And then God struck …. Not.

firefromheaven
Minutes after the US Supreme Court handed down their ruling overturning bans on same-sex marriage, posts were already going up on Facebook and across the blogosphere about “Spitting in the face of God” and “God’s impending wrath on America.

*Sigh* Really? Of course, this kind of reaction is not surprising. There are a surprising number of people who are invested in preserving tradition and a strict moral code that does not allow for love between two people of the same gender. It’s a religious thing, not a rational one. Not a civil one. Not a constitutional one. And frankly, not a godly one either.

But there it is.  Wrath. Christians who on most days of the week boast about living in God’s grace, now suddenly focused on the doom about to be unleashed on this now pagan America.

But let’s forget about the bantering back and forth about “WWJD?” or what the Bible says (or doesn’t say) about homosexuality. We’ll never agree on that anyway. We will always read and interpret the Bible in ways that agree with what we already want to believe. Let’s just look at our own history in Europe and America, and judge whether God is still in the wrath-inflicting business.

When Europe was filled with terror over religious wars in the previous centuries, with people being brutally tortured (Spanish Inquisitions, Holy Wars, Crusades, etc), did God hurl lightning bolts at Rome or London or Castile? Did comets plummet to the earth, wiping out vile Europeans? Or during the Holocaust in the 1930s and -40s, with millions of Jews (“God’s chosen people”), Gypsies, gay people, and others were exterminated, and their ashes literally rose to heaven as their bodies were incinerated — did God inflict his wrath?

In our own illustrious American history, with the genocide of Native Americans, with centuries of slavery, with witch hunts and burning people at the stake, oppression of women and racial minorities, of anti-Semitism, of Islamophobia and homophobia, of lynchings, of gay-bashing and public violence… What about our neglected poor, and those who fought so hard to make sure the poor among us would NOT have food or shelter or medical treatment? Yeah, Social Security is part of our national existence now, but it was strongly resisted when FDR tried to bring it about. Same with Medicare and Medicaid. Just look at the fight over Obamacare, or the hostility directed at “illegal aliens”.

The Bible is full of examples (and commands!) concerning treatment of the weak, the helpless, the widows, orphans, the poor, the aliens in the land. The prophet Ezekiel even declared that that was the reason for God’s punishment on Sodom and Gomorrah — for the citizens of those cities’ lack of concern for the vulnerable among them, while they fattened their own purses and stomachs. Greed, gluttony, selfishness, and turning a blind eye to the needs of others is what irks God. (Ezek 16:49)

Jesus came along and turned a spotlight on these concerns close to God’s heart. Love for our neighbor became a motto. “What you do unto the least of these …” was a standard against which we would ultimately be judged in the next life.

And about “imminent judgment” for sins committed, Jesus pointed at examples in his own day, and said “NO! Those people hurt by disasters were no more sinners than you” (Lk 13:4). And when his own disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven upon those who rejected God’s Good News (listen up, Mike Huckabee!), Jesus smacked them in the face: “You don’t know what Spirit you belong to”  (Lk 9:54).

If America were to invoke the wrath of God — whether by drought or famine or hurricane, flood, earthquake or other natural disaster — it would not be over passing laws that allow people to love and celebrate each other. If anything, we’d fall under his curse for our neglect of the needy among us, the minorities, those illegal aliens who come here looking for a better life. He’d judge us for being the wealthiest nation in this history of this planet, yet 1 out of every 5 children in this country go to bed hungry. We drive our Lexuses, we buy bigger houses, we pad our 401K plans, and our neighbors can’t feed their children. Our grandparents can’t afford their medicines. Our youth are living on the streets, kicked out of their homes by angry parents.  Surely we deserve God’s wrath — but not for marriage equality.

Thankfully, God doesn’t seem to be in the wrath-hurling business. Grace is his trademark characteristic. Love extended to the unworthy, the undeserving. And judgment — by HIS standards, not ours — reserved for the Great White Throne in the next life.  And anyone who is predicting the coming wrath because their traditional moral values no longer hold force in this country, only proves that their traditions were built on sand. They don’t know the heart of God. The same words of Jesus apply today as well as then: “You know not what Spirit you are of.”

