Tag Archives: division

Division Test : Rivalry poisons God’s farm

This was a message for the church in September of 2001, not long after 9/11

It happened again. I sat in front of MTV gape-jawed the other day. I flipped to it during the commercials on another channel and I happened upon a new video of an Elton John song called “I Want Love.”

I admit, I am regularly tormented by MTV, but I don’t think I have ever seen or heard such a misleading, stick-in-your-head little pop poem as this song — and Elton is probably scheduled to perform it at the Kimmel Arts Center when he’s over there to help open it in December! I’m almost afraid to play it for you, but I have to. Because we need to be able to differentiate between the love of Christ and this false love Elton is overwhelmed by. And even though our scripture is not speaking directly about this tonight, at the base of what Paul is talking about in 1 Corinthians 3 is his own torment about the plight of the Elton Johns of the world and their influence. Listen to cravings Elton describes as he sings through the vacant eyes of Robert Downey Jr.

Elton John and Bernie Taupin are probably writing about the “love” of drugs and how the obsession with them kills people on the inside with easy ecstasy. Robert Downey Jr. had about ruined his career with drug use and this video is the start of his resurrection. Maybe all the MTV viewers get this backstory, but I am afraid more of them admired the song for  “owning” the “reality” of being isolated from true love and being “brave” about it, as follows:

I want love on my own terms. Don’t be nice to me because I can’t feel anything. I’m dead in places where other people are liberated. Don’t make me submit to anything. Don’t ask me to be surrounded by anything. It is what it is.

That’s the kind of  I-want-it-the-way-I-want-it “love” scaring Paul when he is writing to the Corinthian church. In chapter 13 he gives them a little love song of his own, which is a worthy alternative to Elton’s. But here, in chapter 3, he is just trying to get people to look at the symptoms of caving-in to what is worst about us as people. He is not judging people, or saying we should never struggle, he’s just trying to get the love of Jesus at the center of inevitable troubles we face and cause.

Elton’s kind of “love,” the kind of relating he’s describing, kills souls, as I think Elton knows. He can see it makes him dead in places where other men feel liberated. I see that kind of unlove killing whole churches which should be all about liberation. When struggle turns to strife and trouble turns to trauma, we’re into the kind of thinking and acting that killed Jesus. Thank God Jesus rises again! That’s chapter 15.

So let’s check out 1 Corinthians 3. Here’s an outline of what Paul is saying to them, and, by extension, to us:

  1. The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (1-4)
  2. So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (5-17)
  3. To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (18-23)

The jealousy and strife you are demonstrating are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. (vv. 1-4)

Paul says (I’m paraphrasing):

“People, I won’t talk to you as if you are spiritual because you are worldly–mere infants in Christ.  I gave you milk, not solid food, because  you weren’t ready for solids yet. And you apparently are still not ready.  You’re still stuck in pre-Jesus habits of the heart. For since there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not just like the world has always been? Are you not acting like humans out of relationship with God? When one of you says, ‘I follow Paul,’ and another, ‘I follow Apollos,’ what’s new about you?”

Can we agree on this? Jealousy and strife are killers. Rivalry is killing the world. One thing, among many things, that has really made me stop and think since September 11 is that many people are amazed that anyone could hate the U.S. so much as to bomb the Trade Centers. It is as if seeing people fight each other surprises them; it’s as if they missed the history of the last century. It is like they never heard themselves going off on their children, or never had anyone go off on them, or never stopped talking to someone because they would just as soon they moved away and were never heard from again. It is like they didn’t know that thousands of children die each day of starvation because no one cares for them. It is like they never heard of the Native American eradication project in the 1800’s in our own country.

We can be so blind. We really need a savior. Jealousy and quarreling should surprise no one. They are our mother’s milk. Most of us think fighting our rivals is an essential way to get justice, even as a way to have a self. We don’t think anything bad is happening among us sometimes, because we think it is “normal.” But it kills us and it kills the church.

The whole point of being the church is to undo this “carnality, this being-a-human-without-God-lifestyle” in us. The love of Jesus is at work among us to free us from being stuck in the world-as-usual. Paul is telling these good people that the rivalries they think are normal and right are going to kill their church. They will close the door to the Holy Spirit in their hearts and close the door to the Holy Spirit in the midst of them as a church if they keep it up. We need to be open to the Spirit of God to feel anything but we are pitted against this group, or excluded from that group, or suspicious or jealous of that group.

