Halfway out of the dark… yet?

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It’s appropriate that winter solstice falls near the end of Advent, even if it’s a reminder of how our celebration of Christ’s birth got wound up in the pagan festivities of ancient Rome.

It’s appropriate because Advent is a symbol of what we observe in the sky: today, we’re halfway out of the dark (to quote a certain Doctor Who Christmas special). The night has not yet lost its grip on the world, but its power is waning every day. Our redemption is not yet complete, but it has begun.

Not that it feels like the night is losing its grip. It will be a long time still before the sun feels warmer on our skin and the days longer. Some nights, it’s hard to believe we are headed out of the darkness at all.

I wrote pretty much the same thing this time last year. In 2014, there was no shortage of heartbreak to make us wonder if the night would ever recede. A brutal war in Gaza. The persecution of religious minorities in Iraq. Systemic racism claiming victims such as Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Tamir Rice.

This year, the examples have changed. But not that much, really.

A brutal war in Syria, along with attacks in Paris, Lebanon, and San Bernardino.

The persecution of refugees fleeing violence.

The unbridled hostility toward Muslims in our own country.

Systemic racism claiming still more victims while the rest of us shrug: Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald, the nine martyrs of Charleston.

It’s hard to believe the night is receding when serious contenders for high office stoke the fires of xenophobia, when professing Christians talk glibly about packing heat so they can take down “those Muslims,” when the only answer the world can muster to the scourge of violence is… more violence. (You’d think after 10,000+ years of human civilization…)

It’s hard to believe the night is receding when our racism is laid bare—racism we foolishly thought we’d dealt with. It’s hard to believe our redemption is near when we continue to exclude those who are different—those who don’t “conform” or tick the right boxes. When we zealously rebuild the “dividing walls” our savior tore down. When we blatantly ignore the teachings of Christ in favor of self-preservation and self-protection.

But that’s the mystery of redemption, isn’t it?

If our redemption feels as though it’s a long time coming, the question we should ask is not, “What’s taking so long?” or “Will it ever come?”

The question we should ask is, “What am I doing to bring it about?”

Redemption is God’s business. Only he could initiate it. Only he can bring it to fulfillment. But after securing our redemption with his death and resurrection, Jesus did a strange thing.

He left.

He entrusted the still-incomplete work of redemption to a fledgling band of followers.

He said to those left behind, “You will receive power.”

Those followers began thinking of themselves as the “body of Christ”—the physical, tangible manifestation of their redeemer.

Redemption has not stalled. God has not stopped dwelling among us. His presence has simply taken on new form: us.

At Christmastime, we celebrate our redemption in the form of a helpless baby. But we should also learn to see redemption in the form of our own hands and feet. God has entrusted his project to us… and we’re not doing very well with it, are we?

That’s the thing about redemption: ours is tied up in the world’s.

If it feels like God’s redemptive plan for the world has stalled, perhaps we should ask whether it has stalled in us.

Are we still committed to being the hands and feet of Christ—the physical, tangible manifestation of our redeemer—which, by the way, means hands that are outstretched and open, not clenched in a fist?

Are we still committed to putting the good of the other over the preservation of ourselves?

If not, then what we are seeking is not redemption.

There is a way out of the dark. The night will recede. But only when we choose to become the agents of redemption that God has called us to be.

Photo: Icy Morning Glow by Sonja und Jens on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

Is it wrong to say Christians and Muslims worship the same God? What we can learn from Jesus and the Samaritans

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims

Dr. Larycia Alaine Hawkins wearing a hijab for Advent, in solidarity with Muslims (source: Facebook)

Wheaton College has suspended a professor for expressing her solidarity with Muslims.

According to school officials (and contrary to some initial headlines) it was not because she donned a hijab for Advent. It was her choice of words and not her attire that got her into trouble. Specifically, these words:

I stand in religious solidarity with Muslims because they, like me, a Christian, are people of the book. And as Pope Francis stated last week, we worship the same God.

Her statement, by the way, is not altogether different from something the Second Vatican Council declared half a century ago:

The Church regards with esteem also the Muslims. They adore the one God, living and subsisting in himself; merciful and all-powerful, the Creator of heaven and earth.

Or what Miroslav Volf, a favorite theologian among many evangelicals (and rightly so), has written:

The two [Yahweh and Allah] are one God, albeit differently understood.

But these days, when serious candidates boost their poll numbers with promises to shut our doors to all Muslims and carpet bomb our enemies into oblivion, publicly declaring a belief that Christians and Muslims pray to the same God can get you into trouble.

A couple years ago, Jesse Wheeler shared five reasons he believes Muslims and Christians worship the same God. In his post, Jesse drew a parallel to the situation in Jesus’ day between Jews and Samaritans—a parallel worth exploring in more detail.

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Tensions ran high between Samaritans and Jews, to say the least. Samaritans reportedly attacked Jewish pilgrims and tried to desecrate their temple. The Jewish Scriptures portrayed Samaritans in an almost entirely negative light—declaring all their kings corrupt and questioning the legitimacy of their kingdom (even though it was the heavy-handed policies of Solomon and his successor that drove a wedge between the Samaritans’ ancestors and the rest of Israel).

Samaritans claimed to be true Israelites, descendants of those left behind when the northern kingdom of Israel was conquered by the Assyrians. Jewish tradition, however, regarded them as outsiders—as foreigners sent by the kings of Assyria to resettle a depopulated land.

