I Think I’m a Clanging Cymbal

My husband sometimes accuses me of liking controversy. He’s a peacemaker to an extreme. He hates conflict. I think at least half of his life is spent trying to avoid it. I’m not like that. I don’t mind conflict. I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does and say I like controversy, but some kinds of controversies interest me. I don’t mind a little debate.

If you’ve read my blog before, you probably could figure that out. I like to write about things like the struggle between government and religion and the Christian response to it. I don’t do that just to get clicks on my blog. Those are issues I care about. When I see reports of Christians protesting at gay pride celebrations or refusing to serve people who are different from them, I have an internal reaction that tells me something’s not right.

Jesus’ Reaction to Sin

I think some of that reaction comes from reading and studying Jesus’ life and his treatment of people commonly regarded as sinners, people who messed up and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I never, ever see him hurting them. I never see them leaving him feeling judged and mistreated. Instead, I see these people meeting someone whose very essence changes who they are. The grace they receive, the forgiveness they experience before a change has even been made motivates a shift in lifestyle.

Jesus had a handle on what people need to feel loved by God. People wanted to be with him. They came to him because they liked how they felt when they were with him. I’m not saying Jesus was this feel-good hippie who just wanted love and peace and never asked people to change. I think from reading accounts of Jesus’ life that people wanted to change when they were with him, and it had nothing to do with him pointing out what was bad in their lives. When people stand up and say, “I’m a Christian and, by gollly, God says you’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you in detail why, and I’m gonna do it with a nasty attitude!” I feel what I think is righteous anger. How dare people bring God into such a hurtful exchange? When someone’s attitude is pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to him, I feel not so happy with that person.

Keep Reading…

I’ve written about this stuff so much that I think you’re all like “Oh my goodness, not again!” Don’t stop reading because here’s where it changes. My reaction to Christians judging is just as judgy as the judging they’re doing. The difference is they judge the people they deem as “sinners” and I judge the ones already in the Church. I feel sooo judgy of them. Sometimes I want to stand up to them and say “Shut your mouths because you’re hurting people!” but maybe in doing that I’m participating in their sin as well.

The other day I heard a sermon, and the preacher read the verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that says, “If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” An earlier verse (8:1) says “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It'd be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

It’d be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

The moment I heard that familiar passage, I knew it: I am a clanging cymbal. I’m all puffed up with knowledge. My certainty that my understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is the right way and I know it and all people who think different are wrong, wrong, WRONG is just…wrong.

I admit it. I like to hide behind a holier than thou approach, feeling superior to other Christians who blast people on their Facebook feeds and post all sorts of stuff about kicking out immigrants and standing up for their own rights. But in doing that, I’m no better. I’m not judging the people out in the rest of the world, but I sure do judge those sitting in the pew next to me. I feel quick to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus and don’t conform to Christian values, but I have such a hard time empathizing with Christians caught in the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Here’s whats hard for me, though. Jesus treated the religious leaders differently from regular people in society. He did hold them to a higher standard. Their attitudes prevented people from coming to God, and he did not stand for that. Later in the New Testament, we also see Paul talking frankly and even harshly to church leaders whose policies threw stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers coming to know Jesus.

So how does this fit together? If it’s counter to Jesus’ teachings to treat non-believers in a judgmental, legalistic way but we see him standing up to the religious leaders of his time and not letting them get away with a bad attitude, what’s my responsibility as a Christian who sometimes sees other Christians acting like Pharisees?

And suddenly it dawns on me, even as I type this. Maybe I have trouble empathizing with self-righteous religious people and treating believers with grace because I myself am trapped in that same sin of spiritual pride that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day exhibited. Maybe I’m like the televangelist who preaches so emphatically against sexual sin every Sunday and later reveals that he’s been visiting prostitutes himself all along. Maybe God is pointing this hypocrisy out to me in other people because he wants me to see it in myself.

Or maybe it is more complex than that even. Maybe it’s the motivation and method involved with the reprimand of Christians who falter. Is my motivation to bring them into a closer relationship with God and protect the helpless who sometimes get caught in the crossfire or is it to prove that I have the right answers? And does my method actually help people understand that they’re hurting people or does it just make them dig deeper into the defense of their position and become more entrenched in their ways?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to evaluate other Christians who I think should know better and say things that make me look progressive and accepting and politically correct than it is to step out and actually do something to make the situations we’re debating better. I’d rather write about it from the safety of my high tower than climb down the steps and meet people in their needs.

