On Repentance (Lenten Reflections, Week 1)

I wish that I could change things
Testify to some deliverance
Yeah, I talk-show it right into the ground
Like some salvation experience
Yeah, I wish that I could change things
Say some new words for all these feelings that I’ve felt
We all want to change things
But can you change yourself?

from “Songwriter (Numb)” by Bill Mallonee
from the album, Dear Life

Yesterday was Ash Wednesday. The first day of the season of Lent.

Lent is a season of the Christian Year in which followers of Jesus acknowledge their struggle against sin and selfishness, and return – as a community of believers – to God. It is a day of self-examination, and, hopefully, repentance.

But what is repentance?

For those who grew up going to church, repentance can mean several different things. Some think of it in conjunction with the often stereotyped, turn-or-burn preachers of their youth; those red-faced, index-finger-pointing persuaders presiding over heavy-hearted altar calls Sunday after Sunday.

Others think of the wild-eyed, wild-haired prophets of old, dressed in tattered robes or wrapped in sackcloth, crying out to the masses with frightening conviction, “Repent!”

Still others hear the word “repentance” and smile. We think of the moment – or, perhaps many moments – in our lives when we grasped the meaning of Jesus’ sacrifice and prayed to be counted among the forgiven.

Every one of these images is a picture of repentance, because to repent of something actually means “to change one’s mind.” To see reality differently.

In the first chapter of Mark’s Gospel, only a couple sentences after Jesus of Nazareth is introduced, we read the statement, “Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of God, saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has drawn near. Repent, and believe in the gospel.'”

In his telling of the greatest story ever told, these are the first words Mark ascribes to Jesus.

Mark chooses to introduce his readers to Jesus by attributing an astonishing statement as the core theme of the Nazarene’s ministry. Don’t miss the seditious nature of Jesus’ words. He is proclaiming the euangelion (“gospel” or “good news”) of God to a people who had lived for centuries hearing only the decreed gospels of worldly authorities – Alexander the Great, Antiochus Epiphanes, Caesar Augustus, Herod Antipas, and so on. An euangelion, which comes from a Greek word meaning “message,” was almost exclusively a political edict or proclamation, describing the “glad tidings” that would come to all those who accepted and supported the ruler’s rule. It was the inevitable legislation that proceeded from the will of an ascended governor, king, or emperor. And whether or not it was actually something to celebrate, it was nonetheless proclaimed as such.

So it is that Jesus, a poor tradesman from a minuscule village in the hill country of Palestine, proclaims his own euangelion. Only, this gospel is not of a military conqueror or a political premier. It is the gospel of God himself! And if that weren’t enough to saddle the upstart prophet with accusations of insurrection, Jesus insists that God’s Kingdom – as opposed to the kingdom of Rome – has drawn near. Essentially, what he describes is as much a geopolitical invasion as it is a spiritual reality. Another mightier Kingdom has begun its annexation of Caesar’s empire.

Simply put, when Jesus says, “Repent,” he is exhorting his hearers to make a choice of allegiance. Either continue living in the reality you’ve known – one in which your entire culture and nationality has been swallowed up by a seemingly overwhelming, irrepressible worldly power – or choose to look at your reality differently. Transcendently.

Repentance is not simply a time of confession. As a matter of fact, repentance is what leads to confession. This is because repentance is what happens when we choose to see our lives differently. When we change our minds about the very laws of reality. We accept that there is another world – another truth – that runs contrary to the one we have lived in for so long, and we make a choice to put aside the old beliefs and obsolete habits in order to now live according to that world and its truth.

For 1500 years, the Church has recognized that Christians of all shapes and sizes can benefit from a day set aside for this kind of reflection and repentance. A day to refocus our sights on a heavenly kingdom instead of lesser, worldly ones. A day to change our minds, and to confess the many, many times we have failed to live according to this new reality, this Kingdom of God, this euangelion that Jesus proclaimed. We call that day Ash Wednesday.

The ashes symbolize the helplessness of humanity. “Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” But – and don’t miss this! – we receive the mark of ashes in the sign of the cross of Jesus Christ, which accomplished reconciliation between God and humanity. So, while we are but dust, the salvation we receive in Jesus makes us more than dust. More than the sum of our parts. Citizens of a new Kingdom.

Next week, I’ll write a bit about the process that comes after repentance – this putting away of old habits in exchange for the practices that align with God’s Kingdom, our glorious, new reality.

In the meantime, may you not be hypnotized by the worldly realities that so often envelope us. May you not imbibe the lies masquerading as truth, which are heaped upon us day after day by politicians and presidents, newspapers and news pundits. Instead, may you remember there is a greater truth – an absolute Truth – running counter to this world. It is invisible to the masses, but to those who search for it, it becomes as clear as day. May you open your eyes to look for it and perceive it. And when you catch sight of it, may you forever change your mind.

Imagining the Divine: A Response to Tim Challies

Recently, author and blogger Tim Challies, whose articles and book reviews I read on occasion, wrote a preemptive review of the upcoming film, The Shack, which itself is based on the 2007 novel of the same name by William P. Young.

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Prepare to be Hallmark movie-ed!

