Book Reflection: All Is Grace by Brennan Manning

If your life were to be summed up in a single sentence, what would it be? If you could encapsulate all that you have experienced, all that you have tried to pass on to your children and others, all that your life has been about in a few words, which would you choose?

How about these:

God loves me unconditionally, as I am and not as I should be.  Read More…

Grace Happens: bumper sticker truth

Shit happens. This we know. We’ve all experienced it. The letter from the IRS. The scary diagnosis. The moment of terror when your child goes missing. The critical words of someone you thought was a friend.

Shit happens.

Some of you would prefer that I not call it “shit.” That’s a bad word, a dirty word, a swear word. It’s offensive and can make people feel uncomfortable. All of which is exactly why I use it. Lets name this stuff for what it is. It’s bad, awful even. It’s offensive that we should have to put up with it. It’s shit. And there’s no escaping it.
Read More…

The Customer Is Always Right: Entitled to Condemn, part two

Even though Jesus so clearly tells us not to judge, why is it still so common? 
Why do we give ourselves permission to condemn those with whom we disagree? 
Why do we take so much glee in putting down those who are in another camp? 
Why do we so relish being judgmental?

Growing up in and eventually leaving fundamentalist churches that were known for being judgmental has left me asking these kinds of questions. But it’s not just common in fundamentalist churches. It’s common everywhere. 

And I’ve begun to think that part of the problem is the ethos of American Christianity. There is something about the way we do church that helps to foster a culture of condemnation. I think part of it is the fierce independence that is ingrained in us as Americans. I also think that part of it is American consumerism.

Consumerism in the American Church

The American church is plagued by consumerism. The myriad options before us and the messages told to us by commercials and advertisements have convinced us that we can have anything we want, any way we want, any time we want. We are not just consumers of cola and clothes and cars, but also of church.

I am fairly brand loyal in some of my shopping. I will always choose Coke over Pepsi, a pair of Nikes over a pair of Reeboks, and a Mac over a PC. If asked, I’d probably disparage Pepsi as tasting nasty, Reeboks as being cheaply made, and PCs as being unstable and unreliable. Ultimately, these are just my opinions about these products and no one is really harmed when I express my sentiments. Likewise, I tend to have lots of opinions about music, movies, and television shows. I love U2, Hugh Grant, and Mad Men. But does that make other musicians or actors any less talented or interesting? Not really. I am simply a consumer in the marketplace, making decisions about the products of these companies and the works produced by these artists. In the marketplace, I have every right to spend my money, time, and energy in the way I see fit. In the marketplace, the consumer is king.

But theology is not a product, and church is not a marketplace. Pastors and theologians are not celebrities. Sadly, the Christian media industry has changed this. I can compare and rank the books of Max Lucado and Rob Bell like I would the movies of Brad Pitt and George Clooney. It feels natural to criticize a church service like I would a TV show. And most dangerously, when there is an author with whom I disagree, I can discount, not just her writings, but also her character, ministry, and even her standing before God. Consumerism makes me the final arbiter of what is good and acceptable. And it fosters within me a critical and contentious spirit of those with whom I may disagree.

Independence and consumerism might produce big ratings, big book sales, and big congregations. But they also can produce a big problem – church cultures in which people believe that they can act and think and speak like independent consumers. The customer is always right, and if the customer wants to think and say something critical and condemning of someone else, who is going to stop him?

What do you think contributes most to church cultures of condemnation?


Free to Judge: Entitled to Condemn, part one

In my upcoming book, Fundamorphosis, I write about the transformation I underwent when I exchanged my fundamentalist upbringing for a new kind of Christianity. One of the factors that spurred on my own fundamorphosis was the judgmentalism that was so prevalent in the churches I had grown up in and even pastored. If we disagree with someone, we think that we have the right, even the responsibility, to pronounce the harshest of condemnation upon him or her.

I began asking myself, if Jesus so clearly told us not to judge one another, then why are we so prone to give ourselves permission to do it anyway?

There are a lot of answers to that question. But rather than looking at it purely from the perspective of individuals, I’ve been thinking about how systemic judgmentalism is. We have a church culture of condemnation – not just in fundamentalism but all across the American church.
Where does this church culture of condemnation come from? Why is it so common in fundamentalism and in the broader Christian church in America? 

I think that the perceived need to judge others is deeply rooted in the ethos of the American church experience. I think that this attitude of being entitled to condemn is the fruit of two well-documented and yet troublesome trends in American Christianity: the air of independence of American churches and the consumerism of American church attendees. Today, I’ll talk about the air of independence, and tomorrow I’ll talk about consumerism.

The Independence of the American Church

Americans are fiercely independent. Our forefathers and foremothers sailed out into the great unknown with only the prayer that a distant land may exist in which they would be able to live in religious and personal freedom. They birthed a nation with a declaration of its independence. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are woven into the DNA of what it means to be an American. Some two hundred years later, it should not be a surprise that we remain committed to the value of independence.

The unintended consequence of carving out our own corner of the world is that in many ways, we cut ourselves off from the world. This is especially true for people who were seeking religious and ecclesiastical freedom. They held with suspicion the denominational and church structures of the old world. New churches were established that did not have the deep roots of the past and were therefore unaccountable to them. 

While certainly, it is noble to purse the freedom to worship without the bounds of a state or dictatorial church, it is also dangerous to remove and relinquish all ties to our past. If we are completely independent, than we are also free from the guardrails that a greater respect for church history would afford us. Without these guardrails, we can end up running rush-shod over anyone we want. 

