Tag Archives: judgment

How the Dialogue List helped teach us lessons in love

A group from the BIC asked me to lead some a study about reconciliation last week. Many of the practical things I talked about can be traced back to a formative incident over twenty years ago when Circle of Hope was a very young church. Looking back, I seem young at 44! And oh, you twenty-somethings who made a church!

Early COH looked a lot like this.

Following my conviction that Jesus would build His church and I could hope for people to form the trust system I thought every church should be, I had created the “Dialogue List.” It was a listserv open to anything anyone wanted to talk about. So it was a constant exercise in trust just to read it and meet the unpredictable things that might show up on it.  We learned a lot about reconciliation by having the Dialogue List.

At that time a creative, rather charismatic man, who was married to one of our worship leaders, decided to come out as gay. This caused a crisis in his marriage, which he did not immediately want to leave, since he had two children and loved his wife. Their situation began to cause a crisis in the church since he was not afraid to be vulnerable and he was outspoken – and he felt like he had friends, which was true. He was not making a statement or a political move by coming out, he was having a problem. He eventually moved back to New York with his lover. Not long ago he was at a Frankford Ave meeting  where I was happy to reconnect. I had been deeply involved in their lives.

Another young man from a traditional Christian background, who was a rather large help to our various building projects, was offended that we let this sinful process go on in the church with what seemed like very little judgment. He wrote to the Dialogue List to voice his protest. He said we were harboring sinners and making a mockery of God’s call to holiness. He felt like he was supposed to swallow that and was choking on it. He wanted the gay man banned from the church.

I should not have been surprised this happened, but I was surprised. It all happened before I got extensive training in mediation and negotiation, so I think my appreciation of a healthy conflict was weak. It all happened long before I got my doctorate in marriage and family therapy, so my appreciation of individual and systemic disorders was foggy. All I had going for me was my vision of what I thought was a healthy church based on the Bible. So I swallowed hard and decided to write back.

Condemnation is an enemy we must not love

I knew making a public reply amounted to a nuclear option. I was about to cash in all my “respect chips” and respond to the Dialogue List as everyone listened in. But I wanted to make it plain where I was going to take a stand. I took it squarely on the side of the weaker brother: the gay man who had just torpedoed his family. And my key passage to justify my stance was and has been since, Romans 14-15.

Here are the most relevant verses:

1– Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
4 — Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
10 — You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat
13 — Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
1-2 — We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.
7 — Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
18-19 — I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

Those last two verses might not normally be in this discussion, but I think they were part of what Paul was talking about. He did not think he had much to say about anything if it was not backed up by his demonstration of the gospel of Christ – the gospel that knits together Jews and Gentiles and is destined to reconciles the whole Roman Empire in a new unity in the love of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.  The young man who wrote to the list had a point, but he did not have the love, did not speak from the Spirit, and did not have great deeds of mission to back up his dramatic judgment. I thought what he was saying was deadly to all we hoped to become.

We had a breaking marriage with children on our hands and a couple who cared about their kids and cared for each other too. They were sorting out a sex issue in public, which automatically fascinates everyone. Their impending divorce was a disappointing surprise to many of their intimates in our 200 person community. As far as I was concerned, their various sins were not the biggest issue, but their reconciliation and ongoing faith were huge issues. What’s more, how we handled this challenge as a new community might determine what kind of a church we would become.

Related image

Getting involved in messes is messy

So I spoke back very strongly to the young man who wrote to the Dialogue List. It was straightforward letter – probably too straightforward, since I was upset. When I was remembering this incident, I tried to find a copy of the note I wrote, but I failed to do so – thank God! I hope I am blessed and it isn’t in internet eternity somewhere. I doubt I handled everything that great. I explained how public judgment was out of the question, not only because it revealed a hard heart, but, in this case, it was without personal relationship with the accused. It amounted to slander. It was also irresponsible. If the writer had done the discipling and comforting work, then maybe he would have had something to say. But he really only knew what they had heard. As far as I was concerned, if anyone needed to be banned from the church, it was the one who was willing to pronounce such judgment, however warranted according to his principles. As long as I was around to lead things, it was going to be love first, working for reconciliation as a top priority, and serving those who are wicked, or out of order, or ignorant enough to cause trouble in hope of their redemption.

As it turned out, my letter to the Dialogue List surprised many people because they expected me to meet their stereotype of hard-nosed evangelicals who think gay people are bad by definition. And I surprised another whole segment of the population because I was willing to “kick someone out of the church,” only it was the Judaizer who wanted to return us to the law.