We have a lot of love here, but you can see how much we need the Holy Spirit of God as people assess their rivals and feel jealous or opposed to others. Just listen to some innuendo or actual quotes I’ve heard lately:

The artists in our church don’t care about racial reconciliation.
Center City people talk about living simply but they obviously don’t.
I haven’t been to worship in ages because there aren’t any good churches in Philadelphia.
A few people in the church make all the decisions.
I’m not in a cell because I doubt that people would be deep enough to handle how I share my soul.
I’m not going clear up to Germantown. No one goes there.
I don’t fit in because everyone is so young.
I don’t fit because everyone is a Democrat.
I don’t fit in because I am not such an evangelical Christian.

It goes on.

I don’t know whether those things are true or not. But I do know they cause strife. You may have gotten a little steam building up in you just thinking someone said one of them. They make for quarreling. And I know, even deeper, that they are often spoken under the spell of jealousy.

Jealousy is hostility toward someone, often a knee-jerk feeling about a rival who seems to have an advantage over you. I think we are all born jealous of God’s advantage over us. Jealousy let loose in God’s church, where the Holy Spirit resides, is a disaster. It is the anti-love that acts like a computer worm taking over your reactions. Jealousy makes you suspicious, it makes you guarded and defensive. Jealousy makes you competitive, makes your rivalries more important than your contribution to building community. Jealousy makes what others seem to have and what you lack the most important thing to you.

Paul says, “I can’t even talk about God to you! When you pass the division test, maybe we can get somewhere. But as long as jealousy is making you all rivals and not family, we’re back at square one, and even that square is in danger.”

So let me help you out with some Jesus-type-thinking. How the world was designed to work looks like this: We are all fellow-workers with God as he recreates the world in what might be likened to a huge farm reclamation project. So don’t mess up the parts of the farm that are already reclaimed. (vv. 5-17)

This is the idea: God is reclaiming the world from the wilderness. In Jesus, he is the sower, seeds are growing, and the farm is being tilled in territory that was once overgrown with weeds, infested and unproductive. It is like God’s farm, the earth, was overtaken by the jungle, like one of those Mayan cities in Yucatan that Gwen and I saw. One temple near Copan was so covered by vegetation that it looked like steep hill, not a pyramid (like in the pic). The Corinthian church is like part of God’s farm that has been placed back in cultivation and it is growing good things. Paul says, you’ve got to keep it free of weeds. Rivalry is like kudzu. It takes you over. It tangles you up and chokes out love. If you are one of those people who are forming a group around yourself, or even if you just are stubborn enough to want “love” the way you want it, you are like some big thistle of division planted in the middle of everyone’s life.

There is a lot more in these verses we could learn about, but the main thing I want to emphasize is this picture of what life is all about, because farming with God is what our church is all about. Farming is such a great organic picture and we want to thrive with the life of the Spirit growing in us. Being God’s farm is what being a cell, being a congregation and being a network of congregations is all about.

Let’s concentrate on the small group, the cell. Being God’s farm is what a cell is all about. We were discussing this at our meeting the other night. We aren’t similar people in our cell. Some of us would be natural rivals. But we are together because our common faith and love has given us this radical notion that we can grow something new in the world. It crosses divisions. We are God’s fellow-workers in this. So take note about how you relate to cells. If you like to go there and argue so you can feel like someone, you could be a weed. If you want them to give you love the way you want it and get mad if they disappoint you, you could be a thistle. If you can’t even get next to a group of people face to face at all and love them for Jesus sake and for the sake of reclaiming the farm with him, you may need to check out how he wants you to get involved another way.

To sum it up, here is the reality you live in. You’ve got it all when you have Jesus, so don’t settle for less. Why would we compare and grasp for more when God has already given us everything in Jesus? Pass the division test. (vv. 18-23)

Paul thinks his argument is pretty compelling. And don’t misunderstand him, he writes in a particular style that seems sort of combative. But it is just a style. He’s trying to get across God’s heart, not just win an argument. He says, in essence: If you are hearing me, if you agree that division kills and God has a plan for his farm, then, let’s give up the rivalries! All things are ours, whether Paul or Apollos or Peter or the world or life or death or the present or the future–all are ours. We are of Christ, and Christ is of God.

