No Further Harm

I wrote the post below a few years ago, but I am compelled to share it now. As we in the UMC approach decisions that may well define our future, the broad theme that prompted me to write the post keeps confronting me. A speech at the 2021 Texas Annual Conference concretely illustrates that theme. A resolution was offered to suspend church trials related to human sexuality in light of the hope that our upcoming General Conference will end the stalemate at which the UMC has found itself for nearly 50 years. A delegate then argued against the resolution, saying that committing to not enforce our current policies against same sex marriage or ordination of openly gay pastors would be comparable to the Roman Catholic church having decided to not investigate and root out child abuse. The speech concluded with the sentiment that “Parents and grandparents do not feel safe leaving their children at a church that the people in charge allow [homosexual] tendencies.” 

Again, it was not anything unique to this particular speech that stood out so much as the broad theme its specifics represent. That theme is the harm wrought in the way the UMC has tried to be officially welcoming to LGBTQ persons while also harboring significant fear, ignorance, and dramatic misunderstandings of gay and lesbian people. I don’t know or care if the conflation of consensual adult sexuality with child abuse was intentional or careless. What I care about is the harm that we cause by being a place that is theoretically welcoming to gay and lesbian persons except for a handful of prohibitions (primarily marriage and ordination), while at the same time failing to challenge such conflation, with leaders even relying on subsequent fear, ignorance, and dramatic misunderstandings to attain the votes necessary to ensure our denominational position never changes.

That very type of conflation is increasingly common within and beyond the church – notice how often claims of “grooming” are included as reasons to support prohibiting LGBTQ affirming resources or conversation in schools. In the last few years, I’ve also heard it said by church leaders who publicly desire to welcome gay people into their churches “that if we let gay people get married, we’ll have to let people marry goats as well,” “that the gay agenda is all about trying to destroy the church,” “that if we change anything we’d have to let bisexuals marry as many people as they want,” and a variety of suggestions about the danger posed to children by the LGBTQ community. Claiming to be welcoming while ignoring (at best) and incentivizing (in practice) such wild misconceptions is itself a source of harm. 

There are obviously all sorts of ways people have argued for and against the biblical, theological, and traditional foundations of changing the UMC stance and policies or staying the same. I don’t here mean to comment one way or another on any of those. What I attempted to do below was take for granted the idea that “sinfulness” is a meaningful and specific category in United Methodist thought and that the “incompatibility” language of the Book of Discipline and its related policies name something that rightly falls into the “sinful” category. My point is that we are not thereby absolved from coming to terms with the actual, significant, ongoing harm caused to LGBTQ persons by the ways we live out our convictions about what sin is and what to do about it. 

To welcome someone into our church homes is to claim responsibility for our effect on that person, regardless of our intent. To hear the stories of same gender loving persons is to be confronted by the immense wake of direct and indirect harm that has been wrought in the name of purported accountability, correction, or faithfulness. What I’ve posted is my attempt to name and illustrate the effect of the status quo. It is framed in a provocative way, not because I intended to sensationalize something benign. It is so because I cannot think of a more adequate analogy to help me (and hopefully others) acknowledge the pain being expressed by real people. It is not yet clear exactly what the future will hold for United Methodism, but it is clear change is coming. Wherever I wind up, it won’t be acceptable to preserve the harmful status quo by valuing the right to speak our minds over the call to embody the radical hospitality of Jesus. My goal in acknowledging the harm we have caused is, before anything else, to do no further harm.


I can still remember reading bits and pieces of Dave Pelzer’s memoir A Child Called It. I have no idea when or why I initially read the book but I recently rediscovered some of the stories it contains. Dave was abused as a child. He suffered everything from simply being blamed for his brothers’ misdeeds to having his arm held over an open flame on the stove. Dave was starved and beaten countless times by an alcoholic, abusive mother and forced to live in the basement. Dave’s brothers, on the other hand, were treated well and even participated in the punishment games his mother would play.

I share a bit of Dave’s story because it is the most stark real world example in my memory of a certain way of life. That way of life could more simply be called a cinderella story. Obviously, I don’t mean the part of the story with a pumpkin carriage and a glass slipper that leads to true love. I mean the part of the story that we so often gloss over or ignore. In the classic story, Cinderella lives a life much like Dave – her step mother is abusive to her and not her sisters, punishing her often and severely, while also refusing to give her things like the good food or new clothing given to her step sisters.

While most retellings of the Cinderella story understandably focus our attention on fairy godmothers and the possibility of a better future, the tragic, abusive, and horrendous conditions of Cinderella’s pre fairy godmother existence have a great deal more relevance to what far too many people experience everyday. The kind of favoritism shown by Cinderella’s and Dave’s caretakers is a particularly damaging and far too common form of abuse. 

What makes a Cinderella parent so abusive and damaging is not the specific acts of discipline against the singled out child (although such punishment often does result in its own kind of trauma); what makes a Cinderella parent so abusive and damaging is the dramatically disproportionate punishment handed out to one child over the others. Both children might try to sneak a cookie – one child might get a gentle slap on the hand and the other be forced to sleep in a basement closet for a month. Sometimes, by Dave’s recounting, he was the one punished even when it was his brothers who did something wrong in the first place. 

I fear that the United Methodist Church has long been Cinderella parents to same gender loving persons.

