. This has always been that place where my heart meets the keyboard for good.  For the good of my church family.  For the good of my extended circle of friends.  For the good of those who sit in the opposite corner.  And certainly for the good of my little slice of family posterity.

I have anticipated this day for quite a while.  I’ve actually written a number of times but never hit “publish”.  I’ve missed the personal cleansing I find in writing.  I’ve missed knowing that we were connecting..with or without your comments.  I’ve missed the discipline of weighing out my words and carefully expressing them.

Eleven months ago, my oldest son got sick.  Really sick.  There were certainly people who knew we were going through this as a family, although only those in our closest circle knew the story…and even those didn’t know the intimate details.  It has been a journey of pain and fear and hope.  After two major surgeries (and one more minor one to go), his road to recovery gets better every day.

There were days I wanted…no, I needed to write, but the only thing I could bring myself to write about were the events of my son’s journey.  So I didn’t.  It was his story, not mine, to tell.  Many days it overwhelmed me…and I wasn’t even the one going through it!  There is no doubt it took an emotional toll on me.

This “dad” thing doesn’t end when they move out of the house.  It doesn’t end when they get married and grow a family of their own.  Just like any dad who loves and cares, I wished I could exchange places with him.  I wanted to protect.  I wanted to fix.  I wanted to make it all go away.  But I couldn’t.  So I prayed and helped where I could and did what dads do.

And so I wrote privately.  Sorry.

There were other issues that affected my writing hiatus.  Our world has been full of a lot of big ticket items over the past year.  World changing…culture shocking…anger inducing…polarizing kinds of things.  And it seems like everybody’s talking.  Everybody’s got an opinion, a sermon, a post, an op-ed, or some kind of prophectic declaration.

Mine was not needed.

Loyalties have been declared.  Battle lines have been drawn.  Brothers have turned against brothers.  My “side” on issues need not be declared, unless it’s one-on-one, face-to-face, heart-to-heart, over a basket of chips and salsa.  Because there, the reality of true brotherhood will win the day.

For now, if you want my take on same-sex marriage, Caitlyn Jenner, Planned Parenthood, racial tension, the police, gun control, the Confederate flag, immigration reform, the war on terror, homosexuality, the race for President, the economy, and the like…you can have it.  Personally.  Prayerfully.  Mixed with kindness, understanding, and openness.

But it’s not for public consumption right now.  Maybe later.  Until then, it will only be shared in a place where we can know each other’s hearts, ask questions of depth and clarity, and have time to pause for the affirmation and joy of our relationship, when our differences become apparent.

And we can take time to refill the basket of chips.

So call me up, invite me out, respect my journey, encourage me to be open to new ideas.  Healthy conversation is the oxygen of healthy friendship.  (I’ll even do it by email…though the sharing of chips will have to be virtual.)

These are two of the reasons I haven’t written.  There were others.  Maybe I’ll write about them at another time.  For tonight, though, it feels really good to be back.

This road I travel. #2

This Road 2Having grown up in a church tradition that believed it had sole possession of the correct interpretation of all the most important passages of the Bible, I realize I was already starting in a pretty big hole.

I was humbly and politely trained by my church leaders to view all other religions, denominations, cults and independent religious groups with at least a skeptical eyeand some with complete disdain.  Early on, I learned to identify the different faith groups in my community by certain distinctives that were simply wrong:

  • The Methodists had women pastors.
  • The Lutherans could smoke on their church patio.
  • The Baptists made you get re-baptized to be a member of their church.
  • The Presbyterians sprinkled babies and called it baptism.
  • The Samoan Congregational Church across the street didn’t practice communion.
  • The Episcopalians used real wine in their communion.
  • The Catholics had nuns and their priests couldn’t get married.
  • The Church of God in Christ by my house passed around rattlesnakes in their services.
  • The Assembly of God folks spoke in tongues.
  • The Seventh Day Adventists only met on Saturdays, not Sundays.
  • The local AME Church said God wanted everybody to be wealthy.
  • The Church of Christ didn’t use musical instruments.
  • The Greek Orthodox had crazy looking pictures of old people everywhere.
  • The Jesus People had long hair, torn jeans and were always barefoot.

But WE were the right ones.  Seriously.  My church (and others in our non-denominational club) held tightly to the inspiration and inerrancy and infallibility and the absolute authoritative truth of the Bible.  And we based our beliefsand assumed our doctrinal and ecclesiastical high horseon the foundation of God’s Word.  At least our understanding of it.

