I do. Or do I?

Today’s question comes from Stevie.  She writes: “Marriage is one of the most holy and sacred of sacraments. What do you want to know about a couple before you officiate at a wedding?”

Marriage is truly one of the most holy and sacred commitments two individuals can enter into with one another.  While it may not be a sacrament for Protestants – as it is for our Catholic sisters and brothers – we treat it with the ultimate respect.

So, what do I want to know about a couple before I officiate at their wedding?

There are two things.  Let me take a moment and back into the first thing.

In the congregationalist tradition in which I serve, one of the most important theological concepts is that of covenant (or promise).  Our lives are built around those series of sacred promises we make that range from our baptisms to our marriages.  Those promises involve three parties: ourselves, our Creator, and those with whom we live.

One of the most important covenants we enter into is marriage.  And while many think the promises which are made involve just the two individuals getting married, I believe they involve far more.  A Christian marriage ceremony involves promises the individuals make to God, to one another, and to their loved ones.  That’s why the wedding ceremonies in the tradition in which I serve often begin with a statement by the couple’s loved ones promising their support of the union.

With this said, then, the first thing I want to know is if the two individuals understand that web of promises.  Do they appreciate, for instance, that by inviting a spiritual leader into their ceremony, they are intentionally bringing God into the midst of their marriage?  Do they understand the depth of the promises they make to their spouse?  Do they understand the ways in which their marriage will affect the lives of their loved ones as well?  Before I officiate at a wedding, I want to make sure the answer to all those questions is, “Yes!”

The second thing I want them to understand is the effort that crafting a successful marriage takes.  In order to demonstrate that understanding, I ask the couple to do three things.

First, I ask them to complete a Myers-Briggs Personality Inventory.  The purpose of the inventory is to ensure that each member of the couple understands both her/himself and her/his partner.  A person can’t effectively work to meet a loved one’s needs if a person doesn’t understand what those needs are.

Second, I ask them to complete The Five Language of Love assessment.  This test helps each partner understand the way she/he (and her/his partner) communicates thir love.  Some individuals, for instance, communicate love best by giving gifts; others communicate love by extending quality time; others use words of affirmation; others use acts of service to communicate affection; others use physical touch.  It’s crucial that each partner understands what her/his preferred way of communicating love is (as well as her/his partner’s).

Third, I spend time exploring what’s called Family Systems Theory with the members of the couple.  What this means (in the simplest terms possible) is that most of us think that the dynamics we saw in the household in which we were raised were “normal”.  Consequently, we assumed every family should operate that way.  If we grew up in a household where our father handled the money, for instance, and our mother did the bulk of the domestic chores; then we assume that’s the way things will operate in our household.  That approach works fine when partners grew up in households with similar dynamics at play.  If the partners grew up in radically different households, then real problems can arise.

If couples are willing to hang in there and do some of this basic relationship work in the pre-marital counseling sessions, then I am happy to officiate – because it shows me they are willing to be introspective and do the important work needed to make their marriage work.  If they are not willing to do this work, then I know I’m not the right officiant for them.

Those are the two things I need to know before I do a wedding.  So what issues does Stevie’s question raise for you?

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Organized Religion? Who Needs It?!

Today’s question comes from Yvette. She wrote these words after watching a loved one be attacked for supporting transgender persons in a posting on social media.

“I do not know if I have a question or just a statement on how religion makes me HATE religion. Of course, social media does NOT help the situation, it just pushes me farther away from religion and those who practice organized religion. I read stories of these overzealous who preach the Bible (which was written by man in his own words to gain power and control). They are stories to teach a lesson, and – face it – control others whom are different. They call themselves Christian, but they are the farthest from what Christ was. What Jesus was. If he set foot in their church. Jesus would hang out with the outcast. He wanted nothing to do with organized religion, and when a Pastor goes on social media preaching hate and exclusion because of one thing or another– and my friends back this preacher up, I have to wonder what kind of cool aid my friends have been drinking. Maybe my question is, why after so many years of this fear and control, does it still go on?”