 

[box type=”bio”] STEVE SCHMIDT is the Teaching Pastor at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook. [/box]

LGBT Evolution: We don’t need the Castro anymore

Welcome_SanFranciscoMy boyfriend and I just got back from a trip to San Francisco. If you’ve never been, you need to put it on your Bucket List because it’s a beautiful city — and yeah, the Golden Gate Bridge is one of those “must sees” of modern times, kind of one of the modern 7 Wonders of the World. The art and architecture of the city is amazing — we were stopping every couple of streets just to snap photos of the buildings.

We hit all the touristy places, of course: the Port of San Francisco and the Embarcadero, Chinatown, the Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park, the Bridge, Fisherman’s Wharf … and that place that was gay Mecca for so long, the Castro district. We walked everywhere, just to absorb the city. Miles and miles of hills, up and down. And restaurants, amazing food. (Yeah, we didn’t realize that food would end up being our major expenditure there.) It was Jake’s first time to the city, and my first time back in almost 20 years.

It’s always a bit nostalgic returning to a historic scene, a place loaded with memories and iconic images. San Francisco is such a place. And part of that nostalgia is a bit of sadness over how things have changed over the years. The Castro brought that point to light immediately.

Twenty years ago, I was a grad student visiting the city for my first time. I was still in the closet (mostly), so it was like a trip to the motherland, the safe-haven for gay and lesbian kids seeking refuge from the oppressive environments of small town Kansas … or even upstate New York. The hippy days of Haight-Ashbury were long gone, even by then, but the Castro was still buzzing with gay couples, gay restaurants, gay bookstores, gay clubs. It was a place you could feel “home,” you could be safe … you were among “your own people.” Same-sex marriage was still a fantasy then. We never imagined it would happen in our lifetimes. Being gay in the military — even before the days of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell — was a risky venture. Movies about people like Sergeant Matlovich, who came out, and was court-martialed and dishonorably discharged, still haunted us. We weren’t too far removed from the days of Anita Bryant, and the rages of Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority. AIDS was still a plague that ravaged men and women, with little hope in sight. It was a death sentence. So places like San Francisco were little paradises where people could escape the stress and pressures of hiding in real life, where we could let our hair down, hold hands, and just be.

CastroBut the Castro is a different place now. It’s not much more colorful than any other “cute” part of town. Sure, there are rainbow flags flying everywhere — even the crosswalks are rainbow painted. And yeah, there are drag clubs if you like that kind of nightlife. But for the most part, it’s just a cute little touristy spot, full of restaurants. The bookstores have gone the way of most bookstores these days … extinct, victims of Amazon and the internet. Even the “GLBT Museum” is not much more than two small rooms with photos of a few famous people, like José Sarria and Harvey Milk. Nothing shocking about the place. It’s completely family-friendly — if you don’t count the random homeless people spewing occasional vulgarities.

And it saddened me a little. But this is what evolution looks like.

LGBT men and women fought for this. For integration. For acceptance. For the day when we wouldn’t have to crowd together in comfortable ghettos, where we could live among everyone else, and where straight people would feel just as free and comfortable around us. They dreamed of the day when a lesbian couple could walk down the street pushing a stroller with their child in it, or two gay dads could hold hands while carrying their son on their shoulders. Where you could lean over the table at a restaurant and kiss your spouse in public without people making hateful comments or throwing something. They fought, they protested, they were beaten, some were even assassinated, for “equality” — for “normalcy.” And San Francisco now reflects that.

My boyfriend is younger than me. He lives completely “out,” and has since he was a teenager. His boss knows, his colleagues know, his students knows, his students’ parents know, his priest knows. He experienced rejection in the evangelical church he grew up in, but he doesn’t know how far we’ve come, how mind-blowingly, unimaginably far we’ve progressed. He won’t know the Castro as I once experienced it. And thank God for that.

