The architecture of churches, in Tirol and Bavaria at least, testify to the union of state and church. There are statues and frescoes celebrating violent triumph over one’s enemies, with soldiers standing on the neck of the conquered, raising a lifted sword in victory. Then, right next to that statue, there’s one of Christ, the suffering servant laying down his life. For that matter, the entire region has been dotted with countless crucifixes; stone or wood carved images of Christ dying on the cross. They’re in the forest, hanging over the doors of farmer’s remote cabins at 4000′, and in high cathedrals.
The juxtaposition celebrating power while worshipping the one who embodies the utter relinquishment of power seems strange. The thirty years war, which decimated Europe, had its roots in power struggles between Protestants and Catholics. Warring armies throughout Europe have been appealing to the power of the sword to rule, conquer, subdue “in Jesus name”. One wonders how this is possible, but answers come quickly, and are summarized in the simple reality that anyone… ANY. ONE. can claim Jesus and raise a flag in his name.
The self-absorbed King Ludwig, who built the famous Neuschwanstein castle as a playground for his fantasies, was utterly self-absorbed, profoundly materialistic, utterly out of touch with reality, and, get ready: a man characterized by “deep faith.”
Kings and Reich Chancellors, Presidents and Senators, NRA lobbyists and Green Peace activists, Yankee and Confederate soldiers, Protestant and Catholic warriors, have all invoked violence in Jesus name.
There are lessons to learn here, important ones, if the church is to be a place offering any hope or meaning at all in the midst of the insanity of racism, violence, materialism, nationalism, consumerism, individualism, and all the other “isms” that, as the idols of our time, are cursing, enslaving, and destroying us.
1. The goal must be purity. Paul speaks of this in II Corinthians 10 when he expresses a fear that our hearts might be easily seduced away from the “simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” For the rest of my days, I’ll never forget the image of two statues side by side in a church I saw last week: a triumphant soldier standing on the neck of his enemy with sword raised was placed next to Jesus as a shepherd, a sheep on one arm while the other was still seeking, still looking. “My God” I pray, “forgive us for losing the simplicity of devotion to you, for in that simplicity, we become servants rather than power loving leaders, humble rather than proud. We become people for whom ‘you’ are enough, rather than you plus wealth, or you plus the assurance that we can kill anyone who trespasses our space, or your plus creature comforts.” I pray that, on my return to ministry leadership, I’ll pursue simplicity and purity with a passion and zeal, for therein lies the reality of Christ.
2. When Jesus is the reference point, insanity doesn’t happen as quickly. Really now, can you see Jesus advocating the use of an assault rifle to keep his home safe? Can you see Jesus firing anyone who doesn’t agree with him? Can you see Jesus living in the lap of luxury and amassing more and more while others he knows are living in abject poverty, oppressed and enslaved?
If Jesus is just a poster child for our cause, we can cherry pick some verses and justify Jesus as the slave owner, or Jesus as the gun rights advocate (“look we have two swords”, said a disciple), or Jesus as the source of our upward mobility.
Jesus, though, is no more the source of our upward mobility than he was the source of colonial expansion. He was co-opted for both causes, but read the book. Jesus wasn’t into either of those things. If we knew Jesus better, we’d have fewer statues celebrating wars that expanded our borders, but as it stands, these statues stand right beside the Prince of Peace, and I’m not sure anyone sees the tragic joke.
3. The problem is as old as people. The pharisees were the religious experts of Jesus’ day and they thought they had it right when they’d raise their stones to throw at the woman caught in adultery. But Jesus turned the tables on them to reveal that she, more than they, was closer to the kingdom of God, because she knew her own brokenness. Forever we’ve all been claiming the moral high ground, claiming God is “on our side”—but of course, the joke’s on us. God has no sides but God’s, and you’re only on God’s side when you look like Jesus.
Churches. They’re everywhere over here and every time I go inside one I come out praying that the community I lead would look more and more like Jesus in the coming months and years, and less like the striving, proud, divisive, complacent crowd that we’ve so often been as God’s people down through the centuries.
Do you think we can learn from history?
In just a few short days, my wife and I will be off to Europe where we’ll trek through the Alps, fully expecting to find the fingerprints of God in both creations beauty and power, and in the fingerprints of history. Carl Muth’s faithfulness in obscurity is an example of the latter, and a reminder the big, loud, high profile stuff, isn’t necessarily the best. Obscurity has it’s privileges! ….
In the Bavarian countryside, during the days of WWII, there was a small house, surrounded by a flourishing garden. Carl Muth lived in this house. Born in the 2nd half of the 19th century, Muth became a leading Cahtolic theologian, publishing a journal of Catholic Existential Theology for many years, until the work was censored and ultimately shut down by Hitler.
Hans Scholl found his way to Muth’s tiny house, having heard of this man who was now living in relative obscurity as the war was unfolding. It was here, at Muth’s house that Hans found both a mentor, and the theological underpinnings to carry out the subversive work of the White Rose, work which would eventually cost Scholl his life, but whose ‘subversive’ literature would be air dropped across Germany by the Allies helping to free Germany from Hitler’s grip.
Two things stand out about Muth. The first is his relationship with a younger generation. We read, “Muth’s magic was not only his philosophical sweep of knowledge or his deep hatred for National Socialsim, but his youthful, amost playful snesne of ethical and metaphysical exploration. He not only listened to young people, he wanted to live and share their experiences.” I love his posture towards emergent generations, maybe because I identify with it. I don’t know why it is that to this day, I’m drawn to interact with, enjoy, and learn from, people in the late teens to early 30’s. For whatever reason, though, I’m grateful for the privilege of investing in the next generation. Muth did that by being not only teacher, but student, eager to learn from the thoughts and perspectives of those who are younger, even as they’re eager to learn from him.
