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     I’ve always been a little defensive of Judas. He’s often cast as a villain, an evil person, always plotting to do Jesus harm. They forget the fact that he followed Jesus for three years, and listened and obeyed, sought to understand, with the other disciples, the mystery of this man, this Kingdom of God, that he was promising.

     They don’t allow for the fact that he probably had reasons for what he did, that he had justified it. Maybe he was hurt by how little progress he’d seen, or maybe he thought this kingdom talk was going to get them all killed by the Romans or Pharisees or both. Maybe he was just in over his head, and so when someone gave him an easy escape route, he took it. See what I mean? I get a little protective about Judas.

     I just want people to realize that Judas wasn’t inhumanly evil. He was very much humanly evil. Judas believed all the right things, he was on the right team almost all the time; he wasn’t such a monster. I mean, it’s hard, choosing to take the hard way every time, paying more for what others get cheap, making sacrifices no one will ever recognize. He was like all of us, so tied up in his own needs that he loosened his grip on his ideals. But there I go again. I guess it’s because I can see how much of me there is in Judas. Or maybe because I can see how much of Judas there is in me.

Chick-Fil-A: It isn’t personal

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My Facebook feed has been overflowing with posts about Chick-Fil-A.

Many of these posts come from friends who might identify as a “conservative Christian.” In these posts, it is not unusual to read that the CEO is being persecuted because of his Christian faith and his “biblical values.”

The case against Chick-Fil-A is not about the personal beliefs of their CEO, but it is about the actions of the corporation.

The boycott is about the actions that this corporation has taken with the profits from selling its product. The comments of the CEO have merely brought light to the corporation’s actions. The boycott is not about a particular person’s political and religious beliefs; it is about how those beliefs are put into action.

Consumers have a responsibility to conscientiously spend their money. Mostly through the WinShape Foundation, profits from Chick-Fil-A are directed to organizations like the Family Research Council and Exodus International—neither of which I would ever choose to support financially.

To those who feel that the CEO is being persecuted by this boycott…

  1. Consumers are simply taking personal responsibility over how their money is spent. Is this not one of the values of a free-market system? Is this not freedom at its best?
  2. Please stop yelling “persecution” simply because others disagree with you.  In a similar vein, it is not fair to call this a “liberal boycott.” That makes no sense. Conservatives are LGBTQ, too, and there are conservative allies. They also make choices on where to spend their money (and they probably have more of it to spend!)
  3. Also, let’s talk about “biblical values” sometime soon. I don’t think we mean the same thing. To prepare for this discussion, I’ll suggest three scriptures: Amos 2, Acts 8:26-40 (throw in Isaiah 56 for some context), and Acts 10. I will try to better understand your position without reference to the seven passages misused to condemn homosexuals, rather choosing to study what you might call God’s bigger picture for marriage.

And to those who choose to be responsible consumers…

  1. This is not about a CEO’s beliefs. The CEO is a conservative Christian who has the right to religious liberty. No one should be denied rights. Remember? That is what this whole thing is about. This is about the actions of a corporation and how its profits are spent.
  2. Avoid terms such as “hatemonger,” “homophobe,” etc. No one wants to be degraded for who they are or what they believe. Instead, try using words like “misguided” or “erroneous.” I know it is not as much fun, but this isn’t about your self-righteousness.
  3. Thank you. I have been known to chomp down a Chick-Fil-A sandwich. The corporation’s ties have been long known, and I knew better. I was irresponsible. Thanks to the accountability of community and your call for justice, I have changed my ways. Please forgive me.

Before we can #DreamPCUSA, we must #Dreamlocal

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“Where there is no vision, the people perish” — Proverbs 29:18

Last week, I resisted turning on the live stream of the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) It is not that I don’t care about the issues facing the denomination, it is just that I feel really entrenched in congregational ministry. More and more, I feel that governing bodies of the church should be more like a mirror reflecting what is going on at the congregational level.

When I resist something consciously, it usually means I care too much. On Friday afternoon I turned on the live stream knowing that marriage equality was on the docket. I tuned in just in time for 90 minutes of discussion on how to decently and orderly deliberate such a divisive subject.

I lost the rest of my day to Twitter and the live stream of the General Assembly.

The one thing I gained in following the debacle was a Twitter hash tag: #dreamPCUSA.

I am currently serving a congregation in my first call that is seeking revitalization and renewal. My mantra from day one has been: vision, vision, vision. The biggest difference, I keep saying, between growing and declining churches is having a vision. Vision gives purpose and meaning. Vision sets agendas—or, more importantly, vision keeps things off agendas! Vision allows for risk. Vision creates passion; we all want to be a part of church with passion.

Where is our vision? It certainly does not seem to be at the General Assembly. We overturn and reinstate the same decision every other assembly. The Young Adult Advisory Delegates seem to be a source of vision, as they are the future of the church. However, many people infer that they are “young and idealistic,” and others must be careful not to use them as pawns in ecclesiastical debates—as one former moderator warned.