As disappointed as I was by the change, I recognized that this is the natural outcome of all those fights for civil rights. It was what those drag queens at Stonewall fought the police for.

I have friends even here in Oklahoma City who bemoan the changes occuring in our community. We don’t have a big area like the Castro, or Greenwich Village, or Houston’s Montrose. We have a small stretch on 39th Street known as “the Strip” where there are a handful of clubs and a hotel. Gay Pride draws in thousands of people for the festivities, the music, the beer, the parade — a lot of young LGBT people, but also thousands of straight people who just want to have a good time. Families, kids. And some of my friends don’t like this. “We’ve lost our culture. We’re disappearing.” It’s a shock to our identity. But isn’t this exactly what we wanted? Marriage equality, civil rights, families, job protection … to be treated as if our sexual orientation made little difference except in whom we chose to love? This is evolution. This is progess.

I get it. I feel some of their pain. Probably like the early Christians felt when the persecution stopped and Christianity became a legal religion. They didn’t have to hide anymore, they could be who they were in public. It changed everything. Or like second-generation immigrants who want to move out of Chinatown and work on Wall Street. Or off the reservation and into the cities. Integration. There’s a schizophrenic struggle to retain part of our identity as unique, as special, and yet live the normal lives we’ve always wanted. Seeing straight people dance at our clubs, seeing kids at our Pride parades, seeing less and less of the blatant sexuality displayed at our festivals, as the focus of our lives turn from that to the mundane efforts of paying a mortgage and sending our kids to private schools. This is the price we pay. San Francisco’s Chinatown is mostly restaurants and souvenir shops targeted at tourists. Where are this generation’s Chinese-Americans? Not living there anymore. Where are this generation’s LGBTQ youth? On campuses, in big cities, even buying farms in small towns. Raising kids, paying taxes, worrying about who is elected President. They aren’t flocking to Greenwich Village or the Castro anymore. They don’t need to.

Someday — soon — our Pride parades won’t be much different than our St. Patrick’s Day parades (except maybe with a bit less beer). They will celebrate the diversity of our population. They will reflect our achievements, our progress in history, and give us a chance to wave our flags to celebrate who we are. But they won’t be needed. They won’t be essential to our survival. They’ll be like fireworks on the Fourth of July — something we commemorate, but not vital to our identity or existence anymore.

I’m still a little saddened by the loss of these iconic places, these bastions of LGBT culture. They’re more museums now, remembering what was, rather than being vital hubs of our community. All change is painful, but we don’t stop progress just because we want to stay in the past. And we don’t hold so tightly onto our past that we overlook how far we’ve come. We aren’t going backwards. We can’t afford to all move to San Francisco or New York and buy condos in our ghettos. The world has changed, and we are part of it.

Jake and I flew back to Oklahoma City, to our homes, our jobs, our friends and families, our churches. San Francisco was beautiful, was energizing, was even historic and nostalgic. But it’s good to be back home.

photo credit: photos by Steve Schmidt, cc.

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves as Teaching Pastor at Expressions.Today in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

[/box]

This is Not “Your” Country

ChristianFlag_7899058016_1512abf4da_oThey say you should never drive while you’re angry. The same probably goes for writing. And while I recently learned “not everything needs to be barked at,” sometimes some things do.

I stay in touch with a lot of Christian groups online, mostly on Facebook, because I like to be engaged with relevant issues. And today, in one of those groups, someone posted this video along with the comment that Christians need to “Stand Up!” and take back our country for Jesus.

(You can watch just his short speech uninterupted here.)

The back story here is that the school district had banned public prayer when it started receiving complaints that too many social functions were being opened with sectarian prayer.  So this student, given the opportunity as valedictorian to exhort his fellow students, tore up his approved speech and instead subjected the audience to his testimony and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

What’s wrong with a little prayer? Absolutely nothing. Prayer is a wonderful thing. Unless it’s when you are flaunting your faith, rubbing other people’s noses in it. Or when you’re imposing your religion on other people who don’t share it.  Remember Jesus’ own words about people who make a big show about praying in public?  In America, we honor religious practice; its protection is enshrined in our constitution — and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t open public ceremonies and official events with prayer. Because it excludes people, people who don’t pray that way or believe the same way — and that’s neither the American nor the loving thing to do.

