Jesus died because you didn’t clean your room (and other things we tell our kids)

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This kid obviously cleaned her room for Jesus.

Last week was VBS at my church. It was the first time my daughter was old enough to participate. I filled in as a backup crew leader. Think small group leader, but with more herding kids from one activity to the next. Also, pretending to know the motions to the songs, which occasionally meant spinning in circles while everyone else was jumping up and down.

The curriculum we were using* was all about God’s unconditional love. Which is a great theme to highlight, especially when you’ve only got a couple hours a night to engage kids, many of whom have no other connection to the church. If I could choose just one message to share with kids, this would be it. (Even if I can’t get the hand motions right.)

One night, we were supposed to talk about the fact that God loves us even when we do wrong. The curriculum did a nice job walking through the story of Jesus’ death on the cross. It also had a few suggestions for how to explain why Jesus died. One of them was to share some examples of sin that kids can relate to.

Like not cleaning your room.

Why did Jesus die? Answer: because your room is a mess and you didn’t tidy it up like you were supposed to.

I get that we have to keep things simple for kids. But is this really the best way to explain Jesus’ death? Is there no other way we can unpack for kids the idea that the world is broken and in need of rescue and repair?

Do we trivialize the gospel when we make it about “sins” like not cleaning your room? Do we sell our kids short by not telling them a more meaningful story?

Later that night, I saw proof that the kids in my group were itching for a better story, that they didn’t need a trivialized, oversimplified concept of sin in order for the gospel to make sense.

The makers of the curriculum wanted to address real issues that kids face, and they wisely included bullying as one of the featured topics. During the discussion time that evening, the change in my group was palpable. Suddenly, these kids—who wouldn’t take anything seriously all week, who spent the whole time cracking jokes and posturing for each other—got very serious. They listened. Each had a story to tell. Multiple stories, actually. You could see the hurt in their eyes. Each of them had been bullied at some point. Heck, they even wanted to know if I had been bullied as a kid. (Asking me a serious question—that was a first.)

Our kids understand the world is not how it should be. They don’t need us to soft-pedal it for them. They don’t need to be fed trivial examples of sin in order to understand Jesus’ death.

We don’t need to treat our kids as if they’re porcelain china, as if they’ll shatter into a million pieces if we’re honest about the way the world really is. Just ask them if they’ve ever had a run-in with a bully, and you’ll realize: they know what sin is.

They deserve a gospel that makes sense in the real world. And that, I think, is the main shortcoming of a primarily legal or transactional approach to the gospel. It reduces sin to a theological abstraction, one in which not cleaning your room is every bit as serious as murder or rape or bullying. It says naively that “all sin is sin,” when all sins are not, in fact, created equal. (For more on the problems of equalizing sin, see this post by R.L. Stollar.)

This, by the way, is one reason why I’m increasingly drawn to the Christus Victor view of the atonement, why I believe it makes the most sense of what Jesus did on the cross (knowing that the significance of Jesus’ death cannot be reduced to a single theory of atonement), and why I think it opens the door to sharing a better gospel story.

Christus Victor says we are captives of a broken world. Yes, some of that darkness resides in us. We are both victims and culprits. We are trapped in a cycle of sin and death, but we also contribute in ways both small and large. Christus Victor says that Jesus’ sacrifice was God’s victory over sin and death, as opposed to appeasement for the trivial “sins” of a 4-year-old who doesn’t clean her room.

Our kids deserve a better story.

(Although, if it will get my almost-4-year-old to clean her room…)

Related post: The gospel sketched for kids

*In case you’re wondering, the VBS curriculum we used was Weird Animals by Group Publishing. There are many, many good things about this curriculum: the way they tied in stories of impoverished kids in other parts of the world (and respected the dignity of those kids)… the way they highlighted God’s unconditional love… the fact that they created a music soundtrack that won’t drive parents batty. (No, really. My daughter is STILL singing the songs.) But when it comes to telling the redemptive story of the Bible, I think we can do better. 

Image by Paul Walsh on Flickr

Polarization and the church: is a third way possible?

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Last week, the Pew Research Center shared their findings from a 20-year study of polarization in American politics. The short version: it’s getting worse. But polarization is not just a political phenomenon. It’s a religious one too.

Polarization is more than just disagreement with someone. It’s the tendency to view that person as your enemy, as a threat to everything you hold dear. In a Christian context, polarization manifests itself in rejecting the validity of someone else’s faith, or by saying things like, “If you accept X, then you’ve undermined the gospel, the Bible, Christianity, etc.”

We don’t have to look far to find those who’ve been impacted by this kind of polarization, whose humanity has been reduced to an abstract “other” so we can more easily marginalize and dismiss them.

Our disagreements aren’t going away anytime soon. The question is, can we have our differences and still find a way to live together?

