Exclusive or Inclusive?

So, Emily and I just finished watching The Social Network. Yes, I fully realize that we are way behind the times. However, to my defense, I did read the book The Accidental Billionaires, so watching the film wasn’t necessarily on the top of my list (being that I already knew what was going to happen…same reason I will NEVER watch the Titanic…I already know what will happen…seems like a waste of time…and the soundtrack is horrible).

While watching the film (as well as while reading the book), I was struck by the original intent of Facebook to be an exclusive endeavor. At first, it would be a “Harvard” thing. Then, as it became apparent that it was a popular success, it began to spread among the Ivy League schools. I remember when facebook first spread to school’s like Indiana University, Purdue University, Notre Dame, even Ball State University. Former youth ministry students would talk about the site…say things like, “Oh man, you should really get on facebook. But, you can’t because you’re old.” The exclusivity almost made it desirable…because I couldn’t have it…I wanted it.

Eventually, facebook’s exclusivity became an all-inclusive endeavor…to the point where old guys like me could log on and create an account…without an invite, without a particularly exclusive e-mail account. And, this social media website has been successful in helping people connect with friends…old, new, and everything in-between.

While thinking about the original exclusive nature of facebook and it’s now inclusive nature, I found myself thinking about the Church. Is the modern Church an exclusive or inclusive institution?

Now, the majority of folks within the Church would probably defend the Church as being inclusive…but is it?

As a United Methodist, I’m reminded of how we are called to have “open hearts, open minds, and open doors”. But, do we have limits to our openness?

Are we open to people who have different thoughts on heaven and hell…sin and salvation…human sexuality…creation…evolution…abortion…drinking…dancing…and all of the other hot button issues that are out there?

Many would say “yes”. But, are we open to those who are different only with the intention of “saving” them and making them “exactly like us”. Or do we simply accept them and love them “as is”?

I’m pretty sure when Jesus called us to “love others”, this was a statement promoting inclusiveness in the Body. If you investigate the life and ministry of Jesus, he seemed to continually reach out to those who would have been excluded from the fellowship and invited them in.

Sometimes, I’m convinced that our tendency to be exclusive is born out of either arrogance (that we have it all figured out) or ignorance (that we simply are too dull and dense to realize God just might work beyond our understanding). Sometimes, I wonder if we are trying to “save” people who aren’t really in need of saving (you know, like how my Baptist friend are always trying to save me because I’m a heathen Methodist)???

Are we attempting to include the excluded? Or are we trying to put up walls between “us” and “them”?

Are we exclusive or inclusive? If we are exclusive, why? If we are exclusive, how can we become inclusive? Are there limits to inclusiveness?

 “37 He replied, ‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself’.” (Matthew 22:37-39)

World AIDS Day

Today, December 1, 2011 is World AIDS Day. In this day and age, I would guess that every person reading this blog entry knows someone who has been affected by or infected with HIV/AIDS. Therefore, I want to urge us all to take a moment today to explore what we can do to reach out to those in our circle of friends, our families, our community, and our world who are battling HIV/AIDS.

This morning, as I reflect on my awareness of HIV/AIDS in the world, I am reminded of how far we have come…and how far we still have to go in our understanding and treatment of HIV/AIDS.

Do you remember when AIDS was only something that impacted “those people”? And, who were “those people”? At first, it was only “those people” in Africa. Then, as time passed and HIV/AIDS became more widespread, “those people” grew to include homosexuals. Over time, “those people” began to include drug users as well. And, do you remember how fearful we were made in regards to AIDS…and how it might be spread. Oh, how ignorant we were (and sometimes still are).

As our awareness of HIV/AIDS grew, we began to see that HIV/AIDS does not discriminate as we do. HIV/AIDS did not limit itself to “those people” in Africa, to “those homosexual people”, or to “those drug-using people”. I can recall how Ryan White changed the face of who can become a casualty of HIV/AIDS.