The second quality I notice is his call to courage in the face of darkness. Again we read, “In a universe where all values have been shattered, where religions and histories and literatures and social structures have lost their meaning, man has to stand up again, accept his condition, accept that he is alone and has no protection, and proceed to create his own world, his own values, his own decisions, his own actions – and be willing at all times to pay the consequences.”
These are powerful words, calling people to stand courageously in a world adrift in every way. Hans and Sophie Scholl heeded Muth’s words and paid with their blood. Sophie took the words to heart, and every testimony said that she remained calm, steadfast, courageous to the very end. Hans shouted, “long live freedom” loud enough for his voice to be heard beyond the walls of his Munich prison, just before the blade fell, severing his head.
One of Sohpie’s last letters was sent to Carl Muth, expressing her deep gratitude for his friendship, and admiration for his life.
A man’s ministry of publishing and parish work is shut down and he’s left with nothing but tending his garden and getting by as he can. Then, a young man enters his home, his life, and soon his house is bursting with conversations and idea which would become part of the soil in which, in a world gone mad, sanity would once again be born.
In world where churches obsess about size, writers look for platform, and business and trying to capture market share, someone needs to shout, “FAME IS OVER-RATED!” at the top of their lungs.
Fame is over-rated. Muth isn’t exactly a household name, like Beyonce, or Russel Wilson. But his seeds of faithfulness, sown in obscurity, took root in the lives of a new generation, whose literature shook Germany and the world. They got martyrdom, and fame. But who was the man behind the curtrain? Carl Muth – quietly investing in a few young people who would shake the world. I think that’s the calling that belongs to all of us. I hope I can be that faithful.
Teach us Lord, to let go of our addiction to influence, knowing that in the end, it’s scope isn’t ours to create anyway. Rather, grant that we’ll be faithful to live well, serve faithfully, and love deeply, those people and endeavors you allow into our lives, and let us rest in that, rejoicing along the way in the simplicities of beauty, fellowship, and intimacy with you. Amen
It’s been over week now since World Vision acted, the Evangelical world reacted, and hundreds of us wrote about it. This morning, I’m enjoying some coffee and reading John 9, which is a story about a blind guy Jesus heals with spit and mud on some random Saturday. This leads to some intense questioning and right there in the middle of it all we read this:
Then some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God because he does not observe the Sabbath.” But others said, “How can a man who is a sinner do such signs and miracles?” So there was a difference among them.
People who are experts in knowing the text, when confronted with a real life situation, have differing ideas regarding the proper interpretation. Imagine that! It certainly won’t be the last time people disagree about what it means to live faithfully. Circumcision, meat sacrificed to idols, observance of “a day” devoted to worship will all become issues, just in the first decades of the New Testament.
As church history unfolds, the number of issues about which people who share the same faith in Christ disagree will multiply exponentially: working in theater, working for the military, the ownership and/or use of weapons, the deity and humanity of Christ, the nature and meaning of the priesthood, the meaning of communion, the permanence or passing nature of miraculous signs in the Bible, women in ministry, divorce and remarriage, the weighted balance of calls to justice vs calls to personal pious morality, whether translate the Bible into common tongue, and once that was decided, which translation is better – and I’m just getting started.
Our sadness and shock regarding events surrounding World Vision last week say as much about our collective amnesia as they do about the state of Christianity. There really is nothing new under the sun, including the way people have reacted, including accusations and withdrawal.
There’s surely a time for both of these things. We look back in horror at the church’s collective silence in Germany, or the failure of the Southern Baptists to apologize for racism until the 1990s. While the majority went one direction, in both these cases there were minorities that actively resisted the trend lines, and withdrew from the prevailing tide of culture. Bonhoeffer both spoke out against the Reich and began an underground seminary. There’s a time to quit fighting and simply seek to gather with like minded people, out there on the margins.
Is this such a time? Rachel Evans seems to think so. She writes: “I’m done fighting for a seat at the evangelical table, done trying to force that culture to change” and this is a good thing because forcing culture change has never been our calling. We’ve always been called to offer an alternative to the prevailing winds of culture, not force culture change.
I don’t think the church gets this right very often because starting with Constantine, the threads of power have been tightly bound with threads of piety, and the results have been ugly, not just in recent history, but for about 1800 years now. Crusades, Inquisitions, and the boycotting of Disney and Starbucks are all the same iterations of bringing power to bear on people in hopes of changing their view of truth. Last week, though, it was this same tactic applied to people who share the same mission, as some Christians called for withdrawing financial support for World Vision in protest over a shift in HR policy regarding gay married couples. Two days later they reversed their decision, leading at least some people I know to withdraw their support over the reversal. I’m stunned that the same people offended by such tactics when the right invoked them against WV turned around and used them against WV when the shoe was suddenly on the other foot. It’s loud. It’s ugly. It’s embarrassing. It’s evangelical Christianity in the 21st century.
If you want to leave, there are plenty of places to go. The Catholics have the coolest Pope ever, but they still forbid same sex unions, keep women out of leadership, and frown on birth control. The Eastern Orthodox church has a marvelous creation theology, and a compelling view of the atonement, but they tend to think they’re the only ones with the truth (a kind of a “fundamentalism with incense”). House church? If it’s healthy it’ll grow and then you’ll need structure and kid care, and who makes these decisions? No church? It’s an option, but scripture’s clearer about gathering together regularly and living lives of interdependence in community as a testimony of loving each other than it is about nearly any other subject. What should we do?
I’m about to write that we need to stop marginalizing people, and I can already hear the comments about how churches do exactly that when they draw lines. But the reality is that every organization in the world stands for something, and when you stand for something, you draw a line, and when you draw a line there are outsiders. So, we need to see that churches either have standards or they don’t stand for anything. The question on the table is what do you do when an organization with which you’re affiliated, either through attendance or support, when you or someone you love is over there on the wrong side of the line on some issue?