I am not here interested in entering the debate regarding whether homosexuality or homosexual acts are in any way sins. If they are not sinful at all, the unwarranted harm caused by the church is obvious. I am instead taking for granted the conservative United Methodist position that homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Even given incompatibility, I believe that we have long since singled out this one and only sin as uniquely worthy of swift and decisive response. In so doing, we have acted as cinderella parents. 

Language regarding homosexual persons being ‘sinners just like the rest of us’ is often intended to place same gender loving persons on equal footing with all others in the church. But equality is in no way embodied in the specific actions and responses the church takes. I, a typical, American Christian who can’t imagine any other life than the American way of material greed and gluttonous excess barely even get a slap on the wrist.* Our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters might as well be locked in the basement with how desperately we want them to be present in the house of God but not seen or heard from.

Instead of envisioning a positive view of sexuality through the lens of healthy, Godly relationship components like consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, or respect we have instead narrowly confined our gaze on a single prohibition upon which we have decided that the entirety of the Christian faith and biblical witness rises or falls. And we continue to focus only on this one prohibition because we believe there is something inherently different between male and female despite the fact that we, in the UMC, no longer believe that difference to be lived out in any functional, hierarchical, or complementarian manner. Gender somehow has come to mean nothing except a line in the sand regarding with whom one can have sex. All of our talk about “speaking the truth in love” or needing “to have higher standards than the world” too quickly becomes the means by which we focus all our energy pointing out and arguing over the one and only sin over which we are willing to risk the existence of our denomination. 

Giving lip service to the idea that both of our kids did something wrong is nowhere near the same thing as embodying the self giving love of a parent. No matter the intent, the effect of our actions has made us Cinderella parents to some of the most vulnerable people in our midst. I don’t expect that a church made up of people will ever perfectly define and live into the values it claims to espouse. On the other side, I would never argue that the church should give up any moral standards in the name of being ‘nice’ or ‘inclusive.’ Put differently, my hope is not to find a fairy godmother to dramatically and beautifully solve all our problems. My hope and expectation is simply that we at least find a way to stop acting like Cinderella parents to this one subset of the children of God. Cinderella parenting is the opposite of the kenotic way of Christ.


*I fully recognize that there is room to disagree about exactly how to define such potential sins and to understand how lax or ambiguous the church’s stance has become on any given issue. It is the shear weight of how often and how profoundly the church singles out homosexual behavior as especially deserving of rebuke and correction that prevents me from being able to ignore the profoundly different treatment of same gender loving persons. 

It is often said that the Bible is “clear” about sexuality. My problem is not with the truth or falsity of that claim – my problem is with the extent to which the criteria for what we mean by “clear” is exclusively applied here and nowhere else. I doubt a full list of sins and thorough analysis of how meaningfully/appropriately we respond would be fruitful, if even possible. Instead, I offer here a list of some of the most obviously problematic, related, and potentially damaging ways in which the church not only fails to condemn what we claim to be sin, but in some cases even condones and supports deeply problematic systems that produce outcomes “clearly” opposed to specific teachings of Jesus and Christian tradition. 

We have found and embraced a multitude of healthier ways to respond to other changes, behaviors, identities, choices, and realities that challenge the way things had always been done. That we cannot articulate why one thing and not another is worthy of swift and decisive response, instead defaulting to an imprecise assertion of scripture’s “clarity,” reinforces the patterns of harm explored above. Again, my argument is not that it is desirable to ignore sinful behavior nor is my argument that we should take radical steps to restrict or fight against the actions below; my point is that not responding comparably to so many other potentially comparable sins is a specific cause of actual, meaningful, lasting harm to at least one subset of the children of God. 

  1. Regarding other aspects of human sexuality
    1. Premarital sex – I’ve officiated over 30 weddings. Around half of those couples were living together for months or even years before the wedding. I know plenty of other colleagues who could say the same. The UMC has taken such a lax stance on celibacy before marriage that it would be easy to question from the outside whether we actually care about this traditionally clear requirement.
    2. Divorce – There is a ‘joke’ among some UMC clergy that you can continue to be appointed as an ordained leader up until your 4th divorce. There are plenty of reasons that allowing for the possibility of divorced and remarried clergy was a good and reasonable choice. But one of the most widely quoted verses against homosexuality in Matthew 19:4 is an explicit prohibition against divorce. Yet almost no one argues for the exclusion of divorced and remarried clergy as a general rule.
    3. Heterosexual Marriage – The rampant notions of destiny and romanticism that define modern views of marriage do more to undercut any semblance of Christian commitment than anything same gender loving people could do. Even dating sites that promise compatibility convey a picture of marriage that has almost nothing to do with the mutual submission, overcoming of difference, and self sacrifice at the heart of Christian love. Any argument that allowing lesbian and gay persons to marry would suddenly and uniquely undercut the sanctity of marriage is absurd on its face given how far heterosexual marriage norms already stray from anything remotely resembling a biblical understanding of marriage.
  2. Regarding other potentially sinful aspects of human life
    1. Money – Luke is uniquely focused on the impossibility of the wealthy finding comfort among the followers of Jesus. Acts goes so far as to portray tithing as a matter of life and death through the story of Ananias and Sapphira. The use of money is a central concern through much of scripture and yet little is ever said against those who most blatantly flaunt their wealth in church. If anything, love of money is a driving force behind church decision making rather than the deeply problematic force portrayed by Luke.
    2. Drunkenness – Drunkenness is listed alongside homosexuality in at least two of the most often quoted verses used against allowing a more inclusive attitude toward same gender loving persons. Further, United Methodists were one of the most influential organizations in the passing of the prohibition amendment. It would seem scripture and a great deal of church history fall on the side of temperance. Yet, few Methodists even consider the idea that drunkenness in its own right (meaning drunkenness not leading to abusive acts or causing harm through an accident) would be grounds for stripping a pastor’s credentials or removing someone from church leadership.

