Is Our Faith Defined by Our Hate?

Few people will believe this, but I went to the grocery store in the middle of the Super Bowl.

By the way, if you’re looking for crowd-free shopping, the Super Bowl is a perfect time for it. And with DVR these days, nothing really stands in your way here.

Part of my reason for going was that I, like some other people, just did not care who won. I do not like anything about the Seattle Seahawks and their “12th Man” handkerchiefs (which is yet another rip-off of the only original and true fan towel). 12 is exactly the number of fans Seattle had until two years ago.

The New England Patriots? Please. I just hope they confiscated their video cameras as they came into the stadium and replaced them with air pumps. Who really needs to hear more about how Tom Brady is actually the Pope in disguise AND the “Greatest Quarterback Ever?” (Okay, the quarterback part happens to be true…but that does not mean I have to like it).

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Full-sized footballs and limited video cameras were used for all six of these Super Bowl victories.

Then it occurred to me why I had zero interest in watching this game, save for a very exciting last 5 minutes. I despise both of the teams playing almost as much as I like my own team. Yes, I want the Pittsburgh Steelers to win the Super Bowl every year, but I want just as much for certain other teams to not win. So many times, I catch myself saying, “Well, if Pittsburgh doesn’t win it, then I hope _________ doesn’t.”

(As if you could not guess, Baltimore is at the very top of the fill-in-the-blank list).

I began to think about this attitude, this spite for other teams that nearly exceeds my fan-dom for “my” team. Funny how we use that term “my” in reference to sports teams, even if we never attended the college, lived in the city, or actually put on a uniform.

It then occurred to me that my attitude towards the NFL may be far too reflective of the Christian life. This is not some deep theology blog, but rather a simple observation of how sports can imitate life, even in the religious realm.

We often allow ourselves to be defined more by what we hate than by how we love, by our spite rather than our compassion. It is always easier to rally people to be against something than it is to persuade them to be for something. Believers–and sometimes their preachers–lean towards this tendency at an alarming rate.

Christianity is devolving towards defining itself by what it hates more than by what it lifts up. We cannot disagree without being profoundly disagreeable. We choose our sides and go to war, well beyond any of the typical labels of liberal vs. conservative. It is the progressives vs. fundamentalists, traditional vs. contemporary, Calvinist vs. Arminian, complementarian vs. egalitarian.

And round and round we go…and this is just the short list. Is it possible that we want others to be wrong just as much–or more–than we want to be right in Jesus Christ?

Think about some of the things that we read and write and say among believers. We refuse to simply argue our point of view. Instead, we think in terms of systematically destroying any opposing point of view. We want all to know Jesus Christ and His sacrificial love, so long as they view him and that love through our particular theological prism.

These disputes are not reserved to debates between Ken Ham and Bill Nye. The blogs and Twitter wars and sickening comment sections filter down to the grassroots level of the church. We battle for our way and our point of view to win out, and we are willing to cut into our brothers and sisters in the pew in order to keep things going our way.

Disagreements, debates, and even arguments over positions and approaches to Christian faith are inevitable. And we sometimes need to open a critical eye to analyze the impact of certain actions and situation. If our analysis and critical thought turn to a desire to defeat others rather than exemplify Christ, we put ourselves into an extremely unhealthy place.

I cannot enjoy certain football games because of my spite for the teams involved, and that is a problem. If we are so spiteful towards one another that we have to separate into our own little theological clubs and fraternities and sororities–where everyone must agree–then we have a much more serious issue than football on our hands. Because we are spiritually sick.

If our desire to be right is so powerful that we cut off members of the Body of Christ, then we as believers need to consider:  Are we for Christ, or are we against others? Do we truly desire to elaborate the love of Jesus, or do we just want to be right? God is not to be used as our personal gatekeeper to decide who is in and out of the club.

Let us not be foolish enough to think that we can simply all just get along. But let us also not be foolish enough to see that our differences can cut us off, from one another and from Christ.

It is not about being right, but about God being right. We practice this by recognizing that we are not God, no matter how right we think we are. We practice this by following the words of Paul: Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. 32 Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”

Not one word is included about winners, losers, or hating those that disagree with us. It is bad enough to hate a football team. When we begin hate other Christians because they disagree with us, we have to ask ourselves if we want to be right more than we want to follow Jesus.

And perhaps we should ask if we really know Him at all.

Missing Church: Why I’m not a “Done” (Even If I Want to Be)

A couple of months ago, I posted about the experience of taking a break from attending church. It somehow garnered a lot more attention than I expected, enough that it prompted a follow-up question:

Why go back?