Jesus has opened up the way to eternity. The best is ours — even the best of these different groups in Corinth, the best of Paul or Apollos or Peter, or whoever or whatever, is ours. We don’t have to fight for it. God is delivering what is best to us. He started by giving himself in His son.

I think this is a profound way to live and I am trying to go with it. For instance: Periodically people ask me “what are you guys?” Maybe they mean, “What denomination are you against?” If they wonder if we are Presbyterians, I say, “Basically.” Baptists? “Of course.” Pentecostal? “Yes.” 

When I answer that way I am not being cute, because all are mine. One woman asked me if I were a priest. “Pastor” didn’t make any sense to her. So I finally said, “Sure, I’m sort of a priest.” I am of Christ. Who cares about being this or that other, I have the best of them all.

We are looking to be the new humanity without race or class, where there is no Jew or Arab, low-class or high-class, majority or minority, male or female, simple-liver or entrepreneur but Christ is all and is in all. In our church, where Jesus is in his temple, we are trying to get our minds and hearts around something bigger and deeper. Sometimes we call it the “both/and,” but that is too philosophical. In Christ it is just all – no balance necessary because Jesus personally holds everything together in love.

I don’t know what all this is meaning “practically” to you.

  • I at least think it should mean you look around the room tonight with Jesus eyes rather than the old, killer-instinct eyes of sorting out your rivals.
  • We should at least ask ourselves if we can pass a basic division test to see if we are more than just pre-Jesus humans.
  • At best it could practically mean that we can all breathe easier, now. We’ve got it all. All we can do is get better at accessing all that God is trying to get to us.

So we can let go of that painful, disappointing process of trying to find ourselves in comparison to another person, for better or worse. And we can stop trying to get for ourselves the life that God is desperate to give to us. We’ve got it. Connected to Jesus we have access to all of it, and it is just going to get more complete. I want that love.

Division is not new, reconciling always is: 2020 will be great for the church

In October, Megan McArdle wrote in the Washington Post, “I used to think there were certain rules about U.S. politics. There were things you had to do, like be nice to veterans. And things you could not do, like stand by a Supreme Court nominee accused of sexual assault, invite foreign leaders to investigate the families of your political opponents or campaign for president as a socialist.

If those rules ever held, the past five years have gutted them. President Trump hammers daily on institutional norms, to cheers from his supporters; Democrats, meanwhile, are considering their own round of norm violations as soon as they get back in power.

Something major has obviously changed. It’s tempting to ask, ‘What has happened to America?’ but even that question doesn’t capture the scale of what’s going on. Waves of radicalism have swamped stable political orders all over the Western world. “

Merry Christmas, everyone.

Image result for melting permafrost
Permafrost thaw ponds in Canada. Photo: Steve Jurvetson

People divide and cause division

I often tell the story of sitting out on the front lawn of our bargain house in Riverside, CA (fondly called the “Flintstone house” due to its creative stucco job) and asking the same question: “How could the country elect Ronald Reagan? It must be the beginning of the end.” We were probably right about the end, at least the end of something, if only the fracturing of the Evangelicals and Catholics.

When I was complaining about Trump to my 73-year-old, genealogy-loving brother the other day, he quickly reminded me, “Trump is not new.” If you read history you can easily find hundreds of examples of numbskulls elevated into power who make quick work of what wiser leaders took decades to build. It is a lot easier to tear something apart than to build it. The work of Charlemagne’s grandsons might be a good example.

As many have said, Trump is given too much credit for stirring up trouble when he may just be riding the divisions caused by other factors. McArdle summarized four movements Reagan never dreamed of that might be more responsible than the old men in power for the radical rivalries splitting governments these days – not to mention friendships, families and churches!