Preemptive review may not be the best term. Challies’s piece, entitled “Why I Won’t Be Seeing (or Reviewing) The Shack,” is a critical review of the core conceit around which the story revolves – a grieving, guilt-stricken man meets and is counseled by the Triune God (i.e., Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) who manifests in different human forms. Challies contends that such a representation of God is iniquitous, if not heretical, and his choice not to watch the film is a way of escaping an act of sin.

Of course, Challies can make whatever decision he likes regarding whether or not to see, or review, a feature film. He’s a grown man, a devoted Christian, and I do not deny that his choice may stem from deeply personal issues in his own spiritual development.

However, I believe Tim Challies has made a fundamental error in labeling the film The Shack “dangerous” simply because it casts human actors in parts that are meant to represent the divine persons of the Holy Trinity. And, taken to its logical conclusion, this error is actually an unwitting assault on imagination and creativity, two incredibly valuable faculties gifted us by our Creator.

Allow me to explain…

What is Lacking?

Tim Challies puts forth one particular passage of Old Testament scripture that he believes explains why a film version of The Shack, in which human actors will visibly and audibly portray the three persons of the Trinity on giant movie screens, is hazardous to one’s true understanding of God.

I take this to be a clear, serious violation of the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth. You shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments” (Exodus 20:4-6). I will not see the film, even to review it, because I will not and cannot watch humans pretend to be God.

I have to hand it to Challies. He has conviction. But you know who else had conviction? The Pharisees.

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Now, comparing someone to a Pharisee in this day and age is usually assumed to mean that someone has become so concerned with religious legalism that he or she has lost sight of the gospel of Jesus. But this is not what I mean when I compare Tim Challies’s staunch rejection of The Shack to pharisaical behavior. What most Christians often forget about the Pharisees – or never learn in the first place – is how incredibly devout they were, how deeply they committed themselves to personal physical purity, and how exceedingly inquisitive they were of the Scriptures. In almost every case within Greco-Roman history of the Jewish world, the Pharisees are the spiritual heroes. They insisted on faithfulness to God’s Word. They sought to interpret and explain every single word and verse of the Torah in order to more deeply commune with the Creator. They continually clashed with Roman and Jewish authorities alike out of an insistence that Jewish religious expression should maintain purity and ethicality. Thus, ninety-nine times out of one hundred, the attitude and behavior of a Pharisee was directly in keeping with what modern Christians would consider a righteous person. As such, the Pharisees really only lacked one thing.

Imagination.

Time and again, when the Pharisees clashed with the teachings of Jesus, it was not because his teaching style was suspect, or because he was openly rejecting the Torah. Rather, what the Pharisees disliked about Jesus was his way of portraying God, and, by association, the purpose of various aspects of the Law that God gave to Moses. Regularly, Jesus told parables that fleshed out certain characteristics of God, or certain actions of a faithful disciple, and usually these stories scandalized the Pharisees’ painstakingly assembled understandings of theology and spirituality. And it is also worth noting that, in these parables, God is often portrayed through human characters: a bridegroom, a gracious king, a searching shepherd, a celebrating woman, a wounded father.

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Thank God first century Jerusalem didn’t have a film industry. Imagine the carnage!

But the topper – the assertion that really drove a wedge between Jesus and the majority of the Pharisees – is when Jesus himself claimed to be divine. To their eyes, this was a poor, upstart rabbi from a suspect town, possessing a suspect education, and he had the gall to say to them, “I tell you truly, before Abraham was, I AM!” (Jn. 8:58). If Jesus was nothing more than a poor, upstart rabbi, his utterance of these words was an offense deserving of public stoning. And since the Pharisees lacked the imagination – the creativity of mind and the expectancy of heart – to see Jesus as anything more than what his physical appearance revealed, they went on seeing him as such, and their pious conviction endured that what Jesus needed was a good, public execution.

What’s the Purpose?

Tim Challies is concerned that the physical, visible portrayal of any member of the Trinity – except perhaps the Son (since Jesus was also fully human) – is tantamount to blasphemy. He argues that it is impossible to accurately depict the holy Other-ness of a divine God through any kind of human guise. He even cites the second of the Ten Commandments to further his point. All of these arguments seem pretty solid.

And yet, integral to the Christian faith is our understanding that God chose not simply to command and direct humanity from his position of Other-ness, but instead chose to become flesh and blood and live in our midst (Jn. 1:14). Even though the historical person of Jesus of Nazareth is not made out of stone, it would seem that God violates, or at least sidesteps, his own commandment in order to help his chosen people grasp his true purpose for them.

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Though, if movies are to be believed, he was most certainly chiseled.

After positing the commandment as his reasoning for not viewing the film, Challies admits, “I will grant that the primary concern of the second commandment is worship. It forbids creating any image of God in order to worship God through that image. Yet the commandment first forbids any visual representation for any reason. Whether that image is used to better worship God or better understand God, the commandment covers it.” He goes on to insist that while Jesus might get a pass, it is sinful to portray the other two Persons of the Trinity, the Father and the Holy Spirit (even though the commandment of course makes no such distinction).

