Tag Archives: christian living

Ministry by Inches

Years ago, a teacher joined the Army chaplaincy. He was idealistic, hungry, and ambitious. He dreamed of adventure and glory. He had visions of going to war, preaching – Billy Graham style – and flocks of war-torn Soldiers would come to Jesus. If he was really honest, he kinda hoped he’d get a chance to shoot a terrorist or two too. He was a wandering fundamentalist. He had been through 9/11 and had grieved those days. He had been denied entry to combat troops but waited his turn, bided his time, went into seminary and found a place in the front lines as a Chaplain.

He believed the rhetoric that Iraq was a just war. A war to defend the homeland.

So he went. And he learned. And he fought. And he returned a different man. He was changed. He saw the world differently. He came away disenfranchised and disillusioned, haunted by the thought that maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t as he had been told. Maybe, just maybe, this was a hollow sacrifice.

He had seen so much death. So much destruction. So much sacrifice and so much heroism. Men who laid it all on the line for the men under him. Women, leaving traditional gender roles and heroically owning their space on the battlefield. He saw an America he didn’t think existed. One funded by massive amounts of cash. An America that seemed happy to contract out essential services and creating a proxy second class. A class that bowed their heads  and got off the sidewalk when Americans walked by. A real, no-kidding two class system with haves and have nots. It shocked him. He didn’t know what to do with that. He experienced the American Soldier, at once a hero, the best of their country, and also terrible, awful people capable of all manner of evil. Over the years, nose to the grindstone, he witnessed a country unsure of what to do with their sons and daughters who became warriors. They seemed to care but abdicated their role in holding civilian leadership accountable for sending them to war. It seemed all to easy to focus on killing the marginalized in some other place and thus ignore the chaos brewing at home.

The tension exploded in him. The fundamentals of his youth did not answer the questions swirling in his head. His journey brought him to this conclusion – violence only begets more violence.

He toyed with pacifism. But it wasn’t for him.

However, he saw truth in the ancient Zoroastrian thought, “Violence can beget fear, stalemate, annihilation, dominance, or more violence, but it cannot beget love, justice, abundant life, community or peace.” (From Saving Paradise by Brock and Parker)

But his life was at the margin of violence. Sometimes, he was in the middle of it but mostly, he operated on the margin. Men and women for all sorts of reasons (few having to actually do with defending America) had volunteered to do violence and his role was to ensure they had the free exercise of religion while they did it. He was also expected to advise commanders of the morale and morals of their Soldiers while being the voice for ethical prosecution of said violence.

It tore at his soul.

Who am I kidding? It tears at my soul. It is at once terrifying and exhilarating to know the power at the disposal of the US Army. It is empowering to know what kind of violent force can be brought to the table by a battalion of Soldiers. But, oh the tension. The pain in my heart when I take seriously the teachings of Jesus and the reality of my work.

How does serving as a Chaplain in the most effective expeditionary land Army the world has ever seen mesh with “bringing Soldiers to God and God to Soldiers?”

For me, its only possible in the inches. When I step back and look at the meta, the over all strategy, it is overwhelming and sometimes depressing. When I focus on the steps in front of me, the inches and the margins, I see great ministry. I see God walking with Soldiers as they muddle through. Sometimes, its me doing the muddling and my Soldiers revealing God to me.

guitar on the roadThe crowds never happened for me. Most services I do are very small. Today I did four. At two of them, it was me and one other person. That is the nature of this work. Its one at a time. Person to person. It’s me walking from gun crew to gun crew, a troubled marriage here, a struggling spirit there. This one wonders if the God of his youth is still worth believing in. This one has the heartbreak of a poor choices impacting her life. This one wonders if they were just crazy joining the Army and are, frankly, frightened of what comes next.

They speak to me in the darkness, in smoke breaks, and walking along the trail. Drinking a hot cup of coffee, they sigh deeply and wonder aloud if any of their sacrifice and effort are worth it.

Its a question I ask.

I’m not sure I know the answer but I know the path to find it. I know grief and I know sorrow. I know the inches and the margins.

And I’ll walk with them. Every step of the way.

Perhaps that is the ministry I seek from the Holy Spirit. To walk with me in the inches and margins.

Every step of the way.

