Waiting for the Sunrise

One of my favorite places in the world is Silver Bay, NY. I’ve had the privilege to travel there for gatherings of folks doing Christian ministry in and through the YMCA. The Silver Bay YMCA is a beautiful, sacred space of peace. Nestled on the shore of Lake George in the Adirondack Mountains, the hiking and scenery are awe-inspiring.

One of the regular highlights of my journeys to Silver Bay is a hike to Jabez Pond (or Jabe’s Pond depending on which sign you read and who you are talking to!). You hike to the top of the mountain and there it is…an incredibly beautiful and clear pond!

Jabez (or Jabe’s) Pond

The last time I was there, we took the scenic route back to the lodge. This lead us to a point called Sunrise Mountain. We happened to arrive at Sunrise Mountain about the time the sun was beginning to set. Our group posed for pictures and took in the breathtaking view. Caught up in the splendor, I found myself clapping in awe. It was a strange and unexpected reaction.

Sunrise Mountain at sunset.

While our group made our way from Sunrise Mountain back to the lodge, we talked about the beauty of what we just witnessed. At some point, a member of our team said, “You know, if it was that amazing at sunset, imagine what Sunrise Mountain must look like at, you know, sunrise!” Our group made plans to gather at the flagpole near the lodge at 5am in order to give ourselves time to get back to the top of Sunrise Mountain.

It’s amazing how 8-12 hours can drastically change what we see. As the sun began to appear above the mountains, the darkness quickly shifted to light. Colors that were muted at sunset came to life. Things that were unseen at sunset were illuminated by the sunrise.

Sunrise Mountain as the sun begins to rise!

While we were looking at the same view, the position of the sun revealed different things. The beauty and grandeur of the mountains and lake were the same and yet different. The location of the light greatly impacted our view. As the sun rose, I once again found myself clapping in response. I guess it was my way of saying, “Well done!”

In order to take in the beauty of the sunrise, we had to wait. On our first trip, we arrived at Sunrise Mountain when the sun was behind us.

I believe there are times when we get ahead of the light. When the light is behind us, we might miss some of the beauty hiding in the shadows.

Have you ever found yourself at a point where the sun, the guiding light is behind you? Maybe you need to turn around in order to follow the light? Maybe we just need to wait for the sun to rise?

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light. ~ John 1:5

Sunrise Mountain just after the sunrise.

Like Dung on a Diamond

Warning: The following blog will be a little religious rambling…

I like to think of myself as a student of culture – mostly religious culture – well, mostly Christian culture – because that’s the world I live in. As a student of Christian culture, I’m noticing two interesting shifts.

One of the shifts getting a decent amount of attention within the Christian subculture is deconstruction. Depending on your particular theological perspective, deconstruction is either seen as a positive or negative practice.

From the negative point of view, folks view deconstruction as trading in Christian moral values for secular ideals. In other words, you can’t be involved in deconstruction and be a good Christian. This point of view is built on the foundation of absolute truth – and unchecked authority of fallible human leaders. Questions, doubts and searching for answers outside the approved platforms is seen as a threat to the institution.

From the positive point of view, folks view deconstruction as peeling away those unhelpful things that have been added to the Gospel message of Jesus. Folks find themselves questioning things that have been sold as “absolute truth.” They find themselves questioning the unchecked authority of their leaders. They find themselves questioning, doubting and searching for answers that lead them to resources outside the approved platforms.

I, for one, benefited from deconstruction over 25 years ago. Through a series of questions, doubts and searching for answers, I discovered that the heart of Jesus and the foundation of His message is simple…Love.

To get to that point, I had to weed through a lot of the legalistic values that were drilled into my understanding of faithful religious practice…”don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t go with girls who do, and don’t dance.” While these rules made us well-behaved Christians, they really missed the heart of Jesus – and took some great interpretive liberties with Scripture. You see, I found myself in a spot where the messages I was hearing conflicted with the message of Jesus I was discovering in the Bible.

The process of deconstruction was very lonely. I didn’t feel comfortable talking about my questions and doubts because everyone around me seemed so certain. I didn’t talk about some of conflicts I saw between the Bible and the religious practice of the American Church because everyone seemed to just buy into it. I felt like there was something wrong with me.

