What Would Republican Jesus Do?

So I let Chesya Burke get loose on a post here yesterday on Glenn Beck (which isn’t the first time I let someone run amuck on my blog, as my brother did his “Letter from a Former Black Conservative” not too long ago).  These days I don’t find myself nearly the political animal I once was.  I considered myself a black Republican, though my strong social justice leanings apparently made me the worst Republican ever.

Anyway, to stave off the comments/e-mails (like the ones I received after my How I’m Still Pro-Life and my No Longer Marching to the Pied Dobson pieces), I don’t care about your politics.  Seriously.  To be quite honest, I didn’t even know who Glenn Beck was.  I did used to listen to Rush Limbaugh way back in the day and figured Beck was just another in the line of agent provocateurs of that ilk.  A conservative Republican showman, more court jester to give voice to those who need the rhetoric and someone to provide fodder for The Colbert Report.  Am I missing something?  What gives me pause, as I looked Mr. Beck up, is when someone cloaks themselves in God language in order to bless their politics.

“I’m begging you, your right to religion and freedom to exercise religion and read all of the passages of the Bible as you want to read them and as your church wants to preach them…are going to come under the ropes in the next year. If it lasts that long it will be the next year. I beg you, look for the words ’social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.” –Glen Beck

I know, I know religion and politics have been not so strange bedfellows for as long as there have been either.  I know I have attended several churches where being a champion for Jesus meant voting Republican (and I still remember the scathing message left on my Facebook Wall the day after President Obama was elected).  It always troubled me, if for no other reason than it was presented that no Christians could be, dare I say it, a Democrat (or for that matter, even a patriot), until I realized that politics trumps theology in this brand of “Christianity.”

When folks of any stripe wrap themselves in the flag and God, conflating their politics and their Christianity, I get a little antsy.  Politics and religion have different jobs to do and I can only imagine how difficult it must be for a man of faith to navigate political waters.  When people “fear” religion, this is one of the things they’re talking about.  And we’re not even talking about religion in the strictest sense anyway.* This is more about a civil religion–call it “generic Christianity” or “Christianity in name only”–than about the Gospel.  The only thing civil religion does is allow people to be united under the banner of allegiance to the United States of America … under God.

So let’s not confuse a “civil religion” with Jesus flavored rhetoric with a Jesus-shaped Gospel.  There’s a huge difference between an American civil religion/watered down Christianity vs. the kingdom of God.  The American government is not my Lord.  The Republican Party is not my God.  Politics is not my call to worship.  Jesus didn’t die for lower taxes, smaller government, pro-business policies, and an individualistic worldview.  If your religion is to mean anything, then be about the poor, the “least of these”, and then get back to me.  Until then, spare me your rallies and rhetoric.

*Speaking of unlikely bedfellows, the Glen Beck rally provided an interesting confluence of differing religious ideas:  Mormons (Beck) and Evangelicals finding themselves under the same covers (didn’t Glenn Beck even give a commemorative address at Liberty University/Jerry Falwell U) in order to accuse President Obama of being Muslim/having “a perversion of the Gospel”.

Doug Pagitt’s A Christianity Worth Believing (Live Occurrence)

When I was in fifth grade, I got kicked out of Sunday School class. It was a simple telling of the story of Noah’s ark. The flannel graph had a huge boat on it, several animals popping out of it. A smiling Noah under a now beaming sun; a tranquil boat ride scene, the ark drifting on calm waters. My teacher took issue with me adding floating bodies to the surface of the water.

The second time I was asked to be quiet at the church I was attending, it was because the church was having a debate on the issue of baptism. Not whether folks should be baptized, but whether they should be dipped one time or three (the conservatives, the three dippers, were defending the truth against those lackadaisical, anything goes liberal one dippers). I pointed out that while we were having this debate, I was hurting, I had questions, my life was spinning out of control; there were poor not being served and loved that were our neighbors to the west but because they didn’t look like the majority of the church and made them uncomfortable (coincidently, they looked a lot like me), the church didn’t reach out to them.

Apparently I derive from the same tribe of Doug Pagitt’s contrarians.

Full of questions, doubt, and conflict, we wonder if there’s room for us at church as it has largely lost its role as a safe place to ask questions. In a world more worried about production and attendance (“giving units”) and sermons and bottom lines, there’s little room for the eclectic, the square pegs for the round holes reserved for pew potatoes anxious to hear the latest bit of ear tickling, as we’re written off as trouble makers or drama bringers.

