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

IMG_9574

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.

 

The Choice

cropped-1918-2.jpgIf you’re on social media at all, I’m sure you’re up to your eyeballs in opinions: opinions about racial issues, opinions about abortion, opinions about Donald Trump. I scroll through my newsfeeds and see all sorts of opinions. I grew up in a conservative Christian home, attended a conservative Christian church as a child, and I work in a pretty conservative Christian environment. Among all of the opinions I hear and read on a daily basis, one theme winds itself around through most of them: many American Christians today claim that the government and cultural agents are slowly but surely eroding their freedom of religion.

I hear people say they think they’ll have to compromise their convictions because of laws regarding things like gay marriage and abortion. I hear them wishing that life would go back to the way it was when Christians were the majority and, even when people did not adhere to the Christian faith, they usually outwardly appeared to go along with it. The people I hear talking about this want America to be “a Christian nation again.”

US flagThe Challenge We Face

My husband said something profound about this topic this week. I knew when I married him he was super-smart, smarter than I can dream of being. But sometimes he says something that makes so much sense that I think to myself, “Man! Why didn’t I think of that?!” Then I remember: it’s because he’s super-smart.

We were driving down the street on our way to the library, where super-smarties like him go, and he said, “I think that American Christians are facing a huge challenge, and it’s not what we think it is.” He went on to explain himself by saying that Christians in America are used to feeling like America is a Christian nation. We’ve mixed Christianity and patriotism so well that we can’t tell the difference between what is Christian and what is American. We so badly want the government to uphold traditional Christian values that when the government acts like a secular force and not a Christian element we feel betrayed and angry. The challenge facing Christians in America in the coming years isn’t winning a culture war or standing up for our faith or our freedom.

The challenge facing American Christians is deciding whether to follow American patriotism or Jesus’ teachings. When the American government diverges from biblical teaching, what do we do? Do we rail against the government and demand that it return to biblical principles? That’s what we’ve been doing for the last few decades. We’ve been fighting this “culture war,” arguing and debating until we’re blue in the face, and yet we haven’t turned the tide of secularism in America. We seem to feel that if the American government doesn’t uphold Christian values, those values will no longer continue to exist. However, the government has never been called upon to promote Christian values. From what I read in the New Testament, I see Jesus tells us many times that as believers we will live in a way that is not culturally popular. This is not something to fear but something to expect. Despite the fact that throughout history much of the world has not been Christian, Christianity has continued to thrive.

According to Andrew, “We are facing a series of tests that cause us to choose between a political position and something that actually is a Christian value. For example, it’s legitimate to think that a country has to have reasonable control over its borders and its immigration policy, but when that turns into a blanket rejection of immigrants and we say racist and hateful things about a group of people, we’re choosing nationalism over Christian values. What is revealed in that situation is that our primary allegiance is to our country more than it is to the principles of Christ.”

cross and flagLove Your Enemies

In a political debate, we often express contempt for people who do not agree with us, although they are made in the image of God. The Bible tells us to pray for our leaders, that God would guide them and bless them. Instead we call down curses on our leaders, criticizing them in ways we would never criticize someone for whom we were praying a blessing. When we do this we show that our political party or our nationalism is where our allegiance really lies.

There are Christian principles on each side of any issue. If we see a person on the opposite side of an issue as an enemy, as Christians we should react the way that Jesus told us to and love that enemy. When we gossip about him, turn others against him, work to divide ourselves from him, we show no evidence of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

An Example

Let me give an example of what I’m talking about. The issue of abortion has taken center stage in the last few weeks. As a Christian, I am convinced that abortion is morally wrong. However, I know Christians who campaign fervently against abortion but refuse to accept and help young unwed mothers because they obviously sinned by having sex outside of marriage. These same Christians campaign just as passionately against government assistance, claiming that the people who need it should “just go out and work like the rest of us.” Now, tell me how a young mother who chooses to keep her baby instead of aborting it is supposed to afford to raise that child on her own. My husband and I have eight college degrees between us and two incomes, and we still need financial help from our parents from time to time just to make ends meet for us and our three children. What is the Christian response to abortion laws and welfare laws then? Can we just sit back and spew rhetoric about the precious life of a child while at the same time refuse to support that life once it has entered the world?

Christians today live at a crucial moment in history. We typically hear that statement followed by a stand-up-for-your-faith-by-fighting-against-the-culture kind of statement, but, just as Andrew said, that’s not really the crux of the decision. God is presenting us with a choice these days. Will we as Christian people choose nationalism and patriotism or will we follow his directives and choose Christian values?

