“Love the Sinner, Hate the Sin” and Other Lies I’ve Loved

This series, “Dear Younger Me…” is based on the wisdom we’ve learned through experience that we wish we could have known earlier. Half-truths definitely fall into this category, and Pastor Aaron started the series by addressing several. This week, we’ll look at two more.

  1. God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” When I Googled this phrase, not only did I not have to completely type it out because Google auto-completed it for me, but I also got 6.8 million hits. Turns out it’s so ubiquitous, there’s a whole retail industry jumping on the bandwagon of this sentiment. You can even make your point while your make your dinner!

    The primary problem with this sentiment is how it oversimplifies scripture.

    Deut. 23:12-14 is rarely preached about these days, but 140 years ago it was highly relevant as churches debated the pros and cons of installing indoor plumbing in their church buildings. Besides being sort of funny to think about, it points to the need to always interpret scripture. And to interpret scripture means to incorporate some details into our lives while laying others aside, depending on what is relevant, helpful, meaningful, etc.

    It’s so tempting to believe that we can easily see “what God said” that gives our arguments a final KO punch, but scripture simply does not function that way. Even when we believe that scripture is divinely authored, we also acknowledge that it was penned by people (inspired though they may have been) in a literary and historic milieu which clearly influenced them. When we oversimplify scripture as though it were written in a vacuum, and especially when we pay attention only to passages that support our beliefs, we take the risk of (1) becoming lazy in our engagement with scripture, (2) weaponizing it to harm others, (3) assuming that we are the final authority on what scripture means and how to apply it to all people, at all times.

    It would be more helpful if the apron, coffee mug, or bumper sticker read: “God said it, I read it, then thought about it, wrestled with it, did some research, learned several points of view, prayed about it, and now I have an idea of how it ight matter in the world today, but I’m still learning.” But it might not sell many coffee mugs…
  2. Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This one sounds so right, doesn’t it? What’s interesting is that Jesus never said it. We know that Christ came to save sinners. And we know God so loved the world… But Jesus didn’t say to “love the sinner.” He said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He said “Love one another.” He even said, “Love your enemies.” Why would he not add that we should also “hate the sin?”

    Probably because Jesus knew human nature even better than we do. The moment we believe we are able to love the sinner while hating the sin, we begin to put ourselves right back on that judgment seat, noticing the speck in our neighbor’s eye while ignoring the 2×4 sticking out of our own faces. That is to say, we give ourselves permission to pass judgment on what other people do, and even more destructively, who people are.

    Now, to be sure, the Bible is clear about sin we must denounce: injustice, greed, idolatry, covetousness, etc. The point we’re making here is to not let ourselves fall into the habit of examining others’ sin while ignoring ours. So before we consider what it means to “love the sinner and hate the sin,” let’s start with this saying: “Love your neighbor no matter what — despite the fact that you are a sinner.”

For reflection:
– What are your initial thoughts about these two sayings? Do you agree or disagree that they are “half truths?” What is your reasoning?
– Why do you think it is so tempting to simplify what scripture says, or to read selectively? What challenges does scripture present that most people would rather not face?
– How do you go about showing love to a person whom you believe is making sinful choices, but in a way that does not outwardly condemn that person?
– How do you strike a balance between striving to be Godly, teaching Godliness to your community, while at the same time not passing judgment on people?

In it with you,
MM

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Don’t Sing Songs to a Heavy Heart

We will all encounter someone who is suffering from grief. And if we live very long, we will also experience our own grief. The irony is that while grief is ubiquitous and ultimately universal, many of us are utterly unprepared to respond well. So, sometimes what we say (usually with good intentions but not a lot of forethought) ends up doing more harm than good. And sometimes, if our words betray the heart of God as revealed in scripture, what we say can deeply harm someone’s understanding of God. Our ultimate goal, when we seek to comfort someone in grief, is to comfort them (not ourselves) and also to do so in a way that accurately reflects the grace, empathy, and compassion of the One who loves them most of all. In short, we want our words to bring healing, not pierce like swords.