Then, in the late nineties, I attended a conference and heard Brian McLaren address some of the very questions, doubts and conflicts I was wrestling with. I felt a certain freedom and immediate community with others who were attempting to scale back a great deal of the unnecessary baggage that had been imposed on Christianity. A couple of years later, I sat in a hotel suite with Doug Pagitt, Tony Jones and Andrew Jones (we were in a suite because the convention center for the conference was maxed out on space…the whole experience was a trip…as Doug Pagitt gave his seminar while relaxing on a king-size bed), and found more kindred spirits. At last, I felt the freedom and permission to pursue Jesus without all of the strings attached.

Today, many evangelicals are working their way through the process of deconstruction. The last 5-8 years, especially within American evangelical Christianity, have revealed the unhealthy joining of political platforms and religion. Many devoted evangelical leaders have convinced their followers that allegiance to a particular political party trumps all other allegiances (including, but not limited to, Jesus).

Pair this with the moral failure of far too many evangelical “celebrity pastors” (which, that whole concept is problematic), the narrow focus on “absolute truth” (which is defined by fallible humans), and the desire to hold positions of power (and control), the movement has unintentionally created the perfect platform for deconstruction.

And, that just scratches the surface of the deep dive many deconstructionists are taking.

There’s a metaphorical story that is often attributed to Thomas Jefferson, and has been retold by countless theologians and missiologists, that compares the Gospel to a diamond on a dung hill. So, the diamond sits on top of the dung hill and begins rolling down. Eventually, there’s more dung than diamond. But, underneath all the filth of the dung, there’s still a diamond. At some point, someone comes along and cleans the dung off the diamond and discovers something beautiful.

Deconstruction should not be feared. Deconstruction is the practice of cleaning the dung off the diamond. Through deconstruction, people are able to get back to the heart of the Gospel and discover that so much of what we’ve added to our religious practice has been more harmful and hurtful than helpful. When the excess is removed, something beautiful can be rediscovered.

The other shift is in response to deconstruction. As American evangelical leaders see folks rejecting what they have created, as they see folks questioning their system, as they see increasing numbers of folks walking away from the faith, they have doubled down.

Rather than using this rise in deconstruction as an opportunity for inward reflection and institutional evaluation and renewal, far too many are simply adding to the legalistic expectations of their folks. They are calling for stronger ties to political platforms, as they believe the long-term sustainability of their institution is directly tied to the success of their preferred political party. In many ways, they are attempting to smear more dung onto the diamond.

For those evangelicals deconstructing, here’s a suggestion from an old dude who began his season of deconstruction over 25 years ago…find a mainline congregation in your neighborhood. Listen, I know that mainliners have been viewed as “wishy washy” Christians, but let this be a place of healing and hope.

You see, while the style of worship will most likely be incredibly different than what you are used to (because, let’s be honest, if there’s one thing the evangelicals do well, it’s offering excellent contemporary worship), the theology, doctrine and commitment to both personal holiness and social justice will be refreshing. The commitment to creating a safe and welcoming place for all people will be refreshing. A focus on love and grace over legalism will be refreshing.

I believe there is hope to be found in Catholic, Evangelical, Orthodox and Mainline churches (and any other churches I failed to mention).

I believe God can and does use all kinds of Christian churches (conservative, moderate and progressive) to reach people with the Good News of Jesus Christ.

But, I just want to be sure that those going through a season of deconstruction know that there are safe and welcoming places for you. Much of what I hear my friends deconstructing their faith say they are looking for can be found in existing congregations. You aren’t alone. You don’t have to start from scratch. Having a supportive community around you while you go through this journey is important. There’s nothing wrong with questions and doubts…that’s often how we grow.

There’s nothing wrong with getting the dung off the diamond.

The Asterisk Christian

Growing up, my parents, teachers, school administrators, pastors, coaches, and generally anyone in a position of leadership, authority or influence taught me that “honesty is the best policy.”

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found that for far too many, “honesty” has numerous interpretations and definitions. For many, whether in the Church, the political or business sphere, a commitment to honesty should probably come with an asterisk (*).