  • There is a growing division between the mobile class that floats from successful city to successful city and the people left behind in declining rust belts and rural areas. These floaters are the cosmopolitans and the others are the rooted, or as David Goodhart put it in his 2017 book “The Road to Somewhere,” the “somewheres” and the “anywheres.” I have met these “anywheres” all over the world and many have passed through Circle of Hope. I have written a bit about how they hide their money.
  • George Shultz, the economist and secretary of state under Ronald Reagan, argues that the ever-increasing centralization of the federal government exacerbates division. It pushes power away from localities to remote authorities that are less accountable to individual voters, and less trusted. Schultz told McArdle, “Accountability is one basic principal of good government…The other basic principal is trust. You have to have a government you trust.” Federalizing everything also turns every political question into a life-or-death battle between two sides that are increasingly distant from each other, not just geographically, but culturally and economically. Lack of trust is the one “trickle-down” theory that seems to work. All authorities are subject to incredible suspicion, even one’s cell leader. So we keep talking about building a trust system.
  • Eric Kaufmann’s “Whiteshift” (2019) parses a great deal of data and comes up with a compelling story of division all over the world. As immigration rates rise and so-called “white” majorities feel their culture and demographic dominance at risk, they flock to candidates and platforms promising to control the flood. This is also true in China (Uighers), India (Muslims) and South Africa (Zimbabweans). I called the 2016 election a “whitelash” along with many others.
  • Former CIA analyst Martin Gurri argues in “The Revolt of the Public and the Crisis of Authority” (2018) that the 21st-century information explosion has fatally weakened the old hierarchies that maintained social, economic and political order. The Internet has eroded the monopolies over information and expertise — or the communications systems transmitting them — that shaped and reinforced those hierarchies. Now networked insurgents are making inroads everywhere. People were already skeptical about any notion of truth before the Internet weaponized that skepticism. Now people have to wonder if their mom is spreading fake news the Russians contributed to her pastor’s news stream.

All these theories are probably right. We are in a perfect storm of factors that tend toward backlash, illiberalism, and disruption. Maybe the powers will find a way through and maybe the revolutionaries will keep us distracted until the melting permafrost drowns us all. It is hard to predict what will happen but it is not hard to feel anxious about the uncertainty.

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Jesus keeps bringing things together

As my brother might say, the newer things get the older they seem. Jesus was born the first time into an era of amazing innovation and astounding evil. What’s new? He is being born into the same situation now. Paul’s general criticism of humanity is as accurate now as when he first wrote it, “They exchanged the truth about God for a lie” (Romans 1:25). Last week, Christianity Today surprisingly called on the Evangelicals to admit the president has done the same thing: “His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”

Right now, in the middle of that, Jesus is raising up twenty and thirtysomethings, just like he raised up me and my friends. In many ways, they will change the world again. If they don’t reroute every Reagan and Trump, defeat every tyrant on the planet and reconcile every division, that won’t be surprising. But they will keep the truth about Jesus alive. And they will keep building a community in Christ where reconciliation is real.

So even though 2020 might be a political mess, I think it could be a glorious time for the church, especially Circle of Hope. We often feel tired and ineffectual, even while we are unusually strong and effective, but we still manage to look up and see the star moving over where Jesus is born. And we still manage to remember that God’s blessing is about peace on earth and grace to all. Our pastors and leadership team are helping us build a counterculture where we can live in reconciliation and from which we can demonstrate an alternative to whatever our truth-challenged society comes up with.

It is going to be a wonder-filled year.

Trump tempts Jesus-followers with the worst: revenge, lies, division

Last week I found myself saying (at least in my head), “Really? You are going to act in the church according to Trump’s playbook? You are going to remake our dialogue and maybe even our values into replica’s of Trump’s?” I’m not talking about “those people” out in some imagined countrified place; I’m talking about people in my own church going for revenge, participating in lies and creating division in the pursuit of power, justice for grievances and so-called “freedom.”

The postmodern/hypermodern era has been hard on us Jesus-followers. The state overwhelmed us, the corporations outwitted us and the local authorities decided it was best to marginalize us. When you listen to us, we often sound just like the masters we feel forced to serve. Our arguments sound like them. Our outrages mirror them. Our actions support them, or at least give them credence.

According to Peter Beinhart in The Atlantic, “over the past decade, pollsters charted something remarkable: Americans…were fleeing organized religion in increasing numbers. The vast majority still believed in God. But the share that rejected any religious affiliation was growing fast, rising from 6 percent in 1992 to 22 percent in 2014. Among Millennials, the figure was 35 percent.”

Some people applaud abandoning the dying church for a better rendition (Circle of Hope could certainly be tagged with this!). Others applaud the exodus because they think it will kill off the culture war that has been plaguing politics for decades. But after many have left the church, the warfare has not diminished one bit. It has become worse. A more “secular” population is more tolerant of gay marriage and pot legalization;  but, as Beinhart describes, “it’s also making America’s partisan clashes more brutal. And it has contributed to the rise of both Donald Trump and the so-called alt-right movement, whose members see themselves as proponents of white nationalism. As Americans have left organized religion, they haven’t stopped viewing politics as a struggle between ‘us’ and ‘them.’ Many have come to define us and them in even more primal and irreconcilable ways.”