I later learned from a master reconciler in South Africa that anyone who tries to get people to reconcile, especially when conflict over family ties or taboos is on the table, is a bridge that gets walked on by both sides. If we are not ready to be misunderstood, it is unlikely we can help people overcome their misunderstandings. I still feel some adrenaline when I talk about my difficult letter to the list because it was an exciting time and I was getting walked on! But I also wince at how badly I played my part in it and how much more I had to learn. The many reasons I felt walked on turned out to be creative suffering that helped grow me up. I think the suffering we endured with this couple together helped grow up the church, too.

The couple got amicably divorced. We helped the wife move back to upstate New York where she met another good man and had more children and a life of deep faith. The husband went off with his lover and continued to have a hard time, but still felt fondly about Jesus. His children also faced some big challenges. I wish he had stayed in covenant with us. The man who made the accusation, eventually moved to the far burbs. But a couple of years later, he wrote me an email to thank me for my rough treatment. He said I was right to face him down in public and he learned an important lesson. People in our church still relate to him and his nice family.

This incident and several others started us on a path towards practical forgiveness and reconciliation right in line with Matthew 18. I think I will share some more about that next week. I hope this little story inspires you to go against the current of the present moment in history in the U.S. and make something beautiful – a church where people can suffer, grow and never fear that they have friends who will work for their best interests and help them move through their misunderstandings and troubles in love.

Pushback for Donald Miller wormthoughts

*Photo Credit: Oleh Slobodeniuk, Creative Commons
Alone with God in the forest. Joshua came up with a very different conclusion than Donald Miller last week. Maybe he’ll tell you about it.

Donald Miller recently wrote a blog post on his Storyline blog which is connected to his Storybrand marketing firm (if you never heard of him, fine, skip this post). His post was about why he does not “go to church” very often (an act that Elaine told Nona was basically impossible the other day, since we are the church).

When he “went to church” (still impossible) the music team was great, but he loved the music more than the worship. He just doesn’t relate to God that way. He says: “As far as connecting with God goes, I wasn’t feeling much of anything.” Then he highlighted, “ I used to feel guilty about this but to be honest, I experience an intimacy with God I consider strong and healthy.”

These are such “Miller comments” and such influential wormthoughts that I want to answer back. He keeps saying:

  • What I feel is paramount and defining.
  • I used to feel guilty.
  • My own estimation of my experience is how I decide what is healthy.

There is a lot to protest here, but you can do that as you please. I’ll just note that these thoughts are apparently supposed to be liberating. (They certainly are s&#! Americans say!). Miller has been “liberating” evangelicals all over the country for years as he wandered around finding himself and selling books. He made some good points in his youth, but then he became a philosopher and created a marketing firm to keep us listening to him. Somehow, his experience is supposed to be important to everyone he professionally tries to loop into his constituency.

He was really just dashing off some musings about how people learn different ways to feed his blog machine. But he couldn’t resist being a theologian when he told people to Tweet an incendiary phrase that would draw people to the blog; it was sort of a Christian version of Orlando Bloom getting naked so people will remember he’s an actor. He said:

“But I also believe the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.”

I doubt that more than 10% of Christians on the planet believe anything else. Why judge them all with your supposedly “personal” belief (shared by billions) that also sets up parameters for a special tribe who believe it like you (you more enlightened person that you are)?

He got what he wanted. A lot of people (like I am doing) responded to his post. So he wrote a follow up to defend himself. He began by apologizing for being “naïve” about how many people he might upset. He said,All I can offer is my perspective, which I do not offer as an answer, only a contribution to a discussion” — the same kind of argument your husband gives you when he doesn’t dare disagree with you to your face but is going to stonewall you. This is all in the name of openness, of course.

He then proceeded to go on a LONG theological rant about people who exhaustively teach “tribal” theologies, setting up all sorts of straw people to knock down. I honestly did not read it carefully, since I fall into a category (ironically) of a person who learns more by doing than by lecture — he wrote that he doesn’t listen to others because he’s not feeling it, but boy can he lecture!

I write mainly to protest the “gospel of me” that is the basis of Miller’s theology. His anti-consumerism consumerism. His anti-marketing marketing. His ex-evangelical but still principle-based teaching. His anti-pulpit pulpiteering. His brand-judging branding.

He’s just so judgmental in the name of being non-judgmental! The blog posts I reference drip with judgment, all in the name of being self-disclosing and so free from any accountability to the larger audience from which he profits. He is on a long list of people who have somehow managed to get a lot of people to care how they feel while providing almost no relationship of any merit that would warrant such a connection.

