Who is My Neighbor?

November 29, 2010

One day, Jesus was talking to group of his followers when a lawyer asks “Hey man, I like this ‘live forever’ idea you’ve been talking about. How does a fellow do that?” Jesus looked at him for a minute, then said “Well, you’re a lawyer. What does the law say?” The lawyer answers “Love God with everything you’ve got. And, love your neighbor just like you love yourself.” Jesus nodded and said, “Dude, you just answered your own question.” But, being a lawyer, a simple answer wasn’t enough for this cat. So, he says “Well, that sounds easy enough. But, when you say neighbor, are you talking about the joker that lives next door to me?” Some of the apostles, (mainly Peter, James and John) started muttering about what a doofus this guy was. Jesus just smiled and shook his head. Then he started telling a story. “One day, this guy was on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Now, ya’ll know how rough that road can be. Sure enough, as he was walking by some bushes, a bunch of dudes jumped out and mugged him. Oh, it was bad. Beat him up, took everything he had, even his clothes, and left him laying there on the side of the road. Now, this brother was in bad shape. I’m talking about-to-die bad. After a while, a preacher came by and saw him laying there in his underwear. Man, he thought to himself, ain’t no telling what’s going on over there. I’m not getting involved, so he crossed to the other side of the road to avoid the poor guy. A little bit later, a deacon in the local church was passing by. He saw the fellow lying on the side of the road and said to himself “What a freak, laying in the road-ditch in his underwear like that. Somebody ought to do something”. But, he wasn’t about to get involved with a character like that and he hurried on by. Next, a Samaritan”, Jesus paused at this point, because almost as one the crowd drew an audible breath at the mere mention of the name “Samaritan”. “That’s right, one of those nasty, disgusting Samaritans came along. Guess what this cat did? He went straight over to the man, got out his first aid kit and went to work, mending the fellow’s wounds as best he could. Then, he picked him up and carried him to the nearest hotel. Checked in and spent the next day looking after our poor, beat up friend. In the morning, he had to get on the road since he was traveling for business. But, he stopped in the office, paid for another couple of days and told his friend, the manager, “Look, man, there’s a dude up in 202 that got beat up and robbed the other day. How about looking after him for few days and I’ll make it right with you when come back through. You know I’m good for it”. Now, if you were the dude laying in the road, who was your neighbor?” Without hesitating, the lawyer said “The fellow that looked after him”. “There you go” said Jesus, “do the same and you’ll be all right”.

I told that story with the language I did to make a little easier to understand. Okay, I also did it because it was fun imaging Jesus sitting in the corner at Paul’s Grocery on Poole Road in Knightdale NC, holding forth for the usual crowd. But, I like this story. In fact, it’s one of my favorites. Everyone always focuses on the Samaritan doing the right thing for the guy. But, what gets me is that it’s a Samaritan that commits the act of love. Nowadays, that would be akin to a fundamental Muslim doing the same for a Christian. And, at the end, he tells this highly religious lawyer, a guy that did nothing but study the Torah all the time, to be like the Samaritan! That would be like telling Billy Graham to follow the example of a drug addict or an alcoholic. The point, here, is that we not supposed to just love those we’re comfortable with. No, Jesus said to love your enemies, because if you only love those that love you, what have you really accomplished? The other thing to be gleaned from this story is that everyone is our neighbor. Everyone. Not just those in our neighborhood, or town, or state. Or even country. Whenever there’s a natural disaster outside the United States, you’ll hear a lot of voices complaining about helping folks who aren’t Americans.  The thing that gets me is that some of the loudest of these voices are the same ones that tout the United States as a “Christian” nation. Makes me wish I was a Samaritan sometimes.