The vision for the PCUSA needs to emerge from our congregations. My dream for the PCUSA is that we can began to cast vision, and we stop worrying about survival. Churches decline when visions turn into structures. Theses structures maintain the status quo and drag out a congregation’s lifespan. But structures do not give life; they do not allow for vitality.

I am neither enamored nor surrounded but the world of General Assembly, but from a distance the actions of the body seem to be structural patchwork. Yet I am critical of myself when I say this because I do see people at the General Assembly full of vision and grace. I see people dedicated to forming a more just and inclusive church. I see committed people working with vital congregations and communities. I see the Spirit leading the leading the church, even as I believe councils err.

#DreamPCUSA came out of those following General Assembly on Twitter. It allows for people to share dreams and visions that will allow for renewal—whatever that may look like (perhaps an ecumenical movement such as the Western Branch of American Reform Presbylutheranism?) It comes from people who understand the deep value and necessity of vision.

One of my #dreamPCUSA dreams is that we take that hash tag out of the Twitter world and into our local congregations and communities. Before we can #dreamPCUSA, we must #dreamlocal.

Don’t seek approval to dream. Just cast a vision. Those without vision perish.

Trust and Dust

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Not being ahead of the game enough to cover lectionary texts before the Sunday on which they arrive, I submit for the blog a post I read on last Sunday’s text that wrenched my heart a little bit. It’s titled “covered in dust; a reflection on Mark 6:1-13,” (Here is the link so that you can read it in its entirety. Seriously, it’s worth it: and uses the image of the disciples shaking dust off of their sandals as they leave towns that reject their message to say that the church today is covered in dust. All over the country (and world), there are witnesses against us. Here’s a quote:

People are leaving the faith. But, unlike some, I don’t think the central problem is secularism or pluralism or the lack of a good bass guitarist in the praise band.

I think the root problem is trust.

People don’t trust the Church anymore. And, really, why would they?

The Roman Catholic Church as been embroiled in the child sexual abuse scandal, which has not only found pedophile priests, but also members of the hierarchy who protected those priests in place of protecting children. We have evangelical pastors who have railed against homosexuality who have been found to seek male prostitutes, and who have been accused of courting church youth. And, we have high-profile church leaders make insane statements saying that hurricanes are the result of gays and abortions, that homosexuals should be rounded up and fenced in concentration-camp style, and that kids who seem gay should be punched in the face.

And, with all of that—which is really just the tip of the iceberg—who in their right mind gives the church the keys? Who entrusts us with their spiritual health, much less the spiritual health of their children?

Honestly, the fact that anyone trusts us these days is really quite remarkable.

Hearbreaking to read, it was even more heartbreaking for how true it rung to me. Even as a pastor in a church, I am suspicious of church. I’m hesitant to share myself openly with ministers of other denominations, I’m careful about what I say in the pulpit, I’m meticulous in watching what I say in public spheres (including facebook and other social media outlets). And the root of it all is trust. I don’t trust other ministers, other churches, or other Christians to act in a manner I perceive as consistent with the Gospel. Part of this is that there is great diversity in what we perceive as consistent with the Gospel. But another part of it is that with years of the church being a political football in the public arena, and years of media reports of churches behaving inappropriately, I don’t walk into a random church confident that it will be a place of devotion to Jesus Christ, I walk into it worried that they might be like one of the churches I read about on the news. I wonder where they stand in the spectrums of conservative/progressive, liturgically new/old, traditional/emergent, etc, and I’m afraid that they won’t accept me as a Christian.

I didn’t really think about how heartbreaking this was until I read Rick Morley’s post. There is a crisis of trust in our churches, both within and without. I suspect its messier than that (it always is), that there are crises of trust, wrapped around the various positions and roles that churches take on in their communities, and that the trust issues that a mainstream church in Chicago is having are very different one from a rural church in west Texas, or a nondemoninational church in California. I know enough about churches to know that there are trust issues within churches, denominations, conferences and families, and that they are way deeper than the few fractures that show prominently in the news.

Rick Morley has a list of things that the church should do to respond to these trust issues (though the church isn’t really a monolithic unity, we do have the power to begin movements among churches that can make the church–and the world–better). He says that we need to “as a whole body – fall on our knees in humility,” we need to “attempt to win back people’s trust,” and we need to “help people remember that, really, it’s not us who is ever-faithful, but God.” These are monumental tasks. Like LEGO spaceships, credit scores, and really most things worth creating, trust takes a lot more to build up than it does to demolish.

I don’t think this is the first time the church has had to wrestle with trust issues and relevance. I don’t think this will be the last time that the church struggles with these issues (or really that trust has not been an essential issue for church communities since Antioch). But I do think that Morley is right. That now is a good time to fall on our knees and start putting things together.

