Archives For Christianity

When God kept vigil

18 April 2014 — 2 Comments



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 his 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 execution stake. 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.

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.

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…)

pkikm

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.

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…

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.

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.

communion rail 2.001

Every Sunday, we take our almost-three-year-old daughter Elizabeth up for communion. In our church, baptized children are welcomed at the altar even before they understand what’s going on. Grace is, after all, a gift.

And every Sunday, Elizabeth’s rapidly growing mind takes in more and more of her surroundings. Yesterday, as we knelt by the altar rail, she started telling us what to do next, parroting the whispered instructions we’d given her countless times before: Don’t eat the wafer yet. Wait for the person to dip it in the cup and give it back to you.

Afterward, we were talking with our priest during coffee hour (a tradition every bit as sacred to Episcopalians as potlucks are to Baptists). Elizabeth had a cup of goldfish crackers; and right there with the three of us, she began reenacting the ritual she’d just been a part of, solemnly handing each of us an orange, fish-shaped wafer.

Our daughter is noticing. Absorbing. Processing. Becoming an active participant in this ancient and slightly bizarre ritual.

Someday soon, she’s probably going to ask why.

—//—

Christians of a certain stripe have long been preoccupied with getting kids to make a decision about God as quickly as possible. From an early age, we start peppering our kids with answers to questions they haven’t even thought to ask yet.

The truth is, we’re scared.

We’re scared something bad might happen to them before they make a decision about God. Which probably says more about our notion of God than anything else.

So we settle for methods that short-circuit our kids’ natural sense of curiosity, imagination, and wonder. We reduce faith to a decision, a transaction, an exchange of goods and services.

Is it any wonder, when we rob faith of its ability to capture the imagination, that it has so little staying power in the lives of our children?

—//—

The rituals prescribed in the Torah — Passover meals, phylacteries, mezuzahs — served many purposes, but one was made explicit to the ancient Israelites on at least two occasions in scripture.

In Deuteronomy 6, the Israelites were told to etch the Torah onto their hearts, bind it to their foreheads (hence the phylacteries), and scrawl it onto their doorframes (hence the mezuzahs).

Parents were also told to “impress” or “engrave” these laws onto their children. To teach them in such a way as to make a lifelong impression.

So let’s all break out the spiritual hammers and chisels then?

Not quite. The text goes on:

In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the Lord our God has commanded you?” tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

A similar decree was made concerning the Passover meal in Exodus 12:

And when your children ask you, “What does this ceremony mean to you?” then tell them, “It is the Passover sacrifice to the Lord, who passed over the houses of the Israelites in Egypt and spared our homes…”

The best way to make a lasting impression on your kids? Nurture their curiosity. Honor it. Allow questions to sprout and take shape in their minds. Wait to be asked.

I don’t mean sit back and do nothing. After all, something has to spark our children’s curiosity. Something like kneeling with them at an alter and receiving a round wafer dipped in wine from somebody wearing a white robe.

Something like watching a priest sprinkle water over a child’s head while onlookers clap, cry, snap pictures, and promise to support that child in their newfound life in Christ.

Something like practicing justice and mercy, loving our neighbors (even the difficult ones), welcoming outcasts, relinquishing power, serving others.

Rituals and practices like these are not likely to go unnoticed by our kids. They observe and absorb more than we think.

So maybe all we have to do is nurture their curiosity. Maybe we don’t have to butt in with answers to questions they haven’t even asked yet.

Of course, this begs the question: what should we tell our kids when they do ask?

—//—

Four Spiritual Laws. Romans Road. The Wordless Book. The sinner’s prayer.

All of them methods, tools, or techniques for extracting a decision from people.

The Torah suggested a rather different approach. When parents were asked the meaning of all the laws and rituals they followed, this was the answer they were to give:

“We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.”

Instead of using abstract concepts or clever techniques to cajole a profession of faith from their kids, they simply needed to share their story.

Of course, there was always the implicit invitation to enter the story, to activate it, to make it your own story. And of course, doing so means there is a decision to be made at some point.

The question is how.

Do we go about introducing faith to our kids in ways that respect their personhood, nurture their curiosity, and engage their imaginations?

And if we did so, would they be more likely to make a decision that lasts?

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When news broke that Rick Warren’s son, Matthew, had taken his own life, it wasn’t long before the outpouring of support gave way to a more repugnant sentiment.

People taking to social media to mock Warren’s faith . . .

