Archive for the ‘Religion in the news’ Category

Yesterday I received two emails and noticed a couple Facebook posts bearing links to an article entitled, “Pentagon May Court Martial Soldiers Who Share Christian Faith.”  The story is not exactly all out in the open at this point, so I’m not going to pretend I’m an authority on this particular story.  But these e-mails reveal a “pressure-point” for many Christians in America as well as the increasing number of non-Christians in America.  You know how pressure points work: if someone applies minimal pressure in just the rights spot, they can cause a disproportionate reaction in the other person.  Church and State issues are a pressure point in our country.  The smallest pressure applied to an issue in this category can open up a whole can of accusations, assumptions, defensiveness, and fear.  Now, none of these things are particularly prominent in the life of Jesus, so perhaps I could just take this monthly blog space and talk through the issue with both “sides.”

Background: It appears that the Pentagon spent some time seeking the counsel of outspoken advocate for the separation of Church and State in the military, Mikey Weinstein (the Christian Post initially reported wrongly that Weinstein was “hired” by the Pentagon).  The facts seem to be that the Pentagon is looking at certain standards for chaplains in counseling situations with non-Christian soldiers and restrictions on how faith is promoted by other military authorities.

First:

Dear President and Pentagon,

Why consult this guy?  There are plenty of lesser-known but better-qualified people who could have helped you to develop the policies your thinking about.  Weinstein’s language is intentionally provocative and his strategy seems to be founded on attention-getting.  You even could have consulted Christians who would want to minimize the relationship between Church and State.  Did you want to stir the pot in conservative circles?  Just doesn’t seem like a wise move.

Also, you are taking on a very difficult issue.  Christians–including chaplains–don’t just share the Gospel because they want to get more people over to our side.  We believe that to treat the human as a non-spiritual being is ultimately going to come up short.  We believe that there is healing, restorative, wholeness-creating potential in the Gospel, which is rooted in the person of Jesus.  So it is possible to share the Gospel (evangelize, proselytize, whatever you want to call it) in a spirit of love, genuinely seeking the ultimate and deepest good of the other.  I get it.  Sometimes we do share the Gospel in selfish and unloving ways.  But pretending like any counselor should–let alone could–just “turn off” her/his beliefs and worldview in seeking the healing of another might not be that realistic or helpful.  Most of these chaplains are Christians and Chaplains because they believe that Jesus is actually the best and ultimate source of healing and restoration for themselves and others.

Further, the Constitution does not demand that Church and State exist in utterly separate spheres.  Rather, it reads, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”  In other words, the religious voice has a place in the public sphere.  Government simply may not choose or enforce one religion over another.  So the Christian’s voice need not be accepted merely because it is Christian, but it also should not be rejected merely on the grounds that it is Christian.  Be very careful, my friends, for trying to order how and when people apply their religious convictions is a messy endeavor.

TTFN, Pastor Jon

Dear Church,

OK, deep breaths.  In.  Out.  I understand that headlines like this are concerning.  You’ve had quite a run at the top of Western/American society.  You’ve enjoyed lots of great benefits in our culture that Jesus never promised.  Even so, now that they seem to be fading away, it’s hard.  None of us likes to say “goodbye” to something that was enjoyable, comfortable, or made us feel special.  It is natural to mourn the loss of our cultural privilege.  Christian America was also the air we breathed for many decades.  We assumed it.  It was dependable.  It made church life so much easier.  And now, we’re noticing that breathing isn’t quite as easy.  You felt like America was built on the foundation of Christianity, and now it feels like each one of these restrictions might be the one that causes the whole thing to cave in.  Not fun.

But you also must remember that it’s possible that these “Separationists” have a point.  What made America distinct from England, Rome, etc. wasn’t Christianity…it was religious freedom.  We can believe what we want without the government punishing us for it.  It’s true that the great beneficiaries of this for many years were mostly Christians of various denominations (yes, we Christians have a wonderful history of oppressing ourselves).  But doesn’t this founding American principle and justice itself demand we extend the same freedoms to others who believe in different gods with different names, or even no god at all?

So this whole Mikey Weinstein thing.  First of all, be careful what you read and pass on.  This Weinstein character isn’t government employed.  And there is no evidence that the government wants to court martial your average soldier who shares his faith.  There isn’t really even evidence that they’re going to adopt Weinstein’s ideas nor that he was the only one they consulted.  Don’t spread gossip, or–even worse–slander.  You don’t have to be the news-breakers or the watchdogs.  Just be patient, get more facts, and listen to a different perspective.  By all means, have an opinion.  But be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to become angry.

And let’s think through the real issue at hand.  It’s a tough one.  Think about it.  These chaplains are employed by the U.S. Government, who constitutionally aren’t supposed to promote one religion over another.  I mean, if our churches were paying these chaplains and donating them to the military, that’d be one thing.  But that’s not the case.  Moreover, it doesn’t appear we’re talking about worship services.  We’re talking about counseling situations and military operations.  The military is an authority-based community where soldiers are often deeply emotionally wounded.  This is a context ripe for spiritual abuse.  Could policies go too far?  Yes.  But can you also understand that the government wants to make sure their chaplains are really seeking to understand, connect with, and bring healing with their soldiers whether they are Christians or not?  And can you see that telling a traumatized non-Christian soldier who is struggling that the only professional he can talk to is someone who will only talk to him about Jesus might not be what’s best for that soldier?  And do you really want a picture of a Cross and shield on a plane set out to kill?  Is this mixture of Gospel and military something we really want to protect?

