Tough Love/Tough Luck

But the lesson which our blessed Lord inculcates here, and which he illustrates by this example, is that God is in all things, and that we are to see the Creator in the face of every creature; that we should use and look upon nothing as separate from God, which indeed is a kind of practical atheism; but with a true magnificence of thought survey heaven and earth and all that is therein as contained by God in the hallow of his hand, who by his intimate presence holds them all in being, who pervades and actuates the whole created frame, and is in a true sense the soul of the universe.”

Sermon 23, “Upon Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount, III” I.11

I thought I would try to deflect criticism by blaming John Wesley (opening quote).  It is obvious to me that many United Methodists refuse to accept such bleeding heart sentimentality.  We certainly refuse to see God in people we don’t like or people who are different, but interestingly we seem only willing to recognize God in those who think, believe, and act as we do.  Yes, even in the community of believers we choose to draw dividing lines and attack one another with insult, disrespect, indignity, slander and ill-will.  Operating from our labels and categories, we seek to convert those who disagree with us, and if we cannot convert them we hope to eliminate them, and short of that, we will attempt to shame, humiliate, degrade, insult and discredit them — all in the name of Christian love.  What a fabulous witness to the world!

And this is not a rational and practical condition.  We can only live in a perpetual state of indignation if we work at it.  We need to twist other people’s words and ascribe to them malicious intention.  We go to great lengths to misunderstand and to take comments out of context in order to be outraged.  We dig in our heals to defend our own positions with no intention of listening to anyone else’s side.  Then we add insult to injury by “taking the high road” and inviting those we disrespect into “dialogue.”

Don’t get me wrong, dialogue is a significant part of our solution, but not dialogue designed to score points, prove superiority, tolerate those we feel are ignorant, or as a pretense for ‘Christian conferencing.”  Deep understanding, reconciliation, unity, and a healthy environment for differences and disagreement don’t seem to be values on the table.

What all this bickersome in-fighting communicates to the world is that our faith and life together is no different from the rest of the world.  There is really no reason to seek community in Christ because we treat one another as heinously and hurtfully as any given audience on the Jerry Springer Show.

Some will come back to me and say, “I don’t think this is true of most Methodists — I think you’re being too harsh.”  Okay, fine, then how many are too many.  How much name-calling, insult, degradation, slander, hostility and attack is “acceptable?”  If the church were a bowl of soup, how much poison or filth would be tolerable in that soup?

A pastor-friend of mine commenting on health care in the U.S. said, “No one should be given a free ride.  I am so sick of these sanctimonious liberals who want to spend my money to care for criminals, addicts, lazy, and foreigners.  People need to take responsibility for themselves.  This isn’t being mean; it’s tough love — holding people accountable for their own lives.  What would Jesus do?  He would say ‘take up your own cross and follow.’  I am my brothers’ keeper, but no some leech off the street.  People who support universal health care are idiots, thieves and liars.”

Let me just say up front, I disagree with almost everything in this statement, but my real problems are two-fold: first, the use of justifying language to validate one’s position (labeling this “tough love), and, second, to automatically disrespect and denigrate anyone who holds a different view.  Where is the possibility of conciliation here?  Where is the possibility to bridge the chasm separating points of view?  Living in the absolutes precludes the central tenets of our faith.  Saying “this I believe” is a wonderful starting point, but we too often continue with “and all other belief is wrong.”  Christianity is not a contest to “win.”  Christianity is not a legislative debate.  Christianity is not a TV talk show.  Christianity is a way of being, and it holds as a high value unity, reconciliation, and community.  Any time Christianity is defined in terms of “us” and “them” it has lost its way, especially when we waste our precious time and effort drawing the lines WITHIN the fellowship.  We, as individuals, must get over ourselves so that we have a fighting chance of becoming the “we” God calls (and expects) us to be.

If we can’t talk nice, be kind, act with respect, and embrace humility, we are dead in the water.  Will we ever all agree?  No.  Will we ever have a “sin-free” church?  Not likely.  Will any segment, splinter, caucus or cause contain the “whole truth?”  Are you kidding?  We need to begin from the position that we are all created in the image of God, God is still present through the power of the Spirit, and that our highest responsibility is faithful stewardship of the precious relationships we have been granted through God’s grace.  From there, we need to drop the “tough” from our love, and just live the fruits of the Spirit with one another unconditionally — offering love, sharing joy, creating peace, committing to patience, with extreme kindness, abundant generosity, deep faithfulness, true gentle-ness, and radical and comprehensive self-control.  It’s time to get our egos out of God’s church, and provide a witness to the world that there is a better way.

11 replies

  1. I actually just wrote a blog related to this question. Liberals and conservatives alike are jerks to people when their political perspectives and gestures are shaped by their need to self-justify. I have become increasingly convinced that what Jesus died to save us from is actually self-justification itself. We are saved from the prison of self-justification in order to be drawn into the vine of God’s mercy in which we show mercy to others because we know we have received a mercy we didn’t deserve. Check out what I wrote. Peace.

