Six things I’ve learned reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter

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Every night before bed, my daughter Elizabeth gets to pick two books for us to read.

As far as she’s concerned, The Story of King Jesus will always be the book I wrote for her—and it is—so it’s been making regular appearances in our bedtime routine. We’ve read it a few dozens times now since our first copy arrived.

For my part, the book is an experiment of sorts. I believe we shortchange the gospel when we reduce it to a handful of Bible verses or condense it into a formula you recite. I believe we shortchange our kids when we fragment biblical narrative into isolated stories and treat them as moral fables. I believe our kids deserve a bigger gospel. They deserve to have the Bible presented as a single, coherent story.

The Story of King Jesus is my attempt to do just that. I want to prove it’s possible to share our faith without shortchanging either the gospel or our kids.

My daughter is 4-1/2. She’s just now taking her first steps of faith. I know better than to declare victory yet. But what I’ve witnessed so far gives me a lot of encouragement.

Here are six things that I’ve learned while reading The Story of King Jesus to my daughter…

1. She can (and will) use the book to delay bedtime. And I’m all right with that.

OK, I don’t know what implications it has for nurturing her faith. But Elizabeth knows how to use the book to stretch out her nightly routine.

The most sacred bedtime rule in our house—we read each book ONCE—is in tatters when she gives me those big, sad eyes and asks me to read “her favorite book” one more time. Yeah…she knows how to play me.

I find myself in less of a rush, too. I’ll confess… I’ve sped through some of her books at bedtime (Goodnightstars-goodnightair-goodnightnoiseseverywhere-THEEND), but I slow down for this one. Because this story matters. I want her to absorb every word.

Even her regular interruptions are more easily welcomed because, well…

2. She asks surprisingly good questions.

The other night, she interrupted me as we got to the exodus part of the story, where God’s people “were slaves in another country.” We’ve read these words many times, but this time Elizabeth wanted to know what slavery is.

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So we talked about how some people try to own and control others, how this is part of what we mean when we say “God’s good world is broken.” We talked about how “making the world right and good again” (another phrase from the book) means making it a place where everyone is free, where everyone is treated with respect, and where we love everyone they way God loves us.

I love that she’s asking the kind of questions that will help her connect her emerging faith to the world around her—so she can see that God doesn’t just save us from something; he invites us to become part of making the world right and good again.

Kids need to see that our faith makes a difference in this world, not just the next one. The gospel is about far more than where we go when we die. As Benjamin Corey wrote, it’s not about escaping this world; the gospel about transforming it.

Watching Elizabeth process The Story of King Jesus, I’m reminded that our kids know how to ask good questions. We don’t have to shove answers down their throats. We just have to nurture their innate spiritual curiosity.

3. She is naturally drawn to Jesus.

Elizabeth lights up whenever we get to the part about Jesus. As soon as I read the words “something new happened” and “God sent someone special,” she gets fidgety with excitement. She wants to recite the next part before I can read the words, “God sent his only Son, Jesus.” She wants to take in every picture of Jesus doing “good things everywhere he went,” and she wants to tell me about each one. (Some of her interpretations are more creative than others.)

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The Bible is all about Jesus. Jesus fulfills and transforms Israel’s story all at once. The purpose of the Bible is not to serve as some kind of rulebook or user manual, but to point to Jesus, the true logos, the final Word of God.

When we keep Jesus at the center of our gospel, our kids find someone with whom they can connect—perhaps more easily than we do.

4. She’s connecting some of the dots for herself.

The other night, when we got to the part about the kings of Israel—“Some kings were good. Some were bad. Mostly, the kings did whatever they wanted.”—Elizabeth added, “Yeah, just like the very first people.”

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She already gets that Israel’s story is an echo of the garden story—God creates people, gives them a home, offers to live with them, but the people go their own way and lose their home. She’s starting to get that this is our story as well, that it’s not just a story about people who lived a long time ago. She’s starting to understand that what God wants for the “very first people,” and what he wants for Israel, is what he wants for us: to make the world right and good again so we can live with him once more.

5. This story can hold her attention.

My daughter doesn’t have a lot of sit in her. I don’t think she’s ever sat through an entire movie—except maybe Frozen, and that was only once. Come bedtime, her ability to focus, such as it is, usually goes out the window. (In other words, she is a normal kid.) But for all the times we’ve read The Story of King Jesus, it still holds her attention. She wants to know the story behind each image. She’s learned parts of the book by heart. She talks about it during the day.

I think we have a tendency to sell our kids short. We turn the gospel into sound bites. We give nuggets of Bible stories, rendered unrealistically cute and reimagined as moral fables, because we don’t think our kids are up for more than that. We should have more confidence in them and in the story we tell—because, well…

6. She—and other kids like her—can grasp the big story of the Bible, if we give them a chance.

I remember years ago teaching a Sunday school class using a “youth-friendly” denominational curriculum. The kids in my class were bored senseless. I couldn’t blame them. So was I.

So we ditched the curriculum; instead, I started telling them the big story of the Bible (because it was clear no one had ever done this for them). The atmosphere changed immediately. Kids who had been sleeping with their eyes open sat bolt upright. They started asking questions. They wanted to know where the story was going.

As Scot McKnight wrote in The King Jesus Gospel, “We need to regain our confidence in the utter power of proclaiming the one story of Jesus.” To this, I would add we also need to regain our confidence in our ability to tell this story well—and in our kids’ ability to embrace it.