Al Mohler has said quite forcefully there can be no “third way”—at least not when it comes to the subject of homosexuality. And as he pointed out, Tony Jones has said pretty much the same thing from the left. In response, Zach Hoag has written a couple of posts (here and here) defending the idea of a third way.

Some have said the third way is at best a temporary stopping point on the way to something else. (See, for example, this thoughtful post from Justin Hanvey.) The idea of a third way—making room for people on both sides in your church—sounds good in theory. But what do you do, for example, when a same-sex couple asks you to officiate their wedding? What do you do when you finally have to choose one side over the other?

Is a third way about allowing for time for discernment and reflection together—with the assumption that the clock is ticking and we’ll have to come to some kind of resolution eventually? Or is it a commitment to live in community even if we never come to agreement? Is that even possible?

I don’t have good answers to these questions. I’m still wrestling. I have some doubts about the viability of a third way, partly because I like things to be black and white.

The truth is, I always have…

—//—

I’ve never been good at negotiating a third way, regardless of which side of the ideological spectrum I sat on. In my college days, I was one of the more conservative kids on a conservative evangelical campus. I would argue loud and long with my comparatively more “liberal” friends. Politics, women’s ordination, homosexuality. You name it, we argued it.

What I didn’t realize until years later was they were modeling a third way in how they responded. They never rejected me as a person. They never questioned the validity of my faith, even though I’m quite sure they found some of my views (and how I expressed them) repugnant.

Even when my arguments crossed the line from debate to personal attack, even when I demonstrated precisely zero interest in what they had to say (which was often), even when they got so frustrated with me they had to get up from the table—we always came back together the next day. They always welcomed me back to the table. We didn’t soft-pedal our disagreements. But we found a way to live together in the midst of them—which was almost entirely to their credit and not mine.

Since then, many of my views have shifted—not least because of the influence of those who refused to write me off. I don’t care much for the term “liberal” because I think for some it carries a certain stereotype of someone who says the Nicene Creed with their fingers crossed (if they say it at all), and that’s not me. Nevertheless, I’m definitely on the more “progressive” side of things than I was in college.

But I’ve brought all my old polarizing tendencies with me. I’m still a fundamentalist at heart. (Yes, progressives can be fundamentalists too.) I still have a tendency to view those I disagree with as enemies. As “other.” And this kind of polarization is an inherently dehumanizing force.

—//—

Whatever the merits and limitations of a third way, if it’s just about being superficially nice, then it’s not worth the effort. As Benjamin Moberg notes, civility and respect are important, but eradicating injustice matters more. Not everyone who disagrees with you is a threat to the church, not by a long shot. But some may pose a genuine threat—to the church and to those who seek shelter within its walls. There are some whose very notion of the way of Jesus seems diametrically opposed to the man himself…

Those who insist on shutting certain people out.

Those who make exclusion a badge of orthodoxy.

Those who harbor abusers and blame their victims.

Those who cannot see the dignity and worth—or faith—of those who are different from them.

The third way, as I understand it, isn’t about trying to please everybody. If you don’t want to sit in the same pew as people who are different from you, then the third way is not for you.

If the thought of receiving communion from a priest who is gay makes you cringe, the third way may not be your thing. If you cannot share the peace of Christ with those who don’t share your views on same-sex marriage, then you may have to find another way. “Fundamentalism won’t fly,” as Zach Hoag writes. “Movement will be required on both sides.” That is, movement toward each other as fellow image bearers and, yes, as fellow Christians.

That’s because the third way is about affirming the genuine faith of [insert your favorite scapegoat here]. When you can do this, what you’re really affirming is that you and they are part of the same family. You are bound to them, and they are bound to you.

That may be as far as the third way can take us. But even that might be enough to blunt the worst effects of polarization on the church.

—//—

The third way that Zach and others have proposed is not a solution to all our problems. But I don’t think it’s meant to be. Like I wrote near the beginning of this post, the limitations of a third way become evident the moment a church is asked to bless a same-sex marriage or hire a female priest or take any other action that forces it to favor one side over the other.

As long as we have to take sides from time to time, let’s be honest. If we claim Jesus as our example, can we find any case in the gospels where he didn’t cast his lot with the disenfranchised? Where he didn’t favor those who were marginalized or excluded over those who were in power?

Choices have to be made. What makes the third way compelling is not the avoidance of choice but the refusal to be enemies in the midst of making that choice. Others may choose to see us as their enemy, and we can’t help that. But we don’t have to return the favor. We can offer a hand to anyone who’s willing to walk with us, even as we wrestle with our differences, as we try to discern together where the Spirit is taking us.

The third way is the stubborn refusal to put ideology ahead of people or theology ahead of love.

