Sunday, December 20, 2020

Am I loving my neighbor...


It's Sunday morning, and since I'm on leave from active ministry for a season, my Sunday morning routine has changed.  I used to get up around 4:00 on Sunday, fix my first cup of coffee, grab my laptop, and spend the next couple hours doing my final edits on the day's theological ramblings, then get ready and head out to lead worship.  Now, I don't.  

I do, however, still spend a good deal of time waxing theological, usually just in conversations with myself, but occasionally it is through social media.  Yesterday was one of the latter, and it bit me on the tail.  I woke up this morning thinking about it, and wondering what it was about the post that turned out to be so upsetting.  Looking back, I think the original post, and I'll share that in just a second, was laden with connotations that I didn't initially see because, after 20 plus years of pulpit ministry, it resonated with me.  

Basically, it was about labels, and labels can be dangerous.  Although I'm not a fan of labels except on the homemade jellies in my jelly cupboard, maybe they can be helpful for reflection purposes.  If we find ourselves more aligned with one group or another, sometimes putting a name to that, although divisive to a degree for some, builds a sense of unity for others...good, bad, neither, or both.  Still dangerous.   

The post was from a group called Nazarenes for Peace, and although the Nazarene Church shares my Wesleyan roots, or so I'm told, I know nothing about this particular group.  Here is what it said, quoting their post: "Who would have ever thought that loving your neighbor would be considered liberal theology?"

Let's just let that one marinate for a second.  

Here's where my reflections came in this morning.  One of the comments, and the one that made me delete my post until I'd had time to reflect on it, and one from a brother whom I love dearly and have for nearly 40 years, was something to the effect, "So because I'm a conservative I don't love my neighbor."  Ouch.  I immediately took the post down because that was not my intention at all, and I didn't want to send a message that I hadn't thought through completely. 

That is the problem with labels, and in our current environment, particularly when applying the conservative/liberal label to another.  See, I grew up in a very conservative home, in a very conservative county, in a red state.  I was taught conservative values, (i.e. the importance of family, honesty, loyalty, etc, etc, etc.)  I was raised on conservative theology, with a very literal reading of scripture, and strongly conservative ethics taught in all of my Sunday School classes.  But...that was nearly 50 years ago.  Now, though, after 50 trips around the sun, 21 years of pastoral ministry, a Master of Divinity degree, and being forced to think outside of myself to earn that degree, I've shifted.  

Maybe it's not that I've shifted.  Perhaps my definition of liberal/conservative has shifted.  See, whether we want to admit it or not, we cannot separate our personal theology from our personal politics.  One will definitely shape the other.  We get to determine which does what, though.  Does our personal politics shape our personal theology?  OR...does our theology shape our political leanings?  For me, it's the latter.  I believe what I believe politically because of what I believe theologically, and I think that most of us do.  What I have noticed over the years is that things I used to believe in, politically, are on a completely different plane from where I am now, simply because I was forced, in seminary, to get outside of myself.  

My last post was about how seminary had ruined my life, and while that was satirical in intention, it wasn't completely untrue.  Until I was forced to begin thinking in ways I never had to before, I was perfectly comfortable in my literal interpretation of scripture and the conservative theology in which I was reared.  Then I found out that scripture wasn't written to be taken literally, that Jesus was indeed a radical that bucked every system in place at the time, that Paul's letters were not even intended for us to read, and that God's unconditional love for all of humankind is utterly ridiculous (in a good way.)

Which leads to the reason I had to write this morning.  

Back to the social media post in question from yesterday.  Since it brought up the divisive nature of liberal/conservative labels, and since it implied that one loves their neighbor while the other doesn't, I would like to try a little exercise this morning.  Given the hot button political issues with which we have been inundated of late, let's play a little game.  (And I'm trying to do this as equitably as possible)  I am going to list some of the hot button issues we've seen in the headlines lately, then I'll ask if you think they are conservative/liberal ideologies, then I'll ask if they lead us to love our neighbors.  I'm doing this here because I've already spent the morning doing it in my head.  Understand, going into this that I'm not trying to persuade one way or the other, just offering some points to ponder.  I also know that this is probably going to get me into trouble, but I never shied away from the tough questions, even when they caused some very tense moments in my career.  Here we go, and this is just for fun, and a little self-reflection. 

