A freak is a label, sometimes a social death sentence, cast upon a person for their unusualness. Sometimes their “abnormality” is visual in the way they appear through their choice of clothing, body adornment, or personal styling. Sometimes they are deemed a freak because of their behavior, acting in such a way that they appear to go against the grain. Jesus calls his followers to both. In a world that is all too happy to put on drunkenness, hatred, and an obsession with the personal pleasure of sex, Christ calls us to put on righteousness and be clothed in grace. He asks that we be luminescent beings in the darkness of this world, overshadowed by sin and oppressive evil. Our actions should be just as stark in contrast. When the rest of the world passes them by, leaving them to wallow in the suffering they may or may not have brought upon themselves, Christians are to stop and be a means of grace, a presence of God for others. We cannot go about our merry way when another beloved of God is in pain, physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, or otherwise. We respond, because God responded first to us. This makes us freakishly devoted to those most readily rejected, and many times their rejection becomes our own. We are stigmatized for the love we share, but when we indulge in hatred, then we simply wrongfully and wretchedly stigmatize our Savior. So we are a set apart, called aside to be unusual, not to draw attention to ourselves, but to direct people back to our Lord. Freaks because of our faith. Freaks because we do what no one else will do, love whom no one else will love, and go where the world refuses to tread. When, because following Christ means it is only a matter of time, we are branded freaks, then we should recognize that we have crossed over from the secular to the sacred. We have entered into the realm of being holy as God is holy in order that others may discover that they are loved so much that they may be remade holy, too. Don’t go with the crowd. The crowd crucified Jesus. Be those freaks at the foot of the cross. Be those freaks that proclaimed the grace of the Gospel at their own expense. Be those freaks that stood out because their faith was more than a profession of words, but a transformative way of being, loving, and honoring God.
It is so hard to watch someone lose faith. Faith is hard to keep. At times, it can feel impossible to hold, but what will tether us if we let go of the lifeline to our Lord? I can see why people fall prey to doubt and despair. I can understand the havoc tragedy can bring upon us. Yet there were dark, desperate times of deep despair in my life, and the only reason I am here and not dead, especially by my own hand, is because I have this faith. It is strong, vibrant, alive, and growing. Yes, it grows even now. My faith is not that there is a God. I know there is a God, because I have a personal relationship with God grounded in experience and encounter. I have faith that God will keep God’s promises. That is where the difficulty lies. We all like the promises of God, the hope of things unseen, but glorious in concept, such as eternal life in the Kingdom to come where death and sorrow are no more. Yet those promises can feel very distant when you lose your job, when you cannot afford basic necessities, when your spouse destroys the life you have made together, when death steals away your beloved, and when you discover that you body is being destroyed by sickness. In those times of immense suffering, faith seems futile.
I would love to use the past tense, but I have to say that even now there are days when the only thing that gets me through is that I know God will be my help. I often would like that help in the form of financial security, physical healing, or restoration of things from my past that are now broken, but that is not always possible, nor what is really best for me. Can I trust that God will provide? Can I place myself in the hands of the Lord who has ultimate providence? There is no alternative to consider. No human can stand beside me without sinning. No school of thought, no humanly contrived philosophy can bring me the hope of Christ. That is God’s alone to give, and God has. It is because I have faith in God to do what God has promised through the Scriptural accounts of the covenants, the prophets, and the Gospel, that I can tolerate the pain, the suffering, and the abiding despair. Faith does not just wash them away. It does not eradicate them from my life, because people keep perpetuating sin and birthing evil in my world. But then God does something wonderful, merciful even: God sends people into my life to walk with me, to stand beside me, to sit in the sorrow with me, and to pick me up when my legs give out. In those time when I thought, “It’s just you and me, God,” I was wrong. God comes to me in others, vessels of love and hope. They become the assurance in physical form that God’s promise is true, that my hope is secure. And suddenly I feel the faith as tangible as the ground beneath my feet, the air in my lungs, and the heart beating in my breast.