Polarization wants to convince that ideas matter more than people. The third way doesn’t mean ideas don’t matter. It’s means we don’t forget that people always come first.

Related Post: People of the third way

Photo by 55Lancey69 on Flickr

Questioning the evangelical answer machine

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As Christians, we like to have the answers. It’s the whole “asking questions” part we’re not so sure about.

Take a look at how much energy the evangelical industrial complex devotes to giving answers. If you search for products with the word “answer” in them, one Christian retail site has more than 16,000 results. The Jesus Answer Book. The Bible Answer Book. The COMPLETE Bible Answer Book. The Big Book of Questions and Answers. The Big Book of Bible Answers.

We have Answers in Genesis to allay our nagging concerns about the origins of the universe. We have our very own Bible Answer Man. We’ve outsourced questioning so that others can come up with the answers for us.

But what’s the underlying motive to this preemptive strike on questions? Is it fear? The fear that if you ask one wrong question — or one too many questions — the whole edifice of faith will come crashing down?

If you take a closer look at the scriptures, you begin to see just how little they resemble our modern-day obsession with answers. The biblical story is full of unanswered questions.

The whole book of Job is an exercise in asking hard questions, a reminder how little we know, how little we can be sure of. What’s even more amazing about this story is that God is summoned to give an account to account by a riches-to-rags alleged miscreant.

The better part of Job is taken up by his friends’ attempts to silence his questions. They accuse him of wrongdoing. They insinuate that he’s guilty of heresy and blasphemy. They posit canned answers to Job’s complex questions.

Yet Job persists.

You have to give him credit. Job was bold. He assumed the right to question God. The language of his complaint is that of a lawsuit, of someone taking their adversary before the judge — except, for Job, his adversary and judge are the same person.

In other words, Job just wants his day in court. He wants permission to ask the hard questions.

And he’s convinced that God will be OK with that… if only God would show up:

If only I knew where to find him;
that I might come even to his dwelling!

I would lay my case before him,
and fill my mouth with arguments.

I would learn what he would answer me,
and understand what he would say to me.

Would he contend with me in the greatness of his power?
No; but he would give heed to me.

There an upright person could reason with him,
and I should be acquitted forever by my judge.

When God does finally show up, Job doesn’t get the answers he’s looking for. Only more questions, a stark and humbling reminder that the universe is big and mysterious and that our knowledge — our answers — don’t even scratch the surface.

But Job was not condemned for asking questions. Job was vindicated. His friends, on the other hand, were rebuked for trying to shut him up, for trying to silence his questions with hastily contrived answers.

How many of us could stand in for Job’s friends? Afraid to ask questions. Desperate for airtight answers to supress our nagging doubts.

It’s not that answers are bad — when there are some to be had. It’s what kind of answers we seek. If the answers you give (or receive) are meant to end the conversation rather than nurture it, they are probably the wrong kind of answers.  

To follow God is to ask a lot of questions, including some that can’t be answered — not even by all 16,000 answer books at your Christian bookstore.

It’s not about personal piety.

Some mornings, I plow through the Daily Office (a relatively new discipline for me) more so I can check it off my list than to let the words speak into and through me. Sometimes, I’m more interested in returning to my coffee before it gets cold.

Sometimes I approach the Daily Office with an overactive left brain, trying to analyze each reading, as if the mark of a successful morning prayer ritual is whether I “get something out of it” or how many “ah ha” moments I have.

And then some mornings, a reading or prayer stops me in my tracks. I find myself turning it over in my head throughout the day. This morning’s New Testament reading, for example, caused me to question our definition of piety.

Piety is not one of those sexy religious terms (like “infralapsarianism”). It gets a bad rap, thanks in no small part to the association with Puritans and…well, yeah, pretty much the Puritans. Morgan Guyton defines piety as “zeal for doing and saying the right things according to your value system.” For evangelicals, piety is often characterized as having a regular “quiet time” (or doing the Daily Office, if you’re more liturgically minded), reading your Bible, etc. For the truly hardcore, piety might even include fasting. In other words, mostly inward-focused activity.

We individualize just about everything in the American religious experience, and piety is no exception. We’ve come think of it primarily in terms of personal sanctification or holiness — essentially a spiritualized form of self-improvement. Tony Robbins and Jesus rolled into one.

Which is great (apart from the Tony Robbins bit). Deepening your personal devotion to Christ is important. But in today’s reading, the apostle Peter reminds us that personal piety is not an end unto itself:

Now that you have purified your souls by your obedience to the truth so that you have genuine mutual love, love one another deeply from the heart.

Real piety (not the sanitized, Christian bookstore version) is outwardly focused. Piety — what Peter calls the “purifi[cation] of your souls by your obedience to the truth” — leads somewhere. It leads to “genuine mutual love.”