Really, Tim? So, did you seek forgiveness that time you looked up at the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel (or viewed a photograph of it)? Did you shut your eyes whenever one of your history textbooks included an artistic rendering of God visiting Abraham at Mamre, or the Holy Spirit coming like fire at Pentecost? Did you run away screaming at the sight of Far Side cartoons or the trailer for Bruce Almighty when Morgan Freeman had the audacity to dress in a white suit and pretend to be God? Just how far does this self-righteous conviction, currently directed at a book you obviously don’t like, extend?

You are correct in your assessment that the commandment was chiefly concerned with worship. But like a Pharisee, you stretch it across as many specific cases as possible in a nervous effort to obey it.

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I hope this benefits your team, cuz you’re gonna burn for it!

It doesn’t take a Bible scholar to recognize that when you differentiate the application of the Ten Commandments based on the different Persons of the Trinity, you steer your boat into murky theological waters. Refusing to look upon any human portrayal of God the Father or the Holy Spirit is not simply imposing limitations on theological investigation – it is spurning human capacity for imagination and creative cognition which was given to us by our Creator! Nowhere in the entire Bible is there the stipulation that portraying the human form of Jesus is acceptable while any other representation is verboten. Why not? Because God understands there is a big difference between seeking to understand more about him by envisioning him in more familiar contexts, and actually fashioning an idol for the purpose of bowing down and invoking its power and authority for our lives. I mean, c’mon, Tim. Surely you can see this difference.

Look, I’m not a huge fan of The Shack either. I read it. I appreciated some parts, disagreed with others. I am a pastor, so, yes, some of the things the three God-characters tell the main character rubbed me the wrong way. But I understood that it’s a story. A work of imagination. It is as unlikely to be worshipped as this blog post is. So, at no point did I break out into an anxious sweat because William P. Young was tempting me to picture God in human form.

And if you don’t think there’s anything sinful about that act of imagination, as long as we don’t “flesh out” those characters on a movie screen, then the thin-ice semantics by which you are applying the commandment is astounding. Because, for all its little flaws (yes, little flaws), the purpose of The Shack is to spur people’s imaginations about what God is like. It is meant to challenge our theology not with blatant falsehoods but by asking us to consider whether we have unintentionally adopted a culturally acceptable view of our Creator, and, in so doing, collapsed into a lazy, shallow faith.

Does it get everything correct? Absolutely not. I wouldn’t expect it to. But I got to have some great conversations with church members and seekers about the nature of God when the book came out back in 2007. If the movie is at all similar in its impact, then this is all the more reason why a writer/reviewer as intelligent as Tim Challies should not refuse to review it. Perhaps his insights and corrections of what is portrayed on-screen could help people better process their own grasp of theology and soteriology.

Too bad Tim’s obedience to God’s command prevents him from offering such help.

Embracing Imagination

Again, I do not deny that Tim Challies’s decision is based on a desire to maintain faithfulness and obedience to the God he loves, and believes loves him.

But it is a dangerous thing to cite Scripture as a reason not to engage in theological exploration, even if it comes in the form of the movie version of a mediocre book. The commandments are not a leash. Rather, they are meant to set God’s people apart from a lawless, morally relative world. To obey God’s commandments is to live in such a way that people see the characteristics of God in you – love, goodness, forbearance, honesty, integrity, purity.

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Oddly enough, though, they shouldn’t lead you to do this.

In his “Sermon on the Mount,” God himself reminds us that true obedience is dependent upon the internalizing of each commandment. Thus, “You shall not murder” is as much about holding grudges and nursing hatred as it is spilling another person’s blood. “Remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy” is not simply a compulsory day-off as it is a directive that resting and relishing the rejuvenating presence of God is the only thing that will sustain us in this mad, mad world. And “You will not make for yourself a carved image” is an insistence that the creation should never attempt to comprehensively define its Creator.

In an essay entitled “Invisible Things,” the great songwriter-poet Rich Mullins writes:

He is the image of the invisible God. He is incomprehensible to our Western minds – as He was to Eastern ones. He came from that great beyond that no human mind has visited. When we true to squeeze Him into our systems of thought, He vanishes – He slips through our grasp and then reappears and (in so many words) says, “No man takes My life from Me.  No man forces his will on Me. I am not yours to handle and cheapen. You are Mine to love and make holy.”

Perhaps Tim Challies will read words such as this and think, “Exactly! Human actors should never portray God!”

But my understanding of God’s command is a bit more nuanced. No, I will not carve his image out of stone (or wood or sand or Lego bricks or George Burns’s face) and offer my worship to it. But I will keep seeking a deeper understanding of who my Savior is. Christianity is about a relationship with God, and I want to know the One to whom I am engaged. I want to think about Him more, and in more profound ways, and whatever medium will help enhance and mature my worship of Him, then I say, “Bring it on.”

May you not be afraid to imagine the divine. May you believe in a God who insists not on cold allegiance to law but rather ardent worship that flows freely from your heart, soul, strength and mind. And from your eyes, ears, nose, mouths, hands, and feet…

Thoughts at 37

One of my favorite comedians, Louis C.K., had a bit about how being forty years old isn’t very impressive – that what it essentially means is you’re half-dead. And another favorite comedian, Patton Oswalt, on one of his albums, scolds the crowd for cheering when he mentions turning thirty-seven, and goes on to explain how most birthdays are completely insignificant after a person turns 21.