To declare his family’s heartbreaking loss to be some sort of payback for his theology or his politics . . .

To speculate on his son’s eternal destiny.

Paraphrasing John Armstong’s timely response to these attacks, the words pathetic and cruel come to mind.

I don’t claim to be a huge Rick Warren fan. I don’t go in for his style of church. Theologically and politically, he and I are probably worlds apart. And I could never quite get into the whole “purpose-driven” thing — even though I was employed by his publisher during the heyday of his mega-bestselling book (and therefore indirectly benefited from it). And yes, I did read it.

So it would be pretty easy for me to congratulate myself for not jumping on the bandwagon of judgment being directed at Warren by a few trolls on the internet.

Except . . .

Despite our differences, I like Rick Warren. He comes across as a nice enough guy. I kinda sorta met him once, and he seemed every bit as warm and approachable in person as he does on TV.

And you have to admit: even if you don’t share all of his politics or theology, Rick Warren is a way better ambassador for evangelicalism than some of the other current and former contenders. His PEACE Plan is something to be admired — even if you disagree with some of the particulars (or just don’t share Warren’s penchant for acronyms).

In other words, it’s easy for me to sympathize with someone like Rick Warren.

So what if it was someone I didn’t just disagree with — what if it was someone I actively disliked?

What if it was John Piper, who doesn’t merely express what I think is some rather sadistic theology, but seems to delight in doing so?

What if it was Mark Driscoll, whose misogynistic rants have wounded more than a few of my friends?

What if it was James Dobson, whose unholy mix of Christianity and right-wing politics has arguably done more than anything else to drive people away from faith?

If any of these three suffered a comparable loss, would I grieve for them? Would I feel sorry? Or would I feel smug?

I have to be honest. The answer scares me a little.

In his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul encouraged believers to “mourn with those who mourn.”

I’d like to tell myself that Paul is asking Christians to mourn with other Christians, and that Piper/Driscoll/Dobson [add your nemesis of choice here] hardly qualify as good models of what a Christian ought to be . . . therefore we are exempt from mourning when they stumble or suffer loss.

It’s OK to be smug when people like THAT suffer.

Except that it’s not.

You see, Paul wasn’t just talking about how we treat other Christians, those who think exactly like we do, or those we find it easy to like. Just one sentence earlier, Paul also said, “Bless those who persecute you,” which would seem to rule out a narrow interpretation of who he means by “those.”

Bless those…

Rejoice with those…

Mourn with those…

“Those.” As in everyone.

We bless, we rejoice, and we mourn with any and all, because we believe that no one is beyond redemption. We believe that no one is beyond God’s love. A relatively new friend of mine, Trystan Owain Hughes, has a timely (and challenging) piece about this very thing.

It’s not easy to mourn with those we dislike. But perhaps the true test of our willingness to follow Jesus is not our ability to grieve at the suffering of our friends, but at that of our enemies.

So today, I will grieve with Rick Warren. But I’ll be honest and admit that it’s easy for me to do so. It’s easy to grieve with those whom I like. So I will also pray for the strength to grieve with my enemies when they stumble or suffer loss.

Much has been made of the new pope’s humility over the last few days . . .

The pope who chose not to use an elevated platform to address the crowd after his introduction, preferring to stand among his fellow cardinals rather than above them.

The pope who eschewed more ornate attire for a simple white cassock — a sharp contrast to his predecessor and to all the grandeur of the Vatican.

The pope who asked the people for their blessing before he presumed the right to pronounce one on them.

The pope who rode the bus back to the hotel with the other cardinals, instead of taking the private sedan that is now one of the many perks of his new job.

The pope who stopped by his hotel the following day to pick up his own luggage and pay his own bill.

The pope who actually knows how to crack a joke.

The pope who interrupted the procession to his own installation in order to bless a disabled man.

As a cardinal in Argentina, Jorge Mario Bergoglio lived in a simple apartment, cooked his own meals, and rode the bus to work.

Like the saint from whom he took his name, Francis dreams of a “poor church [that is] for the poor.”

Make no mistake: Francis is no progressive. Don’t expect to see him rethinking the church’s stance on a celibate priesthood, contraception, women priests, or gays and lesbians. Even if he were inclined to be more of a reformer than he is, time is not on his side. The new pontiff is 76 years old, bucking all the pre-conclave speculation that the cardinals would choose someone younger to succeed Benedict.