People often blame Evangelicals for supporting Trump. But not everyone who claims to follow Jesus actually does it (as Jesus made plain before he rose from the dead).  When the pollsters go looking for Evangelicals they find many who just claim the name. One last quote from The Atlantic: “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”

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I hope we are the church, not just going to one so the state can label us and pundits can argue about who is to blame for what. But I am writing this because I can’t be too sure. Sometimes we look remarkably like whoever made a convincing argument about what we care about instead of like discerning people eager to express the very word of God.

So I want to note three things today that Trump and his fellow-travelers on all routes of the road to destruction the U.S. is on seem to think is normal — three things things that are trying to creep into our church (and probably yours, too!).

Revenge is never good even if it works

You have heard that it was said, “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.” But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also. —Jesus, Matthew 5:38-9

Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. — Romans 12:17

Giving up revenge is at the core of Christianity, isn’t it? Our whole mission is reconciliation!

For Trump, revenge is religion. In 2011, he addressed the National Achievers Congress in Sydney, Australia. He told them the most important lesson they never teach in business school is this: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.” He tweeted his faith as a proverb in 2013: “Always get even. When you are in business, you need to get even with people who screw you. – Think Big.”  He thought big this week when he pressured Attorney General Sessions to fire acting FBI Director Andrew McCabe days before his pension kicked in.

Sometimes we have discussions that can get rough like Trump. If someone does not agree with you, what do you do? Listen? Or do you make sure they understand the full, moral impact of not agreeing with you? We’ve had people gossip some retaliation in honor of one of the partners in a divorce. Some people have left the church over a comment they never even checked out with the perpetrator — they showed them! One man even told the newspaper about our sins. They were all getting even, and it did not lead to reconciliation.

Lying is for liars

You are from your father the devil, and you choose to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies.” — Jesus to people without eyes to see, John 8:44

Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will renounce the faith by paying attention to deceitful spirits and teachings of demons,  through the hypocrisy of liars whose consciences are seared with a hot iron. – Paul about people who undermine the truth in Jesus, 1 Timothy 4:1-2

Jesus, the truth, sets us free from the constant fighting with people who will say anything to get their way and achieve their self-interest.

Andrew McCabe’s firing caused John Brennan, former CIA Director and advisor to Bush and Obama,  to reply to Trump’s tweets like this: “When the full extent of your venality, moral turpitude, and political corruption becomes known, you will take your rightful place as a disgraced demagogue in the dustbin of history. You may scapegoat Andy McCabe, but you will not destroy America…America will triumph over you.” Brennan gives us our vocabulary word for the day: “venality” — the quality of being open to do anything for money or whatever reward you seek.

Trump will say anything. He floods the airwaves with lies. The Washington Post keeps a lie-o-meter that reached the 2000 mark in January. James Lamond in Newsweek says that his lie addiction is also a page from Putin’s playbook. When normal lies don’t do the trick, Putin resorts to extreme ”whataboutism” and broadcasts full-scale conspiracy theories not based in any form of reality. Lamond references the invasion of Ukraine (where MCC began with its first relief effort in 1920). He claims that “after Russian-backed separatists shot down a commercial airliner, Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, the Kremlin and its supporters in the Russian press advanced multiple alternative explanations for how the flight could have been shot down, including the possibility that it was an attack by Ukrainian fighter jets, that it was at the direction of the Obama administration, and even that the actual target of the strike was President Putin as part of a NATO-led assassination attempt. These were all, of course, lies.”

He sees Putin’s tactic in Trump: “The White House and its allies are using these same methods in their attacks on the Mueller investigation. There’s whataboutism around the funding of the Fusion GPS dossier. There’s muddying of waters by continually re-raising the Uranium One deal, a manufactured controversy that has been repeatedly and consistently debunked, as well as the fantastical claims of liberal bias at the FBI. And now we are seeing full-fledged conspiracy theories entering the mainstream, throwing around words like ‘coup’ and ‘assassination.’”