As Americans, we think that our independence is our greatest value. When we value independence so highly, we can develop an attitude of superiority. And, if I am superior to others, than it just makes sense that I judge them as well. In all of this, we easily forget that other things – like grace, understanding, and longsuffering – are of greater value in the kingdom of Jesus.

What’s been your experience with systemic judgmentalism in the church? Where do you think it comes from?


I Opposed Gay Marriage, and I Repent

In 2004, when I pastored a fundamentalist church in Michigan, I stood before my congregation and said something to this effect, “Regardless of what party you belong to or how you normally vote, I think we can all agree as Christians that the Bible clearly teaches that marriage is between one man and one woman. I want to encourage you to sign the petition in the welcome area of our church to get the defense of marriage amendment to the Michigan state constitution on the ballot in November. I also want to encourage you to vote for that amendment in November.”
I collected signatures. I voted “yes” and urged others to do the same. The measure passed with nearly 60% of the vote … and 8 years later, I repent.
I was wrong when I said that the Bible clearly teaches a traditional definition of marriage. I was wrong to be insensitive to the lives and struggles of gay and lesbian people. I was wrong for perpetuating state oppression of a group of citizens. I was wrong and I repent.
The Bible and Marriage
I have come to recognize that reading and understanding the Bible isn’t nearly as easy as I was taught it was in Bible college. The older I get, the more I recognize that simply applying a few hermeneutical tools to a passage isn’t necessarily going to give me a crystal clear interpretation of what God definitely wants for my life and the lives of others. It can be difficult sometimes to know when the Bible is being descriptive, simply describing the way things were, and when the Bible is being prescriptive, prescribing the ways things ought to be. Is Paul’s use of husbands and wives as an analogy for Christ’s love for us descriptive of most marriages in his time or prescriptive of what marriage should be always and forever?
In the debate about same sex marriage, much has been made about the definition of marriage. Does the Bible actually define marriage or does the Bible simply describe what has been most common, though not exclusively, in human history? People on the traditional marriage side of the debate often argue that they want to preserve the traditional definition of marriage. But isn’t it pretty commonly accepted that the definitions of words evolve? Language is living and dynamic. Shouldn’t our theology be as well?
Further, even if one argues that Bible “clearly” teaches that homosexuality is a sin, does that mean that in a pluralistic society people who engage in such behavior should have certain legal rights or privileges revoked or limited? The Bible “clearly” teaches that gluttony is a sin. Parents who are gluttonous often raise their children to be gluttonous. Should fat people have their right to become parents be revoked because they are engaging in sinful behavior?
Even further, just because I accept the Bible as authoritative for my life, does that give me the right to expect others to do the same? If I believe that the Bible “clearly” teaches that I should not cheat on my wife, should it then become a crime for all people to cheat on their spouses? In a pluralistic society, which ours is, can we really appeal to prooftexts from the Bible as the standard for what our civil laws ought to be?
Gay and Lesbian Friends
In 2004, I didn’t really have any gay or lesbian friends, that I knew of anyway. My world, and therefore my perspective, was very cloistered. I had not listened to the stories of LGBT people. I had not heard their perspective and didn’t care much about what their lives were like. I was insensitive to the struggles, pain, and heartache they have faced at the hands of pastors like me, churches like mine, and the culture I sought to preserve.
I am a white, straight American male. I have all the power, all the privilege. I don’t know what it is like to be an outcast. I don’t know what it’s like to be bullied for something over which I have no control. I don’t know what it is like to be excluded or shunned. I don’t have any idea what it’s like to live in a society that codifies my inequality.
I now know differently. Well, I don’t really know in any experiential sense, but I have a better idea. And that has changed my perspective. I realize now that those in the LGBT community are people, not the butts of jokes or political enemies advancing an agenda. As a follower of Jesus, I believe that people, all people, are to be loved, not made fun of, bullied, opposed, or ignored. I also have come to believe that my comfort with a particular version of our culture is not more important than the people who live in our culture. The victory of my political party is not more important than people. My sense of right and wrong is not more important than people. Nothing is more important than people.
God Is On the Side of the Oppressed
I now read the Bible much differently. I see it not as a collection of prooftexts to bolster my arguments, but as a story, a story in which I find both God and myself. The narrative of the Bible presents a God who is on the side of the oppressed. God watches out for those who have been forgotten, for those who have been discarded, for those who have been rejected.
God heard a banished maidservant crying and delivered her and her rejected son.
God provided sanctuary for the illegal alien within the Jewish legal system.

Jesus touched the untouchable outcasts.
Jesus talked to and spoke up for the shunned and judged.

The church is home for the lowly, the despised, the have-nots.
The church is a family for those with no family.

The kingdom will be made up of people from every walk of life.
The kingdom will be for all.
Who today is rejected, outcast, and condemned? 
Who today is without a family? 
Who today is discarded and forgotten? 
Certainly, we could answer these questions with a laundry list of Christian cause celebes: Orphaned children in Africa. Victims of sex trafficking. The unborn. But couldn’t we answer these questions with LGBT people as well? Haven’t they been rejected, outcast, and condemned as well? If so, doesn’t that mean that God is on their side as well? And if God is on their side, shouldn’t I be as well?
I Repent
And so, I repent. I repent of seeking to preserve a culture I was comfortable with at the expense of love for people. I repent for putting my theological and political heritage ahead of grace. I repent for perpetuating a church culture of oppression. 
I repent.
From here on out, I will speak up for the rights and privileges of all people.
I will speak up and vote for the dignity of all people.
I will seek to befriend and love those whom in the past I had rejected.
I will seek love and grace for the sake of Jesus and his kingdom.

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