Well, today I turn thirty-seven years of age, and I can’t help but sense the truth of both of those bits. I feel that I’m just about half-dead (if I’m even fortunate enough to make it to my mid-seventies), and that the sweetness of one’s birthday does indeed pale considerably upon the addition of more candles. If I was trying to craft my own comedic bit on the subject, I would start by suggesting that the day in which your regular-sized cake cannot adequately accommodate the number of candles signifying your age, you should forego a birthday celebration. But it occurs to me that most people my age probably haven’t had a regular-sized cake baked for them in several years, what with all the unhealthy sugar and gluten.

I digress.

But digression is the point of this post, actually. If only to document this mostly insignificant moment in my life, I felt it a worthwhile use of my time today to jot down some random notions and half-formed thoughts that have been fluttering about my mind as I approached, and woke up within, this day. Some are introspective. Others are melancholic. A couple are even happy.

So, here they are, in no intentional order…

  • If your concept of what genuine beauty is doesn’t change as you age, I think this might well be a sign of personal immaturity. The same goes for your ability to relate kindly to people who hold different viewpoints than your own.
  •  People’s perspectives are the hardest things to alter. Because of this great difficulty, compassion is one of the most elusive and poorly understood virtues in the world.
  • Culturally speaking, at thirty-seven I am simultaneously too old to be viewed as relevant by the younger generations and too young to be viewed as an authority figure by older generations. This doesn’t mean I can’t earn those qualities, but both endeavors are uphill battles.
  • Chick Fil A’s mobile ordering app is incredibly convenient, and that makes it physically and financially dangerous.
  • I’ve been a “full-time minister” in the Church for sixteen years. (See point #3 for why that warrants little validation.)
  • My wife really does know best an incredibly high percentage of the time. Probably something like 96.7 percent.
  • Divorce is truly an ugly, heartbreaking thing. So is cancer.
  • Some Church-goers can be the sweetest, most generous and humble people in the world. Others can be unbelievably stubborn, insensitive, and exceedingly selfish. So, you know, just like the people you find wherever you go in the world.
  • Deepening the relationships we have with a small group of friends is vital to the quality of our lives, but more and more of our relationships have become thin, stagnant, and technologically dependent. This is perhaps the most frightening and damning reality of our present time.
  • On the whole, television is currently telling more genuine, compelling and engrossing stories than movies ever have.
  • I am now fully convinced that 2 Timothy 4:3-4 is indeed referring to the Church itself, not secular culture. Local churches, pastors, and Bible teachers have become like items for consumption spread upon a vast buffet, so that no one must ever again listen to teaching or advice that corrects or irritates them. As a result, more and more people are building their individual Christian faith according to their own image, rather than the Imago Dei.
  • One of the most inspirational life stories I recently heard belonged to Billy Crystal. That man has led a remarkable life! I hope any retelling of my own life is even a quarter as compelling as his.
  • No matter how tragically human beings are currently trashing the planet – and, yes, it’s certainly true that we’re significantly affecting the climate – it remains extraordinarily beautiful. Here I find a correlation in the unwavering sovereignty of God despite how many intelligent people have completely rejected his existence.
  • I want to preach more often. (Not just “want.” I think I need to, not only to improve the skill, but to continue in obedience to God.)
  • I feel sorry for the Baylor students who were victims of sexual assault. I feel equally sorry for the student-athletes who have been vilified-by-association with those few players and administrators who actually perpetrated the crimes. And I feel guilty for feeling “equally sorry” for the latter.
  • I want more people to learn about spiritual disciplines and take the practice of them seriously. I am convinced this is why so many people in the Church lack maturity, because my own years of immaturity as a Christian was the result of ignoring the disciplines.
  • More and more often, I miss living close to the kinds of friends I could talk to about anything, and in whatever way I needed to do that talking.
  • I still have a long way to go in bearing the fruits of the Holy Spirit, most notably self-control.

Okay, that’s enough for someone turning thirty-seven.

Why Evangelicalism Isn’t to Blame

In the wake of the presidential election, a lot of insinuations regarding who is responsible for electing Donald Trump have been tossed around by news sources, pundits, dissatisfied voters, and many a social media post. As far as I have noticed, the culprits receiving perhaps the most blame in news articles, blogs, and social media have been a group of Americans categorized as “white evangelicals.”

If this political demographic had not drawn its fair share of ire leading up to the election, it is receiving a cascade of vitriol now. On Twitter, in particular, I have read the incensed statements of friends and strangers alike denigrating this group as, at best, duped patsies, and, at worst, homophobic-racist-bigots by association. Most troubling to me has been how these allegations are coming as much from Christians as they are non-Christians and atheists.

For instance:

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It did not take long for my anxiety over the election of Donald Trump to be overshadowed by full-on despair at the unmitigated acrimony leveled against evangelicalism. More than I am worried about a Trump White House – and, believe me, I am still pretty worried about a Trump White House – I have been much more hurt by this reactionary fallout toward evangelicalism.

Why?