It’s a question that is becoming more prominent even among the most dedicated church members. It seems that even those who are committed to the church are actually showing up less frequently than they once did. Some of these may even fall into a new category that sociologists are calling the “Dones”–Christians who just stop going.

Let me establish that I do not intend to be a “Done”. Sometimes I feel like it–usually around 8 am on a Sunday morning. There are four big reasons why I cannot go this route. While these specifics may not hold validity for you, perhaps they will prompt you to think about where you stand with a community of faith.

1. Mom and Dad will not let me do it:  As a pastor and youth minister, I used to consistently get the question from parents, “Should I make my children go to church?” And my answer was always an unequivocal “Yes”.

Why? Well, after I tell you to get off my lawn, let me give you the grumpy old man answer:  Because my mom and dad made me go to church and it never hurt me a bit. (NOW get off my lawn!).

This does not mean that you do not talk with them about where to go, what to do, how to participate or what they expect, particularly as they get older. But there is absolutely nothing wrong with establishing church as a spiritual standard for family.

The inevitable guilt trip (either real or perceived) that I get from Mom when she calls on Sundays to ask, “Well, did you GO to church TODAY?” will not bring me back. But the education my parents gave me in faith, dedication, and commitment to something more important than myself just might. And they are connected to hours of discussion and exploration about what it means to be Christian, both in and beyond the church.

My parents made faith a part of who I was and who we are as human beings, as family. Going to church is not the only way to do that, but it surely did not hurt. Those Sunday experiences–even the ones I did not like–will forever influence my personhood.

Am I ready to turn my back on what my parents taught me by declaring, “I’m done?”

2. Mrs. Nora and The Ballard Sisters:  If you grew up at East Park Baptist Church in the last half of the 20th century, one thing is guaranteed. You had Mrs. Nora for 5-year old Sunday school, followed by the Ballard sisters through elementary and middle school. In Mrs. Nora’s class, you learned to run string across the room and make tents with bed sheets, so you would have an appropriate venue to talk about Aquila and Priscilla. And you would eat dates and wild honey like John the Baptist (thankfully she skipped the locusts and deferred to more appetizing Galilean fare).

In fact, we often tried to sneak back to her class every now and then, even when we were much too old for it.

The Ballard sisters were a little less dynamic, but these four ladies offered unparalleled lessons in faithfulness. They walked down their hillside street every Sunday morning to teach annoying, poorly behaved 10-year olds what a famine was and how Moses discovered a most disturbing piece of shrubbery. Amazingly, they managed us with grace and patience–although they had no children of their own! Maybe they could do that because they knew that they didn’t have to take any of us home.

When we had snow or ice, we called off church because we knew the Ballards would try to walk and were likely to break a hip on the way. And it was not just Sunday mornings. Oh, no…it was Sunday Night Bible Drill and Training Union. It was Vacation Bible School. It was Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting.

Ms. Sarah Ballard did not miss a day of Sunday School for 20 years! Actually, she missed one day, somewhere in year 20…and tried to turn down her 20-year attendance pin (a remnant of Baptists past) because of it.

Maybe these ladies are just that, a remnant of a long gone era of church that is destined never to return. It is hard to imagine them teaching with a power point and a YouTube video. But that does not lessen their impact. For all of us who have a story of stodgy, judgmental old Southern Baptist “church ladies”, we also have Mrs. Nora and the Ballard sisters.

Am I ready to insult their legacy by saying, “I’m done?”

Which brings me to my next point…

3. Past churches wrote on me with Sharpies:  I mean this as a good thing.

Certainly, every church where I served made a positive impact, but the churches I served as pastor have left the most significant spiritual marks. That is not intended as a slight to the places where I served on staff. But serving as pastor simply creates a different level of relationship with the whole church, particularly in my venue of call, the small church.

I often reflect back on the positive impact those churches continue to have on me. More than once I have found myself drifting back to the fellowship of a Back-to-School Bash or a Fall Festival. I even miss church league basketball! (Sometimes).

But the indelible mark on my heart comes from the places where the fellowship and spirituality become one and the same. These are the encounters with real people–open, vulnerable, and willingly exposed to the work of the Spirit. These are the life-giving happenings, genuine and as real as they come. They evoke both joy and pain, laughter and tears. It is weddings and funerals. It is sharing celebration and the reality of heartache. It is the Thanksgiving Eve service at Sawyer’s Creek Baptist, where people opened their hearts to share their greatest joys and deepest spiritual hurts–as well as the faith that emerged from those hurts.

