Jesus’ Trashy Family

In the whirlwind of the ideological purity games that are wreaking havoc right now in American and British national politics and United Methodist church politics, I thought I’d post an excerpt from a sermon I preached a few years ago:

I’m a huge Dolly Parton fan. There’s a great BBC interview in which she talks about her history, coming from the poverty of East Tennessee.

The interviewer asks, “When did Dolly Parton, as we know her, appear?”

dolly parton

Dolly said, “I really patterned my look, a country girl’s idea of glamour, after what they call the town tramp. This woman… I just thought she was beautiful. She had this beautiful peroxide hair piled on her head, red nails, high heel shoes, and I just thought she was the prettiest thang I’d ever seen.”

Dolly’s mother said, “Oh, honey, she ain’t nothing but trash!”

And Dolly responded, “That’s what I wanna be, Mama. I wanna be trash!”

One of the wonderful things about that story is you can tell in the interview that Dolly saw that woman in a different way, like God actually sees us—not as trash, but as treasure.

Unfortunately not everyone sees in the divine way that Dolly did. Most people don’t.

Every family (and every institution, organization, party, religion, movement, etc.) has folks that they consciously or unconsciously think of as trash—people they would rather keep secret about, keep out of the family pictures, skeletons in the closet—because they’re eccentric, because they don’t fit the family mold, because they’ve done something that has brought dishonor or shame to the family. Or the family feels they’ve done something disgraceful. Often that person has done nothing other than be themself, but the family is not happy.

You know what I’m talking about. Maybe you’re that person in your family. Maybe you’ve made fun of someone who is.

Some folks imagine that Jesus comes from a perfect family. They would do well to consult the New Testament. The very beginning of the Gospel—its opening salvo, actually—is not a catchy story or a funny joke or a sublime theopoetical passage, but rather a very extended family tree. The Gospel writer goes to great length to name the people from whence Jesus comes. And as you begin to explore, you realize: this is not good breeding; this is no high pedigree line.

Can I be honest with you about Jesus, whom Christians call the Savior of the World?

He comes from a trashy family.

Liars, thieves, frauds, murderers, manipulators, passive-aggressives, corporate hucksters, and egomaniacs—these folks abound in Jesus’ family roots.

When people talk about Biblical “family values,” I always wonder exactly what they mean. Have they read the first chapter of the Gospel? Jesus’ family is irregular, nontraditional, and often downright scandalous. You think your family is weird? Jesus’ family will out-dysfunction anything your family brings to the table.

And according to the Bible, this is good news: trying to convince us that God doesn’t choose “perfect” to get God’s message into the world. God chooses actual people, real live human beings, to speak God’s truth. Which includes you and me and other trashy, treasure-filled folks offering ourselves, the best (and worst) we can.

Five Evangelical + Inclusive Ways to Resist Schism in The United Methodist Church

I am a Wesleyan evangelical. My life has been saved and is (slowly) being changed by Jesus.

In my opinion, being evangelical means, at its core, living from an ongoing internal assurance of God’s love for you and therefore finding yourself freed to do everything possible to carry the Gospel to others.

Since the election of Karen Oliveto as a Bishop in The United Methodist Church, there has been an understandably intensified experience of conflict throughout the Church.

And that’s okay. We remember from Pastoral Care 101 that conflict is to be expected in human life, especially in organizations, and most especially in organizations made up of millions of humans who find their unity not in a uniform ideology but in a living God and a process of salvation based on undergoing that God. With a unity rooted in Something as dynamic as that, conflict is not a problem to be eradicated but a constitutional part of the thing itself and potentially even a means of grace.

Of course it’s how we deal with the conflict that makes it redemptive or toxic. So as we continue to engage the ongoing set of questions and concerns around human sexuality, let’s do it as maturing disciples of Jesus. For Christ’s sake, let’s be careful with the accusations we make and the metaphors we employ.