You know the one I mean.  Every TV show has a Thanksgiving episode where all the characters tell what they’re thankful for.  It’s not just sitcoms and dramas that do this; the talk shows do it, too.  It’s slipping into other venues also, my favorite being Tyler Stanton’s blog post “More Trivial Things I’m Thankful For“.  It’s exactly what it says, a list of trivial crap that he’s really and truly thankful for.  Why is this my favorite?  Because it’s honest and straightforward.  No heartful platitudes about family, health or financial well-being, no bs about wonderful friends or any kind of flowery fluff.  All that goes without saying.  Tyler, who bills himself as the World’s Most Trivial Man, takes it up a notch and says what we all want to say, but don’t, because we don’t have the…, um, guts.   In honor of his open and honest shallowness, here’s my list of stupid stuff I’m thankful for this year:

  • Skelaxin and Lortab.  This isn’t really stupid, but I’m definitely thankful for both.  Somehow I hurt my back recently and these two pharmaceutical wonders are making life much easier.
  • Mythbusters.  Without Jamie and Adam, how would know if it really was easy to shoot fish in a barrel or whether someone could actually suffocate from their own farts?  Besides, Kari Byron is on the show and, as we all know, she’s the hottest nerdy girl since Dana Scully
  • My Cuisinart coffee maker with a built-in grinder.  I’m a bit of a coffee snob, but I have such an issue with instant gratification that grinding the beans and making coffee in a french press (the “proper” way to make good coffee) takes to long.  With the Cuisinart, I can fix everything the night before and set the timer.  When I get up in the morning, voila, fresh, quality coffee!
  • MP3 players.  These things are wonderful.  I can carry a truckload of music in something that fits in my pocket.  I love technology.
  • Guitars.  Because, next to a motorcycle, nothing makes you look cooler.  Even if you can’t play worth a crap (and I can’t), it’s still worth 100 cool points.
  • Direct deposit.  I know it’s not new and trendy, but I’m incredibly lazy and, because of  DD, I don’t have to wait in line at the bank.
  • Afternoon naps.  When I was younger, I thought, “Sleeping in the middle of the day?  Big deal”.  Now, with the wisdom of advancing years, I recognize the magnificence of a 20 minute doze around 3 PM.
  • The recliner.  Whoever came up this piece of furniture art was a genius.  A chair that you can watch TV from and get a good night’s sleep in?  Amazing!
  • The Thanksgiving dinner my mama will put on the table.  Bobby Flay is a short-order fry cook at Denny’s next to her.
  • Clean socks.  When you’re cold and wet, nothing will make you feel better than a pair of clean, dry socks.  Fresh underwear does the same when you’re hot and sweaty.
  • Andy Griffith and Elvis Presley.  Because these two guys made it cool to be Southern when being Southern wasn’t cool.
  • Country-style steak.  Cubed beef steak, browned and simmered in gravy until it’s so tender you can cut it with a fork.  It just doesn’t get any better
  • Bonfires.  Because you can roast weenies and marshmallows on them.  Duh.
  • And, finally, Tyler Stanton.  Because, as long as he’s around, I’m not the most trivial man in the world.

What about you?  Anything stupid, ridiculous, vain or just silly you’re thankful for?

Forgiving Blake VanNest

November 23, 2010

This morning, I didn’t have to work and I slept in.  After the news went off, the Doctor Phil teaser came on and the show was about bullying.  Being a youth worker, I said to my self, “Self, you probably ought to watch this”.  So, I did.  The lead segment was about a young man who was bullied by some upper classmen.  The kid was 14, had learning disabilities and developmental problems.  4 older boys decided it would be funny to coerce him into getting a tattoo on his butt.  That was bad enough, but the tattoo in question said “Poop d**k” and had a penis above one word and a heart above the other.  The young man said he didn’t want the tattoo but was told he didn’t have a choice, that if he didn’t do it, he’d get beaten up.  The ringleader of this stunt and his mother kept trying to dodge full responsibility for such a despicable act by saying the younger boy wanted the tattoo and several other lame excuses.  They finally fessed up and, on the show at least, accepted the blame for what happened.  The victim’s family didn’t buy it.  I can understand that.  Their child was violated and it’ll take a while for them to get past that.  What I don’t understand is the virulent reaction of commenters on some the posts about this incident.  There were multiple comments that involved the murder and sexual assault of the perpetrators and there families that so were graphic that it almost made me sick.  I understand being upset by this sort of thing; but, damn, people, get a grip!