It is the baby dedications at Augusta Heights, where we learned to celebrate new life with tears of joy after years of hoping for such celebrations. It is Mrs. Wilma–the AHBC equivalent of the Ballard sisters and the last remaining charter member–offering gracious wisdom to me as the new pastor. It is the irreverent moments and informal discussions that, somehow, led us closer to this Jesus that we strive to know.

Can I possibly ignore the graciousness, honesty, and hospitality of these people, all of whom greatly impacted my life, by saying, “I’m done?”

And finally…

4. It’s the community, stupid!  I hate to go all James Carville here, but it just fits. You may not need a community to be a Christian, but I still believe that you need one to be an effective disciple.

Jesus beckons us to a life of community. And how quickly we forget just how imperfect that life was!

As we roll our eyes over the blatant and debilitating flaws of the church, we often long idealistically for a “New Testament Church”. But in our vision, we skip the jealous bickering, bitter disagreements and theological or practical disputes that characterized the original 12, right on into the formation of that New Testament church. Why do you think Paul wrote all those letters? It was not because everyone was just getting along.

Yet, those disciples managed to learn, grow, bond, and cooperate with one another in spite of their disagreements. The early church learned discipleship together, in and through the hardships they faced and the sharp distinctions of race, class, religious identity and theological point of view.

Sometimes they separated. Sometimes they decided to go in different directions. But there is no evidence that they gave up and quit. And they certainly came together, bound by spiritual ties of love that outweighed their disagreements.

Can I insult the saints, both early ones and those in my own lifetime, by saying, “I’m done”?

I sometimes remember the hardships and bitterness of ministry when considering my past in the church. Much more often, I long for the community, fellowship, sharing and caring that those churches brought into my life. I long for the everlasting friendships and eternal prayers that I know some believers offer. And I want to find that community again, in the here and now, rather than simply leaving it to memory.

Community is challenging and difficult–and more than worth it! It is the imprint of the community past that keeps me searching for the community of the present. Imperfect though it will surely be, it is also the life-giving face of love.

And it is the reason that I cannot say, “I’m done.”

Perhaps we need to recognize that the perseverance of the saints of the past is a fine example to follow in the present.

Losing Grandma

It is rare that a phone call at 8 am on a Sunday morning is a good one. This past Sunday was no exception.

We got the word that Tracy’s grandmother, Marie Berklich, passed away in the night at the age of 95. It is hard to say that there is anything extraordinary about the loss of someone who is 95, but that does not necessarily dull the sharp nature of the moment.

Tracy and I both lost grandparents in 2001. At that point, we realized a harsh reality of life:  We were at the point where we would lose more people than we would gain. It makes the losses that much more painful, but it also makes the importance of true friends and family that much more important. And the memories are much more cherished and appreciated.

When she came to visit in South Carolina, Grandma greeted my son Spencer with a “Good morning!” He then began calling her Grandma Good Morning, and that’s what she will forever be to our children.

Neither Spencer nor my daughter Abbie liked soup…until they tasted Good Morning’s chicken noodle, a recipe that stands as a household staple. Abbie loved to visit her and get a helping of soup, read books and watch game shows.

She preferred the quiet of her home, and her favorite hosting was for her family. There were always Klondikes in the freezer or other-worldly chicken soup to warm up for anyone who came through the door. She kept her mind sharp by reading books (especially those written by anyone Croatian) and working crossword puzzles.

She loved to cook amazing things for her family, especially on holidays. Grandma’s house was baked chicken and pork roast and a bread ring, followed by her trying to get you to eat a Klondike. After devouring any holiday meal, we would fight for one of the recliners in her TV room to doze while watching football.

If you needed an escape from anything, her house was the place to go. You would feel welcomed and you didn’t have to discuss whatever it was that was bothering you. She was perfectly satisfied to let you doze in one of those recliners while she heated something to eat, and you always left relaxed and well-fed.

Many of us lived with her in some form or fashion, at least for a little while. We stayed with Good Morning for two and a half weeks when we moved to Pittsburgh in 1995. I gained 16 lbs., and she did her best to push that higher. She kept a freezer full of Klondike bars and you were not allowed to leave her house without having one!

Grandma and I formed a bond over football. Nothing comforted you through a Steeler AFC Championship Game like Grandma’s Sunday dinner, followed up with a Klondike (or two if the Steelers lost). If you wanted to have some fun, you could ask her what she thought about Ben Roethlisberger. Or better yet, mention Kordell Stewart and Neil O’Donnell. Of course, no Steelers played defense like they did in the 70s.