For example, let’s not assume, as some do, that because someone has a more conservative hermeneutic when it comes to sexuality or wishes that an openly lesbian Bishop had not been elected, they are a blatantly homophobic hater or a hard-hearted hypocrite. A good faith approach both inspires a genuine openness to hear how someone thinks and feels about the subjects at hand and expects that the other’s journey is as complex as ours.

On the other hand, let’s not assume that supporters of the election of Bishop Oliveto (I quite joyously am one) are petulant children chomping at the bit for church schism (I quite emphatically am not). Let’s not assert, as some have, that the Western Jurisdiction has willfully sent divorce papers to the rest of the Church. The aforementioned good faith approach of actually listening to the testimonies of others will probably dissuade us from such a simplistic charge.

N.B. It’s interesting to me that most of the voices accusing the Western Jurisdiction of triggering schism haven’t offered any similar critiques of Bishop Scott Jones and his unflinching willfulness to force a church trial of the Rev. Cynthia Meyer (for being a “self-avowed, practicing” lesbian and a clergyperson at the same time) despite the commitment of the Council of Bishops “…to explore options to help the church live in grace with one another — including ways to avoid further complaints, trials and harm while we uphold the Discipline.” If some of the same writers who have taken to social media to express anger or grief or snark at the election of Bishop Oliveto — in the service, they say, of a moderate or centrist position —  had publicly shared similar sentiments because of the actions of Bishop Jones, perhaps their analysis might be received as more properly centrist and as more deeply sincere.

So I wonder: can we shelf the schism rhetoric for a while in order to remember that we are, in Paul’s language, the Body of Christ, which is not a mere metaphor but an ontological reality?

We are the Body of Christ. If that reality and the necessarily evangelical life that flows from it are kept central, I believe that we will be able to hold (not deny) difference and resist schism as we also commit to truly doing no harm.

That’s obviously easier proclaimed than practiced, so here are five suggestions for living into a more profound unity. I am committed to these myself, though I am no saint. I try, I fail, I try again, I fail again. I believe that God uses the trying and the failing: such is the process of continuing to be saved.

1) Pray silently.

Give an hour a day to God for meditation on Scripture and contemplative prayer. Particularly I recommend silent prayer, and even more particularly, I recommend silent prayer before you begin your day, before you begin your work, before your ego has a chance to fully wake up and begin to plan and plot. As someone with a huge ego, I speak as one with authority on this!

A receptive, or apophatic, prayer practice (as differentiated from an active, or cataphatic, practice) means that you’ll spend less of your devotional time telling God what you think is right. Personally, I’m a fan of Centering Prayer, but whatever medium you choose, the key is to give God time and space to work in you and on you. To let go of your own words, desires, concepts, truths, maybe even your own feelings. Not forever, but for an hour. See what happens when you let the Spirit do the work the Spirit wants to do, not the work you think the Spirit should do.

2) Spend 20% of your time in the community.

Change up your schedule to spend at least a full day of your workweek making and building relationships with people who aren’t part of your church or of any organized religion. For many clergy and laity, this will be totally new, as we are used to spending the bulk of our time with church folk. There’s nothing wrong with church folk. I love church folk! But see how your missional outlook changes when you regularly have coffee with unaffiliated folks (“nones” and “dones”) and listen to why they are where they are. Put this commitment high on your list of ministry priorities. Work intentionally to set up meetings with community leaders. Join a weekly group that’s not faith-oriented and hang out with those folks week in, week out.

3) Plan a new expression of Christian community to launch from your congregation.

Start a vision process now that has as its 2-3 year goal the emergence of a new way of being in mission. Pour a significant portion of your congregation’s energy, time, and money into that experiment. Think of it as holy R&D. Help people get freed up to build something new, compelling, and beautiful for God.

4) Clean up your own side of the street.

The temptation to judge and evaluate others is, at least for me, very real. In the 12-step recovery program I’m part of, I am told that I can treat that temptation by focusing on my own shadow side and by trying to clean up the mess on my side of the street. I think 12-step recovery got that wisdom from Jesus, who teaches that before we attempt to remove the sawdust in someone else’s eye, we first need to remove the 4×4 obstructing our own vision.