This morning, I found myself recalling the memory of an ignorant conversation I had with friends in a public place on the topic of HIV/AIDS. We were all fairly conservative in our “Christian” faith. And, I guess we took that as a license to be ignorant and hateful in our language and attitude towards those with HIV/AIDS. We basically came to the conclusion that HIV/AIDS was really something that only affected “those people” and that we were extra-blessed because we were not “those people”.

Then, something happened that began to change my entire theological perspective on life. An older gentleman happened to hear our conversation and decided that he needed to drop some knowledge on us. He was quiet, gentle, and patient as he began to explain that HIV/AIDS was not limited to those people…that anyone…even conservative Christians could be infected. He was extremely knowledgeable on how HIV/AIDS could be contracted and spread. And, then, he shared these words, “I know this because I have AIDS.” He was not from Africa. He was not gay. He was not a drug user. He would not have been labeled as one of “those people”. Nope, he was just a “normal” guy…who happened to have AIDS. And, he shattered my entire understanding of HIV/AIDS…and really, life in general.

At that moment, I made a conscious decision to do all that I could to stop being an insensitive, judgmental, arrogant jerk. Yes, I can still be an insensitive, judgmental, and arrogant jerk. However, I no longer use my Christian faith as a license to cast out hatred and ignorance on anyone who is not like me. Instead, I’m making an effort to let love be the rule of my life.

Since that interaction, I have encountered numerous people who have HIV/AIDS…some friends…some acquiantensces…some just folks with whom I happened to cross paths with. But, all have had a major impact on helping me overcome my ignorance and my fear when it comes to HIV/AIDS…and how I treat others in general.

I believe that Jesus was pretty clear on how he desires his followers to respond to all people…healthy or sick; gay or straight; drug-user or straight-edge; black or white. He calls us to lead lives of love and humble service.

One of them, a legal expert, tested him. “Teacher, what is the greatest commandment in the Law?” He replied, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: You must love your neighbor as you love yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:35-40, CEB)

 Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then those who are righteous will reply to him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger and welcome you, or naked and give you clothes to wear? When did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ “Then the king will reply to them, ‘I assure you that when you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.’ (Matthew 25:31-40)

So, what will we do today, tomorrow, and in the years to come to love, serve, and encourage those in our circle of friends, our families, our churches, our workplaces, our schools, our cities, and our world who have been affected by HIV/AIDS. Will we be insensitive, judgmental, arrogant jerks? Or will be known for our humble service and our love?

If you are in the Greater Indianapolis area, I would encourage you to head to Scott United Methodist Church from 6:30-8pm for what will be a powerful evening featuring the “Faces of Hope” photography exhibit and music from Blended Hearts and Josef Kissinger. Check out a flyer for the event by clicking HERE.

If you are an Indiana UMC person…or if you are interested in learning how the Indiana Conference of the United Methodist Church is responding to HIV/AIDS…check out the page on the conference website HERE.

For more information on World AIDS Day, click HERE.

All I Want for Christmas is…

Warning: If you are someone who is easily offended when someone calls into question “traditional celebrations of holidays”, you should probably not read beyond this point. But, thanks for visiting this blog. Check back later when I might step off of my soapbox.

It’s the time of year that people have started asking the question, “What do you want for Christmas?” And, like most people, of course there are things that I “want”. My list is generally ridiculous…

1. Porsche Carrera GT

2. Taylor 614ce Guitar

3. Noble & Cooley Solid Oak Jazz Kit

4. 1967 Rickenbacker 365

5. Dinner at Le Bernardin (the chef’s tasting menu, with wine pairings, of course!)

Now, as I said before, my lists are generally ridiculous!

The truth is that I really don’t “need” anything for Christmas. So, when people ask, I give them a list of items that are well beyond what anyone would even consider as a gift.

The honest truth is that I really don’t “want” anything for Christmas either. I’m being serious…honestly…I mean it.

In our materialistic, consumer-driven society, we have gotten so far away from the true meaning of Christmas. Over the last several years, due to movements like the Advent Conspiracy, films like “What Would Jesus Buy“, and books like “Christmas is Not Your Birthday”, my views on Christmas have been quickly changing.