This is an ongoing thing here in “God’s Country.”  Some Americans feel threatened by all the radical shifts occurring in society – whether it’s the bold embracing of “sin” (like abortion or gay marriage: oddly never about greed or oppressing widows and orphans), or when white Americans feel their majority slipping through their fingers and their beloved country being overrun by people of a different color or who speak a different language. Some of this we can try to be patient with as the remnants of a dying culture still grasp with withered fingers to keep their hold on civic affairs. We can even pity them. Yes, it must be difficult watching this younger generation embrace their gay and lesbian friends, where the word “queer” is no longer used as an insult, where Spanish is heard more often on the streets than English, and when you walk downtown you are no longer surrounded by familiar white faces. Change is hard. But it’s not always bad – as your kids know all too well.

Unfortunately even churches get in on the act. Same deal: we might forgive their overzealous approach to certain social issues when we consider their life-sucking religiosity and narrower code of morality. Okay, that was a bit harsh. How about, when we take into account their particular set of beliefs about right and wrong? Aren’t churches in the business of trying to stop sin and create a more godly culture?  Umm, yes – although that is a completely unbiblical mandate for the Church. Forcefully controlling other people’s lives was never a mission of Jesus.

Nevertheless, churches continue to promote social and political agendas, endorsing political candidates, hosting “pro-American” programs – everything from inviting disgraced politicians like Tom DeLay to speak at their churches because he supports a conservative agenda, to even handing out guns as a way to increase church attendance.  (Yeah, that really happened.)  And these churches, with their political endorsements, are in direct violation of law which grants them the coveted tax-exempt status provided they stay out of the political arena. But let’s ignore that technicality for now. Many churches have embraced patriotism, equating being a good (conservative) American with being a good (conservative) Christian.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve confused “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” equating God with Caesar.

In doing so, we’ve painted God as a white, heterosexual American male. Ya know, even that can be tolerated to some degree.  God is big. He created EVERYTHING and everybody, in infinite varieties of shapes, sizes, colors, personalities, and I’m sure he doesn’t mind if we relate to him best when we think of him as “similar” to us.  So if I walk into a church with stained glass windows depicting a black baby Jesus, hey, that’s okay – at least as okay as painting that Middle Eastern Jew as a blond-haired, blue-eyed man.  I’ve seen Jesus with almond eyes in Eastern Orthodox churches, and with distinctly Asian features painted by Korean Christians.  When it’s done as a way of better connecting with God and out of genuine affection for him, I’m sure Jesus loves it.

But when we start doing this at the expense of other people who don’t quite fit our vision of God, or who don’t quite hold the same codes of holiness we do, when the exercise of our religious freedom makes other people feel left out instead of lovingly included, I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t smiling about it.

And that is exactly what that young man did in his valedictorian speech. He defied authority and potentially offended so many people in that audience who don’t subscribe to his version of faith.  “Yes,” I commented on that man’s post, “I’m sure the Jewish students especially appreciated this. Imagine if that had been a Muslim student, defying school rules, and reciting a prayer from the Quran.”

Guess what? America does not belong to just white, Protestant Christians.  And I’m not speaking theoretically. I have Jewish and Muslim friends, and I would never insult them by reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a ceremony celebrating their accomplishments. (Honestly, knowing some of them, they probably wouldn’t mind so much, giving me grace to express my faith as suits me.) And I wouldn’t slam my Christian fist into the stomachs of my Buddhist or Hindu friends by usurping the opportunity to offer encouraging words about their future and turning it instead into a testimony about how they should turn their lives over to Jesus.

Do people still ask “WWJD?”  I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t do any of that.