Because, last Tuesday, I cast a vote in the presidential election. And it was not for Donald Trump. For over a year, I was deeply disturbed at the idea of him becoming Commander-in-Chief, not simply because of his past and present moral debasement, but also because, having researched many of the policies he touted throughout his campaign, I could see in them no ultimate viability. In other words, my vote was not cast for Trump not only because of the lack of personal temperance and honor I saw in him, but also because I chose to be an informed voter who, despite the perceived character of a candidate, nonetheless weighs the practicality of his or her platforms.

And yet, I am an evangelical, and a white evangelical at that. Thus, according to a large group of Americans, many of whom are infuriated at the result of this election, I am responsible for a President Donald J. Trump.

From the tweets of those Christians above, it now seems the only good and right course of action for me is to renounce evangelicalism as a corrupt and profane group. Otherwise, I must accept the indignation of my more enlightened brothers and sisters in the faith, and live under the guilt of my association. Even if, technically, I belong to the mere 19% of white evangelicals whose votes were not cast for Trump, I will certainly find myself haunted by my inability to persuade my demographic’s majority not to vote for a monster. That, or I must wallow in shame because I was not bold or courageous enough to speak against him and those who planned to vote for him.

According to the first Tweet featured above, from spiritual director and author Richard Rohr, whom I deeply respect, the evangelical movement has irrevocably defiled itself. Real Christians should extricate themselves from it as soon as possible, as if it doing so were truly the quick and simple adjustment some think it is. As if all it takes is for a Baptist to start attending a Catholic parish instead, or an Assemblies of God Republican to re-register as a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party and transfer his membership to an Episcopal church.

The truth is, every single Christian whose tweets are shown above have not slipped the bounds of evangelicalism as wholly as they may think. Many of them may disparage both the word and the social demographic it categorizes, but were you to press them for an honest answer on whether they have truly rejected the core principles of evangelicalism, you would find almost all of them remain squarely in the center of evangelicalism whether they like it to not.

Back in seminary, I had a friend who was outspoken about his rejection of the term “Christian.” To him, the word had been so drastically watered-down and misapplied that he had completely lost use of it (or, rather, he feared he would be associated with people with whom he did not share particular political or spiritual beliefs). He preferred, instead, the title “marked by X,” (X representing the Greek letter, chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”). “I am not a Christian,” he would say to us. “I am marked by X.”

Meaning he was a Christian; he just didn’t like the word.

My friend despised the many false connotations the word “Christian” had picked up over the years, like dirt and cockleburs that stick to a hiker’s clothing as he journeys along a wooded trail. In the minds of many people today, the word “evangelical” is in very nearly the same situation. The question, then, is whether or not Christians should “divorce” themselves from the word or persist in using it?

What would we gain if we rejected evangelicalism as a term? Clarity, maybe. Or at least a slightly clearer conscience.

What would we lose? Only a word describing the very heart of Christianity itself. Not to mention associating ourselves with a more than 500-year-old movement of individual and communal liberation.

The term “evangelicalism” comes from the Koine Greek word euangelion, a combination of eû (“good”) and ángelos (“messenger”). The word is found all over the New Testament, commonly translated “good news” or “gospel.” In the Church, it refers exclusively to “the way, the truth, and the life” provided us by Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to stake your entire existence on the belief that atonement for sin, salvation of the soul, and redemption of the body is found in Jesus alone. It means pursuing transformation by the Holy Spirit through the practice of spiritual disciplines modeled for us by the Savior, including befriending rich and poor alike, showing endless compassion to the oppressed, responding to all conflict and confrontation with grace and non-violence, and accepting the expectation that your obedience to the Law must surpass that of even the religious (and political) elite. Throughout history, the evangelical movement has continually challenged the Church to find its identity in this Gospel, and to, in turn, proclaim and practice its principles unto all humankind.

Historically, the evangelical movement has boldly stood up to corrupt, idolatrous men of power who selfishly and opportunistically entangled the Church with the State, and who used its influence to oppress millions and withhold dignity and basic rights from the masses. It preached that forgiveness of sin comes from God alone, and that no mere human being may wield power over another’s soul. It insisted that all people have a divine right to read the Scriptures in their own common languages. It contended time and again that salvation is for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.

Are we sure we want to separate ourselves from so extraordinary a movement, and the incredibly fitting word that describes it, simply because a handful of one country’s population (categorized “evangelicals” by secular news agencies and pollsters ) have made what many would say is a bad political choice out of the very real temptation for personal prosperity and security?

The simple fact is, even if a person is a committed Christian, they are not exempted from national concerns. The inclination to chase after individual liberties, sustainable employment, general safety at home and lasting security abroad is as common to us as it is to every other American. No matter what some Christians may claim, these desires do not always present themselves as black-and-white choices, even when we consider them in light of the Gospel. Certainly many of these “white evangelicals” are considered Christians simply because they live in heavily “Christianized” areas, not because the principles of the Gospel populate the top of their personal priority lists. In other words, the only way the term “evangelical” describes them is in its false, sociopolitical context.

