Thursday, May 28, 2015

Sin is sin... except when it isn't.

Oh my.

Two big things happening this week: The discovery that Josh Duggar, a Christian and one of the kids of the large (19 kids? 20? I don't actually watch the show) Duggar family sexually molested his sisters and it appears the family covered it up.

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The NC House just passed a bill allowing magistrates to "pass" on presiding over any marriage ceremony that goes against their religious beliefs. In normal speak: Christian magistrates can refuse to perform same-sex marriages.

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Seems totally unrelated to me. And they are. Except that I have seen many articles posted and statements made in support of Josh Duggar, reminding us that we are called to grace and mercy, that we are to forgive. Some articles reminding us that "sin is sin" and that what Josh Duggar did was just that - a sin, something we are all prone to. Articles saying we shouldn't be shocked by this because Josh, just like all of us, sins.

Yet at the same time, Christians just won a heated debate in the NC State House demanding that magistrates be allowed to refuse to marry same-sex couples because it would be "participating in sin."

So what I gather from this is that supporting someone who molested children and supporting the family that covered up the incident instead of protecting the victims is the Christian thing to do. But making sure that a same sex couple is protected under the same rights and legitimized under the same laws as straight couples would be participating in sin.

What the what?  This really needs to stop. Is this the message we really want to send?

I'm not even asking folks to believe that the Bible affirms gay marriage. I'm really not. If you believe that gay marriage is a sin, I'm not worried about that right now. That is a very debated topic within Christian circles. Devout, learned, committed Christians don't all agree on that one. We don't have to agree on that right this minute.

However, we need a little meeting. Can we all get on the same team? Remember that team that Jesus called us to?

The team that fights for those who need a voice,
the team that loves the ones that no one else loves,
the team that values those who society has cast out,
the team that chooses not to be first, so secure in the love Jesus has for us that we can put the needs of others before our own,
the team that stands for justice, no matter the cost.

I want to be on that team.  Here's why we need to speak out AGAINST the Duggar thing:  Yes, sin is sin. Sure - in the eyes of God, he can decide that all sins are equally bad. However, the consequences of different sins are different. There were young girls who were victimized and then not protected by their parents when the truth came to light. Minimizing sexual abuse as "just another sin" is harmful and dangerous. It doesn't protect victims and it doesn't get help for the abuser.  I am heartbroken for the Duggar family - I wouldn't wish sexual abuse on anyone. And I do believe in the power of forgiveness (only as a process that the abused person chooses to go through). Declaring the need to "stand together" with the abuser and the family that protected him isn't grace or mercy. And it doesn't show love for the children who were molested. The best way to love is to say that we stand with the victims and demand justice for them as well as help for the abuser in the form of specialized, court-ordered therapy for offenders of sexual crimes (this is the research-based best-practice for sex offenders). That's about the most loving, supportive stance I can think of for the Duggars.

I want to be on that team. Here's why we need our Christian magistrates to perform gay marriages regardless of their beliefs about sin: this is a very slippery slope. Sin is sin. If magistrates are allowed to opt out of any marriage that is against their religious beliefs they need to opt out of more than just gay marriage. How about interfaith marriage? Interracial marriage? Premarital sex? What about the couple that has been cheating on each other?  Domestic violence? There are Christians who believe all of those are sin.  Magistrates who refuse to perform same-sex marriages should also clarify their stance on those issues 'cause maybe they shouldn't be performing any marriages.  Let's be honest: there is no real way around this looking like it isn't specifically targeted against gay people.

A magistrate is not a pastor. Gay couples who want to be married by the magistrate are not asking for a Christian, religious marriage. They want to be recognized by the state, they want equal protection under the law. As Christians, even if we disagree on whether God would bless a gay marriage, we can still ensure that our fellow humans are treated equally in the eyes of the law. The love of Christ is so powerful that it can give us the strength to stand up for the rights of others, even if we disagree with them.  A magistrate performing a gay marriage is ensuring that all members of society are treated equally. End of story. It's not an endorsement of their marriage or even a commitment to the couple. My husband is a pastor, he has married a lot of people. You know what he does? He invests in their marriage: many weeks of pre-marital counseling together and then he makes a commitment to them for FOREVER.  Couples who have been married by my husband have free access to us for the rest of their lives - we will always stand by them because we are invested in their marriages.  I'm pretty sure that's not what a magistrate does. It's not the same thing. This bill just looks like an excuse to be mean to gay couples. We shouldn't do that.

