Embrace the Questions

asking questions

After church service Sunday, a 20-something guy told me that when he was 12 years old he asked his youth pastor a question: “Why does God allow children to suffer?”  

(The topic Sunday in our “S*&! Christians Say” series is a common answer to suffering: “Everything happens for a reason.” So we talked about suffering.)

Now really, who hasn’t asked the same question?  Or who has not at least thought the question?

The 12 year old  was shut down.  Put down.  “That’s a dangerous question,” he was told.  “Questions like that show a lack of faith.”  

That has been the experience of a lot of “churched-people” – which is why many of those people are now “de-churched.”

 Maybe it is still the experience of people today.  

Churches have a reputation of being a “no question” zone.  Yes, questions lead to:

…answers

…discovery

…mystery

…and trouble.  

Just ask my 20-something friend. He still remembered the experience of being shut down. Anyone who has dared to ask questions has likely been told one or all of these things:

“These questions show a lack of faith.”

“Questions are a slippery slope.”

“Just accept what I tell you as truth.”

What we hear is:

“Sit down and shut up and you’ll learn something!”

We walk away thinking, “Believing is so much easier before I started thinking.”  

I mean, really, we’re told to read our Bibles everyday.  So we do.  Immediately we are faced with two creation stories that don’t line up!  We write down the question: “Why is mankind  created after the animals in chapter one, but before them in chapter two.?”

We keep reading and meet a talking snake:

Write it down:  “A talking snake?  Really?  Is this history or some kind of fable?”

We go on in Genesis and  find a man looking for a mate among the animals.  

Ok,  that’s disturbing.  “What kind of “Find your date/mate” plan is this?”

We keep reading…We get to the famous children story, Noah and the Ark. We’re shocked in multiple ways.   First there is the horror of a God who, in a fit of rage, drowns babies and toddlers along with their parents.  

Write it down: “Is this ‘Biblical Parenting’?   God, The Heavenly Parent, gets so mad at his children that he kills them so he can start over with new kids.  Really?”  

More questions: 

“Why do parents decorate their newborns’ rooms with a ‘Noah and the Ark’ theme?  What’s so sweet about this story?”   I wonder if parents have even read it.

“I thought the animals went in two by two (Genesis 6:19)?  What’s up with Genesis 7:2-3 that says there were 7 of each pure species and two of each impure species?  Why the contradiction?”  

“And this was written before the Law.  How’d Noah know which animals were “clean” or “unclean”?

So we take our list of questions with us to church the next Sunday and hand them to our pastor or student leader. As they read the list, they start sweating. Mumbling something about having to go preach or something, they run away. 

What does it say about a religion when that religion is afraid of questions?  

Maybe it says we’re not much like our founder, Jesus.  He loved questions.  He asked a lot of them (someone actually counted and found 307 questions) and he answered a few of them. 

 Why?

Why did Jesus ask more questions than he answered?

What does that say about him?

What does it do to our understanding of spirituality that Jesus is more “The Question Man” than he is “The Answer Man”?

Maybe it says we’ve lost our childlike spirit which Jesus seems to insist we keep (Matthew 18:2-4).  Someone else counted and discovered that children ask 289 questions a day!

Peter Abelard (1079-1142), philosopher, theologian, poet, wrote, “The key to wisdom is this – constant and frequent questioning, for by doubting we are led to question, by questioning we arrive at the truth.”

There is no need to be threatened by questions.  Asking them or being asked. 

 I don’t know everything and I know I don’t know everything. I find value in reaching out, learning new things,  hearing new perspectives. My purpose is not to preach but to understand.  To listen, to love, to live like Christ and to ask questions of myself, of others, and of God.   

 

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Keep the Lent in VaLENTine’s Day

AshHeart

Two worlds merge this Wednesday, February 14 – Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday.  Maybe a better word than “merge” is “collide.”

Two worlds collide.

