“Can Anything Good Come from Nazareth?”

26220101_10159794806340147_6943418189534145442_nIn the summer of 2016, I had the honor of attending the Wesley Pilgrimage sponsored by Discipleship Ministries of the United Methodist Church. Along with seeing sites significant to the history of Methodism and learning from some of the greatest Wesley scholars available, I also had the opportunity to meet people from many different places and from many different backgrounds. Two of my fellow pilgrims hail from nations in Africa. Ande (“Andy”) is an ordained Elder from Nigeria and Julu is a lay leader in Liberia. Both are two of the most committed Christians and United Methodists I have ever met, not to mention that both are just extremely nice men. Both are working hard to make their homes better by taking seriously the call to discipleship and mission.

Both were also among the people President Trump insulted with his “shithole countries” remark.

The words that President Trump used to degrade immigrants from third world nations – many of whom are refugees escaping extreme poverty and war – are the most reprehensible words that I have ever seen or heard attributed to the president. I realize that our political leaders are just as human as you and I but, simply, they can’t say things like that and not expect to be held accountable. The President of the United States wields much power with their words and the words that President Trump used to demonize human beings who are of sacred worth in God’s eyes are beyond comprehension. I join the United Methodist Church’s Council of Bishops in denouncing the president’s statement and I, too, call it what it is: It is racist. It is evil. It simply can not be tolerated.

I refuse to be complicit in his unbiblical and unchristian statement through silence.

Like many pastors, I follow the Revised Common Lectionary most weeks. I know some view this as “quenching the work of the Spirit” but I disagree, especially when the readings are so prophetic and timely to what is happening in our world today. Sunday’s Old Testament reading is from 1 Samuel 3:1-20 where God calls out to Samuel and declares a judgment upon his own father Eli for not heeding God’s word. The Gospel reading is from John 1:43-51 and the part that strikes me so much as far as this week’s big news is concerned is found in verse 46 where Nathaniel says, “‘Nazareth!’ exclaimed Nathanael. ‘Can anything good come from Nazareth?’” Nathaniel is soon converted as he realizes that, yes, something good has come out of the s***hole Nazareth – the Lord Jesus Christ.

God is still speaking. Are we still listening? Even more so, are we ready to actually heed his word and do what we are expected to do as Christians? Can we stop judging and hating people who look different than us and who are from different places? Can we stop condoning and even defending evil words and actions from our elected officials and our clergy? When will God’s people stand up and shout “no more!” and then actually rise up to do something about it?

All people are made in God’s image. All people are of sacred worth.

All means all.

Worship leader and songwriter Matthew West has a song called “Do Something.” The man in the story names several ills of the world and shouts to God, “Why don’t you do something?!” In the song, God responds: “I did, I created you!”

So, I say again: When will God’s people stand up and say “no more?” I don’t know about you but this one is choosing to respond.

No more!

It’s Time For Some Tough Love

widetableFriends, it’s time for a dose of reality and some tough love. First of all, I am sick and tired of all the bruhaha over NFL players kneeling, standing, not standing, staying in the tunnel, staying in the locker room, or whatever they choose to do. My social media feeds have been filled with nothing but reactions for and against the actions that NFL players, coaches, and owners took or did not take in response to President Trump’s remarks calling for the firing of NFL players who protest during the national anthem (the fact that he used language that I would rather he didnt is another story). There has been great passion displayed by people arguing on both sides of the issue, a passion that I admire and find very commendable.

I just wish we would show this much passion about things that actually matter.

One thing I have noticed during my existence in this world is that we tend to display lots of passion about sports, politics, and which celebrity is pregnant this week. However, that same passion is rarely placed where it is actually needed. Our priorities are all messed up. We care about things that have absolutely no bearing on the greater good of the world and care little to none about suffering, oppression, and the other things that we really should be so passionate about. While we (collectively) have been pouring our energy into what an athlete does or does not do during the national anthem, here’s what I did not hear much about.