“The whole truth and nothing but the truth,” seems to be lacking in our world today. We tell the parts of the truth that we are comfortable telling. We tell the parts of the truth that won’t convict us. We tell the parts of the truth that make us look like the hero…or the victim when that may be advantageous.

We hear leaders, in the Church, in business and politics boldly proclaim, “I didn’t do it.” Then, when it is revealed that they did do it, the defense is, “Well, I did it. But, no one was injured and it wasn’t illegal.” Then, when it is revealed that someone was injured and it was illegal, the defense is, “Well, sure that person was injured and it was illegal, but ‘so-and-so’ did it too!”

As followers in the way of Jesus, I believe an essential characteristic should be a commitment to telling the truth. Being upfront, honest and leading with integrity should be a “no brainer.” However, it’s not always the case.

One of the ways I’ve seen this played out in the Church is the “old bait and switch.”

We present an image of welcome, inclusion and hospitality, but…

And, whatever follows the “but” is generally going to be less than welcoming, inclusive or hospitable.

So, I think churches should just be honest and start adding some asterisks to various statements.

All are welcome.*

We love you.*

Everyone has a place at our table.*

Because, let’s be honest for a moment, so many pastors and congregations proclaim, “all are welcome.” However, do we truly mean “all?” Do we mean the person who we just spent 30-minutes preaching a sermon condemning their lifestyle? Do we mean the person we just avoided in the parking lot because of their outward appearance? Do we mean the person who votes differently than we do? Do we mean the person who makes us uncomfortable? Do we mean the young teenage parents who came looking for assistance?

You see, if we were simply honest and utilized the power of the asterisk, we could eliminate some confusion.

I had a friend who was really engaged in a “hip and trendy” congregation. The music was awesome. The messages were inspiring. But, as my friend started getting more involved, he also started digging deeper. As he began to ask questions and read through the hard to find statements of belief, he discovered that what was being presented on Sunday morning wasn’t quite consistent with the foundational beliefs of the church.

But, he still enjoyed the fellowship of the community. He still enjoyed the music. He still found the messages inspirational. But, he couldn’t shake the whole idea that something was being pulled over on him. He shared with me, “I mean, I started to discover that the messages were inspiring, yet the pastors were saying a lot without saying anything at all. They never just came right out and said, ‘this is what we believe.’ Things were always a little wishy-washy and the leaders were non-committal when asked direct questions. I just wish they would be honest.”

Now, to give some grace, I’m sure they weren’t intentionally being dishonest. They just knew what subjects to avoid. And, to be honest, I’ve been guilty of the exact same thing. I’ve played the, “you need to pray about this and come to your own conclusion” card. I’ve used the non-committal tactic of saying, “well, some people believe this about that,” without revealing what I or my denomination believe about this or that.

My friend shared that the leaders in the church would proclaim, “All are welcome,” but then had a very strong statement on traditional marriage. So, would members of the LGBT community feel welcome if they knew the church leaders didn’t recognize the validity of their relationship? That’s a really difficult one that we are navigating in the United Methodist Church right now. If we say “all people are of sacred worth,” but then follow that statement with clarifications…do we really believe “all people are of sacred worth?”

As another example, my friends church would proclaim, “Everyone has a seat at the table,” but then had a very clear statement limiting the role of women in ministry. So, you are welcome to participate. You can sit next to your husband. But, please, know your role. Hmm…

I believe that asterisk Christianity limits our capacity to love as Jesus calls us to love. While I believe the use of an asterisk could be helpful in communicating what a church really believes, I am one who believes the Church should be looking for ways to erase our asterisks…we should be looking for ways to eliminate our “buts…”

In the continued spirit of honesty, every church, even my church…perfect as it may be…has asterisks and “buts.” We all have to do the deep dive to determine what our asterisks and “buts” happen to be. Then, we need to submit and surrender our asterisks and “buts” to God.

People will argue and say, “We need to show tough love. Those asterisks and ‘buts’ are there for a reason. We have to be strong in our message against sin. We have to be faithful to my preferred interpretation of God’s Word.”