Indulgence and Deprivation

Feasting and Fasting

Chocolate and no chocolate

Yep, the number one day for giving chocolate falls on the same day people start giving up chocolate for the Lenten season.

This hasn’t happened since 1945, 73 years ago.

So, what do we do?

Do we use chocolate to make the sign of the cross on our foreheads?
Do we use ashes to make a heart instead of a cross on our foreheads?

The Archdiocese of Chicago released a statement that the “obligation of fast and abstinence must be the priority…”.

Maybe it’s not a matter of either/or.

  1. Both celebrations are about love: love for God and love for another.
  2. Both celebrations are opportunities to focus on the one we love – obviously something that shouldn’t be relegated to one day or season of the year.
  3. Both provide an opportunity to acknowledge the ways we have drifted, or turned away from the one we love and correct the course of our lives.

Lent is partly about giving up something during the Lenten season – the period between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Well, what if we gave up something for Valentine’s Day?  You know, give up those behaviors that irritate our partner and chip away at the relationship.

*Bodily Quirks – nose picking, gas passing, air burping, teeth picking… You get the idea. Give ’em up.

 *Bad manners – leaving the toilet seat up, leaving an empty toilet tissue roll on the holder, bad manners at the table, forgetting or choosing not to say “Please” and “Thank-you.” Remember the “love is not rude” line from 1 Corinthians 13?  Well, it really isn’t.

*Being a slob – Clothes in the corner, dishes in the sink, papers piled on the cabinet.  Slobbishness is defined differently by different people. See if you all can use the same dictionary. And then, when there’s a pile, pick it up.  When there’s a mess, clean it up.  When there’s a splatter, wipe it up.

*Half-listening – You know.  Our partner is talking and we’ve got one ear tuned in to them and the other ear tuned in to the T.V.  Give that up.

*Listening to respond instead of listening to understand.  I do this a lot. I need to give it up.

Two celebrations that seem contradictory can be complimentary.  VaLENTine’s Day.

Now, I’ve got to start figuring out what to do about Easter – which happens to be on April 1!

“The Good Ship Jesus”

Slave Ship Jesus

 

One of the most popular church songs during my teen years had these lyrics:

“Jesus, Jesus, Jesus; there’s just something about that name.”

Master, Savior, Jesus; like the fragrance after the rain…”

The song was one of the hundreds of holy hits put out by the Gaithers – sung in churches all through the South.

The song reminded us of many attributes of Jesus.

Jesus:  Love, kindness, justice, gentleness, humility.  These are the words that come to my mind when I think of Jesus.

But how about these words?

Jesus:  Horror, suffering, injustice, slavery, torture.

The name of the first slave ship to kidnap Black Folks and take them to America was…are you ready?

“The Good Ship Jesus”

Yep, there was a slave ship named “Jesus.”  A place of suffering, injustice, slavery and torture, named after Jesus.

“The Good Ship Jesus” was captained by Sir John Hawkins.  Hawkins was considered to be a “religious gentleman” who insisted that his crew “serve God daily” and “love another.”  Worship services were held on board twice a day.

I’m pulling out my hair, right now.

A “religious gentleman”?

“Serve God” by enslaving people?

“Love another” except people of another race, I guess.

That was 1562.

Let’s move forward 300 years and look at and listen to Frederick Douglass – America’s most famous abolitionist.  According to an article in the January/February 2018 issue of Christianity Today, Douglass escaped slavery when he was 20.  Standing on the banks of the Chesapeake Bay one Sunday morning he cried out, “I am left in the hottest hell of unending slavery. O God save me!”

“I will run away…God helping me, I will.”  He did.

Douglass settled in Bedford, Massachusetts.  In 1841 he became a lecturer for the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society.  His assignment was to convince the American public of the immorality of slavery and the necessity of the anti-slavery cause. Douglass had a catchphrase.  You know, a catch-phrase is a well-known statement or phrase from a famous person or character, like these:

Harry Carry – “Holy Cow!”