So here are SEVEN things to avoid saying to someone in grief:

  1. God needed another angel.” Sorry, this one is just out. It’s poor theology. People are human, not angels. We do not change into angels at death. Also, God does not “need” anything, per se, and if God did want another angel God would create one. Finally, God does not have needs that supersede our needs. There is nothing God needs that would necessitate removing a child from its parents, or any other painful loss. So yeah, this one is just out of the game, okay?
  2. It’s for the best.” Question #1 should be, “best for whom, exactly?” A response like this one really displays one’s discomfort with the pain itself, and an attempt to brush the pain aside.
  3. She/he is in a better place.” Surely well intentioned, this one also arises from poor theology that shares roots in the ancient Gnostic worldview that the material world is “bad” and the spiritual world is “good.” But this is not the Biblical view. Rather, God will redeem and restore creation. God created us to be here, in this place. This is the better place we should be (and will be one day in the resurrection).
  4. This is God’s will.” A good policy is to avoid saying anything about God about which you cannot be certain, at least in terms of how God is revealed in scripture. And unfortunately, God does not entirely reveal God’s will to us (Mt. 24:36; Isa. 55:8-9).
  5. With time, you’ll move on.” In reality, one will never move on from loss, especially with the loss of someone particularly close, and especially if that loss was sudden or tragic. Losing someone close to you is like losing a limb. You might adjust. You might learn new habits. But time will never help you “move on” as though the loss never happened. We might say instead, “With time, your grief will change,” or “With time, you will learn to live with this loss.”
  6. God won’t give you more than you can handle.” We visited this one a few weeks ago, too. We don’t know what God “gives” any more than we know God’s will. Moreover, if we were expected to “handle” our greatest losses and grief, we would not need the community into which God places us.
  7. I know exactly how you feel.” Again, well intentioned, but this is ultimately impossible. You can never know exactly how one feels, even if you have experienced a similar category of loss. A chaplain once taught me that true empathy is not understanding someone’s pain, but rather seeking to understand it.

With that last point, here are FOUR alternatives (or something like these in your own words) you can rely on when responding to someone in grief:

  1. I love you/You are loved.” Grief can make us wonder if anyone cares about it, and especially if the all-powerful God does. When we’re able to assure someone they are loved by us or by their community, we don’t dishonor the reality of their pain by trying to “move past” it, but at the same time we answer one of the deepest pains of grief. Similarly we can also give this reassurance…
  2. You are not alone.” Grief naturally isolates us. If the bereaved person is also an introvert or does not have a natural community (like an immediate family nearby) that isolation is exacerbated. So to reassure someone that you’re not going anywhere can be an enormous source of comfort, allowing them to grieve without guilt, shame, or worry that their grief will cost them their friends.
  3. I’m so sorry.” The truth is that if we’re trying to respond to someone’s grief at all, it’s because we have a degree of empathy and/or compassion. So we can just speak for ourselves by letting them know that we are simply so sorry they are having to endure this loss. Again, this lets them know they’re not alone while not negating their pain.
  4. Say nothing at all. The power of presence cannot be underestimated. But it requires the courage to dwell in the discomfort of someone else’s grief. I try not to overestimate the nobility of animals, but this one makes me think of good dogs. If you’ve ever had a bad day and been comforted by your dog, it’s not because of something they say. It’ s because they sit by you, and frankly because they say nothing! The ministry of presence can also take the form of action without expectation. Pastor Aaron shared an experience of being comforted by someone leaving a tray of brownies at their home when they were suffering from grief. No words, only action without expectation. And it afforded them great comfort.

For Reflection:
– This was a longer entry, but one that we should all put in our back pockets for quick reference. Which of the first seven stood out to you the most?
– Which of the last four things to say stood out to you the most?
– Do you know someone grieving a loss? What can you say or do now that you’re confident will be wise like the proverb describes, bringing healing and not piercing?

Many blessings,
MM

Dear Younger Me: I Need Your Help

Jesus tells the disciples something that is at once comforting and endearing, and at the same time fundamentally challenging: “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”

This week, our series took a different turn as youth ministry Rob Clark realized that in his letter to his younger self, he actually needed to ask for advice. Something like, “Dear younger me: will you teach me again how to wonder? How to notice the little but beautiful details of life? How to have faith?”

Have you ever taken a walk with a 2-year-old? It doesn’t go quickly. The little one is far too busy enjoying the world God has made and placed them in to be bothered getting to an actual destination! Every rock along the pathway has a story to tell!