The reality is, we use our asterisks and “buts” as a tool to exclude and divide. We use our asterisks and “buts” as a way to make ourselves feel better about ourselves.

I would suggest that maybe we should be committed to following in the way of Jesus. He was never one to pull the old bait and switch. Jesus was someone who followed the wisdom my grandmother has often shared, “Say what you mean and mean what you say.”

If we compare Jesus to asterisk Christianity…who did Jesus exclude? Who did he include? Who was he harsh with? Who was he gentle with?

Asterisk Christians tend to be harsh with those Jesus showed compassion, patience, grace, mercy and love.

Asterisk Christians tend to be gentle with those Jesus was harsh and critical.

Jesus was direct and a bit harsh with the law and order crowd. His “woe to you statements” were directed at the religious elite. When he said “your hearts are far,” he was addressing those who were most interested in keeping up appearances. He pointed out to the pious religious that they were misguided, they were missing the point, they were out of line. He called them out for imposing legalistic rules and regulations they weren’t willing to follow.

Yes, he addressed sin…but, he did so with love, grace, gentleness and inclusion. Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well was controversial- his disciples were confused and maybe a bit offended when they found him talking to her. When Jesus ate with tax collectors and notorious sinners, it drove the religious crowd nuts. But, he approached those who needed him most with gentleness, love and grace. This, and not the legalistic judgment of the religious elite, is what led to transformation.

These days, asterisk Christian’s are too concerned about not offending those Jesus offended. As a result, we’ve focused on offending those Jesus offered love, grace, peace and comfort. We aren’t bold in prophetic words because it might disrupt the status quo. We don’t address institutional sin because it might negatively impact the offering. So, we direct our attention to “those people” because it’s safe.

We talk about LGBT issues, but are quiet when it comes to adultery and divorce. We talk about abortion, but are quiet about capital punishment and war. We talk about family values, but ignore the care of our creation. We talk about school curriculum and book bans, but are silent about providing food, shelter and affordable healthcare.

Asterisk Christians are too often focused on comfort and the status quo…that reflects very little of the risk-taking nature of the kind of faith Jesus demonstrated. He called us to shoulder our cross…but we’re too busy focusing on the plank in our neighbors eyes.

Maybe the first steps to removing our asterisks involve a radical commitment to loving God, loving our neighbors and even loving our enemies?

I know I have plenty of asterisks and “buts.” But, I plan on doing the hard work of submitting and surrendering those asterisks and “buts” so I can love others well.

They Will Know Us By Our Campaign Slogans???

Warning…this post has political undertones. It will likely offend some. I’m not trying to tell anyone how to vote (or whether or not to vote). I’m just encouraging us to be discerning, as we are “sheep among wolves” and called to be “wise as serpents and harmless as doves.” So, please remember, sometimes wolves wear “church clothes.”

In my local area, many political candidates are running on a “God, Life, Freedom, & Guns” platform. Many are going out of their way to communicate that they are professing Christians…and that is why they are for “God, Life, Freedom, & Guns.”

One candidate has placed a verse on campaign signs. If one takes the time to look up the verse, it’s about the righteous and wicked. In other words, “a vote for me is a vote for the righteous. A vote for my opponent (who is running on a very similar platform) is a vote for the wicked.”

If one takes the time to look at the platforms and agendas of these candidates, it’s difficult to find where the “God/Christian” part comes in. I’m sure they are all wonderful folks, faithful members of their local congregations, and truly believe they are “doing the Lord’s work.”

However, I see very little of Jesus within these faith-professing campaigns.

It almost seems like they are using their “faith in Christ” as a way to manipulate voters.

Running on platforms that instill fear, are based on unproven conspiracies, and diminish the value of the vulnerable and marginalized does not seem in line with the God I’ve encountered in Scripture.

Personal freedom over humble, loving service doesn’t sound very Christ-like.

Gaining easier access to firearms (when Jesus told his followers to “put away” their weapons…and the prophets tell of a day when weapons will be beaten into plowshares) doesn’t sound like the Jesus I’ve spent the majority of my life following and studying.