A few lines earlier, Peter admonishes readers to “be holy,” which we tend to either write off as some idealized, impossible standard (not least because it involves becoming more like God somehow) or reduce to inwardly-focused activities like praying and reading our Bibles. For Peter, the whole point of becoming holy is so that we can love each other. The measure of our holiness is how well we love.

Peter was not the first to draw this connection, and we are not the first to lose sight of it. The book of Isaiah depicts the Israelites trying to vindicate themselves before God, primarily on the basis of their personal piety:

“Why have we fasted,” they say,
“and you have not seen it?
Why have we humbled ourselves,
and you have not noticed?”

The problem, according to Isaiah 58, was their personal piety had not led to mutual love. It had not demonstrated itself in compassion for their neighbors and justice for the oppressed.

On the day of your fasting, you do as you please
and exploit all your workers…
You cannot fast as you do today
and expect your voice to be heard on high.
Is this the kind of fast that I have chosen,
only a day for people to humble themselves?
Is it for bowing one’s head like a reed
and for lying in sackcloth and ashes?
Is that what you call a fast,
a day acceptable to the Lord?

(You can almost hear the exasperation in the prophet’s voice.)

Is this not the kind of fasting I have chosen:
to loose the chains of injustice
and untie the cords of the yoke,
to set the oppressed free
and break every yoke?
Is it not to share your food with the hungry
and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—
when you see the naked, to clothe them,
and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood?

If your piety — your zeal, your religious devotion — does not cause you to become more loving, more compassionate, more outwardly focused, then it is not piety. If it does not lead you to welcome the stranger, to open your doors to the marginalized, and to speak out for the oppressed and excluded, then your piety has not drawn you any closer to God than you were before.

Which brings me back to the Daily Office. Like I said, it’s a fairly new discipline for me. I find its rhythm meaningful in a way that “personal devotions” never were. Even when I do the readings on my own, I’m joining my voice with countless others — meditating on the same scriptures, reciting the same prayers. I find something quietly powerful in that.

But if I’m not doing this so I can become more loving, more welcoming, more openhanded and compassionate toward my neighbor, then what is the point?

When God kept vigil

The night before his death, Jesus asked some of his closest followers to keep vigil with him, to “watch and pray.” We’ve been keeping a different kind of vigil in our house as Lent draws to a close: feeding, comforting, changing, rocking our newborn son through the small hours of the night. It’s made for a strange contrast during Holy Week — marking the death of Jesus while we celebrate new life in our family. Becoming a father again has made me wonder what it meant for God to be a “Father” on the night Jesus was sentenced to die.

Some would have us see Jesus’ death as a legal transaction to satisfy the demands of an angry God. They think God sent his Son to the cross to appease divine wrath against us. A just and holy God cannot tolerate the presence of sin, so he poured all his fury onto Jesus, and then he turned his back on him.

But what if God was there all along, keeping vigil with his Son? After all, isn’t that what fathers do?

I believe Jesus died in our place on Good Friday. I believe he bore the weight of sin and death on his shoulders, as he strained for each breath, scratching his already flayed skin against the rough texture of a Roman cross. I believe this was God’s plan of rescue, how he ransomed the world from sin and death.

But if God is in some way a “Father” (there are also maternal descriptions of God in Scripture, to be sure) — and if this term says something meaningful about God’s character — then it has to have some correspondence to the human experience of being a father.

Becoming a father for the second time has reminded me that I could never, ever turn my back on my child. If I did, I would cease to be a father in any meaningful sense of the word. Believe me, there are times — especially in the middle of the night — when I’d rather turn over, go back to sleep, and let my crying son fend for himself. But that’s not what fathers (or mothers) do. We nurture. We comfort. And when there is no comfort to be had — when my son is crying simply because this strange new world is too much for him — we keep vigil.

That’s what I think God was doing the night before his death. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was not a declaration of abandonment so much as a plea for God to draw near. (It helps if you read the whole psalm that Jesus quoted.) Fathers don’t abandon their kids.

When morning came, God did not send his Son to the cross. God himself went to the cross. God died so we could live. And through this death, he showed us the way to live. He showed us what it means to be a father who never, ever abandons his children, even in the darkest hours of the night.

Let there be: love as the act of letting go

Photo by mkooiman on Flickr

During his talk in Grand Rapids last night, N.T. Wright shared something I wish he’d had more time to unpack. (When you’ve got 45 minutes to cover the whole big story of the Bible, there’s only so much you can do. Even if you’re N.T. Wright.)

Going back to Genesis 1, Wright drew our attention to the language God used to speak the world into existence: “Let there be.” We often hear it as the language of divine power and control, language that sets God apart from us. God says something should exist, and boom! It does.