And yet, I am also well aware that there are plenty of people within the 81% of white evangelical Trump voters who have indeed been cleansed of their sins – past, present, and future – and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I could not reconcile a Gospel-centered life with a vote for Trump. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ would disagree. And many others either were not considering the principles of the Gospel, or considered a vote for any official candidate to be a compromise of those values in one way or another. And so many “evangelicals” voted for a guy who promised (however dubious such promises may be) that he would fight to protect their morals and way of life. They are afraid the country is turning its back on many important things, including at least some of the principles of the Gospel they believe in, and so they cast their vote for the person who convinced them he would do the most to stem the tide, and perhaps even reverse it.

In other words, the true meaning of evangelicalism, nor the tradition of the movement, is not responsible for the result of the election. National sentiment is, and whether or not it is easy to describe this sentiment as “evangelical,” it is ahistorical and pseudo-theological to do so.

I realize that my argument is primarily semantic. It mostly revolves around the definition of a word. But no matter how many times I read the indignant statements of Christians who have turned their noses up at “evangelicals” and have joined with the masses in equating the movement with racism, homophobia, bigotry, and regressive conservatism, I cannot bring myself to disassociate with a concept that stands at the heart of our faith.

The evening after the election, I was teaching a class on the inspiration and translation of Scripture. I reminded the class that one of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement was fully evident in the room: every person had their own copy of the Bible, not only in their own language, but even in a style of that language they most preferred to read! (I am willing to bet a large sum of money that every single person whose tweets are shown above take advantage of that same privilege.)

One man asked, “What’s the difference between a Christian and an ‘evangelical Christian’?”

In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, there are many people who would have you believe the answer to this man’s question is, “A lot!”

But if Christians – be they Trump protestors or Trump supporters – will resist the temptation to treat politics as that which brings justification, security, and ultimate happiness, then maybe we can restore the original meaning of evangelicalism. Maybe we can even be united by it, even as we continue to differ on specific ethical or denominational issues. Maybe we can humbly admit that no one is so enlightened in the faith that they cannot be led astray by Gospel-less perspectives and opinions.

Maybe we can come to see the nonsensical redundancy of the term “evangelical Christian,” because we know a true Christian is evangelical, and a true evangelical is a Christian. Maybe we can look that man in the eye when he asks his question, and reply, “Actually, there is no difference at all.”

This article has been updated since its original publication in order to correct language, primarily in the 19th paragraph, that unintentionally insinuated those who voted for Donald Trump do not truly believe in, or understand, the Gospel. This, of course, is the opposite of the point I was endeavoring to make. My sincerest apologies to any who may have been offended in their initial reading.

It Shakes You

Earlier today a man called the church. He claimed he had viewed our website and was interested in joining our community and finding out if the people here would be his brothers and sisters. But first he wanted to pose a question.

“What does it mean to bear your cross and follow Jesus?”

As a pastor, I’ve had many opportunities to explain the meaning of Jesus’ well known statement, but I have never before been asked what it means by someone who, it seems, already knows the answer. In this case, I quickly learned that the man on the phone did not consider my response completely satisfactory.

My response to his question was something along these lines: “To take up one’s cross is to live sacrificially – to surrender my own will in favor of the will of God. And to follow Jesus is to recognize him not only as the example of how to live for God, but also as the atoning sacrifice that makes it possible for me to experience a relationship with God.”

The man seemed pleased with my answer initially. However, before I could really respond again, he began to accuse me, and by extension the entire church leadership, of forsaking the true meaning of “bearing the cross.” Apparently, this man interprets that passage as the relinquishment of all worldly possessions, everything from houses to material items to, as he said, “everything you got up there in that bank.” This man believes Jesus was promoting complete asceticism when he said his followers must take up their crosses. (I’m not sure where the use of a phone, or the Internet, falls in that extreme expectation.)

There was little I could say at that point. It was clear this man’s mind was made up, that he had a predetermined agenda and this question was just a setup – a test for me to fail so I could receive his rebuke. What is more, as his correction quickly morphed into impassioned rant and then into fever-pitch screaming, he would not have been able to hear me even if I had wanted to repent right then and there.

“Sir,” I said beneath his tirade, “I cannot talk with you if you won’t listen to anything I say. I’m going to have to hang up.”

The last words I heard as I placed the phone back into its cradle was, “You see, you’re running! That’s all you people do when I call, just run away from-”

Click.

In the silence that followed, I could feel my beating heart, quickened with the adrenaline that washes over you when you’re being screamed at. I could hear my shuddering exhale under stress. And I could feel the rush of my racing mind, immediately turning inward, awakening the inevitable personal reflection that comes from any kind of rebuke, whether unwarranted or wholly deserved.

Have I interpreted that verse of Scripture incorrectly? Was the man on the phone right? Have I strayed from the true meaning of discipleship?

I do not believe so. However, this man unknowingly exposed the scars I bear from my own upbringing. For years, I worried I was getting it all wrong. During my adolescence, I walked many a confessional aisle, prayed many salvation prayers (which we so often referred to as “prayers of rededication”), made many recommitments to Jesus, most of which basically boiled down to a white-knuckled, teeth-clenched, self-actualizing vow that this time I would get things right. This time I would really be a Christian.

I have come to accept and even embrace the ambiguity of biblical interpretation. I realize that I have many brothers and sisters in Christ who understand and apply certain passages and verses differently than I do, and unlike the man who called me, I do not think all of them are wrong and I am right. I believe God is bigger than our finite understanding of him. I believe he is bigger than our interpretive capacities. I believe he is bigger even than this testimony about him that we call the Bible.

