The Selective Defense of “Cast the First Stone”

Views here are mine, and mine alone. They do not represent any views, official or otherwise, of my institution, its affiliates, partners, departments, donors or alumni. If you don’t like what is said, contact me, not anyone else!

I have watched “19 Kids and Counting” exactly one time. And then, it was still “18 Kids and Counting.” I never in my life thought that I would stop a blog about the finale of Mad Men to write about the Duggar family.

I cannot speak intelligently about them, outside of what I have read/seen/heard. But it does not take much information to be disturbed by the recent events related to Josh Duggar.

Josh stepped down from his position at the Family Research Council due to a confession that he sexually abused young girls during his teenage years. This prompted a wide-spread reaction, with some racing to their laptops to point out the Duggars’ indiscretions.

Then, out came the evangelical bloggers and politicians to offer a defense. And a certain segment of evangelical Christianity proved once again that it will defend its superstars at all costs and cover the trail of damages they leave behind.

First, several rushed to point out that Duggar’s offense was no worse than Lena Dunham’s confession. There is some significant debate on what Dunham’s words and actions actually mean, but there is a much greater issue at hand. Lena Dunham does not hold herself up as a paragon of ultra-conservative Christian virtue and values. Josh Duggar and his family do. Attention-getting, shock-seeking Dunham and the professed values of the Duggars and the Family Research Council are neither comparable nor compatible. It should come as no surprise that reactions to them are distinct.

Equally ridiculous is the notion from one commentator that teenage sexual activity is comparable to criminal sexual conduct or molestation. Again, this is an apple-to-oranges comparison that has nothing to do with Duggar or his family’s management of the allegations. Worse yet, this naively absurd notion gives credence to accusations that Christians just don’t “get it” when it comes to cases of sexual misconduct and abuse.

Then, these bloggers tried to use the Gold Standard of Christian Defenses:  The media is out to get these good people because of their faith.

Sorry, not interested. The family has used the media to its advantage for years to promote itself and its values, and benefitted by earning millions of dollars on their television show. You can’t revel in the attention one minute, then whine and cry about it when it goes against you. In fairness, the Duggars are not doing the whining—Matt Walsh is.

Finally, the bloggers went to the old “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” mantra for their primary line of defense. Certainly this is a valid passage here, and in many other situations. Christians use it all the time—when it’s convenient for them.

It would be comical, were it not so sad, that we pull that verse out of a holster to fire back in defense of one of “our kind.” But when it’s one of “those people,” we keep it buttoned up, maybe even pretending the verse doesn’t exist. And it’s very conveniently ignored, along with many other verses, if we have a chance to derail our enemies.

Walsh proves to be a master at this in his blog on the Duggars. He comes hard with the Cast the First Stone Defense, all while he is loading up his slingshot. Therein lies the problem.

We cannot selectively apply John 8:7 to Josh Duggar if we are not going to follow through with such grace towards others. We cannot scream for equity in judgment against one who is being stoned by hurling rocks at another whom we deem more worthy of blame. Changing the target does not make a stoning any more Christ-like.

If we are going to draw on this one verse, we also have to look at the entirety of the passage, John 8:2-11. We see that Jesus does not attack anyone or light into a fiery sermon about the evils of any of the parties involved. Nor does He berate a woman who has clearly broken a commandment, one that He upholds in several instances. He simply asks some questions that cause everyone to look deep inside their own heart and determine how they need to be better. We could all stand a good dose of this medicine.

Let us also recognize that Jesus did not offer grace and forgiveness because this woman is appropriately remorseful. While we can infer that she is, it is not clearly stated. Jesus calls on us to love and forgive even those who do not ask in what we deem to be the “right way,” including those counted as our enemies (Matthew 5:43-48).

This is not to excuse the actions of Josh Duggar and the Duggar family for the myriad of problematic ways that they handled this situation. If the timeline is accurate, then I would estimate that they badly mishandled this, and glossing over that as Matt Walsh does, along with others, is disingenuous.

(In fact, changing that might have rendered this entire issue moot. I hope that we can all draw lessons on how to approach abuse situations in the future, based on these mistakes).

It also does not mean that we brush aside the issues that contributed to cause this uproar:  Handling abuse “in house” by churches and families, shunning psychology and therapy, defending evangelical heros at all costs, and focusing on the accused more than on victims. (Elizabeth Esther offers a much more candid treatment of these issues here).

These things must change if we are truly going to follow Jesus’ teachings in John 8. He is teaching us to look honestly at ourselves, examine our own sins, and seek ways to go and sin no more. This starts when stop seeking out other targets for our rocks and look intently to the Christ who cleanses our own hearts.