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The Story of King Jesus is available at bookstores now.

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Available through Amazon, Barnes & Noble, CBD, Thoughtful Christian and your local independent bookstore.

Why it takes more than a “Youth Sunday” to show kids they matter

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When I was a kid, our church held a “Youth Group Sunday” service once a year, usually right after we got back from church camp. Generally it was an evening service—we were Baptist and it was the 90s, so that was something we still did. Also, our AM service was televised. (Again, we were Baptist and it was the 90s.) So letting the youth group take control of an evening service seemed a bit… safer.

During “Youth Group Sunday,” the music was a little more contemporary. We performed badly acted skits. In place of the sermon, we’d share post-camp testimonies—a chance for us to tell everyone how “on fire for God” we were going to be (for the next couple of weeks).

Then everything went back to the way it was.

We were expected to be quiet in church once again. As a reward for our (relative) silence, we were entertained with our own activities, our own Bible studies with the requisite “edgy” videos, even the annual ski trip. Everything was carefully structured to cater to our demographic niche.

Strangely, the greatest impact on my spiritual formation during those years came not from all the age-specific programming, but from a handful of older members who crossed the generational divide to mentor some of us. Their presence did more to show us we mattered than anything else the church did.

Today, the defection of Millennials (those born in the 80s and 90s) is no small source of hand-wringing among church leaders. And here’s the kicker:

All that age-specific programming, along with token gestures like “Youth Group Sundays,” aren’t the answer to keeping them in church. In fact, they might be part of the problem.

Tom Fuerst, a UMC pastor, suggests Millennials aren’t attending church because, well, they’ve never had to. All our specialized programming has effectively kept them out of the sanctuary for most of their formative years.

Hear me out on this: age-appropriate spiritual formation opportunities are a GOOD thing. But, taken to an extreme, they might be sending an unintended message to our kids: you don’t matter. 

Tom writes:

You created structures and systems of “doing church” that taught us that our presence in the communal gatherings were relatively irrelevant. We learned from your structures, not necessarily your example.

Millennials who grew up in churched families sometimes don’t feel like they belong in church because they have never participated in church on a week-to-week basis. We’ve never believed (because we’ve never been taught) that our weekly presence, despite age, matters to the vitality and mission of the church.

To echo something another writer, Amy Peterson, shared this week, I want my kids to have an intergenerational church experience. That’s one reason why I, like Amy, have found a home in the Episcopal Church.  But church isn’t intergenerational unless the kids are truly part of it. We need to welcome kids into the sancutary…yes, even the fidgety ones. They need to be more than passive observers, too. They need to be shown they are fully valued members of our communities—token gestures like the occasional “Youth Group Sunday” will not do that. They need to see that our worship is incomplete without their participation. They need to see that, as Tom put it, “their voice matters to the mission of God in the world.”

I guess that’s why I like the fact we have acolytes in our services. But I wonder if that’s enough. Is there more we can do to engage kids—without patronizing gestures—to show them that their presence and participation matter every bit as much as the adults’?

And not just so we can boost our numbers, but because participation is vital to spiritual formation. Kids learn by doing. They learn by being included. As I’ve written elsewhere, we don’t learn the faith so we can belong; we belong so that we might learn. In a lot of our churches, we get this backward. It’s no wonder so many of our kids check out when they reach adulthood.

And that’s where the final caveat comes in: it’s not enough to welcome kids into your worship if it’s not participatory. If your worship is primarily a passive experience for all but those on stage—if the main event is someone lecturing for 30-60 minutes while everyone sits in silence—then you might need to rethink how you do church before you ask younger people to take part. Otherwise the question will be, take part in what?

I don’t have all the answers to how we go about welcoming kids as integral members of our worship and mission. But until we figure how to do this better, there’s not much point worrying about how we’re going to get Millennials to come back to church.

First, we need give them something to come back to.

Image: fumcuhurch.com

Good and not-so-good reasons to share an #Ashtag selfie

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Confession: I may or may not have posted an Ash Wednesday selfie in years past. Not so I could win a publisher’s contest offering free merchandise in exchange for so-called #ashtags (that IS troubling), but because I was taken by the novelty of the ceremony.

Admittedly, it seems odd to call an ancient ritual “novel.” But that’s what it was for me—and for others like me, who grew up in nonliturgical church settings. Strangely enough, it was in an evangelical megachurch that I first received the imposition of ashes. When the church started experimenting with liturgy in its worship, I was hooked. The perceived novelty was intoxicating in the best way, precisely because of the way liturgy invites into us into something bigger than ourselves.

Many of us are just now stumbling into the liturgy. And for us it’s like a discovery. The weekly Eucharist, the prayer book, the liturgical seasons—we had no idea these things existed, much less how powerful they are. So for some of us, an #ashtag (much as I hate that term) might simply be an expression of our excitement at this “new” way of faith we’ve “discovered.”

We’re like infants taking our first steps in a world where everything is captivating, new, and exciting. And because social media is a natural extension of our lives, posting an #ashtag selfie might, for some, be the most natural way of sharing what the liturgy means to us.

