Sunday, March 20, 2016

Leaving Evangelicalism (And Embracing The Gospel)


Recently Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, wrote tin an article for The Washington Post that he no longer wanted to be identified as an "evangelical." His reasoning?  "The word 'evangelical' has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ." He went on to say that he wanted to be called a "gospel Christian."  And I'm with him.

The word "evangelical" has now become too closely entwined with a political party to the point of, for lack of a better analogy, "damaging the brand." Evangelicals for too long have been so identifying themselves with Republicans to the point that it has become their message instead of that of Christ. First and foremost, we should be about a savior and not a political leader and the kingdom over the country. Certainly I have found myself an independent who doesn't feel connected into either the Republican or Democratic parties. I am too liberal for many conservatives and too conservative for many liberals. (Though I think there will be those who will use words like those to dismiss what I'm about to write). 

What do I mean by this?

I am a strong believer in social justice as it is a thread that runs deeply from Old to New Testament. God has so closely identified Himself with the least of these (poor, widows, orphans, refugees, immigrants, outsiders, and outcasts). Biblical social justice has two components: personal and national repentance. First, we admit our own sins and then the sins of our nation. We live in a country and culture that does not want to do either. 

Too often I hear about how our country is no longer a "Christian" nation, but if one takes an honest look at our history we have never fully been. Instead of embracing the truth of Christ and living out his gospel, we have often chosen our comfort over our convictions. Thomas Jefferson is a prime example of this. He could write "All men are created equal" but he could not live this principle out. Why?  Because he understood that his wealth was built on the backs of his slaves. We cannot call ourselves Christians when we cannot face the sins of our country: slaughtering of Native Americans, bringing Africans over as slaves, internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, segregation, inequality for women (even in the church), racism, and a glaring disparity between the wealthy and the poor.  



As Christians, we should not have a strident nationalism that is unconcerned with the welfare and peace of other countries. We cannot keep using up resources and wealth in pursuit of the American dream at the cost of others. As Gandhi once said, "We must live simply so that others may simply live." We are called to be disciples not consumers. We should change our mindset from "have" to "be.' We must be wary of our interpretation of scripture being skewed by our own western entitlement. We must ask ourselves, "Would believers in the Third World find our gospel to be true? Would they even recognize our Christ? Or have we remade him in our own image?" Are we simply enforcing the status quo of the elite?  To be true priests of Christ, we must abandon our privilege. 

Americans make up only 5% of the world's population and yet we use up 20% of the world's energy, eat 15% of the world's meat, 15% of the world's sugar, and produce 40% of the world's garbage. While in many Third World countries people die from unclean drinking water, the average American family uses 552 gallons of water each day and we waste 11,000 gallons each day. In Africa, their uses for water are 85% agricultural, 10% for household use, and 5% for industry (in the U.S. that is over 50%).   If everyone in the world consumed like Americans do, we wouldn't survive. How does this show the world the gospel? How can we speak of the love of Christ when we are greedily consuming and are unconcerned about others throughout the earth? How can our over consumption of food speak of a loving God when 250 million people die of hunger related causes every day?


I am pro life. By this, I not only mean in terms of the life of an unborn child, but also I don't believe in the death penalty and I am a pacifist in many cases of war. There are times when we must fight (World War II is a prime example of this), but we have become a country where war is big business. 

God has called us to be good stewards of this earth and I think too many Christians do not want to own up to the responsibility of this. Too many of them willfully deny any scientific claim that we have an impact on global warming (according to numerous scientific polls 97% of the world's scientists believe in it). 

Why are we only concerned about the impact our country's debt will have on our children and grandchildren but not the earth we are leaving them?  Why does it not concern us whether or not we leave them an earth that's sustainable for life?  This is not some liberal environmentalism but simple good stewardship of the creation of God that He called "good" and left for us to tend, not destroy. America has had a 51% negative impact on the environment, which is greater than that of 5 of the other top countries.



One of the best Christians to read on this issue of our needing to go back and be connected to our land and the food we grow and eat is Wendell Berry. I love what he wrote in his book The Art of the Commonplace:

I take literally the statement in the Gospel of John that God loves the world. I believe that the world was created and approved by love, that it subsists, coheres, and endures by love, and that, insofar as it is redeemable, it can redeemed only by love. I believe that divine love, incarnate and indwelling in the world, summons the world always towards wholeness, which ultimately is reconciliation and atonement with God. 

