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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Here and Now, or Later and Forever?

Today’s comment comes from Fabio.  The comment was actually submitted Wednesday – so my apologies for the delay in posting.

Fabio wrote: “More than a question I would like to share a thought I had.  Yesterday I went to the men’s group at my church and I was amazed by how many of us were struggling with some kind of trouble, disappointment, or regret. The common thread was how all of them stated, in different fashion, that despite their current struggles they were saved, that they had hope because they had eternal life. What I thought was that it sounded like someone saying: ‘Despite I’m starving right now, I have a nice saving account for when I retire’. It does not make any sense! They are missing out on the blessing of the here and now! And yes, sometimes the ‘here and now’ sucks, but there’s a blessing also in overcoming difficulties, fight when it’s time to fight and let go when it’s time to let go, always knowing that God, however you interpret God, is on your side. That’s faith, isn’t it?”

Fabio, your comments touched on two important differences between Evangelical theology and Progressive theology.  Let me touch on those differences briefly – and then talk about recent developments among these camps.  (Please note that in the next two paragraphs I will speak in BROAD generalizations.  I will then follow the two paragraphs up with a few words about an emerging trend.)

The first difference between the two camps has to do with the scope of their theological approach.  Evangelicals tend to emphasize personal salvation.  Progressives, on the other hand, tend to emphasize a concept of salvation (or wholeness) that transforms not just the individual – but the world in which the individual currently lives.

The second difference between the two groups has to do with their primary focus.  Many Evangelicals have their attention focused primarily on heaven and the afterlife.  Their time on earth is often viewed as something that stands between them and everlasting peace and joy.   For Progressives, their primary focus is on the life which they are living.  Picking up on the familiar words from the Lord’s Prayer – “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done, in earth as it is in heaven” – they want to be active participants in helping facilitate the inbreaking of God’s Kindom/Kingdom/Realm.  That’s why Progressives put so much emphasis on social justice.

So are these theological differences insurmountable?

I don’t believe so.  The emerging trend these days is that each camp is trying to achieve a greater degree of balance in their spiritual lives by paying a bit more attention to areas they have historically minimized.

Many younger Evangelicals, for instance, are moving away from a primary focus on personal salvation and the afterlife and beginning to pay more attention to earthly matters (other than homosexuality and abortion, of course, which some Evangelicals had been obsessed with for the past 40 years).  They have begun to play an important role in conversations having to do with global issues such as hunger, poverty, environmental concerns, and the death penalty.  Some have even begun to get more vocal on matters of human rights: including rights for those of other faiths!  You can a sense of this from the website www.redletterchristians.org.

There is a similar shift occurring in Progressive quarters as well.  Many Progressives are beginning to balance their concern about earthly matters (i.e. systemic change and social justice) with an increased emphasis on personal spiritual disciplines and cultivating contemplative/mystical experiences.  This has added new layers to their spiritual lives.

The challenge then these days is for those in each camp not to argue about who’s right/whose faith is the best.  The challenge is to be in dialogue with each other and learn from each other.

While you might be frustrated when you hear some Evangelical friends talk in language that seems dismissive of their earthly experience (and they might be frustrated with hearing you talk about this world in ways that – at least in their minds – seem dismissive of the Bigger Picture), you can each learn a bit from each other about what gets you through the hard times and incorporate those things that seem helpful – and leave behind those things that aren’t.

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

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Today’s second question comes from a new reader, Fabio.  Fabio writes: “What is in my mind right now is something I read years ago in a Christian magazine. It was an article against evolution that compared the struggle of creationism against the mainstream scientific consensus with the struggle of Galileo and his theory about the earth revolving around the sun and not vice versa against the mainstream beliefs based on the Catholic Church’s teaching. What struck me was the blatant hypocrisy of the comparison: did the writer even realize that the creationists have nothing to do with Galileo and everything to do with with the dogmatic, religious spirit of the church? How do we deal with that kind of, in the best case scenario, lack of self awareness; in the worst, pure and simple hypocrisy?”

First of all, let me say, “Welcome, Fabio – and thanks for the great question!”

I learned a method years ago that has helped me engage folks who may be resistant to understanding the difference you are talking about.  The model was called LARA.

LARA is an acronym that stands for Listen (to what the speaker/writer is saying), Affirm (areas that you can agree on), Respond (to what you feel is the misinformation), and Add Information (that helps make your point).

Here’s how I would use the model in the instance you are talking about.

LISTEN: You begin by letting the author/speaker make her or his case (which you already have done by having read her or his aritcle).  When the person finishes, you move on to Step 2: Affirm.

AFFIRM:  “I hear you feel modern-day Creationists are in a position much like Galileo’s because each party felt like an outsider since they were battling the mainstream thought of the day.”

RESPOND:  “While both modern-day Creationists and Galileo did share beliefs that were considered unpopular, I believe there is an important difference between the two.  Many modern-day Creationists are incredibly hostile to using insights gained from reason and science.  They want to use Scripture and doctrine – in place of reason and science – to make their points.  Galileo, on the other hand, refused to do that.  In fact he wanted to use reason and the scientific insights of his day to challenge beliefs that were grounded solely in Scripture and doctrine.”