There are many things to address in your post. Let me chew on just a couple of them, and then invite others into the conversation as well.

In terms of your comment about the Bible, there are different views of what the Bible is in Christian community. Some Christians relate to it as if it were full of literal, inerrant words given directly by God. Other Christians relate to it as if the Bible contains words that were stimulated by God – but communicated through human beings in ways that reflect their social and historical context. Most Christians would agree, however, that the Bible has meaning – and provides us with critical lessons about how we can conduct our lives.

Unfortunately, the Bible is much like a knife. A knife can be used to do tremendous good (i.e. prepare a meal or cut a cord that binds you); or a knife can be sued to do tremendous harm (i.e. stab or kill someone). Likewise, the Bible can be used in radically different ways. It can be used primarily as a tool to declare God’s love and grace; or it can be used primarily as a tool to judge and condemn. The question each person must ask her or himself is, “How shall I use it?”

This takes me to a second point you raise about those who call themselves Christian but don’t conduct themselves in ways that reflect the love and teachings of Jesus. It reminds me of the old saying, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig.”

Anyone can claim to be a follower of Jesus (or put on her or his lipstick by spouting isolated verses from the Bible). Eventually, however, their true nature (their piggy-ness in the form of their self-righteousness and conceit) will shine through.

So how do you know if someone is truly following in the ways of Jesus?

Jesus gave me a good sense of that in the seventh chapter of Matthew when he warned individuals about the dangers of false prophets when he said, “You will know them by their fruit” (Matthew 7:20 – Common English Bible).

So when folks claim to be a follower of Jesus, I look at the fruits of their lives. Are they spreading love, grace, and peace; or are they spreading hatred and dissension? That tells me who – or what – they are following.

One thing I would challenge from your comments was your statement that Jesus wanted nothing to do with organized religion. Actually, Jesus was involved in organized religion. He was an observant Jew and regularly participated in the spiritual life of his tradition. He did, however, have a passion for confronting those that tried to portray the tradition in ways that were not consistent with his understanding of what the tradition was all about. In other words, Jesus was a reformer. Someone who cared enough about organized religion to call it to be its best self. That’s why I – as a follower of Jesus – try to follow his example and stay involved in organized religion and challenge it when it strays from its mission.

Which takes me to both the beginning and ending of your post. Your frustration about how some preachers – and their followers – say incredibly hateful things about those who are different from them (most recently, about transgender people).

Sadly, some followers of Jesus have become like those Jesus challenged. They have become self-righteous literalists who are more concerned about the perception of being right than living in right relationship with God and with neighbor.

While it’s easy to meet their rigidity and intolerance with rigidity and intolerance of our own, I don’t think that accomplishes anything.
What does move things forward?

Claiming the essence of our faith.

One of my favorite summaries of the nature of the Christian faith is found in The Beatitudes. Jesus closes the Beatitudes with these powerful words: “Happy are you when people insult you and harass you and speak all kinds of bad and false things about you, all because of me. Be full of joy and be glad, because you have a great reward in heaven. In the same way, people harassed the prophets who came before you.” (Matthew 5:11-12 – Common English Bible).

When I have engaged some followers of Jesus who spew verbal violence and hatred in debates over topics ranging from homosexuality and gender identity issues to gun control to reproductive rights, I have often been dismissed by my opponents as not being a “real” Christian – because I don’t agree with them on their positions.

Instead of being filled with anger and judgment, I try to allow my heart to be filled with joy and gladness – at having the opportunity to witness to another understanding of who Jesus was and what he stood for. That is one of my greatest joys in life!

So what about you? What is raised within you by Yvette’s comments.

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What’s On Your Mind?

It’s been awhile since someone has sent in a question. Just wondering what’s on your mind these days?

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The Path of Life … Good for Whom?