I actually agree wholeheartedly with some of Walsh’s points on this issue. We do need the unimaginable grace of Jesus Christ, all of us. We are all sinners, far from perfect, and in need of the power of the Cross to overcome even our most hidden sins.

But we do that by dealing directly with our own sins, rather than attempting to justify ourselves by shouting “He started it!” and turning the stones on someone else. We start this process by claiming our baggage and carrying our own rocks rather than tossing them at others. And by the grace of Christ, we can leave it all at the foot of the Cross.

I hope that those demanding an end to the stoning of Josh Duggar will remember John 8:7 when referring to others. I hope they will remember it when considering the thousands of other teenage offenders who are in prison for offense that are no more egregious than this. I hope they will recall this when thinking of all those who are poor, sick, in prison or standing outside of the walls of Christianity.

I hope they will offer the same graciousness they request on behalf of the Duggars to those who are not “their kind” of people. May we all do likewise. And may we learn to stop defending the indefensible and instead confront it with the grace of Christ, both in others and certainly in ourselves.

LEFT BEHIND: That moment when you realize most people just aren’t that into you…

I have 1,177 friends on Facebook. Well, at least I did the last time that I checked.

It’s an absurd number. The notion that anyone could truly keep track or maintain close contact with 1177 people, even in the era of modern social media, borders on the ridiculous.

Many of those people are mere acquaintances, from high school or former churches or other places where our lives brushed for a few minutes. But many others had a memorable impact in my life, and I really wish that I could maintain those relationships better than I do.

Then there are relationships that seemed to be meaningful, important friendships, and sometimes even deep relationships. Some of those have not merely faded, but severed with harsh words or accusations or passive aggressive commentary, or even the drastic step of the “un-friend” button.

It is indeed a heart-wrenching moment when you discover that someone, once counted as a dear friend, is actually glad or relieved when you part from their company. Or perhaps you discover that you really were not as “dear” as you thought.

It’s hard to know how to react when you discover that people think less of you, and you have no idea why that is. After all, maybe you are reading a lot more into their words or actions than they ever intended. Or, maybe they just weren’t that into you in the first place.

In this uber-connected postmodern society, relationships are often as fluid and fleeting as the latest phone app. Maybe they always were, and we just notice it more now because of all the opportunities we have to stay connected. That may also create more opportunities for us to feel hurt or disappointment when we discover that relationships were not what we thought they were.

Reality is that many (most?) of our relationships will not be long-term, and we have to learn to place the right value on those relationships when they exist. Our best bet is to make the most of the relationships that we have when we are in the moment, and appreciate them for what they are in a special time and place.

This is particularly true for people in the ministry.

When someone accepts the call of the Holy Spirit on his or her life, it is an acknowledgement that everything in life may well be temporary. The average tenure of a pastor in America is between 3 and 4 years. For a youth minister or other church staff, it is 3.6-3.9 years.

Accepting a call from God to ministry is to acknowledge a belief that God can place a life-change in front of us at any given moment. That means ever-changing relationships. It also means that we are to do all that we can to add meaning and value to our relationships in the present, because there is no guarantee that they will remain into the distant future.

I am learning the hard way (as usual) that the value of relationships with people is not always found in how long they last, but in how much we pour into those relationships while we have them.

People—particularly in the church—tend to idealize the past or the present to unrealistic levels. Either they long for the “Good Ole Days” and wish to return to them; or they lament that past and long to enjoy how much better things are in the now. As a minister, I’ve lived on just about every location of that spectrum.

People are not always going to love you or pine for your presence. Even if they do, it may only last until something else comes along. In reality, if you have a healthy perspective on your life’s calling, that is how it should be. The task is not to be eternally beloved, but to provide what is needed in order for people to love others.

While they might not be as pronounced as it is for ministers, I think this holds true for most relationships. That leaves us with the option to do our best and be our best for the people around us, no matter the context, circumstances or longevity of the relationship.

Our calling is to do our best to invest in people when we have the chance, to hopefully leave them better and richer for having met us. Even if they do not recognize it, the Christ-centered heart that we put into our relationships can add life to others long after our relationship is past.

The point of relationships is not to leave people thinking about how awesome you are. Instead, we should strive to leave people and their situations a little better off because we are/were a part of them. We often do not get to see the fruit of that investment. Instead, we hold on to the hope that we help those that we love to move forward to a better place in their life and their relationships with others—even if it comes at the expense of their relationship with us.

For those that have left behind our relationship, I hope that it is not because of some hurt that I have caused. I make lots of mistakes, and have no doubt that I have unintentionally hurt a lot of people. I offer a lot of apologies in life, and I probably owe a good many that I do not even realize.