So don’t expect much institutional or theological change in the Catholic Church over the next few years.

Still, Pope Francis could effect a different kind of change. All the early signs suggest that he will try to build a Church that is humbler, more accessible, more reflective, more aware of its own shortcomings. A simpler church for a complex world.

It would be a welcome change.

Don’t get me wrong. As someone who grew up without much liturgy, I’ve come to appreciate the pageantry — the pomp and circumstance — of the liturgical tradition. I find comfort in its rich symbolism and its contemplative rhythms. I love it when my Episcopal church breaks out the incense (which we don’t do as often as our Catholic brothers and sisters).

But there is danger in becoming too remote, too far removed, too caught up in ourselves and in our traditions — at which point a liturgy that was originally meant to connect people to the divine becomes instead a barrier, keeping them at arm’s length.

We need liturgy. We need ceremony. Maybe even a little pomp and circumstance now and then. But we must not build these edifices as monuments to our own tradition.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeveral years ago, while touring St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, I overheard a priest telling a group of students why the interior was so ornate. It was because God deserves the very best, he explained. Maybe so, but it’s easy to forget that God intends for his church to direct its wealth outward, not inward.

This is not just a Catholic or a “high church” problem, either. While in college, I took a class trip to a prominent evangelical megachurch. They were about to embark on a multimillion-dollar campaign to build a state-of-the-art auditorium (not a “sanctuary,” they were quick to point out). They were one of the first to put a Starbucks-style coffee shop on their “campus.” Their worship services were finely-tuned productions — no less elaborate than the most ornate liturgical service.

Our guide explained that they wanted everything they did to be characterized by “excellence.” Hence the auditorium, gourmet coffee, and elaborate weekend productions. But he was stumped when someone from our group asked how they drew the line between excellence and self-serving opulence.

We all need to hear Francis’ warning against “the spiritual sickness of a self-referential church.” We should all hope he succeeds at reshaping Catholic tradition.

Because if he does, he might end up changing it for years to come. If his desire for a simpler, humbler church — a “poor church for the poor” — manages to reinvigorate Catholicism, it may be harder for it to return to the status quo when the time comes to select a new pope.

And at the end of the day, a humbler, more reflective Church might just become a more welcoming place for those currently relegated to the margins.

popefrancis quote

This is part 2 of a series on rethinking the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a Christian, inspired by the most recent assault on Gaza. Part 1 can be read here.  

When I was a kid, I had a t-shirt with a picture of Snoopy carrying an Israeli flag, trailed by Woodstock marching with an American flag. The caption below read, “America is right behind you.”

So yeah, I guess you could say I was pro-Israel. After all, how could you be an evangelical and not be a supporter of the Israeli state?

The dominant narrative of the American evangelical subculture says the Holy Land belongs to Israel alone. It’s an everlasting inheritance rooted in an irrevocable, unchanging covenant with God himself. (More on that in another post perhaps.)

The establishment of the Israeli state in 1948 is looked on not just as an important event in the life of the Jewish people, but as nothing less than the fulfillment of biblical prophecy, inaugurating the beginning of the end times.

Israel’s defense, then, is America’s sacred responsibility, our first and greatest foreign policy commitment. (That was something both candidates in the recent presidential campaign actually agreed on.) As such, no criticism of Israel will be brooked. Palestinians are, at best, squatters with no rightful claim to the land — and at worst, terrorists who would ignite a second Holocaust, given the chance.

Add to the mix our present-day worries about “radical Islam” and our tendency to paint all Arabs with the same brush, and it becomes far too easy for us to view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in simple terms of good guys vs. bad guys. Christians and Jews together on one side, presumably, and Palestinian Islamists on the other.

That is, until cracks begin to appear in the façade we’ve created to help ourselves sleep at night.

Like the fact that many of those working hardest for peace among Jews and Palestinians are members of the Jewish community. Organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace belie the supposition, popular in evangelical circles, that Jews and Palestinians are destined to be forever at war.

Or the fact that not all Palestinians fit the radical-jihadist-with-a-bomb-strapped-to-his-chest caricature. Not by a long shot. Not only are most Palestinians nonviolent (whatever their religion); many happen to be Christian. My spiritual brothers and sisters, united by a common faith.

For some reason, in my church we never talked about Palestinian Christians. Oh, we discussed at length the persecution of Christians in other part of the world, but never the suffering of our fellow believers in Palestine. We were oblivious to their existence.