Samaritans worshiped at Mount Gerizim (near the Palestinian city of Nablus), while Jews insisted the temple in Jerusalem was the only legitimate place of worship. By the time Jesus was born, the dispute had been going on for centuries.

Samaritans and Jews had different holy books. The Jewish canon included all 39 books known to Christians as the Old Testament. Samaritans recognized only the first five books—and, even then, they had their own version. Imagine a Christian sect throwing out 85% of the Bible. Samaritans and Jews even had competing versions of the Ten Commandments.

Different houses of worship. Different holy books. Different understandings of God. If you had asked a Samaritan or a Jewish person whether they worshipped the same God, they probably would have said no.

It was this refusal to see any common identity or heritage that led to each side to view the other as, well, precisely that.

Other.

According to one Mishnah passage, “He that eats the bread of Samaritans is like to the one who eats the flesh of swine.” Both sides treated the other with contempt, fear, and suspicion, because they could not see—or refused to see—anything they held in common. Anything that might bind them together.

But when Jesus encountered Samaritans, he turned this “othering” tendency on its head.

Jesus traveled through Samaritan territory, when most Galileans took the long way around.

He struck up a conversation with a Samaritan woman, violating multiple norms at once. He put himself in her care, requesting (and likely receiving) water from a Samaritan well.

Now, at no point in the ensuing conversation did Jesus water down his identity; he even suggested that he thought Jews were closer to the truth—or at least closer to the source of it. Yet when it came to the question of whether Jews and Samaritans pray to the same God, his answer was an unequivocal yes. Samaritans “worship the Father,” he said—the same God his people worshiped.

Jesus could see a common heritage with those his own people had dismissed as “other.” His willingness to see commonality and not just difference created possibilities that didn’t exist before—possibilities for new relationships, possibilities for coming together, possibilities for the common good.

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The Good Samaritan, by Rembrandt

On another occasion, Jesus went even further, making a Samaritan the hero of his most famous parable. To many of Jesus’ listeners, the Samaritan who saved the injured traveler was a heretic at best and an idolater at worst. Yet he was the one in Jesus’ story who best embodied Judaism’s second greatest commandment—not the Jewish priest, not the Levite.

Jesus could see that Samaritans and Jews worshiped the same God. He could envision a Samaritan with a superior understanding of God and how God wants us to live.

So why can’t we see the same in our Muslim neighbors today?

Acknowledging that we worship the same God doesn’t mean we ignore, discard, or diminish everything that’s distinct about our respective faiths. It should not mean we become religious relativists. Rather, it means we’re able to see something that transcends our (very real) differences—something that matters more than what makes us distinct. A common heritage. Our shared humanity.

Miroslav Volf says that it is “fearful people bent on domination” who cannot (or perhaps will not) see the possibility for common ground between Christians and Muslims.

Painting a picture of total and irreconcilable difference is an effective way of justifying endless conflict. But it’s not a good way to wage peace. It’s not a good way to make the world safe.

As Volf put it:

As to the 1.6 billion Muslims, with them we must build a common future, one based on equal dignity of each person, economic opportunity and justice for all and freedom to govern common affairs through democratic institutions. Muslims and Christians have a set of shared fundamental values that can guide such a vision partly because they have a common God.

Acknowledging our common heritage and our shared humanity is the first step toward working together for the common good.

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Packing heat in Jesus’ name? Three things he might say about that…

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My first reaction to the comments Jerry Falwell Jr. made about guns and shooting “those Muslims” was to wonder if we’re reading the same Bible. Or following the same Jesus.

Falwell probably didn’t intend for his remarks to be taken as a serious theological reflection on Christianity and the use of violence. And that’s the problem.

There is a distressing lack of reflection behind these comments. What do we find when we hold them up to the words of Jesus and see how they compare?

There are three things Jesus said that I think are worth considering, as we evaluate the prevailing attitude toward guns and our willingness to use them on enemies perceived and real.

1. “That’s enough!”

In defending Falwell’s remarks, some have appealed to Luke 22:36, where Jesus tells his disciples to buy a sword. The argument put forward is that these swords were intended for self-defense; therefore Jesus must have been OK with his followers using lethal force in at least some cases.

The problem is, this view doesn’t hold up in view of the larger context:

  • Jesus made it clear why he told the disciples to buy a sword: to fulfill a prophecy in Isaiah 53, a passage predicting the Messiah would be falsely associated with evildoers, despite committing “no violence.” How can a call to arms fulfill a prophecy about a Messiah who doesn’t fight? Answer: it doesn’t because this is not a call to arms. Jesus is drawing a contrast between the kind of Messiah the world expects—not to mention the kind many of us seem to expect—and the kind of Messiah that God gave us.
  • The disciples respond by telling Jesus they already have two swords—which, according to Jesus, is enough. If the intent was insurrection or self-defense, how are two swords among twelve people supposed to be enough? Answer: they’re not, because they were never meant to be used for violence.
  • Zack Hunt raises another important point: if Jesus really intended for his disciples to carry (and possibly use) swords, “Why there is no mention anywhere in the New Testament of anyone in the early Church carrying a weapon with them into any of the dangerous situations they found themselves in?” And why is there no criticism in the New Testament for their apparent failure to take Jesus’ words at face value? Answer: because that’s not how Jesus meant for them to take his words.

Jesus’ response to the disciples that night—“That’s enough!”—is emphatic. It’s a rebuke. Even after three years with Jesus, his disciples still don’t get it.