Pro-life agendas that support capital punishment while also calling for reducing access to affordable healthcare, quality education, food and housing assistance programs doesn’t really reflect the heart of the Gospel or seem all that interested in promoting the wellbeing of all lives (see Matthew 25:31-46 if you want a refresher on the far-reaching Gospel call of what it really means to be pro-life). Seriously, it’s time that we start saying “pro-birth” rather than “pro-life.”

“Freedom” platforms that ban books, place educators on notice, ignore the realities of history and privilege, fuel racism and try to negate the very existence of our LGBTQIA neighbors seems to miss the whole “love God, love neighbor, love enemies” teaching of Jesus.

So, before we jump on the bandwagon of a candidate because they profess faith in Jesus, make sure you look at the fruit (or at least the fruit they propose) they produce.

Now, some quotes from Shane Claiborne’s book “Jesus for President,” to show there’s at least one other crazy radical Christian out there…

“Christianity is at its best when it is peculiar, marginalized, suffering, and it is at its worst when it is popular, credible, triumphal, and powerful…

The greatest sin of political imagination: Thinking there is no other way except the filthy rotten system we have today…

We vote every day for companies, for people, and we put money toward ‘campaigns.’ We need to think of the faces behind the scenes. Who are the masters and Caesars that we pledge allegiance to by the way we live and through the things we put our trust in? We vote every day with our feet, our hands, our lips, and our wallets. We are the vote for the poor. We are to vote for the peacemakers. We are to vote for the marginalized, the oppressed, the most vulnerable of our society. These are the ones Jesus voted for, those whom every empire had left behind, those whom no millionaire politician will represent…

The danger is that we can begin to read the Bible through the eyes of America rather than read America through the eyes of the Bible. We just want Jesus to be a good American…

The church is a people called out of the world to embody a social alternative that the world cannot know on its own terms. We are not simply asking the government to be what God has commissioned the church to be. After all, even the best government can’t legislate love. We can build hundreds of units of affordable housing (a good thing by the way) and people still might not have homes. We can provide universal health care and keep folks breathing longer (another nice move), but people can be breathing and still not truly be alive. We can create laws to enforce good behavior, but no law has ever changed a human heart or reconciled a broken relationship. The church is not simply suggesting political alternatives. The church is embodying one. The idea that the church is to be the body of Christ is not just something to read about in theology books and leave for the scholars to pontificate about. We are literally to be the body of Jesus in the world. Christians are to be little Christs—people who put flesh on Jesus in the world today..”

Updated: The Do’s and Don’ts of Leaving a Church

I first posted this blog in 2014. I found myself thinking of this blog and the Relevant Magazine article after hearing a story from a colleague about someone not leaving well. I’ve added some updates (in italics) to the original post.

Recently, Relevant Magazine published an article on their website about bad reasons to leave your church. After the article hit their website, response blogs popped up giving good reasons to leave your church.

Reading these various articles caused me to start thinking about some of the do’s and don’ts of leaving a church. I’d love for some of my friends in ministry to share some of their do’s and don’t of leaving a church as well. We can learn from these experiences together.

There are times in which it becomes necessary to leave a church. Some do it with grace. Some, well, they don’t…

First and foremost, let me be upfront and say that often times the church gives people plenty of reason to leave. And, we don’t always do the best of following up with people before or after they leave. So, we definitely need to own up to our role. However, this blog is simply trying to provide some suggestions on things to do and to avoid when leaving a church.

Trust me, I get it! There have been times when people have made comments before, after, even during services that have made me want to walk out the door. And, I get paid to be there! There have been times when people have treated my family poorly and I’ve been ready to resign on the spot. There are days when leaving the church behind sounds like a great idea.

So, if you are going to church and you’re miserable, it’s probably time to move on. If you are going to church and you’re not making connections, it may be time to look around. If you are going to church and have been the victim of any type of abuse, run like hell.

However, we all know that there are good, bad, and ugly reasons to leave a church. And, there are good, bad, and ugly ways to leave a church.

