First, Loved. Then, Love.

The first and greatest commandment is this: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” And a second is like it: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

But the foundation of our very existence is that God has loved us and called us His own. Before we are anything else, we are loved, we are accepted, we are enough.

Far too much of church life and faith either rejects the primacy of this foundation or assumes it is already in place and, thereby, puts the burden on the individual Christian to begin fulfilling the greatest commands. Instead of first teaching, preaching, and embodying the love that God is, we move straight to regulations on sin and holiness as though these were first order concepts. Sin and forgiveness will never mean anything unless we first know the depth of love and relationship that can then be broken. Lives will not be transformed until we give up control and learn to trust in the faithfulness of God’s abiding love. Without the foundation of love and relationship first, Christianity will be, at best, a noisy but irrelevant gong; at worst, an active participant in the harm done to children of God in the name of vapid and ultimately meaningless conceptions of righteousness.

Feeling vs Fixing

At the heart of the gospel message is God’s choice of feeling over fixing. To feel alongside someone is the heart of empathy and the prerequisite for connection. To fix is the clearest sign that we think we are in control of the outcome and can make things right on our own. Empathy changes lives. Self help reinforces loneliness.

One of the greatest downfalls of most modern evangelical forms of Christianity is the radical emphasis on salvation as God’s clear and unmistakable effort to fix all that has gone wrong in the world. While it is true and significant to see the hope that things are not as they will always be, to focus on fixing rather than feeling is to miss the very heart of the gospel message.

In scripture and over the course of history, we see that God did not choose to simply fix the world in the blink of an eye. God chose to feel with us; to take on flesh and dwell among us; to join us in the deepest pit and say “Me too.” The bible itself is the clearest evidence we could hope to find that God is a feeler, not a fixer. What we find in scripture is not a simple reminder of how God fixed everything in the blink of an eye. We find reminder after reminder that God is with us through every season of life, and God will be faithful to the very end.

Truth and Story

Truth is only truth inside the story in which it is told.

The best way I can articulate what I mean by that is through a previous post on story and truth.

This idea may be too academic to seem super helpful, but I would argue that it is the essential factor in understanding how we arrived in the chaotic, partisan, broken place where we are as Americans (and United Methodists).

The core problem with partisan brokenness is not really that people believe a different set of facts or that anyone just needs to be convinced about the specific details of what “really happened” in any given moment. The problem is that many of us think that we’re taking part in very different stories. If the story you tell about how things should be has no room for the existence of those different than you, it will, unchallenged and from a position of power, always lead to the overt harm of everyone deemed not “normal.”

To make the jump from one story to another takes far more than pointing out an inconsistent detail or two. It takes the radical experience of being accepted into the life and story of another; a story with enough room for one more; an acceptance that may cause change but never requires it; an experience of already being enough to be worthy of taking part. As long as we focus on proving our point rather than creating the space for acceptance, we’ll simply keep assuming the story that we tell ourselves is the only one that matters.

On Baptism: Part 2

There are few things in life I love more than the cool, refreshing feel of jumping into a pool on a hot summer day.

You need at least two things for a pool – a hole or a structure big enough to hold a lot of water; and the water itself. The hole in the ground for a pool can be created in ways limited only by our imagination. The water itself isn’t created. We either find a way to put the water that’s already there in the hole or we have no way to feel the refreshing sensation of jumping in.

Standing at the edge of a water filled pool isn’t enough to get that refreshing feeling either. We won’t feel refreshed just by staring at the water or jumping up and down at the edge. To feel refreshed, the necessary and sufficient thing to do is get in.

We use water in baptism because baptism is a little bit like jumping into a pool on a hot summer day. Water is like the grace of God. Grace washes us clean and refreshes us no matter what we’re going through. But you can’t create grace just like you can’t create water – grace is already there waiting for us. And you won’t feel refreshed by standing at the edge and staring at the water – God invites us to jump right in and feel grace washing over us. Baptism is the way we’re invited to jump into the water of grace.

So every time you jump in the water and splash in the pool, remember that God’s grace is all around you too and God wants us to feel refreshed and clean and loved every time we remember the water of baptism.

On Baptism

In United Methodist theology, we view life and faith primarily through the lens of the grace of God. God’s grace goes before us and is at work in our lives long before we even realize God is present and long before we’ve done anything to seek it out. Baptism is a celebration of the work of God’s grace in our lives and throughout God’s creation. Therefore, we believe:

  1. Baptism is more an act of God’s grace than it is an act of human decision. Someone, whether the person to be baptized or a parent/sponsor, does make a choice to celebrate the grace of God, but what matters the most is that God offers love and grace before we ever do anything to deserve it. Infant baptism is an especially clear reminder that no one knows or does enough to deserve the grace offered in baptism – God’s grace is at work even now.
  2. Baptism is more a celebration of the body of Christ than any individual person. While only one person at a time is baptized into the body, we are all reminded that the grace of God makes us one body through the sacrament of baptism. Every time anyone is welcomed into the family of God, we are all invited to experience the grace of God anew.

Income vs Outcome Tax

Why do we tax personal incomes rather than simply business outcomes (labor and profit)? The most intractable problems of the tax system seem tied to the choice of taxing income rather than outcome.