I believe that I will never be able to get it all right, and that is essentially the reason God sent his son to die on a cross. And I believe that what brings the Son of God glory is when I try to get it right – when I make a genuine, honest effort. As Thomas Merton famously wrote, “The fact that I think that I am following your will doesn’t mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.”

Nevertheless, a confrontation such as the one I had with this man may cut more deeply than you expect it will. It halts you. It shakes you. It gives you the kind of uncomfortable, self-searching pause that few of us ever seek out on our own.

Holy Spirit, sustain me. Abide in me, and teach me your ways. When I am wrong, rebuke me with gentleness and wisdom. When I am right, bless me with humble assurance. Holy Lord, I thank you that, ultimately, I must answer to no one else but you. Amen.

Lauds

A period of silence may follow.

The prayer book prompts me to be silent, and so I take a breath and close my eyes and go to where the silence is. Outside is the click of the ice maker, the low hum of the refrigerator, the faint gush of air through the ducts of this aging house. The baby monitor elicits the sound of an artificial womb, the volume raised just enough to perceive a pre-dawn cry. Beyond the window in the darkness, a morning bird too eager for the break of morning decides to test its call.

Outside, there is a beating heart, a yawn, a subtle pop within the stiffened neck of this aging body. The shift of the couch cushion. The gurgle of an empty stomach accepting hot coffee.

I go inside. Inside is the soul, and thus, the silence. Inside is where the Spirit of God has made His dwelling place. Some mornings, He seems a next-door neighbor; other mornings, it is a long journey to His abode, down the narrow path of sluggish contemplation that winds through the wild interior woods where if I turn to look I will see the watchful eyes of dark shapes surveilling me from the shadows. The path empties into a clearing, in the center of which is a quaint cottage. A thin line of smoke whispers from the little chimney – He always has the fire kindled in His hearth – and the morning light spills across the garden plots that surround the cottage.

Some mornings I find the Spirit tending these gardens: aerating the soil, assessing the strength of the stalks, inspecting the budding fruit. He greets me with a smile and a kind word, and there is always a look of pleasure on His face. He is proud of His gardens, of the fruit that has been born and is slowly growing. On other visits, I have found Him relaxing on the little front porch. He rocks back and forth slowly, and as I approach He gestures to the other chair next to Him. “Sit for a moment,” He says. “Enjoy the view with me.”

Once, I found Him inside by the fire, and I asked Him why He was not tending the gardens, and He told me that He was, that resting is also part of gardening, and the fruit He has planted responds as much to this as any other act of cultivation.

I feel safe in the clearing. I am aware that eyes remain on me, that there are dangerous things in the woods, but the Spirit says He is unafraid of these wild things and I should be as well. Standing there next to Him, it is hard not to feel safe. Still, I tell Him that the things in the shadows want to ravage His gardens, and He nods His head as if this isn’t news to Him. He tilts His gardener’s hat back, letting the first rays of the morning splash His face. “Of course they do. This used to be their territory, like the rest of your soul. A completely lawless place. But then you invited Me to live here, and together We have tilled gardens for My fruit – good soil beneath warm sunlight – where before had been only overgrown wilderness, brambles and thorns.”

“But what if they get in?”

He looks at me. “That’s up to you. But I can assure you that they won’t run me off. I will go on tending these gardens, and if you will keep visiting Me, day after day, they will stay in the shadows. And, eventually, you will not only see the fruit; you’ll get to taste it, too.”

The clearing fades away. I surface from the silent depths. I come out from within my soul.

A period of silence may follow, the prayer book says, and I wonder if what I have seen… or imagined (what’s the difference, really?)… will suffice for practicing the discipline of silence. I move on in the prayer book: I read from the Psalter, then the Gospels, and then I offer prayers for myself and others, and it is within these free-form supplications that I often find myself saying, “Holy Spirit, cultivate the gardens of my heart. Let the harvest of Your fruit be bountiful.” In my mind’s eye I see the Gardener standing by the garden plots. He tilts the brim of His hat. I pray to know love, to experience joy, to feel peace, to have patience, to show kindness, to exemplify goodness, to learn faithfulness, to exude gentleness, to practice self-control. I pray the same fruits would be tended by the same Gardener in the souls of others.

Then I pray the way the Savior taught His disciples, and, at the end, as the black of night gives way to the gray of dawn, and the lone birdsong becomes a chorus, and the baby mutters and shifts against the weakening grip of sleep, I conclude with the Collect: Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought me in safety to this new day…

Cross

cross 2

A professor of New Testament once told me about a little known historical event that took place in the very early years of the Common Era (which we even more commonly abbreviate A.D.) in which the Roman army crucified a large group of criminals along a major Galilean road. From what we know about the Roman practice of crucifixion, most people who were hung on crosses were left there to wither and rot over a period of days, possibly weeks.

cross 1

If indeed this event took place, there is nothing odd about it. Despite the ghastly nature of it, crucifixion was commonplace in the provinces of the Roman Empire. It was appalling enough to promote fear among the populace, and public enough to be a cogent display of imperial dominance. While back in Rome the practice was frowned upon, considered far too cruel and inhumane a punishment for a Roman citizen, away in the far reaches of Caesar’s realm it kept the riffraff and the rebels, the subjugated and the slaves, in line.