For me, that changed four years ago, during what until this month had been the last major assault on the Gaza Strip. One of my colleagues at the time was a Palestinian Christian who grew up in the West Bank and later moved to America.

One day, she told me about her experience in the West Bank.

A Palestinian child injured in an airstrike on Gaza

She and her family had no freedom of movement, thanks to the 430-mile barrier the Israeli government began building in the mid-1990s. The barrier is rationalized as keeping would-be suicide bombers out of Israel. Yet it doesn’t just separate Israel from the West Bank; it cuts into the West Bank at several points, isolating Palestinian villages from each other.

For my colleague, this meant being cut off from her family in the next village over. Going to church meant risking arrest because there were just too many checkpoints. She wasn’t just deprived of her freedom of movement; she was deprived of her freedom to worship.

Freedom of movement is considered a fundamental human right, as is the freedom to worship. Both are enshrined in our Constitution. If these violations happened anywhere else, we would protest that freedom itself was under attack. We would call it persecution.

My colleague also described the experience of Palestinian children who have to walk past Israeli settlements on their way to and from school, subjected to taunts and physical violence from other children who’ve been taught by their parents to hate the Palestinians. Imagine if this were your daughter’s walk to school:

My colleague told me of Palestinian friends — particularly in East Jerusalem — whose homes were demolished by the Israeli government, usually on the pretext of not having the proper permits. (Never mind the homes and their occupants have been there for years.) In many cases, families have just minutes to gather what belongings they can carry before the bulldozers close in. They have no recourse, no due process.

Finally, my colleague revealed that she had no idea whether she’d ever get to see her family again. You see, if you’re Palestinian and you leave your homeland, the Israeli government (which controls who comes and goes in the West Bank) may not let you back in. Consider this example, reported in the Baltimore Sun a few years ago:

Abdelhakeem Itayem, a Palestinian with American citizenship, was counting on a simple overnight stay when he traveled from the West Bank to Jordan on a business trip. Six months later, he is still there, trapped in bureaucratic limbo.

Itayem, 41, said the long delay has kept him away from his wife, Lisa, and their seven children, who remain in the family’s home near Ramallah. It has also cost him his job as a manager for a Palestinian distributor of foreign consumer goods. “It’s breaking my heart,” he said.

Activists say scores of Palestinians who carry foreign passports, mostly American, have been denied entry this year after Israel moved to close a loophole that once allowed residents to enter repeatedly on renewable Israeli tourist visas.

The policy has created a quandary for the Palestinian Americans who remain: If they leave to get a new three-month stamp, they might not be allowed back. If they stay, their current Israeli visas will expire. Many say their past applications for formal residency in the Palestinian territories were rejected by Israel or never acted upon.

These and other tactics are part of a concerted effort to make life as unbearable as possible for the Palestinians. Then, when they leave, the Israeli government locks the door behind them.

Similar measures have been taken against people in Gaza, arguably the world’s largest refugee camp. Israel controls everything that goes in and out of that tiny, arid strip of land; Gaza’s fishermen can’t even fish their own waters on the Mediterranean coast without fear of being shelled by Israeli warships. In 2006, one advisor to the Israeli prime minister revealed that his country was deliberately trying to impoverish the people of Gaza. “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet,” he said, “but not to make them die of hunger.”

Imagine if a vastly superior military power had brought you and your community to the brink of starvation in order to teach you a lesson. How would you feel? How would you react? Would you be tempted to fight back?

And even if you believe modern-day Israel is one and the same with the Israel of the Bible …

Even if you believe the biblical covenant that promised the land to ancient Israel is somehow still in force today…

Even if you think Palestinians are outsiders with no rightful claim to the land (despite the fact they’ve been living there for hundreds of years)…

If that’s how you rationalize what’s going on in Palestine today, then surely you accept that Israel is duty-bound to follow the whole covenant, not just the part that supposedly gives them the land?

So what about Leviticus 19?

When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God.

What about Deuteronomy 10?

You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.

Ancient Israel knew what it felt like to be a refugee population at the mercy of a far more powerful nation. They were told by their God never to forget — and never to repeat — the hostility which they experienced at the hands of the Egyptians.

So can it be said the Israeli government truly loves the Palestinians in their midst? Can they claim to have treated the Palestinians as they treat their own? Or have they already forgotten what it feels like to be a refugee?

Because if they have forgotten, then they have broken the very covenant that promised the land to their ancestors.