Today’s question comes from Yvette. She writes: “Today I read about Kentucky allowing Christian prayer on school, and then on my way home I saw a bumper sticker that said ‘Make Jesus Legal” — and it had stuck with me. Why was Jesus ever illegal? Because politics and religion should NOT mix? And second, I would NEVER categorize myself as a ‘Christian’– I do believe in Jesus and his teachings– but the whole rest of the religious thing has soured me — trying to control and NOT adhering to ‘Christ-like’ ways. I guess my question is– should there be such a ‘struggle’ to be a good person, and follow a path of life that is good for ALL mankind?”

There are a couple things I want to respond to. First, your question about Kentucky and the “Make Jesus Legal” bumper sticker.

There are lots of people who don’t know much about the early history of the Christian movement. For the first three centuries of its existence, most folks who followed Jesus were marginalized outsiders. Then, in the 4th Century, the Roman Emperor converted to Christianity and things changed. Some of those who claimed Jesus’ name became the ultimate insiders – and enjoyed unrivaled power and privilege. This power and privilege has continued in some places for centuries.

There were many consequences of this shift. One had to do with the mindset of some who followed Jesus. No longer did some feel they needed to suffer in order to follow Jesus and inaugurate the reign of God. Some began to feel a sense of entitlement (i.e. the barista at Starbucks should great them with a roaring “Merry Christmas” in the month of December and NOT “Happy Holidays”). Any attempts to share the political and social power they accumulated were met with hostility, anger, and judgment. That is true to this very day.

This hostility, anger, and judgment gets stirred up to this very day – when attempts are made to create room in the public sphere between church and state to allow for the freedoms of people of other faiths (and for people of no faith as well). That’s tragic. As a Christian, I hope and pray we Christians can rise above this lingering sense of entitlement, and claim a way of being in the public sphere that is Christ-like.

Let me move on to the second issue you raised (“should there be such a ‘struggle’ to be a good person, and follow a path of life that is good for ALL [of humanity]?”).

When it comes to following a path of life, as a Christian I follow the two basic principles Jesus identified as being central to the path of life. We know these principles as The Great Commandment.

And what are those principles?

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind’. This is the first great commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39 – New International Version).

Life is shockingly easy when you embrace those principles. Where it gets hard is when we encounter those who don’t subscribe to those principles – especially the second one (loving your neighbor).

When we encounter those who don’t love their neighbor (i.e. those people who claim a different understanding of God, who have a different residency status, or whose country of origin is deemed unacceptable to some), our tendency is to mirror back the other person’s way of being. If they are angry, WE become angry. If they are judgmental, WE become judgmental. If they are hateful, WE become hateful. The cycle of animosity seems endless today!

That’s why I’m such a STROOOOOOOOOOOOONG believer in the importance of choosing a spiritual path like Christianity. When we follow the purest convictions of our tradition – including loving God and neighbor – we can break the cycle of animosity and extend goodwill to EVERYONE. We will follow a path of life that is not only good for all of humanity – but for the peace and well being of our own souls as well.

So how about you? What do Yvette’s words raise for you?

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Hating? Freedom?

It’s taken me nearly 9 days to get to a question that was submitted last week.  That’s because last week was a nightmare.  We had a serious break in at the church I serve.  I worked pretty much non-stop for the past 9 days.  I’m finally slowing down a bit today.  Nevertheless, my apologies for being so slow getting back to the blog.

The latest questions come from Yvette.  She wrote: “Hi Craig, on this Memorial Day I have A LOT ON MY mind.  First off and foremost, I’m sorry that someone did damage to a place of worship in your community/  This brings up my first question: ‘Why do people hate the sin and NOT the sinner?’ Does this not ask for forgiveness for anything?? I mean?? So, you could commit ANY sin? And you’re forgiven?”

Second, a non-religious question.  Memorial Day is to honor our veterans– whom I am grateful for their support of protecting our country and freedoms – but as I read social media, there are many who feel that their freedom is the only the only freedom worthy– i.e. Standing for the National Anthem at school events.  This bothers me so much – to make it required.  There are many ways to show your Patriotism, and in these times of late– I understand the protest– silent as it may be– And having a husband and brother that Both served in the military — they fought for the freedom of choice– NOT to be mandated by the government-. To me, it does NOT dis respect our Armed Forces– it is using the freedoms for which they fought for.”

