Some people say they grew up in the church. I was saturated in it. Sunday morning and Sunday night. Wednesday night Bible study. Youth events on weekends. It felt like our entire social circle.
I had the books of the Bible memorized when I was 4. I have childhood memories of chiming in during adult Bible studies to answer questions or ask my own. I attended a Christian school from kindergarten through 8th grade. More Bible memorization. More chapel services. The music, the culture, the cartoons, the video series, the bookstores. My kids Bible became a teen Bible and then a study Bible.
I’m not sure who first told me I was going to be a pastor, but it happened early and often. I can recall several encounters as a child and even more as a teenager that I was called to, anointed for, and gifted in ministry. I swallowed it all and went to a Christian college where I majored in the stuff. More Bible study. Church history. Historic understanding of the culture, the events, the context of the Bible, especially the life of Jesus. I started to give my own sermons. My entire life pointed in this single direction.
Then came my own years in ministry. Associate pastor. Youth pastor. Teaching pastor. Church planter. Teaching pastor, again. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of sermons. I’ve taught through nearly every book in the entire Bible and many multiple times over. The gospels have been read and re-read, studied and parsed out. Then came seminary. Original languages were learned and applied. Translation was possible. (Let’s be honest, I needed considerable help here.) On top of this, more years of in-depth study into the life of Jesus.
All of this feels important to say because the disconnect is jarring these days — the sheer distance between those who would likely say “I follow Jesus” and the resulting attitudes and actions. They’re not even close. Even some who are embedded in those earliest memories described above, those who poured into my own understanding of Jesus and the kingdom of God, have suddenly been caught up in something “other.” Whatever it is, it’s so far from resembling anything related to Jesus or his demonstrated actions and attitudes that it’s left me angry and bitter, frustrated and sad.
Mostly it just hurts.
I’ve been re-reading the account of Matthew lately while thinking through the cultural divide that we all feel so deeply — no matter the side, I’m certain we all feel it. While doing so, I can’t help but notice, time and again, the typical postures portrayed in story after story:
1. Religious leaders/pharisees — A posture intent on invalidating any perspective but their own (for their own good, their own security, their own narrative) despite knowing the laws (and even being the protectors/keepers of the law).
2. Jesus — A posture of validating others around him — even those (especially those) who have been discounted by everyone else.
3. Followers of Jesus — A posture of learning, one of largely stumbling forward as Jesus attempts to get them to understand what it means to validate the persons around them.
I use this word intentionally — validate — because I believe it’s more useful to us than love. Love is not only so flowery and familiar, but it’s also vague. The opposite of loving someone is a refusal to validate them — to tell someone they no longer exist, that their voice is not heard, that they do not matter. To love someone is to validate them.
-Loving my wife means listening to her concerns and making those my own.
-Loving my neighborhood is to be present enough to hear the concerns of others and to work toward its betterment in ways that reflect the wishes of its constituents.
We are not good at this as followers of Jesus and the Bible makes this very clear. The disciples tell anyone and everyone to go away, step aside, move along please. Somehow Jesus, for them, is a high-level executive with no time for the mailroom clerk. In Mark 10, people are bringing children to Jesus for his blessing and the disciples aren’t into kids ministry. Jesus scolds them and then uses them as a teaching opportunity — those you want to cast aside are the very persons I’m here to validate. The same thing happens in Matthew 15, a woman shouting for Jesus’ attention is told by the disciples, “Send her away, for she keeps shouting after us.” This story gets a bit wonky but the ending features Jesus praising the “great faith” of this woman before healing her daughter.
In story after story, the reader of the gospels is left surprised by the person labeled as hero, as the blessed one, as the character who finds salvation. Each story is intended to cut another layer away of our insulated perspective. Each parable is geared to undo our uncertainty. Each narrative erases the lines we’ve drawn. The kingdom is *always* bigger than we imagine it to be. It’s a throughline embedded in every miracle and exchange.
Here’s what I cannot understand: even a cursory reading of the gospels presents a great challenge. Each section is a knife that cuts deep into my own attitudes and actions. I can’t read a few chapters and not come away perplexed (and usually embarrassed) at my own lack of love — for my enemy, for my neighbor, for my family. I’m assuming this holds true for anyone else who gives it an honest read and reflection.
Forget the talking points. Set aside the memes. Step out of the echo chamber. What we have right now all around us are voices asking for validation. And the church, by and large, is not only ignoring them but attacking them. Those voices are villified. Instead of being heard and understood, they are further pushed aside. In fact, we’re leaving the 99 (voices crying out) to find the 1 that will somehow validate our position.
I’m sad to say that many of us are not even stumbling forward. We are not even disciples. We are pharisees.
Black voices call from the margins, “Violence is being done to us.” International voices plead from the outside, “Can we enter in?” In response, we look for any reason not to pay attention — a way to invalidate what they have to say. The foundation of our responses is fear-driven for a group of people told over and over again, “Do not be afraid.” We say, “If we let them in…” while simultaneously proclaiming a gospel where everyone is welcome at the table. We deny the account of others simply because it’s not our own lived-out experience. Some have set aside logical thinking in order to keep those voices quiet, to invalidate real persons with real stories that deserve to be heard.
Through it all, I can’t help but think, “There is nothing of Jesus in any of this.”
Some of us have likely fallen into this unwittingly. Pastors and influential Christians have refused to speak truth to the powers that be, to develop any moral backbone, to actually apply the right posture in a world that’s literally dying to be validated. I think it’s okay to stumble forward. That’s where I’m at and we’re part of a long line of slow learners.
Unfortunately, there are also others who are selfishly entrenched in an America-first, white-first, me-first posture and not a single ounce of it is biblical. In fact, it is evil. You’re a pharisee, the very person who should know better who fails to yield your own rights and privileges for the sake of others’ needs. Jesus has words for you and it’s likely why you never really ever read your Bible.
If there’s any part of you willing to give ground, now is that time. The 24/7 rhetoric of your fake news channel is anti-Christ. Your desensitized senses are anti-Christ (hence the reason why Jesus always challenges us with “if you have ears to hear…”). This country is anti-Christ.
I write because I care. I’ve given the majority of my life to pushing and pulling, encouraging and building, challenging and praying for the church. It doesn’t have to be this way.