Looking back, the funny thing about this is every one of those faith groups believed (and still do believe) that THEY were right, also.  And each one of the practices and beliefs that make them distinct are based on their understanding and interpretation of the same Bible we all use.

So here’s where I’ve landed after a lifetime of studying the book and following Jesus:

If I were God, I would have made the book a lot easier to understand.  Good, godly, compassionate, gifted, educated Kingdomworkers have spent centuries studying it and arriving at different conclusions about what God is attempting to communicate.   I don’t think this dilemma will be ending anytime soon.

I’ve grown to accept the “humanness” of the Bible.  It was written by humansfrom their perspectivereflecting their  journeystheir emotions (see the Psalms)their flawstheir unique positions in the flow of history and culture.  I believe they wrote exactly what God intended for them to write, but I don’t believe they wrote robotically.

The Bible doesn’t exist in a vacuum.  Humans read it, study it, interpret it, and apply it.  And we don’t study it in a vacuum, either.  We always bring our preconceptions, our biases, our cultural bents, and our personal stories to the study desk.  We cannot avoid our humanity when we come face to face with scripture.  And I think that’s exactly what God intended.

I still believe in absolute truth.  But I don’t think that any of us can know all of it absolutely.  If we could, I’m not sure faith, as we know it, would be necessary.  Sight, experience, evidence and intellect would be all that was necessary.

I agree with my friend, Sean.  You should read his comments in yesterday’s post.  First, I believe my position perches me near a slippery slope.  But I like it here.  I no longer speak, think or act with an attitude of spiritual superiority that comes with believing my interpretation of the Bible is inerrant or infallible.

I am almost always willing to rethink what I have come to believe and entertain that I might be wrong, if posed with credible, humble and thoughtful opposition.  I still believe there is a list of essentials one must affirm to be in right standing with God, but that list is waaaay smaller than it used to be.  I believe this to be the way of grace.

Second, Sean said something really profound:  “In my opinion, God brings us closer to him through study, not interpretation.”

Enough said.  It’s time to study.

This road I travel

This Road 2Now that I’m back from traveling, it’s time to get busy with this new series on changes I’ve experienced in my life that I said I was going to start.

In my younger days, I was taught in both the classroom and through modeling, that following Jesus was pretty much a black and white proposition.  I was told to believe the Bible.  I was taught the Bible was to be my only rule of faith and practice.  I grew up believing the Bible contained the answer to every important life question.

I held on to the notion that the Bible didn’t just contain truth, but that it shared equal stage with Jesus.  When he claimed to be the way, the truth and the life, it was just assumed the words “Jesus” and “the Bible” were pretty much synonymous.

The Bible was the tangible presence of Jesus in the world.  Jesus = truth.  Bible = truth.  My religious heritage taught this phrase:  The Bible says it.  I believe it.  That settles it.  But the older I got, the more I began to see a different picture.  A fuzzier picture.  A more complicated picture.

What I failed to realize in my youth is now something I see clearly.  Whenever a Bible teacher (minister, seminary professor, author, Sunday school teacher, Bible study leader, whatever…) actually teaches the Bible, they are giving their version of the truth.  Their opinion.  Their commentary.  Their spin.  Their bent.  Every time.  All the time.

They might be reflecting their parent’s opinionor their former preacher’s opinionor the opinion of the latest theological book or blog they have just reador the party line of their denominationor the seminary professor’s insights they gleaned from a few years of sitting at their feetor years and years of personal study and reflection.

No matter.  Any way you cut it, it’s still personal insight and interpretation.  And ever since the day the Bible began to be mass-produced and put in the hands of people, we have been free to read it and come to our own conclusions.

Does that make everybody’s opinion equally valid?  Of course not.  Should we go with majority rule?  Does any one denomination, theological tradition, or religious heritage have a corner on the truth?  Of course!  Mine does.

I bet you didn’t know I had a better hotline to God than you do?  Yeah.  Right.

Is there really only one “right” interpretation of every passage and teaching in the Bible?  Maybe.  But we will never know which one that is until we meet the truther, Jesusface to face.

I know this creates some sticky questions and the ground I walk on sometimes feels like thin ice.  I’m well aware of all the things I’m saying when I declare my allegiance to a shade of gray, rather than boldly and defiantly demanding my own way and my own interpretation of God’s revealed word be bowed to.

But things have changed for me.  My love for God’s word remains the same.  My commitment to studying it and teaching it the best I can is deeper than it’s ever been.  But I no longer worship a book.

The Bible I possess is not perfect.  Only Jesus is.

Diversity and the power of the middle

diversity 2Don’t read into what I am going to say.  Take it at face value.