On the other hand, there’s a time for putting away childish things. And Ash Wednesday selfies might be one of them. It worries me when organizations try to make a promotional opportunity out of a sacred ritual. There’s something incongruous about taking a lighthearted selfie moments after a ceremony meant to remind us of our mortality. It’s like “whistling past graveyards,” as David R. Henson put it. It reduces a holy encounter with the immortal God into a social media trend. It inadvertently shifts the focus from the divine to ourselves, as Peter Chin suggests.

Is that really such a good idea?

Perhaps coincidentally—or perhaps not—the incongruity of the #ashtag selfie is highlighted a little too well by the appointed gospel reading for Ash Wednesday:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.

“So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”

The appointed reading challenges us to think critically about our practice of Ash Wednesday selfies. Now, I don’t believe most people sharing #ashtags are doing so primarily to win others’ approval—though there is something dangerously intoxicating about seeing the number of likes or retweets your post gets. For most, I think the practice is a genuine expression of what the liturgy means to them, and a genuine desire to share that with others.

Still, I hope we reach a point where those of us for whom all this is new no longer need #ashtags, where the ceremony itself is enough, where our initial exuberance gives way to a quieter, less visible—and ultimately more sustainable—form of piety.

Image: Saint Mary-of-the-Woods College on Twitter

Name that quote: the Bible vs. the Quran

Goodness. A few weeks ago, it was Stephen Fry. Last week it was President Obama. Everyone seems to be beating up on Christianity these days.

Of course, that’s not quite true. Neither man was attacking anyone’s faith, despite what the clickbaity headlines would have us think.

In addition to having a cooler accent and more colorful taste in neckties, Fry is an atheist. He pulled no punches as he denounced a “capricious, mean-minded, stupid God” he doesn’t believe exists. Obama, on the other hand, is a Christian. In his remarks at the Presidential Prayer Breakfast, he took pains to distinguish between distortions of faith and the real thing:

Humanity has been grappling with these questions throughout human history. And lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ. In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ. Michelle and I returned from India—an incredible, beautiful country, full of magnificent diversity—but a place where, in past years, religious faiths of all types have, on occasion, been targeted by other peoples of faith, simply due to their heritage and their beliefs… So this is not unique to one group or one religion. There is a tendency in us, a sinful tendency that can pervert and distort our faith.

Both men’s statements were met with protestations of innocence. Who is this God you denounce, Stephen? some Christians wondered aloud—despite the fact that many imagine God pretty much exactly as Fry described. Obama’s remarks were greeted  with a similar defense: Slavery and the Inquisition? They were distortions of true Christianity, Obama! (Which was sort of his whole point to begin with.)

It should be noted the president could’ve pressed his case further. He could have mentioned Rwanda, where the church was complicit in one of the worst acts of genocide since the Holocaust. He could have mentioned Srebrenica, where thousands of Bosnian Muslims were slaughtered. He could have brought up the colonization of Africa, which was steeped in an imperialistic, racist brand of Christendom.

Obama’s goal was not to pick on Christianity but to point out how “religious faiths of all types” are vulnerable to distortion—particularly when they’re used to justify violence or discrimination against those who differ from us in some way.

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A rather less gray Obama at the 2009 Prayer Breakfast (credit: whitehouse.gov)

Unfortunately, this nuance was lost on those who can’t pass up the chance to be seen being outraged on TV. A former Virginia governor called Obama’s remarks “the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.” Catholic League president Bill Donohue undertook to rewrite history, claiming—and you’ve got to admire his ambition here—that the Crusades were all justified and the Inquisition was something the Church was barely involved in.

Ravi Zacharias, a widely respected Christian apologist, called Obama’s remarks a “presidential blunder” representing an “absence of wisdom” the likes of which he’s never before seen. “The president obviously does not understand the primary sources of [Christianity or Islam] to make such a tendentious parallel,” he concluded. (My friend Nathan Smith has a thoughtful take on Zacharias’ response.)

So how about those primary sources then? Tell you what, let’s make a game of it. Read the quotes below and see if you can guess which come from the Bible and which are from the Quran. (Note: For the sake of the exercise, I’ve generalized references to God and/or specific people where necessary.)

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1. We took all his cities at that time, and we utterly destroyed the men, women, and little ones of every city; we left none remaining.

2. When we resolve to raze a city, we first give warning to those of its people who live in comfort. If they persist in sin, judgment is irrevocably passed, and we destroy it utterly.

3. So he made a vow to God, and said, “If you will indeed deliver this people into my hand, then I will utterly destroy their cities.” God listened to his voice.

4. When God delivers them over to you, you shall conquer them and utterly destroy. You shall make no covenant with them nor show mercy to them.

5. Slay the idolaters wherever you find them. Arrest them, besiege them, and lie in ambush everywhere for them.

6. You shall destroy all the peoples whom God delivers over to you; your eye shall have no pity on them.

7. Fight for the sake of God those that fight against you, but do not attack them first. God does not love aggressors.

8. The eternal God is your refuge, and underneath are the everlasting arms; He will thrust out the enemy from before you, and he will say, “Destroy!”

9. He left none remaining, but utterly destroyed all that breathed, as God had commanded.

10. Do not spare them. But kill both man and woman, infant and nursing child, ox and sheep, camel and donkey.

11. Slay them wherever you find them. Drive them out of the places from which they drove you.

12. True believers fight for the cause of God.

13. This charge I commit to you, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare.

14. Let those who would exchange the life of this world for the hereafter, fight for the cause of God.

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Yes, context matters when reading the Bible’s more violent passages. Various Christian traditions have different ways of handling these passages, but the vast majority agree on at least one point: we cannot use these texts to justify acts of violence today. Christians can account for the presence of these statements in our Bible without believing they’re somehow normative for us.