Change My Mind

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This is the house we worked on for a few hours one morning.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to volunteer for community service day at the college where I work. One of the students asked me to be on her team. I felt pretty happy about that, actually. My job has always involved a lot of me sitting in my office organizing student records and not a lot of me interacting with those students. Being asked to go made me feel like maybe I’m getting the chance to make some actual relationships with the students now. But the night before the event, I realized I was pretty sick. My nose was horribly sneezy/stuffy/runny, and I felt like a nasty old tissue myself. I tried to get out of going, but I didn’t want to make trouble for this group of girls, and in the end I went.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

I’d love to say that I skipped happily toward cleaning out a gutted house in the inner city, but I didn’t. The extreme dust–EXTREME– and my nasal distress added up to me not being too fun to be around. I just didn’t really feel exuberant about serving Jesus at that point. Why? Not just my nose felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable. I had to drive to a part of town I’d never seen. I had to work with people I didn’t know well. I had to be hot in the 90 degree weather and covered with dust. Uncomfortable.

That’s what it takes, though, isn’t it? Being uncomfortable? Realizing our vulnerabilities in an effort to understand and connect with others who are vulnerable? I wonder if part of conquering spiritual pride takes getting involved in something that makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sticking with the things I’m comfortable with and good at, maybe I need to do something I’m pretty bad at because how proud can I be of my own spirituality when I’m covered in snotty dust?

So here’s a novel idea for me to try: what if I started asking myself in every encounter what it would take for that person to feel loved and cared for? What if I started really thinking about how each person feels, empathizing with them and the confusion and pain that causes some of the mistakes? What if I started extending this empathy to the Christians I sometimes am in contact with who focus on how bad the rest of the world is and tried to see them as Jesus does, as people who struggle to do the right thing? What if I gave them time to change and used a less abrasive method to show them what I saw as necessary in their lives? What if I did some things that made me uncomfortable? What then?

Maybe I’d stop sounding like a clanging cymbal and start making a difference.

 

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Take a Stand

IMG_9591This week in Kentucky we saw it play out one more time. Kim Davis, a county clerk in a small town stood on her conviction that homosexuality violates God’s ideal for marriage and refused to issue marriage licenses to gay couples who applied for them. This isn’t a new story. It’s a different version of the same old story about Christians refusing to bake cakes for gay couples and Christians clamoring to post the Ten Commandments in courthouses and Christians claiming religious persecution because people want to replace the greeting “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays.”

This is a special breed of American Christianity that, as I’ve said in earlier posts, teaches us to stand up for what we believe and be aggressive about it. Don’t just sit back and take this “persecution” because the non-believing government no longer has our best interest at heart but instead tries to annihilate our freedom to express our beliefs. Isn’t that what Americans are about? Freedom?

In regard to the Kim Davis situation, I can’t really answer the question of the legality of the decision or whether it is a binding one. I don’t have any knowledge about the law, and, frankly, at this point, I’m not too concerned about that. Here’s what I am concerned about: in all of this taking a stand for our rights and our freedom, we Christians are losing sight of the goal.

Focus on the Goal

From the opening pages of the Old Testament to the closing pages of the New, the Bible teaches us that a savior would and did come for all of us. All people are included in the promises of the Bible. That doesn’t mean that everybody gets a free pass and we can do whatever we want, but the Bible emphasizes over and over and over that those who believe have a responsibility to reach out to those who don’t yet.

Here’s where I think we get caught up. Many Christians get a Sunday school version of the Bible and don’t see the big picture all that well. I have gone to church my whole life, and I remember reading the Bible through from start to finish when I was a teenager and discovering that all of the stories I’d been taught from birth were linked in some way. I mean, I’d heard about Abraham and Moses and Noah and all of these people, but I had only heard the Sunday school version where they were portrayed as separate characters in separate stories. I was absolutely shocked to find out that the characters were all related, and that the Old Testament was basically the story of one huge dysfunctional family! I had a very basic understanding of the Bible until I later went to Bible college and began really studying it as a whole.

Sure, there are lots of stories of people standing up for their faith, and if we learn about the Bible in that Sunday school way we may learn the surface lessons they appear to teach. Daniel refused to pray to the king and instead prayed to God. God rescued him from his punishment, being thrown to the lions. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego did not bow to the statue of a false god and received a fiery punishment. God also saved them. This must mean we should stand up for our faith and God will save us. Right?