The prophet Elijah, in a biblically famous moment of real anxiety, needed this reminder of youthful faith. He needed to hear from God, and God knew exactly how Elijah needed to hear from him — in the quiet. Ironically, this was on Mount Horeb, the very place Moses had heard from God, but not in the silence. Rather, Moses had heard God’s voice in the mysterious burning bush. It seems that God will be present with people in the way God knows we need him to the most. It doesn’t matter how many books we read, sermons or podcasts we listen to, or conferences we attend. If we are trying to force God to talk to us in a certain way, God might not. But if we relinquish that control — if we become like little children — then scripture’s testimony is that God very much will be noticeably present to us.

In today’s restless culture, one has to wonder what we’re losing when we lose our time in the quiet with God. When we lose our time walking with no destination. When we lost our time lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling, just to…well, just to stare at the ceiling. In these moments, we remember that as little children, there was not much we really needed our parents to DO for us. But there was a deeply primal need simply to just BE with them. We’re no different now. We have a deeply primal need simply to BE with our heavenly Father.

We cannot really have a serious conversation about creating space for quiet in our lives without confronting our use of mobile technology. The ways we engage with the internet on our devices are not all “wrong” (though some are, let’s be honest.) But the way we use those devices has the potential to steal our childlike presence with God away from us. So here are a few tips to challenge yourself with this week:

  1. Go for a walk … and don’t count your steps. In fact, don’t take your phone at all (if you dare.) Don’t even take a watch. You’ll know when you’re done. And the world will continue to turn while you’re out there.
  2. Read a book printed on paper. It doesn’t update every five seconds, and it’s not as convenient as a Kindle. But you’re more likely to remember what you’ve read because of the multi-sensory experience of the feel of the cover, the smell of the pages.
  3. Create space to have your own thoughts, not just thoughts in reaction to others’. this is where social media and news have really taken their toll on us. What comes to your mind on its own?
  4. Have a “phone bucket” in your house where everyone puts their devices during important times like dinner, conversation, reading time, prayer, board games, etc.
  5. Give the members of your family (especially your significant other) complete access to your device. There is enormous freedom and trust in complete transparency. If there’s something you’re hiding, you’re not free.
  6. Give yourself permission to not respond immediately to texts and emails. And give grace to others when there’s a delay in their response.

For reflection:
– Which of these six guidelines will challenge you the most? Which the least?
– What are some of your favorite memories of childhood?
– How would you feel about spending an entire 12-hour day in total silence, including no reading or writing?
– If you could ask your younger self for advice, what advice would you ask for?

Many blessings,
MM

Embracing Conflict: 4 Things You’re Missing Without It

This morning Pastor Aaron recalled a hard conversation he had with a former church member who remarked, “If this were a biblical church, we wouldn’t be having this conflict.” Another time, Aaron was at the retirement celebration for another pastor, and one of the attendees said of the retiree (intending it as a compliment), “You were the perfect pastor–you never rocked the boat.”

The problem with these two scenarios is that conflict is a natural, and definitely biblical, part of life. And certainly life in community. Jesus didn’t avoid rocking the boat, and he even famously said “Blessed are the peacemakers.” That’s a lot different than the peace-keepers. And to be a peacemaker, we must embrace conflict.

If we could write a letter to our younger selves, we might share that conflict, while uncomfortable, is a necessary ingredient to personal and relational growth. Embracing minor, healthy moments of conflict is kind of like getting a vaccine — it actually helps us avoid letting those minor conflicts accumulate into much larger, unhealthy ones. So here are four reasons to embrace conflict.