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Ten Year Itch Part 2: Calling

When I was in college, it was always a mystery to me how other “preacher boys” (always boys of course) just knew God’s exact will for their lives. I mean they KNEW it. There was this whole ritual that included finding a verse in the Bible (the more obscure the better) that spoke to them in “just that way” and somehow pinpointed on a map the exact location, job title, and sometimes the woman who would accompany them and bear their children…. sometimes the woman knew too…

Then there was passive-aggressive breakup move (might have used it myself a time or two *rolls head in shame*) where the guy would ask out a girl because he was following God’s leading, rejoice in God’s bounty as the relationship progressed, experience a “check in their spirit” as the relationship started to be, oh I don’t know, normal and finally, once again following the leading of God, break-up with the girl. God’s will all the way.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

23 years old. Visiting my Dad in Pensacola. Pre-Army.

So what then is a call?

Maybe it would be better to ask, what is NOT a call? I knew that whatever clear guidance the other guys I went to school with were feeling, I was not getting it. I knew it wasn’t some kind of warm feeling. Turns out, that Scripture means whatever you want it to mean so that wasn’t helpful. I never had a “burning in the bosom.” All my campfire decisions were exactly that. As an adult looking back, I can see my family of origin issues in every life altering declaration of God’s leading.

For many years, I put hope in that tired axiom, “if you can do anything else in life, you probably should. If you are called to preach, you won’t be able to do anything else.” But then, I love to preach. I mean, I really enjoy preparing and delivering sermons. I get meaning the purpose from preaching. I am more myself there than about anywhere but… there are many ways I can earn a living and not preach. Typing this blog post, as an Active Duty Army Chaplain, I have not preached a sermon in 9 months.

9 months.

In 15 years of full time Christian ministry, I’ve never made my living as a preacher. Ever. I’ve been a teacher, worship leader, chaplain etc. But paid as a preacher – not so much. And I’m ok with that. I came to terms years ago with working a meaningful, fulfilling job to finance my preaching habit. Often, it seems the best ministry I’ve done has been on my time, voluntarily given.

As a young man, I declared that I was “called to preach” and I believe that I was even if I’m not sure as an adult, what that means.

What is a call?

Direction. Meaning. Purpose. Fulfillment. Opportunity.

It’s that moment in a believers life when she or he experiences the intersection of what they love and a real human need. It’s getting on board with the plan the Divine has for the world. It’s knowing that what you are about is what God is about.

I experienced it in the classroom at New Life Christian School in Dunellen, NJ. I loved being a teacher. Not every day, but most days.
I experienced it downrange, in Iraq, serving the Soldiers of 2-121 Infantry Battalion and the 603d Aviation Support Battalion.
I experienced it teaching ethics to the medical hold Soldiers of the 832d Ordinance Battalion.
I experienced it, deeply, in my Clinical Pastoral Education group.
I experienced it teaching Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) to civilians who volunteered at a homeless shelter in Huntsville, AL
The day I walked into a prison, I knew I was where I needed to be. It’s existential, it’s mystical, it’s spiritual – and it was clear. I experienced it throughout my time both at the Joint Regional Correctional Facility and the United States Disciplinary Barracks.

I experience it every single time and get behind a pulpit and preach. It’s what I’m here for.

A calling is sacred. A calling is personal. It is fundamental to my journey as a Christian.

But does it change?

I’m not sure. I know I have changed. I have grown. I’ve become a different person than I was ten years ago when I started this journey.

Was I called in the Army?
I have a journal that I kept while teaching that first year at New Life. In it, close to the front, bookended by one of those “God’s leading” relationships – 9/11 happened. Jesse Gardner and I sat in a room that included kids who parents worked down at/by the Towers and watched them collapse. We gathered on that Wednesday night service the next day as traumatized Christians gathered, prayed and told their stories. At the end of the week, I wrote, “This week the Towers went down. We’re going to war. I don’t know how or when but I’m going to be a part of this.”

I tried to join the Army that fall but medical issues kept me out.

I came in several years later after completing seminary. Deployments defined the first 5 years, then a year interlude at an Advanced Individual Training unit, and then CPE, then the prison. My time in the Army has been one of constant engagement in the lives of Christians and non-Christians alike. It’s been amazing.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

Me, meeting my new Daughter after my second deployment in 2008. Sophie was a year old.

But was I called?
Not sure. I know I wanted an adventure. I knew I wanted an opportunity to prove my manhood. I knew I wanted to go to war. I knew I wanted to fulfill a childhood dream.

I did all that. Checked those blocks. I finally arrived at Ft. Campbell and now, I just don’t like any of it. The possibility of going to Air Assault school just pains me and the talk of war saddens me. The man who came into the Army a decade ago joined to go to war. He had no children and no real future plans. He just had a passion and needed to accomplish something.

