COVID Confessions of a Pastor

In this short video, Pastor Mark gets real about the craziness of being cooped-up at home, being a jerk to your family, and finding ways to stay sane. Take a minute to hear these honest and encouraging words.

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/PastorMarkReynolds

iTunes: Search “Pastor Mark Reynolds” in podcast app.

Twitter: @revmarkreynolds

Full Inclusion: Reflections on General Conference 2019

I am sure that many of you heard on the news this week that the United Methodist Church (UMC) held a special General Conference last week where they tightened the ban on homosexual ordination and marriage. This morning, I want to share a little history on this issue, explain what happened, and then talk about what this means for First UMC Cocoa Beach. In the process, I will share from my heart about how these decisions have impacted me personally and as a pastor in this denomination.

The UMC has been deeply divided on issues related to human sexuality for a long time. Our Book of Disciple (BOD) states that all persons are individuals of sacred worth and are welcome to fully participate in all the ministries of the local church, including baptism, church membership, Holy Communion, and lay leadership. However, it goes on to say, “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” and, therefore “self-avowed practicing homosexuals” cannot be ordained as ministers, same-sex weddings cannot be held in United Methodist Churches, and our pastors cannot preside over same-sex weddings.

Over the course of many years, a growing majority of American United Methodists have come to believe that this language is discriminatory and contrary to the spirit of Christ revealed in scripture. Some have worked to change church law so that gay and lesbian persons can truly be granted full-inclusion. About 60% of American United Methodists are in favor of moving in this direction, which (according to the most recent Gallup Poll) is consistent with the U.S. population. Approximately 67% (or two of three) Americans believe that marriages between same-sex couples should be recognized by the law with the same rights as traditional marriages. This is especially the case among young people with 73% of Millennials favoring equal rights for gay and lesbian persons.

In contrast about 30% of American United Methodists believe that the traditional language in the BOD is consistent with the teachings of scripture. For them, to remove the language and sanction homosexual ordination and marriage would be to forsake God’s word, encourage sin, and capitulate to the culture. Those who hold this view have fought to retain the prohibitions and to enforce stiffer penalties for bishops and pastors who violate them. For years, they say, the rules have been flagrantly violated and the supervising authorities have turned a blind eye, rendering the prohibitions as worthless as the paper on which they are written.

While the traditionalists have been a shrinking minority in the U.S, we must remember that the UMC is a global denomination. The highest legislative body in the church is The General Conference and is the only group who can decide church law and speak officially for the church. Like the U.S. Congress, this body is composed of delegates that are elected to represent their conferences. Of the 600—1,000 delegates that constitute a General Conference, there are clergy and lay representatives from America, Africa, Asia, and Europe. In the most recent General Conference held last week, over 41% of the delegates came from outside of the U.S. In many of these countries, homosexuality is either taboo or illegal. As you can imagine, many of these delegates (especially in Africa and Russia) hold very traditional views of marriage and are opposed to changing church law regarding this matter.

Over the years, as progressives have sought greater inclusion for LGBTQ persons in the church, traditionalists in the U.S. have partnered with conservative delegates outside the U.S. to thwart these efforts. Our divisions have grown deeper over the years, and at the 2016 General Conference in Oregon the UMC almost split.

Before this happened, the General Conference asked our bishops to develop a plan to keep us together. They formed The Commission on the Way Forward and asked this group to do a complete examination and possible revision of every paragraph of the BOD concerning human sexuality. Again, the goal of the commission was to maintain and strengthen the unity of the church. Much time and effort were put into this process, and while three proposals emerged, a large majority of our bishops recommended what was called the One Church Plan.

The One Church Plan acknowledges that good Christian people have honest disagreements about human sexuality. It also acknowledges that ministry is highly contextual; that churches in Birmingham, AL are very different from churches in San Francisco, CA, and churches in California are very different from churches in Africa and Asia. To keep us together and focused on our mission of making disciples of Jesus, the One Church Plan essentially gives local churches the freedom to make their own decisions on this issue.

Had it been accepted, the default position in the local church would have remained traditional. Unless a large majority of church members wanted to be more inclusive, the assumption would be that they would not receive gay clergy or permit same-sex weddings in their churches. However, congregations that wanted to grant more inclusion by receiving gay clergy and permitting same-sex weddings could do this through a Church Conference with a 2/3 vote. In other words, this would have allowed traditional churches to remain traditional, while providing an avenue for more progressive churches to grant full inclusion to LGBTQ persons. This is the plan that was advanced and supported by a majority of our bishops and approximately 66% of the U.S. delegates.

However, the traditionalists saw this plan as a violation of scripture and planned to exit the UMC if it passed. In response, they put forward the Traditional Plan, which not only retained the prohibitions of current church law but increased accountability by streamlining the process to enforce stiffer penalties for clergy and bishops that violate them. For example, if I were to perform a same-sex wedding, the first offense could result in a one-year suspension without pay, and a second offense could result in the revocation of my clergy orders. Although this was the minority opinion among U.S. delegates, the traditionalists partnered with a large voting block outside of the U.S. to pass the Traditional Plan by a very slim margin, 53% for and 47% against.

Many United Methodists in the U.S. are deeply disappointed, and some feel as if a minority opinion reflective of non-American contexts is being forced on the American church. In fact, entire jurisdictions and conferences are in open rebellion, not to mention countless local churches and pastors throughout the U.S., some of whom are considering disaffiliation from the UMC. Unfortunately, instead of uniting us, this decision has further increased our division.