Apparently, neither do we.

If the context of Luke 22:36 doesn’t make it clear that Jesus is not endorsing violence, then the next thing he says about swords ought to.

2. “Put your sword back in its place.”

Later in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus rebukes Peter for defending him with a sword… likely one of the same swords that was presented to him earlier that evening.

Jesus does not simply condemn violence on this occasion—as if there were a temporary cessation of the normal rules permitting violence while he allowed himself to be crucified. Jesus denounces the futility of all violence everywhere:

All who draw the sword will die by the sword.”

This is nothing new. This is what he’s been saying his entire ministry. In Luke 13, when he’s told some insurgent Galileans have been slaughtered by the Roman governor, he warns: “Unless you repent, you too will all perish.”

He’s not talking in generalities. He’s not talking about “perish” as in eternal destiny. Jesus is saying, “If you don’t repent of your bloodlust—if you don’t renounce the urge to fight violence with violence—you will meet the same end as your Galilean compatriots.”

All who draw the sword.

Back in Gethsemane, as Jesus is led away, he asks what ought to be a simple question: “Am I leading a violent uprising, that you have come out with swords and clubs?”

The obvious answer is no. The questions we should ask are:

What does it look like to walk in the footsteps of a Messiah who refused to fight?

What does it mean to be imitators of Christ when people come at us with swords and clubs? Or when we’re afraid they might do so?

3. “My kingdom is not of this world.”

 I had a t-shirt with this phrase on it when I was a kid. I thought it meant we weren’t supposed to behave like the rest of world: we don’t listen to the same music, watch the same movies, or have sex the way the world does.

The truth is, being a Christian does mean being different from the rest of the world. But the stakes are much, much higher than that.

Jesus spoke these words to Pilate, the Roman governor—the same governor who slaughtered those independence-minded Galileans. Pilate was trying to get at whether Jesus imagined himself a king—and therefore, whether he was a threat to Rome.

“My kingdom is not of this world,” Jesus replied. Hardly the most reassuring answer he could have given, under the circumstances. But what makes his kingdom “not of this world”? The fact that his followers don’t take up arms.

“If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest.”

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What Falwell’s words—and the support for them—reveal is that we really don’t want to do things God’s way. We don’t really like his plan for the world. We don’t care for his blueprint for the kingdom.

What it shows is that we don’t trust Jesus enough to take him at his word. We don’t think all those things he said about enemy love actually work.

Most of all, it shows we don’t want to walk the path Jesus walked—a path that leads to a cross. But as my friend Tim Gombis writes, there is no other path for us to walk:

The cross is not a personal and private matter between me and God. The cross determines everything for God’s people. It claims our bodies, our communities, our loves and longings, and secures an eternal future for those who cling to it.

The kingdom God envisions comes by way of the cross, not through the barrel of a gun.

Images: YouTube, Claudio Ungari on Flickr (modified to add text) / CC BY 2.0

When my daughter prayed for Syria

A few months ago, I shared how my daughter is teaching me to pray again. What I didn’t realize then is that she’s also teaching me how to pray.

Every night, we say bedtime prayers together. Usually—and at her choice—I’m the one who prays. But lately, more and more, she’s been deciding that she wants to pray. This makes me happier than almost anything else she does.

Most of our prayers are nothing out of the ordinary. We pray for all the usual things.

We pray for our friends and our family—the one we were born into and the family we’ve picked up along the way, like Elizabeth and Oliver’s godparents.

We pray for Elizabeth’s day at school.

We pray for our friends serving in India.

We pray for the kids we sponsor in Rwanda, India, and Gaza.

When Elizabeth decides to pray, she’ll ask God to help her classmates be kind to others at school… and at home… and wherever else they might go. Sometimes she’ll pray for the whole world to get along. I kinda like that.

Then she’ll thank God for all her favorite things… her family (especially her “cute little baby brother”), chapstick, ladybugs, and Christmas trees…

After Alan Kurdi and his brother washed up on a Turkish beach, we started praying for Syria, too. We prayed that children and families from Syria would find safe places to live. I knew at some point, this would lead to difficult questions. But I guess I sort of figured that I would be in the role of the teacher…

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The other night, Elizabeth decided she wanted to pray for Syria. It went something like this.

“Dear God…” Then she stops. “Dad, what’s that place the people are running away from?”

Me: “You mean Syria?”

“Yeah,” she says. “Why are they running away?”

“Because there’s a war there,” I say, a little worried about what’s coming next.

“What’s a war?”

Now I’m fumbling for an age-appropriate response. “War is when people are fighting very meanly with each other. It’s when they’re destroying people’s homes and doing all sorts of bad stuff.”

Elizabeth starts to pray again: “Dear God, please be with Syria. And please help the kids there learn not to fight…”

I interrupt, hoping God won’t be too mad at me for cutting off a 5-year-old in mid-prayer.

“Actually, Elizabeth, it’s not the kids who are fighting. It’s the grownups.”

Elizabeth looks at me, disbelieving. “What?”

Then she starts praying again: “Dear God, please make the grownups stop fighting because they should know better.”

Yes, Elizabeth, they should.

Sometimes it takes a 5-year-old stating the obvious to make you realize just how badly we’ve lost our way.

To my daughter, it’s simple. You should be kind to people. Not that she’s perfect at it. Far from it. But for her, there’s no complexity. There are no mitigating factors. You should just be kind. Period.