So we’re left struggling to make sense of Christianity in our cultural context, in our time. Looking for narrative not formula, as narrative transcends systematics; with theology being the adapter unit between the narrative and our time/culture, making sense of the story, not being the point of the story.

We need to participate in some narrative therapy.

Hearing the Good News that we are beautiful and wonder and made in the image of God. People of worth. That we’re not quite whole, our feelings, spirit, will, and mind not working in concert as they should, with sin disintegrating what’s normal and desired, unraveling our lives and goodness.

Jesus went to those caught up in sin, because sin was its own punishment. He offered a way of life to free us from sin and bring healing and wholeness. Reminding us that we are more than our misdeeds and struggles, we’re still healing and still becoming. But we can live up to who we are, our true humanity, the image of God. He says that the kingdom of God is at hand and we need to join in with what God is already doing as he restores His creation. And he brings the Good News that life will win over death, that God is active in our present reality. That we don’t know how everything will play out, but we live in a state of hope.

Thanks for the reminder, Doug.

God’s Failed Ambassadors

Or Don’t Trip … He Ain’t Through With You Yet

While I was thinking through what I was going to say about “The Story of (My) Christianity”, I was left with a bunch of issues that I struggled with. It’s the whole idea of God sending us to be His ambassadors and then seemingly not being able to equip us adequately for the job. I see it in my church. I see it in my life. I see it in my heart. Shouldn’t there be a more demonstrable difference between “us” and “them”? Why are we still so broken?

A friend of mine put it this way: “If God is to be the all powerful diety he is, why does he not do more to change us when we confess his Lordship over our lives? Yeah, yeah, free will and all that, but still what are we saying when we are calling him “Lord”? Isn’t part of that an invitation for Him to change us? Sure, it takes work on our part, but I could use some help and, if you believe the surveys, so does everyone else. When I look at the Christian community, I see epic fail and it’s really hard for me to just say that it’s all our fault. If we are to be representing Him, and if we are calling Him the Lord of our lives, then I would think we would get more help…and if He isn’t then how can we say the blame is all on us?

We were created in the image of God and declared “good”. Good. We forget that part of things, that as image-bearers, we have inherent worth. We don’t always live up to that potential, what we were created to be. We could look at our place in the greater scheme of things as a matter of us not being able to save ourselves, but that’s not the whole story. We’re invited into a way of life, a life of transformation. We don’t have to remain as we are, mired in the mess of our lives. We can seek a path of wholeness, become humans to be restored in all the dimensions of humanity.

Probably points more to our misunderstanding of God and our relationship with him. We don’t have to be perfect to be dispensers of God’s grace. Martin Luther spoke of Christians as being simultaneously saints and sinners. It has taken me quite a while to understand that God’s not interested in fixed vessels. We have it in our heads that we need to be perfect, have our act together, be the “best” representatives that we can be because how else can we be used by God.

This idea of perfection has crippled my spiritual walk. The Bible seems to not only demand perfection, but it seems to imply that perfection is attainable now. Then someone pointed out to me that I had a screwed up view of “perfection.” When we read the word “perfection” through our modern mindset, we see the Greek ideal of perfection. We can’t attain that. Yet for most of my spiritual life, I was tormented by the guilt of failure because I couldn’t reach this goal of perfection. My life was littered with seemingly endless failures. But when you read perfection more through the eyes of the original audience, you find the Hebrew idea of wholeness. Being complete is something that we can attain.

We are no more immune to sin and temptation than our neighbor, as much as I (and many in the churches) would like to believe otherwise. We’re sick and we need resurrection, divine healing. He calls us to join with Him, to be set free of the lives we’re imprisoned in into a new world, a new way of living. In our imperfection, in our brokenness, we know each other’s pain and weakness—without room for judgment—and can best be there for one another. We can be the consoling arms of God for one another.

Our actions define our eternity. The strongest, most impactful message you can have about your faith is the one we speak with our lives. If we aren’t living it out, it invalidates anything we have to say on the subject. If what we say and how we live don’t match, we’ve probably already lost the battle. There’s the heart of my struggle. I’ve tried to follow Jesus and it’s hard. There’s nothing simple about it. It’s paradoxical. It’s counter-intuitive. Often I feel as if I know the truth, but have no experience of its reality or fail to fully live it out.

God is engaged in a gentle dance with us, wooing us to Him not wanting to force Himself on us, but rather wanting us to freely choose to love Him; to join with His redemptive mission for each other and for creation. He chooses to work through a failed people for reasons we may never understand. We are cracked vessels, works in progress. God doesn’t give up on us … we give up on ourselves. We aren’t defined by our failings and stumbling. We’re defined by how we get back up, bruised knees and all, dust ourselves off, and keep on our journey.