Does calling change?
I still love preaching. I still love teaching. I still love work in which there is a clear line connecting the work I do with changed lives and the visible working of God in other’s lives. That has not changed.

You know, it occurs to me that I’ve never believed that the specific location really mattered in terms of exercising a call to ministry. Just do the work and the location/job title/congregation will take care of itself.

During my time at CPE, I developed this pattern of call, it’s not for everyone but it’s how I work with God’s call in my life:

There are human needs, there is the Divine plan to meet those needs, there are my hopes/desires/skills/gifts and they intersect. This vocation is then confirmed by others who, themselves, follow close to God’s voice. Calling/confirmation. It’s what works in my life.

I’m interested in what others have experienced in relationship to ” the call.

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Filed under Army, Chaplaincy, Theology, Two Pastor Family

An Ally Every. Single. Day.

Back in February, I “came out” as it were as an “open and affirming” chaplain. It’s had an interesting effect on my ministry. Over the last few months, after leaving the prison and going to my mid-career Army chaplain school, it’s been revealing just what that means for me.

1. It means being an ally every day – for example, yesterday, when I took this picture in front of the Circular Church in Charleston, SC, one chaplain made a comment about the “interesting colors.”

God is still speaking

I replied by saying how cool it was that when this church said they welcomed everyone, they meant it. Another chaplain made a comment about the size of the church, something like, “Well, no wonder they are dying since they left the truth” – or words to that effect. I gently questioned if he was saying that there were not conservative churches dying across the country? Then pointed out that this church, unlike many others, had been around since the 1600s.

 

Progressive Church

Conversation quickly moved on.

I’m not a quick-witted person; I wish I had zingers that I could throw out there, but I’ve realized that the best way to advocate for others is to simply tell the other story, counter the embedded narrative and to do it in love.

2. It means being gentle and allowing people to grow in their time. Not everyone is ready for their theology to be drastically confronted. To be clear, I am much harder on chaplains than any other group since they, of all people, should understand treating others with dignity and respect – and should be able to handle having their theology questioned. Sometimes, I’m gentle in poking holes in arguments or reflecting what a statement might sound like to an LGB* Soldier – other times, I just lay it out there and watch the sparks fly.

Either way, I try valiantly to couch all advocacy in love.

But bullying – that I confront. There is too much to loose.

3. It means saying it out loud. I’ve talked to more chaplains about this subject than any other. Saying, “Well, look. I’m open to everyone, if they would just talk to me, reach out to me, they would find that I’m a loving and caring individual.”

That’s not enough.

And it’s not going to happen.

Here’s the thing: when dealing with those who have been battered and bullied by theology and churches for this long – we need to be clear and direct about how we, as clergy, will interact with them. If you are truly welcoming, then say it and be specifically inclusive. Let people know who you are welcoming to, and how you will treat them when they come to you. Put up signs. Make statements.

Sign

4. It means being an ally for everyone. I have found that it’s not just LGB* Soldiers that need an ally – I try to use my limited status, power, and responsibility as an Army chaplain/officer to be an ally for all minority groups I come across. Minority faith groups need intentionality. Women, other ethnicities – it means separating from a joke, even the well meaning ones – because joking from a position of power and majority sounds an awful lot like bullying.

It means saying something.

And that is where it’s actually the hardest.

I think the most important lesson I’ve learned about being an O&A chaplain is this: being an advocate for others requires more than just big statements and signs on my door, it means taking the small opportunities to talk to others, challenging assumptions, and lovingly letting others know:

You are welcome here.

By the way, this blog inspired me to write this morning. Good thoughts.

*I say LGB since the Army has yet to allow Trans Soldiers to serve openly, though it’s looking at the problem.

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Billy Graham Library, A Mechanical Cow, and what unintentional prejudice looks like

Facepalm.

It was a total facepalm moment.

There I was, staring at the silly mechanical talking cow that was introducing me to the farming history of Billy Graham. It was a protestant chaplain field trip to the Billy Graham Museum, Charlotte NC. The opening exhibit is a full size talking cow that praises God and Billy Graham. Its four minutes of “halleluah-indnt-God-great-praise-Jesus-this-is-where-Billy-was-born” talk.

In the best stereotypical “Aunt Jemima” black woman voice I’ve heard… ever…

It’s the only distinctively black voice in the entire museum. The only one. Every other voice I heard was distinctively Caucasian. Mostly, who you hear speak are narrators and Billy Graham but they are all serious and they are all white.