Faith draws us closer to one another, just as sin pushes us away and pulls us apart. Faith knits us back together when we are broken, torn in pain. Those who have this faith as I do, I need them. I need their presence to lean upon, to share my burdens, to help me carry my cross as I struggle to follow Jesus. I need to see God in them, so that I can feel that much closer to the one who made me, forgave me, and redeemed me. I need their love to reflect God’s love, without which I would surely die. We cannot claim faith in God and let people be alone. We cannot use our belief to insulate us and sequester us from others. We have no right to withdrawal from others, especially when we could be the means through which God provides strength and comfort for God’s beloved. So we go into the darkness to find those that dwell there. We journey into the pain to be a salve of the Balm of Gilead. We allow the suffering to radiate back to us that we can be fully present with those who feel fully alone. Faith in God’s promises is the light in the dark, the hope in the despair. It is the way in which so many who claim Christ have survived to proclaim his glory, and it is God’s chosen means of saving us. All the while, God’s grace and love are transforming us, and we will see this one day, if we but hold on long enough. It is always easier to hold on when someone else’s hand is wrapped around your own.
Christians want forgiveness. We want to be reconciled to God. Therefore, we want God to grant us grace, but we simultaneously seem to loathe granting grace to others. We are all too ready to stigmatize, categorize, and cast off those we hold in our view as sinners, as if our sins are minor in comparison.
When Pope Francis performed Holy Matrimony for twenty couples, including those who had been already living together, some people within the Church were furious. “But these people are living in sin!” Well, they were, but now they are married, and they are able to express their love, commitment, and bond as they like. Perhaps we could go so far to say as God intends for married people to do. Either way, they went from those living outside of grace to those who had been blessed to live within it. Is this not the transition Christ came to help us make in all of our lives? It breaks my heart in two to listen to people withhold grace, sanction people by playing gatekeeper to the most precious blessing God has given to us. During his earthly ministry, people approached Jesus and he forgave them, healing them both physically and spiritually. He reconciles all people to God through the blood of the cross, and yet we have the audacity to deny someone that grace, as if we could.
I do not excuse sin. I have certainly sinned myself, and I live with the consequences of that as well as living with the knowledge that my sin has hurt others. I have been hurt by the sins of other people, even to the point that one sin almost destroyed me completely, but by the grace of God, I was able to have victory over sin, including my own. In the liberation that follows accepting the grace wrought of Christ, I want others to discover this wholeness that comes from redemption. I want all people, even those who call me their enemy, to have this. It changed my life. It is changing me even now. It can change others, and so it would change the world. But if we hold grace hostage to our approval of others, then we truncate its transformative power and limit its reach. So there were couples “living in sin,” or more aptly put: having pre-marital sex, and Pope Francis offered them the means through which to move from that place to one of blessing, redemption, and grace. Good for him. Good for us. God reveals that God can redeem and transform all things, all people, and all circumstances. We should expect nothing less of an all-powerful and all loving God, and God should expect that we would do nothing less than model that to the fullest extent of our beings.
We all sin. We all stand in the need of grace. God offers grace to us all. If we are unwilling to turn around and offer that same grace to others, then we backslide into sin. Maybe it is now a different sin, but denying another the love and reconciliation Jesus died to give us is surly a sin. While there are people who think there are unforgivable sins and even unforgivable people, I whole heartedly believe Christ dispelled that in the Gospel accounts. God took one of the greatest enemies to Christianity, Saul, and transformed him through a profound encounter with the Risen Christ into one of the single greatest advocates Christianity has ever known, and perhaps will ever know. Granted grace for his persecution of the Church and his role in the death of Christ’s disciples, Saul became Paul, a man who would die spreading the Gospel of Christ to the ends of the known earth in his day. Such a radical receipt of grace gives us hope that we can be remade into the servants Christ deserves, heralding his triumphant return, and spreading his Gospel of grace, truth, and love to every living person. So look at the sinner who turns your stomach, and turn your heart towards them. Grant them grace, so that they can be free from their sin, and you too can find freedom from their sins. You have been freed from yours. Now go break the chains of those who remain captive to sin with the liberating power of God’s love.
Uniform: identical, without variations.
Conform: to be in harmony, of one accord.