Jack Buck – “That’s a Winner!”

The Terminator – “I’ll be Back.”

Han Solo – “May the Force Be With You”

Sheriff Brody in Jaws – “You’re Gonna Need a Bigger Boat”

Here is Douglass’ catch-phrase – a line he repeated in almost every address:

“Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible differences.”

In the Appendix of his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Douglass condemned “corrupt, slaveholding women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity.”

Quoting from the Christianity Today article, “As Douglass knew from direct experience, the cruelest slaveholders were also often the most ardent church goers. ‘The man who wields the blood-clotted cowskin during the week fills the pulpit on Sunday, and claims to be a minister of the meek and lowly Jesus.’”

Douglass continues with words that break my heart, “The slave auctioneer’s bell and the church-going bell chime in with each other, and the bitter cries of the heart-broken slave are drowned in the religious shouts of his pious master…The slaveholder…covers his infernal business with the garb of Christianity.”

Douglass lays it out there pretty plainly doesn’t he?

Here’s our “come to Jesus” moment:

What “infernal business” are we covering with the “garb of Christianity”?

Is there a difference between our Christianity and the Christianity of Christ?

What are we doing that Jesus wouldn’t do?

What are we doing to which Jesus would never attach his name?

I’m pretty sure Jesus would not want a slave ship to be named after him.

How did people in the past, who called themselves “Christians,” do things that, today, we so easily and readily recognize are nothing like Jesus?  Is anyone else besides me asking, “How could they have done that?!”

What things are we doing today, that people in the future will so easily and readily recognize are nothing like Jesus? Will someone in the future ask about us, “How could they have done that?!”

Jesus gave us some pretty good guidelines, which if followed, will keep us from today’s version of naming a slave ship after Him.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.”

“As you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me.”

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind. And love your neighbor as yourself. Do this and you will live.”

“Do not neglect the weightier matters of justice, mercy and faith.”

“Love one another as I have loved you.”

“…he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor…to set the oppressed free…”

So, by our lives, by our values, by our words and actions, what characteristics do people who know us attach to the name of Jesus?

Am I Racist?

Am I Racist

 

One thing I did to honor Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend, was to take a test: The Implicit Association Test.  The test is designed to reveal how we really feel about certain topics.  The test-taker can pick from 14 topics.   I picked “Race IAT”.

The test took about 5 minutes.

“Are you a racist?” is a question that’s been in the news the last few days.  It’s a good question – a question I needed to ask myself, not just someone else.

Here’s what the test said about me:

“Our data suggests a slight automatic preference for European Americans over African Americans.”

Really? That’s terrible!  That’s not what I expected – at all.

Maybe I’m just a bad test-taker.

Maybe I got distracted.

Maybe I didn’t understand the questions.

Maybe it’s a bad test.

Or maybe the test is accurate and I’m not as unbiased as I thought.

It got worse.  The test-givers had a series of questions the test-takers might ask.  Here was one of them: “What can I do about an implicit preference that I do not want?”

That’s me. I didn’t want that evaluation.  I didn’t like my test score.  There have been a lot of test scores in my education path I haven’t liked.   But these results mattered more.  They hurt.

I don’t want to have any bias toward any group over another.  But I guess some part of me does. In Thomas Merton’s terms, that part of me is “the false self.”  So, what can I do to change it?  Here’s the answer from the test-givers: “Nothing.”  Here’s what they specifically said:

“Right now, there is not enough research to say for sure that implicit biases can be reduced, let alone eliminated.”

Well, that stinks.  I’m not going to accept that.  If I need to change, I will change.

I can be a “new person.”
“Old things have gone away, new things have come!” (2 Corinthians 5:17). That’s hopeful!

“Everyone thinks about changing the world but no one things about changing himself.” Leo Tolstoy   That’s challenging.