A Calling to Sacrifice

Last week I sat in a meeting where an evangelism professor from the Christian college where I work called on a student to give an impromptu testimony in front of a group of incoming freshmen. I initially felt sorry for the poor girl put on the spot in front of a group of strangers, but I then thought what if he calls on someone else after her? I began planning what my testimony would be, in case he called on me. By the time she finished her speech, I had just two thoughts ready: calling and sacrifice.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

Because no post referring to me at the age of those students would be complete without a senior picture of me at the age of those students.

When I was the age of those hopeful students, I had all kinds of plans. I thought I would do what I had planned to do since I was nine years old: be a missionary. I was sure of this. I knew God wanted me to go, and I wanted to go. I had figured out God’s plan for my life, and I would do what he wanted, and it would work out.

Fast forward a few years, and I was living the dream I thought God had for me, teaching missionary kids in Ukraine.The ministry fit the exact combination of skills, education, and interests I had, and I loved almost every minute of it. I remember feeling so settled and content, sure that God had put me exactly where he wanted me. Four years into it, I even married another missionary who shared my passion for cross-cultural work.

During the years I lived in Ukraine, I often heard Americans say to me, “I don’t know how you can live there. I couldn’t do it.” I always responded, “I couldn’t not do it.” I felt compelled to go, compelled to do this hard thing for God. It was at the very core of who I thought I was. But along the way things changed. I found out that God doesn’t leave us in those comfortable places forever. It seems that sometimes he requires some things we don’t really understand.

Our last year in Ukraine was complicated, and it eventually became evident to both my husband and me that we needed to move back to the U.S. He got a great opportunity to teach at a Christian college, something he had always dreamed of, and we packed up and moved. Before I knew it, I lived in a house in the suburbs, doing nothing I had planned to do. We had children, a mortgage, some pets, and I worked hard not to think about how my dreams of being a missionary lay broken somewhere in a dark room in the back of my mind.

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute!

I feel guilty even insinuating that motherhood has been less than stellar for me when I see these sweet faces. They were so little and so cute in this photo!

I wish I could say that being a mom became my unexpectedly fulfilling calling. In all practical ways it did, of course, because I had three children to care for. They were there, they were mine, so I apparently was called to mother them. However, I haven’t ever really had the passionate, I-love-motherhood thing that some moms have going on. I love my children; I just always wondered if maybe I had missed something else I was supposed to do. I thought if I were a better woman, a better wife, a better mom, I could have handled motherhood and some sort of vibrant ministry, and the fact that I did nothing but change diapers for the better part of a decade proved that I couldn’t handle more. I pushed that thought into that dark room in the back of my mind as well.

I had a lot of jobs over the years. I took most of them only because they fit conveniently into our lifestyle and did not require us to get a babysitter. I discovered that I liked some of the jobs, though. In fact, I really liked them. Still I could never quite reconcile the Bible college, church camp, calling-from-God idea with those jobs. Working in a store in the mall, for example, didn’t require a calling. If God called all of us to something, did he call me to work in a store?  Sometimes I felt weird for loving these jobs as much as I did. I mean, selling stuff? Why was that important in the big scheme of things? I felt like I had to justify my enjoyment of my work. And how had I become one of those people who just works a dead end job and tries to find joy in the little things in life while ignoring the big, world-changing things I heard so much about in Bible college?

I still feel that way sometimes, even though I work in a Christian organization and can placate myself by saying that my work contributes to the school’s mission of creating the next generation of church leaders. I never saw myself in this type of job, although I do really love it.

It’s only been in the last three or four years that I’ve begun unpacking some of the junk I pushed in that dark back room of my mind and maybe I’ve started understanding some of it.

Maybe God’s calling is less about what we do and more about who we are. This relieves the pressure to somehow find God’s perfect will. In American culture, we are all indoctrinated to believe that we are great people, capable of doing great things, and therefore should search diligently for those great things we should do. For American Christians, this gets translated into being told we are great because God made us great and that he has planned great things for us. We spend our lives searching for a specific calling from God, and if we don’t find that we start to feel frustrated and disillusioned in our run-of-the-mill lives. Sometimes we push our way into something that we think is great in an attempt to prove our worth to God and other Christians. Sometimes we fall into the habit of expecting God to choose us to rise above the crowd and become superhero Christians: missionaries, preachers, worship leaders, charismatic speakers with huge followings.

In reality, we don’t find much in the Bible about us each having a great big calling, but we do see that God clearly tells us throughout the Scriptures that our calling is to love him. Love him and live with him and show him to those around us by the way that we love them. A few years into my job in the mall, I realized that I came into contact with more non-believers in a day there than I had in months of ministry. I had the opportunity to live out my faith every day in that menial job that I initially took just because I could work when my husband was home to care for the kids.