The only levity in the whole place is the silly praising talking cow, in the barn, behind the fence. It’s meant to be funny, bring a smile, and appeal to the kiddos.

And it’s the only black voice.

In 2014.

Celebrating a man who worked diligently (at least that is certainly what the museum said in its various exhibits) at working toward reconciliation and bringing diversity to the world.

For what it’s worth, I seek to understand Billy Graham in the world in which he was raised, I give him great credit as a person who worked for and actually achieved reconciliation and diversity across the American religious landscape.

It’s what makes the decision to make the only person of color voice the silly, talking cow even worse.

And then there was the prayer.

Before we went in, an older man who works for the library wanted to pray for the large group of Army chaplains who was about the tour the museum. In his prayer, he passionately prayed for male chaplains who bring the gospel to male Soldiers. I know he didn’t mean to exclude the female chaplain who was there, I’m certain that he didn’t intend to exclude all the female Soldiers in the US Army – but he did.

This is why we, as Christians and certainly as chaplains have GOT to be more intentional about inclusive language. We need to name everyone.

I’m certain that the library didn’t intend to be prejudicial when they chose the black voice for the talking cow, I’m sure that when they respond to the letter I’m sending them, that they’ll talk about Billy’s dedication to diversity and reconciliation.

It just highlights how blind we white men tend to be when it comes to minorities. We are just unaware of who we leave out and what prejudice looks like.

We’re better than this.

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Hope (part two – from prison to the Tomb and beyond)

Speaking of the afore mentioned hope

There was no such hope for the two women that approached the tomb that Easter morning. (Matthew 28:1-10) There was no comprehension that anything was going to happen outside of their own suffering. They had hope that Jesus was going to be some kind of king, that Jesus would bring some real change to the world they lived in. But that didn’t happen. After all the talk, all the prophecy, all the miracles, all the hype, Jesus came to Jerusalem and nothing changed.

Nothing changed. Nothing.

The Pharisees still walked to and from the Temple, praying on the street corner. The Sadducees still were the elite. The Sanhedrin still ruled in Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate was still procurator of Judea. The Romans were still the power. The Zealots were still on the run, still hiding. The disciples, for all their talk, were in hiding.

The world on that Sunday morning was still the same. Nothing had changed.

At least nothing they could see.

Actually, the world had changed. Resurrection had come.

Their hope was based in their reality. No matter how much Jesus had been with them, spoken to them, shown them miracles they couldn’t explain, their life was still profoundly attached to the reality they knew.

So they went to the Tomb. To sit. To remember. To think on what life had been for the last few years. To reset. To think about what to do next. To grieve.

There was no better tomorrow. There was only suffering. Today.

They had limited vision. They only saw God working in a way that made sense to them. We do the same thing with our hope, we put all our eggs in one basket and see God working in a way that makes sense to us. We know that it’ll work out because the Army will send us where we need to go, we’ll get that promotion, that family member will come around and see life the way I see it, time will start happening the way I want it to – I have hope but my hope is built around my life.

Only God does not work like that. We can’t make God work the way we want God to work. NO amount of hoping will make it so. God’s plan is not bound by a world that makes sense to me. Truth is, we have no idea what comes next. We can look to the past to reassure us that we’ll live, but then, the moment may still hurt.

So the hurting women came to grieve.

This passage plays out as a drama – there is an earthquake, the guards “become as dead men,” an Angel says “do not be afraid. Sometimes our salvation brings fear. We need our God to assure us that in the midst of it all, it’s going to be ok.

They were grieving and needed hope. They needed a vision for they were dying. They looked to Jesus for Salvation but that didn’t happen so they came to the Tomb to wait.

I’m wondering what they did with Jesus’ words. I wonder if, in those moments before the earthquake, they thought about what Jesus had said. That he planned on going to Jerusalem, where he would die and rise again. I wonder if they talked about what that would be like. I wonder if they believed it.

I wonder if they set their mind on the heavenly reality. I wonder…

The Apostle writes to the early Church, “So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life is revealed, then you also will be revealed with him in glory.”

We have the resurrection. They didn’t. We have the benefit of looking back on their reaction thousands of years later and wondering about them. They didn’t.

But the challenge of looking heavenward still remains.

Too often, our vision, our hope, is earth centered. It is human-focused. We see only what we want to see. We see only what we are looking at and when we do that, we miss what God is doing. We miss the possibilities in God. I wonder what I have missed because I only could see what I wanted to see. I wonder what you have.

