Of Hypocrites and Judges

Bill Maher makes a good case for the idea that Christians are judgmental hypocrites. I know it is a good case because so many people use it as the basis for their relationship to the church. It is the reason many people I know who used to go to church don’t anymore. The argument is plastered between the lines of Pew Research Polls, and even ordained Elders in the United Methodist Church find themselves on the ropes defending congregations whose attitudes towards the poor, the disreputable, and the criminal better line up with the attitudes of the Economy than they do with Paul (Romans 2).

On the one hand we Christians publicly denounce Muslims such as Malala Yousafzai and Eboo Patel as violent people who adhere to a violent religion, while on the other we are more supportive of torture as a tool of national security than non-religious people. We proclaim an ethic of life while supporting church policies that shame people into closets, prisons, and suicide because we can’t wrap our prudish minds around intimacies that are not our own.

Hypocrisy really is not too difficult to prove.

But what about the judgmental part?

Over the course of our history, The United Methodist Church has made headlines while wrangling whether we are guilty of heterosexism or guilty of failing to sanctify sexual sin. We have held trials, requested declaratory rulings from our Judicial Council, and processed a variety of complaints in attempts at what we call “just resolutions.” People in these processes are accompanied by counsel and, in the case of trials, there are even juries and rulings by precedent. While members of the church swing widely between those who want to see church law evenly applied and upheld and those who believe some laws are unjust and must be confronted with civil disobedience, the whole of the church seems to believe deeply in the rule of law.

Our whole method of accountability is built on judgment.

The Rev. Anna Blaedel here in Iowa is undergoing just such a process of official judgment. A few months ago, some people here in Iowa decided they had to “complain” about Reverend Blaedel, and our Bishop, Julius Trimble, decided that complaint had merit. I presume the complaint was made and received because there are a couple of sentences in our book of church law that say Anna Blaedel, an out, partnered, queer clergyperson, is incapable of bearing fruit, of shining Christ, of discipling others, or of being entrusted to care for the souls of those people the denomination appoints under their charge.

Which is all well in good, except that those statements are demonstrably false. Whether or not our book says they can, I have witnessed Anna Blaedel balming broken souls. Whether or not our book says they can, I have witnessed Anna Blaedel’s teaching inspire others to commit to a life in Christ. Whether or not our book says they can, I have experienced the passage of Grace through Anna Blaedel’s hands into my own flagging spirit and faith.

The Reverend Anna Blaedel is one of those rare, shining souls whose very presence breathes peace and wholeness. They live a life of faithful dedication and unwavering discipline. They exude Holy Spirit. I knew Anna by name before I ever met them. I knew they were brave, kind, compassionate, authentic, deliberate and special simply by the ripples they left in their wake; from their parents, from my husband, from the children at Collegiate United Methodist Church in Ames, from members of the Osage First United Methodist Church. Over and over and over again, Anna is described as a “beautiful” soul, and that soul ignites and rekindles faith, hope, love, joy, compassion, peacefulness, patience, generosity and kindness in others.

What is that if not fruit? What is that if not ministry? What is that if not a God-given Gift, and what does it mean that the United Methodist Church wants to cast that Giftedness out of its circles?

Bill Maher would say it means we are judgmental hypocrites.

But you know what? Finally, I don’t think it is that we are judgmental, even if we are hypocrites. I think it is that we fear Judgment. People who are filled with faith and the Holy Spirit shine on us, and in that shining, our own meannesses and cruelties become visible. What we thought was our loving is shown to be conditional contracts where we exchange power and control. What we thought was our generosity is shown to be mere grudging pity. What we thought was our hopefulness is a thin veneer of sentiment layered over fear.

It is their shining that exposes our nakedness and it is our own flawed relationship with Christ that has us cowering in fear. John said it,

“The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” (NASB)

And later,

“This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. 21But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God.” (NIV)

In many ways, the whole of John’s Gospel spins the story of how desperate people are to escape that Light, to stay out of its beam. So desperate they took their hammers and nails and saws and baseball bats to tear it down and smash it to bits. What makes us think we are any different than those people in John’s Gospel? What makes us think we are immune to the fear? That we are ready and able and happy to stand in Christ’s Shining?

I don’t think it is in judgment that we are casting out our Anna Blaedels. I do not think we are even doing it because we actually deem them unworthy. I think we are casting them out because we deem ourselves unworthy. We do not hate them because we see some kind of darkness in their living. We hate them because we cast shadows in their light.

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Be Not Conformed. Be Transformed

Often, a church can think too small when it comes to music.  Unlike a community choir, the church  has to prepare lots of different music every week.  It doesn’t get months of practice with auditioned singers. It usually gets one too-short rehearsal on Wednesday night with a group of brave people willing to say, “I think I can.”  That makes the church musician get very practical.  Rather than having a library full of multicultural and historical literature from which to browse, the church musician is often given a Scripture reference and a hymn book or filing cabinet full of music that has been purchased by the church and performed by the choir (or bells or praise band) before.