Maybe I needed to sacrifice what I once thought God wanted from me. I thought God wanted me to be a missionary. It appears that he doesn’t have that in the plans for me at this point. Thinking about my testimony distilled my thoughts into those two ideas: calling and sacrifice. Do I stubbornly sit myself in a corner and refuse to do anything because it’s not what I originally thought I’d be doing? (I admit, I have done that…) Or do I stand up and do what’s at hand and give it to God with the confidence that he will use it? Maybe my true calling actually involves sacrificing the calling I once thought I had. I find over and over that I must sacrifice the dreams I thought God had for me or the dreams I had for myself and enjoy what God is really doing around me.

superman-clipart-9i4E9jeiEMaybe God knew when I chose the superhero path that part of my motivation involved showing off the big red S on my shirt. Maybe the rest of my life’s challenge and calling is to live a regular life, a quiet life, not caring if anyone remembers my name at all when I’m gone.

I don’t want to throw a wet blanket on these student’s ideas of what God has planned. They’re young and energetic and idealistic, and maybe he really is planning on using them in great ways. I know a lot of professors and college staff rooting for them along the way. But maybe he’s got more menial jobs in store. Jobs where they can sacrifice the flashy, superheroes-of-the-faith dreams they have and live a day-to-day life of being his in a world that doesn’t know him.

Maybe that’s the calling.

Religious Freedom and Jesus

picA few months ago, I had a conversation about posting controversial conservative viewpoints on Facebook. In the conversation, the other person said that she felt compelled to stand up for her beliefs and her rights as a Christian on Facebook and in other public forums. She said that this was her duty as a Christian. Since then, my home state of Indiana has passed the infamous religious freedom law that has brought them to the forefront of the nation’s attention and has flooded my Facebook feed with all sorts of opinionated talk.

Growing up in the Bible Belt in a conservative home, I was faced with this stand-up-for-your-rights point of view quite a bit. I saw a lot of loving, kind people reject anyone different. I saw people hide their real beliefs because they were different from what other Christians believed and they didn’t want to rock the boat. I saw my friends pushed away from Christianity because of differing points of view. I am convinced that church people did this out of a sense of conviction that good Christians did not support anything sinful and out of a lack of understanding of how to accept people who are different while allowing those differences to exist. People feel that in order to love someone they need to reject the things about them that they think are bad and this will somehow show them the error of their ways and turn them to the path toward godly behavior.

In the Gospels I read about Jesus’ ministry and how he did not stand up for his rights at all. In fact, he didn’t stand up for his rights so much that he let people murder him. I think there’s one major passage in the Bible where he does talk about Christians standing up for their rights, and that’s in the Sermon on the Mount. There he says that his followers should give up their natural rights in order to love other people. You want revenge? You have a human right to revenge. However, as a Christian, give up that right and love your enemy instead. That over-the-top love is what turns people toward Jesus and not away from him.

In the controversy over religious freedom laws, it seems that there are actually two separate things happening. There is a desire for freedom as Americans. As an American, I want my freedom to worship, my freedom to believe whatever I want to believe, and my freedom to tell the world about that belief. That is my right as an American, as long as I’m not putting someone else’s life in danger.

However, I feel the tension between demanding those rights and the second idea–showing the love of Christ. I must be careful not to mix my freedom as an American with my faith. I may have a right to turn someone away based on my religious beliefs, but is rejecting them the best way to show the love of Christ to them? What if I decided that I would pay particular attention to the gay community and provide fantastic service to them in an effort to show love to a group of people who has been rejected repeatedly by those who follow Christ? I’m not saying anything at all about whether I agree with them, but as human beings I care about them.

I see the focus in this religious freedom issue shifting away from Jesus and onto our rights. From the viewpoint of the non-Christian segment of America, we Christians spend more energy advocating for our right to refuse service than we do on loving other people the way Jesus did. We get caught up thinking that part of our duty as Christians is to stand up for God, as if our willingness to be outspoken for our faith is a test of our spiritual maturity. In reality, our faith is tested by our willingness to love like Jesus did. The New Testament says “they will know you are Christians by your love,” not by your right to religious freedom.

So in this case where Christians are faced with serving people who are different from rainbow cakethem and live in ways they think are wrong, maybe the way to deal with those situations according to Jesus’ teachings is to make sure they have the best service possible. If you’re a wedding photographer and a gay couple asks for your business, make sure you give them the best photos ever. If you’re a baker, make the most beautiful cake. People who don’t and who reject the business of the gay community lose the rather rare opportunity to show extravagant Christlike love to a group of people who has only been repeatedly hurt by the Christians they know. This may mean a loss of support from your Christian friends, but, hey, those are people who have experienced God’s love before. If we care about reaching those who do not know Christ, maybe it’s time to stop focusing so much on our rights as American citizens and start focusing on loving the ones Jesus loves.