And on a purely patriotic level, America was founded as a safe-place for people who don’t subscribe to “official” religion. Remember the Pilgrims? Puritans who fled England because they were persecuted for not following the official faith of the throne.  Remember the Statue of Liberty? Holding up her torch “beside the golden door,” welcoming those who sought freedom. And here we are, even in our “Houses of God,” waving flags, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, voting ministers into political positions and inviting politicians into our pulpits, making better Americans (“Christians”) out of those who may not want to be Christians.

“This land was made for you and me,” we were taught to sing in elementary school. “This land is your land, this land is my land …”  It belongs to all of us – by historical roots, by Constitutional right, and I believe by the favor of God.  We can never please God by offending others, by using our faith to slap them across the face, by using our privileged positions to ram our beliefs down their throats. By giving our salvation testimony and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a high school commencement meant to honor other people besides just us.  Because our public institutions and civic functions — even if not our houses of worship — should be places where people are made to feel welcome and included, not where they are treated like they are unimportant or don’t even exist at all.

“This land is your land”, but it is not “your” land.  It doesn’t belong to you exclusively, nor is it yours to impose your beliefs on others. That’s just selfishness and ignorance. It’s not American. And it’s certainly not Christian.

Photo credit: CJF20 on Flickr, cc
[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

[/box]

Gay Pride: WWJD?

Well, it’s June. And for many LGBT people it’s a month of celebration, of parties, of activism and awareness. In the U.S., President Obama once again officially proclaimed June as Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender Pride Month.  Of course, June has been “Gay Pride” month since the Stonewall Riots in June 1969, and there are parades and festivities occurring this month all around the world, from Omaha to London to Tel Aviv to Shanghai. Cities across the globe have cordoned off streets and beaches for the concerts and parties. The parades have become the public arena for corporate floats, aspiring politicians, community activists, churches, and everyday citizens demonstrating for civil rights and social acceptance, as well as those out just for a good time.

And then there’s the other side. The drunkenness, the public display of nudity and sexuality, the flaunting of common decency in the name of shock value “because we can”. Many of the events are family-friendly, but many have come out of the seedy, dark underground where practices not really suited for prime time are now being aired defiantly. It’s Mardi Gras with a rainbow flag.

Like a lot of things in our world today, Christians even remotely interested in such events are faced with a dilemma. Do I go?  Do I participate? Or is this something that should be completely avoided?

I asked a few of my Christian friends for their opinions, and as expected, received answers ranging all along the spectrum, from adamantly opposed, to strongly supportive, and even apathy and uncertainty in between. Regardless of the value or lack of value in supporting the cause of civil rights, is it appropriate for Christians to associate with these kinds of events and these kinds of people? As one friend quoted the Bible to me, “what partnership does righteousness have with lawlessness; what fellowship has light with darkness?” But as another friend countered, “how else is the light to shine except in darkness? The light shines, and darkness has not overcome it.”  But I think even that whole imagery misses the point.

Everyone will have to answer that question for themselves, according to their own motivations and conscience, but I thought it would be helpful to ask that popular question, “What would Jesus do?”

I think everyone will agree that Gay Pride celebrations are generally not for the timid or faint of heart. There are strongly motivated people out there — those advocating their liberty, those voicing opposition, and those just plain ole acting up. And it should go without saying that followers of Jesus probably shouldn’t be active participants in lewdness and debauchery — however your conscience defines those. But large-scale public celebrations — especially this one — are filled with hurting and hungry people. And that to me is the key to solving the dilemma.

Jesus went wherever people needed him. “It is not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick. I have not come for the righteous, but to call sinners to repentance” (Lk 5:30-32). “I have come that they may have life, and have it in abundance” (Jn 10:10).

This motivation drove Jesus to some very questionable places and caused him to associate with certain types of people that the more religious would never even talk to much less hang out with. His behavior and choice of companions so outraged the religious that they called him a drunk and a glutton (Mt 11:19). They accused him of being demon possessed. Why? Because he loved people.