Now that the Traditional Plan has passed, it must be reviewed by the Judicial Council (which is like the Supreme Court of the UMC) to ensure the constitutionality of all aspects. While there may be some aspects deemed unconstitutional, most of the Traditional Plan has already been ruled constitutional by the Judicial Council and will probably not be reversed. Some take comfort in the fact that the decisions of one General Conference cannot bind the decisions of another General Conference, which means that the passing of the Traditional Plan could be undone in 2020 or in future General Conferences. The likelihood of this is up for debate, but if it passes Judicial Council in April 2019, it will become official church law in January 2020.

Just as the global church is divided on this issue, so is our congregation. We have traditionalists in our church, just as most of us have traditionalists in our family. We must remember that just because someone has a traditional view of marriage does not mean that he or she is hateful or homophobic. People on both sides are often caricatured and mistreated by opponents, but most of my friends who hold a traditional view of marriage honestly believe that they are protecting the church from a corruption of scripture and are following God’s will. They claim to love and welcome their gay neighbor but do not want to be a stumbling block to their salvation by encouraging them to engage in (what they believe to be) sin. You can staunchly disagree with these ideas, you can vigorously debate them, you can protest what you believe to be injustice and fight for change—you can do all of this without assuming the worst about traditionalists, without demonizing and treating them with condescension, bitterness, or hatred. Jesus tell us that we must love everyone, even people with whom we disagree on matters of faith.

For those of you who hold a traditional view of marriage, you are loved by God and have important gifts that help the local church accomplish its mission. As our bishop said, “Too often, your stances have been misunderstood as driven by hatred, as opposed to being of deeply held faith. Your lives have been changed by the good news of Jesus, and you have a deep desire that others know this grace.” If you are a traditionalist at First UMC, I will work to ensure that you are treated with love, kindness, and respect.

It is also important to remember that many in our church and community disagree with the decision of the General Conference, and many LGBTQ persons, as well as their families and friends, are deeply hurt. If you are a Traditionalist, Jesus calls you to love them too, and right now loving them means providing a safe place for them to process and express their pain without judgement. It means listening to their stories and accepting that many will simply not conform to the decision of the hierarchy. Some will leave the UMC and others will stay and continue to fight for change.

As someone with gay and lesbian friends, family members, and parishioners, as someone who endorsed the One Church Plan and sought the full inclusion of LGBTQ persons, I am one of those people who are deeply disappointed and hurt by the General Conference decision. I cried real tears on Tuesday night as I wrestled with the realization that, for me, we have taken a step backward not forward.

I say these things not despite the Bible, but precisely because of my lifelong engagement with scripture. While the decisions of General Conference may be supported by an appeal to the strict letter of the law, I believe that they are contrary to the spirit of Christ, which is the only thing that gives the Bible life and authority. There are 31,102 verses in the Bible, and only six of these verses refer to homosexuality, and even these verses read in the light of the best of modern scholarship do not support the perpetual exclusion of LGBTQ persons in the church. While Jesus never mentions homosexuality in the Gospels—not once—he repeatedly insists that the outsider, the marginalized, the oppressed—those whom others regard as sinners—are loved by God and the primary focus of God’s gracious activity. Many will be surprised to discover that the people they reject will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven. In short, I believe that the spirit of Christ that is manifest in scripture as we read it in the light of, not only tradition, but also reason and experience, moves us to be more inclusive, not less.

To all my LGBTQ family, friends, and parishioners, I am sorry for how this decision has wounded you once again. I am sorry that you were told that we have open hearts, open minds, and open doors, that you are a person of sacred worth and welcome in the church, only to be told by the General Conference that you must change a fundamental part of your core identity to be acceptable to God. This must feel like a bait and switch, like a betrayal. I cannot imagine what it feels like to so faithfully give yourself to a church that refuses to bless your most loving and committed relationship, that acts as if your family is not a real family, and that will not allow you to pursue a call to ministry that God has placed on your life.

I believe that you are a child of God, created in the image of God, equal in worth to all in our congregation. You have blessed my family with your friendship and our church with your gifts, and we need you at First UMC Cocoa Beach to accomplish our mission. You are not a problem to be solved but a person of sacred worth to be loved. I see the Holy Spirit alive and at work in many of you. I see it in the way you seek to be a disciple of Jesus and strive to be a faithful part of his church, selflessly serving week after week. I see it in the way you refuse to give up on the church, even though the church has hurt you time and again. I see it in the ways you love others, even those who wound you.

As a pastor, I want you to feel claimed and loved by Jesus, even if the UMC has not made that abundantly clear. I don’t know how all of this will unfold in our denomination, but as long as I am your pastor, you will have a friend that will listen to your voice, value your story, and strive for your full inclusion in the life of the church.

So, what will change at First UMC Cocoa Beach? Nothing. We will continue to serve the mission of God by learning and practicing the teachings of Jesus in ways that create communities of love. In building a community of love, we will live into our core values by being authentic, inclusive, and compassionate. We will continue welcoming all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, socio-economic status, age, gender, or sexual orientation, allowing them full participation in the ministries and sacraments of the church, including baptism, church membership, and Holy Communion. We will encourage all our members to use their gifts by serving in ministry, which may include leadership and staff positions. We will continue to be a diverse group of people working together to bring God’s healing, love, and justice to the world. No one will be excluded or marginalized at First UMC Cocoa Beach.

As we move forward, I pray that the traditionalists in our congregation will not become callous or arrogant, and that those seeking full inclusion will not become bitter and hateful. Despite our differences, Jesus calls us to treat each other with love and mutual respect. It is in this spirit that I encourage us to continue reading the scriptures together, using the best tools of modern scholarship, and to continue dialoguing about this important issue in ways that allow the voices of the marginalized to be heard. Above all things, I encourage us to remain focused on the mission that God has given to our church, to create a genuine community of love, so that we can make our city and world a more compassionate and just place for all. Moving forward, I hope we will remember that we serve a God who brings reconciliation to the broken and resurrection to the dead.