But maybe we think this way because we haven’t asked why God made the world in the first place. Ancient philosophers wrestled long and hard with this question. If God was perfect goodness, they reasoned, anything he created — anything that was “other” than himself — would by nature be something less than perfect goodness.

Why create that?

For N.T. Wright, the answer is fairly simple: love.

God creates because God loves. We exist because God’s love can’t be contained; it needs an object outside itself. We exist because God wanted someone to love.

Which, when you understand the nature of love, casts a rather different light on the language used in Genesis 1.

“Let there be” is releasing language.

“Let there be” is not so much the language of power and control. It’s the language God used to release, unleash and send his creative power into the world, where it would then take on a life of its own.

Which, after all, is what you do when you love someone. You don’t coerce. You don’t control. You don’t impose yourself. (For those who think I’m in danger of judging God by human standards, where do you think we got this ethic of love in the first place?)

When you love someone, you unleash them. You give them a good start, point them in the right direction, prepare them for the road ahead. But then you let them walk it. You let them discover and try and fail and become for themselves.

That’s what God does with his creation.

Let there be light.

Let dry ground appear.

Let the land produce.

Let the waters teem.

Let the humans rule.

It’s the language of love, and it carries enormous risk. To let creation do this and that was to allow it to move in directions God might not have wanted. In love, God gave his creation freedom to flourish, but that also meant giving it freedom to fail.

“Let there be,” even if it means creation goes very badly wrong.

Which of course, it did.

—//—

Not many years ago, this would have been completely foreign to me. I wanted a God who superintended the minute details of the universe. I wanted a God who knew everything that was going to happen because he had already determined everything that was going to happen. I preferred “God is in control” to “God is love.” I even wrote a master’s thesis defending the doctrine of meticulous sovereignty against the “open theism” of Clark Pinnock, John Sanders, and Greg Boyd.

If I’m honest, I wanted God to be in control because I wanted to be in control. Sounds paradoxical, I know. Yet in my limited experience, those who insist the loudest on God’s absolute power have a habit of clinging tightest to power themselves — of controlling others, or trying to anyway.

Which, in many ways, is the exact opposite of what God did when he created us.

When we seek to control others, when we seek to dominate or impose our will, we commit an act of uncreation. We move against the flow of God’s creative power, saying “let me have” instead of “let there be.”

In order to participate in God’s creative work, to be co-creators with him (which is, after all, part of what it means to bear God’s image), we have to let go of power and control.

—//—

As a parent, this does not come easily for me. I want my daughter to turn out “right.” Heck, she’s only three, and already I worry: Will she be OK when she’s older? Will she even like us? Will she care about those in need? Will she fall in with the “wrong” crowd? Will she want anything to do with God?

The thing is, I can’t control how she turns out. I can try my best to guide her, give her a good foundation, point her in what I hope is the right direction. But then I have to release her to discover and try and fail and become for herself.

My wife and I brought her into this world. In our own very small way, we said, “Let her be.” And we have to keep saying it every day.

I’ve seen parents hang on to the illusion of control, falling into a tailspin of grief when their kids don’t turn out the way they’d hoped. I’ve seen parents use their unfulfilled hopes as a weapon of guilt — still trying to control their kids, still trying to force them into a predetermined mold.

And I worry every day that I’ll do the same with my daughter someday. Because I really, really want her to turn out well. But I can’t control her. To try to is folly. It is uncreation. To insist on control is to refuse our invitation to participate with God in the act of saying “let there be,” in the act of releasing our own small piece of creation to become what it will.

Because that’s what love does.

On using the label “cynic” to silence people…

If you’re a Christian and you want to silence someone who’s criticizing some aspect of the church, label them a cynic. Or maybe ask why they have so much anger.

Sarah Cunningham, author of Dear Church and The Well Balanced World Changer, recently wrote that she’s grown “cynical of cynicism” — from Jon Stewart satirizing inept politicians to Stephanie Drury and her “inflammatory Facebook-follower mob” at Stuff Christian Culture Likes (SCCL) mocking the excesses and abuses of the evangelical subculture.

Sarah believes cynicism is a form of spiritual kryptonite — destroying faith, tarnishing the church, and maybe even damaging our physical health.

And she’s right. A steady diet of satire won’t nourish your soul. But I’ve also found that a healthy dose of it every now and then CAN be a lifeline when I feel like I’m drowning.

More to the point, I’m not sure everything that gets branded as “cynicism” deserves the label. (Is it time for yet another “you keep using that word” meme? Why, yes, I think it is…)

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Cynicism — real cynicism — is toxic. It is (to borrow shamelessly from Wikipedia) a “form of jaded negativity.” It leaves you incapable of seeing the good in anyone or anything else. It is satire without hope, pointing out flaws without really caring if they ever get fixed — and maybe even hoping they don’t, so you won’t run out of “material.”