Seek the things that are above…” Actively do it. Actively seek. Make it happen. Saints – where are you looking? What are you seeking?

I wonder if they had been seeking a risen Lord – would they have looked somewhere other than the Tomb? I wonder if we tend to look for God in the last place we saw God instead of a new place with the earnest expectation that God is present and alive, actively moving in this world – in our lives.

I wonder how much extra pain we end up with because we’re looking in the wrong place for a God who is doing something we don’t even imagine is possible.

This Easter – hope in God.

Look Heavenward. Seek heavenly things. Look for what God is doing and imagine what God might be doing beyond my reality.

So that you too might be able to say, I am in sorrow right now, but I know that I will make it.

For if God is with me, who can be against me?

Hope is stronger than memory.

Salvation is stronger than sin.

Forgiveness is stronger than bitterness.

Reconciliation is stronger than hatred.

The open tomb is stronger than the bloodied cross.

The Risen Lord is stronger than the dead Jesus.

We are the Easter people.

We are the people of hope.

We are the people of the empty tomb, the Risen Lord, the new life in Christ.

– Kennon L. Callahan, Ph.D.

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Coming Out as Inclusive.

It would seem that a post about this would be completely unnecessary in the pluralistic world of the Army Chaplain Corps. It would seem that the directive to perform one’s own faith and provide for all the others would make such a statement redundant.

Only it’s not.

Somehow, this needs be said.

So, I am going to say it: I am a chaplain for ALL my Soldiers. All of them. The gay ones. The straight ones. The fat ones. The skinny ones. The conservative ones. The liberal ones. The religious ones. The non religious ones. The connected to church and the far away. The reason driven and the faith-based. The agnostic and the Christian. The pagan, the Muslim, the Hindu, the Buddhist, the whatever-you-happen-to-believe right now. Everyone I can think to mention and everyone else.

All means all.

This last summer, the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted to call all Disciples Congregations to be a welcoming people of grace to ALL God’s children. All is given as “race, gender, age, sexual orientation, gender identity, nationality, ethnicity, marital status, physical or mental ability, political stance or theological perspective.” Seems patently obvious but then, if we were all doing this already, such a statement would be unnecessary. This is my answer to that call.

A call given by my church but heard by me as a call from God.

I’ve been ministering in this way for well over two years now. I thought it sufficient to just ignore it and not really say anything. I thought it best to let people believe what they wanted about my ministry and be pleasantly surprised when they found out that I didn’t judge them (this is after they got the courage to come into the office for counseling). Over and over I heard my Soldiers, inmates, and family members vocalize that they didn’t expect me to be understanding. They would say something like, “frankly, I was worried about coming but you are different from other chaplains…” Still, I didn’t want to “put it all out there.”

“After all,” I reasoned, “if I make it too well known, I’ll just be labeled as the one who is “ok with the gays” and it’ll be all anyone thinks about when my name comes up. It’s just not that big a deal to me. I minister to everyone but surely, that’s a given.

Here’s the thing: I’ve met those with HIV because there was no safe place to identify as gay so they went to where they could and it was not safe. I have met those who ran from the church only to come to the Army for a sense of community and get rejected yet again. I’ve cried with those who finally say the words out loud, “I’m gay and I can’t tell anyone.” I’ve heard the stories about walking past the Chapel and in isolation, thinking about suicide but thinking there was no one inside who would help them.

It is not enough to just minister by word of mouth.

In a world where state legislators are literally passing laws that would allow them to refuse service to my fellow Soldiers (and everyone else) simply because of their orientation – it is not enough to be silent.

As a chaplain, I do not have a church to challenge with the Open and Affirming process, but I certainly can be exactly that – Open and Affirming.

I’m not saying this to be reactionary or a contrarian. I do not speak for anyone else but me.

I am saying this for the Soldier who is alone and thinks the world has rejected her because of who she is.

I am saying this for the Soldier walking by the chapel thinking that there is no one in there who can hear his pain and not judge him.

I am saying this for the spouse who, in shame, does not feel like he has anyone to turn to because of what he thinks about himself.

I am saying this for the parent whose gay child has just joined the Army and they are so worried that he’ll be abused for who he is.

I am saying this for the chaplains who also are “in the closet.” Truth is, they feel as I do but do not want to say it out loud and experience other chaplains reject them for interpreting Scripture differently from them.

I’m saying this for me. I’m saying this because if one of my children came out and was in the Army, I hope they would have a chaplain that would help them process what they are going through without judgment or condemnation.