Mo*Con IV: The Story of (My) Christianity Part II

(Continued from Part I)

There are two kinds of writers: those who can sit down in front of their keyboards or with their pad and pen and simply start writing, letting the story and characters go where they go. I hate them. I’m the other kind, the ones who outline because we have to know where the story is going or else we’d get lost. Me viewing my life through the lens of a writer had implications on how I viewed the Bible. I started to read it as a storybook, a collection of stories. The story of God’s interaction with His people and a collection of stories I choose to live my life by.

A story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. With the Bible, the beginning starts with … the beginning, the creation. The act of creation provides not only the setting, but also the characters. But who is the central character, the protagonist? Who is the hero of the story? God? Humanity?

So we start with God. I believe that there are things we can’t/haven’t measured, a spiritual transcendent dimension to our reality. There is something wholly other, a complex other. If you’ve ever tried to get to know someone, you know that it requires work, trust, intimacy, and time, and that’s for people. God is ineffable (beyond words) and incomprehensible. God would not be God if this were not the case. And we’re handicapped by having only limited perception.
There is mystery and paradox, involved in getting to know him.

If there is a God, he has to have revealed himself or else he might as well not exist. We would end up endlessly wondering what “the Universe” wants. On faith, I believe Christ is not only the bridge to that other, but also the full revelation of that Other. But I’m skipping ahead in the story.

The protagonist (for that matter, all the characters) has a long-term goal for the duration of the story, so in this case, it is God interacting with humanity for a purpose. God creates, for the same reason we echo in our lives, because he has to. It’s a well spring of who he is. The Creator loved world he made, wanted to look after it best possible way so he created care-taker creatures modeled on Himself, embody his characteristics (though not fully).

The action that propels a story is some sense of conflict, in the form of the Fall: the sin of Adam and Eve. Moving beyond a literal interpretation of the story, let’s look at what the sin represents. Adam’s sin represents man seeking his own way. Sin becomes its own undoing. We’re left with a fear of death and end up spreading further sin and destruction in light of that fear. Our pursuit of what we hope to create out of rebellion (the lie of independence), attempting to write our own stories; all the while ignoring the grand story of which we’re a part. The Fall also gives us the main themes of Story. Relationships are broken and look at what we arises from this conflict: man vs. man; man vs. God; man vs. self; man vs. Creation. One of the things that makes suffering so bad is the sense, the part of us that knows, that things aren’t as they’re supposed to be.

In a way, the story is part romance, about God wooing humanity back to him. Meeting us where we are, messy and broken. And I mean romance in the best sense of the word (and wouldn’t it be great if Bibles came with covers of Jesus with a half ripped open pirate shirt or something?)

Yet with any good story, something stands in the way of the protagonist achieving his goal.
The story of God putting things right, isn’t that he just woke up one day, decided to pay attention, and suddenly decide to do something to fix the mess by condemning Jesus to a cruel fate to satisfy some blood thirst. Nor would his passion to put the world right, fulfilling this idea of justice involve swooping in, waving a magic wand, and cleaning things up. That would be him forcing himself on us. Instead, His plan has always been to work through people. From Abraham and Israel to Christ and the Church, he stirs our spirits and acts from within creation.

So the story builds to a climax. The climax is the point at which the story goes from being an interrelated, deliberately arranged, set of scenes to a cohesive story. It provides a fundamental meaning to events. That’s what the incarnation (birth in human form), life, death, and resurrection of Christ did for human history.

I’m not a God apologist. I can’t argue philosophical points. I can only speak to what forms my faith. I tend to subscribe to a “something happened” brand of apologetics. Christianity is the story of something that happened, centered around to and through this Jesus of Nazareth person. Something happened more than a guy coming along laying down some moral guidelines and teaching or else we’d see people worshiping Oprah.

Something happened which changed the course of history. I know that Jesus was not the hero they were looking for. Those waiting on a messiah were looking for someone to overthrow their Roman oppressors.

Something happened which caused massive transformation as people saw that they could be saved from an empty way of living, if they choose to accept that. That we may be lost, dying, and in need of new life, resurrection could be had. That the rule of death had been broken, freeing us to live for others. Something happened which gave them the sense of mission to the world to be a blessing.

