Not a Troll (Perhaps a Hobbit)

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com

Gentle Reader,

We live in the age of trolls. The internet allows us to maintain a certain level of detachment, so we go for it. We noisily air our opinions and blast those who dare to disagree. Through the relative anonymity afforded by the keyboard, we say the words that may never actually vibrate in our vocal chords and exit through our lips. We demand, cajole, proclaim the things that we may never actually have the courage to say out loud.

Am I one of those trolls, those vaunted keyboard warriors?

Why do I write about politics? Theology? Mental and physical illness? Why do I write about the things that make you angry? Why do I fail to adopt a soothing, socially-acceptable voice? Why do I persist in making you uncomfortable?

Because I care.

A lot.

I may not cry often, but I am incredibly passionate. I am tenderhearted. If I write about something that makes you squirm, I don’t do so for the sake of making you squirm. I do it because I can’t stand what’s passing for Christian teaching and living throughout our country. Of course that’s generalized. Of course there are people who are doing their absolute best to love God and others. Still, the overall trends toward prioritizing temporal power over Gospel preaching and fluffy, gunky, crap “doctrine” over thoughtful doctrine and study…ugh! Blergh! Argh!

Cue Darth Vader:

For real. Sometimes I want to tear my hair out.

Sharon Hodde Miller says it best:

The pressure to be nice competes with the calling to be prophetic. … For every article about making money with your blog, or having a better marriage, we need leaders who are leveraging their authority with their particular audience to call people to rugged faithfulness. We need teachers who are targeting the idols of people-pleasing and politics and worldly success, and helping us to be the actual people of God. And we need pastors engaged in the kind of spiritual formation that resists cultural influence, and prepares believers for loving self-sacrifice.

Last year Brueggemann summarized our prophetic failing this way: “I believe the crisis in the U.S. church has almost nothing to do with being liberal or conservative; it has everything to do with giving up on the faith and discipline of our Christian baptism and settling for a common, generic, U.S. identity that is part patriotism, part consumerism, part violence, and part affluence” (A Way Other Than Our Own, p. 3).

…we are witnessing the fruit of inadequate spiritual formation. When our spiritual formation winks at, or embraces, cultural idols, we will produce individuals who are totally unable to resist the culture. That is why we are in dire need of prophetic leaders with the courage and clarity to name our adulterous loves. It’s hard work, and humble work (since ranting should not be confused with prophetic teaching), but we need it now as much as ever.

No, I’m not saying I’m a prophet (and neither is Miller). “Prophetic” here is used in a way that points to challenging the status quo because it needs to be challenged. It’s John the Baptist in his camel-hair dress shouting, “Repent!” in the wilderness. It’s Jesus quietly telling the woman at the well that He is indeed Messiah. It’s Ananias taking his life in his hands and approaching Paul, who’s just been knocked off his donkey and struck blind. It’s thousands of men and women around the world today who dare to praise God in cultures that would see them dead for it.

I love you, dear reader. I do. Again, perhaps not in a way that you would quickly recognize. If we were to meet, I probably wouldn’t give you a big hug. I might ask you some random, weird question about your favorite historical era because I’m awkward like that. But I want so much, so desperately much, for you to know Jesus. I want you to really follow Him, even if it costs you something – and it will. I want you to embrace the cost, knowing that this life is but a breath and far greater things are up ahead.

I’m not perfect. I don’t always get this right. I have, in no way, “arrived.” I’m right there in the middle of this thing with you, tugging your elbow, hoping you’ll tug mine when I get distracted by the shiny stuff. Because we all get distracted. And that’s why we need the gruff voices, the ones that don’t fit into neat boxes, to call us back and keep us moving forward.

There’s a time for gentleness and a time for bluntness. The one is not more loving than the other. James wrote some harsh things in his epistle, but he was not uncaring. He was not mean. He wrote them because he loved his readers. He wanted the very best for them.

If you are challenged by me (or others), if you find yourself clicking away from this site (or others) because you feel anger, pause for a moment. Take a step back. Getting your toes smashed is never fun (I’ve had mine stomped on plenty of times), but it’s often necessary. Let’s learn to accept that discomfort. Let’s learn to sit with things that challenge us. Let’s learn to listen to the hoarse voices.

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31 Days of Feasting on Theology: Bonus Post

31 Days 2017 Large

Gentle Reader,

All right.

I don’t usually post when I’m angry.

But there’s an emotion we call righteous anger. The kind of fury and frustration that arises from a broken heart. The kind of pain that makes you want to tear your clothes. The flush that splashes your cheeks at the sight of injustice. The sort of chest-constricting, goosebumps causing, I’m going to throw things while I cry if this isn’t made right feeling.

That’s what I felt when this made its way across my Twitter feed:

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I don’t know who painted this.

