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So Watch Yourselves

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Here we are, America. It's been less than one month since we got a new president. For many, Facebook has become a place we visit with fear of what our friends and family might say about their approval or disapproval of President Trump's first few weeks in office. But the truth is, it's time to take a deep breath. It's time to remember that the same people you are avoiding today are the same people you were having barbecues with this past summer, making friendly small talk with at back to school night or inviting over for dinner just weeks ago.

Over the past three election cycles I have turned one of the three FM radio station sets in my car into "news central." I rotate between NPR, WTOP, WMAL, WHUR and 99.1 Bloomberg to try and hear the actual facts that lie buried in each station's spin on a story. It is a fascinating learning experience, and I encourage you to try it some time. What I've discovered is that very few facts are reported on a regular basis. Instead, reporters and radio hosts share their emphatic perspectives on a single action without providing any real insight into why those on each side of an issue are so irrationally upset. Even a show's callers support the craze of that view, with very few exceptions where the host welcomes callers with other opinions.

I have close friends on both sides of many of today's issues. Friends have said things to me that still sting at my very core months later, and friends continue to surprise me by spreading venom against one view or the other. It all leaves me feeling a bit hopeless really, because I believe that most of us actually share many of the same core views about life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. I believe that most of us love our country and want to see it continue to thrive and unite. But we have somehow become accustomed to taking sides instead of choosing to have discussions to seek greater understanding. So I've realized that I have some forgiveness to do. I need to forgive those that have said things that hurt me because of perceived differences in our belief systems. And I need to ask for forgiveness to anyone that I may have offended.

When I feel hopeless, I seek wisdom in scripture. In Luke 17:1,Jesus said to his disciples:"Things that cause people to stumbleare bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come." And later, in verse three he says, "So watch yourselves." That phrase, "so watch yourselves," really caught me off guard. It doesn't exactly sound like a phrase you might hear 2,000 years ago. It sounds like something you might have heard your mom say when you were a teenager. But like a caring parent, Jesus tells us not to push our own earthly desires so hard onto others that it causes them to stumble. I think the stumbling that we are to watch for refers to something that makes one waver from God's desires for our lives. The problem here, of course, is that not everyone knows what God desires of us. But during these times of quick emotional reactions, in person, on email and in Facebook, the advice is clear and simple: "So watch yourselves."

My favorite chapter in the Bible is Psalm 51, and in verse 10, it says, "Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me." So join me in trying to avoid causing anyone to stumble, in watching ourselves and in cleansing our hearts in humility and forgiveness. By doing so, we can all turn back to our God as our Lord and Savior and not the latest protests or administration.

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Would I Rather be Right or Would I Rather be Kind?

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In recent weeks, I have been closely following a news story about a local politician embroiled in what will likely be a career-ending scandal. Sadly, I would usually be right there with the rest of the public shaking my head in judgment and cynicism, lamenting the lack of morals and good sense so often on display in our public officials.

In this case, I am just heartbroken.

I know this man, and I have worked with him. In spite of the demons he appears to be battling, I have always liked him and found him to be an outspoken champion for the poor in our community. Without his advocacy and leadership, the dreams of our recently completed local shelter for homeless individuals would not have been realized. While we may not personally be friends, I consider him a good friend of The Lamb Center, and I am deeply saddened by his struggles.

If I didn't know from personal experience the good he had done in other areas of his life, I could easily read the news stories and paint him into a monochromatic corner. The crimes with which he is being charged would make it easy for me to categorize him as a "bad guy" and write him off as just another example of evil, corruption and abuse of power.

But life really isn't that simple or clear cut, is it?

The morning the story broke, I made the mistake of reading some of the comments people were posting beneath the online story. As I was reading the vitriolic remarks, I wondered if any of these people would say the same things to his face. Yet, even as I "judged" them for the joy they seemed to be taking in his public fall from grace, I recognized myself. While I might not post an ugly comment in an online forum, I too have looked at someone I don't know personally and silently congratulated myself on my moral superiority.