Yesterday, I took part in my church’s first internal experience of our new fully-Emergent Worship Service. It was something entirely new to lead God’s people in this thing we had never done before. There was excitement, nervousness, and perhaps even outright anxiety in some, but above all, there was this sense of exploration. With one early Traditional Worship Service with a more casual atmosphere and dress code, and one high Traditional Worship Service at 11 o’clock where it is not uncommon to see very formal dress attire, suddenly people were being asked to explore a world of divergence, and the deviation of the uniform. While Traditional Worship calls for uniformity, i.e. everyone stand together, sing together, speak the liturgy together, Emergent Worship calls only for conformity, i.e. we will all worship, but how we do that will be as varied as we are and our circumstances allow. This was driven home for me after reading this article about rapper and performer, Kanye West, demanding that everyone in his audience stand and dance to a religious song, only to discover that two of the people he publicly berated for staying seated were disabled, physically unable to stand.
Mr. West demanded uniformity, that every person do the exact same thing at the exact same time without exception or deviance. However, in this imperfect world, not everyone is able to do things the same way. Some are physically disabled, others have mental challenges such as Autism, and still more have personality traits that thrive in freedom and exploration. Why should we pigeon hold everyone? Why should we not celebrate the diversity of humankind, and allow God to bring us into conformity, being united and harmonized in other ways? Today I stood the entire time while others sat. Some chose to participate in our central Emergent element that took the concept of placing prayers of lamentation upon the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, and had us placing upon our wall notes describing elements of worship from our past worship experiences that truly impacted us, that were so profound that they elevated our worship on that occasion to new heights, the highest we have ever known. It was a wall of gratitude and remembrance of what God had done for us in the context of worship. It might have looked like chaos from the outside, but when we had finished it was clear that we had all been united in spirit and moved to the same place, we just all took a different path to get there.
The longer I am in ministry, and maybe just alive, the less I am interested in uniformity. I don’t even think it’s practical to expect people to be uniform. One of the greatest gifts and strengths of the Body of Christ is our diversity being used together for the glory of God and the building of the Kingdom of God. As long as we all make it to the gates and into the Kingdom, I do not need all of us to take the same spiritual journey. We follow a Savior who was pleased to heal the blind alone in many different ways: through the word (Mark 10:46-52), through touch (Matthew 9:27-30), through the use of saliva (Mark 8:22-24), and through the application of mud (John 9:1-14). I believe that Christ can align our disobedient hearts to be in union with his own by multiple means as well. There is beauty in Traditional Worship, but it is not the path of all people. There is expression and creativity in Emergent Worship, but not everyone feels at ease with it. So they both exist in my church, and I pray that God can unite us in our love and hope to live out our faith. May we become conformed to Christ, not one another, much less some earthly ideal.
The day unfolds, Almighty God,
And we can sense the newness of this moment.
You, who makes all things new, are creating, innovating in us.
Let our lives be canvases,
So that others may see your majesty and know your love.
Transformation is change,
But through your constancy, we have nothing to fear.
May our voices rise to heaven in worship.
The sounds of our music permeate the veil,
And all creation will resound with cries of adoration.
Redemption emerges from the depths of our sinfulness.
We have been bought back from death.
Help us live as people of new beginning,
And invite others to discover its riches.
All for your honor and glory.
All for your praise.
In love and thanksgiving, we pray.
There were but a finite number of drops of blood in the body of Jesus, yet they cover an infinite amount of sins, and cleanse an unfathomable number of people who accept that grace. His selfless offering of himself for us should serve to remind us to grant some grace of our own to others. Here is a theological fact, a sacred truth testified to in Scripture: people need a lot of grace. And not just from God Almighty, we need grace from one another. Granting grace is about embodying Christ for another. It is to lay aside our desire for vengeance, even if it is only in the form of humiliation, and offer space for the movement towards righteousness. In a country obsessed with accountability in the form of public pressure and embarrassment to motivate, Christ calls us to let some things remain unspoken and make second (or more!) chances our norm. If God responded to us the way we respond to each other, no one would seek to deepen their relationship with our Lord, because the bitterness of humiliation and shaming taints our desire to be in relationship with the one who has perpetuated it upon us. Jesus could have exposed countless people during his ministry, but he chose to preserve their dignity and offer them unrestrained grace instead.