For her, you should take care of the earth because the earth is our home. You should respect people who are different because different isn’t bad; it’s just different.

Christians often talk about sin—or sinful nature—as something we’re born with. We call it “original sin.” I believe there is something to this idea. We are all both victims and culprits of sin in various ways. Inevitably so.

But perhaps the greatest sin of all is losing our childlike ability to see the world in simpler terms as we grow older. You should just be kind to each other because being kind is good. You should take care of the earth because the earth is our home. You should be OK with the fact that people are different because that’s how God made us. You should love each other, because what’s better than love?

My daughter isn’t just teaching me to pray again. She’s teaching me how to pray—and how to look at the world when I’ve opened my eyes again.

Image: Freedom House on Flickr / Public Domain

Why we need a little Advent

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Easy listening stations have been pumping out wall-to-wall Christmas music for almost a month now. Still, that’s nothing compared to 2001. In the wake of September 11, one station near me started airing holiday music in early October because, as their jingle relentlessly proclaimed, “We need a little Christmas now.”

Yet for all our rush to get to Christmas, in about four weeks we’ll be scrambling to put it behind us with similar haste. Today, that same radio station is already assuring listeners that its usual mix of adult contemporary pop will return the minute Christmas is behind us.

We’re not very good at waiting for Christmas—or lingering over it, when it finally comes.

I think one reason it’s hard to wait is because we’re hoping for some kind of respite from the world—the kind of respite Christmas seems to offer. We want to come in from the cold, even if it’s just for a little while.

But somehow the payoff of Christmas feels hollow when we finally get there. It never quite delivers the respite or the escape or the “peace on earth” we’re looking for. Maybe that’s why “after-Christmas letdown” is a thing—one with over a million search results. Christmas ends… and we’re left facing the world as it is again.

I believe the answer lies, in part, in allowing ourselves to fully experience Advent first.

Advent forces us to linger in the dark—even as we wait, sometimes impatiently, for our redemption. It’s only by lingering here that we can see the light of Christmas properly, that we can appreciate the full implications of this sacred festival.

This year, Advent began with a quote from Jesus mentioning “distress among nations,” a reference that surely rings true today. “People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world,” Jesus warned.

His prediction is coming true all around us, as it has been for two thousand years.

Advent calls us to look upon the distress of our world. The devastation of Paris, Beirut, Syria. The murder of Laquan McDonald—and hundreds like him—at the hands of a system that criminalizes blackness. The blasphemous contradiction of a pro-life killer or a Christian who turns away refugees.

Advent insists that we see the world as it is—that we see its brokenness and our part in it.

This can be challenging for those of us who’ve known nothing but privilege and power and comfort our whole lives. Those, however, who’ve experienced alienation or oppression firsthand don’t need to be told the world is not as it should be. They don’t need to be lectured on the importance of Advent. Their lives are an Advent in the making. Advent gives a name and a voice to their lived reality—a reality the rest of us would rather ignore.

Advent won’t allow us to ignore the brokenness of our world—which is why it’s important we refuse to ignore Advent.

Confronting the brokenness of our world means confronting the brokenness in our own hearts as well. It means confronting our complicity in systems that oppress, discriminate, or take away life.

It’s the only way we will ever properly understand Christmas, the only way we’ll ever get to the much-longed-for payoff.

The Virgin Mary anticipated that her son would bring down rulers, lift up the humble, feed the hungry—and send the rich packing. His birth challenged (and continues to challenge) the legitimacy of an empire built upon slavery and coercion. His birth challenged the tyranny of a local despot, Herod the Great—who saw this peasant child as a threat to his reign, forcing Jesus and his family to join the long stream of refugees who have fled violence and destruction, both then and now.

That’s the Christmas story—a story that only makes sense in light of Advent, as God’s answer to the brokenness and cruelty of our world. To experience the respite Christmas offers, we first have to understand: respite from what and for whom?

We also need to understand that Christmas is a story still in the making. Mary’s vision is as yet unrealized. The angelic proclamation of “peace on earth” is not something we’re supposed to just sit around and wait for. (No peace this year. Oh well… maybe next Christmas.) The Christmas proclamation is a vision we are called to embody.

This Advent, linger a little over the brokenness in our world. Allow this season of preparation to help you experience Christmas for what it really is: God’s answer to the cruelty, injustice, and oppression around us and in us. May you experience “peace on earth” as something more than just vague idealism, but as something we are called to enact.

Image by Jonas Nordlund on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

How to survive Starbucks’ war on Christmas: a biblical guide

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It seems like the war on Christmas starts earlier every year.

I haven’t even got my lights up yet, and already the evil overlords of ISIS executives at Starbucks have declared their hatred for the baby Jesus by REMOVING SNOWFLAKES AND TREES from their seasonal cup design.

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Last year’s design: Jesus-approved.
Credit: Libby Anne

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This year’s abomination. WHY ARE YOU OPPRESSING US, STARBUCKS??
Credit: Twitter

This morning, my wife went on a reconnaissance trip to Starbucks, and things are EVEN WORSE THAN WE THOUGHT.

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They’re selling ADVENT CALENDARS, people. Everyone knows Advent is a just a ploy to distract us from a two-month-long orgy of Christmafied consumerism—I MEAN tasteful celebration of Jesus’ birthday.

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They have only ONE “Christmas” blend. And the label’s got PINK on it.