My prayer is that, in spite of my faults, I have offered something positive to most of you that know me. Even as I struggle to learn to be better, I hope that I offered the best that I could do in the circumstances surrounding all of my relationships. And it is my sincere request that people will graciously accept that, no matter what they think of me now or in the future.

Thankfully, our best is more than enough for the ever-gracious and forgiving God, and I ask that it be enough for the people and friendships that I continue to value. At the least, it has to be sufficient for us as individuals to know that we offered our best, no matter how people feel about us in the future.

May we strive to offer the best that we have to others while we have the chance, no matter where our relationships might go in the future.

SCBC vs. NewSpring Is No Reason to Cheer

Last month, South Carolina Baptist Convention (SCBC) President Tommy Kelly decided to offer his opinion on recent happenings at NewSpring Church ( Rev. Kelly took issue with a number of things regarding the church and Pastor Perry Noble, and all but stated that the state convention was breaking ties with NewSpring.

As it turns out, this is probably going to take very little shine out of the NewSpring star, as the church has limited connections at best to the SCBC. In terms of their relationship, the denomination and the church are acquaintances. That status may change following Kelly’s fairly direct (and perhaps unprecedented?) reprimand, which bordered on opening the door and telling Noble and NewSpring not to let it hit them on the way out.

Some are cheering Kelly’s action as a commitment to sound Biblical and theological principles. But SCBC churches need to be careful how loud they cheer. In fact, they might do better to lower their heads a little about all of this while asking a simple question:  What if Dr. Kelly had done this to your church or your pastor?

Will your congregation be the subject of a letter or statement, because of some belief, position or action that you/your pastor has taken?

In case readers may have missed this from previous posts, I am no apologist for NewSpring. I have serious issues with Perry Noble and the approach of the church on many issues that I will not discuss here. If anyone would like to discuss it, I will be more than happy to talk, message or email with you about it.

Dr. Kelly’s statements and opinions are not the problem, but his approach in offering them is. Unless there is much to this story that is not readily available, Dr. Kelly may be setting a dangerous precedent. At best, it is un-Baptist, and at worst, it is less than Christ-like.

Dr. Marcus Buckley has on his blog shared similar concerns, and expressed that he directly contacted Dr. Kelly on the matter. Let me confess–perhaps in error–that I have had no direct contact with Dr. Kelly, as Marcus Buckley has. I am neither a pastor nor a messenger in the SCBC, although my membership resides at a cooperating church. This is offered as a matter of observation from a distance, with no “inside” knowledge. Please take that grain of salt with this piece.

Baptists are people who claim that Holy Scripture is their only authority for faith and practice. We have always disagreed–usually loudly, often angrily, and occasionally with dangerous volatility. We certainly do not mince words when calling out those with whom we disagree. Until the last 30 years or so, we managed to do that without figuratively cutting one another’s throats or denying churches the freedom to follow a different interpretation or path.

What business is it of the South Carolina Baptist Convention or Dr. Kelly to encourage churches to break fellowship from NewSpring because of their Biblical interpretation? In addition, is this a course of action that will become common practice for other churches with different interpretations?

Baptists practice action by community, which means study and recommendations and votes on issues, particularly one as grave as calling for the dis-fellowship of a church from other Baptists.

While all that talking and shouting and voting has its own pitfalls, it is who we are; and I believe it is who we need to be. We are not a church of decrees, but a church seeking input in the prayerful hope of common ground. We do not always find it, but we should seek it.

Furthermore, such an approach has to allow for the fact that we (I) might be wrong. As strongly as I disagree with the church growth movement and mega-church mentality, I am in no position to declare it ultimately heretical or worthy of being shunned. While they may not grant me a seat at their table, what makes us worthy of denying them a seat at ours?

The perception is that Dr. Kelly’s statements represent an official position of South Carolina Baptists. I have several questions regarding that:

1. What body within the South Carolina Baptist Convention authorized this statement from Dr. Kelly?

2. Did the members and messengers of the Convention authorize this in any way?

-Would not a statement that appears and is being received as official require action      by authorized messengers?

3. In recent years, local associations have denied churches fellowship for many things, including the ordination of women as deacons or to the ministry. Is the SCBC now stepping into the role of making these decisions about which churches are worthy of fellowship?

-It is also important to note that local Baptist associations vote on such issues.

4. Was NewSpring or Perry Noble offered a chance to respond to the critique in any kind of open forum, committee, or Convention gathering? (Perhaps they were–if so, it would help for Dr. Kelly to share that).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly:

5. Did the leaders of the convention follow the Biblical standard of Matthew 18? Again, if they did, it would be valuable to know that.