  1. Avoiding conflict is really avoiding truth. James wrote that the quarrels among us come from the “desires that battle within us.” That internal battle leads to external battle, and in the confusion we need someone to tell us the truth! Have you ever had a huge argument only to realize…(horror!)…the other person made some good points? The greater good is to learn truth about ourselves and our relationships. Avoiding conflict is like living with our heads in the clouds.
  2. Conflict grows us. How’s this for an axiom: “People don’t grow until the pain associated with not growing is greater than the pain required to grow.” Let that settle in for a minute… This is true of physical pain (we won’t do physical therapy because it hurts, until NOT doing it hurts worse!) And it’s true of emotional and spiritual pain, too. If we want our relationships to grow and mature and become closer, we must embrace conflict. Otherwise, we’re liable to end up in pseudo-community with superficial friends.
  3. Conflict reveals what we truly value. Our values are like unrefined gemstones — raw, but with great potential. Conflict is like the process of digging, cutting, and grinding those stones to reveal the full potential of their radiance. So when you’re in the midst of a conflict, ask yourself: “What is this showing us? What values am I learning about the other person, and about myself?”
  4. Conflict, handled with maturity & care, creates trust. Sure, there are manifold ways to mishandle conflict immaturely and carelessly. Conflict handled in that way can hurt trust. But the opposite can result if we handle conflict well. Two key ways to do that are:
    – To speak well of the other person when they’re not around. Do you say things about that person you aren’t willing to tell them directly? If you have to vent about someone, consider venting to God in prayer or on a piece of paper you can promptly tear up and recycle.
    – To speak directly to people rather than about them. Sometimes a conflict begins before that initial conversation — it begins in your heart and mind. Handing the conflict well means talking directly to the other person, rather than creating triangles with other people about it.

For reflection:
– Is there a conflict in your life/relationships right now? How can you grow from it?
– What values are being revealed in the midst of your conflict?
– What can you do to create trust while you’re engaged in this conflict?
– Are you willing to believe that conflict is, in fact, necessary and good for strengthening your relationships?

Blessings,
MM

Breaking Sabbath: The Sin that Keeps on Taking

Look, according to scripture, everyone sins. Paul said “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). That means that there are ways of being and doing that go against God’s will, which is for us to have an abundant, fruitful life. We get it. And if you grew up going to church, you really get it. And for the most part, people are in agreement about obeying the commandments. I mean, we know it’s bad to steal, kill, and cheat on spouses, right?

But there is perhaps one commandment that is the most shamelessly ignored above all the others: “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy…” Sabbath is more than just “not working.” To keep Sabbath is to reorient our entire selves around a God-given rhythm that balances being and doing. It is, in essence, living according to how we are made.

We all struggle in one way or another with self-worth. And the world sends us a clear (but deceptive) message that our self-worth is tied up in our productivity. But we know better, in our heart of hearts. The psalmist put it this way: “He makes me lie down in green pastures.” He makes me. Why? Because he loves me. And he knows I need to be recreated after a week of toil.

So as we explore the wisdom we with we could tell our younger selves, consider this: “Dear Younger Me: don’t fall victim to the sin of busy-ness that keeps on taking. Instead let God bless you with Sabbath rest.”

Here are three things to doggedly exclude and replace if you want to experience God’s joy on Sabbath:
1) Exclude: Work. Oh boy, this concept has created centuries of debate. But let’s put it this way: “work” echoes God’s description of Adam’s experience of “toil.” So let’s define work as “toilsome deeds which wear us down.” Activities we do on Sabbath, then, are the opposite. Avoiding work doesn’t mean sitting still and doing nothing. It does mean avoiding activities that weary us.
Replace with: Physically Restful Activities. Be honest with yourself about activities that restore you, and limit your Sabbath activities to those things. It might be knitting, hiking, listening to music, or napping. (But it’s probably not watching TV, by the way.) Don’t know what restores your body? Ask around, do some reading, try things. Not anything can be holistically refreshing, but many things can be.

2) Exclude: Buying & Selling. This one will feel like paddling against a tidal wave. The whole world of goods and services are at our fingertips every day, and usually 24 hours a day. It seems crazy to avoid getting gas or groceries, or meeting that friend out for coffee, just because it’s Sabbath. But we are more than consumers. We are spiritual beings who ultimately subsist on every word that comes from the mouth of God. That means we can wait to place that Amazon order until tomorrow.
Replace with: Spiritual Replenishment. Have you ever asked yourself the question: “What gives me the most joy?” It’s not the same question as “What do I do for fun?” Activities that bring us joy replenish and refuel our spirits. And much of the time, they’re free! Spending time with loved ones, reading, walking, and so forth.

