Friday, December 19, 2014

This December, let's remember the real meaning of Christians

What is the first thing you think about when you imagine a "Christian"?

For some, it is picturing someone like Mother Teresa or Martin Luther King Jr.

I like to think of people like Charles Spurgeon. I have his complete works of every single sermon he ever preached, over 60 years. That's a lot of Sundays.

And I don't just like him because he had a killer beard, enjoyed wine and loved a daily cigar. Yes, that would be enough. But Spurgeon truly loved and so clearly knew about Christ's central message of grace.

But for many others outside the church, they immediately think of Christians to be like the funeral protesting Westboro Baptist Church, who proudly proclaim their official website of Sadly, it is easier to focus on the loudest idiots.

Last December, I wrote "This season, let's remember to keep Christ in Christians!", partially as a response to the then current controversy of Phil Robertson equating homosexuality and bestiality in GQ magazine. At the time, almost all of America divided neatly into two camps of either declaring him a bigot or a defender of wholesome family values. Even his son Willie recently came out to say the family does not agree with his statements.

Look, in general, I think Phil is probably a fairly nice guy. I know he loves the Lord and he obviously has an awesome beard. He stumbled over his words a little and probably wishes he had taken a little more time to make his point, instead of blurting out those sound bites. But when we have a vicseral disgust and dislike of "certain people", it will eventually come out in our words and actions.  Always.

Phil's picture, superimposed with a quote that "you do not have to compromise convictions to be compassionate" is reposted in my Facebook feed at least once a week, despite the fact Phil literally never said that. Rick Warren did.

That has been pointed out repeatedly, but people will keep posting it because pictures with text pasted over them that reinforce what we already believe must be true, right? So, why even bother to fact check?

Now it is December and right on cue, many of my fellow Christians have become much more vocal. My blog certainly qualifies for that, but in truth it is because I invariably become more introspective and prone to examining myself and our motives.

Every year about this time, we Christians scramble and protest that there is a great war against us because we cannot put up nativity scenes in the town square. The fact that we are free to put them up in our front yards and would have a violently different reaction in say, China or Pakistan, is never quite enough for us. We want everyone else to publicly admit that December 25th was Jesus' birthday.

We are not completely positive on the day of course, but we do know the bible says his birth was announced to nearby shepherds tending their sheep in their field at night. But historically, shepherds have never kept their flock outside at night in Bethlehem any further than the fall.


Don't get me wrong (some of you have already decided to get me wrong), I do love the Lord. And I love celebrating His birth. And I love celebrating his sacrifice on the cross and His resurrection. I am not convinced the decorated pine tree in my living room is what He had in mind, but it is sparkly and pretty and putting presents under the refrigerator would just be silly.

Weirdos, following the crowd

We talk every December about the "real meaning of Christmas", but I want to spend a moment to ask aloud about the "real meaning of Christians". 

I am not stupid. I am confident very few would pick me as a prime example over Mother Teresa or even Phil Robertson, but let's look instead at the words of the man Himself who was born in a manger, probably no later than August:

"By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another." (John 13:35)

The fact that we self proclaimed disciples profess to show that love with everything from feeding the homeless in the streets of Calcutta to protesting soldiers' funerals with "God Hates Fags" signs is understandably confusing for unbelievers.

Jesus also said the greatest commandment is to love God with all of our heart and the second command is to love our neighbors as ourselves, and that upon these two things hang all the law and prophets.

So... if we keep these two things, then we keep the whole shebang. Sweet! But how do we love God with all our heart and love our neighbors as we love ourselves?

I, for one, vote that we do not picket funerals, but for some, showing the "love of God" is the slightly more subtle (as a brick) gesture of vowing to no longer speak to their own child who has come out as gay on the holidays.

I mean for pity sake, right in between the servings of stuffing and turkey! Boom. Disowned. It is what the Lord would want us to do. Tough love. Tough noogies. Hate the sin, love the sinner. (Where is that verse again?)

Here is a modest suggestion (that Jesus made): love your neighbor AS YOURSELF.

We often forget the import of those last two words, but they are so pivotal. When you give (or refuse) a dollar to that homeless person, do you actually love them as yourself? Do you imagine it possible for you to have made the decisions they have that led them to that place of destitution and addiction? Do you view them as a person of great value and still worthy of dignity and respect?

For me, few words exemplify the true meaning of loving others as myself more than the word RESPECT.

How is it that we've so long fooled ourselves into thinking we can love people we do not even like or respect?

If I were to give something to a homeless person, I immediately wonder if I do it with genuine compassion or merely patronizingly, as if with a pat on the head to someone beneath me and certainly not my equal.

We make excuses that our love of righteousness and holiness is what moves us to shun and treat others with disgust. Aside from being hypocritical, it is self defeating. It doesn't just make us look like bigots, it is mind numbingly stupid.

Jesus said of Himself that "The Son of man came eating and drinking, and they say, Behold a man gluttonous, and a winebibber, a friend of publicans and sinners. But wisdom is justified of her children." (Matthew 11:19)

People flocked around Jesus and not because he preached "god hates you". Like no other, He spoke of repentance, but also of grace and forgiveness.