It’s a story of big ideas with big characters who often make big mistakes. It’s a love story of a Creator rescuing his creation from rebellion, brokenness, corruption, and death. It’s a story we’re a part of and a story we’re invited into. It’s the story thus far, as we live out and work toward the ending. We propel the story, invited to become fresh, new characters.

And that’s the point of the story. We’re invited to join in God’s mission, to be a part of reconciling the universe. We’re called to heal it, to bring restoration, redemption, and reconciliation. We needed a new way of life and living to fix it and Jesus modeled a new way of living and people chose to conform their lives to his example. We need to be continually renewing this example, because it’s easy to fall back into old patterns and old ways of living. We need to be a part of the solution, not the problem. What good is faith if we don’t put what we say we believe into action, living it out as best we are able.

Where there’s a story there’s a plot, there’s a plotter. Not the best proof of the existence of God, but it works for me. We connect with story because we’re a part of a grand story. The story comes full circle as Christ undoes the way of Adam, showing a new way (as high priest and intercessor), and recreating community and relationship with God. In short, He redeems Creation. In turn, we’re all called to live in light of this story, aligning ourselves with this truth.

The one true overarching story of Christianity is that all stories are finally brought not only to fullness and completion, but redemption in Christ. In Christ, all stories are finished. If I had to guess Wrath’s reaction, it would be to say that what I’m saying is that I cling to a fairy tale I hope is true, because what I’ve said isn’t logical. And he’s right. It’s as logical as falling in love. You can’t help who you fall in love with, you do have a choice about what to do about it.

Me? I’m just a man searching for truth and trying to work out his faith. Stories can take you to a deeper reality. My stories are one way I work out my faith. The world is good, but broken, a paradox stories can help us understand. I see the reality of evil and darkness. Sometimes I see how love and relationships can become twisted and selfish. I look into the heart of humanity, into my own heart, and find it wa
nting. I question, I doubt, I often miss the point, and I fail.

Faith is confidence in the goodness of God remembered on how he has shown goodness to you in the past. Remembering and re-experiencing the way God has touched your life. It leaves you with a sense of hope, that you have a future. Doubt is useful for a while … but we must move on. We can deconstruct our beliefs all we want, but after awhile, we have to construct something.

I have hope and I cling to it. Darkness may win battles, but light win the war. Justice is real, if sometimes slow in coming. Love, true love, forgives, heals, and triumphs. And humanity, even me, can find redemption.

Stories can show us possibilities. Stories can let us have glimpses of a future hope. Stories can encourage and sustain us. For me, it comes back to the recognition that “we are imperfect people living in a very imperfect world and worshiping a perfect God in an imperfect church.” What I want is to truly experience, the true prayer of my heart, is to truly feel God, to truly know God. Until then, I can only cling to my faith and continue to pray my favorite prayer found in the Bible:

“Lord I believe. Help me with my unbelief.”

Mo*Con IV: The Story of (My) Christianity Part I

Faith hasn’t always come easily to me. I’ve always been intellectually curious, things had to make sense for me. I’m trained as a scientist because I’ve always been about searching for answers. For truth. But it’s also why I don’t hold to a “everything can be explained in nature” sort of worldview. Facts only take you so far. You can assent to a set of facts, but you can’t disprove my faith with facts. You can’t argue someone into faith with facts. Plus, facts equal certainty and certainty is the opposite of faith. It’s the frustrating thing about faith: it’s an intuitive leap that isn’t always logical. I do, however, believe one can think critically and logically about one’s faith.

For the record, I didn’t grow up in a faith-filled home. My father and his father before him were about as God neutral, even anti-God as you can get. My father, in one particularly chilling conversation, once told me that he understood fully the choice he made living his life the way he wanted. He recognized the consequences and if that meant an eternity of hell, then so be it, but he at least got to live his life his way.

My mother talked about God on occasion, but I had no sense of her having a spiritual life until the last ten years or so. I grew up in the church, however, and our family has a history of spiritualism, such as the obeah people, the practitioners of the Jamaican form of voodoo. My first major sale, “Family Business” to Weird Tales, was about wrestling with that branch of the family. [But I’ve detailed this part of my journey before.]

Faith is what you choose to believe in. You have to have some system of belief, something to hold onto, or else you end up just flailing about through life. Just like it’s easy to have faith when everything is going well, when life chugging along pretty much as expected, going along the way you want. But what happens when things go off the tracks?