Trust in the Wilderness

I’ve been reflecting a lot recently on a previous post – Scripture and Change – in part because the delay of General Conference means even more uncertainty and anxiety regarding potentially radical changes in the UMC. But the broader theme of ‘comfort with’ vs ‘rejection of’ anxiety and change seems to animate so much of what’s happening both in the broader Christian church and the world beyond. I get especially frustrated with the prevalence of Christian voices advocating for a return to [insert whatever golden age or specific practice was most meaningful and comforting to that person or persons], when faithfulness to God has always required an openness to the uncomfortable new things the Spirit of God will do next.

In times of anxiety, we can seek out control or rely on trust. Control implies ‘we’ have the answers and if ‘they’ would just go back to x, y, or z then everything would be fine. Trust requires that we stand first on the foundation of God’s love for us, which then makes it possible to love each other more fully no matter what love requires – no matter how new, uncomfortable, different, or challenging it may be to do so. The Christian calling is and has always been to learn how to proclaim the unchanging gospel in a way that a rapidly changing world can continue to hear it. I grieve the extent to which so much of public Christianity seems more intent on getting back to a more comfortable and familiar place than on moving toward a more radical and transformative way to love as God first loved us.

Between war, technological shifts, the tragedies and general malaise of covid, the brokenness of politics in the US, the uncertainty of where the UMC goes from here, and any number of other challenges and trends, I don’t know how anyone could look at the world and not feel some level of anxiety about where all this goes in the next 5 to 50 years. I am the kind of person who is somewhat hard wired to prefer routine, habit, and tradition over uncertainty or change. A big part of me loves the idea of getting back to a simpler time and a less anxious world. But I don’t really know what that means or who gets to decide what point in the past represents the “ideal world” since different people in different times and places have always had very different experiences of that “ideal.” And just as importantly, I don’t know how to read the Bible or take the Christian faith seriously without seeing that the most basic and consistent expectation of God’s people in times of anxiety and change is to get ready for the new thing God will do next. The love and mission of God never change – what it looks like to be faithful to the love and mission of God changes all the time.

I don’t know how to take the Bible seriously – to see Abram and Sarai leave everything they knew, Rahab betray her people, Joseph forgive his brothers, Moses go to Egypt, the law on Sinai redefine God’s people, kingship established, the temple built and rebuilt, Jonah swallowed by a fish, exile predicted and then experienced, Paul struck blind, James and John leave everything, the women flee the tomb, pentecost give birth to the church, galatians redefine tradition, Peter encounter Cornelius, Jesus lift up Naaman, eat with Zacchaeus, heal and glean on the Sabbath, reject violence, repeat the phrase “but I say unto you,” lift up a samaritan, and finally go to the cross to conquer death itself (and on and on and on) – and to then expect that the solution to the problems of the church and world is to go back to the simple and straightforward way things used to be. In other words, I don’t know how taking the Bible seriously could ever entail embracing a handful of arguments, truisms, or rules while rejecting almost every theme, assumption, event, and trajectory that the Bible itself contains.

My prayer for today, for the Lenten season ahead, and for whatever uncertain future awaits is that no matter what changes take place in the church or the world beyond, I will never let my comfort be more important than the call to faithfully follow a God who is always making new ways in the wilderness. I don’t know what that will look like. I don’t like that there is so little certainty. But I know that my calling is not to control the future – my call is to trust in the one who will be faithful to the very end.


Trust is not the opposite of doubt; trust is the opposite of control. Doubt is the fertile soil in which trust can take root and solidify a sure foundation. Control is the thin veneer under which doubt continues to fester or wash away like the sand on an ocean shore.


The most basic and fundamental unit of truth is context, not fact.

The most basic and fundamental unit of identity is relationships, not individuals.

The most basic and fundamental unit of meaning is a story, not a sentence.

The most basic and fundamental unit of trust is doubt, not control.

The most basic and fundamental unit of relationship is intimacy, not commitment.

The most basic and fundamental unit of community is a culture, not a constitution.

Sin and Sexuality

Perhaps the least discussed but most incoherent aspect of the United Methodist Church’s divide over human sexuality is the fact that we don’t have a robust and common definition of sin. The statement at the center of our brokenness – “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching” – surely rests on the conviction that sexual acts with someone of the same gender are sinful in some intrinsic way, but very little is ever said about what sin is such that certain actions could be considered sin or not. 

There are, to be sure, some traditional notions of sin that are presumed to be operative. Sin is something like “missing the mark,” “breaking fellowship with others,” “causing harm,” “disobedience to God,” “outside of God’s design,” or a variety of other sometimes nuanced and varied ways of talking about sin from Christian history and the Bible. What they share is at least a generic notion that something about a given action is wrong, unfaithful, divisive, broken, problematic, or otherwise bad. 

As a theoretical exercise, there is obvious value in attempting to determine if an action or category of action can be appropriately labeled “sin” or not. Something as clear and near universal as “thou shalt not steal” points away from the harm we might do others by taking what isn’t ours; it points toward our need to find sufficiency in the gifts of God; and it points toward the necessity of trust in community. 