I’m a little two-faced in what I just said.  That’s because, for just a minute, I agreed with those violent suggestions of what should happen to the guys who did this.  I consider myself a pretty progressive guy and that attitude just doesn’t fit with a progressive mindset.  What pulled me back from the edge, though, was a website I check in on now and then called People of the Second Chance.  Run by Mike Foster and Jud Wilhite, POTSC is all about radical grace and forgiveness.   Grace and forgiveness are just what the four young men involved in this terrible act need.  You’ll notice I said “need”, not “deserve”.  Nobody deserves grace or mercy, we deserve justice.  And, justice is a hard thing.  Certainly, Blake VanNest and he friends deserve to pay for they’ve done.  They’ve suffered legal consequences, but those pale in comparison to the scars they left on their victim, a young man who will always carry a piece of that hellish experience within himself for the rest of his life.  True justice for the perpetrators would be just as lasting for them as it is for their victim.  The problem with justice is that, to be just, it has to apply to everyone.  Everyone…, not just the people we don’t like, not just the ones who commit some heinous crime and not some distant, abstract person that we can’t identify with.  Everyone and that includes ourselves.  Like I said, justice is a hard thing.

Justice and thinly veiled hate are much more in line with human nature than grace, mercy and forgiveness.  But, Jesus called us to forgive.  And, not just once, but 77 (or 70 times 7, depending on your translation).  Before, you start ticking off the times you’ve forgiven someone who’s wronged you, you really oughta know that’s not an actual number.  In the Bible, when you see a 7 or a multiple of 7, that means perfection.  So, 77 means perfect forgiveness.  To me, perfect forgiveness is forgiveness that’s extended to everyone in every situation.  That’s what I get from God and that’s what He calls me to extend to everyone else.  Sounds good, huh?  Now if I can just figure out how to do it.

Swag for Jesus

November 20, 2010

I haven’t done a post like this in a while and, considering that I’ve been a little intense lately, today seemed like a good time for one.  First of all, I have to give credit where credit is due.  The title is a rip-off of a site I found while researching this morning, called Christian Swag.  The inspiration for the actual post came from Jon Acuff’s Twitter feed.  Jon is a very funny guy who runs the Stuff Christians Like website.  I’ve gotten ideas from him before, but this is one of my favorites:

That’s right, it’s a John Calvin bobble head.  A John… Calvin…bobble head.  Oh my sweet Lord, it was amazing!  Seeing that, I had to look for more and I wasn’t disappointed.

Football Jesus?!?  What the…?

I have wanted one of these since the very first time I ever saw it!

I suppose this qualifies as a religious t-shirt because it’s anti-abortion.  I’m always amazed at how many nasty right-leaning political shirts and bumper stickers I find listed as “religious” or, better yet, “Christian”.  In my opinion, they’re anything but.

And, since one of these posts wouldn’t be complete without a bumper sticker, I submit this for your approval.


Stay and Fight?

November 18, 2010

In this blog, I’ve made it plain how I feel about the way the Church (universal) treats gay people.  But, in case you missed that little tidbit, I’m disgusted by it.  A couple of days ago, I commented on another blog about this very subject.  The post itself had nothing to do with the homosexuality but, somehow, the suicide of gay teenagers came up.  One comment said “it’s quite a leap to blame the church for those suicides”.  My response went:

“I don’t think that blaming the Church (universal) for teen homosexual suicides is much of a leap at all. Not when you consider that the Church has, for years, been the main purveyor of hopelessness for gay people. Imagine you’re born into a deeply religious family. Then, imagine you’re gay and have felt that way as long as you can remember. All you hear in church is that you’re an abomination and should be put to death. At the same time, you hear that “God made you just the way you are”. How would you react to that? Oh, but, wait, it gets better! After all that, you finally screw up the courage to come out to your family and what happens? They disown you, tell you you’re disgusting and want nothing more to do with you. It’s a wonder to me that more young gay people don’t commit suicide with the way we’ve stacked the deck against them. I’m straight and a Methodist and our stance on homosexuality is so two-faced, it makes me sick. It has me considering whether to remain a member of the UMC.”

Even more than the overall religious community’s stance on homosexuals and faith, I’ve struggled with the United Methodist Church’s lack of a position.  I lay it all out in a post called “What Should We Do?“.  What we’re doing is cowardly.  We don’t want to bring on a split or, even worse, see contributions go down and our answer is no answer at all.  That has changed a bit.  Recently, the Legislative Council (I think, don’t quote on the who part) decided that pastors could exclude gay people from membership.  While our leadership still displays a mile-wide yellow streak up their back, they have taken a step on the matter, ruling that pastor’s can exclude openly homosexual people from church membership.  It’s a step all right, in the wrong direction.  There is cause for hope, however slight.  I was speaking with my pastor about this very subject recently and he told me that the last vote on overall policy (back in ’08) was much closer than it’s been in years.  The basic thrust of his comments were to just hang in there, it’ll get better.  Maybe it will, but, right now seems to be getting worse . 