We talked some about faith, although we came to Christ from differing perspectives. She held tightly to her Catholic upbringing, but believed that her faith belonged to her and was not to be forced on others. About a year ago, we even discussed heaven and the afterlife–a most enlightening discussion with a 95-year old!

I am not writing this to wow anyone with stories of Grandma Good Morning’s greatness or overwhelming acts of faith. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. This is a reminder that those who are closest to us will often recall our lesser-known acts of loving kindness, offered to those that we love–and who love us–the most.

Grandma did not have medals or awards or walls full of degrees (although she proudly displayed a mug of every university attended by her children and grandchildren). But we will cherish the table that she always set for us, her hilarious bluntness, her asking “Huh?” every time we said something, her comforting recliner, and the glorious aroma of garlic pork roast that we could smell from the sidewalk. Her life and her home offer the memory of all the things that are good about family and Grandmas and loved ones that are separated by time and distance, all contained in a small house on the hill in Trafford, PA.

This is a reminder to me, my family and dear friends, some of whom have recently lost parents and grandparents themselves. We cannot hold on to the ones that we love forever, but precious memories of life and love call us back to them. These memories remind us that our rifts and differences are rarely worth the painstaking walls that we build between one another. And these walls are often an insult to the ones that have gone on before us.

Our families and loved ones are always less than perfect, just as we are. It is naively idealistic to think that all family rifts can mend or that we can all just get along. But events such as losing Grandma are swift and painful reminders of the importance of those who love us at our worst so that they can celebrate us at our best.

Like all families, we will gather this week and talk about how we should get together more often, at times other than mourning. Chances are that we will rarely do this, since most of us are separated by thousands of miles. But perhaps it will help us to remember that Grandma Good Morning taught us to live simply, love family, and always practice hospitality to one another.

My most treasured memory of that hospitality was our first Christmas together in 1991. Grandma always kept a picture of that event, because it includes almost every aunt/uncle/cousin and newborn in the family–including a very nervous new family and their newborn son. It is a privilege to know and love one’s spouse; but it is an honor to know and love her family as well.

That first Christmas introduced me to the glorious aroma of pork roast and potatoes, that hit me the minute I stepped out of the car. Uncle Bernie forced us to sing The 12 Days of Christmas around the table as he tried out his new video camera. Tracy’s cousin Kara and I got to know each other over post-dinner dish duty, including an explanation of why Mario Lemieux was better than Wayne Gretzky (her brother Brian chimed in on that one). We sat around for hours eating cookies and telling stories and watching my son Spencer play with his new toys (after all he was the new baby in the family).

And I remember thinking how welcomed and at home I felt, in a situation where I might have easily felt like an outcast.

That is the lesson that Grandma taught us–to be a gracious host, and value our family both old and new. The memories she gave us call us back to one another, to reconciliation, and to cherished memories.

Rather than holding to our pride and following our ego, may we all learn to seek to love one another and hold tightly to the simplicity of God’s graces. As Grandma taught us to do.

Christmas Scenery and the Theology of Manure

It seems that a lot of things get me unnecessarily irritated at Christmas.

I get irritated with pre-Labor Day Christmas music on the radio. Yes, yes, I know you all love it. So do I—after Thanksgiving! Let me add, however, that Christmas songs by WHAM! or Miley Cyrus irritate me at any time and should be banned for all eternity.

Of course crowds and traffic irritate me.  It’s a strange sensation, during our annual bacchanalia of Peace on Earth and Goodwill towards All, to be filled with the desire to run someone over with my shopping cart.

I’m not even a fan of the Griswold-like light displays, especially when viewing them keeps someone from getting into their driveway.

Seriously, I’m not a Scrooge or a Grinch. I genuinely love Christmas. I just like to keep it in perspective, as in waiting until the day after Thanksgiving. Creating scarcity drives the value up.

But more than all of the headaches and hardships, one question about Christmas has really troubled me the last few years:  Why don’t nativity sets include manure?

The scenes placed on our mantles, coffee tables and church grounds are pristine and sanitized. Mary, a Middle Eastern Jewish girl, is milky-white and–of course–immaculate, even after just giving live birth. On a hay bale. In a barn. Without pain meds. I have to believe that she looked a lot less pristine in the 1st Century version.