Pro-birth:  (In this instance, only means anti-abortion, regardless of the circumstance)   Do you think that's a Conservative/liberal ideology?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Pro-choice: (In this instance, means a woman has a right to choose what happens to her body)  Conservative/liberal stand?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Pro-life: (In this instance, anti-abortion, care of the child {and all human lives} taken into consideration)  Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

Immigration:  We need to break this one down a little.

    Closed borders: No one gets in unless they follow our laws.  Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

    Separating familes to discourage border crossing. (detaining parents and children separately) Conservative/liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbors?

The pandemic:  Let's break this one down a little, as well.

    Face masks: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

    Social distancing: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

    Possible Vaccine:  Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Individual rights: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Death Penalty:  Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

Universal healthcare: Conservative/Liberal?  Does it lead us to love our neighbor?

I think I'll stop there before I really get into trouble with things like gun control, racism, gender equality, human sexuality, and a host of other questions we could raise.  

If you're still reading, what thoughts crossed your mind?  Without offering any of my answers, I've had to really stop and think about how the things I believe in call me to love my neighbor, or if they even do.  Hell, even thinking about whether I should write this or not made me ask myself, "Is doing this loving my neighbor?" I don't know. 

The easy answer is that there are just not any easy answers.  I know what I believe theologically about who Christ was in the world, then and now, and that has forced me to rethink some of the things that I thought I always believed politically.  Joseph, the guy who got to be dad to Jesus, loaded his family up one night and left the country to keep them safe.  That affects my stance on immigration.  Jesus, dying at the hands of the state as a rebel leader, affects my stance on capital punishment.  I loathe the very idea of abortion, but I can't imagine the pain of having to decide between my life and the life of my unborn child in an impossible pregnancy.  Face masks...I hate them, but if there is something to their benefit, and if wearing one MIGHT help save a life, then I'll do it.  There are too many questions with too many different answers for us to be trying to box them into just two categories...yet that is exactly what we have done.  

So, after much reflection this morning over a few cups of coffee and a keyboard, perhaps it was the words in the post, save one, that resonated with me.  Perhaps Nazarenes for Peace would have done better to say "Who would have ever thought that loving your neighbor would be considered RADICAL theology?"  Because, my friends, it is very radical.  It goes against basically everything we are taught as citizens of this world, and this country.  

I think it was Stephen Mattson who said, "Sometimes, being a good Christian meant being a bad Roman."  There is some truth to that.  Sometimes you can be both, sometimes you have to choose.  It was Joshua, in our ancient Hebrew text, who said, "As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord."  Doing that will sometimes make you look like a terrible citizen of this world.  I'm okay with that.  

Labels are so dangerous, and perhaps what triggered my self-reflection this morning wasn't the fact that the original post was about labels, though it was, but instead about a very fundamental question we all need to be asking ourselves.  That question is not "Do I see myself as conservative or liberal?"  Instead, maybe we should be asking, "Does the way I feel about this particular issue honor the love of God through the person and life of Christ?  And does it show the world that I love my neighbor?"

Monday, November 9, 2020

"Seminary ruined my life."

Well, here we are again.  In January of last year I wrote what I thought would be my last blog post.  Over the last 11 years, this space has been a safe place for me, one where I could process the thoughts that ran rampant in my mind, and find some sense of balance, some sense of peace, some sense of... well, some sense of me.  

I've learned over the years that when I get that nagging itch to write, I need to just go ahead and do it.  I can put it off for a while, but not forever.  The last few months have given me, along with countless others, much to process.  For me, that processing always goes back to theology.  

For those who know me, they know that I spent 21 years in pastoral ministry, but in what is becoming my autumnal season of life, have gone back to what was evidently, something I never truly walked away from...carpentry.  I've strapped back on my toolbelt and gone back to residential construction.  Even during those years when I was a full time pastor, the smell of sawdust first thing in the morning never left my system.  On the flip side of that same coin, as a full time carpenter now, theology has never left my system.  I have sawdust in my blood, and probably always will, but my first true love is theology.  

Years ago, as I was still in the ordination process, a well meaning church member told me one Sunday morning, "Don't let that seminary change you." In the years since, I have come to realize that change is the very goal of theological education.  We cannot grow unless we change, and education demands that we grow.  

 In 2004, I began that journey.  As a 33 year old, I was still a young pastor.  I had finished my Bachelor degree work, getting a degree in Biology with a minor in chemistry.  I still don't know how I achieved the minor because I couldn't balance a chemical equation now if my soul depended on it.  Still, after having graduated with my BS, I began the journey into theological education.  