  • The entire island of Puerto Rico – very much part of the United States as they are a territory – is without electricity or communication. Most of their houses have been severely damaged or destroyed. Their supply lines are all but completely shut off. They are in desperate need of aid and it may take years for the Puerto Ricans to recover. The damage has been described as “apocalyptic.” On top of all of that, a dam was heavily damaged and is likely to completely fail.
  • A mass shooting in Antioch, Tennessee at Burnette Chapel Church of Christ killed one and wounded six others, mostly older people who had gathered for worship. The local media reports say that if an usher had not intervened to fight the shooter, the situation could have been much worse. One of the wounded is their pastor, Rev. Joey Spann, and he remains in critical condition. It’s unknown what the motive of the shooting is.
  • People in Florida, Texas, and other places impacted by recent hurricanes are continuing to recover from the damage sustained during those storms. People are still living in shelters and many have no homes to go to.
  • Homelessness still exists, children are still going hungry, people are still addicted to drugs and alcohol, and families are still being torn apart due to these addictions and much more.

As long as these things are in existence, I simply don’t have time to worry about what someone does or does not do when the national anthem is played. And, frankly, if you’re a Christian… Neither do you.

The Old and New Testaments are rife with teachings about caring for the poor, seeking justice for the oppressed, loving our neighbors, and being kind but it seems like we ignore those things. We expend so much time and energy on petty political differences when we could be putting our energy into much more productive endeavors. If we used that energy toward ending hunger and homelessness, those issues would be gone tomorrow. If we used all that energy to working to end drug and alcohol addiction, the number of lives changed for the better would be astounding.

If you are a Christian and spend more time behind a keyboard or holding a smartphone using it to argue political ideology than you do working on things that break God’s heart, you’re not in line with the teachings of Jesus (I include myself in this rebuke). Does that sting? Good, it should.

We need to do better by using our passion and energy toward things that actually matter. In ten years, I can promise you that what an athlete or a team choose to do during the national anthem will not have one bit of bearing on anyone’s’ life. In ten years, we likely won’t even remember that this was a debate. But in ten years, someone could have a better life or even be alive in the first place because you put the phone down and invested in your energy into something – or someone – that actually matters.

And if you’re a Christian, that’s your duty as a disciple.

Patriotism in Church

bible-american-flag1There was a time when I was a volunteer firefighter. Sometime after I joined with Stonewall Fire and Rescue, I was having a conversation with the chief, at the time it was a man named Jimmy Andrews, and he told me something that I have continued to remember even since I have moved on from being a firefighter. Jimmy said that when he first became a firefighter he heard someone say that the following should be one’s main priorities (and in this order): God, country, family, the fire department, and everything else. Someone else once told me to always make sure that I “keep the Main Thing the main thing.” The takeaway from both of these bits of wisdom is that God should always be the number one priority over all else in our lives, period. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else.

We especially need to remember to keep the Main Thing the main thing when we gather to worship. When we worship we should always make sure we remember that we are participants in a service for an audience of one: God. We are to worship him and no one or nothing else. Now, that should be obvious but I feel like we can sometimes get carried away with celebrating other things to the point that it becomes idolatry. In other words, we forget to keep the Main Thing the main thing.

I’m proud of my country and I love the fact that we, as Americans, have a lot of freedom that we tend to take for granted. We are able to speak our minds, able to gather in worship, able to choose our elected officials and pursue our lives as we see fit. We can come and go as we please without a government official checking our “papers” every few miles. These are things we should be thankful and I feel that it’s appropriate for us to give thanks to God for these freedoms and for our country. Having a flag in the sanctuary is OK. I even like belting out “God Bless America” on Sundays around the patriotic holidays. These things are fine and, so long as they are done properly, I believe they are acceptable to God. But we do have to be careful not to cross a line and make our worship activities more about Lady Liberty, Uncle Sam, and Old Glory than about the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A few days ago I read an account of last Sunday’s worship service at First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. I have to be very honest: Reading about this service – and watching some of it – made me very uncomfortable and I can’t honestly say that I would have wanted to be a participant in it. The author points out that the worship service was much more about American and very little about God.

The fact that there was a red, white, and blue hued cross made me cringe.

To me, this is a major problem that, unfortunately, seems to be an issue that is becoming more and more prevalent in churches in the United States. This does not seem confined to any particular denomination or type of church but more and more American Christians are equating their faith with their patriotism. This is nothing short of idolatry. In celebrating our country, we must be very careful to make sure that we do not place our loyalty to our homeland equal to or even greater than our loyalty to God. Our love for anything (or anyone) should not be equal to or greater than our love for God.