When confronted with what we believe to be un-Biblical actions, it is critical that Christians elaborate with an uber-Biblical response. If Perry Noble and NewSpring are out of line, then church/convention leaders should approach them. If they are rebuffed, approach again, with witnesses. If there is no resolution, then take the matter before the entire body–in this case, the messengers of the South Carolina Baptist Convention.

Some might argue that Noble and the church are notorious for ignoring criticism and such an approach would do no good. Perhaps this is true. But my concern is not what NewSpring does. It is that I/we, as Baptists and Christians, do what God commands of us, in all humility, before distancing ourselves from brothers and sisters in Christ. We are to make every effort at peace, until all possibilities for reconciliation are exhausted. When that has happened, then we discuss what that means for our fellowship.

As Baptists, this means action of the entire Body of Christ, not just a few or even one. No matter our feelings on Perry Noble or NewSpring, we need a stronger, more prayerful effort to coexist even through disagreements, with greater charity towards freedom in Christ and greater unity in the areas where we can agree. And above all, we should act out our efforts with love.

Do we want to be judged, as Baptists and Christians, for treating others in the same way that we feel they have treated us? Perhaps the more Biblical approach is to treat them in the same way that we want to be treated, no matter how strongly we disagree.

And it is our calling to do so, no matter how we feel about the actions of the other towards us.

Is Our Faith Defined by Our Hate?

Few people will believe this, but I went to the grocery store in the middle of the Super Bowl.

By the way, if you’re looking for crowd-free shopping, the Super Bowl is a perfect time for it. And with DVR these days, nothing really stands in your way here.

Part of my reason for going was that I, like some other people, just did not care who won. I do not like anything about the Seattle Seahawks and their “12th Man” handkerchiefs (which is yet another rip-off of the only original and true fan towel). 12 is exactly the number of fans Seattle had until two years ago.

The New England Patriots? Please. I just hope they confiscated their video cameras as they came into the stadium and replaced them with air pumps. Who really needs to hear more about how Tom Brady is actually the Pope in disguise AND the “Greatest Quarterback Ever?” (Okay, the quarterback part happens to be true…but that does not mean I have to like it).

Full-sized footballs and limited video cameras were used for all six of these Super Bowl victories.

Then it occurred to me why I had zero interest in watching this game, save for a very exciting last 5 minutes. I despise both of the teams playing almost as much as I like my own team. Yes, I want the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl every year, but I want just as much for certain other teams to not win. So many times, I catch myself saying, “Well, if Pittsburgh doesn’t win it, then I hope _________ doesn’t.”

(As if you could not guess, Baltimore is at the very top of the fill-in-the-blank list).

I began to think about this attitude, this spite for other teams that nearly exceeds my fan-dom for “my” team. Funny how we use that term “my” in reference to sports teams, even if we never attended the college, lived in the city, or actually put on a uniform.

It then occurred to me that my attitude towards the NFL may be far too reflective of the Christian life. This is not some deep theology blog, but rather a simple observation of how sports can imitate life, even in the religious realm.

We often allow ourselves to be defined more by what we hate than by how we love, by our spite rather than our compassion. It is always easier to rally people to be against something than it is to persuade them to be for something. Believers–and sometimes their preachers–lean towards this tendency at an alarming rate.

Christianity is devolving towards defining itself by what it hates more than by what it lifts up. We cannot disagree without being profoundly disagreeable. We choose our sides and go to war, well beyond any of the typical labels of liberal vs. conservative. It is the progressives vs. fundamentalists, traditional vs. contemporary, Calvinist vs. Arminian, complementarian vs. egalitarian.

And round and round we go…and this is just the short list. Is it possible that we want others to be wrong just as much–or more–than we want to be right in Jesus Christ?

Think about some of the things that we read and write and say among believers. We refuse to simply argue our point of view. Instead, we think in terms of systematically destroying any opposing point of view. We want all to know Jesus Christ and His sacrificial love, so long as they view him and that love through our particular theological prism.

These disputes are not reserved to debates between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. The blogs and Twitter wars and sickening comment sections filter down to the grassroots level of the church. We battle for our way and our point of view to win out, and we are willing to cut into our brothers and sisters in the pew in order to keep things going our way.

Disagreements, debates, and even arguments over positions and approaches to Christian faith are inevitable. And we sometimes need to open a critical eye to analyze the impact of certain actions and situation. If our analysis and critical thought turn to a desire to defeat others rather than exemplify Christ, we put ourselves into an extremely unhealthy place.

I cannot enjoy certain football games because of my spite for the teams involved, and that is a problem. If we are so spiteful towards one another that we have to separate into our own little theological clubs and fraternities and sororities–where everyone must agree–then we have a much more serious issue than football on our hands. Because we are spiritually sick.