I’m not sure it matters.

This painting is the fruit of bad theology. It’s the result of sprinkling a little Jesus on the salad of life. This painting exists because of blind, unthinking nationalism. It is a shining example of everything that’s wrong with believing that America and Americans are special (it isn’t and we aren’t). But first, foremost and glaringly – this is a portrait of idolatry. Trump will make everything right again. Trump is Jesus’ special guy. I’ll put my faith in Trump.

Stop it.

Just stop it.

I’m nearly halfway through this series. My heart hurts. Unbidden tears roll down my cheeks. Come on, people! Come on, church! How can we, who are so privileged, who possess multiple Bibles, who can listen to thousands of sermons at any time, who are the wealthiest and best-educated (comparatively speaking) be this stupid?

In the Old Testament, we read about the Israelites and their fondness for Baal and other ancient Canaanite deities. We think, “Wow, they were so dumb. How could they worship some hunk of stone? I would never do something like that.”

Except we do.

It’s not about Trump. He’s just the latest, loudest example.

The president, whoever he/she is, will never be your savior. He’s not going to make anything great again. She can’t fix you. He can’t provide for you. She doesn’t even have a clue who you are.

Oh, dear reader! Lay down this burden of placing your hope in people who are as frail and flawed as you are. Let go of the desire to “Christianize” the nation through law. If the perfect law of God as handed down at Sinai couldn’t save, then how can imperfect law imperfectly enforced by imperfect people save? Make like Gideon in the good days of his life and topple the statues that lurk in your heart. Prostrate yourself before the Holy King and beg forgiveness. Ask Him for a new perspective, eyes to see and ears to hear.

Please, please, for the sake of your soul, your heart, your mind, your life – read the Bible. Really read it. Study it. Ask questions. Learn things. Get to know the truth so you can spot the lies. Pray for the president, yes. Support him/her within the boundaries of faithful Christian ethics (i.e., follow God and do as He says first and always). Never, ever, idolize the president (or this country).

God doesn’t take kindly to that sort of thing.

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For all entries in the 31 Days of Feasting on Theology series, go here.

No Answers Here

Along the Way @ mlsgregg.com (1)

Gentle Reader,

The Middle East refugee crisis is one of the great humanitarian disasters of our time. There is no doubt about that. Large numbers of people flee horrific scenes of violence. They run fast and far from an ideological conflict that has been raging for centuries, but now threatens to boil over into a total war that could engulf the world. Allegiances shift. The reasons for fighting don’t always make sense to those of us living in the West. Politicians vacillate and babble. Everyone has an opinion as to what should be done.

I don’t.

I don’t have the answers.

First, it’s stupid of anyone to think that he’s got the magic bullet that will solve all the problems in the Middle East. Have all the meetings you want, but the hostility, stretching back to Isaac and Ishmael, is not going to stop this side of eternity. Second, it’s ignorant to believe that the Islamic State is not a legitimate form of Islam. No, not all Muslims are terrorists and not all Muslims support the Islamic State. But members of the IS do not practice eisegesis. They do not read into the Qur’anic texts ideas and concepts that are not already there. (See this excellent article for an in-depth exploration). If we are going to attempt to address this problem at all, we had better do it from an informed place.

But even then, what should our response be?

I am a pacifist. Have been since I was a young teenager. I believe that the Lord convicted me on this due to my own slow-burning but ultimately very bad temper and the fact that I have to work hard to control it. There’s no way that I can make the call to spread the Gospel blend with violence of any kind, physical or verbal. I don’t question the faith of people who see things differently and I would never be disrespectful to anyone in the military. (My parents raised me better than that and my uncles, all members of the armed forces or police officers, would rake me over the coals). This is simply where I fall.

As such, I don’t believe that sending troops to the region will do any good in the long term, especially since the battles waged across desert sands are theological in nature. This is about Islam. About the domination of a particular interpretation and practice of that religion. No amount of intervention on our part is going to change that. I don’t see the sense in American men and women putting their boots on the ground to take part in a little-understood, unending conflict that grows bloodier by the day.

So you might conclude that I would be on the side of those who call for the government to throw open wide the doors for any refugees who wish to come here.

Not necessarily.

Nothing gets my blood boiling faster than seeing children suffer because of the selfish actions of the adults in their lives. I hate to think of them trying to sleep with the ring of gunfire in their ears. The image of mothers scrounging for food for their little ones makes me sick. Elderly people shouldn’t have to live in war zones. A large part of me says, “Let them come. Let them come.”

Another part of me realizes that human beings are sinful. Islam allows for kitman, meaning that a Muslim may make ambiguous statements and pay mere lip-service to authority while maintaining personal opposition. She may say one thing and do another. Like it or not, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a member of the IS would use kitman to pose as a refugee in order to enter the United States. (Whether or not that’s an appropriate application of the concept is outside my realm of knowledge. I’ll leave that debate to the experts).