And that’s the point.

Muslims can make the same argument about their “problem texts,” if they like. I don’t get to decide what someone else’s holy book teaches—especially if, like most Christians, I’ve read even less of the Quran than I’ve read of the Bible. I don’t get to decide what the Quran says based on what a handful of extremists do with it—any more so than others get to decide what the Bible teaches based on how the KKK has abused it.

None of which is to fall back onto some kind of squishy religious relativism. I believe the Bible. It’s my holy book. Rather, this is about simple human respect. Or, as the president put it, “basic humility.” Yes, we should push back when others try to distort our faith. But we should be also avoid the temptation to disparage or misrepresent someone else’s faith.

Who knows? If we showed a little more respect for each other, it might be the start of a more peaceful world.

—//—

Answers:

1. Bible (Deuteronomy 2:34)
2. Quran (17:16)
3. Bible (Numbers 21:2-3)
4. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:2)
5. Quran (9:5)
6. Bible (Deuteronomy 7:16)
7. Quran (2:190)
8. Bible (Deuteronomy 33:27)
9. Bible (Joshua 10:40)
10. Bible (1 Samuel 15:3)
11. Quran (2:191)
12. Quran (4:76)
13. Bible (1 Timothy 1:18)
14. Quran (4:74)

By the way, if you’re into this sort of thing more than, say, a BuzzFeed quiz on which animal from Lord of the Rings you are, check out this post comparing things complementarian Christians have said to excerpts from ISIS’ manifesto on women.

What struck you about these quotes from the Bible and the Quran? How did they seem similar to you? How did they seem different?

Stephen Fry’s God is no straw man

“Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you. How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right. It’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world which is so full of injustice and pain?” That’s what I’d say.
—Stephen Fry

It is right for God to slaughter women and children anytime he pleases. God gives life and he takes life. Everybody who dies, dies because God wills that they die. God is taking life every day. He will take 50,000 lives today. Life is in God’s hand. God decides when your last heartbeat will be, and whether it ends through cancer or a bullet wound. God governs. So God is God! He rules and governs everything. And everything he does is just and right and good. God owes us nothing.
—John Piper

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Stephen Fry clearly struck a chord with his impassioned denunciation of God. It’s fast approaching exceeded five million views on YouTube. There’ve been no shortage of responses, either—even Russell Brand weighed in with a video rebuttal… before he had time to make his bed, apparently.

For me, however, the response that resonated most deeply was not a rebuttal. It was my friend Ian’s heart-wrenching story of how he can relate to the anguish Fry articulated, even though (unlike Fry) Ian identifies as a Christian.

Other responses, for the most part, fell more clearly into the “rebuttal” category. Many expressed surprise or bewilderment at Fry’s depiction of God. That’s not the God we know, they protested. Where did Fry get the idea that God is the author of eye-burrowing parasites or bone cancer in children?

It turns out, we don’t have to look far to find the answer.

The second quote at the start of this post is an actual thing a prominent Christian pastor and author has said. Not someone on the lunatic fringe. Someone squarely in the heart of mainstream evangelical Christianity. “It is right for God to slaughter women and children,” John Piper argues. “Anytime he pleases.” Because whatever God does, according to Piper, “is just and right and good.”

Bone cancer in children.

Eye-burrowing worms.

According to this view, God is the author of both. Such a God is every bit as capricious and unreasonable as Fry says he is, because he does not operate according to a consistent or predictable ethic. Whatever this God decides to do is, in that moment, “right and good”—for no other reason than he chose to do it.

Such a God provides no credible standard of morality for us to live by. Such a God cannot be trusted. Such a God cannot be said to be “for us” in any meaningful sense. Such a God exists purely for himself, for his own glory. And if this God decides that slaughtering a million children is the thing that will bring him the most glory, then according to Piper, he is entirely right to do so.

None of which is to pick on Piper per se, rather to point out that there are lots of Christians who hold the same view of God, even if they haven’t been as diligent as Piper in unpacking it full implications. (I disagree strongly with Piper, but I respect him for following his theological convictions to their logical end.)

Indeed, you can build a case for Piper’s view of God through a selective reading of Scripture. Isaiah 45 says God brings both prosperity and calamity. “When disaster comes to a city,”  another prophet asks rhetorically, “has not the Lord caused it?” Both statements ought to be read in their immediate literary and historical context, but it’s far easier to universalize them.

And of course, there are a number of places in the Old Testament where God appears to orchestrate, even command, precisely the sort of atrocities which Fry laments and Piper accepts as normal divine behavior.

Now, I happen to believe there are other explanations which make better sense of the full sweep of Scripture. I happen to believe this is one of many reasons why we shouldn’t treat everything in the Bible as “a list of normative behaviors” (to quote Zack Hunt).

I happen to believe that Jesus is the primary lens through which we see and understand God rightly. Everything else we might say about God—including everything else the Bible might say—must be filtered through this lens. (Note: not discarded or dismissed. Filtered.)