If you are leaving your church, do:

  1. Prayerfully consider your decision. Often times, we make decisions in a rash manner. Therefore, I suggest praying about the decision. This helps you avoid rushing into a decision and gives time to consider if you are jumping the gun, being petty or if it is the right decision.
  2. Talk to a pastor or ministry leader about your decision to leave, especially if you have not fully made up your mind. Honestly discuss your concerns/reasons for leaving. At some point, you really enjoyed this church. So, it is appropriate to share why you are leaving. It may be that your sharing could help the church improve in the areas of your concern. Also, in discussing your reasons for leaving, you might find the response of the pastor or ministry leader will confirm your reasons for leaving. Then, you won’t have to later ask, “should I have left?” I’ve always appreciated folks calling, sending an email, or talking face-to-face to say, “Hey, we’re checking out some other churches and here are the reasons why.” I generally respond with, “Well, that stinks for us because you are awesome. But, I understand and I hope you find a place where you can connect and feel good about.” This is one that is really hard for clergy and staff. When people leave, but don’t let you know and don’t respond when you attempt to reach out, you are left wondering…you can’t learn/grow from the experience…and, to be honest, animosity increases. Yes, it’s hard, but write a letter, email, leave a voicemail when you know the staff will be out of the office. What’s even more unsettling is when people talk…to everyone but the pastor…and share different reasons with each person they talk to (see point 6 under “don’ts” on being petty).
  3. Maintain healthy relationships with friends you made at the church. Just because you’ve left and are now attending a different church does not mean you need to get a new group of friends.
  4. Keep a positive attitude. You never know when you might want to return. After checking out other churches, you may find that your old church wasn’t so bad. If you haven’t burned any bridges, it might make it easier to return. This is an important one for clergy to remember too. Would we be embarrassed to return to a previous congregation?
  5. Get connected to a new church and do your best to get plugged in. I know several folks who have left churches…sometimes for good reasons, sometimes for petty reasons. Either way, they never took the step to get plugged into a new church. Therefore, avoiding church became easier than finding a new community to engage with.
  6. Understand that the church is made up of humans. Pastors are human. Church folks are human. We make mistakes. We drop the ball. We fail to get it right more than we actually get it right. Realize that we really are trying our best.

If you are leaving your church, don’t:

  1. Trash the church publicly. Outside of cases of abuse, it’s best to take the high road. However, if abuse has happened, get on your soapbox until someone pays attention. While you may be upset with the church, there are many people who continue to love and be committed to the church. When you slander the church, no one wins. Making personal attacks about a pastor or ministry leader is tempting, but not helpful. Tossing the entire church and its ministries under the bus because of a theological difference or preference of worship style or missional focus is not helpful.
  2. Actively recruit friends from your old church to attend your new church. It’s awesome that your new church is perfect. However, it’s unethical to try to lure folks away from one church to another. Stealing sheep isn’t a way to expand the Kingdom. Focus on reaching the unreached.
  3. Blame everyone else. Outside of cases of abuse, sometimes it’s just not a good fit. It’s not necessarily the fault of the pastor, the youth guy or the people. It’s okay to say, “well, it just isn’t for me.”
  4. Mask the real reason for leaving a church behind something else. Be open and honest. If there is a theological difference, don’t tell people you left because you prefer contemporary worship. If there is an issue of abuse, don’t tell people it just wasn’t a good fit. I think you get the idea. Again, this will help the church address any issues, if necessary. Remember, sometimes it’s just not a good fit.
  5. Focus so much on the negatives that you forget all of the positive things that you experienced at the church. At some point, you loved this church or you wouldn’t have decided to come. Hold onto the positive experiences and don’t let the negatives control you.
  6. Leave over a petty issue. In some ways, this ties into number four (masking the real reason). If you are leaving your church because the pastor doesn’t wear a robe/suit/tie/skinny jeans/cool shoes, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are leaving because the pastor didn’t attend Duke/Asbury/Harvard or took an alternative route into ministry, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are leaving because the choir sat on the other side of the sanctuary, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are leaving because some of the students wear ripped jeans, you might be leaving for a petty reason. If you are going to leave a church, make sure the reason isn’t petty. I’ve had some experiences when people offer up all kinds of reasons to why they are leaving…only to find out that the real reason is they didn’t like to color of the new carpet.

I’m sure I’ve missed some do’s and don’ts. Seriously, share some of your do’s and don’ts for leaving the church.