Image result for surely you will not dieThis kind of logic is creeping in to how we do theology. I know plenty of people who can deny any conclusion in a discussion by clever “whataboutism” (like “What if Jesus were really an alien?” or “Aren’t Oreos potentially offensive to diabetics?”).  Sometimes, especially when we dialogue about difficult or controversial subjects (which we do!), we have trouble even agreeing on what words mean. There is a power struggle for the dictionary — who owns the lexical rules and whose definitions, “ours” or “theirs” will empower the agenda?

It is a real struggle to “truth” together. People often assume some unknown, untrustworthy thing is happening behind the scenes. The more people whose secret lives get exposed, the more we suspect everyone. Paul calls us to stop lying, since we have put off our old selves and we are now members of one body. We are to stop negotiating with the snakes in our personal gardens — that lying voice that assures us that we are good enough to never die or condemns us enough to convince us it doesn’t matter what we do. It is hard to perpetually sort out lies on the way with the Truth, but we need to do it together.

Protecting our autonomy and rights while dividing up the church is deadly

I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them. For such people do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites, and by smooth talk and flattery they deceive the hearts of the simple-minded. — Romans 16:17-18

These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage.  But you, beloved, must remember the predictions of the apostles of our Lord Jesus Christ; for they said to you, “In the last time there will be scoffers, indulging their own ungodly lusts.” It is these worldly people, devoid of the Spirit, who are causing divisions. — Jude 1:16-19

Jesus is bringing people together; he is holding everything together. Our instinct, as Jesus followers, is to do the same.

In a completely contrary fashion, relentlessly, Trump sows the seeds of division. Often we get caught up in the same mentality and presume division. Meanwhile, Jesus looks out over the world of beloved people and hopes for them to live together as beloved children.

Again, in the Washington Post, (owned by the richest man in the world) Jennifer Rubin talks about how most Americans agree that Trump is divisive. “From the beginning of his term, President Trump has pitched both his rhetoric and his policies to his base, not to the country as a whole. He has continued his baseless slurs on immigrants (coupled with a Muslim travel ban and crusade against so-called sanctuary cities) and pushed a tax plan that very obviously penalized Americans in blue states. He began his presidency with the most divisive agenda item — repealing Obamacare — rather than one that could have united Democrats and Republicans (e.g. infrastructure). He nominated extreme and unqualified Cabinet and sub-Cabinet officials who promptly went to war with their own departments.  He’s done more to accentuate tribalism (from backing failed Alabama senate candidate Roy Moore to accusing former President Barack Obama of sundry crimes and misdeeds) than any president in memory. He’s gone to war with the executive branch (the intelligence community in particular) and any independent source of truth or check on his power. You are either with him or a criminal, a traitor and a purveyor of “fake news.” He’s managed to deepen the country’s divide along ethnic, racial, political, philosophical, educational and geographic (rural vs. urban) lines.” This week he has everyone waiting with abated breath to see whether firing Andrew McCabe is the first step toward firing Robert Mueller and plunging the country into some darkness we can only imagine.

Many people who have been schooled by the cutthroat politics of the last decade or more are much more prone to finding a reason to pull apart than get together. Look at the divorces among us this past year. They are often characterized by the incapacity of the partners to work through real problems and come to a better future together. When the pastors ask everyone to learn unity, some people feel overwhelmed and retreat to some small version of their relationship circle. Try to make a Circle of Hope that can unite South Jersey with Philadelphia on the basis of a common covenant and mission when people are  tempted every day to divide – it is tough!

We will overcome temptation

Are we so unaware that we might unwittingly conform to Donald Trump’s playbook after just a year of his horrible leadership and immoral example? I have to say “Maybe” – I think he is influencing us. And, unlike John Brennan, I am not sure America will defeat him, since America is like him. Will we end up losing our faith over the most godless president ever? I seriously doubt it. But when we live out our faith we are tempted to react to the circumstances in new ways. We are getting barraged every day with the temptation to take revenge, live a lie, and divide up. Some of us are learning to hate, overstate and vacate — and we might even call it self-preservation!

Each of us matters; every action counts; and every drop of those poisons we ingest as the Body of Christ has to work its way out of the system. We get weak and preoccupied trying not to die instead of giving people life. We need to slap the Trump kool-aid out of whatever hand offers it to us. We are a strong body, but we live in a toxic environment — let’s be careful. The church in the United States has great resources — but let’s be careful everyone.