But too often, we misappropriate the term “cynic” to stop others from pointing out the flaws in us, to silence those who are grieving and processing and healing from the abuse that’s been inflicted on them by the church.

Publicly criticize the evangelical subculture? You must be a cynic. Mock the celebrity pastor cult and its more absurdist elements? You’re just being nasty. Call out spiritual abuse and manipulation? You’re dragging the whole church through the mud in the eyes of a watching world.

So my question for those who see people like Stephanie and SCCL as nothing more than a roving band of angry cynics is this: have you ever been abused? I haven’t. Sure, I have my baggage like anyone else. I’ve been negatively impacted by Christian fundamentalism, too. But nothing in my life rises to the level of abuse experienced by people like Stephanie. Which means I don’t know what it’s like to walk in her shoes. Which also means I should think twice about dismissing her as a cynic.

And let’s face it: if anything deserves to be mocked, shamed, lampooned, scorned, etc., then it’s the emotional, physical, and spiritual abuse of others in the name of Christ.

The church hasn’t always done a good job owning up to its failures or dealing with abuse. When we silence whistleblowers in the name of “Christian unity” or “protecting the church’s reputation,” what we’re really doing is prioritizing abusers over their victims. As long as there are churches that force children to forgive their pedophile abusers — and yes, that actually happened — we need prophets who are willing to rage at this kind of injustice.

While we’re at it, we can all stop worrying about “airing the church’s dirty laundry” in front of a watching world and the damage it might do to our “testimony.” (Believe me, it’s nothing compared to the damage already done by abusers and those who shield them in the first place.)

Evidently, “reputation management” wasn’t a big concern for the earliest Christian leaders. If it were, we’d have a much smaller Bible. You’d have to chuck most of Paul, for starters. He doesn’t exactly soft-peddle dysfunction and abuse in the church. He wasn’t afraid to write about it in letters like 1 Corinthians, which were eventually canonized so they could be read by Christians and non-Christians alike.

So no, I can’t survive on a steady diet of satire. I need more than SCCL and parody celebrity pastor profiles on Twitter. I need prophets of another kind, too — prophets who imagine a new way forward and help me believe it’s possible. But we should always make room at the table for those who will rage against injustice, who will hold a mirror to abuse and not let us look away until we finally acknowledge it.

When we dismiss these voices as “cynics,” we do so at our peril.

When “do nothing” isn’t an option

Synagogue in Capernaum

“Which is lawful? To save life or to destroy it?”

This was the choice Jesus gave his opponents during a debate over Sabbath-keeping. It started with a few handfuls of grain, harvested and eaten by Jesus’ disciples while they traversed a field during the Jewish holy day.

For some, this action constituted “work,” a grave violation of Sabbath law. Others, including Jesus, felt that honoring the Sabbath shouldn’t mean you had to starve.

In the same passage, Luke recalls yet another Sabbath day. Jesus and his adversaries were worshiping in the synagogue together. There just so happened to be a man with a disfigured hand there, too. Luke seems to hint that his presence was perhaps a little too coincidental. (“The Pharisees and the teachers of the law were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus…”)

What would the itinerant preacher, reputed to be a healer, do? Purity or people — which would he choose?

It’s not like the man’s ailment was a minor inconvenience. A disfigured hand could inhibit his ability to work, farm, feed himself, survive. If he were a descendant of Aaron, a member of the priestly clan, a disfigured hand would disqualify him from serving in the temple.

Jesus, fully aware of the trap being set, walked into it anyway. He called for the man to stand up. Then he asked his rivals:

“Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil? To save life or to destroy it?”

It was an absurd question, designed to highlight the absurdity of his opponents’ thinking. Of course doing good is better than doing evil. Of course saving life is better than destroying it. Of course “love your neighbor” is more important than “keep the Sabbath.”

What I find even more startling than Jesus’ preference for love over law-keeping is the way he took this man and his predicament and made it a choice between saving life and destroying it. There was no third option. To send the man back to his seat just as he was — as far as Jesus was concerned, that would have been the moral equivalent of destroying his life.

Faced with crippling need and his own ability to help, Jesus refused to sit on the sidelines. He won’t let any of us sit on them, either. When our neighbors are in need and we have the capacity to help, the options are not “save life,” “destroy life,” or “do nothing.” There are only two options, and “do nothing” isn’t one of them.

To do nothing, it seems, is to destroy life.

I find this deeply unsettling.

—//—

Speaking of times when “do nothing” isn’t an option, at least 4 million people have been displaced and 10,000 killed by the typhoon in the Philippines. Consider donating to World Vision’s disaster relief fund to help…

What if we’re the prodigals?