I happen to believe the image we get from Jesus is of a God who emptied himself of power instead of using it against us—something that Giles Fraser pointed out in his response to Stephen Fry. I believe in a suffering, vulnerable savior who set out to right all the wrongs that Fry listed—and I believe this is the most definitive, tangible image of God we have. Not the God who slaughters children at a whim.

But that’s not really my point. The truth is, it’s easy to get up in arms at what Fry said about God. It’s easy to take offense—and then go on the offense. It’s easy to ostracize those who see reality differently than we do.

What’s not so easy is to listen—in this case, to acknowledge that Fry was not attacking a straw-man version of God. He was describing precisely the kind of God that many Christians believe in and worship.

If we do not allow Jesus to fully shape our understanding of God, we will end up with exactly the kind of deity that Stephen Fry so forcefully denounced.

Four things I want for the Episcopal Church

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The Episcopal Church breathed new life into my faith. The Eucharist, the liturgy, the people—I don’t know where I’d be in my journey without them. Most likely untethered, without a spiritual home.

Judging by the reaction to my last post, I’m not alone.

I’ve been part of this community long enough now that I should probably stop thinking of myself as a newbie. It’s been long enough for me to know there are challenges ahead. For all the good there is, we’re an imperfect community.

I don’t have answers to the challenges facing the Episcopal Church. But there are four things I hope will shape our response…

1. Don’t be afraid of the future.

The Episcopal Church is in decline, at least numerically. There’s no point denying or dismissing it. Yes, it’s part of a larger trend affecting all major denominations. No, it doesn’t have as much to do with the church’s position on divisive issues; it’s far more to do with demographic shifts and our failure to keep up.

But the decline is real. It cannot be wished away. My friend and Episcopal priest Nurya Love Parish has plenty of research providing the necessary context.

Decline is painful. We’ll see more churches close in the years ahead. We can either wring our hands about the future, or we can help shape it. Either way, things won’t be as they were before. Episcopalians will no longer enjoy privileged status in American society. And well… good. Privilege has a way of breeding apathy. God, on the other hand, has a way of diminishing the mighty to remind us of our weakness—often (and this is the good news) so he can work through us in new and better ways. We can resist, exhausting our resources to prop up a crumbling edifice, or we can build something new.

Death of one kind or another is coming. It always does. The question, as one of our priests put it, is whether we can “fathom resurrection” on the other side. I think we can.

2. Don’t be afraid to challenge people (as long as you have something worth challenging them with).

One of the things I love about the Episcopal Church is that it gave me space to just be. When I first arrived, there wasn’t a ton of pressure to sign up for this program or volunteer at that event. If you need a place to heal or acclimate or reset your spiritual journey, you can do that here. And you should.

At the same time, some of us have been coming for a while now, and we’re ready to be challenged. There’s a caveat, however: if the challenge you have for us is all about maintenance or survival, then we’re probably not interested. But if you have a vision for the future, a way to be part of what God is doing to renew and remake the world—then sign us up. We’re ready to contribute to something bigger than ourselves.

Just ask. 

3. Don’t be afraid to proclaim the gospel.

OK, I’ll admit… I hate it as much as you do when the subject turns to evangelism. For me, it brings up too many memories of going door to door, handing out tracts and peddling Jesus to strangers. Episcopalians have good reason to be skeptical of much of what passes for evangelism.

We don’t have to manipulate people into the kingdom. We don’t have to be like Sandwich Board Guy outside Westlake Center in Seattle, with just about every doom-laden Bible verse scrawled onto his placard.

But evangelism, whatever else it may be, involves proclamation. Granted, announcing that a Jewish preacher came back from the dead doesn’t carry the same shock or novelty it once did. The proclamation that “Jesus is risen” doesn’t turn heads the way it might have 1,900 years ago.

The real challenge is to demonstrate how resurrection changes things. It’s a challenge that requires us to always move outward, engaging meaningfully with the communities and people around us.

Our proclamation will look and feel different. Thankfully, it’s not the heavy-handed sales pitch that others have used. (What do I have to do to get you into a relationship with Jesus today?) At its best, it’s an invitation to explore, to journey together.

But let’s not hesitate to share it. Let’s not forget, there are lots of people searching for something transcendent. (Check.) There are plenty of people who long to be part of a community where all are welcome. (Check.)

There aren’t many places that can say they offer both. We can. Let’s invite others to share the ride.

4. Don’t mistake “speaking up about injustice” for “standing with the poor.”

The Episcopal Church is not afraid to speak out on difficult and sometimes contentious issues: Ferguson, climate change, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian refugee crisis, domestic poverty. There’s a whole public affairs office dedicated to addressing concerns like these.

I love that about my church. The kingdom of God is every bit as much about life in this world as it is the life of the world to come. We should speak prophetically to our institutions of power, and we should do so in solidarity with the most vulnerable members of society.

But we should not forget that speaking up about injustice is not the same as cultivating justice. Advocating for the poor is not the same as standing with the poor. As my friend Ian (one of my first guides into the Anglican tradition) shared recently:

The Church is called to stand with the poor, to be with the poor and even (as controversial as this may sound in our suburban bubble) to be poor in solidarity with those in need. Leaders in the Church should be modeling what it is to be with those in need.

This is not always easy when you have a reputation for affluence—or in a denomination where, according to the Episcopal Café, churches “that are truly flourishing are located disproportionately in affluent neighborhoods and have affluent members.”

Our best hope for nurturing justice is (again quoting Ian) by “modeling a better way, a new way of living that turns the conventions and values of the dominant society upside down.”