And let’s be clear about one thing here: while Jesus would not have been condoning out-of-control behavior, he was no stranger to parties and enjoying himself. Remember his first miracle? It was at a wedding reception, where celebrating people were busy getting drunk. And what does he do? Give them more wine to celebrate. (John 2). And he was frequently seen at banquets and dinner parties, hanging around tax collectors, corrupt officials, prostitutes. The Pharisees of his day called him on it: how can you associate with such unclean people? Religious people, of any generation, seem to share the same attitude.

But Jesus saw something, he knew something, that they did not. He understood the heart of God.

Would Jesus go to a Gay Pride parade? You bet he would.

He’d use whatever means he could to show people how important they are to the Father. He might march in the parade or ride on one of the floats, waving at the people. I doubt he’d be wearing a feather boa or buttless chaps, but he’d certainly have a booth out on the fair grounds with big signs telling people that God loved them. He’d be shouting into the crowds (in a very undignified way), “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” He’d say, “Come to me, all who are hungry, and let me give you what you’re seeking. Come to me, all of you who are thirsty, and I will give you water to drink that will fill your souls and overflow out of you to water others.” He’d be reaching out, with arms extended, “You who are tired of church, you who have been damaged by religion, come to me. Let me love you, let me show you who God really is.”

Jesus loved people, and he’d go wherever the people were. To love them. To bless them. To help them. And simply to enjoy their company.

Of course he’d be at Gay Pride celebrations — where so many Gay and Lesbian and Bisexual and Transgender people have been rejected by our religious organizations, our churches, hurt by family, told they are hated by God, told they are going to hell. Is there any other group of people more needing of the love and acceptance of Jesus?

Would he be among the conservative church goers there, the Westboro crowd, holding up protest signs that say “Fags go to Hell”, or hurling insults at those dressed in feather boas or sexually-explicit costumes? Would he be among those throwing stones? Did he EVER do that in the Gospels? No.

Today, at any Gay Pride parade or picnic he went to, he’d walk up to such “scandalous” people, wrap his arms around them, kiss them on the cheek, and say “You are SO loved by the Father.” Some people would reject him, now just as they did 2000 years ago. But those who hunger for a relationship with God would hug him back, and follow him to some grassy picnic area where he’d tell them stories about how the Kingdom of God is made up of people such as themselves.

And from such people — the regular joes in jeans and t-shirts drinking their beer, the militant activists venting outrage at oppression, the same-sex parented families wanting to raise their kids in an accepting world, the male dancers in tighty-whities, the biker dykes, the rodeo cowboys, the drag queens with giant hair and 4 inch heels, the bears, the twinks, the lipstick lesbians, the bisexuals fighting for a place at the table in either community, the questioning and uncertain boys and girls trying to sort out who they are and what they want, the transgender men and women rebuilding their lives to match their true identities, the confident, the weak, the strong, the broken, the whole, the off-balanced, the healthy and those struggling for recovery — from all these people he would raise up followers who would know the grace of God and see a face of God that those who grew up in the church may never see and may never experience.

Not everybody at Gay Pride celebrations is hurt or damaged, of course. And only a small percentage of those gathered at these events will be acting in outrageous ways. Many people will be there just for the festivities and entertainment. Many of these will be fellow believers — gay and straight. And Jesus would be sitting at their table, sharing hamburgers with them, blessing them, listening to their stories and encouraging them. He’d laugh with them, cry with them, and remind them that he’s always with them and will never abandon them.

Should a Christian, gay or straight, attend Gay Pride events? That, of course, depends on your motive for being there. If you’re there to throw stones, or to hold up signs and shout protests through bullhorns, it’s best if you stay home. The love of God is not reflected in your actions. The pain you’re inflicting and the division you’re trying to cause do not reflect the heart of Jesus. But if you’re there to show love, to support, to encourage, to speak life into people, then by all means, Go!

When I think about Jesus, any question of whether it’s appropriate or right for a person of faith to go to Pride events melts away. People are there. So the Spirit of God is there. All we need to ask ourselves — all we should be imitating in our own lives — is What would Jesus Do?