Stay or go isn’t, in my estimation, the most important matter. There are people in the church I lead who’ve done both very well, in spite of disagreements on some matters of faith and practice. What matters most is that it’s high time to “kill the power play” (a hockey metaphor for my Canadian and Bostonian friends). A British friend, long since passed away, shared a story with me once about a pastor in London. He was intent on recovering a “true church” and was, by most counts, a brilliant bible teacher with a real capacity to see truth and communicate it with clarity. The trouble was that he saw things, in his own estimation, with such clarity, that he realized nobody saw the real truth except him. He died only willing to take communion with himself, a tragic irony given the fact that communion is intended to be a testimony of our shared life in Christ.
And therein lies the problem with withdrawing. Rachel writes about how great it would be to “focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees—women called to ministry, our LGBTQ brother and sisters, science-lovers, doubters, dreamers, misfits, abuse survivors, those who refuse to choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith or their compassion and their religion”
Yes, it would be great. But of course, there are theistic evolutionists who don’t favor gay marriage, or women in ministry. What happens when that woman speaks in your new community, or isn’t allowed to? – because the reality is that if you’re now a community, you don’t have the luxury of not deciding – either woman speak or they don’t. We don’t all agree on everything, and my British friend reminds me that when that’s the goal, we’ll end up dining, and worshiping, and bowling, alone. That’s why the most important thing isn’t being in or out, it’s killing the power play. Kill the notion that you’ll force change by exercising power!
What does that mean? It means I need to stand with Rachel and everyone else by putting an end to the notion that our calling is to “force a culture to change” through boycotts, marginalization, and labeling. It’s time we recognize that Jesus’ people have never agreed on anything, except that he rose from the dead. This doesn’t mean an end to all discussion and spirited debate. It doesn’t mean and end to communities and leaders needing to exercise spiritual authority and seek to uphold the faith with humility and courage. It does mean an end to attempts at making other faith based organizations conform to my exact view of the faith, and rallying the troops to punish them when they fail to conform.
What does this look like in practice? I think the best answer I can find is written by a former WV employee who is also gay (anonymous for obvious reasons) Here’s what he writes in response to the decision and its subsequent reversal:
I am disappointed. I feel defeated.
When it comes down to it, I understand the reasons behind the final decision – donor money makes things happen, and many donors didn’t agree with the policy change. My brain gets it, but my heart feels crushed.
It hurts to think that I could be turned away from my “dream job” at one of the best companies in my industry, not because of a lack of skill or education, but because of who I love and my self-expression.
… I feel all the emotions. Anger. Sadness. Disappointment. Shock. Confusion.
But beyond all of these, I feel love.
I think of the millions of lives impacted for good. The children who have been fed and given an education. The parents who have received micro loans and given support for their families. This reminds me of why I love WV.
I think about the countless conversations I’ve had with people about the incredible work World Vision does. The feeling of excitement I get in my stomach when I explain the brilliant approaches WV has made for economic and community development around the globe. I still believe strongly that World Vision is one of the most effective development agencies operating today. This reminds me of why I love WV.
I think of my former coworkers and the relationships I’ve formed through World Vision. Several of my dearest friendships were established there. These are the people who have strengthened my skills, taken a chance on me, and challenged me to grow professionally and as an individual. These are also the friends who have been so supportive during my coming out process. This reminds me of why I love WV.
And so as I prepare for my meeting at World Vision (as an independent contractor not subject to WV’s employment standards), after hearing that individuals in same-sex marriages will still not be employed by WV, I am full of love.
Because love comes first, and the rest will follow. Because love is louder than hate. Even if hate has a louder bullhorn.
I took physics in college as an architecture student, and learned that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Likely true in the world of matter, but this week evangelicals managed to prove that Newton’s law bears no resemblance to realities when it comes to the ugly science of ecclesiology, which is ostensibly the study of the church, but often in reality is the study of how humanity has messed with the church by taking the beautiful mystery of Christ’s bride and body and adding it’s own sorry cocktail of arrogance, violence, indulgence, often baptized in God language and waiving the flag of Jesus. The results down through history have not been pretty. Papal power grabs. The thirty years war. Ugly admixtures of church and state. Crusades. Colonization and land grabs. Catholics hating on Martin Luther. Martin Luther hating on the Anabaptists of the radical reformation, and so it goes.
You’d think we’d maybe have learned something, and I still hope some of us have. But the responses surrounding this week’s World Vision declaration is a sorry reminder that we have o so very far to go before we show the world the character of Jesus through our collective organizations and institutions. For the three of you who are unaware, World Vision has decided to “hire gay Christians (who are) in same-sex marriages“. In an attempt to avoid an outpouring of vitriol at the hands of fellow Christians, and to clarify his position, Stearns said:
“It’s easy to read a lot more into this decision than is really there. This is not an endorsement of same-sex marriage. We have decided we are not going to get into that debate. Nor is this a rejection of traditional marriage, which we affirm and support….We’re not caving to some kind of pressure. We’re not on some slippery slope. There is no lawsuit threatening us. There is no employee group lobbying us. This is not us compromising. It is us deferring to the authority of churches and denominations on theological issues. We’re an operational arm of the global church, we’re not a theological arm of the church.”
This makes perfect sense and is in keeping with World Vision’s “non ruling” on other potentially divisive issues, such as baptism, divorce and remarriage, and the ordination of women. Their mission is to care for the poor of the world and to do so in Jesus name, and they ask their employees to subscribe to the historic faith articulated in the apostle’s creed. There are people who subscribe to the creed who land on both sides of numerous theological practices; pacifism and war, alcohol use, and all the issues listed above. World Vision has created a big tent, where Christ followers from different faith traditions can focus on their mission to serve the poor and vulnerable of the world, because Jesus does that.