Unfortunately, that rush to prepare and present music that works often leaves a church’s musical expression rather anemic and often dated.  At a recent conference, N. Graham Standish suggested that real Christianity happens when a church can shift from the functional to the formational.  I see this in the music of many churches.  We get so caught up in making sure worship will work (function), we never get around to making sure worship has an impact (formation).

As Christians, one of our central ideas is one of transformation.  We expect to encounter the Divine and we expect that encounter will change us in some fundamental way.  If you read an interview with any conductor or teacher of music, you will hear an echo of this idea: music has the ability to change us in fundamental ways. In other words, both Christianity and music cause change in form, appearance or structure (transformation).  Their very natures kind of contradict the idea of reproducibility.

Let me tell you the story of a piece of music and a small, Midwestern church.  I was working atFirst Christian Church (DOC) in Ames, IA as the choir director and music planner.   A common theological theme at that church is environmentalism. Weekly worship planning often included some lament that there weren’t a wide variety of songs about creation care in our hymnal, and in scouring the internet and other resources, I began to think that the only Christians to have ever responded to our complex human relationships with the planet were Maltbie Babcock and Eleanor Farjeon.

Enter Paul Winter.  In my time there, several people had pointed me toward a hymn called “The Blue Green Hills of Earth.”  A musician tracked down a Unitarian Universalist hymnal and we added this song to our repertoire of congregation music.  Then a member of my choir gave me a cd of Missa Gaia(Earth Mass), compiled by Paul Winter from work he did at St. John the Divine Cathedral in New York with his group the Winter Consort.  I took it home and listened.  I was struck by a few things:  1).  The choir parts were very singable-they were the kind of four part harmony that my choir was capable of producing.  2) The music was modern.  It used a lot of jazz harmony and technique as well as some interesting global rhythms. 3) It was a sacred piece of music with a message that matched my church’s concern.  4) There were not enough singers in my choir to sing all of the parts.

I began to plot and ponder, and a concert was born.  We worked for months to gather enough musicians and singers.  We invited Mary Swander, Poet Laureate of Iowa, to present readings.  We included a local children’s chorus under the direction of Dr. Sylvia Munson.  We pushed ourselves to advertise the concert as widely as we could-beyond the bulletin and word of mouth within the church community.  We even went so far as to purchase a large yard sign so drivers going by the church could see what we were doing.  The Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill happened, and we had a real reason to respond.   We decided to make this a free concert to the community and to gather donations for Gulf Coast clean up efforts.

In a church with a rudimentary sound system, basic lighting and no screen, we were able to pull together a visual presentation, record a DVD and provide visual interest using levels, plants, and baskets.  We had no funding from the church budget, so we paid for this concert through support of community members, calling in favors from friends, and the amazing generosity of top-notch presenters and technicians who offered their services free or at a ridiculously low rate.  We worked our church connections to recruit singers from other choirs, and we asked people from the community, Christian or not, to come and sing.

We performed our concert, and it was a great success.  The turnout was large, the music went well, and people donated generously to the Audubon Society.  I would have been pleased if that were all we saw from that project, but there was and is more.  The music we strove so passionately to hammer out, entered us.  Every time someone mentions St. Francis of Assisi, I begin to hum “All praise be yours through brother sun.”  Whenever I participate in an act of repentance, I hear the tritone intervals of wolves howling as children sing “Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us.”  Whenever Christ is called the Lamb, I hear the harp seals singing the “Agnus Dei” movement, animals as helpless and white as newborn sheep.

I remember the faith my church had: to do something it had never done before; to learn music that is not in its Chalice Hymnal; to express its belief not just within its own walls but outside on the streets of its town.

I remember the growth my singers had: giving more than a Wednesday night to rehearsals; trying out rhythms and harmonies that were HARD; learning to rely on themselves individually to carry difficult parts and to take leadership.  I remember the fruit that bore in worship: as songs that used to be hard became easier and as a new engagement with the meanings of lyrics and musical expression started to show up.

I remember love.  It is hard not to find common ground with people beside whom you have struggled and accomplished.  We cancelled and rescheduled.  We used carpentry skills we didn’t know we had.  We cared for babies and singers who became ill.  We bore with one another’s crazy schedules and the toll that took on rehearsal numbers, and when it came right down to it, everyone involved stepped up and offered themselves to the possibility of criticism and ridicule.

We worked together and we relied on one another and in the end, we spoke truth and love to the community.  Despite emails that called us Marxists, Communists, Anti-Christian, and Evil;  despite a perception from some church-goers that we weren’t singing Christian ideas; despite a discomfort with music that was untried and new, we finally expressed the church’s understanding of Christ to a world that needed to hear.