 

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
[/box]

School Prayer, School Massacre, and Tying God’s Hands

“It’s an interesting thing. We ask why there’s violence in our schools, but we’ve systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be so surprised that schools would become a place of carnage … ?” (Mike Huckabee).

That statement by a former presidential candidate sparked a fire in both civil and religious circles, and well-meaning people have fallen into it, turning a national tragedy into a political and religious argument.

To be fair, Mr Huckabee wasn’t stating that this massacre was a direct result of prayer being taken out of that school. He’s talking about the overall decline of moral and religious values, of personal responsibility and accountability and an awareness of eternal judgment, brought about by removing God and religious instruction from public discourse. He seems to be saying that this is the inevitable consequence of separating church and state. This is what we get for pushing God out.

I can’t tell you the number of Facebook posts I’ve seen portraying this same sentiment: “Dear God, why do you allow so much violence in our schools? Signed, a concerned student. Dear Concerned Student, I’m not allowed in schools. Signed, God.”

The logic is the same as Huckabee’s. Because some people have rejected God in official government arenas, God has been forced out, powerless. And like a spoiled, petulant child he’s going to punish us now by granting our wish. “Okay, I’ll teach you! See what you get?” It seems silly from the outset.

Why that’s silly …

First of all, bad things happen to good people. All the time. Evil has been occurring since the days when Cain murdered Abel – to “godless” and God-fearing people alike. To say that because something bad happened, it’s God fault or that God allowed it to happen in order to punish us is an argument Jesus himself dispensed with back 2000 years ago. Maybe some of these perhaps-well-intended people out to defend God’s honor should go back to the book before spouting off religious sounding drivel that has the sound of holiness but lacks any of its truth or power.

When Jesus sent out his disciples to “bring God into the public arena” (okay, the New Testament phrases it more like “to proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom of God”), some of the towns absolutely rejected the message. And those disciples wanted to call down God’s judgment on them, destroying them with fire from heaven. If ever anyone could be accused of removing God from their culture, from a Christian viewpoint, it would be those villages.

But Jesus’ response? “You don’t know what Spirit you are of. I did not come to destroy lives, but to save them!” (Luke 9:56). What’s that mean? For one thing, that hostile, retaliatory reaction you’re feeling is not from God. It is not some divinely inspired “righteous anger.” That vengeful spirit is coming from some other place. And second, the Spirit you’re supposed to be representing doesn’t do that kind of thing. That’s not who God is, and that’s not who we are.

Any kind of projecting this attitude back on to God – “You kicked me out, so here you go!” – is actually antithetical to God’s heart.

On a different occasion, some people came to Jesus to get his spiritual assessment of some victims who were murdered by the Romans as they offered sacrifices to God. Surely, this was God’s wrath. They must have done something to deserve this. Jesus’ response: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you … Or, those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you. And unless you repent, you too will all perish” (Luke 13:1-5).

Catastrophes are not caused by divine judgment – at least that’s what Jesus was saying there. “Don’t be looking for fault, don’t try to make sense of it by blaming the victims or those around them. Do you think you are any better? You’ve all escaped a tragic fate you probably deserved because of God’s grace. Now act like it.”

That kind of spiritual smugness – “this happened because so-and-so did such-and-such,” with the unspoken implication that we live so much more worthily and are undeserving of similar tragedy – just rubs salt in the wound of those suffering. It reflects badly on those saying it, and completely fails to reflect the true heart of God.

And it’s diametrically opposed to the description of God loving a faulty humanity so much that he went to the extreme of letting his Son be crucified just to restore unimpeded connection.

Were God’s hands tied in this Newtown school because some politicians made it illegal for schools to force students to pray? Did God stand by helpless as a gunman mowed down 26 people in a Connecticut elementary school all because they weren’t allowed to post a copy of the 10 Commandments on the wall? Or worse: did he allow it to happen as punishment?

Not according to Jesus.

To give Mr. Huckabee a little credit, he did say something that was spiritually accurate. “God wasn’t armed. God didn’t go to that school.” Finally, truth. God did not cause this. “But God will be there in the form of a lot of people with hugs, and with therapy, and a whole lot of ways in which, I think, he will be involved in the aftermath.”