Any followers of my blog know that I have failed: as a man, as a husband, as a father, as a friend, as a leader. And in light of the mess I’ve made of my life, it’s left me asking a lot of questions about what I believe. I’ve wondered if there’s any truth to the Christian story? Why does it feel like I’m not close to the person I should be by now? I’m left wondering what’s real about it and with doubting eyes, I have to re-examine what I hold to be true.

So here’s what I know, or rather, what I believe to be true. I firmly believe that this life has meaning and is heading towards something. If this is all there is, I feel sorry for us, because then we truly aren’t any different than any other animal.

We’re hard-wired with certain longings, certain base ideas. Like the idea of justice. We have a passion for justice. We have a sense pretty early on of what’s fair and what’s not, like a dream written onto our hearts. We know there’s something like justice, but we can’t seem to get there.

I also firmly believe that the human heart longs for fellowship, love, and communion. We’re wired for relationships. We want the comfort of an embrace, we want to be known and loved. It’s as if we were designed to find our purpose and meaning in community: family, friends, co-workers, or nation. Yet there is a pain and brokenness to our relationships. What should be so natural is often difficult to navigate.

And the world is full of beauty. Now, I’ll admit, where some people see mountain vistas, lakeside view, a sunset, all I see is why God created tv and air conditioning. There is truth and goodness in beauty, one that we recognize without having to be told. Beauty calls us out of ourselves, is outside us, and appeals to something within us. Beauty touches a primal chord within us, captivates us, and spurs us to adoration, even worship. Beauty is in our art. We know it in music, we interpret it in dance. The idea of beauty points to something greater. It’s a longing we want to express as we try to capture an ineffable quality, an indefinable … truth.

And we have a quest for spirituality. One of the reasons I started Mo*Con was because I believe most of us are on a spiritual quest, a search for truth, and we don’t have enough folks to ask our questions to. We may embrace the western mindset that right-thinking people give up their silly superstitions, and see religion as little more than a runaway imagination, misguided feelings, mixed with wishful thinking, foolish and unsophisticated. A cultural neuroses. Yet we can agree that we all want more for ourselves and our lives. We want meaning, for all this, our struggles, our pain, to have been for something. To me, that very human experience and longing points to an exploration of a spiritual dimension to this life.

So we have this nebulous idea of the need for faith which becomes shaped by personal experience and intuition. I’m a scientist and a theologian (in the way that all spiritual seekers are theologians). So how do I make sense of it all? I’m also a writer.

I love story. I was the kid in class who instead of having a comic book in my text books, I had Bullfinch’s mythology hidden in them. Okay, comic books too. I love all stories. I believe we’re caught up in a story, Wrath and I at different points in it. We connect to a story. We choose the stories that ring true to us, each choice is a leap of faith. The story of evolution doesn’t move me, doesn’t give me purpose and sense of being. It doesn’t take me outside of myself and connect me to others. So the story of evolution couldn’t be the complete story for me.

The Christian story claims to be the true story about God. It’s the story with the recurring themes of going away and coming back home again, of slavery and exodus, of exile and restoration, of death and resurrection. Yet, as Wrath has pointed out, The Church and its people have never gotten it all right, sometimes doing as much harm as good. It’s easy to take any story and do bad things with it.

(To be continued… )

Ambassadors of Love

Many people call themselves Christian and we often refer to ourselves as a Christian nation. Have you ever wondered how some people can call themselves that? Or rather, how some folks can do some of the things they do and cloak themselves in religion or the Word of God?

On the flip side, there are a lot of folks who cloak themselves in the veil of religion to simply justify their biases. In other words, they have a belief/predisposition then seek to undergird said belief with Bible verses; bringing their vision to their faith and creating dogma around it.

Which is why I don’t tend to dump on Christianity when a “Christian” does something kooky or Islam when a “Muslim” does something contrary to their tenets. There are folks who call themselves Christian, Muslim, Wiccan or what have you whose actions clearly run contrary to the beliefs of those faiths.

We’re all eikons, image-bearers of God, created to relate to God, to relate to others, and to govern the world as such. Christians, in particular, ought to be ambassadors of God. Take that seriously, to reflect God, His love, His holiness.

Too often we run around as if we have diplomatic immunity, a get out of hell free card, that places us above everyone else. Instead, we ought to be the first servants. I think that’s what being missional boils down to for me (and how my faith makes sense to me).

If there’s a “fear” to my faith that I keep coming back to it’s that I take very seriously Christ’s words when He talks about people doing things in His name and when they finally come to meet Him, He tells them that He never knew them. Cloaking myself in His name and missing the point of my religion … that’s not the kind of Christian I want to be.

What defines how you see yourself in your faith?