I’m saying this for all those I have known, closeted and not, who have experienced great pain because the God they know and love is represented as doing the opposite.

From now on, this sign will hang on my door as a message to all the Soldiers, family members, and other chaplains I run across in my career – You are welcome.

Sign

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Post Christmas Feelings

My daughter was looking pensively out the window and my wife asked her what she was thinking, “Well,” she said, “sometimes Christmas just doesn’t feel the way I thought it would feel.” 

That happens sometimes doesn’t it. Sometimes, good things don’t entirely feel the way we thought it would feel or should feel or could feel. All those “coulds” and “shoulds” tend to just beat us up. Here’s the thing, Christmas is always best experienced in giving to others. The Holiday, at its best, celebrates the giving of the Divine to us humans. Thus, if a person really want to experience Christmas, it needs to get out of indulgence and into serving.
So, this, is Christmas.
“It is more blessed to give than to receive.” Not that there is not a blessing in receiving; it’s that the greater blessing comes through giving.

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Getting sucked into the Duck Disaster…

It wasn’t the interview. (I didn’t even know it was a thing until the memes started on my facebook feed. I don’t watch much tv and certainly not a show about rich people acting ignorant and poor when they are neither.)

It wasn’t what he said. (the man is entitled to an opinion and certainly free to share it)

It wasn’t him getting dismissed from the tv show. (the cable channel certainly have the right to retain those who represent their brand. Also, I don’t watch the show and have no attachment to it. If it was “Almost Human” on the other hand…)

It was the all the hullabaloo that started after. It was the perceived connection to religious freedom and the 1st Amendment right to free speech that got to me. It was the implication that somehow these statements about others (specifically African Americans and Homosexuals) represented Christ, Christianity and the Church.

They might represent Phil Robertson or maybe even his local church but they certainly do not represent me, my church, or my understanding of Christ.

Phil Robertson is my brother in Christ. We serve the same Lord. However, we might disagree on what exactly that looks like. And that’s ok. Frankly, the whole thing gave me opportunity to reflect on some things that are important to me. I like that about the internet and even Facebook. I did have a couple thoughts that I posted:

So… Here’s the thing. Freedom of speech is emphatically not the same thing as freedom from responsibility. The rich white guy certainly has the right to say what he wants and the rich entertainment company certainly has the right to fire him for it.
No one is losing their rights!!! They are just being held accountable.
Imagine that.

Followed by:

Also, before the band wagon really gets going, perhaps this could be considered,

– should a private company be forced to re-hire (or unfire) a person who publically disagrees with their principles and values and no longer represents what they are about?

Should churches be able to fire pastors who no longer agree with and represent their theology/principles/values???

Still a free speech issue?

Both interesting thoughts I probably would not have had apart from this silliness.

A kerfuffle like this tends to highlight just how differently Christians tend to experience and interpret their faith. Whenever this happens, we start to separate into groups, building walls, lobbing mortars at a perceived enemy.

Here’s the truth, we’re all still family. There is room in my family for Phil Robertson and Ray Boltz. Al Mohler and Gene Robinson. Mark Driscoll and Frank Schaefer.  Carlton Pearson and Ben Carson.

Our faith is big enough for all the family…. even the arguing cousins.

So, thanks GQ. Thanks Phil Robertson. May our Family be big enough for love…. and arguments…

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Filed under Peace, Theology

Shame. Hope.

Guilt. Shame. Church.

Do they go together ? Sometimes, it certainly feels that way.

Why is it that the Church uses those tools so much? Seems like every time I turn around, I am meeting someone who has experienced great hurt at the hands of the Church as a result of a very ungracious way of communicating guilt and shame.

Guilt is what we feel when we’ve done something wrong.  Guilt is sometimes deserved and sometimes not deserved.

Shame is what we feel when we are wrong. Shame is exposure. When what we’ve been trying to hide is exposed to others.

In the story of the nativity, guilt and shame are powerful players.

It begins in Matthew when Joseph discovers Mary is pregnant. 1:2. Seems that Mary was “found to be with child.” Discovered. Uncovered. Exposed. Shamed.

This is not just about Mary. In Matthew’s Gospel, she enters the story with this: there was a girl, promised to an honorable man named Joseph. They did not have sex. She was pregnant. She is discovered and now it’s Joseph’s problem. But Joseph is an honorable man. He is a just man. He doesn’t want Mary to be hurt.

Stop.

Listen.