My feelings on the subject were bad enough until this weekend.  That’s when I heard Bart Campolo talk about fulfilling Jesus commandment to love each.  On Sunday, he specifically said, if you’re going to love people, then one of those groups has to be gay people.  He also told us that if we stood by and let someone get bullied, we were just as wrong as the bully.  As he said it, I realized that I’m a silent partner in the church’s bullying of people who are different from us and I’m not comfortable with that.  I’m beginning to believe it’s time to put my money where my mouth is and do something.  The question is what?  Do I stay a member of the UMC and work for change from within?  Or do I tell them I can no longer be a party to the abuse of our LGBT brothers and sisters?  What do I do?

Almost a Christian

November 15, 2010

In the last few days, the idea of being “almost Christian” has been popping up in different places for me.  The book, by Kenda Creasy Dean, “Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church“, a review of the same book which pointed me to  Wesley’s sermon, “The Almost Christian” and, finally, a weekend-long conference where Bart Campolo spoke about this subject.  Now, he didn’t use the term “Almost Christian”, but it’s exactly what he was talking about. 

What is an “Almost Christian”?  Wesley said it was someone who followed all the forms of Christianity, but didn’t really live it out.  In other words, someone who “talked the talk”, but didn’t “walk the walk”.  In the sermon where he talked about being “almost a Christian”, he spoke of people who followed all the outward signs of Christianity: not drinking, sleeping around, etc; but, deep down, these people didn’t love God and they didn’t love their neighbor.  In Dean’s book, the result of information gathered by the National Study of Youth and Religion, she writes of the watering down of Christian faith into something called Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, which says:

  1. A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.
  2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
  3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
  4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
  5. Good people go to heaven when they die

Again, notice what’s missing.  There’s not a single mention of love to be found anywhere in it.  This weekend, as I said earlier, I had the privilege of listening to Bart Campolo speak and, intentional or not, what he said was basically an updated version of Wesley’s sermon. 

He told us that all that stuff we’d been hearing for years (don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t have sex and, for God’s sake, don’t be gay) were useless if we didn’t love God and love our neighbor.  He showed us that loving one another was what Jesus was asking of us.  In John 15:9-17, Jesus told his disciples (and, by extension, us)

“I’ve loved you the way my Father has loved me. Make yourselves at home in my love. If you keep my commands, you’ll remain intimately at home in my love. That’s what I’ve done—kept my Father’s commands and made myself at home in his love.

 11-15“I’ve told you these things for a purpose: that my joy might be your joy, and your joy wholly mature. This is my command: Love one another the way I loved you. This is the very best way to love. Put your life on the line for your friends. You are my friends when you do the things I command you. I’m no longer calling you servants because servants don’t understand what their master is thinking and planning. No, I’ve named you friends because I’ve let you in on everything I’ve heard from the Father.

 16“You didn’t choose me, remember; I chose you, and put you in the world to bear fruit, fruit that won’t spoil. As fruit bearers, whatever you ask the Father in relation to me, he gives you.

 17“But remember the root command: Love one another”

Notice there’s no legalistic “Don’t do that” mumbo-jumbo.  Just “Love one another”

Loving one another is simple, but oh so hard.  It’s simple because it’s cut-and-dried and straightforward.  No extra crap, nothing to weigh it down.  It’s hard because, to do this, you have to love everybody.  Not just the people who like you, not just the ones you like, not just the ones who are easy to love.  No, if you’re going to be a real, full-on Christian, you have to love the homeless, the drug addicts, the hookers and gay people.  You have to love that one person in the world that gets under your skin and irritates the living shit out of you.  If you’re going to be a real Christian, you have to love that liberal, moral relativist that you firmly believe is a heretic and that hard-core Calvinist fundamentalist whose beliefs you think fly in the face of the true message of Christ.  Like I said everybody.  No exceptions, no take-backs.  Otherwise, you’re “almost a Christian”.