In closing, if anyone has questions about this topic moving forward, or if you have disagreements to discuss or hurts to share, my door is always open. Whether you are traditional or progressive or somewhere in between, if you allow me the honor of being your pastor, I am here for you.

 

Sermon Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jj4YW50tGRU

iTunes: Search “Pastor Mark Reynolds” in podcast app.

From Failure to Wisdom in the Safety of Forgiveness

When he was two years old, Robert tried to take a bottle of milk out of the refrigerator. He lost his grip, and it spilled all over the kitchen floor. When his mother came into the kitchen, instead of yelling at him, giving him a lecture, or punishing him, she said, “Robert, I have rarely seen such a huge puddle of milk. Well, the damage has already been done. Would you like to get down and play in the milk for a few minutes before we clean it up?” Indeed, he did.

After a few minutes, his mother said, “You know, Robert, whenever you make a mess like this, eventually you have to clean it up and restore everything to its proper order. So, how would you like to do that? We could use a sponge, a towel, or a mop. Which do you prefer?” He chose the sponge and together they cleaned up the spilled milk.

His mother then said, “You know, what we have here is a failed experiment in how to effectively carry a big milk bottle with two tiny hands. Let’s go out in the back yard and fill the bottle with water and see if you can discover a way to carry it without dropping it.” The little boy learned that if he grasped the bottle at the top near the lip with both hands, he could carry it without dropping it.

What a wonderful lesson: In a safe environment, mistakes can be turned into learning opportunities.

What Robert didn’t realize until becoming an adult is that the way his mother treated him when he failed as a two-year-old had a big impact on his willingness to try new things and learn from his mistakes. This attitude, combined with a love of science, led him to become a famous research scientist who made several important medical breakthroughs. Trying something new, failing, learning, and trying again—it’s what scientific experiments are all about.[i]

 

Failing Jesus

The same is true of the moral life and the life of discipleship. All of us make bad decisions and do things we shouldn’t do. In the language of scripture, we have all sinned, we have all missed the mark.

Even Jesus’ firsts disciples missed the mark. Listen to what happens during the last hours of Jesus’ life as recorded in Mark 14 beginning with verse 17. Pay attention to Jesus’ comments regarding their failure.

When it was evening, he came with the twelve. And when they had taken their places and were eating, Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me, one who is eating with me.” They began to be distressed and to say to him one after another, “Surely, not I?” He said to them, “It is one of the twelve, one who is dipping bread into the bowl with me. For the Son of Man goes as it is written of him, but woe to that one by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been better for that one not to have been born.”

While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to them, and said, “Take; this is my body.” Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, and all of them drank from it. He said to them, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many. Truly I tell you, I will never again drink of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new in the kingdom of God.”

When they had sung the hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. And Jesus said to them, “You will all become deserters; for it is written,

‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered.’

But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” Peter said to him, “Even though all become deserters, I will not.” Jesus said to him, “Truly I tell you, this day, this very night, before the cock crows twice, you will deny me three times.” But he said vehemently, “Even though I must die with you, I will not deny you.” And all of them said the same.  (Mark 14:17-31, NRSV)

Despite their denials and promises to be faithful to the end, Jesus predicted that all the disciples would fail him. And they did. One would betray, one would deny, and all would become deserters.

 

Learning from Failure in the Safety of Forgiveness

What is most encouraging to me is that Jesus still invited all of them to join as friends in his final meal and to stay with him until his arrest. It’s like Jesus was saying, “I know that all of you are going to face some terribly difficult situations because of me, the intensity of which will outstrip your burgeoning faith. In your suffering, I know that you will cave to the pressure of sin, but I still love and forgive you. I still consider you friends.” So, he invited them to the table, talked about his own sacrifice for their sins (and the sins of the world), and promised that through their ongoing table fellowship he would continue to be present with them and offer forgiveness. Note what he didn’t say; he didn’t say, “You lousy group of men are going to betray, deny, and desert me, so I’m going to cut you off and find a new, more faithful group of friends.” Rather, knowing they would fail him, he said, “I love you, forgive you, and am going to stick with you.”

And if we keep reading, this is exactly what Jesus does. Most of you know the story. He is executed by the Romans, all the disciples fail him (as he predicted), and when he is raised from the dead and encounters them again for the first time, he is gracious. Can you imagine how the disciples must have felt in that first encounter? They knew what they had done a couple days earlier, and now they must look him in the eyes knowing what they did, and knowing that he knew what they did. But Jesus didn’t scold them, shame them, give them a lecture, or kick them to the curb for a new group of followers. Rather, he says, “I know you were in a difficult spot and failed me, but I have compassion for you and forgive you. If you will learn from your mistakes, then you can still play an essential role in my Father’s great rescue mission of this world.”

Did you get that? Jesus didn’t just forgive them, he called them to recommit and said, “You are still useful. Indeed, because of what you have been through, you may be more useful insofar as you can uniquely connect with others who share similar struggles.”

And this is exactly what Jesus does for us. He knows that we will fail him, especially when we are new in our faith, when we suffer, or when the challenges are fierce. But like Robert’s mother mentioned above, he gives us the safety of forgiveness, so we can learn from our mistakes, get better, and use what we have learned to help advance his mission in unique ways.