If the action of declaring that WV will hire gay married Christians was tantamount to tossing a snowball, the reaction of the church at large has been nothing short of an avalanche; disproportionate, and filled with destructive power. Franklin Graham declares that “it’s obvious World Vision doesn’t believe the Bible”. WV can, in Graham’s mind, not have a position on any of the faith practice issues listed above, accepting into their fold the divorced, the indebted, the teetotalers and drinkers, those with patriarchal views and the egalitarianists, without any problem. But not having a position on this single issue suddenly makes them, in a sweeping condemnation, an organization that doesn’t believe the Bible. Denny Burke of the Southern Baptists tweets “Good bye World Vision”. Some pastors are encouraging their congregants to cancel child sponsorships in protest. Boom! An avalanche of protest is directed at WV right now, reminiscent of the hundreds of other notable doctrine wars among Christians that make us look more like fighting political parties than Jesus. Meanwhile, the words of Jesus about us being known by our love for one another and our unity recede to the background as, somehow, we collectively show the world that its more important to argue, accuse, and boycott, than serve.
The point I’d like to make isn’t about gay marriage. It’s about how we treat each other as Christ followers. And here’s what we might consider:
I. We all have convictions – and we’re all Learning
We pastors need to make rulings on things like divorce and remarriage, and whether or not women can be pastors, and whether or not we should offer sanction to a same sex wedding by performing it. We who lead in churches might not even want to land on certain positions, but we don’t have that luxury. Either woman can be pastors or they can’t in some given setting. This forces us to shape our convictions on various issues, and as a result, we hold those convictions, and uphold those convictions.
And yet, I don’t think I’m the only one who has changed my view on this or that ethical issue over the years. My changes have come through careful study, prayerful consideration, conversation, and consideration of an issue within the larger context of a faith community. The fact that I’ve changed on this, and not on that, means that my understanding of my faith is continuing to grow, even while I live out my convictions.
I need convictions, and the courage to uphold them. But I also need the humility to recognize that, though I have good reasons for my convictions, there are people on the other side of an issue who also have good reasons for their convictions. They serve in a different part of Christ’s body, where they have the freedom to live out their convictions, even as I have freedom to live out mine.
There should be a way, though, to express our differences without the indicting weight of accusation dividing Christ followers again and again. World Vision isn’t even saying they have a position on the issue of gay marriage, which is their prerogative since they don’t do weddings (though I, as a pastor, don’t have that same prerogative). In spite of this, the word rolls out, from other faith organizations, that WV “no longer believes the Bible”.
It’s one thing to say, “I disagree with you on this single issue… and here’s why.” It’s another to hold up your single issue as evidence that you’re a heretic and that you don’t believe anything the Bible has to say. WOW! I thought we were beyond that.
II. Because we’re all learning – we should dialogue
The Bible talks about iron sharpening iron, and it’s a metaphor of the healthy friction of disagreement which, in its best iterations will lead to greater fellowship and eventually, more clarity with respect to matters of faith and practice. This can only happen in an environment where we drop our accusatory tone and verbal weapons, instead beginning with the notion that this other with whom we are speaking loves Christ as we do, in spite of our differences on a particular issue. When this happens, we’re challenged, frustrated, enlightened, and even if we don’t change our view a single inch, informed.
The early church wrestled with all kinds of issues and Paul seemed to indicate that there would be room for disagreement on some things without calling another’s faith into question, or worse, presuming that the other has lost his/her faith completely. There’s an example here, and another here. In both instances, Paul calls for grace and love to rule the day. Of course, it’s equally true that the early church came into clarity on various ethical issues and drew a line in the sand. You don’t sleep with your step-mom, for example, and expect the church to be OK with it. You don’t treat sex as just another appetite, like food. That misrepresents sexuality utterly. But holding slaves? Letting woman speak in church? Allowing a divorced and remarried person to serve in the church? Whether the earth is six thousand years old or 14 billion year old? Can you at least see that, in all these cases, there are two views – and people on both sides believe in the resurrection and in Jesus as the way, truth, and life. This should create an environment of robust and healthy dialogue, but our insecurities and combative natures creep in instead, creating embarrassing discord.
We’d do well to repent, collectively, for this kind of arrogant divisiveness.
III. Because we’re all learning – both sides need to offer grace
I’m so very tired of hearing from the left that those who won’t perform same sex weddings are bigots and haters, tantamount to abusive slave owners of the 19th century. Can you grant the possibility that they’re trying to be faithful to revealed scripture, even if you don’t agree with their conclusions? I’m equally tired of the right presuming that all who have said yes to same sex unions aren’t just making what they view is a misinformed decision on a single issue. They are utter heretics. Can you not grant that they too might be rooted in a desire to be faithful to what God’s revealed even if you don’t agree with them?
The early churches in Corinth and Galatia couldn’t be more different than each other. Gentile vs. Jewish. Cosmopolitan vs. somewhat provincial. Liberal vs. Legalistic. Both needed correction. Both missed the mark. Both received corrective words from Paul. But what’s most striking to me is that Paul asked the liberal, cosmopolitan, Gentile Corinthians to take an offering for the legalistic provincial Galatian church. Instead of tweeting “good bye Corinth” Paul begged them to share fellowship, because after all, they loved the same Jesus, worshiped the same God.
Instead, today people are cancelling sponsorships to World Vision because of their “non ruling” on gay marriage. A snowball gets buried by an avalanche.
If you simply must know my view on gay marriage, I’ve written about it elsewhere, but as I said at the outset, this isn’t a post about homosexuality; it’s about how we’re killing each other and our testimony through our inability to love each and disagree charitably. I stopped writing about homosexuality because my words were taken out of context and the comments people offered were so hateful that made me sick.