Old Joseph (and he usually looks old) stands dutifully in the back, having just delivered his child in spite of the fact that he would have zero knowledge of live birth. Perhaps a midwife is a little too realistic for our tastes.

And then we have perfectly swaddled 8-pound, 6-ounce baby Jesus in His little golden fleece diapers. And, of course, no crying He makes as he rests, perfected and squeaky-clean in an animal feed trough. (And that’s what it was–but we use “manger” because it sounds a lot more holy).

And of course, we must have barnyard animals in our scene. Clean, gazing lovingly, and without a se dropping anywhere to be found near their feed trough. Since it was empty enough to hold a baby, the animals must have been eating that day, right?

Once again, I love traditional Nativity scenes, as they bring back wonderful childhood memories. It was often my job at our house to set up the characters in the hand-made stable my father built. I even like the lawn light-up Jesus Mary and Joseph sets that adorned our neighbors’ lawns.

But the older I get, the less comfort these bring. I simply have to wonder if these depictions are anywhere close to the real scene of the Holy Family. Does it not make sense that if Jesus was born in a stable and placed in an animal feed trough, there was some manure close by?

Deb-Richardson Moore, pastor of Triune Mercy Center in Greenville, SC, reminded me last Sunday of a story I forgot years ago, from a book called The Best Christmas Pageant Ever by Barbara Robinson. In this version of the original Gospels, a group of neighborhood street children named the Herdmans invade the local church Christmas play.

These un-kept children, whose single mother works two jobs, bully other kids out of the lead parts and take over, with the big sister Imogene Herdman playing the role of Mary. They steal all the refreshments, smoke cigars in the restrooms before rehearsal, and decide that they need to rewrite the story.

The Herdmans had never heard the stories of Luke and Matthew that we take for granted. When they discover the manure of the world into which Jesus, King of Kings and Lord of Lords, is born, they find the story unacceptable. Their revised version of the Nativity includes beating the imaginary innkeeper into giving Mary a room, telling the filthy shepherds to get away, and using the gold from the Wise Men to pay off someone to kill Herod.

You see, they recognize that the Gospel is one where Jesus enters the world surrounded by manure. They are offended and scandalized!

Perhaps our Christmas pageant needs to be interrupted with the offensive news of the Gospel that our God was born next to a pile of potential fertilizer. We created the sanitized, G-rated, cozy version. Jesus offends our reality by coming into the world surrounded by manure.

He did not come to give us a comfortable, pristine, white version of Christmas, one untouched by the reality of the manure of real life. He came to empower us to begin cleaning up the mess, to work for His Kingdom Come.

It’s kind of like our homes. We often ignore the mess in the house until we recognize that someone is coming who might see it. We would never accept an infant coming to our house and sleeping next to a pile of excrement. We would immediately begin to clean up the mess and create a better place for a baby to reside on its first night in our presence.

The Christ child comes as our guest, and we should be so mortified by the mess surrounding him that we are compelled to join in helping Him to clean it up. We cannot truly see Jesus unless our hearts are moved to shovel away the injustice, poverty, neglect and struggle of our global neighborhood—one pile at a time.

The offensive nature of the God-child, born in filth that would normally require a DSS investigation, is that it will not allow us to ignore suffering and pain, even when we don’t understand it. We are called by this baby to change the story to one of peace, justice and mercy. In other words, we are to work for the Kingdom of God here on earth, in the middle of the mess into which God was also born.

I am reminded that, at the end of the book, the Herdmans are moved to tears when they realize that this Jesus is indeed born for them, in all of their wild, mean and broken ways. The rest of the church is then reminded that Christmas pageants are about the birth of hope into a hopelessly filthy world.

Maybe that is the value of our picture-perfect Nativity scenes. Maybe they can remind us that the beauty of perfect love comes to us and lives with us even in the middle of our piles of manure. WE are the mess, and God’s ultimate grace is offered to us at Christmas in spite of ourselves. As the Dave Matthews Band tells us in Christmas Song:

So the story goes, so I’m told

The people he knew were Less than golden hearted

Gamblers and robbers

Drinkers and jokers, all soul searchers

Like you and me…

Searching for love love love

Love love love

Love love is all around

The beauty and power of Jesus, with us and for us, is found in following the true love of the Living Christ, in spite of the messes that we see around us. As we look at the scenes of the Holy Family in our homes and churches this year, may we see that these perfect images exist because the ultimate grace of Christ has overcome the dirt and filth that surrounds us. He does so with a compassion and love that we cannot help but share–and if we’re not sharing it, then we have failed to truly understand the grace of the manger. (Or feed trough, if you will).