6000 Screaming Teenagers

November 13, 2010

If that sounds like your own private hell, don’t go to Pilgrimage.  Pilgrimage, as I’ve written before, is the signature youth event of the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church.  Groups from all over eastern North Carolina gather in Fayetteville every November for a weekend of worship, fun and fellowship.  The energy level is amazing.  As soon as you walk in the door, you can feel it.  It’s almost like a pulse, kind of low and steady at first.  Frisbees are flying around and goofy Christian cheers are tossed back and forth and everyone is having a blast.  Then, as the clock ticks down (and do mean clock, there’s a giant countdown clock projected on the screen), it builds.  By the time it gets down to 10 seconds, it’s like a covered pot just before it boils.  When the clock hits zero, the place erupts.  Let me tell you, no boy band concert ever sounded like this.  Praise songs kids actually like to sing are blasted by a band made up of teens from all over the conference and led by two pastors that are great musicians, but terrible comedians.  And kids are involved at all levels.  Watching a bunch teenagers nerd it up for Jesus is an amazing thing.

Every year there’s a speaker, and in years past, that speaker has kinda sucked…, for this event, anyway.  I’m sure they’re fine pastors, bishops, etc. but too many of them haven’t been youth speakers.  That changed this year, we have Bart Campolo.  Bart is an urban minister in inner-city Cincinnati and has worked with youth for years.  It showed tonight.  They started out laughing, but when he got to the meat of his message, you could’ve heard pin drop in that place.  He told them that Jesus was madly, desperately in love with each and every individual in that place.  That, no matter what they’ve done or what’s happened to them, Jesus wants them.  That when we hurt, He hurts.  When we’re happy, He’s happy.  He loves them, warts and all.  Not only that, He wants to transform them and make them lovers of people like He is.  It was, I thought, the best summation of Christ’s message I’ve ever heard. 

Tomorrow, we go back for rounds two and three.  In between, we’re going to Methodist University to help at a meal packing event for Stop Hunger Now.  I can’t think of a better thing to do with free time at a youth conference centered around Jesus than to do what he asked of us: ”

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Enter, you who are blessed by my Father! Take what’s coming to you in this kingdom. It’s been ready for you since the world’s foundation. And here’s why:

   I was hungry and you fed me,
   I was thirsty and you gave me a drink,
   I was homeless and you gave me a room,
   I was shivering and you gave me clothes,
   I was sick and you stopped to visit,
   I was in prison and you came to me.’

Then those ‘sheep’ are going to say, ‘Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?’ Then the King will say, ‘I’m telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me.’

The American Dream

November 10, 2010

When did the American Dream go from achieving a rich, full life to “I got mine, screw you”?  When I was a kid, success didn’t mean you were a millionaire.  It meant you worked hard and provided for your family.  It also meant you looked after those around you and in the community.  These days, it seems everyone is out for themselves and to hell with everyone else.  It’s evident in everything from the opposition to health care reform to taxes to business practices.  It used to be some people had the attitude “I got mine, you get yours “.   That was bad enough, but now it seems to be “I got mine and I’m going to screw you out of yours, too.”  The American Dream was never meant to be achieved by some on the backs of our neighbors, but that’s exactly what happening. 

What is the American Dream?  According to historian and author James Truslow Adams, “The American Dream is that dream of a land in which life should be better and richer and fuller for every man, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement. It is a difficult dream for the European upper classes to interpret adequately, also too many of us ourselves have grown weary and mistrustful of it. It is not a dream of motor cars and high wages merely, but a dream of social order in which each man and each woman shall be able to attain to the fullest stature of which they are innately capable, and be recognized by others for what they are, regardless of the fortuitous circumstances of birth or position.”  I don’t know about you, but I don’t see anything  about getting rich in the deal. 

Lately, I’ve been questioning whether the American Dream is at odds with Christianity.  In some ways, it might be; the dream doesn’t seem to worry much about those less fortunate, which is a big thing in the Christian faith.  It’s also kind of self-centered; Christianity, not so much.  It doesn’t say a word about the bottom line being more important than people.  It doesn’t say to ignore the less fortunate.  It it does place great emphasis on equality and that’s certainly a Christian ideal.  From what I can see, this dream of ours, while it doesn’t exactly fall into line with Jesus’ teaching, isn’t a bad thing.  I really don’t think God has a problem with people taking care of their families, of parents wanting life to be better for their children than theirs is.  It’s when we accumulate piles of stuff we’ll never use and then ignore someone asking for spare change so they can eat that day that God has  problem with what we’re doing.  Think about that next time you drive past that guy holding the sign that says “Will work for food”.