If our desire to be right is so powerful that we cut off members of the Body of Christ, then we as believers need to consider:  Are we for Christ, or are we against others? Do we truly desire to elaborate the love of Jesus, or do we just want to be right? God is not to be used as our personal gatekeeper to decide who is in and out of the club.

Let us not be foolish enough to think that we can simply all just get along. But let us also not be foolish enough to see that our differences can cut us off, from one another and from Christ.

It is not about being right, but about God being right. We practice this by recognizing that we are not God, no matter how right we think we are. We practice this by following the words of Paul: Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Not one word is included about winners, losers, or hating those that disagree with us. It is bad enough to hate a football team. When we begin hate other Christians because they disagree with us, we have to ask ourselves if we want to be right more than we want to follow Jesus.

And perhaps we should ask if we really know Him at all.

Missing Church: Why I’m not a “Done” (Even If I Want to Be)

A couple of months ago, I posted about the experience of taking a break from attending church. It somehow garnered a lot more attention than I expected, enough that it prompted a follow-up question:

Why go back?

It’s a question that is becoming more prominent even among the most dedicated church members. It seems that even those who are committed to the church are actually showing up less frequently than they once did. Some of these may even fall into a new category that sociologists are calling the “Dones”–Christians who just stop going.

Let me establish that I do not intend to be a “Done”. Sometimes I feel like it–usually around 8 am on a Sunday morning. There are four big reasons why I cannot go this route. While these specifics may not hold validity for you, perhaps they will prompt you to think about where you stand with a community of faith.

1. Mom and Dad will not let me do it:  As a pastor and youth minister, I used to consistently get the question from parents, “Should I make my children go to church?” And my answer was always an unequivocal “Yes”.

Why? Well, after I tell you to get off my lawn, let me give you the grumpy old man answer:  Because my mom and dad made me go to church and it never hurt me a bit. (NOW get off my lawn!).

This does not mean that you do not talk with them about where to go, what to do, how to participate or what they expect, particularly as they get older. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with establishing church as a spiritual standard for family.

The inevitable guilt trip (either real or perceived) that I get from Mom when she calls on Sundays to ask, “Well, did you GO to church TODAY?” will not bring me back. But the education my parents gave me in faith, dedication, and commitment to something more important than myself just might. And they are connected to hours of discussion and exploration about what it means to be Christian, both in and beyond the church.

My parents made faith a part of who I was and who we are as human beings, as family. Going to church is not the only way to do that, but it surely did not hurt. Those Sunday experiences–even the ones I did not like–will forever influence my personhood.

Am I ready to turn my back on what my parents taught me by declaring, “I’m done?”

2. Mrs. Nora and The Ballard Sisters:  If you grew up at East Park Baptist Church in the last half of the 20th century, one thing is guaranteed. You had Mrs. Nora for 5-year old Sunday school, followed by the Ballard sisters through elementary and middle school. In Mrs. Nora’s class, you learned to run string across the room and make tents with bed sheets, so you would have an appropriate venue to talk about Aquila and Priscilla. And you would eat dates and wild honey like John the Baptist (thankfully she skipped the locusts and deferred to more appetizing Galilean fare).

In fact, we often tried to sneak back to her class every now and then, even when we were much too old for it.

The Ballard sisters were a little less dynamic, but these four ladies offered unparalleled lessons in faithfulness. They walked down their hillside street every Sunday morning to teach annoying, poorly behaved 10-year olds what a famine was and how Moses discovered a most disturbing piece of shrubbery. Amazingly, they managed us with grace and patience–although they had no children of their own! Maybe they could do that because they knew that they didn’t have to take any of us home.

When we had snow or ice, we called off church because we knew the Ballards would try to walk and were likely to break a hip on the way. And it was not just Sunday mornings. Oh, no…it was Sunday Night Bible Drill and Training Union. It was Vacation Bible School. It was Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.

Ms. Sarah Ballard did not miss a day of Sunday School for 20 years! Actually, she missed one day, somewhere in year 20…and tried to turn down her 20-year attendance pin (a remnant of Baptists past) because of it.

Maybe these ladies are just that, a remnant of a long gone era of church that is destined never to return. It is hard to imagine them teaching with a power point and a YouTube video. But that does not lessen their impact. For all of us who have a story of stodgy, judgmental old Southern Baptist “church ladies”, we also have Mrs. Nora and the Ballard sisters.

Am I ready to insult their legacy by saying, “I’m done?”

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Past churches wrote on me with Sharpies:  I mean this as a good thing.

Certainly, every church where I served made a positive impact, but the churches I served as pastor have left the most significant spiritual marks. That is not intended as a slight to the places where I served on staff. But serving as pastor simply creates a different level of relationship with the whole church, particularly in my venue of call, the small church.