Merry Christmas to you all. And may your vision of the stable remind you that the beauty of the season is found Jesus the Christ, loving us so much that he came into a world full of manure—and empowering us to love others as He loved us.

(In addition to Dave Matthews, I highly recommend you give a listen to The Rebel Jesus by Jackson Browne).

Ladies: Your Yoga Pants Are Destroying Men! (Revised)

I simply had to share this confessional after reading yet another article about the Indisputable Evils of Yoga Pants. These pants are worn regularly by temptresses around the globe, so much so that they require a follow-up article about immodest Christian women.

These were followed by some stern warnings from a male pastor (who is apparently easily distracted) by these Jezebel pants in the gym–where, of course, women are simply looking for sexual attention rather than trying to get in shape.

The articles are old, but it started showing up again on my Twitter feed this week. After reading them, I have a confession to make as a Christian man and minister, one that may be shockingly scandalous to all true Christians:

I allow my wife to wear yoga pants. In PUBLIC, of all places!

Worse yet, it doesn’t really bother me. When she heads to the gym in that oh-so-sexy pony tail, tight pants, and fleece—which is scandalously not zipped up enough to cover her upper chest and neck–I don’t say a word. And I don’t worry that some other man might see and lust after her.

Shame on me for not controlling my household and having such a Jezebel for a wife. She exercises in, you know, EXERCISE pants! I should probably ask forgiveness for this, as well as for letting her wear something with the name “yoga” attached to it.

Silly me…but I kind of think that men are responsible for their own behavior. As in a 1 Thessalonians 4 kind of way: “…each one of you should control your own body…

I work at a small, Christian university. I can state this as a fact to all the Anti-Yoga Pants advocates out there:  You are losing. Not just a little, but massively losing. As in a blowout. As in a Seahawks-Broncos Super Bowl type of blowout.

And yet, I can think of very few times where I considered any of the young ladies at our school–and certainly not my wife–to be excessively immodest or subliminally seeking sexual attention.

So, why do I care so much about this article being posted and re-tweeted?

Simple. I have a teenage daughter. The last thing I want her to read/hear/feel is that she is guilty for men behaving badly, because she dressed in a way that sought out sexual attraction and attention. These blog authors deny it, but their underlying theme supports this archaic notion.

One of these authors is a pastor and the other apparently seeks opportunities to speak to young girls and youth groups. (By the way, I find it strange to read about modesty of dress from a lady who professes a passion for red stilletos–because guys would never notice those, right?) I would not want either of them within ten yards of my daughter, and I would prefer that she stay at least that far from their writings.

I don’t want my daughter carrying the guilt that pastors and so-called youth “speakers” have heaped onto young women for years. I’ve ministered to young people for a long time, and I know all the routines. I’ve witnessed the eyerolls from the ladies at the youth retreats, where they get another speech about how “men are visual” and they have to cover themselves out of respect for that…(oh, and respect for themselves, because that’s important too).

I have also counseled many adult women who have carried those hot guilt coals on their heads for a long time. Perhaps it’s time to stop dressing up guilt and blame in the language of spirituality and modesty. Perhaps we could spend more time giving them confidence and value in Christ and less time talking about clothing.

Believe me, as husband of an exquisitely attractive wife and father of a 15-year old daughter, I am all in favor of female modesty. The first young lad who knocks on our door will find our young lady dressed as Joan of Arc, in full chain mail, steel armor and a very large sword. (He may also find me cleaning shotguns and sharpening large hunting knives when he comes into the house–and he will come in, or she will not go out).

However, I am equally opposed to the notion that my daughter should have to alter her clothing because men are too spiritually weak and irresponsible to control themselves. And that this is somehow okay because they are more “visual”.

Let’s dispense with the myth that men are tempted primarily because of what women wear, and that the Bible supports any such myth. Matthew 5:28 tells us that Jesus said, “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Women weren’t exactly sporting outfits like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or Kim Kardashian on, say, a Tuesday. And Jesus still had to warn the men to use some self-control and stop undressing women with their eyes.

It also does not describe Jesus calling over the ladies and saying to them, “Now, the men are lusting after you. But it’s not really their fault because they’re just more visual. So make sure you go out dressed in swaddling clothes, leaving only room to breathe through your nose. Because they’re too spiritually ‘soft’ to handle it.”