The story of the birth of Jesus Christ, the opening story of a faith of untold millions in human history starts out talking about sex. Specifically, scandalous sex. There was this girl you see…

For shame.

This is not just about Mary. Marriage was a big deal in the ancient Mediterranean culture. Marriage is the glue that holds the culture together. Who your kids marries determines what kind of care you can expect in your old age. Having children gave you legacy and workers in your family business. Much of Mary’s young life was focused on her future husband and that choice was more about her family than her. What had taken place here was a negotiation between Mary’s father and Joseph’s father. There were certain obligations that needed to be met. Mary had no life of her own – she belonged to her father until her father gave her to her new Lord. The one who would care for her as she bore children to him. Joseph was obligated to provide for his parents in their old age. To do this, he needed children to work in the shop, learn the trade, grow and care for him through marriages that he would negotiate. This was not about love, this was about culture. Security. Continuity. The bride did not expect love, companionship, or comfort. This is a gender-divided world where men and women had little contact. Their union was arranged for the political or economic advantage of their families. If love grew from such a thing, it was a blessing though not necessary.

In America, we talk about marriage being the social glue that holds culture together but our ideas of marriage and their ideas of marriage are oceans apart. In ancient Palestine, Marriage held the social contract, the security of food and the passing on of necessary work. These were not wealthy people, they were just people living in a society. That society valued marriage in a way we cannot fully grasp. The whole process was a ritualized removal of Mary from her family. The groom’s father offers gifts, money, or services to the bride’s father to win the daughter for his son. The mother’s negotiate the deal to ensure that all is above board and fair. The bride’s father makes the ultimate decision. It sounds harsh to our ears but we are talking here about property. And community. And the security net the society depends on.

To be single is disastrous. Certainly for a woman.

To be single and have a bastard? Almost no other option excepting prostitution existed.

Discovered. With. Child.

I see Joseph pacing. “Does your father know? Really?? And he didn’t tell me?? This is not right!!”

Mary, sobs in the corner, “the angel… said I was highly favored… said I was going to…”

“STOP!! Just stop! You don’t even know what you’re saying! Will you add blasphemy to your harlotry??”

In the ancient Mediterranean world, people believed that unless prevented by appropriate measures, a man and woman who found themselves alone would inevitably have sexual relations. This is why the culture prescribes that men (fathers, husbands, brothers) watch, guard, and protect the women in their care.

There were a variety of strategies for accomplishing this protection. One was to ensure that there were always chaperones – woman, children – always around. The other was to structure the houses in such a way that there were inner rooms and courtyards that would prevent outside men from seeing the young girls. Again, if you are the father to a young woman in this time, protecting your daughter from violation is of paramount importance. You love your children, and they are your treasure. Literally. If this sounds like some Muslim cultures you have read about, you would be correct in seeing some similarities. Their world and our world are not the same.

Discovered to be with child. Calamity. When Joseph, their pious man, realizes, long after the rumors have been floating around, probably in the presence of her mother, that Mary is pregnant – they whole paradigm shifts in that moment. Trust is gone. Mary’s father had negotiated in good faith. Good faith! He guaranteed a virgin that would bear him many children. But this! This treachery. This betrayal! Someone needed to pay. He certainly had.

This was not just about Mary. This was about a system that had collapsed. Mary is betrothed. Our modern ideas about “engagement” do not capture the arrangement that has been made here. Betrothal was a family event rather than between individuals. Betrothal was the initial phase in a process in which the prospective spouses were set apart for each other. This had taken place years ago. The couple did not live together but a formal divorce was required to break the publically established betrothal. Any sexual relations outside of marriage was adultery. This was not a case of young love – this is adultery. Clearly, there is a problem. Perhaps her brothers had not cared for her. Perhaps her father had not protected her enough. Without the proper “tokens of virginity” after the marriage, her family would be shamed.

Joseph clutches his chest. Sinks to his knees. He was not ready for this. He’d never be ready for this. The girl he was promised huddled uncomfortably in the corner protecting her stomach, she was afraid. She was afraid of him. She was right to. He could have her stoned. Dragged into the street. Ruin her father and family.  They would never do business in this town again.

Now, Matthew, introduces the hero factor. Joseph is presented with two bad choices. He could expose this girl to death (Numbers 5:11-31) or return her to her father though divorce. He certainly does not want to take responsibility for a child that his not his!! Who would do that? The cultural honor code that society functions by, the “way things are” demand that he not let this stand. This child does not get to get away with messing that up. Regardless of her claims of supernatural conception.