In terms of your first question, the saying originates from the work of St. Augustine’s Letter 211 (written around 424) where he wrote: “With love for mankind and hatred of sins”.  Mohandas Ghandi wrote a variation of this theme in 1929 when he wrote the words you quoted: “hate the sin and not the sinner”.

I give you this background on the saying because the phrase itself is not from the Bible: though some people act as if it were!

There are a lot of pieces of Scripture that talk about hating/abhorring/etc. what is evil (Proverbs 8:13; Psalm 97:10; Romans 12:9; Exodus 18:21, etc.)  The way people approach that matter, however, is of great concern.

Too many of us can’t tell the difference between a person’s actions and their inherent worth as a human being.  Because of that inability to differentiate, the hatred/abhorrence/etc. toward destructive acts spills over and colors the way we see individuals themselves.

I had to be VERY careful of this last week following the break in at our church.  I spoke on camera with two television stations, and one newspaper.  And in the hours leading up to those interviews, lots of people in the wider community asked some variation of this question: “What sort of scum would break into a church?!?!”

As a Christian, I felt the interviews were an important moment to teach on the very matter you raised, Yvette.  So the comments I made to the press went something like this: “The decisions the individuals made clearly came from a place of desperation and brokenness.  Their decisions brought a lot of pain to our faith community, and it’s important they face the consequences of their actions.  However, the offenders are people of sacred worth, and we don’t hate them.  We feel sorry that their brokenness took them in this direction.”

When it comes to my faith perspective in regard to the matter of sin, my favorite word to use is “repentance” rather than “hate”.  The term basically means to turn oneself around, and reorient oneself toward God.  The one who commits acts of violence or destruction certainly needs to turn and reorient her or himself.  So too does the one’s whose heart becomes bitter, vengeful, and hateful in response to such actions.

In terms of forgiveness, Jesus was quoted in the Gospel of Mark as saying: “I promise you that any of the sinful things you say or do can be forgiven, no matter how terrible those things are. But if you speak against the Holy Spirit, you can never be forgiven. That sin will be held against you forever” (CEV – Mark 3:28-29).

What that statement tells me is that God’s grace and mercy is always greater than our acts of sin/brokenness.  It’s hard for many to fathom that we are called to forgive “no matter how terrible those things are”.  And certainly, forgiving some for the atrocious things they have done to us and our loved ones IS unbelievably hard.  Thankfully, I don’t have to try to do that on my own.  God’s amazing grace has given me the ability to forgive all those who have done me wrong in my first 49 years and 50 weeks.

In response to your question about freedoms – and what those freedoms cover – it raises a lot of passion in me as well.

I tend to agree with you that those women and men who have given so much to defend our liberties have fought for our right to choose how we want to respond to something like a performance of the National Anthem.  This is not purely a secular matter, however.  It crosses over into matters of faith as well.  There are some people of faith, for instance, who are uncomfortable when asked to stand for expressions of nationalism such as the National Anthem that might suggest their primary allegiance is to country (and not to God).  And during times of war, there are many religious persons who declare themselves to be conscientious objectors: meaning their faith’s teachings about the sacredness of life renders them unable to take the life of others – even during war!  In such cases, individuals might take stands that are seen as unpatriotic because of their faith.

When we address matters of freedom or liberty, we must remember those concepts do NOT mean people are free to do what the majority of people feels is right.  Freedom and liberty means individuals are free to do what the individual feels right (as long as their freedom is not inflicting pain or damage on others).  That’s why I try to caution my friends on the Christian right who are such strong proponents of Religious Freedom Laws.  They support such laws because they think they will only give Christians who think and live like them the right to discriminate against those who live and believe differently from them.  The reality, however, is that if religious freedom laws are passed then EVERY person aligned with a religious tradition in this country could be free to use their religious beliefs to discriminate against any individual or group of her or his choosing.