The event this professor described would have taken place in the days of Jesus’ youth, perhaps a decade or more before he began his earthly ministry at the Jordan River. The Galilean road where this alleged mass execution took place ran close to Nazareth and other nearby villages. It was well traveled – that was the point of the Roman army erecting such a horrifying display. What good was a criminal on a cross if nobody came round to behold it and tremble?

And so, I’m left to wonder if Jesus was familiar with this crucifixion road just beyond his city’s limits. Some scholars have suggested that as a carpenter’s apprentice, he would have assisted with various building projects, and in those days many Galilean tradesmen would have been commissioned in the ongoing renovation work of nearby Caesarea Philippi. Perhaps Jesus traveled the very road along which these enemies of the Empire were hung.

cross 4

Perhaps he made his way back and forth along this road several times, walking by his father Joseph’s side, lunch pails in hand, tool belts hanging loosely around their wastes, a handful of other local craftsmen in their company. The sun is just over the mountains, casting long shadows of the poles and crossbars upon the road. The smell of old blood and rotting flesh hangs heavy in the air. Scavenging birds circle, perch, peck, and cackle at one another.

“Someone oughta take ’em down,” mumbles one of the tradesmen, a Nazarene neighbor. “It goes against Torah.”

Jesus, who knew the Scriptures better than most young apprentices who had left school behind to learn the family craft, recalls the Book of Deuteronomy. In it, the teachings of Moses are recorded, including a statement that those who are hung on poles are under God’s curse, and should be taken down by sunset. The neighbor is right. They should be removed. But not only would touching a cursed, dead man require a whole process of washing and atonement, but these tradesmen have lived long enough to know that if the Roman oppressors want their countrymen to hang until they rot, anyone caught removing the corpses without approval would likely join them on a cross of his own. So Jesus does not blame the men for doing nothing, for continuing to travel this road in service of the pagans, for trying their best to ignore these grisly adornments on the sides of the road. After all, what is a band of poor, simpleminded Galileans to do against such monstrous tyranny?

But as they near their destination – a city coming into view in the distance through the dust of the road and the glare of the morning sun – Jesus hears something that causes him to turn aside. It is the sound ragged breathing and the faintest of whimpers. At the end of the line of crosses, he comes to a living corpse. He can tell the man is only minutes from death.

He pauses at the foot of this cross and gazes up curiously into the criminal’s face. The man’s body is severely bruised, the skin of his chest, back, shoulders, neck, arms, and legs is torn by what must have been repeated, merciless blows of a reed cane. As was the usual practice of Roman executioners, this man had been flogged prior to being executed. The Romans knew the importance of ruining a man before affixing him to a cross; that way the criminal would have no strength left to endure, to struggle, perhaps even slowly work the impaling instruments from his body. Indeed, this is the case for the man hanging above Jesus’ head.

There is a rasping sound that Jesus cannot make out. He steps even closer, so that the man’s scarred and bloated feet are only inches from his face. There are long, jagged nails pierced through the man’s ankles, affixing his feet to each side of the pole. The man’s upper body is caked with blood, smells rancid, and hangs limp. His head is bowed low. Again, the rasp, and Jesus thinks the man is trying to speak a word.

“Thirst.”

Quickly, from his shoulder he swings a leather strap at the end of which is sewn a skin filled with water. He stands on his tip-toes, awkward and unbalanced, and reaches as high as he can to place the opening of the skin to the dying man’s lips. Cool water from a Nazarene well trickles out. Most of it drips back down Jesus’ arms, but a few precious drops find the man’s thick, dry tongue. He moves it around sluggishly, relishing the momentary coolness. Then he grimaces deeply and breathes a pitiful, guttural moan.

Jesus stares up into the man’s face, and for the briefest of moments the criminal’s glazed-over eyes meet his. The man blinks slowly. If Jesus didn’t know any better, he might think the man recognizes him. But it is clear he has been hanging for several days – his mind must be scrambled by the heat of the sun. And, almost as quickly as those eyes found him, the man’s gaze shifts back to the nothingness of the middle distance.

“Yeshua!”

Jesus turns to see Joseph hurrying back up the road. The company of workers is already far ahead, blurred shapes amid waves of high desert heat. Joseph advances upon him with a nervous expression on his face. Jesus knows he must not linger any longer. But as he turns away from the dying man, another bit of Torah echoes in his mind. It is prophecy, lines he has thought about often since he first heard them as a boy.

He is despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with suffering; and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not. Surely he hath borne our sufferings, and carried our sorrows; yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted…

Joseph places his strong, caring arm around Jesus’ shoulders and leads him away from the cross. But Jesus realizes in that moment it is impossible, in a world such as this, to be fully protected from such terror. He supposes that these will not be the only crosses he encounters in his life. He understands that safety from experiencing such an end is an illusion. And he knows that, despite what the oppressors intend with this grim display, he must not be afraid.

He does not look back. There is no need. He enters the city in the company of his father, and goes to work.