Empty church by khrawlings on Flickr

You could feel the passion in the air at the 4/14 Summit in Bangkok. Passion for “reaching the next generation.” Lots of good ideas, full of hope and promise, circulated among conference goers during three days of plenary sessions, breakout groups, and meals together.

“Holistic children’s ministry.” Talk of kids being “rooted” in faith so they can be “released” to make their own contribution to this world. A compelling vision of children as “partners in ministry,” as full members of the kingdom — not treated as second-class citizens.

And, especially among US attendees, a lot of talk about “bringing the prodigals back” — an obvious allusion to the parable of the prodigal son who forsook his family, his identity, and his calling to seek a life apart from all that.

Prayers were spoken for the “prodigal generation,” for millennials who grew up in the church and walked away. Anxiety and anguish were voiced over these prodigals who had lost their way.

I kept wondering, what if we’re the prodigals, not them?

What if it’s the church who failed them, not the other way around? What if we’re the ones who need to repent and ask forgiveness?

Much has been written about millennials leaving the church. How many and why are matters of intense inquiry. Barna says that 59% of millennials raised in the church end up walking away from institutional religion or from faith altogether. The Pew Research Center reports that 1 in 3 millennials have no religious affiliation — more than previous generations at a similar stage in their lives.

Some millennials are disillusioned by scandal and abuse in the church. Many are turned off by their church’s preoccupation with money and power. Some are simply yearning for less flash and more transcendence. Others long for justice, but their churches aren’t providing an outlet for this passion. (It’s worth noting that historically black churches, which have a much richer legacy of social justice, aren’t experiencing a similar decline).

Most millennials believe the church has become too entrenched in partisan politics. Some have left because they were forced to choose between faith and science, or between their church friends and their gay friends. The overwhelming majority of millennials perceive the church as antigay, judgmental, hypocritical, and sheltered.

None of this is new information.  But all of it, I think, points to the same conclusion: we’ve lost the plot. The “main thing.” Our “first love.” We’ve lost sight of it. And it’s time we owned up to this fact.

During one of the breakout sessions, I raised the question that had been nagging at me the whole time. What if we’re the prodigals? What if we’re the ones who need to repent? The uncomfortable silence that followed was punctuated by a few murmurs of agreement.

Someone else, one of the few millennials in the room, stood up to say that if we want to regain her generation’s trust, we ought to get serious about acknowledging and prevening abuse in the church — not only sexual abuse, but any abuse of power. The breakout facilitator blinked and said, “Well, I don’t know what you mean by ‘abuse,’ ” before quickly changing the subject.

Until we understand who the “prodigal” really is, our efforts to bring millennials back to the church will fail. Only when we confess that we’re the ones who let them down, not the other way around, will we earn the right to ask them back. Until we own up to our failures — until we admit that we are no longer worthy to be called their sanctuary, their place of refuge — all our handwringing over their departure will be in vain.

—//—

The church in Ephesus was known for its diligence and perseverance. They were known for their orthodoxy. They had tested counterfeit apostles and exposed them as frauds. But in this they had failed: they had forsaken their first love. “Consider how far you have fallen,” the Spirit told them. “Repent and do the things you did at first.”

“If you do not,” the Spirit warned, “I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.”

Until we rediscover our “first love,” we have no right to expect millennials to come back to the church, to see ourselves as a beacon of light to a “lost” generation.

Re-rearranging the chairs: a response to Richard Dahlstrom responding to Rachel Held Evans (a.k.a. in defense of liturgy)

Our church in England

On his blog yesterday, Richard Dahlstrom challenged something Rachel Held Evans wrote in her recent op-ed on CNN.com about millennials leaving the church.

Richard Dahlstrom is one of my favorite pastors. Rachel Held Evans is one of my favorite bloggers. If you want to see a successful pastor building community instead of building his own empire, watch Richard Dahlstrom. If you want a window into the spirituality of millennial Christians, read Rachel’s blog.

As she noted in her CNN piece, Rachel often talks to pastors about why millennials are leaving the church — how they feel forced to “choose between their intellectual integrity and their faith, between science and Christianity, between compassion and holiness.” How evangelical Christianity has become “too political, too exclusive,” etc.

Thus far, Richard and Rachel are on the same page. These, Richard agrees, are matters of substance, not just style. The disagreement comes over what Rachel says next:

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions – Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. – precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

Richard responded:

Why, after telling us that the issue is substance, not style, does she immediately lead us into a discussion of style: about how high church and ancient forms of liturgy are better than low church, implying that chant is better than Hillsong, or that wine is better than grape juice, or that pews are better than chairs?

Well, I’m not sure Rachel ever said that liturgy is “better” than low church, that chant is better than Hillsong, or that pews are better than chairs. (Though wine IS better than grape juice.)