But he is a just man. He does not want blood on his hands. He does not want to ruin this family. He does not want to be made out more of a fool that he is already been. People have been talking. Mary was not a part of the monthly ritual bathing. He knows that the rumor mill is in full operation. He is already tainted by this relationship – better to end it now, find someone worthy, and hope the whole thing is forgotten.

He makes plans for divorce. Not public shaming divorce but discreet and private divorce.

Isn’t it something that for all the stories of the birth of Jesus, Matthew chooses to start out this way? The lineage of Jesus through Joseph, a helpless girl, and a noble man.

It’s the stuff of great novels or rubbishy ones – depends on what you like to read I guess. Only, it’s not a novel and Joseph is a man plunged into a personal trauma he never wanted nor was prepared for.  He didn’t ask for this. He didn’t sign up for this. He certainly didn’t think he was up to the task of being “step dad.” His family was about to look not very normal.

Here’s the thing, we’re very good in our puritan culture of holding up a family system that we identify as “normal.” There’s a father, a mother, idealized kids, dog, picket fence, college, sports… the whole thing. When something comes along that looks different, even when we are witnessing redemption at work, sometimes, we let shame do our talking and condemn what doesn’t look right.

Until we’re the ones with the weird looking family system. Until we’re the ones with the kids from different parents and the baggage of divorce.

I have 7 adopted brothers and sisters. Several of them have handicaps that are quite severe. I grew up with a mantra – “what’s normal?” I mean really – what. is. normal?

The church seems to be really great at deciding and then spiritualizing what normal looks like. Jesus was not born into a normal situation. This was not lost on anyone and Matthew chooses to lead with it. Something very different is happening here.

All the traditional rules about the birth of a king are off. All the standards of lineage are broken. It is fascinating to me that Matthew spends all this ink laying out the Jesus bloodline and then saying – but that’s not how this one went down… there was this girl… betrothed to a man…

The birth of Jesus Christ is not about joy and happiness.  It does not seem to be too full of joyful anticipation. There is the journey of Mary to see Elizabeth. Seems a bit strange no? A young woman spirited away to another town visit with her Aunt in her “advanced maternal age…” Then there was the whole taxes thing and the long journey and the born in a barn… Not much about this birth is the way it’s supposed to be.

But look what it became.

Christmas is often like that. The season seems to highlight over and over again how life is not always played out the way it was planned. People are not where they are supposed to be. Plans didn’t turn out. Dreams didn’t pan out. Goals were not reached. Christmas is fun but can’t really hide the emptiness.

Not every Christmas is all tinsel and cookies. Not every birth is baby showers and cuddly blankets.

Joseph knows that feeling.

He carries through with the marriage out of duty. God tells him what’s going on, what’s expected of him, and Joseph responds immediately. No divorce. No putting away. This step-dad steps up to the plate and does what God has asked him to do. He does not choose shame and guilt. He does not walk away. He embraces and scandal and owns his calling.

This is why Christmas is so hopeful. Life is not always what we want it to be but there is hope. There is always hope.

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It’s just a little officer pt…

So there I was, a while ago, playing soccer for some friendly officer pt when I realized that the normal rules of soccer didn’t apply. Grrr. Frustration.

Here’s the thing. Soccer is my sport. I like it. I played it in college. I know the game. In a world of jocks (the Army) it’s the one sport I’m halfway good at. Thus, rules matter to me.

But only in the case of soccer. The rest… not so much.

Totally inconstant. I can own that.

There is a film called “Revolutionary Road” where one of the characters says No one really forgets the truth, they just get better at lying.”

This quote was highlighted to me on the day I lost my temper at our morning officer PT. There were some perceived injustices happening (again, I re-iterate that it was my perception) and this tapped a part of my personality that I don’t like. I like to think of myself as relaxed, removed, unflappable and easy going. Which is mostly true however what is also true is that I am a type A, driven, intense person who wants to win. I try really hard to keep all that in balance but sometimes it comes out in inappropriate ways and then I experience shame and guilt and embarrassment and all the stuff that goes along with exposing what I want to hide.

In some ways I think most of us have that. There are parts of us that we are not down with. We don’t really like. It triggers some embarrassment in us when it comes out. Authentic living integrates all the parts of who we are into our lives in a healthy way so that we are more holistic, healthy people who, instead of living out of our projected identity (that we have to go to great lengths to protect), live out of our authentic self – what you see and experience is who we are.

Leadership that rises from our core is the best leadership possible. The question to ask yourself today is, who are you really?”

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