So if our world was created out  of love, then we, as followers of Christ, must also approach the earth with the utmost of care, with personal and national responsibility (thinking generationally and not just immediate needs and wants). We must foster its renewal. 

We must be a voice for the voiceless. Speak up and defend the fatherless, the widow, the refugee, the immigrant, the sojourner, the poor. These are the people embraced in the prophetic imagination of the Old Testament and of Christ because they are at the heart of God. He has a special place of tenderness for them, for their suffering, for their brokenness. That's why Jesus said, "Whatever you've done for the least of these, you've done for me." As Messiah, as Savior he identified himself not with the rich and powerful, not with the mighty and successful but with those at the bottom of society. He accepted the rejected. He embraced the unwanted. So, too, then must we if we are to truly call ourselves his disciples. Nor can we support companies that exploit the poor in Third World companies.


We must be good listeners and not just good talkers. The novelist George Eliot wrote, "It is a narrow mind which cannot look at a subject from various points of view." Are we? We should stop and consider what others have to say. Hear their questions (and not take all questions as doubt or confrontation) and not dismiss them. Hear what and why they believe or don't believe what they do, and to understand that conversations can be great opportunities. This is where the Church can go from being wound makers to wound healers. Our faith should be marked by mercy, compassion and honest vulnerability.


We must move beyond the mega church mentality. Our faith should resemble that of Jesus and not TV preachers who promote a message centered on God serving us instead of us serving God. Our passion should be driven by a love of him and not of possessions. 


The basis of our actions should be rooted in and shaped by scripture and not social media, political pundits, or Conservative or Liberal news outlets. We also sound theologically juvenile when we refer to the President as "Satan." How many dismiss our faith not because of Jesus but because we come across as harsh, strident and adversarial? 


We should ask ourselves:


How often do we complain about our political leaders?

How often do we pray for them (of both parties)?
Which are we called to do?
How much different would our country be if we did pray for them more?

The Church should be at the forefront of social justice just as it was during the time of Acts. Just as William Wilberforce worked tirelessly to end slavery, so, too, should we do the same today when slavery and human trafficking are even more prevalent. I see this in the work of Gary Haugen and International Justice Missions. 




Jesus affirmed the ministry of women, so why doesn't his Church? We should be championing gender equality. Look at the role of Tabitha or Dorcas as a disciple, Phoebe (who Paul refers to as a minister at the church in Cenchrea, Lunia as an apostle, and Apphia the leader of a home church. Women were very much a part of Jesus' own ministry. Mary Magdalene even helped fund him.  

Some may ask, "What does all of that have to do with the gospel?"


I believe that we do not have to work for grace, but once we have experienced grace from that will flow works.  As James 2 tells us, "Faith without works is dead." When we embrace the gospel, we will then embrace others. We will be stand up for those who cannot defend themselves. Never once does Jesus put up a wall between himself and others, so how can we?


In 125 AD, Aristides wrote to the Emperor Hadrian, who had commissioned him to find out why Christianity was spreading so rapidly. Here is some of what he wrote to the Emperor:


. . . they love one another, and from widows they do not turn away their esteem; and they deliver the orphan from him who treats him harshly. And he who has, gives to him who has not; without boasting. And when they see a stranger, they take him in . . .


Does this sound at all like the modern Church? Especially the Evangelical church?


Now, whenever I've had this discussion with another believer, I tend to get, "You are not a Southern Baptist!" And, in many ways, they're right.


I can often feel disconnected from those around me. 


You see, I grew up Presbyterian, then in the Word of Faith movement (don't get me started on that one), and then Pentecostal. Yet I have often found my faith strengthened, enriched, and deepened by those who are Catholic, Anabaptist, Mennonite, and Quaker among other traditions. I have found much to gain from their liturgies, rituals and ways of worshipping (including the use of silence - something many modern churches are truly afraid of embracing).


I have been impacted by the long rich history of the Church. The men and women who have shaped and breathed the Spirit of God into it century after century.  I have been impacted by Saint Francis and Francis Chan. I have gone to the spiritual well and drank of the Spirit from the works of Saint Augustine, Julian of Norwich, Teresa of Avila, Simone Weil, C.S. Lewis, G.K. Chesterton, Madeleine L'Engle, Richard J. Foster, Henri Nouwen, Thomas Merton, Dallas Willard, Eugene Peterson, Brennan Manning, Walter Brueggemann, Lauren Winner among others.  Along with the traditions I grew up in, I also love embracing others (centering prayer, lectio divina, meditation on the word and nature of God, being still, silent and mindful, of understanding cultural context for scriptures and striving to get at the heart of them so that they can continue to change me more into the likeness of Christ).