As anyone who has ever taken a course in ethics knows, the moment we start to evaluate actual, specific, real world actions, things get far more complicated. Perhaps the “sin” was stealing a loaf of bread. But what if stealing was the only way a parent could imagine feeding their child? Surely allowing a child to starve would have been just as sinful as taking bread. And what if the desperate parent was only in that position because the bread maker had cheated the parent out of the paycheck they’d been anticipating to feed their child? And what if paying for the bread would be funding a business that runs on the exploitation of workers through labor trafficking?

Ethical debates can complicate a seemingly simple action almost infinitely. No complication makes theft an intrinsically good thing, but each nuance and circumstance challenges us to more closely consider what might be properly labeled sin and to consider whether any conceivable action could be sinless. In every case, an action’s sinfulness or lack thereof is determined to a significant extent by an arbitrary designation of the context we are willing to consider in evaluating that action. 

Lest this exercise seem too academic to be relevant, the same exact dynamic plays out in scripture – most clearly in Matthew 12. Jesus and the disciples plucked grain on the Sabbath, which was an explicitly sinful action. When called on it, Jesus didn’t deny that work on the Sabbath was sinful nor that plucking grain counts as work. Instead, Jesus complicated the Pharisees portrait of what mattered in evaluating their actions by quoting scripture and pointing to the hunger of the disciples. Again, doing so does not make plucking grain on the Sabbath intrinsically good – but it certainly challenges us to consider the meaning and implications of labeling an action “sin.”

When human sexuality is debated in the UMC, whether or not homosexuality falls on the “sin” side of the line is often central to the conversation. Conservatives say yes. Liberals say no or ignore the question altogether. Rarely do we pay enough attention to what is meant by sin such that both sides could even be engaging with the same underlying questions. 

To meaningfully engage would require us to start with a prior conviction in Methodist thought – that we are uniquely insistent upon Grace as the foundation for all that follows. At the risk of oversimplifying, starting with Grace means at least starting with the conviction that we are first given the unearned love of God and everything about faith and a faithful life is a reflection of and response to the love and relationship God offers. 

1st John 4:10 begins, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us.” In the words of Jesus, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” 

To start with the love and relationship God offers and embrace the assumption that any law or faithful Christian action is grounded in love of God and neighbor is to necessarily define sin in relation to that love and relationship. In other words, sin is necessarily a secondary concept that only takes on life and meaning in so far as it names an action that falls short of, breaks, harms, or otherwise distorts the love and grace of God. The distortion sin may cause is never a generic flaw; it is specifically a distortion of God’s relationship with us.

When we instead act as though there is a “sin” box and a “not sin” box into which any action must be placed, we treat sin as though the concept has inherent meaning. We might go about labeling theoretical actions as sin or not. And then, as above, start complicating our analysis by bringing in all sorts of considerations that render an action more or less palatable. Perhaps we arrive at some sort of score card for complicated cases: +2 for feeding your child, -1 for stealing bread, -(-1) for having been harmed by the baker first. As long as it’s not a negative score we might at least give it a pass. Or if we want to be hard liners we might say any negative points involved at any point means it’s a sin and a sin is a sin no matter how big or small. 

Such analysis fails to account for at least two problems.

First, every action can be found to be sinful on some level if we simply define the context differently. Buying cheap vegetables in the US from the wrong store might facilitate child labor exploitation in Central America. Staying at the wrong hotel might make you complicit in labor trafficking. Whether or not it is fair to blame anyone for third or fourth order consequences is irrelevant to the fact that a choice of what counts must be made and that choice is significantly determinative of the resulting “score.” 

Second, failing to make explicit the disconnect between a given action and the love and relationship of God treats sin as a primary concept. Instead of scoring/losing points for action, intent, result, utility, and whatever other aspect of a given situation we deem relevant at whatever level of analysis we choose, sin should be measured relative to the components of Godly love and relationship – such as consent, intimacy, vulnerability, trust, empowerment, teamwork, attachment, mutuality, authenticity, truthfulness, commitment, public accountability, personal growth, sacrificiality, or respect. 

The extent to which any action breaks relationship by subverting (or simply failing to build up) these relational components is the extent to which that action may be appropriately viewed as sinful. To be sure, such analysis guarantees that every action will fall short in at least some way and the fact that there is no way to require the level at which analysis of a given action must take place ensures that there will be no objectively “correct” way to “score” anything. In other words, God is God, we are not. The best we can do is strive to relate to one another with the love and relationship presumed in 1st John 4:10.

To the extent that sin is falling short of the love and relationship of God rather than some objectively defined list of particular actions, we must be extremely wary of holding fast to theoretical definitions of actions traditionally understood to be sinful unless we can articulate the particular ways in which that action inherently and even now falls short. Sexuality presents us with a fairly unique case. (Considering whether or not there is a conversation worth having about the possibility of Godly sex outside of marriage may be a conversation worth having, but it is a question outside the scope of what follows. I am here taking for granted that sex and sexuality are only appropriately expressed and acted upon within marriage.)

A traditional understanding of sex as appropriate only in the context of monogamous marriage between a man and woman is surely informed partly by the positive concepts of relationship building above. For instance, the role monogamy can play in building trust is obvious even if one doesn’t believe monogamy is necessary for trust and even though it certainly isn’t sufficient. Conversely, lying to a spouse will undoubtedly harm trust in many, though perhaps not all, cases. 