It might be relevant to ask ourselves as believers when was the last time we ate and drank with a publican or a sinner... or a homeless person... or a gay person... or an atheist... or a Muslim... or anyone for that matter who did not neatly fit into our accepted paradigm of "good people".

But it is probably far more relevant to ask not how many gay or atheist or fill-in-the-blank "friends" we think that we have, but how many of them consider us to be THEIR friend.

Not surprisingly, the harshest criticism and preaching Jesus ever had was toward the religious hypocrites of the day, those lacking all grace or forgiveness and quickest to pick up a rock to stone someone, not unlike this jackass in Arizona

Paul told us that we ought to "Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus." (Philippians 2:3-5)

It is difficult to imagine the full extent of what it truly means to esteem others better than myself, but I imagine it is better served in the trenches of Calcutta than in a picket line.

The truth is that every moment of every day, we believers are tempted to create God in OUR own image. If we stupidly walk away from the bible believing He is a God who is perpetually condescending, angry and hateful, then that is exactly the kind of face we will show to the world.

Jesus told a parable in which He said that the kingdom of heaven was like an ungrateful slave forgiven of a huge debt by his master, only to go out and throw into prison a fellow slave who owed him a tiny amount in comparison. Jesus said the master heard of it and threw that first slave back into prison for being so unforgiving and hypocritical.

He then said, "Shouldest not thou also have had compassion on thy fellowservant, even as I had pity on thee?" (Matthew 18:33)

I try my best to show genuine compassion, respect and friendship to everyone, not because I am better than them. It is the very opposite. I too am a sinner, forgiven of an immeasurable debt.

Do you get creeped out and your skin crawl when you get near gays? Well, that is exactly how I feel when I get around fellow Christians who hate only "certain people".

One infinitely higher than me lowered Himself to forgive me, show me grace and call me family and a friend. So then, who am I to pretend I am better than anyone else and more deserving of genuine compassion and respect? The very thought of cloaking such arrogance and disgust for others within the folds of "faith" is nothing short of repulsive.

Sure, this kind of Christianity is a little less satisfying for some and admittedly a whole lot more boring.

"Quick, let's turn on CNN and see what those wacky Christians are up to now! Uh-oh, they're protesting the nativity scene ban again! Ooh! Now they're refusing to sell wedding cakes and protesting people's constitutional right to get married!"

But what if instead, the majority of unbelievers imagining "what is a Christian" were to simply picture real, everyday people who treated them with dignity, basic respect and whenever possible, sincere compassion and friendship?

I am not pretending to be a shining example of this, either. If already you don't think my beard, wine and cigars are Spurgeonesque, I promise you my bad mouth and angry temper will wipe away that comparison quick as hell.

Even when someone cuts me off in traffic, "love your neighbor as yourself" can quickly turn into me yelling "hey, go love yourself!"  But it is still a standard I haltingly aspire toward. The first and second commandments to love God and love others are what I try to make my truest foundation and greatest focus.

Fellow Christians... let us quit just talking about grace and start showing it. Let us quit talking about "tough love" and about our supposed love for righteousness and holiness, while using it as an excuse to push people away from us.

Let us just try actual love.

Please, let us just show sincere love for people. Let us try plain, basic compassion and grace for our fellow human beings. Let's all practice that for a little while before we think we've graduated to doing anything else of import.

It is incredible how we believers claim to be the ones who can see the light and are no longer blind, all the while we're not fooling God or the world, just ourselves.  Whenever we indulge in hypocrisy, condescension, self-righteousness or patronizing, it is so clearly evident to the rest of the world. They see it. They know it. They are not fooled.

And our hypocrisy is always so clear to God, but it becomes our own biggest and perfect blind spot.

It is time to set aside our slim and slick veneer of fake courtesy, kindness and sickly sweet niceness for people we do not even like, respect or care about. Guess what? They're onto us about that.

Even little children have an instinct about anyone who is phony. But we continue to plod on, preaching the gospel with stiff backs and strained smiles, thinking we get points for the number of ears we fill.

Paul warned us to make sure we let our love be without hypocrisy.

Let us just be real.

Let us stop pretending we can keep the first commandment to love God with all our hearts while artfully evading the keeping of the second commandment to simply and sincerely love our neighbor as ourselves.

How can our proudest achievement be that we stood on the corner of life and screamed "turn or burn" to every passing sinner, louder than anyone else? Aside from yelling the gospel, how much time did we spend actually showing it and living it? Did others only hear our angry and hollow words or did they get a true glimpse of the message of the cross and grace in the way that we treated them?

For the love of God, let us stop kidding ourselves that our hating and being disgusted by people is in any way the message of Christ.

Imagine if the average unbeliever who was asked "what is a christian" were to respond that they may not always agree with us, but they cannot deny we are always among the most sincere, compassionate and grace filled people in the world?

I would rather fight each and every year for this to become a reality than something as menial as trying to force unbelievers to accept my nativity scene in the town square.

In the very next verses that followed, Paul clarified to the Philippians what exactly it means to truly esteem others better than ourselves:

"Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross." (Philippians 2:5-8)

If we can do this, maybe we can do a slightly better job each and every year at remembering to keep Christ in Christians.