We live in a culture that calls people to extremes.  Right or Left.  Black or White.  Yes or No.  Hot or Cold.  And people not only hold those positions, but they boldly proclaim them.  Pontificating and opinionating and proclaimating from whatever bully pulpit a person can climb on to is the treasured right of anyone born in this fair country.

Middle ground gets no respect from neither the right, nor the left.

Gray is seen as uneducated or waffling by both the black and the white.

Maybe is simply a weak, spineless position of a “casper milk toast” character.

Lukewarm apparently makes Jesus sick to his stomach.

And I am, at times, all of the above.  Hear me out…

This is not the first (or the last) time I have written on this subject.  It is close to my heart.  Today, I took the time to read rather lengthy defenses of both sides of the Washington Redskins name controversy.  Up until today, I have been pretty convinced changing the name “Redskins” would be the easy, honorable, compassionate and right thing to doout of respect and sensitivity to Native American Indians in our country.

until I read a reasonable and informed explanation of related matters I had never even considered.

There are other issues where I can periodically find myself sitting somewhere on the fence…

I will never, ever own a gun.  But I understand and affirm the logic of those who feel a need to own them.

I see no need to be a Republican or a Democrat.  But I am inspired and enlightened by people on both sides of the political fence.  Sometimes, both of their positions on “hot button topics” make perfect sense to me.

As a pastor, I don’t lead as a visionary, a spiritual authority, or an anointed holy man.  But I totally understand the emphasis on developing strong leadership to influence and guide a church to grow.

The list is lengthy…

  • The inerrancy of the Bible.
  • Alcohol.
  • The rapture.
  • Home, private and public education.
  • Homosexuality.
  • The legalization of pot.
  • Divorce.
  • The 1%.
  • Homelessness.
  • The military.
  • Mac-PC.
  • Texas-California.
  • Tornados-Earthquakes.
  • Tex-Mex or Mex-Mex.
  • Illegal immigration.
  • Calvinism-Arminianism.
  • Creation-Evolution.
  • NIV-ESV.
  • American League-National League.
  • Small church-Mega church.
  • Complementarian-Egalitarian.
  • Rich or poor.
  • Welfare.
  • Nationalism.
  • Separation of church and state.
  • Muslims.
  • Mormons.
  • Catholics.

Need I go on?  Do I have opinions on every one of them?  You bet.  Do I feel passionately correct in each of my positions?  No way.  Do I know and respect people (and their opinions) who fall on different sides of the issues?  Definitely.

So here’s my takeaway:  I work hard to be as informed as I can be…on as many topics as I can handle.  I always leave room for error on my part.  I always work to find truth in positions that differ from mine.  I see strength in diversityit pushes me to be stronger in my pursuit of peace and deeper in my love for others.

And respect and understanding go much further than condescension and arrogance, as a representative of Jesus.

Opinions are like….

OpinionA bunch of the bloggers I follow like to inform their loyal readership whenever they are taking a break from writing.  I assume they do this because they don’t want their loyalists to panic when they don’t get their daily fix of wisdomor opinion.

So I took a week off of blogging the past seven days.  I’m pretty sure nobody noticed.

I’m ok.

Tonight, I recuperated from a long, ridiculous week by watching some college baseball, some Spurs-Heat, and catching up on what some of my favoriteand not-so favorite bloggers have been writing lately.

I follow about 125 online writers who post regularly.   They represent a wide variety of theological, political, cultural and relational positions.  Far leftfar rightand most spots in between.  I try to follow people who are reasonable and thoughtful in their positions, except for a few extremists on both ends.

It’s amazing how much influence the extremists have on each side of the middle.  Lots of loyal sheep.

I’m working hard not to be a goat.

While reading tonight, I realized why I go through spells where words are hard to find.  It seems like it’s all been written.

Pick a topic.  Any topic.  And somebodymultiple somebodieshave already written their opinions.  Bowe Bergdahl.  Donald Sterling.  Lebron. Any and all things Obama.  Same sex marriage.  Fake pot.  Real pot.  Church leadership stupidity.  Inerrancy of the Bible.  Tragic automobile accidents. Predestination.  Poverty.  The economy.  The border.  Guns.  Boxcutters.   Jack Bauer.

Opinions.  Opinions.  Opinions.  And you know what they say about opinions.

Tonight my brain is tired from reading.  My heart is weary from processing opinions.  My hope for a better world is discouraged.  My belief that being a follower of Christ is all about thinking and acting and metaphorically writing  like Jesus has taken a shot.   I feel a little empty.

I have nothing to add to the discussion.

My opinions are not needed right now.