And forgiveness is crucial, because we cannot reflect on our mistakes and learn important lessons if we are stuck in guilt and shame. Guilt, shame, and self-recrimination rob us of our power to move forward in useful ways. Whereas forgiveness sets us free to ask important questions that help turn our mistakes into learning opportunities.

Questions like: What led up to my failure? What was going on in my life that made me vulnerable? What was the trigger that sent me over the edge? What could I have done to better prepare, to head it off at the pass, to diminish the intensity of the temptation instead of increasing it? How did my failure to properly deal with one temptation lead to others that were worse? What were the natural consequences for me and the people around me? What will this sin cost me? What can I learn so as not to fall into the same sin again? Now that I’ve messed-up, how can I make amends and move forward in ways that will make reconciliation more likely? How can I turn this mistake into an opportunity to get wiser, stronger, and more faithful? These are the kinds of questions that turn failures into learning opportunities that help us become better followers of Jesus.

 

How Failure Uniquely Equips Us to Help Others

When we truly take responsibility for own our failures, confess and sincerely seek forgiveness, let go of guilt and shame, critically reflect on our sin, and learn important lessons, then it not only benefits us but also others. Because now God can use us for very special purposes in his rescue mission of the world. Think about all the special ministries of the church that help bring healing to people that are hurting: divorce recovery groups led by people who have gone through divorce, addiction recovery groups led by recovering addicts, prison ministry led by ex-cons. It’s not that you must be divorced to help divorced people, or a recovering addict to help other addicts, or ex-cons to help those in prison, because we can all bear testimony to God’s forgiveness and encourage others in their healing. But we all know that it’s easier to connect with someone who has been through what we are going through. They seem to have more credibility and wisdom that uniquely applies to your situation. So, if you fail, receive forgiveness, learn important lessons, and rebuild your life, then you become particularly useful to God in helping others going through the same thing. It just might turn out that your mistake is what not only what was necessary for your transformation but also the transformation of someone else.

 

Implicating the Church

What is true of individuals is also true of the church since the church is full of people who struggle with sin. As is clearly illustrated by the Book of Revelation, entire churches, like individuals, can be unfaithful. We lose sight of our mission and turn inward and become self-serving. Instead of following Jesus into the future and partnering with him in new ministries, we get stuck reminiscing about the past and are blinded by a yearning for the good old days. Instead of asking how we can serve the mission of Jesus through the ministries of the church, we ask how the church can serve our personal preferences and agendas. Instead of producing fruitful ministries in God’s great rescue mission of the world, we become consumers of religious goods asking, “What have you done for me lately?” Instead of being gracious, loving, and hopefully, we become critical, negative, and pessimistic. In this way, we fail not only Jesus but also each other.  When we fail each other, we also fail all those in our community that desperately need us to practice what we preach, so they too can come to know Jesus as Lord and Savior. So, just as individuals need to confess their sin, let go of guilt and shame, deeply reflect on their failure, learn important lessons, and recommit to serving Gods great rescue of the world, the church needs to do the same—repeatedly.

 

Challenge

In conclusion, we all sin and fall short of God’s glory, individually and as a church. But Jesus offers forgiveness and the opportunity to convert our sin into wisdom, wisdom that will uniquely equip us to help others in God’s rescue mission of the world. So, confess your sins, receive forgiveness, leave shame and guilt behind, and take some time to deeply reflect on your failures without self-recrimination to learn how to be more faithful to God and helpful to others.

 

Prayer

Gracious God, forgive me of my sin and help me to forgive myself. Deliver me from guilt and shame, and teach me whatever lessons I need to learn to be a more faithful follower of Jesus and a healing voice for others.

 

(This post is the thirteenth in a series of thirty-seven in conversation with the book Heart and Mind by Alexander John ShaiaEach post is a revised version of a sermon, which can be accessed on YouTube and iTunes.)

 

[i] This story was taken from Jack Canfield, et. al., Chicken Soup for the Soul in the Classroom (Middle School Edition).

Staying at the Table with Enemies: Rejection and Reconciliation

(This is Pastor Mark’s Maundy Thursday meditation for March 29, 2018)

We live in a time of division and polarization. Our natural, albeit sinful, reaction is often to demonize those who are different and withdraw our friendship, which can make things very uncomfortable when we see each other at church. But church is the place where we are called to transcend our differences and work together to declare the good news that Jesus (not Caesar) is Lord, and to accomplish his mission of making more and better disciples for the transformation of the world in love. As we study the teachings of Jesus we see that there is no Christ without a cross, no resurrection without death, no discipleship without sacrifice, no salvation without suffering. We slow down during Holy Week to acknowledge these difficult truths, lest we run too quickly to the empty tomb and distort the gospel into another story of human triumphalism.

What’s surprising is that I am still surprised when people betray me, when people misrepresent my ideas or intentions, say hurtful things, push me away, write me off, or try to hurt me. This is especially true when the person is a close Christian friend. I am still surprised by the divisions around me and the division within. But when I return to the teachings of Jesus, I feel naïve because he told me to expect it.

Jesus knew that our struggle with division and disappointment was part of being human, part of journey of salvation, part of discipleship, part of sharing life together in community. Speaking to the early Christians, the author of Mark narrates Jesus saying:

You must be on your guard. You will be handed over to the local councils and flogged in the synagogues. On account of me you will stand before governors and kings as witnesses to them. And the gospel must first be preached to all nations. Whenever you are arrested and brought to trial, do not worry beforehand about what to say. Just say whatever is given you at the time, for it is not you speaking, but the Holy Spirit. “Brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child. Children will rebel against their parents and have them put to death. Everyone will hate you because of me, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. (13:9-13)

Again, in Matthew 24:

Watch out that no one deceives you. For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom . . . . Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved.