Let's get back on track, friends. I think we really are all on the same team. We don't have to agree on everything, but let's agree to humility, to not always having to be right, to choosing people over theology, to following the example of Jesus in how we love.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

The "God-Shaped Hole"

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Growing up in the church, I always heard that every person had a "God-shaped hole" and that we were always looking to fill it. I was taught that we tried to fill it with material things, romantic relationships, drugs & alcohol, money, whatever, but that really only God could fill that empty space. We can only be whole, healthy and happy when we let God fill us up.

And I still believe this is true to some extent. But if I'm really honest, God alone doesn't always fill my "God-shaped hole."  And it hasn't always felt safe to share that with people of faith.

You see, when I admit that God alone doesn't fill me up and make my life complete it feels like a failure. Maybe my faith isn't strong enough. I must be doing something wrong. I was never taught what to do if God alone wasn't enough for me.  Maybe, I thought, I shouldn't admit that in church, especially since my husband's a pastor. For a long time, I didn't feel like I could be truly myself in a faith setting - I had too many different ideas, my experiences didn't always line up with what I thought everyone else was saying. I couldn't honestly say that God alone was enough.

I honestly regret all the years I kept silent in church. I wish I had been a bit braver then. We are all figuring out our own journeys of faith, and I am certain I'm not alone when I feel like I don't always fit in with people of faith, or that my faith experience doesn't match the mainstream.

This week, I had coffee with a friend who is working to get out of homelessness. And we were talking about God. He loves God. And he has 15 years clean & sober. But he says his faith doesn't quite make him happy and whole and make his life complete. "I need a network," he says, "I need good positive people in my life who love me."

My friend told me how God alone doesn't fill him up, but that he has found that God gives him some incredible ways to fill in the gaps: service work through NA, having positive, supportive people in his life.  So basically, loving others and being loved by others.

I started writing a blog post earlier this week and I actually wrote the words, "I have everything I could possibly want. Sometimes I don't know how I got the amazing life I have." And then something we had been really hoping and praying for didn't work out. We got some really disappointing news. And I let it ruin two days for me. I needed to sulk and be disappointed.  I cried and yelled at the kids over nothing.  And in those two days, God alone didn't fill up that "God-shaped hole."

But then I started reaching out to friends and to my husband. I was reminded of the ways I see my friends love each other and our community. I have some fun projects to do for a friend this weekend who is going through a tough time.  And I started to fill up again.

I'm reading the book The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible (if you are a Bible-reader, this is a wonderful book!).  One of the things the author, Scot McKnight, says is that no matter how we interpret all the intricacies of the Bible, the one thing our study of the Bible should do is make us love others. Wow. No matter what we agree or disagree on over all the things the Bible could possibly say, the one mega-story, the way the Bible should change us most is that it makes us love others. The point of the Gospel isn't just that individuals are reconciled back to God... the point is that we are all reconciled back to God AND to each other.  Being part of the redemption story means connecting to others.  It's not just about me & God. It's about me, God, and all the people God loves.

So maybe it's okay that, for me, God alone doesn't entirely fill up that hole.  Maybe it's not supposed to work that day. The gospel changes my life because it creates in me a desire to reach out and love others (and let myself be loved by others) in order to be healthy and whole. I don't always get to know what the next step is and my family has sacrificed a good bit of security in order to live out our faith the way we think we need to.  But of this I'm certain: I'm not lacking faith... I'm finding it.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Justin Bieber is a Criminal... and other things that happened this week.

My 1st grader went on a field trip yesterday and I wasn't able to drive. We don't have buses at our school so she drove with another mom. And it's always funny to hear how it goes when your kids have spent some time in a different environment. 

This morning in the car:
Allyn: Mom, my favorite singer is Selena Gomez.
Me: It is? Great! What does she sing?
Allyn: (some answer - I have no idea) and she used to love Justin Bieber.
Me: She did? Well that's nice. She doesn't love him anymore?
Allyn: No. He went out with some other girl and made her cry on stage!
Me: Wow. That doesn't sound very nice. 
Riley: It's okay. He's a criminal anyway. She's better off without him.

This whole exchange was hilarious because I'm generally clueless about pop culture (I'm honestly not sure who Selena Gomez is) But here was that word again: Criminal.

I'm not really in the business of defending Justin Bieber, but I explained to the kids that sometimes we don't make good choices. And if we break the law, we will get in trouble for it. And yes, maybe if Justin Bieber broke the law, in some ways that makes him a criminal... but I bet that isn't all of who he is. Maybe he's a nice friend or good at math (although clearly not a great boyfriend... ha!). I told them that I've gotten speeding tickets, which is breaking the law. So if that's all you knew about me, you could call me a criminal too. And I'm sure glad that people know more about me than just the mistakes I've made.