I often reflect back on the positive impact those churches continue to have on me. More than once I have found myself drifting back to the fellowship of a Back-to-School Bash or a Fall Festival. I even miss church league basketball! (Sometimes).

But the indelible mark on my heart comes from the places where the fellowship and spirituality become one and the same. These are the encounters with real people–open, vulnerable, and willingly exposed to the work of the Spirit. These are the life-giving happenings, genuine and as real as they come. They evoke both joy and pain, laughter and tears. It is weddings and funerals. It is sharing celebration and the reality of heartache. It is the Thanksgiving Eve service at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist, where people opened their hearts to share their greatest joys and deepest spiritual hurts–as well as the faith that emerged from those hurts.

It is the baby dedications at Augusta Heights, where we learned to celebrate new life with tears of joy after years of hoping for such celebrations. It is Mrs. Wilma–the AHBC equivalent of the Ballard sisters and the last remaining charter member–offering gracious wisdom to me as the new pastor. It is the irreverent moments and informal discussions that, somehow, led us closer to this Jesus that we strive to know.

Can I possibly ignore the graciousness, honesty, and hospitality of these people, all of whom greatly impacted my life, by saying, “I’m done?”

And finally…

4. It’s the community, stupid!  I hate to go all James Carville here, but it just fits. You may not need a community to be a Christian, but I still believe that you need one to be an effective disciple.

Jesus beckons us to a life of community. And how quickly we forget just how imperfect that life was!

As we roll our eyes over the blatant and debilitating flaws of the church, we often long idealistically for a “New Testament Church”. But in our vision, we skip the jealous bickering, bitter disagreements and theological or practical disputes that characterized the original 12, right on into the formation of that New Testament church. Why do you think Paul wrote all those letters? It was not because everyone was just getting along.

Yet, those disciples managed to learn, grow, bond, and cooperate with one another in spite of their disagreements. The early church learned discipleship together, in and through the hardships they faced and the sharp distinctions of race, class, religious identity and theological point of view.

Sometimes they separated. Sometimes they decided to go in different directions. But there is no evidence that they gave up and quit. And they certainly came together, bound by spiritual ties of love that outweighed their disagreements.

Can I insult the saints, both early ones and those in my own lifetime, by saying, “I’m done”?

I sometimes remember the hardships and bitterness of ministry when considering my past in the church. Much more often, I long for the community, fellowship, sharing and caring that those churches brought into my life. I long for the everlasting friendships and eternal prayers that I know some believers offer. And I want to find that community again, in the here and now, rather than simply leaving it to memory.

Community is challenging and difficult–and more than worth it! It is the imprint of the community past that keeps me searching for the community of the present. Imperfect though it will surely be, it is also the life-giving face of love.

And it is the reason that I cannot say, “I’m done.”

Perhaps we need to recognize that the perseverance of the saints of the past is a fine example to follow in the present.

Losing Grandma

It is rare that a phone call at 8 am on a Sunday morning is a good one. This past Sunday was no exception.

We got the word that Tracy’s grandmother, Marie Berklich, passed away in the night at the age of 95. It is hard to say that there is anything extraordinary about the loss of someone who is 95, but that does not necessarily dull the sharp nature of the moment.

Tracy and I both lost grandparents in 2001. At that point, we realized a harsh reality of life:  We were at the point where we would lose more people than we would gain. It makes the losses that much more painful, but it also makes the importance of true friends and family that much more important. And the memories are much more cherished and appreciated.

When she came to visit in South Carolina, Grandma greeted my son Spencer with a “Good morning!” He then began calling her Grandma Good Morning, and that’s what she will forever be to our children.

Neither Spencer nor my daughter Abbie liked soup…until they tasted Good Morning’s chicken noodle, a recipe that stands as a household staple. Abbie loved to visit her and get a helping of soup, read books and watch game shows.

She preferred the quiet of her home, and her favorite hosting was for her family. There were always Klondikes in the freezer or other-worldly chicken soup to warm up for anyone who came through the door. She kept her mind sharp by reading books (especially those written by anyone Croatian) and working crossword puzzles.

She loved to cook amazing things for her family, especially on holidays. Grandma’s house was baked chicken and pork roast and a bread ring, followed by her trying to get you to eat a Klondike. After devouring any holiday meal, we would fight for one of the recliners in her TV room to doze while watching football.

If you needed an escape from anything, her house was the place to go. You would feel welcomed and you didn’t have to discuss whatever it was that was bothering you. She was perfectly satisfied to let you doze in one of those recliners while she heated something to eat, and you always left relaxed and well-fed.

Many of us lived with her in some form or fashion, at least for a little while. We stayed with Good Morning for two and a half weeks when we moved to Pittsburgh in 1995. I gained 16 lbs., and she did her best to push that higher. She kept a freezer full of Klondike bars and you were not allowed to leave her house without having one!