ADD INFORMATION:  “So if you want to use Galileo as an example, then it’s important to remember what Galileo REALLY stood for.  Galileo was a many of faith who believed that faithful people should use all of the tools at her or his disposal: including the tools of reason and science with which God has blessed us.  And Galileo believed that a person of faith should be open to changing his or her mind if the information we gather using all of God’s tools reveal new insights.  It would be inaccurate and unfair to use Galileo to support the position of those who would reject the very tools Galileo used – and who would reject a spirit of openness and inquiry – in the name of faith.”

That’s one way you could approach the matter.  I know my readers probably have many other insights to share.  So how about you?  What might you suggest?


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Mercy and Grace?

The first of today’s two questions came from Stevie.  She wrote: “You and I had a conversation recently about the difference between God’s mercy and God’s grace. I’m thinking your readers may find your explanation as enlightening and thought-provoking as I.”

There are lots of theological words that many of us use as if they were interchangeable.  Many of these words are not.  Two words that are often confused are the words “mercy” and “grace”.

So what’s the difference?

There are several ways one could talk about it.  Once resource I found talked about the difference in the following way.  Mercy is when an individual does not receive the consequence – or consequences – one would expect. Grace has to do with a quality or characteristic of God: mainly a kindness that is unexpectedly (and undeservedly) extended by God.

So what about you?  How might you talk about the difference between these concepts?

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Dealing With Troubled Relationships

For the sake of confidentiality, I will summarize a question that was sent in.  One of my readers asked for advice about dealing with the former spouse of their child who left a marriage that involved 5 children.  The reader asked specifically for help about dealing with attitudes and responses toward their child’s former spouse.

Let me begin by saying I cannot fully imagine the challenges of dealing with the pain and disappointment involved.  Not only do you have to manage your individual feelings about your child’s former spouse – you have to manage those feelings and behaviors in ways that allow your child and grandchildren the room they need in order to do the same.  My hat is off to you for managing that tricky balance.

I have just a couple thoughts I would offer based upon my experiences.

The first thing that has helped me when dealing with difficult people is to acknowledge and validate my feelings toward the difficult person.  Too often, we think that being a person of faith means we have to like everyone.  I don’t believe that’s the case.  We can believe that the difficult person is a beloved child of God, that she or he has sacred value and worth – and still believe the person is a thorn in our side.  If we try to deny or suppress our feelings, I don’t believe it is a healthy thing to do.  Our feelings will eventually come out one way or another – so why not truthfully acknowledge how we feel.

Once we do that, it moves us to our area of greatest challenge: separating our feelings ABOUT the difficult person from our behavior TOWARD the difficult person.

How do we do that?

I was lucky in that I had the chance to learn this lesson early in life when I started teaching at a juvenile detention center right out of college.  The school in which I taught was based upon a behavior modification system.  Good behavior was rewarded; bad behavior was punished (or resulted in consequences).

What that behavior modification system taught me was that when it came to my interactions with the students – many of whom had done truly shocking and revolting things – I had to focus on how they (and I) acted in any given moment.  In other words, I had to let go of their past behavior and focus on what they were doing in the moment.

When I shifted the focus away from how I felt about the person and moved it toward a focus on how we were treating each other, it created space for those involved to behave in new ways.  The students began to trust they had a chance to gain (or re-gain) my trust, and their behavior often improved tremendously.

I even found my attitudes toward students sometimes shifted dramatically.  I stopped judging them for what they had done in the past, and started seeing positive new dimensions in the individual.  Over time I actually began to feel more positively about students who I had previously disliked.

The other thing a laser-like focus on current behavior accomplished was that it allowed me to treat people fairly.  Instead of worrying about who the “good” person (or victim) and “bad” person (abuser) was in a situation, I could look more objectively at individuals.  Whereas I had previous cut “good” people slack and frequently excused their bad behavior (while lashing out at “bad” people and ignoring their positive behaviors), I now found myself giving everyone the same chance.

Once again, this helped transform the way I viewed people.  It allowed me to take the “good” people off their pedestals and see their less than stellar behavior as well as give the “bad” people a change to do good things.

My world was changed forever because of those lessons I learned in my early twenties.

Of course it’s easier to apply these principles when dealing with one’s students than it is to apply their to a child’s former spouse (and the parent of one’s grandchildren).  But I believe the principles can be equally effective.

When you focus on the current behavior – and treat all parties fairly – you can accomplish many things simultaneously.  By giving the former spouse a chance to positively interact with you and your loved ones – they might eventually come to understand that you aren’t harboring grudges and might start being more positive around you.  By seeing your child objectively (instead of casting your child in the role of victim), you can help your child identify and address the issues that your child needs to look at.  And by using the principles around your grandchildren, they will see that you are a fair and open presence to both of their parents.  They are less likely to feel as if you are forcing them to take sides and might appreciate you more.  You can accomplish all of these things simply by focusing primarily on the behaviors of those involved – and not just on your feelings about those individuals.

And when your feelings bubble up, I’ve found that screaming into a pillow (or some other way of getting out those negative feelings) can be tremendously helpful as well.

Those are just a couple of thoughts I had based upon my own life experience.  So what about you?  What words of advice would you offer based upon your own experiences?

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