Radical Faith

November 8, 2010

 In reading and studying about my faith, I’ve found some very interesting people.  One of those is Shane Claiborne, author of “The Irresistable Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical”  Claiborne and I have some things in common.  Both of us were born and raised in the South, both of us were raised on southern-style evangelical Christianity and both of us had problems with it.  Where our paths diverge is in the way we dealt with those problems.  I walked away from the church all together for quite a while.  Claiborne delved deeper, went to seminary and has worked to change the face of Christianity to the world.  How?  By working with the poor, the sick and anyone in need.  The man even took an internship with Mother Teresa in Calcutta and spent time dressing the wounds of lepers.  He now leads a faith community in a destitute area of Philadelphia that continues his ministry to those in need and is a published author.  And, the dude is only in his 30’s.  Impressive.

My introduction to Claiborne was his letter to non-believers published in Esquire magazine.  I’ll let Shane speak for both of us on this one:

What If Jesus Meant All That Stuff?

To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.

The other night I headed into downtown Philly for a stroll with some friends from out of town. We walked down to Penn’s Landing along the river, where there are street performers, artists, musicians. We passed a great magician who did some pretty sweet tricks, like pour change out of his iPhone, and then there was a preacher. He wasn’t quite as captivating as the magician. He stood on a box, yelling into a microphone, and beside him was a coffin with a fake dead body inside. He talked about how we are all going to die and go to hell if we don’t know Jesus.

Some folks snickered. Some told him to shut the hell up. A couple of teenagers tried to steal the dead body in the coffin. All I could do was think to myself, I want to jump up on a box beside him and yell at the top of my lungs, “God is not a monster.” Maybe next time I will.

The more I have read the Bible and studied the life of Jesus, the more I have become convinced that Christianity spreads best not through force but through fascination. But over the past few decades our Christianity, at least here in the United States, has become less and less fascinating. We have given the atheists less and less to disbelieve. And the sort of Christianity many of us have seen on TV and heard on the radio looks less and less like Jesus.

At one point Gandhi was asked if he was a Christian, and he said, essentially, “I sure love Jesus, but the Christians seem so unlike their Christ.” A recent study showed that the top three perceptions of Christians in the U. S. among young non-Christians are that Christians are 1) antigay, 2) judgmental, and 3) hypocritical. So what we have here is a bit of an image crisis, and much of that reputation is well deserved. That’s the ugly stuff. And that’s why I begin by saying that I’m sorry.

Now for the good news.

I want to invite you to consider that maybe the televangelists and street preachers are wrong — and that God really is love. Maybe the fruits of the Spirit really are beautiful things like peace, patience, kindness, joy, love, goodness, and not the ugly things that have come to characterize religion, or politics, for that matter. (If there is anything I have learned from liberals and conservatives, it’s that you can have great answers and still be mean… and that just as important as being right is being nice.)

The Bible that I read says that God did not send Jesus to condemn the world but to save it… it was because “God so loved the world.” That is the God I know, and I long for others to know. I did not choose to devote my life to Jesus because I was scared to death of hell or because I wanted crowns in heaven… but because he is good. For those of you who are on a sincere spiritual journey, I hope that you do not reject Christ because of Christians. We have always been a messed-up bunch, and somehow God has survived the embarrassing things we do in His name. At the core of our “Gospel” is the message that Jesus came “not [for] the healthy… but the sick.” And if you choose Jesus, may it not be simply because of a fear of hell or hope for mansions in heaven.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the afterlife, but too often all the church has done is promise the world that there is life after death and use it as a ticket to ignore the hells around us. I am convinced that the Christian Gospel has as much to do with this life as the next, and that the message of that Gospel is not just about going up when we die but about bringing God’s Kingdom down. It was Jesus who taught us to pray that God’s will be done “on earth as it is in heaven.” On earth.