If you find that your church’s music is somehow lacking in Spiritual vitality, I suggest thinking bigger.  Think past Sunday morning.  Think outside the size of your praise band or budget.  Think around the limitations imposed by words like “appropriate,” “well-known,” and “easy to sing.”  Think across and into another denomination’s hymnody.  Dare I suggest thinking yourself into another faith’s literature?  Think about including secular music in the process of developing worship opportunities.  Not every week, and not all the time.  Just sometimes, try to “let” something happen in your music ministry, rather than “making” it happen, and see what transformations might be born.

Dear Church

Church, if we just decided to be The Church, there is so much WORLD to which we could be attending*

For the life of me, I cannot figure out why we don’t want to.

Instead, we want members. We want people to come to our church events. We want people to like our linoleum and our pastors. We want to entertain, sustain, enliven, and energize public crowds, but we are not as good at that as are the stadiums, restaurants, dance clubs, and farmer’s markets. Instead what we want is a secure compound with a secret tunnel into Heaven for the day the zombie hordes finally breach the wall. Except, we aren’t very good at administering that, either.

You know what we are good at, though?

Theology.

Hugs and empathy in a world which celebrates toughness and stoicism.

Preparing and sharing food in ways which make everyone feel like a friend.

Talking about the dead, and holding hands with the dying. The worst experience in the world is a death devoid of meaning and a funeral among people without a faith.

Being friends with murderers. Don’t believe me? Read about United Methodist Bishop Ntambo Nkulu Ntanda, and Jürgen Moltmann .

Feeding strangers-even the dirty, crazy, lazy, unworthy ones.

Communion.

Entrusting the management of our organization to the hands of just about anybody who comes through our doors.

Honoring sheep.

And what resources do we have to help us offer these gifts to our neighborhoods and communities?

Houses and churches-empty or underused spaces which we can employ free of charge; and they are in every town in Iowa. Some of them were even built where there is not a town.

If we could wrap our heads around it, we have a shared bank account with tens, hundreds, thousands, and through the Connection, millions of other people. (This in a culture which rewards people that hoard, hide, and password protect every possible resource they can get their hands on.)

Families that are not related by blood-we have cousins, grandparents, children, parents, and siblings to spare.

Oodles of people with time, flexible schedules, and unique life experiences who can bridge the space between faith communities and their local School Boards, Chambers of Commerce, Housing Authorities, Hospital Administrations, Parent-Teachers’ Associations, Insurance Companies, Retail Stores and Sports Booster Clubs.

Hands on opportunities for people to gain experience in:

Fine Arts, Business Administration, Volunteer Management, Computer Literacy, Grant Writing, Journalism, Audio/Visual Technology, Public Speaking, Financial Management, Web Design, Systems and Information Technology, Spreadsheets, Wood Working, Plumbing, Electrical, Auto Mechanics, Nursing, Meeting Management and Facilitation, History, Humanities, Social Studies, Biology, Food Science, Event Planning, Hospitality, International Relations, Cultural Exchange . . . 

A story that always ends with a Beginning.

The world has issues. The world has problems. The world has patriotism, politics, and Oscar nominations to worry about.

You know what we have? We have the memory of God. And that memory, that reminder of who and whose we are, it has the power to do nothing less than transform the world. What would you rather spend your time attending to?

Homesick

Monday night, my significant other and I worshiped with AfterHours Denver, a United Methodist Church which meets in a bar and lives into the motto: Love More, Laugh More, Judge Less. That night, a member of the AfterHours community shared about how serving peanut butter and jelly sandwiches in Civic Center Park every Tuesday for the last three years has changed his life. During the message, there was time for people to talk with those around them. There were five of us at the table, strangers when we sat down, and by the end of the discussion time I had received these amazing stories of how AfterHours had changed the lives of those seated there-given meaning, made a difference, touched Divinity.

One man shared that he did not know the Bible very well, but that he experienced the love of Christ every time he made eye contact with someone at the park. Another shared that it had taken almost a year of weekly visits to the park before the folks there trusted AfterHours enough to come and receive. He seemed humbled and grateful to have been given that trust. At the end of service, people hung around for about an hour of fellowship. During that time, three other people dropped by my table to share about AfterHours. I could tell that AfterHours is the highlight of the week for many there: an evening of deep connection, Spiritual engagement and an open environment for questions and religious seeking.

I experienced a similar vibe at a Sunday School class in an Iowa United Methodist Church whose members requested that I not share their names or location. The Sunday I attended, there were about 13 people at that class. There were people ranging in age from 17 to . . well, it probably would not be polite to say. The group was sharing with me a mission project they had taken on a couple of years ago. The members of the group had read Max Lucado’s Outlive Your Life: You Were Born to Make a DifferenceThe book had spurred a desire to do something more than simply read and discuss books. They started looking for ways to make a difference.