But hopefully, I am still a work in progress. Although I am now firmly ensconced in middle age, there are five things I hope I am learning. More specifically, there are five things I am learning to live without:

The need for judgment
We are right to be outraged by outrageous behavior, and we are right to hold each other accountable for our actions. Yet, too much of my judgment of others is based on incomplete information.What I can see is only part of the story. My faith tells me I am called to love other people, not be the judge of their character. Judging another's heart is God's job, and I'm not God.

The need to be right
Sometimes, I need to learn to leave things alone. Just because I have an opinion doesn't mean others always need to hear it. If I disagree, I am not required to attempt to change the other person's mind. In most circumstances, there is only one loving answer to this question, "Would I rather be right or would I rather be kind?"

The need to prove my worth
We live in a culture of comparison and competition. We tear each other down in a misguided attempt to build ourselves up, as if we were standing in line for a limited supply of self-esteem. When I find myself feeling superior to a sister or brother, I need to consider from where I am getting my worth. I am a child of God, but I am not an only child. I don't need to hustle for my worthiness or fight for my share of God's love by ranking myself against another.

The need for perfection
When I characterize my own mistakes as failure, I have little patience for yours. The more self-critical I am, the more I judge others. Striving for excellence is a worthy goal, but striving for perfection is an impossible goal. Embracing progress instead of perfection makes me more compassionate toward myself and others and allows room for growth and learning for all of us.

The need for comfort
People are messy. Although we like the order and predictability of categorizing people as either good or bad, most of us possess plenty of both. In my experience, our best qualities can sometimes be our greatest downfall. While I would feel more comfortable in a world of absolutes, I am learning to embrace and even enjoy the subtler nuances. Black and white thinking may be easier, but color brings more joy.

Originally published on Grace Notes.

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Sermon Response: Two Toms ~ by Wendy LeBolt

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There are two things you never discuss in polite company, right? Religion and politics. Tom Berlin put them both on the line for 40 plus minutes from the pulpit this Sunday. You can catch the sermon on video here. I know Tom to be incredibly conscientious and very aware of the weight of his words and their potential to be misinterpreted. This gives me even more reason to applaud his willingness to tackle politics from the pulpit.

He brings to mind another Tom I have been reading a lot about lately. The Thomas Jefferson Bible has gotten a lot of press. Having been restored, it is now on exhibit through July 8 at the National Museum of NaturalHistory. The celebrated Jefferson Bible was the product of his nearly lifelong study of scripture (in Latin, Greek, French and English) and culling what he considered were "the essential teachings of Jesus." A cut and paste bonanza. This was a man who took his pursuit of faith seriously.

Jefferson championed religious freedom and the separation of church and state, but he worked hard to keep hisfaith beliefs private. He knew the risks. "Every word which goes forth from me," he wrote, "whether verbally or in writing, becomes the subject of so much malignant distortion, and pervertedconstruction, that I am obliged to caution my friends against thepossibilityof my letters getting into the public papers." And for him there was no internet orYouTube!

"Our" Tom faces both and wades in anyway. This may be what I like best of all about Floris UMC – the willingness to venture into the fray with both boldness and humility. To leave thesafetyof the sidelines. I have a feeling this is a skill Tom has cultivated over the years, and I have come to admire it as a culture that pervades our church. Tackling the tough stuff; refusing to be sidelined "when justice cries out for us to walk in the streets."

There are so many places I have chosen over the years not to speak up, ostensiblyto "keep the peace." But that only looks like peace. The real thing is messy. It requires participation. Somehow, inthevery act of engaging the conversation we become better and better at speaking the hard truth in love, even when we know others may distort our words or challenge us to support our claims.

It may be why the loose confederacy that spans liberal Democrats and Tea Party Republicans can peaceably co-exist at Floris UMC. Because we are pointed to the truth ofscripture,

""whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable if anything is excellent or praiseworthythink on these things." Philippians 4:8

You know, Thomas Jefferson warned against forming political parties. Ours is a new day, not so different from the days of old.Newsweek's headline Easter week read, "Forget the Church, Follow Jesus." As for me, if it weren't for my church, Iwouldn'thave a prayer of following Jesus. I wonder what Jefferson would find if he sat in our pews on a Sunday. Perhaps hope in his own conclusion that "Had the doctrines of Jesus been preached always as pure as they came from his lips, the whole civilized world would now have been Christian."

Thank you Tom.

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