I believe there’s one right view on every ethical issue – God’s view, not mine.
In the meantime, until I know everything perfectly, I’ll preach Christ, live out the convictions I have, and seek to disagree charitably with those whose view is different than mine. And, because my sponsored child in Albania just wants to keep going to school so she can move out of poverty, I’ll keep sponsoring her.
The first words out of Abraham’s mouth that are recorded in the Bible are spoken to his wife, when he says, “See now, I know that you are a beautiful woman, and when the Egyptians see you, they will say, ‘This is his wife’ and they will kill me, but they will let you live. Please tell them that you are my sister that it may go well with me, and that I may live on account of you.”
And so begins a mini drama where Abraham’s wife is taken by force because of her beauty and offered to the harem of the highest leader in the land. It’s an amazing story, and I don’t want to give everything away, because I’ll be preaching on it this coming Sunday here. One thing worth pondering during the middle of the week, though, is our often shallow, thoughtless, and critical judgement of Abraham, as we gaze down on his fear based decision, convinced that, “we’d do better”. Maybe you don’t think that way, but I have in the past, and still do sometimes. But let’s look a little closer…
That he was in a tough spot is beyond a doubt. What I often hear though, is that Abraham was faithless, and that he ought to have trusted God to protect him. That’s (for some, perhaps) easy for us to say, 4000 years later, in the midst of seminaries, Bible teachers, stories of God’s faithfulness down through the ages, and the fact that it isn’t really our problem. It’s just that sort of dismissive self-righteousness, that sense of “I’d never do that”, which stunts our growth, often creating an arrogant and ugly misrepresentation of our faith. So let’s just pause for moment and consider that, of the many reasons Abraham might have doubted God, there’s at least one worth talking about precisely because we still doubt God for the same reason:
Remember that when Jehovah spoke to Abraham, the notion of a single God to “rule them all” so to speak, was unheard of. The prevailing world view was that gods were territorial, and that if you were the god of Canaan, you had power only in Canaan, like being the local sheriff in a small town. You had power, but only to the boundaries. After that, there were other gods, and the stories of nation indicated that the gods had learned to steer clear of each other.
When God called Abraham, there are only subtle hints that anything will change. God tells Abraham that in him (Abraham) all the families of the earth will be blessed, which is a cryptic way of saying something, but not clear enough for Abraham to divine that, while in Egypt this new God of his would be his protectorate there too.
Add to this the fact that Abraham traveled south to Egypt in defiance of God’s explicit command, and you realize that, even if he believed the new God would protect, the fact that Abe went out ‘on his own’ would create questions in his mind about whether God would get him out of the jam. The net result of this kind of thinking? Abe felt that, down there, in Egypt, he was on his own.
“Silly Abraham” we say, as we put down our devotional reading (if we even have such a thing on those “other days” – you know, during the busy M-F routine). Then we’re online, checking the market. Our bottom line of course, is ROI (return on investment). We don’t believe in social venture funds because they’re “fraught with complexities” and rarely do as well as standard investment. So our money’s distributed among the fortune 500 and the S&P index. It’s sad that some of these companies are outsourcing to places where labor practices and environmental standards aren’t so stringent, but that’s the market, and we need to be “good stewards”. God language? Yes… but most if it comes from a different god than Jehovah.
Later tonight we’ll go out on a date, fully believing that the notion of virginity is an archaic throwback to earlier days because Dan Savage, Sex at Dawn, Sex in the City, and car commercials remind us that sex is for pleasure. That’s it’s meaning. Period. The culture preaching this has a beautiful man, made mostly but not entirely, of straw, that they easily topple, as they point out how many people have been damaged by shame inducing, body demeaning preaching that demands chastity or hell as the only options. It’s convenient for the culture to have this mostly straw man, but creates a false dichotomy between the gods of pleasure and suffering in a shame filled hell for daring to enjoy your body as the only two option. The beauty, eroticism, and intense sexual pleasure found within the walls of covenant relationships isn’t really elevated as a realistic option. Ironically, that’s the very first thing God tried to teach Abraham. It seems we haven’t learned it yet.
That’s because we too often also believe that God’s are territorial – not geographically, but ideologically. There’s one God for the my spirit, another for my money, another for my sexuality, another for my patriotism. But when we move into the land of economics, or (historically at the least, if not today too) colonialism, violence, slavery, nationalism, environmental stewardship, or the primacy of the individual over the community, we’re sort of singing the song of Bruce Hornsby, “That’s just the way it is.” As a result, Indians were given blankest infected with smallpox by Christian settlers. Slavery was not just sanctioned – it was exalted as sound doctrine from the Bible. These things happened because people failed to let God’s reign bleed into those areas of their lives.
Please don’t miss the point because of the illustration. I’m not telling you which stock to buy, or not buy. I’m suggesting God reigns over economic matters, and sexual matters, eating choices, body care, and whether community is more important than individualism. We should try to let God be God all week long.
Like Abraham, we function “on our own” outside of the small private realm where Jesus talks about justification by faith. Maybe it’s time we recognized the reality of Ephesians 1:10-11, which is that Jesus wants the glory of God to saturate every atom of the universe. Only then will infinite joy and pleasure, perfect justice and peace, reign!
Let Jesus go beyond the boundaries of Sunday in 2014 and get ready for a grand adventure. Who’s in?
When the angel announced good news of great joy for all people, the angel opened the door for a feisty conversation about who’s in and who’s out of God’s family. That conversation has been fueled by arrogance and fear, and given birth to violence and hatred, as religious wars and posturing in things likes Crusades, colonialism, and genocide, have all been carried out by people with great big Bibles.
So let’s take a moment and consider what, perhaps the angel meant by the phrase “for all people”, based on what the Bible says.