I long for true alternativity. Genuine faith. Real community. Actual caring. Devoted prayer and mission. I think we are going for that. Miller doesn’t help. I’m sure he has said something, somewhere that is great. But I am sure someone in your cell or your pastor voiced a similar, contextualized, unpackaged idea at some point that you could touch, and dispute, forgive and apply together. That’s better.

My Iraqi seat mate and the Golden Rule

The travel day began with the Zambians sending our new South African friend’s bag to Philadelphia and sending our beloved Bethany’s bag to some undetermined place. It ended with waiting in line for about an hour while the skeleton crew at customs processed us and a Hunger-Games-esque video from Homeland Security repeatedly welcomed us. In between, I watched movies on the plane and tried to sleep in between the baby screams. I watched most of Qatar Airline’s catalogue, I think. I even watched Deadpool, which I had been avoiding (even though no one else did — it has earned $761 million worldwide) – I admit it was clever and funny, even when vile. I think we were in the air for 22 hours, so there was even room for vile.

Burial place of Imam Ali in Najaf, Iraq

Near the end of the last leg of the journey, I finally met my row mate. I found out he was an Iraqi returning home to his job at a Red Lobster in Kentucky after attending his mother’s funeral in Najaf, home of Imam Ali’s shrine. When he arrived in Najaf he learned his visit would start with the funeral of his cousin, who had just been killed in an army battle. Eventually we talked about religion, since I also told him why I had been travelling. Part of that conversation is what I want to talk to you about, mainly.

After we both recounted our horror at the bombing campaigns that devastated Iraq at the beginnings of both wars (he evacuated just before the first), he brought up how people should treat each other like they would like to be treated, like it says in the Qur’an – and in the writings of all the other major religions. His version is that Allah is the one God, the same as the Jews and Christians, so we will all be judged by him for how we follow the rule. We had been talking about how refugees, especially in Palestine, never get the justice they want by repossessing their homes, even though everyone knows that they would hate to lose their homes, their friends, their feelings of belonging, and hate to have to work long hours at Red Lobster to buy a ticket to attend your mother’s funeral 6500 miles away.

It seemed, as usual, very tidy of him to sum up all the religions with one rule – the one thing they all seem to agree upon. And, in the case of Islam, to tidy things up with one Ruler who will judge people according to their capacity to fulfill the rule: “Allah knows best how long they stayed. With Him is (the knowledge of) the unseen of the heavens and the earth. How clearly He sees, and hears (everything)! They have no Wali (Helper, Disposer of affairs, Protector, etc.) other than Him, and He makes NONE to share in His Decision and His Rule” (Surah 18:2). In the end, the Moslem is judged according to their full submission to the way of Islam, and their deeds. Like many Christians do with Jesus, Muslims reduce the requirements of belief to following the rules and avoiding judgment — especially following the “golden rule,” since everyone thinks that makes sense.

The problem is, people are very bad at following the golden rule. Israelis are not giving people back the land they know the dispossessed want and Palestinians are not forgiving them for taking it. The people of the United States do not rise up in revolt because the government dropped 265,000 bombs on Iraq in 1991 and did not stop for twenty years, even though they would not like someone to do that to them. We keep learning the lesson, but never seem to get the application right. We don’t treat our children the way we wish we had been treated as a child. We don’t even treat ourselves the way we wish someone would treat us. Even when we think God is treating us well, we don’t love as we are loved. The whole thin plot of Deadpool was about his quest to get his mutated face restored so his girlfriend would not judge him ugly and reject him. He was sure she would not treat him well unless he was unjudgable; he is a realistic superhero.

Jesus repeats the common sense of the golden rule. Unlike in Islam or Buddhism, he is not giving people a maxim to sum up justice or balance, he is commanding the self-giving love he will demonstrate on the cross. Regardless, when he says it, it serves to point out just how badly we need a Savior. We all love the golden rule and long for it to be applied, but it never gets applied, even by those who are devoted to it. My Iraqi friend looked at me after he talked about Daesh squeezing into a crack in the system so they could get the power and money that the greedy rulers all want, and he said, “I just don’t see a way for this to change.”  I have been thinking of him saying that ever since.

I don’t know everything about Islam or all the other religions. I tend to feel generous about people seeking God from wherever they start. But I don’t think all the seeking merely leads to the need to follow the golden rule no one follows well. I think the seeking leads to Jesus whom God has made the final judge. Life is not about becoming good enough to love or not being bad enough to kill. The way Paul describes his experience with Jesus is that he has already received the mysteries of God and lives with a clear conscience. Not because he is perfectly knowledgeable or faithful, but because Jesus has poured out the love of God. That undeserved grace is holding back the end of time with its inherent judgment. We can live in the hope God gives us in the middle of our personal and corporate failures to follow what we all agree is the truth.

deadpool
Christ in Deadpool.