Cedar Choppers

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Texas Mountain Cedar. Image via Image Archive for Central Texas Plants

     Cedar is a tree that’s considered a nuisance in these parts. It’s an invasive species not native to the area, and it releases a chemical into the soil that prevents other types of trees from growing. They take up an unusual amount of water, and put out an unusual amount of pollen that leads to sneezing and other allergy-related problems. And so everyone is always working on trying to get rid of cedar as fast as it can grow up. There was a group of people around here that everyone called the “cedar choppers.” It was a derogatory term, sort of like apple knockers in Illinois, because these people were poor and transient. To be a cedar chopper meant that you were poor, and uneducated, and probably up to no good. They were not welcome anywhere. They lived in tents in the woods. For money, they would offer to remove the cedar from someone’s land, hence the name, “cedar choppers”. They would chop the cedar and take it home, using it for firewood or selling it for money.


     They lived out in the woods in tents, they cooked on fires, and of course they cooked with that cedar which they chopped. And so they all always smelled of cedar smoke. Their young children would get on the bus to go to school, and suddenly the smell of cedar would fill the bus, and everyone would know that these people were cedar choppers, unwanted, unwelcome, and probably up to no good.  

    They were marked. And they were marked by the smell in a way they couldn’t escape.  And because they were marked, other children didn’t treat them as well, for the prejudices of their parents rubbed off. And so the children of cedar choppers were isolated and ignored, and they grew up with few opportunities except to chop cedar and smell funny and be called names.

     This is a tragic story about the persistence of inequality in our society. The classes to which we are born often leave markings that stay with us long after we’ve left the fires of our hearths. We are judged for the poverty of our parents, for the lifestyles of our neighbors, for the ways that we cook our food. It is neither just nor kind, but a sin that we perpetrate on each other as often every time prefer people who seem like us, hire people who look like us, love people who dress like us, and watch movies about people who act like us. 

     Jesus showed us a different way, however. There were many groups like the cedar choppers in Ancient Palestine. All sorts of people were shunned by those of good society. Indeed, the Pharisees had very specific laws and codes about who they could eat with, and had intense debates among themselves about the relative strictness or leniency of these laws. Table fellowship wasn’t a trivial issue for them either. Whereas for us, someone might say, “Go to dinner with him, listen to what he has to say, what harm can it do?” Such an expression of insignificance regarding eating a meal with someone would not have existed during Jesus day.

      To eat with someone was to establish relationship with them, to give them honor and respect. As explained in Ched Myers’, Binding the Strong Man, for them table fellowship involved a guarantee of peace, trust, or kinship. And so everyone in ancient society was particularly careful about who they ate with, who they were associated with, to whom they gave their kinship and trust. Everyone except for Jesus, of course. 

     In Mark 2, Jesus goes up to a man who was not to be associated with. Someone who smelled like cedar. And he says to Levi, a toll collector, who was despised by Pharisees and peasants alike, “Follow me” And Levi follows him. And that night they dine in Levi’s house, with other tax collectors and other sinners, and Jesus extends his kinship to them, his trust to them, that they are welcome at the feast of salvation, free to accept eternal life. 

    The kingdom of God is like cedar smoke that fills the bus in which we sit, alighting on each of us, marking us as recipients of peace that passes all understanding, trust in the one who keeps us from falling, kinship with everyone, no matter how smelly.


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This article, by Bob Hyatt, suggests in thoughtful prose my favorite solution to the same-sex marriage debate:

            Since 2004, the issue of same-sex marriage has been a political lightning rod in our nation, and it totally does not need to be. We’re deeply divided on the issue of how the state should regulate marriage, a religious function. And the fact is that there is a simple solution: the state should stop regulating marriage. There aren’t any good reasons for the state to be in the business of determining who is married or not.

            There are several ways of doing this. The state could start issuing civil unions to anyone, if it feels that it wants to continue to reward specific family structures over others, and then allow churches to use the term marriage as they see fit. Or, we could simply stop regulating civil unions and marriage altogether, and allow people to join themselves and enter into contracts with one another however they see fit.

            It would involve a few changes. The tax code would have to change. Either we could give up social engineering through the tax code, or simply change “married filing jointly” to “filing jointly.” Hospitals would have to suck it up and find some other way to determine who should be allowed to visit. Perhaps a standard could be applied (blood relatives only), and then individuals could mark on their medical records anyone else they would like to add (partner, in-laws, step-family). While its easier for hospitals to have the state involved, I’m not sure it’s the government’s responsibility to determine who counts as family and who doesn’t.

            I’ve been thinking this for a while, and I mention it every time I get, because I think that keeping the government out of marriage is the only solution that resolves the problem for everyone. I hope, that eventually we may come to see it as a possible solution. For now, however, same-sex marriage is too good of a political weapon for either of our major parties to pass up.

The Quintessential Shepherd

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In contemporary Christianity there is perhaps no word that divides people of faith as much as the word judgment. Trust me. On the day I was ordained I had a two hour debate with a close friend of mine while driving from Knoxville to Asheville, and we are theological allies! I argued that God’s judgment has an important place in faith, and he argued that the word was antiquated, dangerous, and full of baggage.

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