God Includes All People

IMG_6780Throughout the Bible, though, are passages pointing to the inclusion of all nations. In the Old Testament, we see God calling out a group of people, the Israelites, and instructing them on how to separate themselves from the culture around them. This was to set the scene for the entrance of the main character, Jesus, and God instructed the early Israelite people how to remain pure and separate so that they’d be focused on Jesus when he made his entrance. God’s rules for separating from the cultures around them were to protect them from the temptation to stray from him and to show them how impossible it was to keep all the rules and be perfect.

Keep in mind, and this is key: they didn’t have the Holy Spirit yet. Everything they were doing was done on their own power, so they needed to keep as far away from temptation as possible. However, even in those times of separation from the cultures around them, the people were given instructions on how to welcome “outsiders” who wanted to become part of their culture. These outsiders were required to change everything and become like the Hebrews to do so. But God didn’t exclude the non-Israelites from his promise. He repeatedly instructed his people on how to include them, how to welcome them into their midst, and how to treat them well when they were there.

Outward Focus Replaces Inward Focus

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In our current arrangement of the Bible, the last book of the Old Testament is Malachi. The Hebrew scriptures, though, originally placed 2 Chronicles at the end of the Old Testament. This is relevant because of the last passage of 2 Chronicles. In that passage, the Israelites have been captured and taken away to Babylon by the king of Persia. After a long and complicated exile, they are allowed to return and rebuild Jerusalem, and, surprisingly enough, the king of Persia even tells them in the very last verse of their scriptures to go back to Jerusalem and build a temple. He encourages the inward focus of the people, basically telling them to go home, regroup, focus inward again.

Read that verse in conjunction with the last words of Jesus in Matthew 28: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” Jesus knows something that the Old Testament people didn’t know. He has left his people with help to resist the temptation that the people before them did not have. He has given them the Holy Spirit, and they are now free to mingle with the non-believers. They are actually encouraged to do so. Now that they have the power of the Holy Spirit, they can interact with those who are different from them without requiring that those people completely change everything first. Before he left his people to return to Heaven, Jesus reversed the proclamation of the Old Testament. Instead of focusing inward on themselves and on keeping themselves pure, his followers were instructed to focus outward, to get down in the dirt with the people Jesus loved in order to show that love to them. Now that we have the Holy Spirit living inside us, we can confidently live in the world without the fear that we’re somehow going to be corrupted by them.

Our American Old Testament Jerusalem

IMG_9590So what does this have to do with Kim Davis and gay marriage and Christmas? I think that today’s Christians must fight the urge to believe we live in an American Old Testament Jerusalem. We must give up our fear that we will be corrupted or that somehow our freedom of religion will be taken away. No government can take faith away from us or cause us to sin. The power of God in us is strong enough to keep us faithful. We are living in a time when we can not only accept differences but reach out to those who are different from us.

When we live in an American version of Old Testament Jerusalem, we do things like point out the faults in others while ignoring our own sins. Let’s not forget that Kim Davis has been divorced three times and is on her fourth husband. Or that she’s a woman in a place of leadership and doesn’t the Bible say something about that? As Christians, we can’t hold to an Old Testament view of standing up for our faith or we’ll be forced to put her down for her sins. We can’t pick and choose which sins we accept and which ones we condemn. If we’re living the Old Testament way, it’s all or nothing. But we live under the New Testament, under grace that forgives the Christian who sins by divorcing repeatedly and the grace that welcomes the sinner before he even changes in hope that he will grow closer to Jesus in the process of being cared for by his followers.

All of this “taking a stand” we’re doing? It’s doing nothing to advance the Gospel. Instead, it throws up obstacle after obstacle in the way of those who might believe. We spend so much time focusing on what we’re against, on preaching against it, on pushing our opinions that we forget about what’s truly important. We expect the non-believing world to behave like the believing world, and let’s face it: they are. Because we’re acting an awful lot like them. If we want them to drop their protest signs and stop insisting on their way, maybe we need to do the same. Instead of stubbornly saying, “We won’t budge until they do,” maybe we could decide our faith is strong enough to live with some differences of opinion. As a friend of mine once said, “Love opens the door for truth to walk through.” Open the door with love. Truth will be welcomed then.