Here’s the thing:
For all people… wow! Merry Christmas.
(in light of some conversations I’ve been having lately, here are some formative, not definitive, thoughts, about the words we use and how they affect our testimony)
When you talk to people and the subject of spirituality or faith comes up, I’m finding it increasingly difficult to use the word Christian in any meaningful way. Here’s why:
Words, in order to have meaning, need to have boundaries. The noun Hat can mean a lot of things – ranging from a baseball hat, to a helmet for football or motorcycle riding, to a lovely hat for some sort of formal event, to an Amish head covering. But we all know that it isn’t referring to a bottle, or a piece of cake, or a car. The limits of words make conversation and understanding possible, and though words can have varieties of meanings, the boundaries need to “reasonable” or else the possibility of some real misunderstandings arise exponentially.
This brings me to the word I’m putting on trial: Christian. Here’s why:
“I’m not a Christian – I’m a democrat”, implying that Christian and a view of the world that favors higher taxes and bigger government are inherently, de-facto, incompatible.
“Yes. I’m a Christian. I was baptized when I was 8 months old.”
“Yes. I’m a Christian. I grew up in the church.”
“Yes. I’m a Christian. I prayed the sinners prayer and went forward in church when I was nine”
“No I don’t want to be a Christian. Have you heard of the crusades? Slavery? The Christians were at the root of all that suffering.”
“I’ll never be a Christian. Just look at what Christian Europe did to our (African) continent.”
You could go back through these comments and try to build a definition of the word Christian based on the answers, and what you’d end up with are six different definitions, but that’s only because I’ve shared six stories with you. I could share thirty, and then you’d have thirty definitions, each one diminishing the meaning of the word rather than clarifying. The result? The word has come to mean so many different things that it essential means nothing.
What’s a Christian to do?
Continuing to use the word in the same way we talk about baseball and perfume, (assuming that everyone who’s listening knows what we mean by it) isn’t wise because we’re identifying ourselves with a word that, in the end, likely misrepresents us to the people who are listening.
If we’re not going to keep using it, there are only two options left: First, we can try to recover the word, offering a fresh definition. I’ve been a fan of this strategy for a long time, believing that to surrender the meaning of the word to all its false detractors is sort of like raising a white flag and quitting the fight. Isn’t it better to let everyone in the world know what the word really means by living out its true meaning for everyone to see?
Well, actually, no. It’s not better at all. That’s what I’ve come to believe at least. I’m tired of fighting this battle and saying, “don’t confuse MY Christianity with that yucky stuff over there. I’m not like that. I’m not like them” because these conversations have led to perhaps the worst definition of “Christian”- “Christians fight with each other all the time!” It’s a true statement, and ironic, since the one thing for which Jesus explicitly prayed is that Christ followers would be known by their unity. Instead, we’re known by our capacity to point out, more than any other religion in my opinion, how so many groups wearing the same word Christian really aren’t – and are worse than us.
“Over here. We have the real stuff! We’re the real definition of Christian” we shout, loud enough so that people already not interested in Jesus are now less interested than ever.
Nope. I’m finished with that game, because the person not talked about very much in all this shouting is Jesus himself, which is ironic, because in the end, what we’re supposed to be doing is inviting people to follow Jesus. The name calling, doctrinal fighting, and presumptive claiming of moral high is a game that’s worn me down. But when all the shouting, and divisions, and pleas for institutional loyalty have died down, what I love is that Jesus is still here in the room with me.
“I’ve been waiting for you man. Where have you been?”
“O you know. Out and about, promoting your faith.” I know I look tired, and it’s a little embarrassing because he seems so calm, so centered, almost unconcerned that I’ve been running myself ragged for him.
“I wish you wouldn’t do that” he says, sipping his coffee. “You’re confusing people. Don’t promote ‘my faith’. Why don’t you try just telling people about me? People are tired. They’re dealing with shame and failure. They’re living in the midst of kingdoms that are enslaving them. I want to bless them, help them, heal them, invite them to rest. They don’t need religion. They need me.”
“I thought I was telling them about you.” I say, defensive. Jesus reminds me that telling people to “go to church” or “become Christians” are phrases so loaded with toxic junk that they do more harm than good.
“I think that’s why Paul said that he was determined to know nothing more than Christ crucified. It might even be what Bonhoeffer meant when we referred to religionless Christianity. But even those words are too loaded. Just love people like I do. And tell people about me. Good things will happen.”
It’s advent. “Messiah” is playing on my computer, reminding me that the whole arc of history is, in the end, not about Christianity at all. It’s about one person who changes everything, ultimately saturating the universe with glory and beauty, bringing hope and healing to all. I pray that my eyes, this advent, will be looking for him all the time, talking about him freely, and giving him the freedom to do what he does best through the likes of me; love, serve, bless, and impart hope.
Yes. I’m burying the word Christian… if it rises from the dead, so be it. But may it never rise unless it represents the pure unadulterated glory of the risen Christ. Amen?
These are my thoughts… still forming. I welcome yours!
“Japan’s under-40s appear to be losing interest in conventional relationships. Millions aren’t even dating, and increasing numbers can’t be bothered with sex.”
So begins an article about the continuing loss of interest in sex among young people in Japan. The government even has a name for it: Celibacy syndrome. It’s examined at length in this article. Though a loss of interest in sex might be every fundamentalist preacher’s dream, a closer look at the “why” behind it should terrify us all, for its rooted in several dysfunctions that are the byproduct of an increasingly techno/material worldview that has little time for, or interest in, physical or spiritual realities. Here’s what I mean:
1. Work Life is consuming real life – Here’s an example from the article: Tomita has a job she loves in the human resources department of a French-owned bank. A fluent French speaker with two university degrees, she avoids romantic attachments so she can focus on work. “A boyfriend proposed to me three years ago. I turned him down when I realized I cared more about my job. After that, I lost interest in dating. It became awkward when the question of the future came up.” Careers take time in Japan, and they take time in the USA too. A fruit of this value structure is that there’s less energy, both physical and emotional, for the pursuit of intimacy. Still, it might be worth it if intimacy and union was something worth pursuing. But it’s not, because of the second problem.