 Again, in John 15:

“If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is, you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you. Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will persecute you also. If they obeyed my teaching, they will obey yours also. They will treat you this way because of my name, for they do not know the one who sent me. If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not be guilty of sin; but now they have no excuse for their sin.

While these words were written to first century Christians undergoing persecution in the Roman Empire, they disclose the corruptibility of the human heart. Consequently, Jesus says, “”Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24) This applies to all of us, regardless of the period of history in which we live, and experience teaches us that sometimes our cross comes in the form of betrayal.

Which raises an important question: How do we respond to people who disappoint and betray us? How do we handle being rejected, mistreated, abused, deceived, or even persecuted? Jesus helps us answer this question when he stays at the table with those who will betray him. The most obvious example is Judas. Jesus knew that Judas was going to betray him, but he still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, and gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. Peter was there too, the one who said he would never deny Jesus but did so three times. Knowing this, Jesus still invited him to the Last Supper, included him in the teaching of the new covenant, gave him the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation. But it wasn’t just Judas and Peter who would walk away from Jesus. According to the synoptic gospels, as Jesus made his way to the cross all his disciples abandoned him. Only the women remain. Knowing that his friends would fearfully run into the shadows, Jesus still invited them all to the Last Supper, taught them about the new covenant, and gave them the promise of forgiveness and the hope of reconciliation.

And not only this, but Jesus also washed their feet. He humbly surrendered his position and power as their Lord, took on the role of a slave, and in an unimaginable act of lowly, intimate, vulnerable service, Jesus washed their feet. Why? To set an example of how to treat others, even others that will break our hearts. In this way, Jesus’ actions at the end of his life embody what he taught all along.

You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes the sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:38-48)

None of this makes sense in a world where we are told to hit back, holler back, and hate back; to reject, push away, disown people who hurt us. But Jesus is teaching another way. Knowing that violence begets violence, hate begets hate, rejection begets rejection, Jesus gives us a way out of the vicious cycle of destruction—love. As he makes clear in his teaching, as he makes clear at the Lord’s table, as he makes clear in the cross—the whole point of the gospel is reconciliation, and if reconciliation is always the goal then the only way to get there is love made real through forgiveness.

This does not mean having a close and trusting relationship with everyone. When people violate our trust, we sometimes redefine the nature of the relationship and draw new boundaries. After a major betrayal, things may never be the same again. Forgiveness is not pretending that the wrong never happened and blindly going back to the way things were before the violation. There should be natural consequences for bad actions. However, this is very different from striking back in kind with an angry or vengeful heart. In contrast, Christian discipleship requires us to relinquish our right to take revenge, to balance the scales with a tit-for-tat retaliation, or to harbor hatred in our hearts. We are called to forgive our enemies and to show them the love of God. Why? Because we cannot overcome evil with evil; we can only overcome evil with good (Romans 12:21).

So how do we respond to those who disappoint and betray us? We must eventually, with God’s help, find a way to forgive them. We must show them the love of God in the very least by being respectful and kind, even when they don’t deserve it—especially when they don’t deserve it. This is the only real hope we have for their conversation from hatred to love, from an enemy to a friend.

This is why Christians regularly gather around the Lord’s table to share Holy Communion, to declare and live these difficult truths. As we reenact the Last Supper in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus comes to us in a special way, a sacramental way, to forgive our sins so that we will have the power to forgive the sins of others, to heal our wounds so that we can be agents of healing in the lives of others, to reconcile us in love to God so that we can be agents of reconciliation to others—especially our enemies and betrayers. At the end of the day, this is what should distinguish Christians from everyone else.

How does this apply in your life? What does it mean for you to share a table with your enemies, to stay at the Lord’s table with people who have disappointed or betrayed you? This is certainly something worth pondering as we move from Holy Thursday to Good Friday in the holiest of weeks. Let us do unto others as God has done unto us.

Loving People in Pain: Humility and Compassion

Sometimes we are impatient with the weakness of others. When those closest to us exhibit neediness, it’s easy to recoil in judgment. Their vulnerability triggers our fear: fear of being blamed, fear of unreasonable demands, and fear that our own neediness will become visible. The result is distance, leaving the other person feeling abandoned in their pain. While this reaction may provide a fleeting sense of control, over time it erodes trust and makes intimacy more difficult.

When people experience weakness, their soul cries out for compassion and support. They need trusted loved ones to draw close, to empathize and tell them that they are still loved. Deep down inside, most of us want to offer these gifts, but fear and pride compel us to withdraw. If this results in shame, we can justify our callousness in the name of tough love or healthy boundaries, thereby increasing the disconnect and adding insult to injury.

The cure is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood virtue in our culture. It is usually associated with impotence and confused with humiliation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Genuine humility is about self-awareness. It’s about knowing, showing, and embracing our strengths and weaknesses, our beauty and brokenness. It’s an affirmation of our common humanity (our imperfection), which counteracts the tendency to elevate or degrade ourselves in relation to others. Humility teaches, “The weakness that I see in you is the weakness that resides in me.”

When clothed in humility, our response to neediness can be supportive. Instead of compulsively withdrawing in fear and judgement, humility empowers us to connect with the pain of others through empathy, and in this way humility is the gateway to compassion.

Contrary to popular opinion, humility and compassion require enormous strength. It is easy to react in fear, defensiveness, and judgment, leaving others feeling abandoned and bereft. It is difficult to enter someone’s pain and hold them there. In fact, we cannot muster enough courage to love in this way without drawing on a power greater than ourselves, without grace.

So, let us pray for that which makes love possible: humility, compassion, and patience. And let us practice these virtues as others trust us enough to show their weakness and pain.