In the process, we may discover that some of our own conventions and values need turning upside down, too. We should remain open to that possibility.

—//—

I love the Episcopal Church. (But then, if you read the last post, you know that already.) I believe there is a bright future for us. But it depends on us seeing church as a movement first and an institution second. It will challenge us to reimage what it means to be the presence of Jesus in the 21st century—as each generation before us has had to do in their own time—without abandoning the traditions and practices that make our church such a life-giving place for so many.

Again, I think my friend Ian put it well: “The church is at its best when it is open, humble, and sacramental.” May we be all of these things and more as we move into an uncertain future.

Photo by Greg Westfall on Flickr

11 things I love about the Episcopal Church

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My faith was saved in a gutted-out shopping mall.

I had reached a point where I no longer believed in God’s love—or rather, I didn’t believe it was meant for me. I thought it was something reserved for God’s “chosen ones,” and I just couldn’t imagine myself as one of the lucky few.

It was a trendy church with a famous pastor and a hip worship band that helped me reassemble the pieces of my faith. I will always be thankful for that church.

At that time, I had no idea my journey would lead from that gutted-out shopping mall to an old red door. But it did. Today it’s the Eucharist, the stained glass windows, and the liturgies of the Episcopal Church that are breathing new life into my faith.

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I’m not alone, either. Lately I’ve been sifting through the stories of fellow travelers like Rachel Held Evans, Jonathan Martin, and Lindsey Harts. We’ve all found something meaningful in the Episcopal Church, something disorienting and comforting all at once, something that feels vaguely like… home.

That’s not a term disaffected evangelicals like me are quick to use. But that’s what the Episcopal Church has become for me: a new spiritual home. Here are some of the reasons for that…

1.  The way the liturgy soaks into your being.

The first few times I walked through those big red doors, I didn’t know the code. I didn’t know when to sit or stand. I didn’t know how to use the prayer book. I didn’t know how to cross myself.

While others have sought to make Christianity as accessible as possible, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church feels other, like a strange artifact calling us into a different and slightly foreign reality. Learning the liturgy was like learning a new language.

These days, I’m having to rely less on the prayer book. After months (and now years) of repetition, the words and movements come more naturally from within. Rachel Held Evans described it like this:

At first, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church captured me with its novelty… But we’ve been showing up for nearly six months now, and so it is a different sort of beauty I encounter on Sunday mornings these days—the beauty of familiarity, of sweet routine. I know the order of service now. I know it well enough to have favorite parts, to skim ahead when I’m hungry or restless, to get the songs stuck in my head.

We are products of a culture that demands everything is new and fresh. We frown on repetition and ritual. But these ancient patterns have a way of soaking into your bones. The prayers and songs stay with me throughout the week in a way no sermon ever has.

2. The way the liturgy invites me to worship with my whole being, bridging the false divide between body and soul.

Genuflecting in the aisle. Crossing yourself. Kneeling. Episcopalians worship not just with their hearts or their voices but with their bodies.

Not that it didn’t take some getting used to. It was a few years before I could bring myself to make the sign of the cross. Now I appreciate it for what is: a prayer. It just happens to be one you pray with your body.

And why not? God made us whole persons. We are not disembodied souls stuffed into human shells. We should worship with our whole being. Our heart and soul and flesh should cry out together, as the Psalmist wrote.

It should be said we’re not the only ones who embrace the notion of embodied worship, and our way is not the only way to do so. Pentecostals practice embodied worship when they lift their hands in praise or dance in the aisles. Whole-person worship, as I’ve learned from the Episcopal Church, can be faith-deepening. That’s because, as Elisabeth Grunert once commented, “We learn with our bodies.”

3. The way it anchors my faith when no act of will on my part can.

I don’t always believe the words of the Nicene Creed. But I say them anyway. Sometimes they’re more a confession of desire than conviction, a statement of what I desperately hope to be true.

When I struggle to believe, the rhythms and patterns and prayers of the liturgy are like an anchor. It’s as if the rest of the community—those around me and those who came before me—are saying, “It’s OK. We’ll carry you through this part.”

Faith is no longer dependent on me willing it into being. As Jonathan Martin writes:

With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow—sometimes. And that is enough for now.

4. The way it embraces orthodoxy without rigidity.

The other day my priest (who takes Scripture and theology about as seriously as anyone I’ve ever heard preach), referred in passing to Adam and Eve as our “mythic forbearers.”

No one broke out the pitchforks. There were no murmurs or protests. No angry blog posts. No one accused him of “getting the gospel wrong.”

For many of us, it’s a refreshing change. As Lindsey Harts wrote after hearing an Episcopal homily on God’s sovereignty in relation to the Big Bang, “It was the first time I hadn’t heard the Big Bang being bashed in a church setting.”

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Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover.

Ours is not a fear-filled faith.

5. How it makes room for those who’ve been burned out, worn out, or otherwise cast out.

I love how one of my favorite preachers, Jonathan Martin, describes what drew him to an Episcopal church:

I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord’s Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve.

A lot of us have burned out on our faith at some point—or been cast out. Maybe it’s because we grew tired of always having to pretend we have it all together. Or maybe someone’s gender or some other part of their identity excluded them from service. Maybe we were told we had to choose between science and faith. Or maybe we were just beaten down by the relentless drum of condemnation.