In those links above, the author shares some words from her husband about how difficult it is for men to keep themselves focused and under control when close to a woman wearing yoga pants. Here’s the thing:  If you can’t keep yourself focused on your workout and keep yourself from lustful thoughts a sweaty, smelly female next to you is wearing yoga pants, that is explicitly and exclusively a YOU problem.

But the problem goes well beyond some guy who can’t keep his eyes straight in the gym. These articles foster the same attitude that allows counselors at Bob Jones University to ask victims of sexual assault, “What were you wearing?” Or refer to them as “damaged goods”. It allows places like Sovereign Grace Ministries to create a culture of guilt, shame and silence, even as women and children are sexually abused.

Because if you were sexually assaulted, you must have been wearing something that put off a signal…right?

Again, the authors will deny that this is a product of their teaching. But read between the lines, and pay attention to the tone. They’ve softened the language and dressed it up in spiritual platitudes, but the general theme is the same. And it’s not okay.

My daughter learns from her mother and the other women in her family and church. Yes, some of these Delilahs wear those sinful yoga pants. But they also teach her that wisdom, strength of heart and mind, and a desire to seek what God wants her are more important than her clothes. Modesty is more about attitude than attire. She knows that her Christianity is defined by who she is, and that it’s not okay for anyone to make assumptions about her based on her outfit.

We are grateful that these women have given her a Deborah spirit, rather than warning her against a Jezebel spirit.

My daughter makes great decisions about modesty, but not because these women drilled a bunch of legalism into her head or convinced her about the sinful eyes of boys. In fact, she probably makes these decision because we don’t talk about clothes! Isn’t it interesting that teaching strength and character is empowering her to make good choices on her own?

I’m sorry to take up your time with yoga pants—but I see too many people that are paying too much attention to this stuff. I saw it in all my years of youth ministry, and we’re still treading the same water. So maybe it’s time to change our approach rather than repeating the insanity.

Maybe we should teach our girls more about what it means to have a Deborah spirit, or Mary spirit, or Lydia spirit. If we did, then the clothing issue might take care of itself.

Let me thank a few of the Deborah/Mary/Martha/Lydia/Phoebe ladies in our lives:  Amanda, Debbie, Leslie, Mandy, Chasity, Dina, Beth, Sissy, Laurie, Shannon, Mickey, Phyllis, Sarah, Mrs. Jo, Aunt Y, Wilma, Tonda, Colleen, Meredith, Liz and especially Kaci…just to name a few. I am grateful and thankful for all these women–and many more–as examples. But most of all I thank my wife Tracy for instilling her with the true values of a Christian woman.

5 Things I’ve Learned in 5 Weeks Out of Church

Consider this official. I am issuing an apology to every member of every church that I have served over the last 20+ years.

This past Sunday ended a personal record that I never thought I would reach. We hit five. We had missed church for 5 straight Sundays until this week. Somewhat in our defense, we have been out of town for three of those, after rarely having a weekend off in our 24 years of marriage. But for a couple of them, we just stayed home.

In my entire life, I don’t think that I’ve ever missed church more than two weeks in a row. I certainly didn’t as a child, not even in college. I started working in the church as a volunteer or staff person when I was 17. Besides that, mom wouldn’t let me come home for Sunday Lunch ‘n Laundry if I didn’t go to church.

I hope my parents don’t actually read this blog, because I’m in for a phone call and a lecture if they do. Well, I might be in for that anyway, but maybe it won’t be the “Go to church!” lecture.

I’m taking some solace in the people that say the family was due for a “sabbatical”, and maybe that was true. I’ve never worked a job outside of the church, nor did my father. In essence, I’ve been to church almost every Sunday for 43+ years and the break–I’m a little ashamed to say–is doing me some good. Once in a while, we need to step away from something for a time in order to truly appreciate it. At this point, I am beginning to feel a loss of fellowship, community, camaraderie, servitude, reflective conversations…all the things that make church worth it. While those may not be the Spiritually Correct things to miss, they are what I long for the most in this absence because they are the things that bring home the reality of the Living Christ. At least to me.

But this Sunday Sabbatical has also illustrated some things to me, particularly now that I am working a 9-to-5 (or, more like 7-to-6) day. Honestly, I’ve never had a real job before, one that occupied a truly specific time slot and required a very specific and demanding schedule. Yes, church work is intense, but the one perk is the flexibility that it often has.