Don’t Label Me! The Subtle Violence of Judgmentalism

No one likes to be labeled or reduced to a stereotype. But without even realizing it, we often experience a person and then cast him or her in a role that becomes the basis of all future interactions. The problem is that once we start thinking of John as a “bully” or Jane as a “manipulative person,” it’s difficult to relate to them in any other way.

This is particularly true with interactions that involve conflict. When someone gets angry with us, their natural human response is to look for reasons to legitimate their anger. This leads them to trace offending behavior back to some personality or character defect. In doing this, it is not uncommon for them to inadvertently hit-on one of our growing edges, which are undesirable ways of thinking or acting triggered by stress. In reality, these growing edges are fragments of our total person, and usually not characteristic of our normal ways of being and acting. However, in the hands of the offended these fragments are magnified into stereotypes that not only legitimate aggression but also provide a basis for writing someone off as a “difficult person.”

Stereotyping in this context is subtle form of violence and is highly effective at triggering guilt and shame because it’s a distortion of something we already know to be true about ourselves. When someone is looking for reasons to justify their anger toward us, they usually don’t fabricate things out of thin air. Rather, they hone-in on a small piece of who we are, something with which we already struggle, and magnify it in ways that eclipse all of the other aspects of our person. Since many people are not only aware of their growing edges but also deeply ashamed of them, when someone latches on to these undesirable traits and effectively says, “This sums-up the kind of person you are,” it can really hurt.  

In Christianity, this is a form of judgmentalism, something that Jesus sternly warns against: “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Matthew 7:1-2). Some of Jesus’ most severe criticism was aimed at the religious leaders of his day who were driven by a judgmental spirit to condemn those who failed to meet their expectations. Going even further, Jesus also said, “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you” (Luke 6:27-28).   

Clearly, judgmentalism is wrong, and when treated this way we face a twofold challenge. First, we must find ways to resist the label. This is not to say that we should actively deny our shortcomings through the power of positive thinking. We should be honest about our failings and work diligently to grow past them. But we should also actively resist any message that says, “This shortcoming defines who you are and makes you undesirable or defective.” The best way to combat this temptation is to make a list of scriptural affirmations that ground our identity in Christ, and meditate on these affirmations during times of prayer. For help in doing this, see my message, “Overcoming Insecurity.” In addition, we can surround ourselves with spiritually mature and emotionally healthy people who know us, love us, and focus on our strengths to inspire change. These are people who help us see our faults in the overarching context of grace and our progressive sanctification. This is an exercise in discernment: To whom should I listen?   

The second (and much more difficult) challenge is to not become that which we hate. Our natural response to judgmentalism, is to say, “What a jerk!” and then fantasize about (and even act on) ways to reestablish respect, dominance, or superiority. “I am not going to let anyone treat me like that!” If we are really honest with ourselves, all of us struggle with being judgmental, and it is much easier to see it in others than it is to see it in ourselves. While it is important to consider past interactions when making important decisions about present and future interactions, we cannot effectively combat judgmentalism with judgmentalism. In addition to resisting stereotypes, we also have to resist stereotyping and allow for the possibility of grace-empowered change. The only way that I know how to do this is by praying for people that I’m tempted to condemn or write-off. 

Whatever judgmentalism, labeling, and stereotyping you face today, remember to ground your identity in Christ and pray for those who mistreat you.

To Thine Own Self Be True: The Path to Lasting Joy

“Franciscan alternative orthodoxy doesn’t bother fighting popes, bishops, Scriptures, or dogmas. It just quietly but firmly pays attention to different things-like simplicity, humility, non-violence, contemplation, solitude and silence, earth care, nature and other creatures, and the ‘least of the brothers and sisters.’ In Francis we see the emergence of a very different worldview, a worldview that is not based on climbing, achieving, possessing, performing, or any idealization of order, but a life that enjoys and finds deep satisfaction on the level of naked being itself–much more than doing or having.”

This quote by Richard Rohr gestures toward my own Lenten focus this year.
What are the things that give you deep joy? What activities make you feel alive and energized? What deepens your sense of meaning, value, and beauty? What are your natural abilities and spiritual gifts? What are you passionate about? What are the things you have always known how to do without having been taught?
As you patiently ponder these questions and answers emerge, you will discover your gifts to the world–things you can offer that add value to the lives of others and provide a deep sense of belonging. You will discover your purpose and unique contribution to life. These are birthright gifts that no one can take away, gifts that you can enjoy and share wherever you are, regardless of your circumstances. And if you build your life around these things, you’ll be empowered to develop what Henri Nouwen calls a “holy indifference” to the wavering opinions of others.
Remember, most people in the world form opinions of you based on how you conform to their expectations. Since everyone has a different set of expectations (that vary in degrees of spiritual and emotional health), it is impossible to make everyone happy all the time. So allowing other people to define you and tying your happiness to the approval of others is like playing a rigged casino game–you will always lose.
In contrast, the path to lasting peace, joy, and love is figuring out who you really are as a beloved child of God and living in that truth come hail or high water. “To thine own self be true,”  and let the chips fall where they may.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” -Jesus

Contemplating My Wife’s Mortality: An Ash Wednesday Reflection

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” I spoke these words to many people last night as I made the sign of the cross on their foreheads with a finger dipped in ashes. This is a common practice among Western Christians marking the beginning of Lent, a forty-day season of spiritual preparation before Easter characterized by prayer, fasting, meditation on scripture, repentance, self-denial, and reconciliation. The ritual is a symbolic reminder of our mortality. All of us will die, and our only hope is the resurrection power of God. Contemplating our mortality invites us to confess our need for God and God’s gracious salvation in Christ. There is good news on Ash Wednesday, but it is mediated by the sobering prospect of our own death.