I can’t speak for all human beings, but if you’re anything like me, there’s an endless supply of personal ocular lumber. The other day I got into a Twitter argument with someone. The discourse stayed civil and I think my points were fair and sound, but when I finished, I felt this surge of self-righteousness and self-importance. Again, I can’t speak for you, but when I felt that chemical surge, I knew I was in dangerous spiritual territory. If you know what I’m talking about, the next time you feel tempted with that kind of energy, do some street cleaning. Look directly at the stuff that blocks you and warps you. Honestly confront the idols and drugs of choice that you use consciously and unconsciously to maintain your superior sense of self. After a couple doses of that treatment, I usually feel a lot humbler and a lot kinder toward those with whom I disagree.

5) Gradually rethink your boundaries.

I sat next to a really smart, really committed United Methodist Bishop at breakfast one morning during a theological forum in Texas last winter. We were talking and he asked why I thought the church I had helped to plant in Chicago had grown so quickly. When I responded that among other factors, it was because we were trying to be a third-way, inclusive Wesleyan congregation, he seemed to get defensive. He said, Well, if it’s growing because you have no boundaries or foul lines, that’s not good growth. I said, Bishop, with all due respect, it’s not that we disagree that there should be boundaries around or clear descriptions of what discipleship of Jesus looks like, it’s that we disagree about what those lines are. Do you think we might dive deeper than the obsessive foul lines around human sexuality we’ve set up denominationally and reclaim, say, the Wesleyan process of salvation and the traditional evangelical doctrines (repentance, justification, regeneration, sanctification) as a way of clarifying what healthy, holy pathways are and what maturing disciples of Jesus look like? He wasn’t convinced of my take, nor was I of his, but this is a long-term communal project that we’ll have time for if we take the low-hanging fruit of schism off the table.

As I write these little suggestions down, I realize how fragmented and unsystematic they are. But I hope that you’ll receive them as I genuinely intend them: as little practices of hope that perhaps God will meet us in and use, in concert with many other offerings, to show us  — all together — a more excellent way.


Bishops, Politicians, & the Importance of Being a Sinner

On a cold February night some years ago in Chicago, I sat down with my mentor in his office, opened my journal, took a deep breath, and started to name aloud the sins of my life. Not only to name them but to describe them in detail – the stuff I’d done that I shouldn’t have done, the stuff I should have done but hadn’t, the stuff that had been done to me.

This face-to-face confession is a crucial step in the process of transformation suggested by the recovery community that I am a part of. In the weeks leading up to it, I’d spent many hours working privately on a list of all of my shit. A friend who knew what I was up to told me that I wasn’t looking so good. It turns out that writing down all of your shit can make you feel pretty shitty. It’s painful, after all, to stare honestly at the secrets that you’ve been ignoring or denying for years. And, for me at least, it was even more profoundly painful to acknowledge those hidden things to another living human being.

To admit them to a forgiving God in my prayer closet? No problem.

To whisper them into the night wind under a new moon? Poetic.

To divulge them to a scrap of paper destined for a meaningful fireside ritual? Burn, baby, burn.

But to reveal them to someone sitting across from me?

Faced with this kind of spiritual challenge, if you’re like me, your mind will try to convince you that such drastic measures are absolutely not required for healing. Depending on your personality, your ego will search for Bible verses or Buzzfeed lists or TED Talks in order to rationalize an easier course of treatment. A self-care spa day, maybe, or a punishing new workout regimen at the gym, or dusting off that Tony Robbins book you bought last New Year’s.

Telling the Truth Is Not a Carnival Ride

A friend of mine is a Catholic priest. He says that the confessional booths in his church stay dusty most of the year, until Holy Week, when there’s a bit of a pick-up before Easter. I’m not dissing on Catholics. Once-a-year-in-earnest seems more significant than the lackluster practice of my own Protestant tribe, which generally relegates truth telling about our condition to a tidy little unison prayer tucked in at the beginning of worship.

I get it. Real confession is not a carnival ride.

My mentor said, Are you ready to do this?

I said, Absolutely not.

He said, Let’s push in.