I actually think that every pastor needs a season of the workaday world, as it would benefit both the leader and the led. It is amazing how much can be learned by living in the same mode as the people to whom you are called to minister. Here are a few of them:

1. Getting up for church is hard:

At times, I’ve been very judgmental of people who would not get up for Sunday School or showed up late to church or just attended once in a while. Perhaps it’s unfair, but part of a pastor’s job is to try and get people to show up. And I was one of those pastors that assumed something was wrong if people didn’t come to church.

How different it is on the other side.

Maybe all pastors need to work a regular job, if they haven’t done so in a while. When someone is putting in 40+ a week, plus commute time and the daily demands of life/family, it’s tough to choose to give up one of the few days that you have free in order to take on another responsibility. Even if it is a deep-seeded spiritual responsibility, it’s still something else added to the schedule.

 

2. Family Matters

Churches can be notoriously insensitive to family time. We must have one more meeting, event, dinner, Bible study or gathering on the calendar, because that’s what we’re supposed to do. We hold events and studies and conferences centered around family issues, while failing to recognize that we are contributing to an overwhelming, oppressive issue in family life:  Time.

I can hardly think of a time when a church says, “Why don’t we schedule a little less, so that we put less pressure on our families?” Maybe we could contribute to the spirituality of church members by slowing things down a little rather than speeding them up.

I also understand a lot more about why people choose to go to church with their extended families. It’s that much easier to stay engaged if you’re able to cover two bases at once. It also makes me glad that mom forced me to attend church as a prerequisite to Sunday lunch when I was in college…because I kind of miss that family time now.

 

3. Yes, It’s okay to attend church where your children want to go

It used to make me nuts when parents would look to change churches because their children decided they wanted to. Now that we’re church-hunting with a 15-year old daughter, we are absolutely listening to what she has to say on the matter.

I am not a fan of making a move every six months because the youth minister said something that your child does not like, or because your child’s friends told them about how much better their church is. Once you pick a lane, you need to stay with it. But as children get older, it is absolutely crucial to listen to their ideas and perceptions about church.

 

4. A Sunday off is not a damnable offense

It always used to puzzle me that church members felt I needed a lengthy explanation when they missed a Sunday. As a pastor, it is a fine line between pressuring people to attend and showing interest when they do not. But I always tended to take it a little personally when people missed a Sunday, and I think that showed (even when I tried to cover the emotion).

It probably was not personal at all. Sometimes, people just need a break. While I would never encourage people to take five weeks off, it is okay to step away; in fact, a Sunday or two away (or even visiting another congregation) can help to freshen your perspective on your church home.

 

5. Meaningful relationships are much better motivators than guilt

So for our first trip back to church, we went for a visit to our old church (where I pastored for a little less than three years). Just to make the contrast in experience complete, we sat on the back row–which is a totally different perspective in and of itself!

We were a little concerned that there would be weirdness, and it certainly felt strange to walk in as spectators rather than leaders. But then came the handshakes and hugs and high fives from people with whom we had worked hand in hand during our short tenure. And it was all a reminder that those things are much better motivators than guilt trips. It was a reminder of all that is good and right about church, even in the midst of the hardships and struggles that occur with any organization (even a religious one).

What we didn’t get was a lot of “‘Bout time you showed up!” or “Well where have ya’ll been?” or “Yeah, thanks a lot for leaving us!” (Okay, we did get one or two of those last ones, but generally in good fun). My guess is that when we say those things to people who have not attended in a while, it’s not much of a motivator for them to return on a regular basis. The handshake or high five or hug is probably a much more pleasant reminder of what is missed, and I’m sure it’s a much greater incentive to return than the healthy plateful of guilt we tend to dish out.

 

When I was a pastor/church staffer, I felt it was my personal and professional responsibility to get as many people to come to church as possible. In many ways, I was right. But I fear that I never had a true understanding of church from the other side, until I stepped away from it. After just five short weeks, I can already see some things that I wish I had known 25 years ago.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in the church, still believe it’s important to attend. But what I value in it has changed, and my understanding is much different from the outside, looking in, and sitting on the back pew.

So to all those former church members, if I bothered/guilt-tripped/harassed you for not attending church:  I’m sorry! I was doing my job and I really didn’t see it from your perspective.

But even greater than that, to those who faithfully attended, participated, led, sang, met, “committeed”, “deaconed”, taught, prayed, practiced, and prepared:  Thank you! A THOUSAND TIMES, thank you! I appreciate your commitment a thousand times more than I ever did–and should have–when I was a pastor. Unfortunately, it took this most recent life change to make me appreciate and value you the way that I should have all along.

I hope some pastors will read this, and learn the lesson a little sooner than I did.