It's so easy to use negative labels for other people based on one aspect of their lives.  Or worse, using negative labels for entire groups of people based on one person in that group. Just this morning, I overheard an exchange in the locker room at the gym. A woman had made an offensive (racist, I think) comment and the housekeeper had heard it. She was crying. To her credit, the woman who made the remark was apologizing, but her apology rang hollow for me. "I'm sorry I hurt your feelings," she said. "But....." and went on to explain that "those people" take advantage of the system and how "if you give homeless people money, you just don't know where it's going to go."

Whenever we label someone based on only one aspect of their lives or when we label an entire group based on one member of that group's negative behavior, we cause damage. That was a real person crying in the locker room this morning. A real person hurting because of a generalized statement made about "others."

Here's the thing: there will always be people who take advantage of the system. Some of our wealthiest citizens take advantage of tax loopholes and use their wealth to lobby for more opportunities to increase their bank accounts.  Some of our citizens who need public assistance might spend the money in ways that you or I wouldn't consider wise. People in both groups likely have had brushes with the law and criminal records.  However, in our culture, we are very quick to assign negative labels to people who are struggling. We are quick to talk about "those people" and assume that because one person makes a poor choice, they all do.

And just as there will always be those who take advantage of the system, there will also always be those who don't.  Wealthy individuals who use their wealth for good instead of using it to arrange ways to get more.  People in poverty who are working hard to make life different for themselves. I've met homeless folks who have worked hard to help one another. Just this morning I did an intake at our day resource center with an individual and when I told her I was a volunteer she said, "I'd love to come help out here!"

So we have a choice. We can stick with the negative labels. We can see people in the light of their mistakes, their poor choices. Or worse, see them in the light of someone else's mistake who just happens to be of the same race or socioeconomic status. But that sure sounds like picking hatefulness to me.  Or we can choose to see people for who they are. And I don't know who you are until I get to know you.  Instead of making sweeping statements about people groups or deciding someone is a "criminal," maybe we could withhold our judgment until we get to know them a little better.

So, Justin Bieber, we owe you an apology. Until we get to know you better, we won't be calling you a criminal in our house.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Jesus came for the Bad Guys. Jesus came for us.

Thugs. Criminals. Drug Dealers. Bad Guys.

These are words I've seen and heard a lot lately. You probably have too. Or maybe you've said or written them lately. Or thought them.

I actually spend a good amount of time with Thugs, Criminals, Drug Dealers and Bad Guys. You see, I work on an inpatient Behavioral Health unit in a hospital. Many of my patients are there to detox off of drugs.  And I volunteer at our local day resource center for the homeless.  Many of the folks I see there have some criminal histories or drug backgrounds too.

So when I see those labels, I have faces that go along with them. Faces of people who have been dealt some very difficult cards in life. Faces of people who have made some poor choices. Faces of people who have not been given many choices. Faces of people who, given the opportunity, would give anything to turn things around. Faces of good people who have crippling addictions.

Thugs. Criminals. Drug Dealers. Bad Guys.

But I know them as Moms. Dads. Big Smilers. Good Huggers. Hard Workers. Volunteers. Overcomers.

Just this week I spent a few hours with a gentleman who has not been out of prison long. I think he spent 15 years or so in prison. "A terrible, violent place," he told me. A place where he had to "do what I had to do sometimes just to protect myself." He told me of times in his life when he certainly could have been called a Thug. A Criminal. A Drug Dealer. A Bad Guy.

I helped him with some paperwork. He wants to get back on his feet. His plans are to stay out of prison. And although he has some serious medical issues and pain, he walked me to the door and held the door for me when I left the building. And then walked me all the way to my car and insisted on opening my car door for me.  He told me that when he's back on his feet, he's going to take me out for coffee.

Thug. Criminal. Drug Dealer. Bad Guy.

Those are easy labels. But unless we've walked in someone else's shoes, unless we've faced the same hardships, the same situations, we really need to stop and consider if it's worth it to stick those labels on people. I have yet to see a situation in which labeling someone has made anything better.

People are complicated. Our history is complicated. But we can put down our labels when we see each other as equals.  Maybe I was able to help that gentleman with his paperwork, but I am no better than he. Our lives are so different, but for a few hours, we worked together on a task as peers.  When we stop categorizing each other and relate to each other as humans, it's awfully hard to get labels to stick.

Jesus came for the Bad Guys. He came for the Criminals, for the Thugs, for the Drug Dealers. He came for us.  God loves every single one of us.  And if we love him, it shouldn't be that hard for us to love the people he loves.  It works like this: we are so solidly filled with love that it overflows. That's why it's easy to love others - it's not our love in the first place. I don't have to manufacture love for others out of thin air. I just use the love of Christ - the love I've been given in spades.

And then we can use a much better label: Friend.