Marriage, then, is a particular, covenantal expression of the love God is. Our hope is certainly to be as if not more intimate, vulnerable, committed, accountable, sacrificial, etc in marriage than any other relationship. No human relationship can perfectly embody the love of God. But marriage is at least the commitment through which what is different is not allowed to take precedence over what binds those two people together. As in the body of Christ, our unity in diversity makes us greater together because we then have eyes for sight, ears to hear, and a nose to smell; so in marriage, our unity in difference makes us greater than the sum of our parts.

On these terms, the strongest case I can discern against marriage between two persons of the same gender is that a stronger marriage bond is one that overcomes a greater amount of difference. Because gender would be definitionally the same, that marriage could not overcome as much difference as a heterosexual marriage. That claim, however, is remarkably tenuous given that there is no functional, hierarchical, or complementarian difference believed to exist between male and female in the UMC. No definition or difference of gender is ever offered or argued other than the simple statement that God created us male and female. 

How could a difference without distinction be the sufficient cause to prohibit same gender persons from entering a marriage covenant? How, especially, could the lack of one specific difference be sufficient to prohibit marriage given the pervasive assumption and reality that we already view marriage as a union between two people who are more alike than not? And if nothing else, how could this specific lack of difference be sufficient to render same gender marriage impossible, while no other difference (or lack thereof) is ever even relevant to any argument about any marriage? The only exception might be the encouragement for Christians to marry other Christians so as not to be “unequally yoked,” but here again it is our expectation that married people be more alike, not less, that drives the argument.

What, then, would be the constructive case against same gender marriage or sexuality? In other words, what constructive embodiment of the love and relationship God has for us is impossible within a monogamous, covenantally committed same gender couple? If there is something, I have no idea what it would be. If not, I can’t see any way to view same gender marriage as sinful that does not finally rest on an arbitrary choice or score card to determine which traditional or scriptural prohibitions and ethical exhortations to hold onto (perhaps don’t murder or steal) and which must be open to change or reinterpretation over time (such as divorce or women in leadership).

Given how often and how radically the Bible, Jesus included, pushes us to reimagine tradition in light of the particular shape of the love of God and never the other way around (in short – the Sabbath was made for humans, not humans for the Sabbath), “tradition says” is hardly a sufficient battle cry for labeling a specific action to be sinful in all times and places. I cannot help but place the burden of proof on those who would wish to maintain a traditional definition of marriage to offer any hint as to where same gender marriage or sexuality falls substantively shorter from God’s love and relationship than the marriage and sex between husband and wife. And I cannot help but see a faulty understanding of sin playing the pivotal role in justifying the status quo.

The Greatest Is Love

Rosenberg FUMC Sermon – 1/30/22

1 Corinthians 13; Luke 4:21-30

The greatest failure of the Christian Church is the choice to center rules and beliefs over love and relationship…

…Rules and beliefs can only ever reflect the truth on which our lives are actually built – it never goes the other way around. And if that truth is our fear and anxiety and grief and uncertainty, then anything we say or do will always be built on a foundation of sand. We’ll always find ourselves one short step away from throwing Jesus off a cliff rather than admitting that we’re hurt or afraid. It won’t matter how great the arguments are or how far back the rules go. The words we write on a page or recite in the creeds – the lines we draw or the rules we follow – they will never be more than imperfect attempts to put words to the love and relationship of a God who goes far beyond words. 

We see it in Luke when God shattered yet another box in which we tried to contain God’s promise. We see it in Paul’s letter to Corinth as he offers a line by line reminder of how far they fall short. In both scriptures we are reminded that we’re not going to fix all the problems. We don’t get to define the sides and decide the winners and sit back while God follows our most common sense expectation of how God should act next. We do it all the time in countless ways and I’m convinced that thinking we can start with rules and beliefs is the greatest failure of the Christian Church as a whole.

But this is also the good news of our faith. It’s not up to us to figure it out. We don’t have to solve all the problems or make the best arguments or define the right rules or do or think or say anything at all. Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. This is the sure foundation on which we stand, the reality on which we can build a life of faith and a church for Jesus Christ. Because the greatest of these is love.

Theology as Relationship – Take 3

There’s a thread in my previous writing that is hard to adequately name in words. That thread is present in at least the variety of posts below. I’ll offer a link and brief comment on how that thread presents itself in each post.

  • Scripture and dishwashers – consistent fights in a relationship are about intimacy and trust even if they present themselves in the same concrete ways, like how to load a dishwasher. Likewise, words in scripture are about relationship with God no matter what arguments or commands are made.
  • Is it a sin is like is it offensive – what people find offensive is almost entirely subjective. What matters in a relationship is not what an outsider sees but whether those inside are hurt. Likewise, sin is that which harms, not that which looks like something on a prior list.
  • Fundamentalism is like hanger – Christian advice, no matter if it’s technically true, does no good when it is not offered in a way or at a time it can be received or used.
  • Racism rules and rethinking theology – with a complex problem, we often want simple rules. Rules might help but are never sufficient for relationships in the same way doctrines and arguments may be needed in but aren’t synonymous to a relationship with God.
  • Toward a constructive engagement with sin and righteousness – instead of avoiding a list of things we shouldn’t do, righteousness is about building on the aspiration toward loving as God loved us.
  • Sin and trust – trust is built on emotional intimacy, not on doing enough to be worthy of trust. Likewise, sin is secondary because it can only ever be that which breaks intimacy with God or others.
  • Law is like parenting – we can no more rely on a finite set of rules for all people for all time than we can parent a toddler the same as a teenager.
  • Prayer like marriage – getting married doesn’t make a relationship last, just like saying the right words in prayer doesn’t make us trust in God
  • John 3:14 Christianity – the core of faith is not knowing a fact but looking into the heart of what terrifies us most and trusting God rather than try to control the outcome.
  • Intercessory Pony – when a kid asks a parent for something huge, whether or not the request is fulfilled is the least important part of the interaction. Prayer functions the same way.
  • First loved, then love – the entirety of Christian faith and life is a response to and reflection of the way God first loved us.
  • Feeling vs Fixing – God’s clear choice almost every time is to feel with us more than fix it first. 
  • 4 Stories – what we see someone do and how we interpret their actions depends at least as much on our perspective and past as on anything they could actually do.