  2. 1 Corinthians 16:13,14 “Be on your guard; stand firm in the faith; be courageous; be strong. Do everything in love.”

    So easy to write, Paul. So hard to do. We have a hard time – I have a hard time – holding these things together. It helps if we all have humility. Humility enough to know that we are not Jesus Christ. And humility enough to know that we need to be called to account by others.

    “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” (Gal 6:1)

    Often we are not good at the “gently” part. Often, we are not good at having the humility to recognize our sin when others come seeking to restore us. We stumble in so many ways.

  3. I just took 2 communications classes. My observation is that we have never been taught how to communicate with one another. We only know how to express our own needs and opinions without listening to the other person’s needs and opinions. We jump to conclusions by assuming we know the other person’s motivations and underlying meaning. And don’t get me started on “dialog.” Most people have no clue what dialog is – they only know debate and discussion – and not much discussion. We need to start teaching everyone how to listen to what the other person is saying without judgement – and we need to be sure our children learn this early. Most of us have never had true communication modeled for us and therefore we really have no clue what that is. But I really believe if we actually started to listen to one another, we would be able to collaborate and come to mutual agreement.

    True communication is hard work – but work well worth it to all people who want to call themselves Christian. Maybe the UMC should take the lead and instead of worrying about numbers, spend more time in teaching everyone how to communicate with one another with true respect.

    • We can stop worrying about numbers when we eliminate all of the structure above the local church. The money to pay for that structure comes from the local church membership. As the local church membership declines, then the amount available will decline.

      There is a difference between hearing someone out and engaging versus listening without judgement. As a practical application, does that mean giving Sarah Palin complete acceptance for the lies and misinformation that constitutes the bulk of her “contribution” to public discourse??? After all, she passionately believes what she says. I sincerely doubt you would agree with that. There are false prophets.

      We need to listen to everyone since even a dead clock is right twice a day, but to act on that clock without verification is folly.

      • I do not believe I said that. Listening to someone does not mean you agree with what they say or even that you accept everything they say, but you need to listen before you can even determine if there may be truth in what someone says or not. Yes there are false prophets, that is why listening first is so important. Then you need to take time to discern what has been conveyed.

      • Okay. So, what do you suggest someone does when they have listened and discerned but have come to the conclusion that the other person’s argument is far more chaff than wheat (to put it mildly)?

        We have a number of discussions across the connection where we can’t agree on facts much less a paradigm. Even our bad outcomes lead to vast differences about the causes and the cures.

        On one relatively minor issue, for example, creates a lot of passion and features repeated decisions by General Conference. But, the other side’s campaign features uncivil disobedience, destruction of property and appeals to judicial nullification. However, they say they are simply being prophetic.

  4. In practice there is a tension between “love others as yourself” or the Good Samaritian versus the parable of the talents and “go forth and sin no more.”

    We do believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. Therefore, we believe that other religions (at a minimum) don’t have it right. But, that doesn’t mean that we go out and kill the “unbelievers.”

    If there is going to be peace on Earth then it has to start with each of us. We can decide we aren’t going to kill – today! (Captain Kirk). Perhaps that means that one group should stop the extraordinary ordinations, the lies at their own ordinations, the pleas for judicial nullification, the disruptions at General Conference and smashing chalices before they ask others to act differently. Get rid of the log before you complain about someone else’s splinter.

    • Or, we could all confess that we don’t own all the answers and engage in humility and seek understanding instead of getting our own way… Indeed, we do have choices how we will live the gospel.

      • Stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.

        If all we continue to say is that we don’t have any answers either, then why would people follow us on the walk?

        I certainly agree that we all have choices. I also believe that we are judged based upon the choices that we make.

      • And I would add that we take the long view — that we know our history as we create our future. United Methodists have never “abided” by their Book of Discipline. It has been a work in progress for its entire existence. Just look at the BoDs from 20 – 50 – 100 years ago. We are a people moving onto perfection, and we need to remember that we are a people together, guided by God, prayerfully discerning, and evolving in our faith and our faithfulness. I believe it is through dialog more than debate that we will come to a new consensus — from which we can figure out what to disagree about next. We have moved through lending and borrowing at interest, rights of children, rights of women, slavery, ordination of women and minorities, civil rights, various and sundry wars — we will weather sexual orientation, immigration, capital punishment and health care… one way or another!

    • One of the wisest–and shortest!–sermons I ever heard was on Matthew 25:31-46, the parable of the King dividing the sheep and the goats. One simple idea from that sermon of Willimon’s has haunted me ever since. It’s one of those 2X4 in the head moments when I thought “how could I have read that story so many times and never noticed this?”

      Even the sheep, when praised by the King for feeding and clothing and visiting him in prison, had no idea what he was talking about.

      They did not know what they had done that got them into heaven.

      If that doesn’t give us humility, I suspect nothing will.

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