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The “J” on their new reusable cup doesn’t even stand for “Jesus.” It stands for “joy” or some other decidedly non-Christmasy claptrap.

Worst of all, their baristas don’t even ask if you’ve accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior when they hand you your peppermint frappuccino. WHAT COUNTRY IS THIS??

If we’re going to cope with this kind of persecution—nay, genocide, the “CHRISTIAN CULTURE CLEANSING OF THE WEST”—we have to be prepared. We must arm ourselves with the Sword. No, not ACTUAL swords. (Who needs those when all the good Christians are already packing heat like Jesus told us to?) THE Sword. Your Bible. Scripture has everything we need to prepare for the oncoming storm.

Here, for example, is everything the Bible says about how we’re supposed to fight for our rights—which, naturally, includes the right to force others to pay homage to our religious traditions:

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Here’s what the Bible says about the doom awaiting those who don’t use Jesus’ birthday to sell more crap, thus failing to exploit the Savior’s full money-making potential:

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Here’s everything the Bible says about throwing a fit when we don’t get our way—and how our first priority as followers of Jesus is to ensure we maintain cultural dominance AT ALL COSTS:

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The fight is upon us, people. Don’t let that underpaid store clerk fail to wish you a “Merry CHRISTmas” as you buy an $80 sweater made by some kid in a sweatshop. BECAUSE JESUS.

Rob Bell’s new video, reclaiming the word “evangelical,” and the choice between power and presence

“I’m an evangelical, and I believe in good news for everybody.”

Rob Bell was written off by many evangelical leaders years ago, so on the one hand, it’s kind of surprising he’d want anything to do with the term “evangelical” now. Yet he’s back on old form in his newest video, unpacking something he taught more than once in his Mars Hill days.

In short:

The term evangelical comes from the Greek word for “good news.” It was the term Rome used to announce each military triumph over their adversaries, as they proclaimed their version of peace on earth. Whether or not it was truly peace, Rob points out, depended on “which end of the sword you were on.”

The early Christian sect reappropriated the Greek word to refer to another kind of victory—Jesus’ triumph over death—and what it meant for the world. For them, “good news” was something that spread “not through coercive military violence, not through crushing your enemies, but through love.”

How a term once used by those who fed the hungry and welcomed outsiders in the name of Christ came to be associated with a mostly white American voting bloc advancing a narrow, exclusionary political agenda is indeed mystifying.

Some of us have wondered if it’s time we gave up on the word “evangelical.”

Others, like Brandan Robertson, have fought to hang onto the term. It’s not been an easy fight, as I’m sure he could tell you.

Some of us have settled into faith traditions that aren’t widely seen as “evangelical.” I’ve been a confirmed Episcopalian for more than four years now. But you almost never leave your past behind entirely. The baggage—good and bad—travels with you. I still value many things about my evangelical heritage. As Rachel Held Evans writes in Searching for Sunday, evangelicalism taught many of us to read the Bible. Granted, it didn’t always teach us to read the Bible well. But I might not have had the same understanding of and appreciation for the Scriptures if I hadn’t grown up evangelical.

Part of me would like to see the word “evangelical” reappropriated. It’s been done before—by the very first Christians, who stole it from Rome. Why can’t it happen again?

What would it take?

To start, those who wear the label “evangelical” (in particular, white American evangelicals) must learn the difference between power and presence—and decide which they really want. Because it can’t be both.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it embraced the pursuit of power—namely, political power—a pursuit, incidentally, that is nowhere encouraged in the New Testament.

Evangelicalism lost its way when it prioritized its own advancement over the good of others, when it stopped valuing others above itself.

Evangelicalism can find its way again—but it has to relinquish the pursuit of power. Relinquishing power doesn’t mean withdrawing from the world, essentially repeating the fundamentalists’ mistake of the early 20th century. Christians are called to love, to serve—in other words, to be fully present.

Scripture puts no qualifiers or limits on who we’re called to love and serve—in other words, who we’re called to be fully present with. The pursuit of power is by nature an exclusionary path. Invariably, it’s about rival groups trying to defeat and displace one another. It’s about othering those you don’t like. It’s a zero sum game.

Choosing presence over power may or may not require rethinking some of your convictions. But whether you identify as conservative or progressive or somewhere in between, choosing presence over power certainly means rethinking what you do with your convictions. Do you use them to keep people out? Or do your convictions lead you to be fully present wherever you are, loving and serving all without qualification?

This, as Rob says, is what it means to be “evangelical” in the truest sense of the word. This is what it looks like to proclaim good news for everyone.

If, instead, you seek to coerce society into becoming more “Christian” through political enforcement, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you view your enemy, whoever you may think that is, as someone to be crushed or defeated or displaced—instead of someone to be loved and served without hesitation—you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you’re more interested in keeping the “wrong” kind of people out than offering the greatest possible welcome to all, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

If you think Jesus’ resurrection changes your eternal destiny only and not everything here on earth, you have lost sight of what it means to be evangelical.

Such a gospel is not “good news.”

There are some who would limit the term “evangelical” along narrow ideological lines. Their “good news” has more in common with Rome than Jesus.

I don’t know whether the term “evangelical” is worth salvaging or not. But I do believe that, as Rob says, “If it isn’t good news for everybody, then it isn’t good news for anybody.”