Still another part knows that a sizable minority who flee the terror are my brothers and sisters in the Lord. The persecution they suffer for their faith is real, despite protests to the contrary. I can’t turn a blind eye to beheadings and crucifixions. I want to rise up and shield them from such barbarous evil.

I can hear your objections. “You’re spreading religious hatred!” “You’re prejudiced!” “You’re hateful!”

Not at all. I don’t for a second believe that all of the refugees, or even a majority of them, are terrorists in disguise. I don’t think that every Muslim is a liar. I don’t think that we need to fear these people.

I do think that we need both compassion and wisdom. There’s a reason that Jesus tells us to be wise as serpents and harmless as doves (Matthew 10:16). We can’t have one without the other and navigate this life successfully.

I don’t know what our response should be, either nationally or as Christians. This is not as cut-and-dried as some on either side of the debate would have it be. At the national level, we face debt crisis after debt crisis; it’s unreasonable to think that we can, given the current economic make-up, financially support an unchecked flood of humanity. It’s not wrong to wonder why other Muslim-majority nations aren’t more accepting of Muslim refugees. At the faith level, yes, we are called to stand for the oppressed and care for the widow and the orphan. We are also told to be watchful and eschew willful ignorance. We can’t and shouldn’t ignore the problem and hope it goes away, but all of these elements need to be taken into consideration before attempting to implement any solution.

Whatever side any of us lands on, we must acknowledge that one thing we absolutely must not do is lob figurative grenades at each other as we wrestle with these issues. Christians screaming at each other and calling each other’s faith into question does nothing. We can be members of the one Body and have different opinions on how to respond to this. As my pastor shared last week:

I remember a time, especially as Christians, when an issue such as the Syrian refugee crisis confronted us, and our first reaction was to pray about it. We sought the Lord individually or even collectively in our faith communities and asked, “God, what would you have me/us do?” I remember a time when we would seek the leading and the conviction of God’s Holy Spirit and respond in obedience and absolutely no one had to know. We didn’t have to come up with a creative meme, Tweet or Facebook status – we simply responded in obedience to how God was leading us…not solely with our emotions. Furthermore, if your willingness to obey resulted in you having a different opinion about a particular issue than someone else, that was okay – you could function in humility in a relationship with people of varying opinions because you might be supporting a cause that was diametrically opposed to your neighbor’s value system, but they were none the wiser because you simply lived your life in quiet obedience to what you sensed God wanted you to do. How I miss that time! I wonder if it can be reclaimed?

– Mark McWhorter, Rambling Thoughts as I Get Old

Let us reclaim that spirit of unity in diversity.

Let it begin with me.

My journey to faith. (15)

P.S. – Since I know someone is going to bring it up, I’m neither a supporter or a member of either the Republican Party or the Democrat Party. Both disgust me in equal measure.

Shades of Hope

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Gentle Reader,

Often depression is linked to the color blue. As in, you’ve got the blues. Such a thing makes sense in light of the deep, dark tones that the color descends into.

Must blue always be consigned to such a fate?

Consider these words:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? – Matthew 6:26 (NKJV)

Riots in Egypt and Libya, world-wide economic crises and domestic unrest can make you want to run for the bed and hide under the covers. It’s easy to feel discouraged and lost. To feel blue. It is, however, to the blue that Jesus tells us to turn our eyes, for this verse is not only about the birds, but also about their environment.

I notice the birds of the air when the day is bright and sunny. When the sky is clear, or maybe dotted with just a few puffy, white clouds. When the breeze is gentle across my cheeks. When everything seems bursting with life.

The birds soar, dip, dive and glide across an expanse of perfect pale blue. In that moment, I am mesmerized by their beauty and their ability to perform intricate maneuvers without any kind of training. They do not strive to be birds. They simply are. They spread their wings and take to the heavenlies as they were meant to.

That is a picture of hope.

Right now, the skies outside my window are overcast. Marked by gray. It isn’t difficult for that physical heaviness to translate over into my life.  The world I see is hemmed in by clouds and the world I feel is the same. I sink past indigo and into navy.

Then I remember the birds, on the wind in that pale blue sky.

A bird doesn’t stop being a bird when it is stuck on the ground. It simply waits for the opportunity to tear up the natural runway of some field or pond and leave the earth. Until then, it sleeps. It eats. It mates. It continues on – in the storm, in the cold, in the gloom.

The bird doesn’t doubt that its circumstances will change, or even that it will endure through the present grounding. It just keeps being a bird, fully reliant upon its Maker. I have no doubt that it knows, somehow, that blue skies are on their way.

In that, I hope.

My journey to faith. (15)