I chose a seminary that I knew would challenge me, because I needed to be challenged.  After checking out a few schools, I landed at Memphis Theological Seminary, a relatively small school in midtown Memphis.  The first two years changed me.  

At 33 years old, I had it all figured out.  My theology was conservative, as I'd been taught all my life.  My interpretation of scripture was literal.  Jonah literally spent 3 days in the belly of a whale.  My scientific mind had not yet begun to wrestle with that because there had been no need to.  The creation story was a story about six literal days, six 24 hour periods where all that is...was.  I had not yet discovered C.S. Lewis and the Chronicles of Narnia, nor had I read "The Magician's Nephew," where, as Aslan sang, the land of Narnia burst into being.  I'd had no reason, at that point in my life, to question anything.  

Then I began the classwork.  That first semester I had wonderful instructors.  I'll never forget Dr. Steve Parish walking into my very first seminary class.  I had expected an old white guy in a tweed jacket with suede elbow patches, but instead, in walks this old hippie with a ponytail, jeans, and flip flops.  I love the guy still.  Then I began to meet my other professors.  Theologians, all, yet not in the sense that I'd expected.  

Then it happened.  Seminary ruined my life.  

That first semester, and for three semesters after, I sat there as the walls of my theological castle came tumbling down.  There was nothing I could do, save try not to inhale the dust and hold on as the ground shook.  One after another, I watched helplessly as my walls crumbled.  Scripture is not literal?  What the hell?  Jonah could not survive three days in a mammalian stomach acid bath?  The creation story as an explanation of how our story as the people of God began?  

Helpless.   That's the only word I can use to describe it.  

Everything I had ever thought to be true was being challenged.  

You see, in my part of the world, good Christian boys and girls don't challenge anything.  I live in a red state.  Most of the folks who are my neighbors, friends, and family, hold to a very traditional, very conservative, very literal understanding of scripture.  It was how I was raised.  It was all I had ever known.  It was all I thought I'd ever need.  Then came seminary.  

I sat there, being taught that scripture was not to be interpreted literally, and was never intended to be.  Paul's letters, and the other epistles, weren't even meant for us to read all these centuries later.  Context was everything, and changed much of the way I read scripture.  When you understand who it was written to, and why, and where, and when, things change.  

Now, I'm at peace with who I am.  My understanding of scripture is no longer so conservative, nor so literal.  In fact, I'm the polar opposite of who I was 15 years ago.  I am comfortable with the reality that Paul was not writing to me, and that we put way more emphasis on Paul than we do Jesus.  My scientific mind and my theological mind are no longer at odds because, whether it was six days or 60 million years, doesn't take away from the fact that God loves us and created a world for us to live in, while at the same time giving us charge to care for it.

Theologically, I'm no longer conservative because I have been taught that the Jesus I had given my life to was a radical, an extreme radical.  He treated women in a way they'd never been treated before.  He showed concern for those no one else cared for.  He opened my eyes to the fact that no one is illegal in God's eye, whether they followed our laws to get here or not.  I saw, in the new Jesus I'd found, a path to live the life that had always been there, albeit just under the surface of what was acceptable.  

The problem came when I began to follow that Jesus.  It's one thing to sing our hymns to Jesus, in four part harmony, yet a totally different thing to actually follow him.  I couldn't sing then, still can't now, but though I may be off key I'll just sing more loudly.  What I can do, though, is follow that Jesus.  That radical, liberal, way too far to the left, Jesus.  I can follow him, has ruined my life.  

And that's ok. 

That Jesus has told me that skin color doesn't matter in God's eye.  That Jesus has asked me which kingdom I intend to serve.  That Jesus, radical Jesus, liberal Jesus, has asked me if I still love my brothers and sisters who march under the rainbow flag.  That Jesus has reminded me, "Jamie, you have prayed every night that my kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.  Do you really mean that?"  Yes, radical Jesus, I mean that.  

I've lost friends.  I've unfollowed family's social media posts.  I've questioned everything I've ever known to be true because that damn seminary ruined my life.  And...this election season... don't even get me started.

Actually...seminary did not ruin my life.  In fact, seminary was probably the best thing that has ever happened to me other than my marriage and the birth of my daughters.  

No, seminary did not ruin my life.  Seminary just showed me that there's really no place for a guy like me around here. 

My prayer now is that this same radical Jesus that I've given my entire adult life to serving, show me where I belong in God's kingdom plan.