What is to be gained by causing another to feel shame within the family of faith? We know when we are not doing what is right. I am not talking about people in denial over the majorly destructive sins, but people who slip up every now and then. The people who get overwhelmed and overextended, so that something falls through because of it. Those who are dealing with pressures and struggles not fully known to others. Do we grant them grace, or simply expect everyone to have it all together all the time? We all struggle, and while we can belittle the struggles of others as insignificant, like sin, it can feel just as overwhelming and detrimental to them and as ours does to us. So the time for grace has come, or better put, the time for anything but grace is past. We are all imperfect. We are all working out our salvation through mistakes and lessons learned. We do not have to point out every mistake, but instead encourage people to hold fast and persevere. I know there have been times when I could use some grace from others. How do you ask for it? Should I have to? I try to remember that, keep it in the forefront of my thought when I feel the need to draw attention to something. It’s not that I don’t want people to grow, but I am not willing to sacrifice grace in the process.
Grace is who we are as Methodists, United or otherwise. We are the people of a Great God of Grace, and we are those who should live out that state of grace by bestowing it upon others without their having to ask, much less beg. We should embody the one who cleanses us with his grace filled blood. Christ showered us with the only cleansing agent that could break the power of sin in and over us. We emerge from his sacrifice almost two thousand years later, clean and clear to live out our salvation. So let us be quick to restrain, refrain from pointing out every flaw, and instead love people through the rough patches, the veers off the road, so that grace can bring them home.
Sometimes we have an experience that illuminates Scripture, even a particular passage, for us in a whole new way. I had several of those over the past week, being away at a worship conference, and they all pointed me to this passage:
“What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost” (Matthew 18:12-14 NRS).
I count myself among the ninety-nine in Jesus’ parable. I was born into the life of the church, raised by Christian parents in the church, and never wandered away. Now I serve the church as a pastor, and I would do so until I draw my last breath, if that be God’s will. I know that Christ is Lord, my Savior from the eternal damnation my sin warrants. I know that I have received grace by the blood of the cross, and that God Almighty, revealed in the three persons of the Trinity, is God alone. I am one of the ninety-nine who rest under the secure watch of the Good Shepherd and know who their master is. So what about that one lost lamb?
There are actually millions of lost lambs in this world. God wants to bring them all back home, to be safe within the fold. There seems to be this pervasive sense in Christians that going after the missing lambs is Jesus’ responsibility, and it is, except that how he does that involves us. We are the presence of Christ in this world. We are those who, gathered together in his name and fulfilling his purpose, manifest the Body of Christ. We are conduits of his gathering of the lost. The Father and the Son are calling upon us to go out into the world and bring back the lost lambs. We cannot just abide in the pasture while others suffer. We cannot slough off our duty to testify to the Gospel and makes disciples of Jesus Christ. We have been chosen to illuminate the darkness with the light of Christ that burns within the hearts of those who love him. That light is meaningless if it never shows someone else the path, and guides them home into the loving grace-filled arms of our heavenly Father. And so it is that we must leave the comfort, the safety of the pasture.
Our local churches are safe, known, and comfortable for us. They are bastions for the faithful in a world where hostility towards Christianity grows more virulent. They are where we know others and we are known by them. For many of us, they are the only place where we feel content outside of our homes. That is great. That is a blessing, but we should know better than to think that Christ is not ready to do a new thing, and newness means change, and change means discomfort. So we need to gird up our loins and prepare ourselves. We need to prepare for discomfort, prepare for going back out into the world to search out Christ’s lost lambs. The Father wills that not one, not one should be lost. We are the search and rescue. We are the light that leads them back home into the loving, waiting arms of their God. Our comfort has been a joy. It has been a source of strength, but its purpose is to fill us up and make us able to do the work of the Kingdom. How far into discomfort are we willing to go? I can say this with all confidence: it will never begin to match the discomfort, the downright atrocious suffering that Christ endured on that cross for us. So if we have to endure changes to our worship, then we can. If we have to put ourselves out there to risk rejection, then we can. If we have to tolerate new people coming to our church who do not look, speak, or dress like us, then we can. We can because we are called, we are filled with the power of Christ and the presence of the Holy Spirit, and we go forth in the name of the Father. There are lost and suffering people that would be strengthened and encouraged infinitely with faith, not just their faith in God, but discovering God’s faith in them to turn from their sinfulness and discover the liberating love of God. Will we not risk ourselves, our comfort, we the ninety-nine for just one? God help us, we must.