And so, with a metallic taste in my mouth from the adrenaline, I started with the tiniest of things, the stuff in my list that was true but didn’t affect me existentially all that much:

I littered occasionally as a child, I said.

I haven’t recycled properly.

I have an unpaid parking ticket from 1997 that the city can’t pin on me.

(We tend to stay on the surface of things when we know that deep down there’s a Ponzi scheme-level enterprise that we’ve been internally defending even as it kills us.)

My mentor listened to those little bits for a while, and then he said, Trey, why don’t you look through your list and tell me the 3 things that you are scared to death to tell me, the things you thought you would carry to your grave, but you’re going to tell me now?

And so, by some gracious courage that did not come from me, I did tell him those things, and everything else that I was aware of at the time. He heard it all and held it all. I remember him saying with such compassion, Yeah, that’s what happens sometimes. Welcome to being human. Wow, you’ve been guarding that for all these years. Now you can begin to let it go.

So Much More Is On Offer

That night was without a doubt the holiest encounter of my entire life. Coming clean about my shit in the presence of someone who didn’t look away, who didn’t collude with my ego’s desire to cover it over or point the finger at someone else, and who didn’t judge me – that experience began to unlock the armies of locks and to unclog the colonies of clogs that had been holding me captive and slowly cutting off my oxygen supply.

The freedom that I began to feel that night has expanded over the years as, fueled by that selfsame freedom, I began to make amends to those I had harmed, to forgive those who had harmed me, and to slowly – and I mean slowly – recover and rebuild a life built less on secrets and more on truth. The apostle Paul writes of undergoing Christ, It is for freedom that we have been set free, and that is the long-term offer: not just a one-time “cleanse” but a being-freed life powered by honesty, humility, and the unpretentious courage that comes from divine assurance.

A Politics of Confession

I started thinking of all of this afresh early last week when I took part in a conversation at a theology school about what’s needed for meaningful Christian mission and evangelism in the 21st century. Much of the time these conversations center on new techniques for changing psychographics, but we found ourselves talking about the importance, for anyone charged with carrying the Gospel to others, not just of knowing yourself as someone with a message to offer but also – perhaps before anything else – knowing yourself as someone in need of help. In traditional terms: as someone who sins and falls gloriously short.

My social media feed this week is filled with news of police brutality, Prime Ministerial and Presidential candidates, and – in my own particular United Methodist tribe – the election of Bishops.

I see some White people, many of whom are people of Christian faith, reacting to “Black Lives Matter” with equivocation, denial, and defensiveness. Not me! Not us! All Lives Matter! (I can see them because I recognize myself). And I wonder about the correlation between the absence of thorough, ongoing confession in our religious practice and the intensity of our racist or racialized self-justification. It takes practice to admit that you are a sinner and even more practice to allow that truth to be not a statement of paralyzing defeat but a potential acclamation of hope. As many have said in some form or fashion, the healing is in the revealing. We will only be able to chip away at the satanic power and principality of racism by confessing in detail how it has formed / is forming us – blinding us and lifting us up if we are White or silencing us and oppressing us if we are People of Color. Only by true confession can we be joyously freed for larger-scale truth telling and justice seeking into the future.

The Stump Speech I Would Love to Hear

In the spin of the battle for the Bishop’s Office or the White House or 10 Downing Street, I grow tired of the endless tallies of victories won and awards received and bits of vague or ersatz wisdom dispensed. That’s all fine and good, I guess. I get it. It’s all part of the political/PR process in both the government and the church.

But I just long for a candidate or current leader to stand up and tell the deeper truth. Can you imagine someone starting their speech or sermon not with their shiny c.v. but instead with their list of shit?

Let me tell you about a time that I really fucked up. Let me tell you how I am guilty of sin now and how that drives me again and again into a dependence on Someone-Who-Is-Not-Me. Let me confess some of my failures to you as a testimony that I am indeed someone like you, someone in need, someone who continues to undergo transformation and therefore can join you in the transformation of everything.

I would trust a leader like that.

I want to be a sinner like that.