While Ash Wednesday has always been one of my favorite services since first receiving the ashes as a college student, it took on new meaning for me last night. For the first time since I was married in August 2015, my wife stood before me to receive the ashes. This caused a surge of emotion that blindsided me as many others stood in line behind her waiting to receive the sign of the cross.

From the dust . . .” These were the only words I could say before my eyes welled up with tears. For the first time during this ritual, I was not contemplating my own mortality, but that of a person I love dearly. I could hardly bear the thought, “One day, my wife will die.” And in that very moment, my eyes were opened to a whole new way of seeing the other people coming forward to receive the ashes.

As husbands and wives came forward together, I thought, “Their spouse is going to die too.” A young mother came forward and presented her new born baby to receive the mark of the cross . . . babies die too. An older couple came forward, reminding me of all the people who had died after receiving the ashes from my finger . . . old friends won’t be around forever.

This new way of seeing the people as they presented themselves one-by-one came as a startling surprise upon contemplating my wife’s mortality. And while it might seem morbid, all of these thoughts of death led to some powerful reminders: life is short, no one is guaranteed tomorrow, and those we love are a profound gift from God to be cherished daily.

You might be thinking, “Great. I have spent the last several minutes reading a blog post that ended with, not one but three, clichés!” But these reminders come as clichés only when we forget the profound truths of which they speak. Indeed, part of our sinful condition is perpetual forgetfulness. We forget who we are and what we have. We forget what’s really important in life. But experiences like the ones evoked by a good Ash Wednesday service can provide lasting reminders that empower us to confess our need for God and more deeply love those we so often take for granted.

Bah Humblebug! What is Humility and Why Is It Important?

As counter-intuitive as it might seem, the humble are the most powerful people in the world. They are also the most dangerous to those in positions of power, because they are difficult to manipulate with flattery or fear. God’s assessment of their life is what’s most important, so people pleasing is left behind. Since they do not feel compelled to project and defend an idealized self-image, the humble do not need the praise and admiration of others. This enables them to live authentically. In the teaching that follows, Pastor Mark explains how the virtue of humility has been distorted in our contemporary context. Drawing on the example of Christ and the Christmas story as recorded in the Gospel of Luke, he goes on to explain the true meaning of this virtue and why it is important for Christians today. The audio is also available on Pastor Mark’s iTunes podcast. Other messages in this Advent series can be found on Pastor Mark’s YouTube channel.

Take Up Your Glock and Follow Me: Whatever Happened to Martyrdom?

As a pastor, I am called to minister to a variety of people who have differing political views, social ethics, and interpretations of the Bible. This being the case, I try to be careful about what I say regarding polarizing issues and resist getting sucked into social media threads where people are not having intelligent conversations but taking potshots in defense of their tribe. However, after reading comments on numerous Facebook threads written by some of my Christian brothers and sisters on the issue of gun control, I cannot remain silent. Sometimes we have to risk speaking out when something important is at stake. There are some things for which we should be willing to suffer. Indeed, there are somethings for which we must be willing to die, and that it is what this article is about.

In the wake of the mass shooting at Emanuel AME church in South Carolina, N.R.A. Official, Charles Cotton, argued in an online discussion that Rev. Clementa Pinckney, a state senator who was shot and killed in the attack, bore some responsibility for the deaths because he had opposed a change to South Carolina’s gun laws that would have made it legal to carry a concealed weapon into a church. He said, “Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead” (“N.R.A. Board Member Deletes Criticism of Victim in Church Massacre,” http://www.nytimes.com, 6/19/15). While these comments were abhorrent to me, it was not totally surprising to hear this coming from an N.R.A. representative. However, what has been most shocking is the number of Christians who have adopted and expressed this view in social media venues with no critical reflection on their own faith and what it means to be a Christian.

What would it mean for us to start bringing guns into church? I am not primarily interested in whether this would result in more safety or danger for our congregations. In my opinion, to focus on the practical effects serves to obscure the real issue for Christians. Indeed, to make a decision about guns in church simply based on the practical effects without any critical reflection on the relationship between power and salvation in the New Testament is already to capitulate to the anti-Christian idea that we should secure our own existence through violence, and the more subtle assumption that salvation somehow comes through force. The idea that one might be willing to die at the hands of someone filled with hatred to be a living and breathing testimony to the love of Christ and the power of cruciform love has become unthinkable for many in our churches today. While the soil of the early church was watered by the blood of Christian martyrs who knew the saving power of love and would rather die than engage in violent retaliation, martyrdom has become completely unthinkable in most Western churches today. I am increasingly convinced that this is a root problem when it comes to questions of gun control.

To say that we should not create more sensible gun control in our country because it would make it more difficult for law abiding citizens to purchase guns to protect themselves from criminals who easily get guns illegally in the streets is to completely miss the point. Indeed, to start with the question, “How can I secure myself?” is to obscure a deeper question, “Is securing my physical safety the most important thing in life?” If the life and theology of the early Christian community has anything to say about it, then the answer is clearly, no. Our ultimate concern should not be to secure our earthly life and well-being, but to live in obedience to God, even if that means dying.

So what does it mean to live in obedience to God? Christians answer this question by looking to the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So what message is proclaimed by Jesus Christ? In Matthew 5:38-39, Jesus say:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also.”