Grandma and I formed a bond over football. Nothing comforted you through a Steeler AFC Championship Game like Grandma’s Sunday dinner, followed up with a Klondike (or two if the Steelers lost). If you wanted to have some fun, you could ask her what she thought about Ben Roethlisberger. Or better yet, mention Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell. Of course, no Steelers played defense like they did in the 70s.

We talked some about faith, although we came to Christ from differing perspectives. She held tightly to her Catholic upbringing, but believed that her faith belonged to her and was not to be forced on others. About a year ago, we even discussed heaven and the afterlife–a most enlightening discussion with a 95-year old!

I am not writing this to wow anyone with stories of Grandma Good Morning’s greatness or overwhelming acts of faith. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is a reminder that those who are closest to us will often recall our lesser-known acts of loving kindness, offered to those that we love–and who love us–the most.

Grandma did not have medals or awards or walls full of degrees (although she proudly displayed a mug of every university attended by her children and grandchildren). But we will cherish the table that she always set for us, her hilarious bluntness, her asking “Huh?” every time we said something, her comforting recliner, and the glorious aroma of garlic pork roast that we could smell from the sidewalk. Her life and her home offer the memory of all the things that are good about family and Grandmas and loved ones that are separated by time and distance, all contained in a small house on the hill in Trafford, PA.

This is a reminder to me, my family and dear friends, some of whom have recently lost parents and grandparents themselves. We cannot hold on to the ones that we love forever, but precious memories of life and love call us back to them. These memories remind us that our rifts and differences are rarely worth the painstaking walls that we build between one another. And these walls are often an insult to the ones that have gone on before us.

Our families and loved ones are always less than perfect, just as we are. It is naively idealistic to think that all family rifts can mend or that we can all just get along. But events such as losing Grandma are swift and painful reminders of the importance of those who love us at our worst so that they can celebrate us at our best.

Like all families, we will gather this week and talk about how we should get together more often, at times other than mourning. Chances are that we will rarely do this, since most of us are separated by thousands of miles. But perhaps it will help us to remember that Grandma Good Morning taught us to live simply, love family, and always practice hospitality to one another.

My most treasured memory of that hospitality was our first Christmas together in 1991. Grandma always kept a picture of that event, because it includes almost every aunt/uncle/cousin and newborn in the family–including a very nervous new family and their newborn son. It is a privilege to know and love one’s spouse; but it is an honor to know and love her family as well.

That first Christmas introduced me to the glorious aroma of pork roast and potatoes, that hit me the minute I stepped out of the car. Uncle Bernie forced us to sing The 12 Days of Christmas around the table as he tried out his new video camera. Tracy’s cousin Kara and I got to know each other over post-dinner dish duty, including an explanation of why Mario Lemieux was better than Wayne Gretzky (her brother Brian chimed in on that one). We sat around for hours eating cookies and telling stories and watching my son Spencer play with his new toys (after all he was the new baby in the family).

And I remember thinking how welcomed and at home I felt, in a situation where I might have easily felt like an outcast.

That is the lesson that Grandma taught us–to be a gracious host, and value our family both old and new. The memories she gave us call us back to one another, to reconciliation, and to cherished memories.

Rather than holding to our pride and following our ego, may we all learn to seek to love one another and hold tightly to the simplicity of God’s graces. As Grandma taught us to do.

Christmas Scenery and the Theology of Manure

It seems that a lot of things get me unnecessarily irritated at Christmas.

I get irritated with pre-Labor Day Christmas music on the radio. Yes, yes, I know you all love it. So do I—after Thanksgiving! Let me add, however, that Christmas songs by WHAM! or Miley Cyrus irritate me at any time and should be banned for all eternity.

Of course crowds and traffic irritate me.  It’s a strange sensation, during our annual bacchanalia of Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards All, to be filled with the desire to run someone over with my shopping cart.

I’m not even a fan of the Griswold-like light displays, especially when viewing them keeps someone from getting into their driveway.

Seriously, I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch. I genuinely love Christmas. I just like to keep it in perspective, as in waiting until the day after Thanksgiving. Creating scarcity drives the value up.

But more than all of the headaches and hardships, one question about Christmas has really troubled me the last few years:  Why don’t nativity sets include manure?

The scenes placed on our mantles, coffee tables and church grounds are pristine and sanitized. Mary, a Middle Eastern Jewish girl, is milky-white and–of course–immaculate, even after just giving live birth. On a hay bale. In a barn. Without pain meds. I have to believe that she looked a lot less pristine in the 1st Century version.