No one comes out of the womb a racist.  No ones born harboring hateful, prejudicial thoughts or views toward others.  But, that baby grows up, and like a sponge soaks up the liquid into which it is dipped, children soak up the attitudes and perspectives of those people into whose lives they are submerged.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speaks to this when speaking of the Commissioners of Montgomery, Alabama who opposed him and his movement:

“They say the things they say about us and treat us as they do because they are taught these things.  From the cradle to the grave, it is instilled in them that the Negro is inferior.  Their parents probably taught them that; the schools they attended taught them that; the books they read, even their churches and ministers taught them that…”
“because they are taught these things.”
It was gracious of Dr. King to chalk up the hateful, racist, murderous views and actions of people to their upbringing.

If he is right, then Yoda’s words to Luke are right, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”  If I unlearn what I’ve learned, what do I relearn?  Maybe Jesus offers me the education I need:

“Take my yoke upon you. Learn of me because I am gentle and humble in spirit…” (Matthew 11:29).  

Jesus invites me to learn a new way. It is the way of my identity in God – my “true self” – Thank you Thomas Merton.  The way of gentleness and humility, the way of love.

God creates us in God’s own image.  Take a moment to let that sink in.  That’s big.  Teresa of Avila says our soul refers to our God-given godly nature.  Our God-given godly nature is the infinite reality of us.  Since God’s essence is love (1 John 4:8), we are love.

Let’s learn to live out who we are – to live out love.

And then let me take the test again.

 

 

Karma and the DMV

patricia_belcher_geico-1

I had a great time at the DMV this week.  Yes, you read that correctly.  I had a great time at the DMV this week.

“Great time” and the DMV don’t usually go together.

Frustration and the DMV

Irritation and the DMV

Annoyance and the DMV

Time Vacuum and the DMV

But not “Great Time” and the DMV.

I was late, by 8 months, in renewing the tags on my 1973 VW Super Beetle.  I know.  I feel ashamed.  I was prepared for a big fine and a big lecture – or at least a condescending look.

On top of being late, when I handed my insurance document to the DMV clerk, she informed me that It was missing the VW’s VIN.  Rats!!! Maxwell the Geico pig in the above pic, had all the pertinents.  I didn’t.  I knew what that meant.    No renewal tags for me.  Time wasted.  Frustration. Irritation.

I had a choice.  How will I respond?  I thought before I spoke – which doesn’t happen a lot!

I have been studying “Karma.”   I know, a lot of Christians blow a Bible gasket when karma is mentioned.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because the word comes from faith expressions they think as wrong.  But is it wrong?

Karma means action.  It’s the old, “For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction” law of Newton.

“Karma” is defined by Urban Dictionary as “getting what you give” or “reaping what you sow.”  Whoa.  Urban Dictionary is using the Bible to define karma.  Hmmmm.

“Do not be deceived:  God cannot be mocked.  A man reaps what he sows.  Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the spirit, from the spirit will reap eternal life.  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers” (Galatians 6:7-10).

“Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.  Do not condemn others, or it will all come back against you.  Forgive others, and you will be forgiven (Luke 6:37).  

And then, the part of this passage that most preachers read right before the offering, while skipping the most convicting part above:

“Give and it will be given to you.  A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap.  For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you” (Luke 6:38).  

Jesus applies the “karma” principle to how we treat people.  How we treat others is how we’ll be treated.  I tried it at the DMV.

“Thank you for being so thorough,” I told the clerk.  “You’re good at what you do.”

I intentionally chose against irritation in favor of appreciation.

The result?  The clerk said, “You’re a nice guy.  We can figure out a way to make this work.”

I walked out with the new stickers for my old Beetle.

Did Karma work?  Was she nice to me because I was nice to her?
I don’t know.  Maybe she was jus a nice gal.

But, I do know that being nice made me feel better inside.

Being nice may be its own reward.

Call it Karma.  Don’t call it Karma.  But be kind.