I may not be a millennial. (Rachel just qualifies; I missed the cutoff by a good few years.) Nevertheless, I’m one of those Christians she talks about who made the jump from converted-shopping-mall evangelicalism to liturgical, high church Christianity.

And I can assure Richard that it was all about substance. (Which is not to say one is “better” than the other.)

While living in England, my wife and I found ourselves sitting in the pews of a 700-year-old Anglican church. We came for the un-trendiest of reasons: someone invited us. We kept coming back for the un-trendiest of reasons, too: we made friends. We became part of the community.

But we were also captivated by the liturgy, by the high-churchiness of it all — for reasons that were not merely about style.

A high view of the Eucharist
A few years earlier, while on a short visit to the UK, a friend showed us one of the historic churches in his hometown of Shrewsbury. As we stood in the round sanctuary, looking toward the front, he asked:

“Do you know why the altar’s in the center and the pulpit’s off to the side?”

Um, no.

“Because for Anglicans, the Eucharist is the center of corporate worship, not the sermon.”

Not that long ago, his words would’ve made my evangelical ears bleed. The sermon’s the main event, not the Eucha — ahem, communion.

After the Reformation, after the Enlightenment, churches increasingly became places to receive information. Very good information, in some cases. Eventually, communion became something evangelical churches did once a year or once a quarter when they wanted to drag out the service a bit longer. (At least that’s what I assumed when I was a kid.)

But communion is the one thing Jesus actually told his followers to do whenever they gathered together. Regardless of how you understand the Eucharist — transubstantiation, consubstantiation, real presence, symbol only, some/any/none/all of the above — this ancient ritual connects us to the death of our Messiah. It’s participatory, not passive. Christians have been taking, eating, and remembering for close to two thousand years now. The Eucharist is the beating heart of Christian worship. It brings transformation in a way that even the best sermon can’t. It speaks to the whole person, not just the mind.

Rediscovering a high view of the Eucharist — and restoring it to its rightful place in Christian worship — is one substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

An unbroken chain
Two years ago, a bishop placed his hands on Amanda and me, confirming our membership in the Episcopal Church. Many years before that, someone placed their hands on the bishop, confirming his ministry to the church. Some time before that, someone else laid hands on that person, and so on… going all the way back to the apostles.

Anglicans have never been as clear or precise as Catholics on what we mean by apostolic succession. As with a great many things, there’s a diversity of thought within our tradition. But there’s also a shared belief that we belong to an unbroken chain connecting us — by design, not by accident — to the very first followers of Jesus.

This realization encourages a sense of rootedness, even as we innovate and discover new ways of living our faith in the world today. This Christianity thing didn’t start with us. Our congregations are not autonomous mini-empires (as some independent evangelical churches at times seem to be). We belong to a much bigger organism, transcending geography and time.

Seeing our place in an unbroken chain of Christ followers is another substantial reason we were captivated by the liturgy.

A reminder of my smallness
The path up to the main entrance of our church in England cut through a graveyard where past worshippers were laid to rest. John Newton, the author of “Amazing Grace,” was buried there. Some of the gravestones were so old you couldn’t read them anymore.

Every Sunday walking to church, you were reminded of your mortality, of your smallness.

Inside that 700-year-old structure — which wasn’t even the original church building — we sang thousand-year-old songs (and some newer ones too). We recited prayers that had been uttered on that spot for hundreds of years. We recalibrated ourselves to a centuries-old rhythm.

In the evangelical subculture, it’s easy to become enamored by the Next Big Thing. Celebrity pastors. Multisite churches. Church online. Liturgy can offer a helpful corrective because of its inherent un-hipness. Because it wasn’t invented yesterday. Because it’s been developed over centuries by a community of people, not by an individual with a “platform.”

It reminds me I am not all that. I am not the alpha and omega. Church didn’t just start getting good when I showed up.

Being reminded every Sunday of my smallness is another substantial reason I am captivated by (and need) good liturgy.

—//—

None of this should be taken as a rejection of the church tradition represented by people like Richard Dahlstrom. I have friends who go to his church. It’s an incredible community, a welcome outpost of faith in a city that desperately needs better ambassadors for Christianity.

Nor is this a rejection of converted-shopping mall evangelicalism, at least not in its entirety. I kind of like the fact that communities of Christ are reclaiming these former temples to consumerism and giving them a new purpose. The last nondenominational church to which my wife and I belonged met in a converted shopping mall, and our time there probably saved my faith.

Neither is it to suggest that liturgical traditions like mine have it all figured out. Hardly. We can become too insular, too rigid at times. We may not always allow enough room for the Spirit to move and do something fresh in our midst.

But for those of us who have found value and meaning in the liturgical traditions of the so-called “high church,” it’s not about style. It’s very much about substance.