Jesus Told the Bride of Christ to Remove a Plank from Its Eye

The top defense of the abusive and authoritative in the church in recent years has become a kind of projection that reframes legitimate allegations into an attack on the church. The leaders who abuse power, harm people, and cross boundaries can assure themselves of safety by turning attention away from their misdeeds, claiming their accusers are attacking the bride of Christ (the church), and then presenting themselves as its defenders.

It’s a slick play that has become far too commonplace. In addition, they can bolster their positions by pointing fingers at individuals who may have been unfair with the scope of their criticism or who have failed to adopt a more constructive direction for their criticism. It shouldn’t surprise us that those who are wounded by the church will struggle to find the “perfect” way to critique it!

However, regular examination and critique are exactly what Jesus called his listeners to do in Matthew 7. It would be naïve for us to assume that such examination is only personal. There surely are systems, positions, and institutions that are worthy of the same scrutiny.

When addressing hypocrisy, Jesus said to first remove the plank from your own eye before attempting to scrutinize others. In other words, if we don’t want folks to criticize us, then we need to criticize ourselves first. Some have used the word “interrogate” today to describe this process. That captures the seriousness of our examination.

Of course, savvy church leaders committed to their own preservation can twist this verse against those who expose their misdeeds. This is the danger of religious professionals. They can always find a loophole for themselves if they want it.

The words of Jesus remind me that we should expect to find “planks in our eyes.” We will have serious oversights and problems to find and to address.

What makes the Bride of Christ beautiful isn’t the ability to overlook these ugly planks or to deny that they exist. The beauty of the bride of Christ is a redemptive trust in the restoration of God when we expose these ugly planks.

When we have experienced the grace and mercy of God to heal our flaws and errors, then we have grace and mercy to share with others. Whether others have a speck or a plank in their eyes, we will have more to offer than clarity. We will remember what it felt like to live with the pain and confusion of a plank obscuring so much of life.

As we work with others for their healing, we’ll transform our previous pain and confusion into a fellowship forged in the love and acceptance of God.

The stakes of exposing our planks are quite high, but on the other side of God’s healing and mercy, we will find clarity, freedom, and a capacity to minister that we could never touch while denying our deepest flaws. When Jesus points us to a time of examination and healing, he is giving us one of the greatest gifts we can share with others.

Are You Too Mad to Help the Church?

Christianity has its critics and it has plenty of defenders. What’s most confusing for a defender of Christianity is when a former defender becomes a critic. It feels like a betrayal, even if the former defender still claims to follow Jesus.

The number one defense that the apologists for the Christian church use against critics is this: You’re too angry. The assumption is that even those who have been wounded, manipulated, controlled, or abused by people in the church cannot lodge a valid criticism of the church if they are also angry.

As someone who had once defended the church, then criticized the church, and then attempted to adopt a more constructive and redemptive approach to reform and renewal, I can see where many of the folks on both sides of this. I had once been baffled by those who were angry at the church. Then, one day, I got it. I was very angry at the power-plays, manipulation, and hollowness of the many doctrines and rules. Most importantly, I felt their frustration at being dismissed by church leaders.

When I hit the point where I was ready to give up on the sham that is so much of organized American Christianity, with its feel-good platitudes and naked power grabs, I found that there is something alive and vital lingering in the silence and stillness of our very busy and materialistic version of the faith.  Some family members taught me about the Holy Spirit and prayed for me in ways that I didn’t think possible. Others introduced me to ways of praying that date back to the earliest incarnation of the church.

As I have found renewed hope, I still have my angry moments. I still grow angry at leaders who abuse power and who manipulate the people under them. I still grow angry at Christians who are discipled by their bombastic news and entertainment rather than the meek and humble words of Christ. I am angry at the Christians who vote for abusive and destructive leaders who remain poised to unleash suffering and death on untold millions. I suspect that there will always be something to be mad about in the church. There will always be frauds and hucksters who will sell out the poor or vulnerable women and children for the sake of consolidating their power and influence. Anger is a valid response. How could it not be?

If I will always have a reason to be angry, then I need to figure out how to deal with it. If I consumed with my anger, I too can become a force for destruction. My anger will cut me off from people of good will who desire transformation and healing. My anger can deepen wounds and divides that may not be quite so far apart if viewed with a cooler head.

My anger can rule my thoughts and prevent me from pursuing the loving presence of God. If I hold onto my anger, it will poison me and my relationships, as the wounds and pain that I carry begin to become the wounds and pain that I pass on to others.

This is perhaps the most frustrating aspect of the church for me. It isn’t bad enough to be wounded by people who refuse to acknowledge their wrongs or who preach repentance while failing to repent. The worst part is that their offenses to me can be passed on others. If I haven’t dealt with my pain, I will most assuredly pass it on to others. I have become the thing that I have hated, and at that point it feels like I have passed into a point of no return.

In surrendering my thoughts to God through contemplation each day, I am learning to let go of my anger. Centering prayer is a daily letting go, and that has been helpful in responding to my anger. As I trust God with my anger, I can see the difference between being bracingly honest about the church and giving in to the wrecking ball of my anger.

There may be some days where I am too angry to help the church. That doesn’t mean my anger isn’t valid. However, it is hard to love people when you’ve surrendered to your rage toward them. Yes, rage can feel empowering and comforting, but rage won’t work over the long term. It doesn’t bring hope, transformation, or healing.

As I surrender my anger to God, I am doing my best to speak the truth in love—cliché as that sounds. But I have to let God work on my own soul before I can speak redemptive words. I cannot give love to others when I have nurtured anger. There is a process of surrender and transformation that I have seen God work in my own life so that I can find compassion for those still operating within the far too numerous authoritative and manipulative churches in America.

I don’t have easy “next steps” to offer folks who have been wounded, disappointed, or abused by the church. I trust that some may never return, and I cannot blame them. I had a small taste of the authoritarian nature of Catholic priests in my childhood, and to this day I cannot sit in a mass without feeling an extreme heaviness on my soul. The best that I can offer is this evaluation of our situation…

Underneath all of the power, authority, formulas, conferences, sermons, theology degrees, doctrine statements, rules, and fancy suits is a deep, unspoken fear in the American church that the real Christianity that Jesus preached is wholly different from what they have constructed, and the slightest breeze of discontent, let alone anger, can send the entire structure crashing to the ground. These leaders and those who follow them are deathly afraid that it can all be proven false, and the truth of the matter is, they’re right.

Suppressed under all of the rules, doctrines, and titles is the unruly and undignified love of God who longs for us like parents long for their children who have wandered off. We have been so distracted by images of God as judge and conquering king that we have failed to see what Jesus was up to. Why would Jesus take the risk of the incarnation and even suffer the indignity of suffering and death as a human if it wasn’t an expression of the deep love of God for us?

The promise of Jesus is a religion of the heart, God dwelling with us. Pentecost is the supposed to be the new normal, at least as far as the indwelling Holy Spirit goes. Yes, God desires transformation and holiness, but it is a purifying process of love and divine indwelling, not a product of external rules and codes. It is a chaotic process that is perfectly ordered under love and grace.

Over and over and over again in this history of the church, the mystics and the monks discovered this burning love of God that is greater than all of the rules and authorities, and time and time again, the leaders attempted to suppress this move of God. The people who spoke of this burning love of God feared that it would consume their control and influence, and of course they were right.

The life and death of Jesus have become a transaction or legal arrangement for so many of us that we’ve missed the parental and mystical elements that should speak to us on a deeper and truer level. Jesus came to unite us with God. He is the perfect expression of God’s parental love, making us God’s beloved sons and daughters. We need leaders who can lead us to the love of God, relinquishing control and influence. Sadly, not enough have signed up for that role.

I have found this uneasy dance with anger: my anger at the church is often valid, but it can become destructive if I hold onto it. It doesn’t make me stronger over time. My anger has the power to be a catalyst toward something better, but anger cannot bring me to God’s love.

We should be angry that so many Christians have failed to preach this authentic Gospel message and have even cast doubts upon it, as if they could add a footnote to the Prodigal Son story or put fences around Pentecost. However, it would be tragic to miss the deep longing of God for us in the midst of our anger over these Christians. Over time, we may even find a capacity to pity, or even love, these religious people who immerse themselves in the Bible but miss its simple message of God’s parental love and the promise of unity with God.

 

5 Signs That Evangelical Christianity in America Isn’t a Complete Dumpster Fire

These are dark times for many evangelical Christians in America, but the news isn’t uniformly terrible. Despite ongoing support of far too many evangelicals for Donald Trump, there are signs that the evangelical movement still has an engaged and even growing minority that remains in touch with the Gospel message of their movement, while also correcting the social justice failures of past generations.

Here are 5 positive evangelical trends that I’ve seen:

Evangelical Thought Leaders Are More Diverse and Broadly Engaged

A recent bus trip called the Ruby Woo Pilgrimage brought together a diverse group of black, Latino, Asian, and white female evangelical writers, speakers, and teachers for a three-day journey of education, collaboration, and advocacy. The group learned from civil rights leader Ruby Sales, visited a diverse group of church leaders in NYC, and spoke with lawmakers at Washington D.C.

Organized by Lisa Sharon Harper, the trip addressed a wide range of issues that included racism, immigration, and social justice. If evangelicals are lucky, the future of the evangelical movement in America will look a lot more like this group.

A Best-Selling Christian Author Stood for Refugees

At the start of Trump’s presidency, the xenophobic Muslim ban that would have had no bearing on the safety of America became a major point of protest for Americans. Without fanfare, Canadian author Ann Voskamp took to the streets to protest the ban alongside her American brothers and sisters.

Voskamp may be one of the most popular bestselling authors in America today. There’s no doubt that many Trump voters have purchased her books, but every time a basic matter of human dignity comes up in America, from the abuse of women to the banning of Muslims, Voskamp is unequivocal in her support for the suffering and marginalized.

For all of the press that Falwell Jr., James Dobson, and Franklin Graham receive for their Christian nationalism, if not Christo-fascism, there are extremely well-known and widely read Christian authors and speakers who are resisting the agenda of Trump, including Philip Yancey, Beth Moore, and Ann Voskamp.

Many Evangelicals Recognize Political Compromise

There has always been a strong resistance to any alignment of the evangelical movement with a political party, whether on the right or left. Red Letter Christians, The Simple Way, Rutba House, William Barber’s Moral Monday movement, and numerous other movements and loose networks have stood against this political compromise.

Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Drew Hart, and Christina Cleveland are among a growing number of nationally recognized evangelical authors who have resisted the merging of the evangelical movement with the Republican party. They aren’t going anywhere, and I suspect that many of their future books will be bestsellers.

Real Spiritual Practices Are Taking Hold

The fear, sexism, or xenophobia that drove many evangelical Christians to vote for Trump are surely the fruit of an evangelical movement that lacks the spiritual practices that are able to counter these emotions and beliefs. Too many Christians are discipled by FOX News, Breit Bart, and extreme conservative talk radio shows.

The false self and the desire for personal security are both idols that have fueled the appeal of Trump, and the spiritual practices associated with contemplative prayer can help counter them. Contemplation in silent solitude can lead to awareness of God’s love and greater compassion toward others. By confronting our fears, insecurities, and existential struggles before God, we can find deliverance from destructive forces of fear and self-preservation. We can adopt our identity as God’s beloved children and make decisions based on love for neighbors, not fear for ourselves.

As I interact with evangelicals who are disturbed by this election, I have consistently found that many are turning to contemplative practices. Evangelical men are turning to authors such as Richard Rohr in large numbers in search of an alternative to its toxic masculine culture, and retreats and books focusing on contemplative prayer are drawing evangelicals in larger numbers.

In 2016 I hosted a one day retreat prior to the Festival of Faith and Writing that we barely promoted, and yet nearly 60 people showed up for our time of centering prayer. Many who did not attend approached me during the conference to say they would be interested in attending during the following year. My own little introduction to contemplative prayer for evangelicals, titled Flee, Be Silent, Pray, sells multiple copies every day despite very little marketing work on my part.

This isn’t a majority, and maybe it’s not headline material, but it is a noticeable groundswell of evangelical movement toward contemplation and other spiritual practices that will generate greater compassion and love for others. Today we are seeing the rotten fruit of political compromise, but if this trend holds, we may see a far more appealing fruit come from this sizeable minority in the evangelical movement and along its fringes.

A Pro-LGBT Christian Author Is Still a Bestselling Author

While the attacks on the LGBT community at the behest of the current presidential administration are no doubt welcomed by many evangelicals, there are signs of a shift in this movement. Opposing basic LGBT rights isn’t quite as high of a priority in the evangelical camp today.

About a year after publicly sharing her support of same sex couples and LGBTQ rights, author Jen Hatmaker released her latest book, Of Mess and Moxie, as a bestseller. The book stormed up every possible chart, settling into the top 10 on several lists. This is someone who cannot sell her books in the majority of Christian bookstores and who has been disowned by many in the evangelical establishment.

Maybe this isn’t such a big deal, but I see it as a sign of a major shift. An author need not oppose same sex marriage in order to be profitable in the Christian publishing ecosystem. There are many other authors who believe the same as Hatmaker but have not gone public yet.

Hatmaker continues to lose speaking engagements and tours because of her beliefs on same sex marriage, but the outcome for publishing is impossible to deny. Christian authors can now support LGBTQ rights and find a large enough audience to be commercially successful. For publishers looking at sales numbers and spreadsheets, this could be a “Before Hatmaker” and “After Hatmaker” moment.

 

Let’s Promote Constructive Leaders

I don’t write any of this to minimize the massive moral and political failures of the evangelical movement in America, especially among white evangelicals.

The good news is that there are signs of hope and reform. There are new voices emerging that we should seek out. There are established voices speaking the truth.

If you want to see the evangelical movement change, promote these voices over those who are divisive and compromised. The prophets are speaking. Leaders are taking initiative. Whether anyone can hear them over the roar of today’s news cycle is, in part, up to us.

Christians Need Compassion More Than Ever

A year ago today, I was having a panic attack over the 2016 presidential election.

Unlike many other anxious situations in my life, I believe my panic was justified looking back over a year later. In fact, I remain more susceptible to panic attacks ever since the election that made a president out of a man with deep criminal ties, a history of telling lies, a tendency to brag about sexual assault, provokes countries who have nuclear weapons, and deeply troubling tendency to express racist and xenophobic remarks and policies.

I have turned to Thomas Merton for guidance. How do we remain centered in God and compassionate toward others when the world appears to have gone mad?

For one thing, Merton didn’t mince words. He spoke plainly and passionately when he detected injustice or hypocrisy. When politicians twisted language to distort their ill intents, Merton took no prisoners in his replies to deceptive ideas, propaganda, and any policy that threatened the image of God in another person.

As we are swamped with a deluge of conspiracy theories, social media division tactics, and dubious stories from less than credible sources, a plain and simple commitment to truth and clarity is very valuable. In the search for the truth, I never want to lose sight of the people who may hold these views.

Merton has helped me to continually question my motivations for any engagement in politics.

Do I desire peace, human flourishing, and the full dignity of God for every person?

Am I capable of compassion and love toward those who believe differently from me, even if I believe they are supporting a dangerous demagogue?

I could make a laundry list of things that Christians need to do better in order to work toward peace and to guard the Gospel message from political polarization. Perhaps at the root of everything that Christians could do better in a time of fake news, incendiary social media posts from international actors seeking to divide us, and false flag media companies seeking power by sowing discord is to develop greater compassion for others.

Centering prayer daily has prompted me to continue letting go of my anger and anxiety. Negative thinking loops that revolve around politics can be shut down if we learn daily to release our thoughts and entrust ourselves to God.

Praying for others, especially those ensnared by news outlets awash in partisan propaganda, has helped me to seek their liberation from fear and anger. Sites like FOX News and BreitBart thrive on creating controversy, false intellectualism, and stirring up divisions.

Mind you, each day with centering prayer is hardly a gentle float down a quiet stream. There is a discipline involved in prayer. We will feel legitimate anger when we learn about people who have been cruelly detailed, unjustly punished, or singled out by racist or xenophobic groups. Even if we respond with prayer, love, and compassion, there is an unmistakable need to show up and act for truth, justice, and peace. I never want to be the sort of Christian who advocates for prayer and nothing else!

Love is a political act when it drives us to seek the best for others, when love prompts us to seek human flourishing because all bear the image of God.

Compassion isn’t partisan. It isn’t based on political affiliation, on the size of the government, or who you voted for in an election.

As I advocate for justice and peace, I don’t want to lose sight of those trapped by lies, hatred, greed, or fear—I suspect that many in America are trapped by all of those things.

The more we learn about false news stories being pushed by foreign powers on social media with the intent of dividing us further, the best response I can think of is one of prayerful compassion.

One year after this catastrophic election, let us resolve to do the hard soul work of silence and centering.

Let us continue to learn to let go of our anger and fear, trusting fully in God.

Let us resolve to pray for those in the grip of fear and even our enemies who stoke those fears.

There is wisdom in being slow to anger, slow to speak, and slow to condemn.

I can only put my hope in love and compassion winning someday, somehow because I believe at the root of everything is a single heartbeat that unites us all: “God so loved the world…”

This is God’s world. He loves it dearly. He is present. If anything will save the world from its madness and division exposed and stirred up in last year’s election, the redemptive and uniting love of God is the only hope we’ve got.

When Will Conservative Christians Address Racism and Climate Change the Way They Address Same Sex Marriage?

With only a self-imposed deadline to release a statement on human sexuality that surprised exactly no one, the Council of “Biblical” Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) has demonstrated just how disconnected many conservative Christians have become from the issues that are actually impacting people today. Here’s a little round up of the news from this month:

White supremacists marched through Charlottesville with clubs, shields, and body armor, beating people up, threatening the black people, and chanting Nazi slogans.

Climate change has brought yet another devastating hurricane to the American mainland, leaving a major city under water, and dozens dead (including a brave police officer assisting with rescues). Extreme floods are devastating sections of southeast Asia as well, leaving over a 1,000 dead.

The DACA act that created the Dreamer program for immigrant children has kept families together, but the Trump administration is poised to end it, ripping children and parents away from each other (Dreamers are already being deported by the way).

The folks who agree with CBMW can believe whatever they want about LGBT issues and same sex marriage. It’s a free country. I’m going to charitably disagree with them and reject their misguided attempts to turn the Bible’s teachings on sexuality into a black and white issue. I’ve already addressed where I think the Bible leaves us on LGBT issues and same sex marriage.

My main concern here is the way this “Nashville Statement” illustrates the dramatic disconnect of these Christians from the urgent issues of our day for the sake of pressuring religious leaders to sign on to a document while also further entrenching themselves into a defensive position where dialogue has been ruled out.

I’m not the first person to notice that the same energy, effort, and influence could have been used to address climate change, sexual assault, racism and white supremacy, or the suffering of the poor in the midst of climate change. While churches open their doors in Houston to flood victims and clergy reckon with the violence in Charlottesville, a group of Christians decided this was the time for their big PR push for their statement on human sexuality. I want to take these statements one step further by noticing how these leaders have allocated their time in order to issue it.

Some of these people were also involved in the SBC resolution against the “Alt-right” white supremacist groups that nearly failed to pass due to concerns about the language. Many have remarked that any resolution against LGBT folks would have sailed through the SBC voting process regardless of the language. Mind you, an LGBT resolution would have had many people working around the clock ahead of time to make sure it was worded perfectly.

I don’t know how much time and money was expended for the CBMW Nashville statement, but let’s imagine that perhaps it was a six-month process:

  • Theologians and “experts” were surely consulted.
  • There were meetings, theological debates, and committees who worked on drafting the precise language.
  • A website design company was hired and consulted throughout the process.
  • Signers were contacted.
  • Public relations details were managed.
  • Meetings were no doubt conducted in order to manage all of this.

There was a significant investment of time into this project. It didn’t pop up over night. These aren’t the sort of people who would release a theologically sloppy statement. They surely parsed every single word with care.

Like I said, they can believe what they like and release statements about those beliefs, but the particular timing of this is devastating.

At the very least, they could have delayed it so that their congregations could focus on sending relief to the flood victims in Houston, let alone to assure the victims in Houston that they are the focus of Christians across America.

I’m not sure what the scope of CBMW is beyond keeping women from teaching the Bible, protecting patriarchy, and denying rights to LGBT folks, but at very least the influential people who signed this document could have worked toward equally strong statements on truly black and white issues that impact people in America.

They could have issued a clear condemnation of white supremacy and racism.

They could have issued a theological statement about the urgency of climate change and its impact on major weather events.

They could have issued a statement about caring for immigrants and the importance of the Dreamer program.

The hard truth of this statement is that many of these conservative Christians, who are overwhelmingly white, are willing to invest time in the condemnation of LGBT people but they failed to use their time to advocate for people of color when it was urgently needed this month.

I have heard over and again from supporters of the Nashville Statement that no one should be shocked. This is what these people believe. What’s the big deal?

This only drives home the insult of this statement and its horrible timing.

A group of Christians spent significant time drafting an unnecessary statement defining what everyone already knows they believe while the nation is waiting for them to adequately address racism, climate change, and immigration.

Can you imagine if these same people issued a statement saying that there is no room for disagreement on white supremacy, since the Gospel makes us all equal under Christ?

Can you imagine if these same people issued a statement saying that there is no room for disagreement on immigration, since the Bible teaches us to welcome the alien and foreigner?

Can you imagine if these same people issued a statement saying that there is no room for disagreement on climate change, we have failed to be stewards of God’s creation?

These are statements that can be made based on clear biblical teaching. They could address issues that directly impact life and death issues today. They could take a step toward bringing healing and unity to our land.

Instead, they have chosen to further marginalize a group that has already been kicked out of their churches on multiple occasions and in multiple ways. They have proven just how completely tone deaf they are to the issues of today and just how incapacitated their obsession with denying LGBT rights has made them.

We now have undisputed evidence about the priorities of these Christians.

When America was being torn apart by racial violence, the Christians affiliated with CBMW were most likely putting the finishing touches on their statement on human sexuality and contacting influential leaders.

When the people of Houston were wading through flood waters and waiting for rescue on their roofs, the Christians affiliated with CBMW deemed it was time to draw attention to their statement on human sexuality.

 

I’m Inviting You to Hold Trump’s Evangelical Supporters Accountable

american flag

At the request of evangelical activist and author Deidra Riggs, I’m asking my evangelical friends and readers, especially the white evangelicals, to join me in holding the pastors on Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council accountable. 

Trump failed to immediately condemn the hate speech and violence of nazi, racist, and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, VA. When he did eventually criticize the nazi and racist groups, he inserted caveats and false equivalencies that helped assure their support.

Evangelicals who preach a message that is “good news for all people,” cannot fail to critique those who would marginalize any group or remain associated with any leader who fails to unequivocally condemn their messages. Keep in mind, assuming Trump is allowed to keep his phone, he can contact these people any time, whether or not they are officially on this council if he legitimately needed to pray with a pastor.

Below I’m providing social media and email messaging templates for contacting pastors on Trump’s evangelical advisory council, and then I’ll list public contact information for each pastor as well as additional steps.

Here are three guiding principles for this action:

  1. I am prioritizing pastors who have remained silent or openly supported Trump. This is based on Zack Hunt’s list of the responses from evangelical advisory board members. Feel free to use Zack’s list to urge other members to resign as well.
  2. I am asking for a condemnation of racist groups/ideology and of Donald Trump.
  3. Our messages must be gracious in order to maintain the moral high ground so that these leaders cannot dismiss our reasonable calls to action. Please do not mock or harass these pastors.

 

Here is a message for Twitter or Facebook:

Please: 1. Address Trump’s failure to unequivocally condemn racist groups. 2. Personally condemn white supremacy.

 

Here is an email message:

Subject Line: Please Condemn Racism and White Supremacy

In the spirit of the apostle Paul, who said there is “no longer Jew or Greek… in Christ Jesus,” I am asking you to do the following immediately:

  1. Unequivocally and publically condemn the hate speech and violence committed by racist and white supremacist groups in Charlottesville, VA.
  2. Directly condemn the inadequate remarks of Donald Trump that minimized the hate speech and violence of these groups.
  3. Resign from Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council, which only serves as a public relations prop for this administration that has empowered hate groups.

As an evangelical pastor, your continued association with Donald Trump and failure to address his tolerance, if not encouragement, of racism betrays the Gospel message that is Good News for all people and deepens the wounds of those targeted by hate groups.

Thank you for your consideration.

 

Public Contact Information for Pastors

I will be updating this list with contact information as I track it down. All of the information below is available on public websites or public social media pages.

 

Robert Morris of Gateway Church

https://twitter.com/PsRobertMorris @PsRobertMorris

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pg/PsRobertMorris

Staff Email: robert@gatewaypeople.com.

http://gatewaypeople.com/profiles/robert-morris

seniorpastors@gatewaypeople.com

 

Mark Burns

Twitter: @pastormarkburns

https://www.facebook.com/pastormarkburns

Email: pastormarkburns@gmail.com (found on his public Facebook page)

 

Tom Mullins

Twitter: @coachtommullins

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Coach-Tom-Mullins-688759251208453/

Church Website: Church of the Highlands

Church Office: info@churchofthehighlands.com

 

James Robinson

Twitter: @RevJamesRobinson

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/revjamesrobison/

Ministry Email: feedback@lifetoday.org (via Facebook page)

Personal Contact Page: http://www.jamesrobison.net/contact/ 

 

 

Paula White

Twitter: @paula_white

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/realpaulawhite

Facebook Contact: facebook@paulawhite.org

Website: Contact Page (You can report “fraud” on this page. Ha. Ha.)

“Customer Service” Form: https://paulawhite.org/email-customer-service/

 

Additional Action

Many pastors and other advisory council members made weak condemnations of racism or a Trump, offering false equivalencies. Others made condemnations of racism but said nothing about Trump, refused to resign, or, like Johnnie Moore, offered so many unhelpful caveats about the media that his critique was largely counterproductive. Visit Zack’s post to find their social media accounts in order to respond to their posts as well.

 

 

My Next Book: The Art of the Seals: How to Profit from the Apocalypse

Art of Seals

Are you tired of winning with President Trump? I bet you’re not. Now it’s time to start winning for all of eternity with my new book: The Art of the Seals: How to Profit from the Apocalypse, releasing April 1st. It’s going to be beautiful. You’re gonna love it.

I’m a smart guy. I know things about the Bible. I’m going to tell you about them so that you can become rich before the world ends. It’s coming. Believe me, I know. If it’s not, Trump’s going to make it happen.

Want to become rich before the millennium hits? You’ve gotta know where to invest, who to know, which seals to open, and which properties are far away from the beasts rising from the sea.

Everybody’s telling you the end times is going to be a mess. Blood moons. Death. Plagues. Wars. Frogs. They’re wrong. Those people aren’t smart. They don’t know how to make deals with the AntiChrist. They aren’t winners. They’re losers. Losers end up in the lake of fire.

This is the book that will get you a prime spot in the New Jerusalem. You’re going to love it. Just follow my simple plan for reading Revelation, and you’ll be a winner. You’re going to make the Apocalypse great again.

Place Your Order Today

 

Why I Wrote This Incredible Book

Evangelicals helped make Donald Trump president by huge margins. Biggest inauguration ever. A bigly victory. Democrats are embarrassed. Sad.

America’s government is a mess. We can’t even figure out how to give rich people tax breaks any more. It’s terrible. We’ve got terrorists and bad people pouring over our borders. And worst of all, our president, who won by huge margins, hasn’t even started a war yet.

I’m telling you, the end of the world is coming. It’s going to be huge. Explosions, fire, and monsters. The smart people are going to cash in on their knowledge of the Bible while they can.

Don’t miss this opportunity. Be smart. Don’t settle for less, like having Schwarzenegger hosting the Apprentice. Bad host. Not a ratings machine.

The smart people are going to read the book of Revelation to cash in before things get really bad. This book is going to show them how to do it. Don’t miss out.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing things. I’ve been helping people think about the Gospels in amazing new ways. My book about Revelation got the highest review ratings on Amazon ever–did Obama do that? NO! Don’t believe me? I guess you like FAKE NEWS. Bad President. Can’t even get more than four stars.

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American Politics and My Thomas Merton Phase

thomas-merton-contemplative-prayer

“We are ruled, and resign to let ourselves be ruled, by our own weakness and by the prejudices of those who, more guilty or more frustrated than ourselves, need to exercise great power. We let them. And we excuse our cowardice by letting ourselves be driven to violence under ‘obedience’ to tyrants. Thus, we think ourselves noble, dutiful, and brave. there is no truth in this. It is a betrayal of God, of humanity, and of our own selves. Auschwitz was built and managed by dutiful, obedient men who loved their country, and who proved to themselves they were good citizens by hating their country’s enemies.”

– Thomas Merton, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, pg. 53

I used to shelve Thomas Merton’s books in a New Jersey Borders Books and Music. I frequently wondered if he was some kind of heretic. He appeared to be a Catholic Monk, but a bunch of eastern religion authors really loved him. One even called him a Zen. His posture on all of his book covers resembled eastern writers, and some of his books specifically addressed eastern religion.

**RED FLAGS**

**RED FLAGS**

If I could have slapped a “Read with Discernment” sticker on his books, I would have considered it. After all, I was the keeper of the religion and philosophy sections. I also shelved the slightly zany metaphysics and the steamy erotica books—both categories could have used larger stickers on them in general. I still carried some of my personal grudges against the Catholic Church during that season of life—one my Catholic friends reminds me that I was raised “IRISH CATHOLIC.”

As I hit my peak of evangelical fervor during those years of attending seminary, shelving sometimes questionable books, and vigorously encouraging everyone to avoid the Left Behind series, a Catholic with connections in eastern religion like Merton appeared just about as far out of bounds as you could get from my perspective.

In the years that followed, I had a relatively standard faith melt down and clung to some semblance of Christianity primarily through praying the scriptures with the Divine Hours. When I no longer felt like I had much left of my faith to defend, I started reading some Catholic authors. I had already read a little bit of Henrí Nouwen and Brennan Manning at an evangelical university, so I felt safe to start with them. Enough people in my circles recommended Richard Rohr, so I dove into his books as well. In each case I plowed through a stack of books by each author. I couldn’t help noticing just how frequently Nouwen and Rohr mentioned Thomas Merton.

Maybe it was time to give him a try?

Tucked away in my stacks of theology books, I found a Merton book that had survived several purges and moves since I picked it up in 2008 at the Northshire Bookstore in Manchester Vermont. It had been on a sale table presumably because it hadn’t sold well. The book, titled The Echoing Silence, is a collection of short excerpts from Thomas Merton on writing. At the time, I figured that even if he was influenced by eastern religion, he had written quite a few books that sold well. He probably knew a thing or two about writing. Also, the book was cheap and it had a very appealing picture on the cover of Merton’s writing desk—sold.

As it turned out, Merton repeatedly blew me away with his insights on writing, faith, and many other topics from the 1950’s and 60’s. I especially enjoyed reading his personal letters that offered “off the record” commentaries on racism and communism in America in the 1960’s. His letter to James Baldwin, a favorite author of mine, praised Baldwin’s perception and insights.

As I grew familiar with Merton’s faith in his own words, as opposed to my impressions of his book covers and the views of slippery-slope obsessed evangelical websites, I benefited from his artful prose that cut to the heart of weighty topics without mincing words.

I knew that I needed to follow up with some other Merton books. I plowed through Thoughts in Solitude, his compilation of the desert fathers, and the New Seeds of Contemplation. I had started the Seven Storey Mountain, but then the 2016 American election ruined that, as it will surely ruin a great many things in my country.

Facing the existential, moral, religious, and legal crises that such a presidency brings to America, I craved guidance from someone who had faced similar problems from the standpoint of having his feet firmly planted in the rich soil of contemplation without cramming his mind with the paranoia of social media or the bombast and speculation of the news channels. Merton faced growing fears about a very likely nuclear strike from the Soviet Union, paranoia about Communist infiltration of America, and growing tensions over racial injustice. In other words, his world had more than enough to worry about.

My Christmas list this year was basically just: “Merton books.” I’ve been working through Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, and it has offered a measure of comfort that one can be fully committed to ministering to the entire church while still taking strong stands for justice—including stands against the immoral actions of political parties.

Evangelicals have not historically hit it out of the park when it comes to pursuing justice in a non-partisan manner (although the Moral Monday movement and The Red Letter Christians are offering hope for a path forward). Even Billy Graham, an evangelical icon if there ever was one, finally softened his partisan political involvement after his friendship with Richard Nixon nearly ended his ministry altogether. In fact, Graham’s reputation was saved in part because a TIME magazine editor declined to publish his public endorsement of Nixon. Graham was deeply grateful for this and subsequently adopted a more hands-off approach to one political group or another.

In Merton I have found someone who was both hands-on in his approach to social justice and current events, while also maintaining compassion for all sides, keeping himself from being claimed by a particular political party.

I’ll be the first person to admit that over the last eight years of a Democratic president that I neglected to speak out against injustices and harmful policies until his final term. I want to find a way to reclaim a prophetic Christian voice in politics that works for God’s best for all people, even if that means having hard words at times for people who support certain politicians and policies.

When a politician votes to remove health coverage from millions of people who depend on it to stay alive, there isn’t a middle ground to stand on. One is either for death or life.

When a politician wants to gut laws that guarantee equality for oppressed minorities, one is either for justice of injustice. There is no polite way to accept the oppression of a person created in God’s image when such oppression denies that very status.

When a politician removes environmental protections that safeguard our water, air, and soil, then the world is either God’s good creation or just a meaningless pile of rubble and water that we can use however we please.

Merton wrote with sharp moral clarity about the misplaced paranoia of communism, our culture’s all too easy acceptance of mutual nuclear annihilation, the mind-numbing medication of entertainment, and the grievous moral failure of racism in America. He pushed his Catholic church to the limit, and he clearly opposed many Catholic leaders who all too easily embraced an oversimplified portrait of the fight against Communism. Of course, Merton also deftly dismantled the hollow atheism of the Soviet Union and its determination to offer order through a totalitarian regime.

As America enters a period where voting rights continue to be attacked, immigrants are hunted down, perpetual drone warfare rages on, propaganda drowns out the truth, and the threat of terrorism is called on trample the rights of others, the words and actions of a contemplative Christian who faced similar challenges in his own time has proven to be indispensable. Merton’s voice is hardly the only voice I’m seeking out, but my distance from the issues of his time offers a sharpened clarity into his perspective.

Christians (especially white Christians like myself) often say that they would have stood up for civil rights in the 1960’s. As Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail proves, many Christians urged King to be less disruptive in his useful of nonviolent protests and to wait for things to get better. I suspect that the current political situation may provide a similar test of just how much Christians today have embraced the Bible’s teachings that God desires his people to seek justice for those who are suffering:

Isaiah 58:2-3
“Yet day after day they seek me
and delight to know my ways,
as if they were a nation that practiced righteousness
and did not forsake the ordinance of their God;
they ask of me righteous judgments,
they delight to draw near to God.
“Why do we fast, but you do not see?
Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?”
Look, you serve your own interest on your fast day,
and oppress all your workers.

Malachi 3:5
“I will be swift to bear witness against the sorcerers, against the adulterers, against those who swear falsely, against those who oppress the hired workers in their wages, the widow and the orphan, against those who thrust aside the alien, and do not fear me, says the Lord of hosts.”

We can disagree about which policies in our nation will best uphold these words from scripture, but ignoring them or violating with our laws are not an option if God’s Kingdom is our primary allegiance.

Today, I hear from a lot of Christians that we should be focused on only sharing the Gospel. Pastors and authors who make a living as speakers and writers are afraid to speak against injustice in America today lest they lose speaking engagements—and those who have spoken against the current administration have certainly lost speaking engagements. There are fractures in my own evangelical world between those who support our president and those who do not. If my career as a Christian author rests on lending even tacit support for such a man through my silence, then my faith is a flimsy, ramshackle thing that will soon collapse on itself.

As I think about the turmoil in my own evangelical subculture today, I imagine Thomas Merton writing at his neat little desk in his cabin. He encouraged civil rights leaders and artists. He built bridges across national boundaries with his fellow poets in Russia. He wrote about the failure of his Catholic Church to address the threat of nuclear warfare.

Merton may have lost some speaking engagements. His superiors may have censored him. But he was already sitting by himself in a secluded cabin in the woods outside of Louisville, Kentucky, occasionally instructing his fellow monks. To the eyes of the world, he had already lost. He was a zero, but then, that’s what he called himself. Rather than measuring the highs and lows of his influence, he committed himself to contemplation in isolation. From there he saw the issues of his day with a straightforward clarity that guided his writing and speaking. There was no cost/benefit analysis.

Merton sought the love of God and experienced divine union, calling others to this unity in love.

Merton saw the madness of his time and called it madness.

As I seek the words of Merton during this tumultuous time in my country’s history, I hope to become grounded in a similar love for all people that won’t back away from moral clarity. God knows we’ve tried to follow the advice of Christian leaders in megachurches, and that gave us a racist, xenophobic, pathological liar, demagogue as our president. Could a Catholic monk do much worse?

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

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We Need Something Better Than “No”

hope-despair-prayer-solitude

While looking for a spirituality that is authentic and real, something that is actually a union with God and not just a formal organization around the idea of God, I have realized that far too often I have chosen the easy way out. When my conservative construction of God that rested on propositions, study, and proofs, crumbled under the weight of putting my flimsy beliefs into practice each day, I saw two ways forward.

On the one hand, I could just drop it all. It was all too fragile, controlling, and unknowingly arbitrary. Who could remain healthy within such a system without eventually seeing its fragility, acknowledging it, and then being cast away as a heretic who “lost the faith”?

The other option was a salvage mission. I could cut away the parts that were untenable and arbitrary. I could work toward a kind of center where the essentials could be preserved while letting go of the most contradictory or unlikely elements. At the end of the day, I felt like I was defining myself by what I was not. In addition, when you work at the salvage mission long enough, new groups begin to form with their own boundaries, and over time, you end up within the same kind of fragile structure that you left in the first place.

From another perspective, these were two sides of the same coin. Both the dropping and the salvaging were just ways of stripping away unhealthy elements from the Christian faith in the hope that something worthwhile will remain standing. They thrived on defining “what they are not” with few solid or constructive elements to call people toward.

From the defensive conservative, to the salvaging liberal, to the exasperated atheist/agnostic, the majority of our religious energy can be channeled in a negative direction. So much of our time can invested in defending ourselves from each other. I’ve been blogging since 2005, and for many years these fights were very important to me. Over the past five years, I’ve been asking myself where do we go now?

We don’t need new movements, new logos, new leaders, new events, and new resources. We probably won’t find the way forward from those with the most to lose from the existing order since the existing order often thrives by overlooking our most grievous sins, while turning a critical eye to an extremely limited subset of vices.

My sense for Christians who want to keep the faith today is that we have never needed the mystical tradition of the church more than ever. Only in this tradition can we hold the tensions of Christianity together and somehow arrive at something resembling the kinds of things that could resemble abundant life, renewal, and actually being born again,.

In the mystical tradition we can find a place for the conservative, the atheist, and the liberal. The orthodox essentials of the faith remain in place for mystics because they are the means by which we are united with God, but we prove them by living into their reality rather than devising scientific proofs according to the standards of our culture. We let God determine the validity of faith’s essentials.

The atheists find the emptiness, the void, and silence that they have suspected all along about God. They have their dark nights and their moments of alienation and despair. However, that empty space isn’t the last word by any means. If they hold on to the silence and darkness, waiting for what may come next, there is a deeper encounter with God awaiting them that transcends the frantic worship that often left them feeling dejected and empty.

The liberals can rest from their salvage work. There is nothing to fight against and nothing to strip away. If they can enter into the rest of contemplative prayer and let an encounter with God’s presence to transform them, they may discover renewed energy, mercy, and compassion for the work of justice that beats close to their hearts.

The Christian contemplative tradition is God’s affirming yes of love and mercy. It is union with Christ. It is the Spirit of God no longer hovering over the waters but resting in us. It is the loving voice of the Father no longer calling down from a cloud but whispering from deep in our souls. There is only a divine yes of God being truly with us, transforming our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh.

In the midst of that transformation, I have found freedom to stop fighting because I have been consumed with what I am in the loving presence of God. There is so much to pursue that I have nothing left to consider leaving behind. Everything that isn’t essential melts away in the loving gaze of God.

Those who reject the mystical tradition of the Christian faith, that predates the compilation of the New Testament canon, are often those who have not given it a chance. It’s a leap of faith into the darkness of the cloud of God’s presence. It’s terribly frightening to leave your old religious constructs behind, and this is why so many fight against the mystical tradition. The more you fear you’ll lose, the harder you’ll fight.

In our times that bear the fruit of years of paranoia, racism, xenophobia, deception, and unbridled greed, we need a grounded, time-tested way to move forward into the love and truth of God. I do not see hope in many quarters of the Christian faith, especially in America, but I do see striking clarity, hope, and even unity in the contemplative practices of the Christian mystical tradition.

Contemplation begins with our intention to pray and then proceeds as we surrender ourselves to God. It gives us the space we need to shut down our negative loops of thinking, to hear God speak, and to move forward with greater compassion toward others. It doesn’t need an enemy in order to thrive—unless the enemy is our own unrelenting wills.

I have been looking for sources of hope for this year, and I continue to return to this simple passage about what God requires of us: “Act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.” I suspect that many of us need God’s loving transformation in order to walk humbly first, and with that transformation in place, we’ll have the capacity to love mercy and to act justly in their turns.

There surely will be a time to shout, but before I open my mouth, I hope to spend time in silence before God. When I speak, my prayer is that I’ll have something better than “No” to share.

Why Evangelicals Lack Compassion for Doubters and Doubters Lack Compassion for Evangelicals

lights

When my faith hit rock bottom at the end of seminary, I became spiritually despondent. I also became very, very angry that the religious practices and beliefs I’d been given let me down.

As I voiced my doubts and anger, I received some pretty strong pushback from evangelicals who had no tolerance for my doubts and felt personally attacked. On the other side of that time in my life, I can see with greater clarity some of the reasons why we struggled to show compassion to each other.

How Do You Grow Spiritually?

In evangelicalism, there generally isn’t very much language or conception of spiritual formation or practice. We have tended to focus on “saving” and then preserving the soul. You save your soul by making the proper profession of faith and then learning more biblical truth. You remain “in Christ” by safeguarding that truth.

If you look at the broader Christian tradition that stretches back to the early church and desert fathers, there was a greater emphasis on solitude and prayer. This tradition had been preserved by the monastic tradition, and its influence has increased and decreased over the years. As the church grew in power and influence, it’s not surprising to see those spiritual practices decrease.

As our access to monastic and desert father writings has increased, we can read that the three words that drove their spirituality were: “Flee, be silent, and pray,” as Nouwen writes in The Way of the Heart. Most importantly for our discussion about doubt and compassion, Nouwen notes that solitude (the fleeing and being silent parts) grow compassion in us as we encounter the love and mercy of God.

If we contrast the evangelical and the contemplative approaches to spirituality, we can see that one is focused on preservation while the other is focused on surrender. When I was trying to defend, preserve, or guard my spiritual life, I had little time or capacity for others unless they could help defend or teach the truth.

The surrender of solitude has forced me to face my darkest thoughts, resentments, and failures. When I resist solitude, it’s often because I’m resisting these dark sides of my life. I can only find relief and freedom by surrendering to God’s mercy, and that makes it significantly easier to show mercy to others.

Within the evangelical mindset, I learned to defend my faith from my own doubts and from those who would cast doubts on my faith. There was no room for failure. It was an all or nothing mindset. Without a more robust language of “spiritual practice” to provide an actual grounding for my faith, I had placed my confidence in study and orthodoxy. After immersing myself in study throughout my undergraduate and seminary years, while also going all in with everything the church asked of me, I saw just how fragile my faith had become, and I was angry.

I had invested years of my life into the study of scripture and defending particular viewpoints of the Bible. When those defenses fell apart and I realized that I was still just as far from God as when I started out, I had a “burn it all down” mindset toward theology and the church systems I’d given so much of myself to.

The hardest part of this is that the people in the systems of church and theology didn’t do anything malicious to me. They were just passing along the best things they could to me. We were all acting in good faith.

We all also lacked the very practices that could cultivate compassion in us. We were both trained in systems that valued conformity and checking particular boxes. As I left the conservative system, I just replaced it with a more progressive one but maintained the same mindset that lacked compassion or any kind of meaningful spiritual practice.

As I enter into completive prayer, I have to face my dark side and the only way out is to accept God’s mercy.

I am finally seeing the evangelical subculture with more compassion and grace because I can see how badly we both need the same mercy from God. I still have my insecurities. I have plenty of rage for the evangelical captivity to politics and cultural influence. But I at least can detect when I’m moving toward an unhealthy place.

When I sense myself moving toward my unhealthy stress points of anxiety and fear (hello, enneagram 9’s!), I now have spiritual practices I can turn toward with hope. Under the mercy of God, I have found the great equalizer of humanity, and that has helped me start to become kind to others, even the ones who would rather excommunicate me for my doubts.