The common thread of these posts is the way in which relationship dynamics constitute the raw materials for any claims to truth in words or arguments. Words can express a reality already present; words can facilitate the creation of a world; but words do not create anything apart from the lives and relationships of the people speaking and hearing those words. 

To the extent that theology is a specific discipline born in the articulation of words that point to or express truth about God, those words are an essential rather than accidental aspect of theology. To the extent that theology is relationship, words can only ever mean what they mean in the context of a particular set of relationships or communities; words can only ever point to what they point or do what they do in and from a particular point in space and time; words can only ever express truth within the story in which they are told. 

It is the relationship in which words are formed that give life and meaning to those words. The extent to which words can be true is the extent to which they present and convey reality within and around that relationship. Theology, to the extent that it represents an endeavor capable of truth, is inseparable from relationship with the speaker and object of its words. 

In short, theology is relationship.

(This post continues a series of occasional posts trying to zero in on what I believe to be the most significant thing I think I think. This is probably the most concrete and practical way of phrasing what it means to say that theology is relationship. The other two posts can be found here and here.)

No More Hiding

Date Given: 3/14/21

Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

Hasselback waffle potatoes. You may not know what they are, but they are the source of my greatest shame. OK, that’s not really true. But there is a story about Hassleback waffle potatoes that I would much rather hide from than share publicly. Unfortunately, the sermon title for today is “No More Hiding.” And I don’t know how to be true to that message if I don’t start by telling you a story about Hassleback waffle potatoes.

The date was Sunday, March 7th, 2021. One week ago today. I was at home with Sallie and Hutch, preparing to make dinner for the family. The adventure began innocently enough as I opened our recipe app and started gathering ingredients. The primary ingredient in Hasselback waffle potatoes is your standard Russet baking potato, peeled, and cut into pieces. Those potato pieces are soaked in butter and garlic and salt and a few other things and then baked in the oven until they are crispy, golden, brown perfection. The secret to their crunchy, buttery goodness – is that each potato piece is cut into a thin rectangle, and then you use a knife to cut a grid pattern all across the surface. That grid allows the buttery, tasty goodness to soak into the potato and give it a crispy, almost fried texture in the oven. That grid is what makes them so delightful. That grid was absent from my Hasselback waffle potatoes. But none of that is the embarrassing part.

The embarrassing part comes in at the point in the instructions that say to lay out a chopstick next to the thin potato pieces. You can use the chopstick as a guide for making the grid pattern. The chopstick stops you from accidentally cutting all the way through with your knife… That’s not how I read the instructions. I read that I was supposed to use the chopstick to help cut the potatoes, but not cut them all the way through. And somehow I also missed that they were supposed to be fairly thin squares. 

I found myself with little half inch cubes of raw potato, diligently stabbing each one with a chopstick, from at least two different angles. When Sallie saw the finished product on her dinner plate, she immediately knew something had gone terribly wrong. Instead of crunchy, buttery goodness, we had cubes of mushy potato, with two small holes in the side. Looking back, I have no idea why I thought it was a good idea to try and cut a raw potato with a chopstick. Raw potatoes are hard. Chopsticks aren’t made to cut things. I can’t even begin to tell you what I was thinking. 

You can probably imagine why I would say that Hasselback waffle potatoes are the source of my greatest shame. Again, it’s not really my greatest shame, but looking back on that moment does force me to ask one very serious question – why didn’t I ask for help? After 10 minutes or so of us both laughing at my absurd choice to stab potatoes with a chopstick, that was the first question Sallie asked me. And it is the question that I have spent most of the last week asking myself. 

There’s a level at which I didn’t ask because of stress and exhaustion. Raising a two year old is not for the faint of heart. He was quietly watching TV or playing in the other room while I was cooking. I know in part my brain thought the worst idea would be interrupting a happy moment because who knows what might happen next if he lost focus on what he was doing. But I still could have texted Sallie. Or googled. Or done anything other than stab raw potatoes with a chopstick. 

At a deeper level, I have to confess that I occasionally do absurd things because I struggle to embrace the fact that I am not perfect. I like to pretend that I’m smart enough or talented enough to figure out and do anything I put my mind to. I don’t need to ask directions when I can figure it out for myself. I don’t need help when I should be able to solve the puzzle on my own. I can do anything if I think and try hard enough. And that attitude may sound like pride or arrogance, but I can guarantee you 9 times out of 10 it’s my own insecurity. It’s a whole lot easier to pretend I can do anything than it is to admit that I’m only human. It’s easier to say I’m amazing than to let anyone see the fear I carry inside. Which is precisely why it didn’t even occur to me to ask for help. And precisely why I thought it was reasonable to stab raw potatoes with a chopstick.

To be clear, culinary mistakes are not going to make or break my self esteem. But all those insecurities and fears underneath the surface just might. The most frustrating part is that the more we push down and suppress and try to hide insecurity and fear, the more powerful they become. And the more powerful they become, the more likely we are to do absurd things. 