3 alternatives to saying the sinner’s prayer with your kids

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Writer Cindy Brandt recently shared three very good reasons why she hasn’t prayed the sinner’s prayer with her kids. For those of us who grew up evangelical, praying the sinner’s prayer was a Very Big Deal. In my church, when someone was assessing your spiritual state, one of the first things they wanted to know was, “How old were you when you asked Jesus into your heart?” It was almost a competition: the younger you were at the time, the better.

The sinner’s prayer was supposed to give assurance of salvation, an easy way of knowing if you were in or out. But the pitfalls Cindy identified are real—which is why I’m not praying the sinner’s prayer with my kids, either.

So what can you do instead? Here are three ideas for parents who want to nurture their kids’ faith without relying on the sinner’s prayer:

1. Enchant your kids with the goodness of God’s world.

The premise of the sinner’s prayer is that your identity is chiefly and overwhelmingly characterized by sin. You’re not a person. You’re not an image-bearer. You’re not someone who struggles with sin or who’s affected by sin. You’re a SINNER.

It’s the very first line of the prayer, the very first thing you say to God—at least according to the script proposed by the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which is arguably the closest thing evangelicalism has to an official form of the sinner’s prayer:

Dear Lord Jesus, I know I am a sinner, and I ask for your forgiveness. I believe you died for my sins and rose from the dead. I trust and follow you as my Lord and Savior. Guide my life and help me to do your will. In your name, amen.

When we lead our kids in the sinner’s prayer, the first thing they say to God is the opposite of what God first said to us.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Good.

Very good.

That’s the Cliff Notes version of Genesis 1.

That’s the first thing God said to his creation.

God’s very first words to us were not a curse but a blessing.

Yes, a lot happens after Genesis 1, but it does not erase the first part of the story. It does not change where the story began—or where we should begin with our kids.

The first thing our kids should know is that the world is good because it’s made and loved by God.

That’s the other thing the sinner’s prayer gets wrong: not only does it start with a faulty notion of our identity; it completely sidesteps the rest of the world. It makes sin and salvation about me and myself.

Growing up, I was taught that “saving souls” mattered more than nurturing life. The prize of salvation was escape—liberation from this body, evacuation from this world…which is just going to burn anyway.

This is not the story Scripture tells. And it’s not the story we should tell our kids, either.

All things hold together” in Christ. “All things” will be reconciled to God—yes, even “things on earth.”

We should help our kids fall in love with a world that God thinks is worth saving. We should nurture their sense of wonder, imagination, and inquisitiveness.

The other day, my daughter asked if we could go for a walk in the woods near our house so we could experience the colors of fall together. This is one of the holiest, most sacred things she’s ever asked to do.

Yes, there is evil. Yes, there is brokenness. But that is not the whole story. Instead of teaching our kids that they’re utterly evil, or that the world is utterly worthless, let’s help them see themselves—and the world—as God does.

2. Assure your kids of the constancy of God’s love—by demonstrating the constancy of yours.

Fear-based tactics, like the sinner’s prayer, might deliver a short-term result. (Really, how hard is it to scare a five-year-old into saying a prayer they think will keep them out of hell?) But the long-term results are rarely as satisfying.

That’s why many kids end up praying the sinner’s prayer over and over. As Cindy writes:

I was taught praying the prayer would become the mark of assurance, our get-out-of-hell card. I remember praying it with as much sincerity as I could muster, hoping God hears and receives it. Then I remember praying it again, and again, and again. If praying the prayer was supposed to be reassuring, it certainly did not work on me.

When you introduce fear as a motivator, that fear never goes away. The solution offered—in this case, a loosely scripted prayer—might provide temporary relief. But that fear will come creeping (or storming) back eventually. A God who is willing to throw five-year-olds into hell for lack of saying a few magic words might just as easily throw you into hell for doing something bad after you said them, or for not saying them fervently enough, or not being able to remember exactly when you said the prayer.

The sinner’s prayer becomes a talisman—and not a very good one—a cheap substitute for the real basis of our assurance: the character and nature of God.

The best way to show our kids who God is and what he’s like is to love them the way God does. Most of us do this intuitively—even though we are far from being perfect parents. We tell our kids, “There’s nothing you can do to make me love you less.” We tell them we love them because they are, not because of what they do.

And when we show it, day in and day out, they get a glimpse of what God is like.

If God is the author of love, and if this is the best way to love our kids, then why would we expect God’s love to be any different? The best way to assure our kids of the constancy of God’s love is to love them with the same constancy. As Cindy writes, “Assurance of God’s love doesn’t come packaged in a tidy little prayer, it is delivered through consistent provision of tender care by the children’s caretakers.”

3. Treat your kids as full members of the community of faith.

A third problem with the sinner’s prayer, as identified by Cindy, is that it elevates belief—often a cheap, unformed belief—over belonging. It disrupts the natural timeline of a child’s spiritual journey, forcing a decision on kids before they’ve even had a chance to “count the cost” of being a disciple. (After all, isn’t that what Jesus told us to do before following him?)

The answer, of course, is not to impose an even heavier burden on our children. It’s not to raise the threshold of belief even higher. The answer, I believe, is to give kids a place to belong as they work out their faith.

The problem is that in many of our churches, we inadvertently marginalize our kids instead. It’s just easier to send them off to “children’s church” than to find ways to make the main worship time meaningful for all ages, together. A certain amount of age-appropriate programming is a good thing. But if we wait till our kids are fully grown to welcome them into the “real” church or to upgrade their membership to full status, then we’ve waited too long.

