Thursday, April 9, 2009

Has Trouble With Authority

Have you ever heard it said of a young person: "he or she really has trouble with authority?" Part of me always wants to say: "who doesn't?" I was one of those kids growing up who really had a negative attitude towards authority. Well, I should say towards about all authority except that of my parents and my minister. I was alright with their authority. There was just something about their authority that I felt was right and provided space and freedom in life.

But, teachers, coaches (even some very nice coaches), and adults who were all into their authority, or even my friends "strict" parents. Well, I really had a problem with that authority. Since I was a quiet kid, people rarely knew how I was.

And, yes, I guess I should say that I had a real respect for the ultimate authority over life: the Creator and Judge and Redeemer of the Universe.

Strange, for me, having faith in God meant a certain distrust of all human authority, and I have never been comfortable with any person in authority who didn't have a healthy suspicion of human authority. That first commandment: "you shall have no other gods before me!" To me, that felt like a great shout of freedom from all unjust human authority. It still feels that way!

People ask me how I can be a minister and defend people accused of crimes. It is easy and natural for me. I make a living as a criminal defense attorney by challenging authority, at times, flat out opposing authority, and keeping authorities in check. I have found a way to channel my "problem with authority" into a positive, socially acceptable profession.

Now, I didn't say that criminal defense work is without moral ambiguity. There are cases in which I would rather be the prosecutor. There are cases in which the interest in protecting the public from a dangerous person seem more important than checking authority. But, I am not in charge of the whole system, and I don't have to play all roles in our criminal justice system. So, I play one role and try to play it well. Being an advocate for human beings that are accused and in danger of being stigmatized and locked up like animals - well, that's a role I am very comfortable with. And, besides, if I hadn't found a positive way to channel my problem with authority, I would probably have been locked up a few times myself.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Way of Christ Inside and Outside the Church

For the Church, this is Holy Week, the week leading up to Good Friday and Easter. The central and most important holy time of the year (the early church didn't even celebrate Christmas). And, during this week, as was my experience last year during Holy Week, I am wondering about life in the church. I am wondering in a terribly serious way whether our Christian religion makes us better, or, maybe worse than we would have been without it. I know, this type of worry may disappoint those who are Christian. But, though I feel that the real tradition of the Church is holy and good. I don't think there is much of the real tradition present in the churches of our day. Of course, I don't really know. I just know how it feels. And, often it feels like there is at least as much holiness outside as inside the Church. And, this doesn't really disappoint me. Why shouldn't we Christians be glad that there are good people, good ideas, good works outside of our religious communities? And, to say this doesn't somehow mean to say that the way of Jesus is not the way of truth. But, it is to say that the way of Jesus may be outside as well as inside the Church's fellowship.

A Strange Saying about "The Good News"

A saying came to me this morning that seemed strange, but true. It seems illogical but somehow makes good holy sense. It goes like this:

"Everybody deserves mercy . . .
whether they deserve it or not."

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Turning the Good News into Bad News: Evangelism Revisited

But, this good news, we in the church have somehow converted into bad news. I guess it's because though God is full of mercy, we are not. Because the church has taken a message about the gracious action of God and made it a way to judge others. Why are we so invested in defining people as outsiders? I don't really know. Instead of being glad and sharing that gladness about God with others, the church has thought of itself as some kind of gatekeeper entitled to define the terms of admission to salvation and grace. Once that is done, the liberating message is lost. Once that is lost, I'd rather go fishing than go to church.

God chooses who receives grace and mercy and life, and God has chosen all people in Jesus Christ. See Romans 5. Now, whether some people will ultimately resist this gracious election in the end, that is an open question. God isn't a God of force. God won't drag people kicking and screaming into the kingdom (By the way, Jesus never utilized any evangelistic tricks to get people to follow him. No, he warned them it would be hard and that they might want to think twice before going with him).

God is not a God of force, but the God of the gracious invitation. God invites all to a kingdom of mercy. Something deep down tells me it will be like this:

The doors of the kingdom will be open, wide open, but everyone will come to the door and be asked a question: "Do you want to live in a world where every person is treated with dignity? Do you want to live in a world where God's mercy for all is the rule of life? Do you want to live in world where truth replaces falsehood? Do you want to live in a world where there are no rich or poor? Do you want to live in a world where there is no abuse of authority, and where freedom really rings in every corner? Do you want to live in a world where children are not abused, where women are not raped, where people don't die because there is no food, or because they can't afford health care?" And, each person will answer from that person's heart if that is what they have really desired in life. But, the point is this: what you really desired and lived for in this life will determine how you answer that question. You will not be able to give an answer that does not come from the depths of your heart. If you have lived and desired these things in life, then your heart will cry out: "YES!" If you have not, then your heart will answer: "NO, I don't really want those things. I would rather be more important than someone else. I really think living life without a superior status to others would be terrible. I really don't think everyone deserves mercy. I really would rather not be in a world where people are treated equally. Everybody gets what they deserve anyway!"

Jesus said it very plainly: "Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy." Maybe in the end everybody does get what they deserve.


When I was a senior in high school, I attended a Fellowship of Christian Athletes conference at Carson Newman College. There was a revival service with a man preaching. We were sitting up in the seats of the basketball arena. And, as the man preached about how important it was to be right with God, he tried real hard to make us worry that we were not right with God. He wanted us to come down to the front to commit ourselves to God and make sure we were saved, which meant 'saved from being sent to hell by God.'

I remember sitting there in my seat, and, as some of the young men started walking down to the floor with the preacher. I remember it like it was yesterday. I remember it because it was a defining moment in my life. Something within me felt like this man was tempting me to betray God, to distrust God, and to trust in something that felt unholy but powerful. You see, I loved God, I trusted God. I felt this man trying to talk me into thinking God was out to get me, when I had always been taught and felt deeply that God was exactly the opposite.

And, that very moment I began to feel a calling on my life - a calling to preach the good news, the good news that God is gracious and loves human beings. This so-called evangelism that portrayed God as out to get us but that Jesus stepped in between by sacrificing himself. Well, I can do nothing but call that some real evil bullshit, even if other people call it the way to eternal life.

In the First Letter of John, it says: "There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out all fear." What comes from God through Jesus is love and the willingness and perserverance to save human beings from destruction. As Jesus says in the Gospel of John: "God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him."


And, the good news about God comes across so clearly in the story Jesus tells about the prodigal son who ran off from his father's home and wasted his inheritance on prostitutes and partying. Well, this son ends up poor and desperate and ashamed and comes back home. And, the son has a repentance speech all ready ("father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I am no longer worthy of being treated as a son, but ask only that you would treat me as a servant"). But, he doesn't get to give that speech, because when his father sees his son who he thought might be dead, the father is so overjoyed that the old man runs to his son and hugs him and cries out loud! The old man yells to his servants to get the party ready and to give his son proper clothing, because this son who was lost is found, this son he thought was dead, is alive.

That's how God is. Thank God, that's how God is.