Thinking back, I can vividly remember moments when those very same fears were running the show. As long as I’m telling embarrassing stories today, I might as well share one more. I didn’t date at all before college, but I did develop a few major crushes. I almost always played it cool, which is to say I was so terrified that I almost never shared my feelings with anyone. None of that is the embarrassing part. 

The embarrassing part is remembering one of the few times when I did share my heart. It was sometime in high school when I decided my best option was to sit down and hand write a letter, complete with poetry, to express the depth of my feelings for a good friend. I don’t think we had even spent a moment alone together or said a word to each other without other friends present. But I wrote that letter…poem included…stamped it, and put it in the mail. An eternity later, she wrote back. As you might have guessed, we stayed friends. 

I may not have learned much about dating before college, but I will offer this one tidbit, free of charge today – confessing your love for someone out of the blue, via poetry and the postal service is great for movie plots… and extremely unlikely to work out in real life. It would have been far better to start by asking her on a date or at least having a one on one conversation about SOMEthing, really a conversation about ANYthing before bearing the profound depths of my heart in a multi page, handwritten letter through the mail.

I know there were other options that would have made for a better starting point, but what I remember more than the letter was the fear. The thought of taking a more reasonable step was crippling. To look her in the eye and hear “no” felt like the most devastating outcome I could imagine. So for a long time I said and did nothing. And the more I held back, the more I felt like everything was at stake. So I hid my feelings even more. And the more I hid, the more afraid I was that she would confirm my fear that I’m not good enough or worthy enough to be loved. Obviously I know now that no single person could ever define my worth or lovability. But my teenage brain wasn’t developed enough to understand it back then. And to this day I still struggle to feel it at times. I don’t remember what finally did it, but at some point the pressure of hiding was so strong that sending the letter seemed like the best option. 

Hiding from our fears and insecurities leads us to do absurd things. If we’re self aware enough to see it and strong enough to admit it, I’ll bet we can all name a few of the things we’ve done to avoid feeling things we’d rather hide. A midlife crisis might be a distraction from grief over what we thought life was going to be. That constant fight we keep having with a friend or spouse is a way of avoiding the fact that we feel unloved and unappreciated. A character from a TV show I used to watch flew to Yemen to avoid having to admit he wanted to break up with a girlfriend.

Today’s Psalm reminds us that people have been hiding from themselves and refusing to deal with their feelings for centuries. Psalm 107 begins by encouraging God’s people to “give thanks to the Lord for He is good. His steadfast love endures forever.” Then it offers illustrations of the absurd things God’s people have done instead of accepting and celebrating the steadfast love of God. Our reading for today offers that beginning call to give thanks and then focuses on one particular illustration from verses 17-22. In verse 17 we read, “Some were sick through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities endured affliction; they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death.” I’ll read that again in case you didn’t catch it [READ AGAIN].

People were sick and hurting because of their sinful and broken ways. And how did they respond when they felt pain and affliction? By loathing food of any kind until they drew near to the gates of death. God’s people knew they weren’t perfect and rather than ask for mercy, they starved themselves until they almost died!!! They were so afraid to admit fault, so afraid to be seen as imperfect, so afraid to stop hiding what they knew they’d done wrong that they brought themselves to death’s door. Hiding from our fears and insecurities leads us to do absurd things.

In truth, humans have done absurd things instead of dealing with our feelings since the very beginning. Adam and Eve were created in and for paradise. Yet they were afraid and thought they could hide from God and pretend they had not done the one and only thing God told them not to do. Some of God’s people wanted to go back to slavery in Egypt when all they had to do was ask God for water to drink. A little later, those same people built a golden calf to worship rather than ask God for a reminder of God’s power and presence. Ananias and Saphira were struck dead for trying to hide from their community. Zacchaeus hid in a tree instead of just walking up to Jesus.

Fast forward out of the bible, you can find King Henry the 8th creating the Church of England because he was so terrified that he wouldn’t have a son to carry on his legacy. Alexander Hamilton, and yes I do know this because of the broadway play, published a pamphlet detailing how he cheated on his wife because he was afraid people would think he stole money. Fear of change and losing power led our ancestors to allow slavery in a country that declared all men are created equal. And those same fears led later generations to create “separate but equal” institutions that were anything but. And those same fears still keep us, as a nation, from knowing how to acknowledge, much less resolve, the brokenness left behind by those systems. We do absurd, contradictory, harmful things when we can’t face our fear and insecurity.

In our Psalm, it was when God’s people were at their lowest – when they were “near to the gates of death” – it was only then that they finally cried out to the Lord. And God did what God has done every time we cry out. God saved them from their distress. God healed them. God delivered them from destruction. The more we push down and suppress and try to hide insecurity and fear, the more powerful they become. And the more powerful they become, the more likely we are to do absurd things. Finding an outlet for those feelings is the only path to healing.

A few days after the Hasselback waffle potato incident, I was finally able to admit to Sallie all the weight that I had been carrying. The weight came from assuming I can and should be smart enough to solve all the world’s problems – even in the midst of a once in a generation pandemic, even just a few weeks after the trauma of the winter storm, even while national politics seem so hopelessly broken, even with a toddler who has suddenly stopped falling asleep at night, even while trying to lead a church through a challenging season of discernment with no pre-packaged solutions. 