Don’t get me wrong, I love seeing my girls eyes light up when they open gifts on Christmas day. However, I’m convinced that I need to teach them a better way to celebrate the birth of Christ. So, even as I stand on my soapbox, I’m conflicted.

Often, we compete to see who can give the biggest, the best, the fanciest gifts to our friends and family members. We stretch ourselves financially, many going further into debt in order to have a child go “wow” for about 3-seconds and then quickly forget that you just gave them the latest piece of crap that the toy manufacturers convinced you your child needs. I mean, let’s be honest, how many of the toys (or video games or clothes) that you purchased for last years Christmas celebration are your kids still using?

According to information you can “google”, the average American will spend somewhere in the neighborhood of $700-1,000 on Christmas this year. Many will spend more. Some will spend less. Most do not have an extra $700-1000 sitting around and will put that amount on credit cards or will take out a “holiday loan” from their favorite lending institution…meaning they will pay more than the sticker price.

And, we just don’t compete to “out do” each other. Many will keep track of things…to make sure that they received as many presents as their brothers and sisters. Many will make sure that mom and dad spent just as much on them as they did their siblings. We want to make sure we received what we deserve.

So, maybe we should start viewing Christmas differently.

Rather than purchasing lavish gifts (or a bunch of not-so-lavish gifts that still add up), we could give one another the gift of our time…of our presence.

Rather than tearing into our gifts and viewing Jesus as a nice after-thought to our celebrations, we could come up with creative ways to make Jesus the focus of the day (I know this is kind of dorky and borderline conservative fundamental cheesy religion, but we’ve been known to have a birthday cake and sing “Happy Birthday” to Jesus).

Rather than buying gifts as usual, we could make a conscious effort to buy products that help others (like products from Toms or Equal Exchange).

Maybe for Christmas, we could take the money we would have spent on gifts for one another and do what Jesus calls us to do…to demonstrate our love for Him and our love for one another by clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick and imprisoned, caring for the needs of the least of these.

Mike Slaughter challenges people to give as much money to worthy organizations as they do on their Christmas celebrations. So, if you spend $700, give $700. Many of us would say, “I couldn’t afford to do that.” If that’s the case, then we don’t have the $700 to spend on Christmas in the first place.

For me, the bottom line is this…I need to re-examine how I celebrate Christmas and why I’ve chosen to celebrate it in that manner. Then, I need to address how my family can adjust the way we celebrate to better honor Jesus.

And, in all honesty, I need to do my best to withhold my judgment towards others who make the decision to celebrate in a different manner.

So, if you are someone who feels like you really need to get me something, here are some realistic ideas…

1. Make a one-time donation to Mission Guatemala for the amount that you would have spent on a gift. This mission organization if very near to my heart. Tom and Dave do incredible work and I can guarantee that your funds would be used to better the lives of those in the greater San Andres area.

2. Make a donation to Kids Against Hunger. A small donation goes a long way in feeding children in our local communities and around the world.

3. Make a donation to charity:water. It’s amazing how easy it is to take for granted access to clean drinking water.

4. Pull a George Costanza and fool me by making a donation to “The Human Fund”.

 5. Or, I guess, if none of these things appeal to you…you could buy me a 4-pack of Guinness Pub Draught Cans.

What are your ideas for celebrating Christmas differently?

Silence…The Discovery of a Quiet Place

It’s been quite some time since my last post. To be honest, it has not been due to a lack of things to say. Those of you who know me well are fully aware that it is very rare for me to have nothing to say. The truth is that I have come to the realization that, at times, it is best to simply keep my mouth shut and my typing limited.

My personal journal is full of thoughts and reflections concerning events that have taken place since my last post. I just never felt that this public blog was the place to “air my grievances” on various issues that have occurred in my personal life, ministry life, and the world in general during this time frame (and, let’s be honest, it’s not Festivus…yet!).