 

Is Circle of Hope “soft on sin?”

I was having a very nice stuffed chicken breast out in the burbs with two of my oldest friends on Saturday night and the subject turned to sin. Specifically, it turned to the gossip my friend had heard that Circle of Hope is “soft on sin.” I think I said, “Are you serious? That is still going around? You heard that?”

One time, a long time ago I think, one of the pastors at one of the Presby plants (purportedly) warned his people that Circle of Hope was soft on sin. People have been warning others about us ever since. The word came full circle to me over a nice dinner and my dear friend knew the source.

So our church has two reputations going around. If you look us up on Google, we look like we are hard on sin, since a loosely-connected slanderer unjustly tried to take us down in the City Paper one time (before it folded under its own weight of spurious reporting) for being hard on certain sins which are popular targets for legalistic Christians. Wasn’t true. But if you run into us in the Christian gossip mill, we apparently look like we are soft on sin, since they know of many instances when we have embraced people before they believed and they know we include people before they are moral. We work things out, not cut things off; we travel with people along their way, and don’t tell them they can join us when they get on our correct path. They are right about what we do, but they are wrong about what it means.

So I want to say a few things about our reputation, particularly about being “soft on sin.”

1) For one huge thing, what does “soft on sin” even mean?

What Christian ever had a call from God to be “hard” on sin?  And what person is not already hard on themselves because of their sin, even before some Christian tells them they are bad? Donald Trump acts like he is hard on sin, even as he is sinning! — but he apparently has a personality disorder.

If there is a sin the Bible calls us to be “hard” on it is probably the sin of presuming we can judge the righteousness of others! Paul says he does not even judge himself; and Jesus says to leave judgment to God. I think we are hard on the sin of being hard on sinners, such as ourselves. So, in the minds of some, that might make us “soft.“

did sin cause the division?2) Do Christians really have to compare one another?

Christians seem to treat each other like rival fast food franchises, don’t they? — “our righteousness is better quality, unlike those other people!” I wish it were not so. Comparisons are odious. It is not always easy, but I try to stay positive about the Christians who are not in my “camp.” There is often a particular genius I can admire. Presbyterians are stuck in their cave-in to modernism, but they are often great Bible teachers. The Pope fronts some of the greatest heresies ever normalized, but Catholics have a great system to teach contemplative prayer. Even though Ted Cruz grew up in one of the scariest fringe groups ever, I hear he is a pretty great husband. Much of the time the Brethren in Christ don’t know what to do with us, but our denomination’s historical synthesis is still theologically and practically brilliant.

But do any of the growing number of unbelievers in the United States care about the boundaries between the many variations of Christians? The ones I’ve met who know about them largely cite the differences as a good reason not to get involved with us.

3) Actually, we are very adept at dealing with sin.

One of our proverbs warns us: “Everyone is recovering from the sin addiction; expect conflict.” We are not afraid we will be tainted by sin because someone is sinning; we accept that everyone is bringing their version of sinfulness with them. There will be problems. Like Jesus in the wilderness, we are all in our process, being tempted and coming to our fullness through the struggle. We are conflicted inside, and the whole church has a tendency to fight because sin is at work in us.

Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.But as the scripture goes on to say, the Spirit of God is also at work in us because Jesus has saved us. If some folks want to protect themselves from the “liberals” over at Circle of Hope, it will be a delusional task, since they are already infected with sin and their judgment demonstrates the fact. Likewise, if Circle of Hope people (like me) get super angry and self-righteous over the supposed attacks from people they have not met and sources they have not verified, then they will, likewise, be demonstrating how broken they really are. If any of us falls to following a new law or relying on our manuals of proper behavior, we will miss the freedom of forgiveness by which Paul goes on to say: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death” (Romans 8:1-2). Some people thought Paul was “soft on sin” because he taught the truth of the gospel like that. Not so.

I hope I can get the same kind of criticism as Paul, now and then. It makes me feel like we are doing something worth noticing; so it is affirming in a back-handed way. This weekend, it was just rumors that I had heard before. I can hardly call a criticism based on hearsay an actual criticism, can I? It’s like an insult-once-removed. When I meet up with the slanderer in the age to come, we can work it all out with joy. Until then, I hope to be as “soft on sin” as the One who shared mine, died to undo it, and raised me to walk around consciously wounded by it but also transcendent.