Inspired by a story they read in a newspaper, they decided to take up a collection. The money was then given to one member of the group who was tasked with keeping an eye open for a way to help out someone in the community. No strings, no names, no credit-simply to use that money to make someone’s day better or to help someone with a difficult situation. That member would report back to the group and the next month, a different member of the class is given the money to give away.

I sat for over an hour as the members of the class shared the ways they had been moved to touch their neighbors’ lives with the money their group collected: a family swimming pass, a Wal-Mart gift card, paint for someone whose home was damaged in a flood. The magic, they said, is in being anonymous. One woman shared how transforming it is to be used by God. Their words and stories tumbled over one another as they joyfully shared not only their own stories, but the stories from others in the group.

Their pastor said that the excitement that Sunday School class generates has had a significant impact even on the church members who don’t attend the class. It has created a bit of contagious generosity and has raised the congregation’s self-esteem, but the members of the class are clear: participating in this ministry is not about them being generous benefactors. It is about being people called by God to make a difference, and the overwhelming generosity of God in supplying opportunities and resources to make that difference.

At a visit to Broadway United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, someone asked me how I liked the church. I said, “This will probably sound odd, but being here makes me feel homesick.” He said, “Not at all, Sister. You know what homesick is, don’t you? It is the feeling you get when you remember what it feels like to be loved.” I experienced that same homesickness in both Denver and that Iowa Sunday school class. It is the feeling, or thirst, if you will, that calls me into discipleship and out into the world with whatever of Christ I can manage to share.

I wonder where it is that you experience that “homesickness,” that feeling you get when you remember what it feels like to be loved. Do you find it in your church on Sunday morning or Saturday night? Do you experience it at your workplace or in your Sunday school? Maybe you encounter it while stocking shelves at the pantry or serving meals through some sort of outreach. Does it encourage you to protest and to disrupt? Does it keep you from losing hope when all the media knows to feed you is bad news?

If not, seek it out, because God is in it. Christ inhabits the homesick you feel when it isn’t home you’re missing, and the Holy Spirit breathes through communities of people all living into that same hope: a world where we can love more, laugh more and judge less.

On Earth As It Is in Heaven

250px-The_Civil_Rights_Memorial,_Montgomery,_ALI was recently asked, “What on earth or in heaven does ‘Climate Justice’ have to do with winning souls for Christ?”

This question has been sticking with me, mostly because the connection seems obvious to me yet clearly was not to the person who asked. I think the question also points to some of the other responses that come my way: suggestions that advocacy, mission, social witness, and civic activism are politically motivated rather than that they are rooted in a commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

In searching for a response to this question, I googled social justice and evangelism to see what other people had to offer. There are a lot of perspectives out there, and a great deal of intellectual and theological debate. Not surprisingly, most of the articles I found suggest that social justice and evangelism are either/or forms of discipleship, and that to be for one kind of discipleship is to be against the other. But I think that assumption is a false one.

Maybe, then, I  need to turn the original question on its side. Maybe it is not so much a “what” question, as it is a “how” question. So how do I answer Jesus’ command to go and make disciples, and why does writing about [Climate] Justice matter?

My first motivation to do as Jesus asks is that I love God. That love was born at the bottom of a hill in my home town, from a completely irrational and altogether mind-shattering revelation of God’s prevenient grace. Even before I knew God, I heard the call to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. That call has only gotten stronger and more life-giving as I have pursued Christ.

As I look at the world I live in, I see not only that there are  poor, imprisoned, blind and oppressed souls that have not yet heard the good news, but also that  there are pervasive diseases and afflictions that continue to impoverish, torture, maim, and burden human beings and beloved creatures all across the planet.  Diseases and afflictions, evils, injustices and oppression, which would make a liar of God and a mockery of salvation.  So, while it is true that Jesus tells us to go and baptize, he also gives us power and authority to heal every kind of disease and illness.

That is why, for me, the commission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world is a call to systemic, social transformation, “to build a world where love can grow and hope can enter in,” as one of my favorite songs puts it. [Welcome (Let’s Walk Together)]

And I do not think we are left alone to do this. The Holy Spirit and God’s grace not only make us right for this work, but also make us holy to do it. And by actually living into Christ’s call on our souls-a plea to go to the prisoners, the sick and dying, the broken and demon-ridden among us and to love neighbors, strangers, enemies, and creation itself so much that we would give our only child simply to set it right-we might actually see the Reign of God.

So, to offer an answer to the question as to what on earth or in heaven  ‘Climate Justice’ has to do with winning souls for Christ, I want to answer that for myself, I see the connection most strongly every time I pray the prayer we have been taught:

Our Father, which art in heaven,
hallowed be thy name;
thy kingdom come;
thy will be done,
in earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
as we forgive those that trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation;
but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom,
the power, and the glory,
for ever and ever.
Amen.