All of this is to say the matter of freedom is complicated.  It doesn’t just cover people who think and live like you do.  It covers everyone.

Thanks for the great questions/comments, Yvette.  How about the rest of you?  What do Yvette’s comments raise for you?

And PLEASE.  Keep the questions coming!

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What’s On Your Mind?

Just checking in to see what questions and/or issues are on your mind today … 🙂

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Moving Beyond Backlash

I’m heading down the stretch with my class this semester as I read my ninth and final book, write my last weekly paper, and prepare for my final paper.  That’s why I’m a little slow in responding to the most recent submission.  My apologies for that.

The most recent submission comes from Fabio.  He wrote: “Let’s talk about politics: it’s a common refrain that Trump won the presidency due to the enormous number of people who felt left behind, disrespected, talked down to. Do you think that’s also the reason so many evangelicals voted for him? After all evangelicals do feel, not only disrespected, but outright persecuted; our society is leaving them behind on a variety of issues: abortion, LGBT, pluralism, etc. No wonder they wanted to shake things up.”

I believe the refrain you mentioned is correct.  Many Evangelicals felt ignored and ostracized over the past several years.  They were hungry for an outsider that took their interests and perspectives seriously.  That’s why many voted for Mr. Trump.

Your observation raised a question for me when it comes to facing this situation: what can our Christian faith teach us in this situation moving forward?

Here’s what I’ve thought in response to that question.

One of the lessons that Jesus offers me is to stay in dialogue and relationship with those who see things differently than I do.  Not only was Jesus willing to be in dialogue with those who were different than he – following things like healings or teaching experiences.  Jesus went one step further.  He left safe spaces behind and went into places that were considered “their turf”.

I think Jesus did those things because he knew that if healing and wholeness were ever going to be achieved – in ways that were about so much more than just physical healings – that the work would have to be done in the context of relationships.

That’s something that we have lost today in both our political and social contexts.  We have become so focused in the political context of rounding up enough votes so that “our side” can “win” – that we no longer seek out relationships with those who are different.  Our goal is to simply gain power and then pay back those on the other side.

Same thing goes in our social settings.  We “friend” those on Facebook, for instance, who think like us.  We spend our free time with those who share our opinions and our values.

If we are not careful, our lives can become bubbles that shield us from those who are different than ourselves.

So in this freakishly mean-spirited and polarized time, how can we embrace Jesus’ model?  How can we live in relationship with those who are different: even in the political arena?

I’m sure there are a ton of different ways people might respond.  Let me share how I do that.

Whenever people engage me on a political topic, I try to make the topic as personal as possible by sharing the personal effect of the issue.

Today, for instance, we got news that the US House of Representatives is moving forward with a repeal of the Affordable Care Act.  Instead of playing into a feeling of anger (which, believe me, is there), I have instead been talking with friends of all stripes about how sad I am.

I share with them that one of the most important aspects of the Affordable Care Act was its mandate that health insurers cover individuals with pre-existing conditions.  I then talk about the experiences I had growing up with loved ones who found it nearly impossible to get health coverage because of an existing health condition like diabetes or HIV.  I then say I’m really sad about the possibility of repealing the pre-existing clause because it will mean some of my loved ones  – and the loved ones of millions of others – will suffer and die much sooner if they lose their health insurance.

When I talk in this way, it changes the nature of the conversation.  It moves it away from being an angry, confrontational exchange toward a more respectful and compassionate conversation.

Of course, using a technique like personal sharing doesn’t always work (i.e. change the other person’s mind).  That was even true in Jesus’ case.

What such an approach does, however, is restore relationship.  It allows us to claim expressions of healing and wholeness that transcend legislative agenda or partisan rhetoric.  And when individuals feel heard and cared for, the chance for the kind of backlash you were talking about Fabio in your comment diminishes greatly.

So what about you?  What does Fabio’s comments raise for you?

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