The Episcopal Church is a refuge, a respite, a place where we can come as we are and learn to receive grace again.

6. The way you can simply be, if that’s all you can do.

You feel it sometimes when you visit a new church. The hungry looks, sizing you up as another potential cog in the church wheel. The pressure to join this program, sign up for that group, volunteer at this event… all before anyone’s even learned your name.

I’ve been part of two Episcopal churches now, and neither one has been like that. They’ve given me space to just be. They’ve let me move at my own pace. To quote Jonathan Martin again, they’ve been places where “I can love and be loved as a human being, without my gifts or my life being commodified in any way.” Or as Lindsey Harts put it, “It’s the only place I’ve ever stepped foot into that didn’t seem to expect something of you.”

It’s not that the Episcopal Church won’t invite you to become more deeply connected. They will. But they seem to get that each person is different—and, more importantly, that people are not commodities.

(That said, if you hang around long enough, watch out. They might ask you to join the vestry when you least expect it.)

7. The way their worship can be deeply moving without resorting to emotional manipulation.

When a church tells me how I should feel (“Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!”), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion—not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.

In contrast to the standard worship formula of so many churches, “the liturgy does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience,” as Jonathan Martin writes, “but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God.”

Sometimes when you stop trying to manufacture a particular emotion, you stumble into something even more profound and beautiful than you could have imagined.

8. How the “shared cup” matters more than “shared dogma.”

I have spent a lot of my life trying to get my theology right. I’ve spent years believing all the “right things” in order that I might belong. So it was jarring when a good friend explained to me that the sermon (the meat!) was not the center of Anglican worship. It’s the Eucharist, the common table around which we all gather.

We belong so that we might find a common faith together, not the other way around.

Jonathan Martin writes:

The problem in Protestantism in general, historically but much more profoundly now, is that have we far too much emphasis on getting the beliefs right. No wonder we now have over 40,000 denominations—the search for perfect doctrine is endless… At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy… and the shared experience of the Eucharist is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.

9. The way everyone is welcome as a full participant, even children.

My 4-year-old is welcome at the table every week. She is able to receive the bread and the cup even before she’s made a profession of faith. This sends a powerful message: God’s grace is for her, too. She is no less a part of the body of Christ just because she doesn’t fully understand yet what that means.

One Sunday shortly after our daughter began receiving communion, we were milling about during coffee hour. (If there was a number 12 on this list, it might be coffee hour.) As we were talking with our priest, our daughter began solemnly placing a goldfish cracker into each of our hands. Our priest picked up on what she was doing, and he played along. She was reenacting what she’d just been part of in the sanctuary.

The Episcopal Church is a place that nurtures those first small, occasionally faltering steps of faith—and welcomes the full participation of those who take them.

10. How it reminds me that I’m part of something bigger.

My first real experience of liturgy was in the UK. We lived for a short time in a village an hour north of London, and we began attending the parish church. Every Sunday on our way into the 700-year-old building, we’d walk through the churchyard, past the weatherworn graves of long-dead parishioners who’d prayed in the same pews, whispered the same prayers, and sang the same songs for centuries.

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I need to be reminded that my faith does not begin or end with me—that, to quote a comment from Rachel’s blog, it’s “something that you don’t really own.”

11. How at the altar, we’re all the same.

It’s been said the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I don’t think I’ve appreciated that quite as much anywhere as in the Episcopal Church.

At the altar, we all kneel, as Lindsey Harts put it. We all receive what we cannot do for ourselves. We all confess our weakness—that even the gifts we bring were God’s gifts to us in the first place. We all receive the same body and blood.

We need to do a lot better at cultivating and embracing diversity in our midst…but the altar is as good a place as any to start.

—//—

Many of these things can, of course, be found in other traditions as well. But for me, it’s been the Episcopal Church that has nurtured my faith, breathing new life into me. May you find beauty in whatever tradition you call home. May God breathe new life into your faith—wherever you are.

Related: Four things I want for the Episcopal Church

Captioning a baptism

The other day I came across this photo from our son’s baptism last fall, of him looking in the direction of the baptismal font, with a “they’re going to do WHAT?” expression on his face.

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After I posted the photo, the good people at Unvirtuous Abbey asked if they could share and invite people to submit their own captions. I’m a firm believer that when the digital monks call for assistance, you answer.

These were some of my favorites submissions…

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(And yes. Bowties are cool.)

 

The day I was Walter Brueggemann

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Last week, I took part in a day-long conversation about the Bible with 20 or so biblical and theological scholars. And by “took part,” I mean I was there to listen, observe, and soak it all in. The conversation revolved around two main questions: what is the Bible? and what should we do with it? Because our gathering included participants from evangelical, mainline, and Catholic traditions, we didn’t all come (or leave) with the same answers. But the conversation was good, really good.

Walter Brueggemann was supposed to discuss the importance of genre in the Hebrew Scriptures. But as we had the good sense to hold our event in the Midwest in January, adverse weather in Chicago kept him on a tarmac in Cincinnati (thus leaving my plan for getting a selfie with Brueggemann in tatters).

It’s just as well. I’ve been told that Brueggemann does not suffer fools, and more than a few of us (scholars included) would have been in full-blown geek-out mode if he’d been there.

Still, we had Brueggemann’s paper. And his blessing to read it in his absence. So for 20 minutes, I got to pretend I was Walter Brueggemann.