Instead of taking the time to reflect on this blog site, I’ve used that time to enjoy a bit of quiet. There is something powerful in silence. It is such a rare things these days. Too often, my days are filled with “noise”. Even in those moments that I set aside for quiet reflection, there is usually noise…whether it’s from the music playing in the background…or simply the “white noise” that is so prevalent in our world today. Even when I step outside, my ears are filled with the noises of a busy world…planes, trains, and automobiles.

Recently, I have discovered a place where I can get away from it all. It is a place where I can slip away into “nature” for a bit…the only noises being the birds, the falling leaves, the slight breeze, and random animals that dwell in this particular “forest”. It is a place that is conveniently located to my home and my workplace. Therefore it does not take a great deal of time to arrive at my new quiet place. January will mark two years in the greater Lafayette area…and I’ve just now found my quiet place.

When I emerge from my quiet place, I find myself feeling refreshed, restored, and renewed.

We are rapidly approaching the holiday season. The holiday’s are often busy, noisy, and stress-filled. These are moments when our calendars are filled family, church, school events, shopping, parties, and the like. It becomes increasingly difficult to take the time to slow down and enjoy a bit of silence.

However, I have found that it is exactly in these busy times when we need moments of quiet the most. I want to encourage you to make quiet time a priority throughout the holiday season. Even Jesus, in the midst of his earthly ministry, took time to be alone. Seriously, do whatever you have to in order to enjoy some quiet time…put it on your calendar…schedule and protect that time. If someone asks you to do something during that time, simply say, “I have a conflict on my calendar.” Whether you block out 5 minutes a day, an hour per week, or an entire day, find a way to enjoy some silence…to sit quietly…to listen…to reflect…to be alone with all distractions removed…and let your spirit be refreshed, restored, and renewed.

“Be still, and know that I am God!” ~ Psalm 46:10

“Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead to the other side of the lake while he dismissed the crowds. When he sent them away, he went up onto a mountain by himself to pray. Evening came and he was alone.” ~Matthew 14:22-23

Where Do You Find Encouragement?

Today, I was doing a bit of reading and “encouragement” seems to have been an underlying theme. As I thought about the idea of encouragement, I began to think about the sources of encouragement in my life.

When I am discouraged, there are certain people who just seem to “show up” and offer their support, their presence, and their words that become a source of encouragement. Whether it’s a timely e-mail, a phone call or a visit from a friend or family member, I have continually found sources of encouragement right when I need it. Sometimes, there are days when someone unknowingly offers a word or caring gesture that makes the biggest difference in the world (you know, one of those, “You don’t know how much that means to me” kind of things).

I also find encouragement through music. There are certain artists who have created incredible music that encourages me…whether it’s through meaningful lyrics or beautiful melodies and harmonies…music has the power to encourage me. When I am down, there are certain records I can play that will lift my spirit…that will change the course of my thinking…my attitude. There is great power in music.

Literature has often been a source of encouragement. Works of fiction and non-fiction…classic pieces…new works…religious…non-religious…blogs…newspapers…journals…It’s amazing how the written words of others can encourage the discouraged. There are certain books I can pick up and just read a few passages and find myself laughing in the midst of the most difficult of circumstances.

My wife is probably the greatest encourager in my life. She knows what to say, what not to say, and how to continually be “for” me. She has stepped in and offered encouragement when I’ve been discouraged by those I look to for encouragement. She goes “all out” in her love for me…and that is deeply encouraging.

After taking some time to think about my sources of encouragement, I began to consider if I am doing my part to encourage others…Am I offering encouraging words to others? Do I reach out through e-mail and phone calls to offer just a bit of encouragement? Do I take the time to encourage someone through the simple act of listening…of being available? Am I someone’s encourager?

In some ways, I think I probably offer some encouragement. But, I know that I have a lot of work to do. Today, I have come to realize that I need to be intentional about encouraging others…when it’s obvious they need encouragement…but, maybe more importantly…at times when it’s not so obvious.

I have two questions:

1. Where do you find encouragement?

2. How do you offer encouragement?

“So continue encouraging each other and building each other up, just like you are doing already.” ~ I Thessalonians 5:11