In Matthew 5:43-45, Jesus says:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”

Without settling the issue on how these kinds of sayings in the Gospels can be deployed in politics, what do we do with these sayings on a personal level? How do we respond to Jesus? Was he not in some sense revealing the heart and character of God, and God’s strategy for defeating sin, evil, and death in this world? We are quick to dismiss these kinds of statements as rabbinic hyperbole, but this position is called into question when we realize that Jesus didn’t just say these things as a teacher, but lived them in a way that cost him his life!

For example, when the Romans came to take Jesus by force, which secured him for an eventual execution, Peter pulled out his sword to protect him. Jesus said, “Put your sword back into its place. For all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). If we continue reading in this passage, it becomes clear in the story that Jesus could have protect himself and retaliated. He tells Peter that he could call twelve legions of angels to wipe out the enemy. But this was not a practical decision aim at protecting himself; it was a theological decision based on his understanding of God and the way God works in the world. It was a moral decision based on what it means to live as a reflection of God’s character in very concrete ways. The important point here is that Jesus could have resisted or retaliated, but he chose not to! He intentionally absorbed the hatred and violence in his body as an act of self-sacrificial love, precisely to save us from hatred and violence. This is how God saves the world, not by returning evil with evil, but by returning evil with good. It was precisely by not fighting back, by becoming defense-less, that Jesus was the clearest embodiment of the love of God. It was precisely by not fighting back that the saving power of love was released for the transformation of the world. In this way, God redefines power in the cross of Jesus Christ.

It is not only with his words, but also the shining example of his life, that he calls out to us: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” This is what it means to be a Christian, to live and die like Jesus. How can we claim to be a Christian if our life is not in some sense cruciform? How can we claim the name of Christ if we do not bear testimony with our life and death to the saving and healing power of a self-sacrificial love, which is the only thing that can ultimately conquer violence?

If you want to understand the logic of the gospel of Jesus Christ, listen carefully to these words:

“Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.” (Luke 17:33)

Paul understood this well. As one who, prior to his conversion, used force and violence to accomplish his political, social, and religious agenda, he says after an encounter with the risen Christ, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Romans 12:21). Again, we read in 1 Peter 3:9, “Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.”

The problem is that most Christians find the way of the crucified Messiah unthinkable. I can just hear the internal dialogue: “Seriously? Refuse to resist an evil person and become defense-less in the face of violence? Turn the other cheek? Love my enemy? Pray for those who persecute me? Repay evil with good? Be willing to die in order to bear testimony to the love and saving power of God? Absorb violence self-sacrificially instead of retaliate?  Be willing to lose my life so I can find it? Well, that’s just crazy!” I know this is a hard message to hear, and to say that Jesus’ plea, “Come and die,” is “good news” just seems nuts. But there it is, and that is why it is easier to talk about gun control than the logic of the gospel, which is not “Take up your Glock and follow me,” but “Take up your cross and follow me.”

This Gospel runs contrary to our very nature. This Gospel is offensive. This Gospel strikes a deep cord of fear in our hearts. This is one reason why Jesus says repeatedly, “Do not be afraid.” He knew that once we really got what being a Christian is all about that it would terrify us. Many people want Jesus to save them from sin and hell, but they have no interest in following him to Golgatha. They want access to the power of God to secure their own existence, without a life structured by self-sacrificial love.

I remember when it was popular in youth groups to wear WWJD bracelets. While I don’t think that asking, “What would Jesus do?” provides easy answers to all of life’s questions, it can sometimes help focus us on what is most important. When thinking about the massacre at Emanuel AME church, what would Jesus have done if he were sitting in a pew when Dylann Roof opened fire? Would he have pulled a gun to shoot and possible kill this young man? Given everything I know about Jesus, I think it is safe to say “No!” Rather, I think he would have spread his arms wide in love, even if that meant giving his life to show this young man the way, the truth, and the life.  Jesus would rather die (and did) than use violence in an attempt to save us from violence. The day we capitulate to fear (and the consequent lust for power) by bringing guns into churches is the day the enemy has gained the upper hand in the struggle of good versus evil.

So what is the solution to violence in our country? I don’t have all the answers, but the Gospel seems to suggest that that we need fewer gun-slinging cowboys and more people for whom martyrdom is a real possibility if they are called to show with their death the truth of redeeming love. You might think that all of this crazy, and it is according to the standards of the world. Jesus knew this when he said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Matthew 11:6). And Paul knew it too when he said, For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1:18).

Brothers and sisters, it is one thing to say, “This Gospel is really hard, but I wish I had that kind of faith,” and it is another thing to say, “I refuse to accept the logic of the gospel and follow a crucified savior.” I often find myself deeply struggling with what it means to live a life of non-violent, self-sacrificial love. I am not recommending that we seek out martyrdom. The early Christians would have found this odd, because for them martyrdom is not something that we chose for ourselves, but a special calling with a special grace to witness to God’s love in a special circumstances that are in certain ways beyond our control. I certainly do not want to glorify suffering; human suffering is always heartbreaking, even when it is redeemed by God and yields unexpected goods. Like most human beings, I naturally want to defend myself and repay evil with evil. But I also want the voice of Jesus to penetrate my fear so I can clearly hear the truth, no matter how difficult it might be for me to accept. I want to have the courage, strength, and hope to follow his way, no matter what the cost. I want to grow so that my faith might shine as bright as the Christian martyrs both in the past and in the present, both at home and abroad. What would it be like to have that kind of faith? How would life be different if we were willing to fully trust God not only with our lives but also our deaths? What would it be like to drop our defenses and be so filled with love that we no longer fear death? Now that would be real power! This is the kind of power that was released when the families of those who were killed at Emanuel AME stood up and said, “I love you and forgive you!” May we aspire to have that kind of faith!