As Methodist pastor Tom Fuerst writes:

From the time my generation was born, we were thrown in the nursery with other babies. Then we went to children’s ministries with other children to be entertained while our parents when to “big church.”

Then we had middle school ministry. Then we had youth group. Then we went away to college and we found a church with a stellar college ministry.

It wasn’t until we graduated college that we were actually expected to be a part of the intergenerational community called “church.” We’d been segregated by age for the first 22 years. And you not only allowed this, you encouraged it.

And now you’re wondering why we don’t want to go to church. Now you’re wondering how to reach us to make us a part of the church?

I’m sorry, but you never really valued us being part of a church before.

We need to show our kids they matter, that their presence matters, that our communities are not quite whole without them. This means creating new ways of “doing church” together. It means welcoming their participation as equals, alongside the adults. At the altar, at the table, at the baptismal font. In the sanctuary and in the fellowship hall. When we pray and when we wrestle with the Scriptures. And, above all, when we serve.

This is, after all, the way it was always done. Children of the first covenant (well, the boys anyway) were marked by circumcision—a sign of their full belonging—before their brains could formulate a single thought about God. The sign of belonging changed with the arrival of a new covenant. It was no longer limited by your gender or your identification with a certain group. But the sign is still a gift that is given before it can be grasped.

Our children need to belong before they believe. There will, of course, be more to their journey than this. The path they take might be more circuitous than we’d like—or take them places we didn’t expect they’d go. But the best thing we can do is not try to rig the outcome in advance by coaxing them into praying the sinner’s prayer. It’s giving them a place to belong, to be loved, and to experience the goodness of God.

Photo by Jake Guild on Flickr / CC BY 2.0

People deserve the right to question

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Jesus Questions the Elders, by David Hayward

David Hayward’s earliest memory of himself as an artist is the reaction he got for his Sunday school drawing of Israel crossing the Red Sea. David sketched the scene from the Egyptians’ point of view—in graphic detail. “There were blood and bubbles and beasts and brine because their death had to be a horrible one,” he recalls in his book Questions Are the Answer.

David’s sketch didn’t sit well with his priest or teacher. “I recall the look on their faces,” he writes. “I was being analyzed and I knew it.”

That didn’t stop David from drawing—then or now. But the sense you’re being scrutinized, evaluated, measured up—that sort of thing stays with you. “I continue drawing what I want,” David writes, “but under constant fear of it or me being analyzed.”

The fear of not measuring up, of saying the wrong thing, or asking the wrong question… it’s paralyzing. I’ve had this blog for eight years, but it took me almost four to work up the nerve to share anything I wrote with people I actually knew. I was afraid. Afraid they might not like the questions I was asking. Afraid it might get me into trouble with some of my Christian friends or coworkers.

For most of my career, my livelihood has depended on other Christians. I’ve only ever worked for evangelical organizations, many of whom require you to sign a statement of faith or conform to a code of conduct.

And that’s OK. No one forced me to work for these organizations. Having a shared set of beliefs or values isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Besides, compared to some, I’ve had it pretty easy. I’ve never been fired for something I said or wrote. (Though I’ve landed in hot water on one or two occasions.) I’ve never been scrutinized or marginalized because of my skin color or gender or orientation.

Some people aren’t merely punished for asking questions; they’re not even allowed in the door.

—//—

Questions-Are-The-Answer-Hayward-2David Hayward’s journey and mine are different in some respects. He left the ministry and the institutional church—a journey he describes in Questions Are the Answer. I’m still there. I still draw strength from its creeds and sacraments. I still want to be part of a community that unites around certain shared convictions—namely, that there was a man called Jesus who conquered death and invites us to join him in making all things new.

But the church has burned out and chewed up far too many people, for asking the “wrong” kinds of questions, or because they were the “wrong” kinds of people.

We do it because we’re afraid. We’re afraid someone might ask a question we don’t have a good answer to. We’re afraid we might come into contact with someone whose very existence challenges our tidy, narrow view of the world. We’re afraid that if we let that happen, we might start asking the wrong questions too.

So we spend our lives on the defensive. As David writes,

My life used to be characterized by standing firm on certain beliefs that I would defend like my castle from all attacks. It really was living life from a defensive posture.

I was the same way. And one thing I’ve learned is that living from a defensive posture is exhausting.

—//—

“People deserve the right to question,” David writes. Not just by themselves, on their own. “But also within the communities of which they choose to be members.”

Questioning can be a vital part of our development. Maybe one reason spiritual formation has stagnated in the evangelical church (and it has) is because we don’t know how to ask, much less handle, good questions. David argues in Questions Are the Answer that a progression from simple, closed-ended questions to more open-ended inquiry is one sign of maturing spirituality. But he writes, quoting José Saramago, that “the church’s specialty has always been the neutralization of the overly curious mind.”

What if churches became the kind of place that welcomed—even celebrated­—people’s questions? Not because we’ve forsaken a common identity, but because we recognize the beauty of inquiry and mystery?

If we’re going to be more than just “spiritual consumers looking for anything to substantiate our egos and sense of separateness,” we must open ourselves to other people’s questions—and our own. We shouldn’t hesitate to overturn every rock (to paraphrase Jay Kesler) out of fear that something might jump out from underneath and eat God.

Curiosity, wonder, inquiry, and even doubt—these might do wonders for the church and for the broken, battered people who comprise it.