Those problems are:

1) Income tax means a tax is taken out of “my money” that “I deserve.”

– Whether it is fair or not to complain, human psychology necessarily places a different value on the money we consider to be our own as opposed to the money we see flowing through a business setting. Why not instead tax the impersonal business machines on the money they pay to ensure workers work, and remove any personalization of whose money is taken? If businesses want to incentivize the outcome that workers work by paying them, tax the business not the worker.

2) Income tax disproportionately affects poor and uneducated laborers.

– Those who don’t know the system well and cannot afford help are not able to take advantage of even the benefits specifically available for them. Those who must work multiple jobs to make ends meet may not have the time to maximize deductions even if they have the knowledge of deductions and skills to do the work. Why not instead tax the business itself so that businesses can hire the best minds to maximize profits and align incentives? There is no benefit to taxing those least equipped to work within the system; doing so is, in practice, a disproportionate tax on those without resources simply because they lack resources.

3) Individual lives are too chaotic and inconsistent to be affected consistently by any tax plan. Business systems are dispassionate and far more stable institutions capable of being guided by directed by policy direction.

– Individuals quickly have to make cost benefit decisions based on rapidly changing factors and without ever knowing when a life changing accident or job change might occur. There is no effective way through tax policy to shape personal decision making regarding the value of the next dollar earned. Business systems don’t make value judgments and necessarily tend toward profit production in a capitalist society. Businesses are capable of long term forecasting and factoring in the multiple competing outcomes of various decisions and at the same time are almost always immune from a single event or decision resulting in an insurmountable obstacle to doing business. If the government desires any role in shaping acceptable long term forms of business, it would be far more effective to incentive businesses through taxes and deductions than to think that there could be any consistent outcome from taxes and deductions applied to individuals. Put differently, the government does little to shape societal outcomes through structuring personal income taxes and deductions, but could be a great deal more effective by applying such a system with regard to business systems.


Sin and Forgiveness

The world of the Bible and the world in which we live are almost exactly inverted in at least one crucial way – in biblical times, the family/tribal unit was the locus of identity and assumed to be the most determinative factor in the shape a life would take. In our modern times, radical individualism is assumed to open every possible door for a person to define their life goals, values, careers, and outcomes in whatever way is desired. The difference is at least vital for any conception of sin and forgiveness.

Throughout scripture, sin is a means of breaking with the presumed order of life and relationship – missing the mark or failing to live up to the kind of life that is expected and/or laid out in front. Forgiveness is that action or process whereby order and relationship are restored. In a world that presumes a particular tribal and family identity, it is possible to proscribe both ways in which brokenness arises and means by which healing takes place. In other words, it makes a certain kind of logical sense that one can list things as sin and, on the flip side, certain actions as ways to be forgiven.

The presumption of a specific kind of life, identity, or relationship is precisely what we lack in the radically individualized modern world. Sin and brokenness are meaningless terms at this point because we no longer have the language or assumptions with which to describe the kind of life or relationships that could be broken by action called sin. Without knowing what is broken by sin, it is a further impossibility to define forgiveness as that which heals what is broken.

Somehow, we have arrived at a point where more conservative voices offer the traditional language of sin as though it meant anything in a world that does not have a presumption of identity or relationship. More liberal voices, often having experienced the devastation and harm of emphasizing sin without the safety of relationship, tend to abandon more traditional biblical language altogether to focus on the kind of identity and safety that make healing possible.

What we lack is an appreciation of the power held by the stories that write us and an ability to define the life revealed by those stories before we begin to talk about those things that might lead to brokenness. In other words, sin means nothing in a world that lacks the presumption of tribe and identity. The church cannot assume that traditional language of sin and forgiveness is meaningful or helpful without first defining and embodying the ‘life that really is life.’ Only after aspiring to create Godly community can we appreciate the power of sin that breaks community and then seek the hope of forgiveness to restore community again.

Forgiveness and Power

Forgiveness is unfair because the one who is wronged is harmed far more than the one who does the wrong and yet the burden to forgive rests on the shoulders of the one wronged. Worse still, to hold a grudge is far more likely to deepen an internal wound than to inflict pain in return. Something deeply profound and necessary happens in a relationship when I have the strength to simply say, I screwed up and I’m sorry. To do so and to accept the consequences is one of the most deeply felt means of transferring power in a relationship.  To freely give power to the one wronged is a vital part of restoring the relationship because it creates the space in which the burden of forgiveness is carried, at least in part, by the offender as well as the offended.

White guilt (especially as it creates the space in which we cannot simply allow black lives matter to be a thing) is at least in part the inability of a race with power to imagine surrendering power for the sake of reconciliation. To fear surrender is understandable because giving up power in the world we have created is to lay bare the fact that we are too weak to solve the problems and heal the wounds ourselves. To admit weakness is the greatest betrayal possible of the American dream that all it takes is a little elbow grease and we can fix anything. To admit weakness is to risk shame in vulnerability.

But the refusal to admit weakness is the absence of strength. Strength is born in giving up control, not holding on tighter. Sometimes the greatest gift we can offer is the strength of humility embodied by receiving whatever hurt or anger is offered when we look a child of God in the eyes and say it’s my fault, I’m sorry.