2. Intimacy Cynicism. Every post-boomer generation seems to have an increasingly cynical view of marriage. There are lots of reasons for this but perhaps the biggest one is the appalling lack of accessible healthy marriage examples. Boomers marriages have failed more than previous generations. Further, among those that didn’t fail, many simply lowered the bar, particularly in religious circles, so that a successful marriage was defined as “not divorce”. I remember an older couple at church telling a young woman that the key to a successful marriage was to realize “there’s no back door – no escape – no leaving – no quitting” I watched the hope drain out of her face and after he left she said, “That’s why I doubt I’ll ever marry. I want intimacy, not a roommate to be stuck with the rest of my life.”
Of course, if I’m skeptical about marrying, or skeptical my marriage will last, then my own financial security becomes paramount “just in case”, and then the notion that either of us can contribute to the household in some way other than through a career evaporates. We each need our jobs, not out of a sense of calling, joy, or creativity, but as a trump card for our own survival. In such a setting, cynicism about the possibility of intimacy becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for many because you don’t have the hope and trust necessary to enter into the risk of commitment. “Marriage? Too risky.” I hear iterations of this regularly.
3. The Dusk of Commitment Free Sex – From the article: Tomita sometimes has one-night stands with men she meets in bars, but she says sex is not a priority, either. “I often get asked out by married men in the office who want an affair. They assume I’m desperate because I’m single.” She grimaces, then shrugs. “Mendokusai.”Mendokusai translates loosely as “Too troublesome” or “I can’t be bothered”. It’s the word I hear both sexes use most often when they talk about their relationship phobia
There are a growing number of young people who are beginning to experience the reality articulated in sources as wide ranging as the Bible and “No Strings Attached”: Sex has emotional consequences and costs. The notion that sex can be rewarding as “just sex” is increasingly seen through the lens of real experiences as myth. Sex is devalued. Intimacy is divorced from sex, or intimacy is birthed as an unanticipated expectation. And so, Mendokusai – not the worth the trouble. Or, as I’ve heard it said in Italian: Non vale il pene – not worth the penis
4. A disembodied existence. Our virtual world of social media, phones, TV, video games, and easy access to porn, creates an entire alternative, unreal world, a world which is consuming more and more time among the generations. Phillip Zimbardo speaks of this through the lens of American culture in his e-book, “The Demise of Guys”, cataloging many factors for the social, sexual, and intimacy dysfunction of men. The church, sadly, has been part of the problem too, not by encouraging social media and porn, but by ignoring enjoyment of, commitment to, and care for the body. Unfortunate understanding of our faith have exalted disembodied spiritual existence as a sort of “Christian nirvana” when in reality the Bible is filled with great food, wine, sex, thirst, hunger, sweat, blood, sunrises, mountains, rivers and streams, and everything else that invite us to be spiritual people in our bodies.
The therapist in Japan says, cites one man in his early 30s, a virgin, who can’t get sexually aroused unless he watches female robots on a game similar to Power Rangers. “I use therapies, such as yoga and hypnosis, to relax him and help him to understand the way that real human bodies work.”
If we who follow Christ shrug this off as “someone else’s problem” we’re blind both to our own sickness, and to the opportunity given us as a voice of hope and transformation. Christ followers must show the way forward by living out their faith in the flesh, which requires the risk of intimacy, the enjoyment and discipline of the body, and aliveness of the senses, and the embodiment of genuinely grace filled intimacy and sexuality, with all its vulnerability and courage. We can’t be light in this world without these commitments.
PS – since I’m out of words, and out of time, I’ll post thoughts regarding helpful steps for each of these four issues on Friday or next Monday. If you subscribe, you’ll be sure not to miss it! (just hit the “sign me up” button to the right)
School’s in, and for those of you who read this and are in college, I’d like to offer a word of welcome. As the pastor of a church with lots of university students in it, one of my favorite Sundays of the year is the one when you arrive, back from your summer experiences, to jump into another formative year of education. As a pastor, I feel incredibly privileged to share, in a small way, in that formation. I know that these are some of the most significant years of your life, know that the decisions you make and the values you form during these years will shape you for the rest of your lives, and even beyond that!
The NY Times had a great little read recently called, “Ditch Your Laptop – Dump your Boyfriend” filled with good, practical advice on how to make the most of your college years. If you’re in college, or know someone who is, I’d recommend reading it. The article started me thinking about what I’d want to offer students and I came up with a short list.
Since my list is incomplete, I hope some of you will add your own contributions by adding comments to this post. Thanks! So what you can students do to maximize their college experience:
1. Be curious. This, I’ve discovered, is of huge value in the ‘real world’ after college. Reading widely and developing your capacity to build bridges between different subjects is one of the things I look for when assessing someone’s leadership potential. Sure, you’ll need some specialization; but you’ll need more. You’ll need to capacity to think creatively, solve problems, and build bridges – skills which don’t happen accidentally.
2. Get intimate with God. That’s a tall order, I realize, but I think I’m simply talking about developing some habits that will help you and God become friends, like David and God were friends, or Moses and God. Jeremiah 9:23-27 is a reminder that “knowing God” is the only thing worth boasting about in this life. Of course, “knowing” isn’t offered here in some absolute sense because the truth is that we can’t know anyone perfectly and completely – not even God. But we can establish a trajectory of intimacy, whereby God becomes someone to whom we pour out our heart, in both gratitude and complaint, frustration and longing, rejoicing and praise.