Old Joseph (and he usually looks old) stands dutifully in the back, having just delivered his child in spite of the fact that he would have zero knowledge of live birth. Perhaps a midwife is a little too realistic for our tastes.

And then we have perfectly swaddled 8-pound, 6-ounce baby Jesus in His little golden fleece diapers. And, of course, no crying He makes as he rests, perfected and squeaky-clean in an animal feed trough. (And that’s what it was–but we use “manger” because it sounds a lot more holy).

And of course, we must have barnyard animals in our scene. Clean, gazing lovingly, and without a se dropping anywhere to be found near their feed trough. Since it was empty enough to hold a baby, the animals must have been eating that day, right?

Once again, I love traditional Nativity scenes, as they bring back wonderful childhood memories. It was often my job at our house to set up the characters in the hand-made stable my father built. I even like the lawn light-up Jesus Mary and Joseph sets that adorned our neighbors’ lawns.

But the older I get, the less comfort these bring. I simply have to wonder if these depictions are anywhere close to the real scene of the Holy Family. Does it not make sense that if Jesus was born in a stable and placed in an animal feed trough, there was some manure close by?

Deb-Richardson Moore, pastor of Triune Mercy Center in Greenville, SC, reminded me last Sunday of a story I forgot years ago, from a book called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. In this version of the original Gospels, a group of neighborhood street children named the Herdmans invade the local church Christmas play.

These un-kept children, whose single mother works two jobs, bully other kids out of the lead parts and take over, with the big sister Imogene Herdman playing the role of Mary. They steal all the refreshments, smoke cigars in the restrooms before rehearsal, and decide that they need to rewrite the story.

The Herdmans had never heard the stories of Luke and Matthew that we take for granted. When they discover the manure of the world into which Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is born, they find the story unacceptable. Their revised version of the Nativity includes beating the imaginary innkeeper into giving Mary a room, telling the filthy shepherds to get away, and using the gold from the Wise Men to pay off someone to kill Herod.

You see, they recognize that the Gospel is one where Jesus enters the world surrounded by manure. They are offended and scandalized!

Perhaps our Christmas pageant needs to be interrupted with the offensive news of the Gospel that our God was born next to a pile of potential fertilizer. We created the sanitized, G-rated, cozy version. Jesus offends our reality by coming into the world surrounded by manure.

He did not come to give us a comfortable, pristine, white version of Christmas, one untouched by the reality of the manure of real life. He came to empower us to begin cleaning up the mess, to work for His Kingdom Come.

It’s kind of like our homes. We often ignore the mess in the house until we recognize that someone is coming who might see it. We would never accept an infant coming to our house and sleeping next to a pile of excrement. We would immediately begin to clean up the mess and create a better place for a baby to reside on its first night in our presence.

The Christ child comes as our guest, and we should be so mortified by the mess surrounding him that we are compelled to join in helping Him to clean it up. We cannot truly see Jesus unless our hearts are moved to shovel away the injustice, poverty, neglect and struggle of our global neighborhood—one pile at a time.

The offensive nature of the God-child, born in filth that would normally require a DSS investigation, is that it will not allow us to ignore suffering and pain, even when we don’t understand it. We are called by this baby to change the story to one of peace, justice and mercy. In other words, we are to work for the Kingdom of God here on earth, in the middle of the mess into which God was also born.

I am reminded that, at the end of the book, the Herdmans are moved to tears when they realize that this Jesus is indeed born for them, in all of their wild, mean and broken ways. The rest of the church is then reminded that Christmas pageants are about the birth of hope into a hopelessly filthy world.

Maybe that is the value of our picture-perfect Nativity scenes. Maybe they can remind us that the beauty of perfect love comes to us and lives with us even in the middle of our piles of manure. WE are the mess, and God’s ultimate grace is offered to us at Christmas in spite of ourselves. As the Dave Matthews Band tells us in Christmas Song:

So the story goes, so I’m told

The people he knew were Less than golden hearted

Gamblers and robbers

Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers

Like you and me…

Searching for love love love

Love love love

Love love is all around

The beauty and power of Jesus, with us and for us, is found in following the true love of the Living Christ, in spite of the messes that we see around us. As we look at the scenes of the Holy Family in our homes and churches this year, may we see that these perfect images exist because the ultimate grace of Christ has overcome the dirt and filth that surrounds us. He does so with a compassion and love that we cannot help but share–and if we’re not sharing it, then we have failed to truly understand the grace of the manger. (Or feed trough, if you will).

Merry Christmas to you all. And may your vision of the stable remind you that the beauty of the season is found Jesus the Christ, loving us so much that he came into a world full of manure—and empowering us to love others as He loved us.

(In addition to Dave Matthews, I highly recommend you give a listen to The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne).