Recycling Faith

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When I was in elementary school, our district did a can drive to promote recycling and cash-in the deposits for funding. Classrooms competed to collect as many aluminum cans as possible. The principal promised an ice cream party for the winning homeroom. I begged my parents to buy soda in bulk (“It’s the responsible thing to do!”). Instead, my father took us dumpster-diving.

We lived at the edge of suburbia in the midst of America’s housing boom; any square-foot of untouched land held potential for profit. At the end of each day, once construction crews were finished, we’d cruise the neighborhood looking for promising worksites. My sister and I scaled the metal walls of dumpsters glancing toward our father waiting by the car like we’d just been granted permission to rob an ice cream truck. Once in we would pick our way around the rubble, tossing any cans over and out where Dad collected them, like they were Easter eggs on a church lawn. Memory exaggerates, but I’m sure we collected several hundred cans with this routine.

A couple of weeks back, I went for a drink with a friend from grad school. We discussed his doctoral work, which was creating something of a faith crisis. “The old stories just don’t work for me anymore,” he told me. His tone was neither desperate nor dismissive; he wasn’t looking for answers or advice. Good thing, because the only response I could muster was swishing my glass while muttering “the drinks here have always been a bit too weak for me.”

It was in middle school that I began attending the weekly youth meetings at our church. We met on Tuesday nights for games and a Bible study. The youth pastor was young and cool (like, wore jeans-to-church cool); several college-aged leaders with frosted tips greeted us as we arrived. For two dollars, we could buy two slices of pizza and a soda.

We talked about Jesus and the Biblical stories. Seven days of creation, belly of a whale, virgin birth, the apocalypse…we got a crash course in fundamentals of the evangelical tradition. More importantly, we learned how to express that tradition (“share the good news”) to others. It was the latter that gave our education a sense of urgency. Faith had to be erected quickly like the new homes of the housing boom, structures built to meet the material demand of the masses which call for answers and concise paradigms. But, like a bursting bubble, not much is needed to reveal the weakness in the frames.

My childhood and the housing boom ended at roughly the same time. Dumpsters and muddy plots of land were replaced by overgrown gaps in the sidewalk. As puberty struck, I grew peach fuzz and skepticism. By the time I graduated college, enough of my long-held assumptions had been scrutinized that I felt like I was coughing in a cloud of smoke but still asking “is something burning?”

All this makes me think of a metal mug my father had in his office which he used for stashing all his loose change. Every six months or so he enlisted us kids to count up the coins into paper rolls— 100 pennies, 40 nickels, 50 dimes, etc. Completed rolls were left on his desk to be deposited in the bank. He called it our college fund. I never saw the deposit slips, but I’d call that “dark humor.” That said, it’s only recently occurred to me that the school district and my father seemed to employ a similar strategy for funding my education: save what you can, it just might add up.

I like to say that my childhood faith has evolved into deconstructed pieces. Practicing this faith is a kind of dumpster diving. Instead of checking boxes next to “I believe” I seek the pieces of my Christian heritage that can be recycled. Some days it’s difficult not to feel as though my tradition takes sincerity and cashes it in for platitudes. The 2016 election, for instance, was like someone gathered all those recyclable cans I’d been collecting and tossed them into the ocean, right above some seals. Baby seals. Just because they could.

I never left the church. Even though the old stories haven’t been working for a long time.  I think I lack the courage. A hiatus here and there may have done me— and my faith— some good. But I’ve never had the bravery of Thomas— searching for answers out in the world while the other disciples remained huddled, terrified, in a locked room.

My class won, by the way. And ice cream during school hours never tasted so good. Which is to say that I do think there’s still–there’s always— hope. Even if it comes from a dumpster, even if only worth a nickel. Because who knows, it just might add up.

What American Christians Should Learn from ISIS

what american christians should learn

As reported by the Daily Beast, a video of ISIS stoning a gay couple in northern Syria has sparked another wave of outrage in the west. It’s not the first time ISIS has publicly executed homosexuals; reports surfaced a couple months ago of ISIS throwing perpetrators from the rooftops as a gruesome form of retribution.

What makes this video unique is what happens immediately before the executions. Prior to stoning them, several of the to-be executioners step forward and hug the blind-folded men.

via Daily Beast
via Daily Beast

This act was described by sympathizers of ISIS as “an expression of compassion, a gesture of forgiveness”. Others say that the act of hugging communicates the executioner’s sincere belief that they were acting as servants of Allah, executing his judgement and doing his will. This belief rests behind many of the heinous deeds done by ISIS. Whether it’s the prostitution of captured women, executing spies with a gunshot to the head or beheading apostates, one thing is consistent: the members of ISIS truly believe that they are loving and serving God with their actions, despite how gruesome and heinous these actions may be.

This should make us think twice about the way we “love” those within our borders.

“The truth hurts.” If I’ve heard this once, I’ve heard it a million times. (And I’ve said it numerous times myself.) Some Christians quote it like Scripture. But it’s not Scripture. And it’s also not true.

At least it’s not true when it flows from the mouths of those who proceed to inflict pain in the name of truth. Truth doesn’t have to hurt. We need no further proof than the fact that Truth Incarnate refused to lift a finger against those who killed him. He carried the truth of eternity in his hands and could have used it to hurt everyone and everything. But he didn’t. And from him we learn that truth actually doesn’t hurt.

What does hurt is the people who use truth as justification, slapping it on the table as a “get out of jail free” card for all the grave sins they commit in their service to (so-called) truth. The difference between ISIS stoning two gay men and someone berating a homosexual person in the American blogosphere is not moral standing but technique.

We’d do well to remember that Satan himself used “truth” to attempt great evil. He quoted Bible verses in his temptation of Jesus (Matthew 4:6 quoting Psalm 91). Satan’s utilization of Scripture is proof that even the truest truth is a lie when wielded by a hurtful and rebellious heart.

This is a lesson for ISIS. But it’s also a lesson for us.

American Christians have a tendency to lob grenades of truth into culture and call the whiplash “collateral” or (even worse) “persecution”. This is often the case when it comes to the discussion over homosexuality. We have no issue with declaring the truth regarding someone else’s sex life- despite the ramifications it may have for that person. We use atrociously hurtful headlines to champion our cause; we scoff at disproportionate depression and suicide rates among the gay community in our borders; “it’s not our fault that truth hurts so much!” Well, actually, yeah it is. When you stop using a hammer to hang family pictures and instead begin smashing fingers, it’s not the hammer that’s gone awry- it’s you.

The problem is that we hold tightly to the “traditional” and “biblical” verdict regarding homosexuality, so tightly we won’t release loosen our grip enough for the traditional, Biblical teaching of “love thy neighbor” to also find its place. We cannot let anyone say a word on the topic without ensuring we get our “YES! But the truth is that it’s a sin!” thrown in. Every conversation has to include our diagnosis, every blog post a condemning aside and every apology a justification.

From the Reformation to the slave-trade, well-meaning Christians across history have done great harm in the name of “truth.” We prop ourselves up with Bible verses and theological concepts. But our actions do not perpetuate love, they perpetuate pain. And therefore, they are not truth; they are lies used to accuse others in the spirit of the Accuser.

Like ISIS who execute people in the name of Allah, so also we easily forget that the gospel is not propaganda to be delivered with the sword, but love to be delivered with affection and care:

“…to preach the gospel is not just to tell the truth but to tell the truth in love. And to tell the truth in love means to tell it with concern not only for the truth that is being told but with concern also for the people it is being told to.

-Frederich Buechner

The posture of American Christians regarding homosexuality needs to be one of apology; the lesson we need to learn from ISIS is that we’re not much better servants of God ourselves. Christians are called to stand in solidarity with homosexuals not because we agree with their lifestyle choices; when has that ever been a mandated precedent for love? We are called to stand in solidarity with this community because we are called to stand with the marginalized. We are called to love “the least of these”. And what the discussion on homosexuality needs is not doctrine, it’s humility. Truth follows where love has paved the way; if the road is poorly constructed then truth arrives battered. If it arrives at all.

To any member of the homosexual community who has ever felt the painful sting of another’s “truth”, to anyone who’s ever wondered why “God’s will” has to feel like stones falling on their head: I want to say that I am sorry. I am sorry that another person’s truth has equated to your pain. I’m sorry that Christians across the globe do not mourn ISIS’ execution of two gay men as much as they mourn the execution of Christians; and I’m so sorry that people don’t realize these two identities don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

I pray for the day when we finally learn that truth doesn’t maim, kill or hurt.

I hope and pray for the day when Christ’s love is communicated through our love to all races, genders, sexualities, religions, dispositions, political parties, reprobates and sinners.

I pray for the day when our love does not name another’s fault, when we don’t live in the denial of sin, but we live together as a community who acknowledges our brokenness and Christ’s grace.

May we all learn a lesson from the heinous acts committed by ISIS. May we all look into the mirror and see the log in our own eye.

And may the world know we are Christians by our truth love.