One of Jesus’ most scandalous stories is the story of the Good Samaritan. As sentimental as we may have made it, the original story was about a man who gets beat up and left on the side of the road. A priest passes by. A Levite, the quintessential religious guy, also passes by on the other side (perhaps late for a meeting at church). And then comes the Samaritan… you can almost imagine a snicker in the Jewish crowd. Jews did not talk to Samaritans, or even walk through Samaria. But the Samaritan stops and takes care of the guy in the ditch and is lifted up as the hero of the story. I’m sure some of the listeners were ticked. According to the religious elite, Samaritans did not keep the right rules, and they did not have sound doctrine… but Jesus shows that true faith has to work itself out in a way that is Good News to the most bruised and broken person lying in the ditch.

It is so simple, but the pious forget this lesson constantly. God may indeed be evident in a priest, but God is just as likely to be at work through a Samaritan or a prostitute. In fact the Scripture is brimful of God using folks like a lying prostitute named Rahab, an adulterous king named David… at one point God even speaks to a guy named Balaam through his donkey. Some say God spoke to Balaam through his ass and has been speaking through asses ever since. So if God should choose to use us, then we should be grateful but not think too highly of ourselves. And if upon meeting someone we think God could never use, we should think again.

After all, Jesus says to the religious elite who looked down on everybody else: “The tax collectors and prostitutes are entering the Kingdom ahead of you.” And we wonder what got him killed?

I have a friend in the UK who talks about “dirty theology” — that we have a God who is always using dirt to bring life and healing and redemption, a God who shows up in the most unlikely and scandalous ways. After all, the whole story begins with God reaching down from heaven, picking up some dirt, and breathing life into it. At one point, Jesus takes some mud, spits in it, and wipes it on a blind man’s eyes to heal him. (The priests and producers of anointing oil were not happy that day.)

In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.” It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.

Your brother,

Everything else is bullshit.  I know that may not sit well with some of you, but if Stanley Hauerwas can say it, I figure I’m in good company.  Besides, it grabs your attention and makes an emphatic point.  That point being that we’ve made the Christian faith entirely too complicated.  Every time I turn around, somebody’s got something else I’m supposed to do if I’m a Christian (or not do.  There’s a lot of negativity floating around these days).  Don’t listen to that music, don’t read those books, be sure to tithe, etc.  Jesus had a different take on things.  In Luke chapter 10, the story goes like this:

Just then a religion scholar stood up with a question to test Jesus. “Teacher, what do I need to do to get eternal life?”

 He answered, “What’s written in God’s Law? How do you interpret it?”

 He said, “That you love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and muscle and intelligence—and that you love your neighbor as well as you do yourself. 

  “Good answer!” said Jesus. “Do it and you’ll live.”

So, salvation is about loving God and loving my neighbor.  A lot of people are hung up on the 10 Commandments and the Law.  But, here’s the thing: if you’re loving your neighbor, you won’t be doing any of the stuff that’s proscribed there.  Nor will you be using hateful speech against people whose sexual preference is different from yours; you won’t be passing judgment on those you consider sinners; you’ll be eager to help those less fortunate than yourself and the list goes on.  But, it all boils down to love God, love your neighbor, that’s it.  Nothing to it, right?  Well, just keep reading, Sparky.

On the surface, the whole thing sounds simple, even easy.  Maybe, but that’s deceptive.  Following those four simple words can be the hardest thing you’ll ever try to do.  Because it seems that while you’re trying to show that love, your neighbor is going out of his (or her) way to be as unlovable as humanly possible. I used to hate sermons on this subject, because I knew the coming week was going to be filled with idiots going out of their way to piss me off.  No matter how hard I tried, I still reacted in a distinctly unChristlike manner.  One day, I had an epiphany and I realized what the whole “grace” thing was about: It is impossible for me to do this on my own, I can’t be that good.  Then, I read this in Steve Brown’s book  A Scandalous Freedom,”The only people who get better are people who know that, if they never get better, GOD WILL LOVE THEM ANYWAY… God will not only love you if you don’t get better, He’ll teach you that getting better isn’t the issue; His love is the issue” and “I’m getting better by not trying so hard to be better… when I stopped working so hard at being better and turned to Jesus, that’s when, almost without noticing it, I started getting just a little bit better”.  So, I gave up trying to be good (or “better” to fit with the quote) and let God have it.  Slowly, subtly, I’m starting to get better.  I’m not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but I’m better.  And, I kind of like it.