One of my favorite modern examples of what a Christian should be like is Fred Rogers. Mister Rogers was an educator, puppeteer, Presbyterian minister, author and activist. He was a man of authentic gentleness and compassion. "Love isn't a state of perfect caring," he once said, "It is an active noun like struggle. To love someone is to strive to accept that person exactly the way he or she is, right here and now." That is precisely what Jesus did when he walked the earth. He loved people and he loved them into the kingdom.  In many ways, Mister Rogers has been a role model for me in how I handle Cava.  To calm him down, I have to be calm and speak in a soft and soothing manner. In my head, I hear Mister Roger's voice and try to mimic it. It's amazing how much that works.

While we were watching Mister Rogers' show one day, Cava said, "I wish  he was my neighbor."


"Why is that?" I asked.


"Because he makes me feel accepted and special just as I am even when I don't feel that way." he answered.


That's how Jesus made others feel and that's how we should be responding to those around us. There is great strength in loving. Jesus drew sinners to him. The Greek word for this is
eggiz├│ which means to bring near, to draw someone close to you, like a mother does her child. They are drawn to him. They approach him. 


But do we see others being drawn to us? 

Do they approach us? 



Does this mean I always feel like I fit in in my own church?

No.


Yet despite this, I feel tethered to my church.


I love the community. I love the people. I love how they love the Bible and long to live it out in our area, in our nation, and in our world. 

Is it perfect?

No, but no church will be.


Why?


Because imperfect people will always be in them (I chief among them). 


But to make an impact in our neighborhoods, in our communities, in our world then there must be authenticity. Our theologies must impact our biographies. That means we have to live out the gospel in all areas of our lives. We cannot say, "Not my problem. Not my concern. Let somebody else deal with it." Like Christ, we must go to the hurting, the lonely, the unnoticed, and the unloved. They may not look like us, they will most certainly not act like us, but we must not see them through our narrow perceptions but with the eyes of our Lord who embraces them with open and loving arms. 

All of what I've written may ruffle many feathers, but please note that I am not trying to anger of offend anyone. My goal is not division but contemplation. To make us reevaluate just where our faith lies. We are in this world not of it. Our faith should be grounded and rooted in Christ alone.

I long to be more like the savior I claim to follow. I want to be motivated by faith and not fear, to choose joy over judgment, and brotherly love over bigotry. I long to get at what is the very basis of Evangelicalism to begin with. Evangelical came from the Greek word "evangelion"meaning "good news" or "gospel." 


Is that what we're focusing on?


We should be as Psalm 106 says, "bearers of joy." Why? Because we have joyously good news to share. How can I not want to share who Christ is, what he has done for us, and how deeply he loves us?  Like the angels declared to the shepherds in the field, we should be shouting out, "Behold! I bring you glad tidings of great joy!" In this world of hatred, of drawing lines, of building walls against, of exclusion, we have news that breaks all this down and says simply, "For God so loved..." 


And once we have truly experienced that love, it transforms us so that we, too, love as Jesus loved. 

Did I also add that I absolutely love Jesus?


He is first and center to my faith.


Every time I read the Bible, I come away in awe and amazement. I find myself challenged and changed by him.


Even when I have found myself tired of the Church and the trappings that often come with organized belief, I find myself drawn back to Christ again and again and again . . .


He alone is the reason for my faith and the sustainer of it.


When I become frustrated with how the Church responds and acts (or doesn't act) in the world, I shift my focus back to him and how he ministered to the broken, the needy, the lost, the lonely, and the forgotten. And it makes me want to be more like him.


His love cannot and should not be sentimentalized, sanitized, or watered down. 


He will not fit into our misconceptions, our misrepresentations, our simplified descriptions, our boxes our our back pockets. He is greater than our understanding and more encompassing than our own predispositions, predilections, or preferences. He alone should be the basis for our motivations. In that, I will, as the apostle Paul wrote in Philippians, "Rejoice, yes, I will rejoice!" 


And, like Russell D. Moore, I want to truly be a gospel Christian. 












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