This will require some time apart from others, and maybe a journal. If this is one of your greatest areas of weakness, I’d recommend this book as great place to start.
3. Do something to serve others. I just finished writing a new book, the thesis of which is that each person is uniquely gifted by God to paint the colors of hope on the canvass of our world. To find your brush, and learn your strokes, you need to say yes to serving in some way. You can do this on campus, or in your church. This will help you swim upstream against the consumerism that is so prevalent in our culture.
Some of you love to serve, but have a hard time sitting still long enough to develop intimacy with God. For others, you have the opposite problem. If you’re in search of balance, I’d recommend my book, available through Amazon, or the church I lead.
4. Leave campus. Get to know your city and people who don’t attend your school. This broadening of your world has great value. When I attended college in Seattle, I worked at an I-Hop, and the Seattle Sonics basketball team came in every game day. I became a huge fan, started going to games, and felt deeply connected to the city because of it, so much so that, sixteen years after graduation, I moved back to pastor a church there. There’s nothing better than falling in love with your city, and Christ, right in the midst of all that is college life.
What are some other thoughts you’d add, in order to help students maximize their college experience?
The world has turned on big ideas, of course. Lincoln ended slavery in America. MLK gave birth to civil rights. Martin Luther brought the Reformation. Plato. Augustine. Hitler. Pol Pot. Lenin. Marx. Like the ideas or don’t; they’ve changed the course of the world.
And there are lots of other ideas as well, tens of thousands of “medium ideas” that have been shaping forces in still significant ways: Dorothy Day and the Catholic workers. Bill Hybels and the ‘seeker friendly church’. Bill Gates and software. Steve Jobs. Google. Facebook. Henry Ford and the automobile. Human flight. Eisenhower’s national highway project, Earth Day, and countless others at global, national, and local levels that have been impactful for better worse, ranging from multi-level marketing scams and schemes to remarkable non-profits whose intent it is to change the world, like International Justice Mission.
The thing all big ideas share in common is the notion of inviting others to step into a story “bigger than their own ‘small’ story”. Christianity in the macro sense, and local churches in the micro sense do this too, as they (we) should, because our founder, Jesus, had the biggest idea of all – the idea that the eternal reign of hope, beauty, justice, and peace is inevitable, so let’s get on with living into it now – becoming the presence of God’s good reign through our daily living as we bring hope to the hopeless in Jesus’ name. This is, of course, good and right and important. And yet….
I sometimes wonder if we’re not putting the cart before the horse, or even trying to bring mobility to the cart without even having the horse. There’s a huge risk out there among people who are living for big ideas. You find it in Taliban fundamentalists whose computers are filled with porn and Catholic priests who’ve been guilty of pedophilia. You find it in health foodists who covertly eat McNuggets, and environmentalists who speak inconvenient truths while residing in enormous, energy sucking homes. It’s the Marxist who dines on caviar while the masses stand in line for a loaf of bread. It’s the hawks who talk about duty and sacrifice, while pulling strings to exempt their own children from military service. What’s going on?
Big ideas become a danger fuel at times, feeding these wrong fires:
Hypocrisy is so common among idealists as to nearly be expected these days. Any of us can become convinced that our commitment to the big idea is all we need to live well, which of course is, to put it mildly, a pile of dung. It will always be true that the very first thing we need to do in order to live well is: live well. Beyond that, the 2nd thing we need to is live well, and the 3rd, and 4th, and it really never ends, because when it does, our success with the big idea will create a mindset that exempts us from the very thing our big idea is about. It’s no good. Life’s too short to be that misaligned.
Vicarious righteousness is a shade different than hypocrisy, and applies when we think that by contributing to big ideas, with some money, or maybe even some time, we’re suddenly deeply identified with that big idea. I give a few hundred bucks to some cause such as International Justice Mission and, presto, I’m part of the solution! Yes. But… if I continue buying cotton T-shirts at 3 for $10 down there at Wal-Mart, I’m still part of the problem, and probably a bigger part of the problem than the solution. If a preach about environmental stewardship and justice (and I have), ride my bike to work (and I often do) and then gorge myself on McDonald’s junk (yes… I have), I’m still part of the problem.
Distraction is the third fire wrongly fueled by our big ideas and causes because our love of big ideas can easily overwhelm our much needed commitment to personal integrity. In a word, we’re too busy and preoccupied with changing the world to ever change the sheets on the bed, or cook healthy food, or enjoy a walk in the forest. In the end, our lives become hopeless shells of what they could and should be, having been consumed by our need to do something great.
All these fires can be doused by one simple change: I must make sure that aligning my actual life with my values is the first, and highest pursuit of my life. If I’m trying to align with the big idea that is Christianity, that means taking Jesus’ teaching about loving others, simplifying my life, living generously, practicing hospitality, and crossing social divides must become values expressed in my daily living, not just my checkbook or my church’s teaching. It’s one thing to talk about giving stuff away. It’s another thing entirely to actually do it.
The problem with small ideas, especially for visionaries, is that they don’t bring a big adrenalin hit. There’s no big thrill is making my bed, or taking the time to cook a healthy meal about which nobody will ever read, or inviting a few people over to enjoy a glass of wine and some good conversation. It can all seem so unimportant in the light of world hunger, vast injustice, Syria, terror, and corporate greed. There’s no time for such low level living! There are wars to fight!
Yes. But first… pray. First…get enough sleep. First… begin to live the kind of life that represents what you say you believe in. First… relax and rest in the arms of Christ. After all, that is, more than anything, what he wants to offer you. Out from that soil of integrity, your calling and involvement with big ideas will come – but now in God’s scale, freed from your Messiah complex, and at rest with the notion that if you’re going to play a part in any big idea, you’ll do it better because you’ve learned to give attention to the small ideas that make up daily living.