Even with all that’s been happening, I felt sure on some level that I could and should be that smart. Pretending I can do it all lets me hide the anxiety and fear that tell me I’m not enough. Pretending I can do it all also led me to do something absurd rather than admit that I’m not smart enough to do it all on my own. 

When I was finally able to name the weight I’d been carrying, I was finally able to start setting it down. Sallie didn’t have some grand solution or prepared speech to get me through it. She simply held me. She let me cry. She reminded me that she loves me and will continue to do so no matter what. And when I finally stopped hiding from my fear and insecurities, they finally started releasing their grip on me. 

People often say that marriage is meant to be a reflection of God’s love for us. Whatever anyone else might mean by that, the only thing I’m absolutely, completely sure is true; is that marriage is meant to create the space where we are seen, where we are vulnerable, where we feel safe enough to name the most intimate parts of ourselves that we so desperately hide from the world; and to be loved all the more for it.

So often, simply finding the words and the space to name our feelings gives us an enormous amount of power to get unstuck and start to move forward. Bringing the actual contents of our hearts into the light, refusing to hide it no matter how embarrassing or scary or anything else, letting someone we love see deep into who we actually are – is in itself a profound source of healing and change. 

Being seen… and known…  and loved by God is the starting point of every change worth making in our world. Through the grace of our God there is no reason to hide. We have nothing to prove, no test to pass, no possible way to separate ourselves from the love of God poured out in Jesus Christ. Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough. Each and every one of us. Each and every part of us. 

Today, we are invited to give thanks for the steadfast love of our God. We are invited to celebrate the fact that God’s love endures forever. 

God’s love endures when we pretend like we have it all under control AND it endures when we admit that we’re struggling. 

God’s love endures when we are productive and joyful and feel like we’re doing exactly what we were put on this earth to do AND God’s love endures when we make the same mistakes and fall into the same old habits that we’ve tried to leave behind a thousand times. 

God’s love endures through all seasons, in all places, for all time. AND yes, God’s love endures even if we’re so desperate to hide our insecurities that we mail off a love letter, stab a raw potato with a chopstick, or do any of the thousand other absurd things that people have been doing from the beginning of time. 

Today, we give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; for his steadfast love endures forever. There is no reason to hide.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

A Modest Proposal to Fix the US

The following is a modest proposal to fix many of the most insidious problems with the US by envisioning the future of our capitalist economy reshaped by one simple conviction – our people are our economy’s primary and only unique asset.

Core Values:

1) Americans First

2) Unburdening Business

3) Investing in our Children’s Future

4) Liberty, Responsibility, and Freedom

Core Policies: 

  • Eliminate:
    1. federal minimum wage and social security. 
    2. income tax and any other federal tax on individual income.
    3. private health insurance and any requirements that businesses offer such benefits. 
  • Invest: 
    1. in every US citizen living within the borders of the US with a monthly check from the federal government in an amount representing ½ of a livable minimum wage per adult and ¼ of that amount per dependent. Current focus on $15/hr as a livable minimum wage would imply monthly checks of $1200 per adult and $600 per dependent. Alternatively, the amount could be indexed on an annually updated federal definition of poverty. That amount would currently be about $1000 per adult and $400 per dependent.
    2. in the health of US citizens by replacing fee for service health care with a subscription model of health care that packages preventive, wellness, regular, mental, surgical, prescription, labwork, emergency, and other health care costs. That subscription cost would be paid on behalf of every citizen by the federal government directly to a hospital or network of physicians who would be responsible for covering or contracting out for the full cost of any necessary medical treatments, visits, or procedures; subsidizing any recommended treatments, visits, or procedures; and providing options for self funded elective care at the discretion of the patient.
  • Protect:
    1. the liberty and freedom of every citizen to work and contribute their full potential to the economy by ensuring a) equitable access to K-12 education and associated resources (such school funding would be decoupled from location to the maximum extent allowable under state laws and public education funds would be restricted to publicly accessible school systems); and b) affordable access to technical or undergraduate college degree/certificate programs (individual out of pocket expenses per degree/certificate capped at an amount equivalent to no more than one year of the federal poverty income level for all public universities, with no interest federal loan options available for all who qualify for admission)
    2. American job opportunities by setting a high minimum wage for non citizen workers (anyone engaged in work on US soil that is not a US citizen) equal to or greater than the livable wage equivalent above (or alternatively twice the hourly wage equivalent of the annual poverty definition). 
    3. The health and potential of non citizens by ensuring the availability of subscription health care as described above at all hospital systems or provider networks that offer federally funded subscription care, with cost capped at no more than the per person average cost paid by the federal government on behalf of US citizens. 
  • Tax:
    1. businesses on the dispersal of wages or other money and assets from the business to any US citizen or another worker living on US soil at a progressive annual rate (the more an individual receives each year through wages, stock options, and the like, the higher the rate at which the business is taxed on that transfer of wealth) that remains at 0% at least until the second half of an annual livable minimum wage is provided for that individual (or alternatively, twice the poverty wage).
    2. individuals on the profits made through the sale of stocks or similar business assets (including bonds, loan forgiveness, ownership share, etc) at an equal progressive rate to that in a).
    3. individuals on the transfer of their wealth to another individual, again at a progressive rate equal to that in a).
    4. non citizens’ income at a progressive rate equal to that charged to a business in a). (To maximize tax revenue, the system for documenting immigration status and work potential (work visa, green card, etc.) must be revamped through higher caps on immigration and a radical shift in emphasis from deportation to documentation for anyone without a criminal record.)