Disclosure: I received a free review copy of David’s book. I was not compensated for this post, nor was I required to write a review (positive or otherwise) in exchange for my copy.

When we defend the Bible, but refuse to read it (by Jayson Bradley)

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Columnist George Will tells and interesting story about the battle of Dunkirk in WWII. The German army was bearing down on more than 300,000 allied forces trapped against the ocean. On the evening of May 25, the commander of the British sent this simple, three-word message to London, “BUT-IF-NOT.”

It was immediately recognized as an allusion to the book of Daniel. When faced with execution for not worshiping an idol, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego responded by saying, “Our God who we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us out of thine hand, O king. But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods . . .” (Daniel 3:17)

These three words were instantly recognized as words of faith . . . and acceptance. These trapped troops were praying for deliverance, but not willing to surrender if it didn’t come. The British responded with an evacuation that included destroyers, passenger ferries, hospital ships, and even fishing vessels. In nine days, 338,226 men were rescued in what has been called the Miracle of Dunkirk.

What’s amazing was that Britain’s biblical literacy in 1940 was strong enough that the import of these three words was immediately recognized. In less than 75 years, things in Britain have changed dramatically. In a recent study of biblical literacy in the UK it was found that:

  • Nearly 30% of adults don’t know that Adam and Eve, David and Goliath, or the good Samaritan are Bible stories.
  • 46% don’t recognize the story of Noah’s Ark as biblical.
  • 54% thought the Hunger Games had a biblical storyline.
  • Dan Brown’s DaVinci Code was recognized as a biblical story by 46% of adults.
  • 27% thought Superman might be a biblical character.

Things stateside aren’t that much better.

In a country where people constantly talk about their reverence for the Bible, not many are reading it. Surveys of American biblical literacy reveal that:

  • Less than 50% of adults can name the four gospels.
  • 60% of adults can name 5 of the 10 commandments.
  • 82% of Americans believe “God helps those who help themselves” is a Bible verse.
  • 12% of adults believe Joan of Arc was Noah’s wife.

What is the church doing to combat this phenomenon? How are we championing an understanding of the book that we’re passionate about defending? There was a time when Sunday school was the church’s answer to biblical education, but it’s getting harder and harder to find church plants that include a Sunday school program or regular, in-depth Bible studies as part of their discipleship strategy.

Many churches offer small groups, which can be a powerful and effective way to grow a sense of community, but often fail to include deep scriptural discussion.

Rescuing the Bible from obscurity

There’s no question that the church needs to find ways to champion and encourage Bible study again. But how? Can we recognize the obstacles? And if so, can we find strategies to overcome them?

I think so.

1. Get people reading again.

Sadly if it isn’t coming through the average person’s Facebook news feed, it’s not getting read. According to the Pew Research Center, only 8% of Americans hadn’t read a single book in 1972. Since 2012, the number of non-book-readers has jumped to 23%—not one print book, ebook, or audiobook.

The church needs to be encouraging people to read as a discipline—particularly Bible reading. The same Pew Research Center study found that about 50% of American adults owned a tablet or e-reader, and over two-thirds of them own a smartphone.

There are so many amazing apps available to help people rediscover the scriptures, many of them absolutely free. Some offer so many helpful tools that people download them and are so overwhelmed that they never use them.

Why not hold a two-week class on some of the apps available? Or maybe find a Bible app that your church loves and work them into the life of the church, including a class on how to get the most out of them?

2. Encourage people to get more involved in kids ministry.

One way to get people into their Bibles is to put them into a position where they need to teach. Kids ministry is a great place to start. And let’s face it, our kids need to have a good grasp of Scripture too.

I don’t know of many churches that don’t have someone working hard just to recruit people to teach our children. It’s a challenge that most of us have experienced. What if your church had a drive to get everyone to spend some time teaching children?

It doesn’t need to be difficult or overwhelming. There is no lack of free lessons to help teachers get the job done, as well as many other places to find great curriculum.  

3. Start a Sunday school equivalent.

Okay, maybe your church isn’t able to set aside time in the morning for Sunday school, but is there another time to when people can gather to study? Can your church host Bible-related classes one night a week? Is there someone who can bring a class into their home? A coffee shop?

If you think people get overwhelmed teaching kids, try asking them to teach other adults. You might have to bust out the smelling salts to revive them. The idea that they have to have all the answers about every biblical mystery can fill the most well-read Christian with dread.

But here’s a secret that I’ve seen reinforced time and time again: creating a culture of people interested in reading Scripture is caught as much as it’s taught. There is something that seems to happen organically when people begin reading the Bible together. They grow in their enthusiasm, and the people around them start to get interested too.

Leading a class doesn’t have to be overwhelming. There are plenty of books and curriculums available—leaders can even create their own lessons quite easily.

Don’t just defend it; read it.

Millar Burrows, biblical scholar and leading authority on the Dead Sea Scrolls, once said, “What we really need, after all, is not to defend the Bible but to understand it.” This couldn’t be more true.

The church doesn’t need people who simply venerate Scripture, she needs people who are so familiar with it that they can’t help but live by it. It’s time to make that a priority again.


e33c314673cdfa6616b6c5d89d3439bcJayson D. Bradley is a God-botherer, writer, audiophile, musician, social media consultant and strategist. You can find him at JaysonDBradley.com and on Facebook.

 

Image credit: Patrick Feller on Flickr / CC BY 2.0