In scripture, we are reminded that we are to place nothing – absolutely nothing – above God. When God told the Israelites, “You must not have any other god but me” (Exodus 20:3 NLT) he wasn’t just talking about a statue of Buddha or the like. An idol can be anything that we are willing to worship or otherwise place above God. This includes patriotism. I want to emphasize that it is perfectly alright to be thankful for our country and to celebrate that blessing but we must be careful to make sure that we do not do so at the expense of our loyalty to God.

We must keep the Main Thing the main thing.

When a celebration of anything overshadows God in a worship service, the line between acceptable and unacceptable has not only been crossed, it has been ignored altogether. It’s also worth noting that in many countries such celebrations are virtually unheard of in Christian worship. I look back on the Wesleyan Pilgrimage I set out on last summer and out of all the churches I visited in England – Methodist or Anglican – I can not recall one that had a Union Jack anywhere on or in the building.

All I’m saying is that we must be careful to make sure that we do not cross a line that should not be crossed.

Inevitably, someone is likely going to accuse me of not being a patriot or of condemning those who do acknowledge patriotic holidays during worship. That could not be farther from the truth. Sing a patriotic song recognize the military, say a prayer of thanks for our freedom (we will be doing all of these things at Shiloh this Sunday). I am not against these things. I am against a worship service not being centered on God and centered on other things, be it a nation, a celebrity, or anything else that is not God. These thoughts – which are mine and mine only – are only intended to serve as food for thought as to what boundaries should be set.

I will close with the words of the author of the article I linked above, as his concerns are also mine.

What would a Christian from another country say? Would they recognize their place in this church?

What about those for whom this has not been such a great country? What about those who still bear the stripes callously inflicted upon their ancestors’ backs?

What about those who don’t claim the Christian faith? Would they come away from such a celebration understanding anything about the gospel of Christ, and hear its call on their lives?

What would happen if Jesus showed up in the flesh? Would we recognize him as our guest of honor? Would we even recognize him at all? (emphasis his)

I don’t think so.

Ladies and gentlemen, something has gone desperately wrong.

God, forgive us.

And may it be so, Lord. Amen.

A Tale of Two States

I am a transplant to Kentucky, having just moved here in June. One of the things I have found myself doing often is comparing how each state differs in its traditions, customs and certainly in their government. I want to offer you the same opportunity.

As you may have seen in a previous post, I wrote a letter advocating for the General Assembly of Kentucky to pass a bill allowing EMS providers to receive the same benefits as police officers and firefights should they die in the line of duty. I had received some bad information that the bill was in danger of failing to pass and I urged my state senator and representative to support this measure. The next morning I received a call from Representative David Hale who took time out of his busy schedule to call me personally and tell me that the bill was indeed expected to do well and that he was not sure how information had gotten out that the bill was in danger. He let me know that he fully supported the bill and many of his counterparts in the senate did well. He then took a few moments to get to know me, thanked me for making the choice to move to the Commonwealth and also asked if I had any other concerns related to EMS workers. He also commended me for taking up pastoral ministry as he is also a pastor and knew how difficult it can be to balance the duties of the church with everything else life throws at you. He was very pleasant and I thanked him for giving me a call when he certainly did not have to. He said, “I work for you. It’s my pleasure.”

Contrast that to how I have been treated by a Mississippi official.

A couple of years ago, I wrote Representative William Shirley and expressed my concerns about cuts to education and the fact that teachers in Mississippi had not, at that time, received a raise in quite some time. He did not even bother to return the email. I get it, I know he has bills to vote on, committees to sit on, campaign fund money to give to himself (see page 11) and to spend at the fish camp he owns (page 10).

But I digress.

I emailed him again and this time he responded. Essentially the exchange was not very polite on his end. He essentially let me know that he would vote for and against bills that were in his best interest of staying elected and to heck with everything else.

He also made it clear that my opinion was not valued.

And then there’s this guy who told a constituent that he “could care less” about her views, that her views were not Mississippi views, and that she should consider moving back to Illinois. Her crime was the same as mine: She dared to advocate for education and questioned the wisdom of tax cuts when revenue was already projected to be lower than expected to a member of a legislative regime who is determined to cut as much spending as possible from education for the benefit of their donors who happen to be “non-profit” private education companies.

Legislators in my home state of Mississippi could learn a lot from their Kentucky counterparts.

Jonathan