3) Exclude: Worry. We might think we’re not working when we glance at that work email. But mental and emotional work can be just as taxing (and sneak up on us!) Depending on what you do for a living or lifestyle, consider how susceptible you are to having worry sneak up on you; and consider your ability to say “no” for a day a week to that worry.
Replace with: Soul Restoration. It can be challenging to think of “activities” that would qualify as “soul restoring,” and we’ve probably already listed a few ideas. But this morning Pastor Aaron put it best when he said, “Dream with God! Make time to celebrate!” I love the image of the child and baby in the cover art because it’s a reminder of how freely we are made to imagine, dream, and feel the free joy of simply being alive.

Here’s the good news this week, folks: You are a creature. You are not the Creator. You aren’t made to go without sleep, to solve the world’s problems, or to constantly produce. God offers — no, commands — the gift of rest because God loves us and wants us to experience life in all its abundance.

For reflection:
1) What is the biggest obstacle you face that makes it hard to keep the Sabbath?
2) Have you ever had a negative experience of keeping Sabbath? What made it negative?
3) Have you ever had a positive experience of keeping Sabbath? What made it positive?
4) Do you believe the world would survive (and thrive) if, in theory, everyone on earth had 24 hours a week of whole-self rest?

Blessings,
MM

Dear Younger Me: Stop Believing Half-Truths

What if you wrote a letter to your younger self? What age would you write to? And what wisdom would you share? The Bible actually has an entire genre of books called “Wisdom literature.” And much of the time, we know it is better to learn wisdom earlier rather than later. But it’s never too late.

So Pastor Aaron began this Fall teaching series with some foundational wisdom: stop believing half-truths. Half-truths need to be challenged because they are particularly deceptive. And frankly, that makes them more likely to be life-taking rather than life-giving. This was certainly the case with the serpent’s deception in the Garden. The way half-truths can steal life from people is not only something we know about intellectually; we experience the brokenness they create through our own experience and our pastoral relationships as well. So let’s look at THREE half-truths, what’s wrong with them, and the whole truths that answer them.

Half-Truth #1: “Everything that happens is God’s will.”
To get started, we have to get real about the need for biblical interpretation. The truth is that many theological positions can be supported by cherry-picking scriptures out of context (also called “proof texting.”) And to be sure, the sovereignty of God is undeniable in scripture. But so is the brokenness of the world, to which God responds with healing. Psalm 10:14, 17-18 proclaims that God is both King and the encourager of the afflicted. How could the affliction also be thought of as “God’s will”? The whole truth is: Whatever happens, God is sovereign, and able and willing to redeem it.

Half-Truth #2: “God helps those who help themselves.”
Perhaps one of the most destructive half-truths, one Barna survey found that 80% of respondents believed this saying was one of the ten commandments! And yet it never appears in the Bible. Paul wrote to the Thessalonian church that those who do not wor do not eat. But that principle alone cannot be taken out of the context that those early Christians had become lackadaisical because of their belief that Jesus was coming so soon that their daily work did not matter. It is not a universal principle for all people in all times. By contrast, Psalm 18:6, 16 reminds us that when we are in distress, we need not “help ourselves,” but can call on the Lord and he will hear us. The whole truth is: God expects us to participate in this life but always gives grace and mercy.

Half-Truth #3: “God won’t give us more than we can handle.”
People usually mean well when they say this trying to encourage a suffering person. But the irony of the logic is that if it’s true, and we are actually finding we cannot “handle it,” it makes us the problem! It adds insult to injury, implying that in addition to our suffering, it’s our own fault if we can’t handle it. The truth is that there are numerous afflictions we cannot handle, which is exactly why God designs us to live in community. Moreover, the phrase “God gives” anything may be erroneous right off the bat, offering the bad theology that any affliction we experience is in fact God’s will, and he will afflict us right up to the point we’re about to break. (See half-truth #1.) The whole truth is: God will help us handle all the adversity we face.

For reflection:
1) These half-truths are usually shared with the best intentions. Have you ever shared them with someone? How does the idea that they are only half true make you react?
2) Have you ever been suffering and had someone share these half-truths with you? How did you react.
3) Understanding the Bible is difficult because it requires education and interpretation. Where can you go to get help interpreting the Bible so you understand it better?

Many blessings,
MM