I can’t share his paper with you, but I will share a couple of key points I took from my experience impersonating one of the world’s most admired Old Testament scholars:

1. Neither fundamentalism nor rationalism are equipped to deal with the Bible.

For Brueggemann, reading the Bible well requires navigating between two extremes: the literalist impulse of fundamentalism and the historicist impulse of rationalism. One treats everything as literal, historical fact, imposing modern expectations of “accuracy” and “precision” on ancient texts. The other denies any meaningful connection between the text and reality.

Both reflect a reductionist approach to the Bible. Both fail to consider the importance of genre when reading scripture—the codes, if you will, through which the authors described (and critiqued) reality for their audience. We all use codes to explain reality to members of our respective communities. Learning these codes is part of the initiation process into a new community. These codes shape the way parents speak to their children (in the stories they tell), the way churches speak to parishioners (in their liturgies), the way businesses speak to their target audiences (through advertising).

If this didn’t make things challenging enough, we also have to recognize our anachronistic habit of importing our genres into the Bible, when ancient literature had its own unique genres—something Gregory Mobley, author of Return of the Chaos Monsters, noted in his response to me… er, Brueggemann.

One thing we can draw from this without getting too deep into the weeds of genre analysis is that the biblical writers were not mere reporters or scribes taking dictation from God on high. Nor were they simply making stuff up. They were poets and artists, skillfully crafting a story. They weren’t giving a dry report of who did what, where, and when so much as they were envisioning a new, God-soaked reality.

2. We must rediscover the artistry of the Bible so we can read with our imaginations.

Artistry was one of the recurring themes of Brueggemann’s paper. It’s not a word you’ll find in many commentaries or Bible studies. It’s not one I heard often in seminary. The text was something to be parsed, analyzed, and systematized into concrete theological propositions.

But how do you dissect a work of art without robbing it of its power? According to Brueggeman, this is exactly what we’ve done with the Bible. In a 2013 interview with Krista Tippett, he said:

What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition is flatten out all the images and metaphors [of scripture] to make them fit into a nice little formulation, and it’s deathly. So we have to communicate to people: if you want a God who is healthier than that, you’re going to have to take time to sit with these images and relish them and let them become part of your prayer life and vocabulary and conceptual frame—which again, is why the poetry is so important. The poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close until you are left with nothing that has any transformative power.

Acknowledging the artistry of scripture is essential to understanding its impulse toward justice. The “prophetic imagination,” a phrase that might as well be synonymous with Brueggemann’s name, is the creative envisioning (or perhaps summoning) of a new, more just reality—long before one exists, when the existence of one seems impossible.

Prophets, Brueggeman says:

…are moved the way every good poet is moved to describe the world differently. Those who control the power structures do not know what to make of them, so they try to silence them. And what the powers finally discover is that you cannot silence poets.

It never occurred to me to think of prophets primarily as poets, even though most of what we label “prophecy” is poetic in form. As Brueggemann reminds us, we pay a heavy price for neglecting the artistry of scripture.

If we read everything literally—flattening the Bible, as Brueggemann says…

Or if we read everything skeptically…

If we dismiss everything as ahistorical fabrication…

Or if we treat prophets like sanctified fortune tellers, divorcing their message from its original context so we can look for signs of “fulfilled prophecy” in our day…

…then all we’re really doing is reading the Bible on our terms, rather than its own.

By reading the Bible this way, we’ve managed to do what the ancient powers could not do: silence the prophets and poets of the Bible.

Reversing this trend will take a mighty act of imagination. That’s what I learned when I spent 20 minutes being Walter Brueggemann.

Well, that and one other thing: if you should ever be called upon to present one of Brueggemann’s papers for him, give it a read beforehand. He’s got one heck of a vocabulary.

Photo by Westminster John Knox Press

How Newsweek got the Bible right… and still got it wrong

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This year I’m planning to write more regularly for Onfaith, mostly about the Bible and how we use it. (I’ll still be writing other posts here.) My first piece is a somewhat belated response to Newsweek cover story on the Bible last month. (Thanks to Dan Chappell for encouraging me to share these reflections.)


Where are all the moderate Christian voices?

That’s what a friend wanted to know in the wake of Newsweek’s recent, much-discussed look at the Bible and the way many Christians believe in it. Conservatives were quick to respond to what they saw as a hit piece, offering plenty of robust, detailed argument – and occasionally stooping to their own hit-piece level with titles like “Newsweek’s tirade against the Bible” and “News Weak.”

But what about moderate Christian voices? Or what about Christian “progressives” like me who still hold to a high view of Scripture and its authority?

Some of what Kurt Eichenwald wrote was greeted with a yawn. Yes, there are two creation stories in Genesis. Yes, the gospels offer different (and sometimes conflicting) accounts of Jesus’ story. Yes, scribes added things to the Bible. For many of us, this is old news.

However, in other cases, Newsweek got some things wrong — rather, it got some things right, but in a wrong way. Here is how…

Read the rest at Onfaith > 


Note: While I wish they had chosen different titles for their responses, Dan Wallace and Ben Witherington offer some very useful critique from a conservative point of view, for those who want to engage with the particulars of Eichenwald’s piece. And Rachel Held Evans has an excellent editorial on CNN.com defending evangelicals against some of the worst caricatures that Eichenwald drew.