God’s hands are not tied

The divine promise, “I will never leave you, never forsake you,” is not restricted because “activist judges” separate civil government from faithful practice. “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you, God, are with me.” That is the correct perspective. The people rushing back into the building, to rescue and support the injured – these are the hands and feet of God. The comforting presence, both human and divine, that will be there to pick up the pieces of these shattered lives – that is the act of God.

We may never be able to make sense of this tragedy – or of any other, for that matter. Hurricanes that flood cities, tsunamis that destroy villages, earthquakes and fires, plagues and diseases … all the calamities that befall this troubled earth. They are part of our existence, part of our “fallen creation” as some theologians explain it. God, for some reason, chooses not to intervene sometimes. He sometimes allows events to occur that shake us to the core, make us question his love, question even his very existence. And in this life, we may never get the answers we’re looking for. But we cannot start pointing fingers at each other, laying blame for “divine wrath.” It serves no one, and certainly does not reflect the heart of God. It is “not the Spirit we are of.”

Instead, let’s be more focused on bearing fruit of our true spirituality. We need to put on more love, more joy, more peace, more patience and tolerance, more goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and humility. Let’s be the hands of God reaching out to help, the lips of God offering words of consolation and encouragement, and the strength of God by helping to restore and rebuild broken lives. That’s something more worthy of us. That’s really the heart of God, and that is the spirit we are of.

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
[/box]

Don’t Blame the Evangelicals

Hot topic of the week: North Carolina votes to forbid same-sex marriages in their state, and President Obama publicly states that he is in favor of full recognition of marriage for those same couples. And, of course, people are all hot and bothered — for one reason or the other.

Some see the passage of Amendment 1 in North Carolina as yet another nail in the coffin of the evangelical church and its relevance to the under-30 crowd. A bunch of old, white men fighting a losing battle over issues no one younger even cares about. Nothing new here; religious people have been bemoaning this for decades: Church in danger of losing the current generation.

But my gut reaction is “don’t blame the evangelicals.” Or better put, don’t equate conservative, inflexible, irrelevant religious people with evangelicalism. The very word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word for “Good News”. Guess what? The Good News isn’t stale. It isn’t rigid. It doesn’t rise up to impose its own way. It doesn’t oppress people or take things away from them. It isn’t political. It doesn’t rise or fall with the turning generations. It isn’t even fixed in black and white on the pages of Scripture. Well, the Good News is, but everything the church as linked to it is not. Here is the Good News: God loves the world, and he sent his Son to reconcile the world to him. Those who believe it are reconciled. They are now his children. Done deal. That’s all there is to it. All that other stuff is unrelated.

Those people who become alarmed at the “war on marriage” or the “war on American traditional values” (as though those were handed down from Mt. Sinai), they have little to do with what being an evangelical is all about.

Being an evangelical means I’m concerned about people being separated from God. It means I believe Jesus came to re-unite them with the Father. It means I care that they hurt. It means I try to treat them as I want to be treated. It means that if God’s love lives in me, I must extend that love to others. And I want to see those others brought into the same loving relationship with God through Jesus that I have.

Hooting and hollering on TV and talk-radio, voting knee-jerk reaction measures in Congress or the state legislatures, rousing the troops to get out the vote for the next election … all irrelevant. Politics and voting belong in the civic arena. Faith and relationship with God is the domain of evangelicalism. “Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” — and let’s not confuse the two.

People of genuine faith are gonna have disagreements about social and political issues. We’re human. It’s automatic. But let’s not let intractable, angry, or even frightened people equate their actions with being a good Christian, defending the faith — or of being evangelical. Those actions do not represent Jesus nor his Church. They’re just the behavior of scared people. Let true evangelicals stand up and say, “we don’t care who you are, or who you love, who you vote for, or what you’ve done. That is not our concern. We just want you to know that God loves you.” And all that other stuff has nothing to do with us.