What I finally hear from pondering my conversation with this friendly Iraqi is that Jesus entrusts us with the golden rule, not condemns us with it. Like in the ending of Deadpool, Jesus removes the mask that hides our mutancy and kisses our scarred face, and the scarred soul that goes with it. Only that will undo whatever evil we have committed or will commit – like the impending sequel.

Is Circle of Hope “soft on sin?”

I was having a very nice stuffed chicken breast out in the burbs with two of my oldest friends on Saturday night and the subject turned to sin. Specifically, it turned to the gossip my friend had heard that Circle of Hope is “soft on sin.” I think I said, “Are you serious? That is still going around? You heard that?”

One time, a long time ago I think, one of the pastors at one of the Presby plants (purportedly) warned his people that Circle of Hope was soft on sin. People have been warning others about us ever since. The word came full circle to me over a nice dinner and my dear friend knew the source.

So our church has two reputations going around. If you look us up on Google, we look like we are hard on sin, since a loosely-connected slanderer unjustly tried to take us down in the City Paper one time (before it folded under its own weight of spurious reporting) for being hard on certain sins which are popular targets for legalistic Christians. Wasn’t true. But if you run into us in the Christian gossip mill, we apparently look like we are soft on sin, since they know of many instances when we have embraced people before they believed and they know we include people before they are moral. We work things out, not cut things off; we travel with people along their way, and don’t tell them they can join us when they get on our correct path. They are right about what we do, but they are wrong about what it means.

So I want to say a few things about our reputation, particularly about being “soft on sin.”

1) For one huge thing, what does “soft on sin” even mean?

What Christian ever had a call from God to be “hard” on sin?  And what person is not already hard on themselves because of their sin, even before some Christian tells them they are bad? Donald Trump acts like he is hard on sin, even as he is sinning! — but he apparently has a personality disorder.

If there is a sin the Bible calls us to be “hard” on it is probably the sin of presuming we can judge the righteousness of others! Paul says he does not even judge himself; and Jesus says to leave judgment to God. I think we are hard on the sin of being hard on sinners, such as ourselves. So, in the minds of some, that might make us “soft.“

did sin cause the division?2) Do Christians really have to compare one another?

Christians seem to treat each other like rival fast food franchises, don’t they? — “our righteousness is better quality, unlike those other people!” I wish it were not so. Comparisons are odious. It is not always easy, but I try to stay positive about the Christians who are not in my “camp.” There is often a particular genius I can admire. Presbyterians are stuck in their cave-in to modernism, but they are often great Bible teachers. The Pope fronts some of the greatest heresies ever normalized, but Catholics have a great system to teach contemplative prayer. Even though Ted Cruz grew up in one of the scariest fringe groups ever, I hear he is a pretty great husband. Much of the time the Brethren in Christ don’t know what to do with us, but our denomination’s historical synthesis is still theologically and practically brilliant.

But do any of the growing number of unbelievers in the United States care about the boundaries between the many variations of Christians? The ones I’ve met who know about them largely cite the differences as a good reason not to get involved with us.

3) Actually, we are very adept at dealing with sin.

One of our proverbs warns us: “Everyone is recovering from the sin addiction; expect conflict.” We are not afraid we will be tainted by sin because someone is sinning; we accept that everyone is bringing their version of sinfulness with them. There will be problems. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are all in our process, being tempted and coming to our fullness through the struggle. We are conflicted inside, and the whole church has a tendency to fight because sin is at work in us.

Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.But as the scripture goes on to say, the Spirit of God is also at work in us because Jesus has saved us. If some folks want to protect themselves from the “liberals” over at Circle of Hope, it will be a delusional task, since they are already infected with sin and their judgment demonstrates the fact. Likewise, if Circle of Hope people (like me) get super angry and self-righteous over the supposed attacks from people they have not met and sources they have not verified, then they will, likewise, be demonstrating how broken they really are. If any of us falls to following a new law or relying on our manuals of proper behavior, we will miss the freedom of forgiveness by which Paul goes on to say: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Some people thought Paul was “soft on sin” because he taught the truth of the gospel like that. Not so.

I hope I can get the same kind of criticism as Paul, now and then. It makes me feel like we are doing something worth noticing; so it is affirming in a back-handed way. This weekend, it was just rumors that I had heard before. I can hardly call a criticism based on hearsay an actual criticism, can I? It’s like an insult-once-removed. When I meet up with the slanderer in the age to come, we can work it all out with joy. Until then, I hope to be as “soft on sin” as the One who shared mine, died to undo it, and raised me to walk around consciously wounded by it but also transcendent.