One more thing.  This whole “Fear” thing.  It’s very unbecoming of you, Church.  I mean, how many times does God have to tell us “Do not be afraid”?  So you get court-martialled for following the Spirit and preaching the Gospel when you weren’t supposed to.  So pastors don’t get tax breaks anymore.  So you can’t have your Christmas decorations out in front of City Hall.  And what if laws were passed that put us in jail for sharing our faith with people?  What if we got kicked out of the U.S. because we were worshipping Jesus?  What if we became targets for assassination because we were so subverting our culture?  We’d be no worse off than millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ all over the world since the time of Jesus.  Here’s the problem:  We seem to be more fearful and anxious than those brothers and sisters WHO ACTUALLY FACED THAT STUFF!  One of those persecuted Christians once wrote: “Perfect love casts out fear.”  If we perfectly believed that nothing in all creation could separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord, we would be perfectly free from fear.  I’m not saying that I’m there.  But the point is, if we are afraid, that says more about our lack of faith than it does about our surrounding culture’s godlessness.  Let’s not let fear for our own comforts and privileges distract us from the radical life of preaching Good News to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, and setting the captives free that we have received as followers of Jesus.  Don’t promote fear.  Let everything you do be done in loveDon’t be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with goodLive such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us.

Grace and Peace to you all,

Pastor Jon

 

 

Millions of people have tuned into the History Channel these past couple weeks to check out “The Bible,” a 10-part drama airing over 5 weeks, culminating on Easter Sunday.  Producers Mark Burnett and Roma Downey (husband and wife) desire to “tell a metanarrative, a grand sweeping love story from Genesis to Revelation.”  They also see their film as striking a blow against “biblical illiteracy” in a culture increasingly ignorant of and unaffected by the Bible.  In my experience, biblical illiteracy is a problem in the culture, but–more disturbingly–in the Church, and among all generations.  Even while many people who have spend their whole lives in church vaguely remember individual Bible stories from Sunday School classes, very few have any clarity about how the whole Story of the Bible flows and connects, how key threads weave their way through, and most specifically, how the Old and New Testaments have everything to do with each other.

I have watched the first 2 weeks of “The Bible” and spoken with people both inside and outside of my congregation who have also watched it.  Tough crowd.  So far, the reviews I’ve heard have been tepid.  In part, I think this has been the result of over-inflated expectations.  These expectations could come from two sources: 1) big-time marketing, which always over-inflates a new product and/or 2) our persistent search for some all-encompassing resource or program that will magically take care of discipleship and evangelism for us.  So is “The Bible” a success or failure?  Thumbs up or thumbs down?

Here’s the plan.  I’m going to sacrifice all of my St. Patrick’s Day celebration plans (none) and blog through Episode 3 of “The Bible” to offer you my perspective as a pastor.

8:00pm: Ok, so I didn’t forego all my St. Patty’s Day plans.  I’m sitting here, thoroughly enjoying my Shamrock Shake.  Let’s do this.

8:02pm.  To set the scene, so far we’ve we’ve gone from Genesis 1 through the kingship of David (the end of 2 Samuel).  Obviously, a lot has been left out or breezed over.  Some would argue with how Genesis 1-11 (Creation, Fall, Cain/Abel, Noah, Tower of Babel) was treated as mere introduction.  However, that’s exactly what it is in the Bible, a kind of scene-setting for the main storyline of the Bible: Abraham’s family and God’s fulfillment of his promises to Abraham in Gen. 12:1-3.  So I think this was actually an astute interpretive decision (though why they chose to abridge those 3 all-important verses is confusing to me).  Also minimized were the Jacob, Isaac, and Joseph stories.  All amazing stories, but something had to be left out.  I’m ok with the focus on Abraham, the Exodus story, and the use of Samson as a representative example of the Judges cycle (the same pattern is repeated over and over in the book of Judges).  These are key to understanding the overarching narrative, and the time given to each allowed the viewers to connect with the characters and get involved with the human dimension to these stories.  More stories = Less depth when you’re trying to do the Bible in 10 hours.

8:03pm: Wow.  We just skipped all the kings from Solomon to Zedekiah.  This includes the major division of the Israelite kingdom between North (Israel/Ephraim) and South (Judah with Jerusalem, the Temple, and the line of davidic kings).  It also includes the fall of the Northern Kingdom to Assyria in 722bc, multiple reforms (Josiah and Hezekiah), and the entire ministry of Isaiah.  That’s a lot.  The producers chose to divide the 10-part series equally into 5 Old Testament and 5 New.  This, of course, is not proportionate to the Bible itself and is why this episode feels quite rushed.

8:08pm: They haven’t shied away from the gritty humanity of the Bible.  Lots of violence, blood (both in battle and sacrificial scenes), dirt, and sweat.  Good for them. I’m surprised a bit, because our culture is very sensitive to religious violence and the harming of animals.  On the other hand, this is faithful to the reality of the Bible and makes for great trailers.  Apparently, they’re not afraid to tell it like it is.

8:18pm: Burnett and Downey have done a lot of reading between the lines: Daniel’s capture scene is not in the Bible and the scene in which Zedekiah’s sons are killed takes up all of 4 verses.  I don’t think they’ve stepped out-of-bounds, though.  They have tried to connect the dots in ways that are as historically likely as possible.

8:34pm: The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace.  Here is one of the few biblical stories made for tv drama, with a ready-made script.  In this case, I think Burnett and Downey could have stuck directly to the text of Daniel 3 and had themselves a far more compelling scene.  Oh well.

9:06pm: One critique I’ve heard is that there is lots in the movie that isn’t in the Bible.  For instance, the big fight scene in the synagogue on the day Mary finds out she is pregnant.  This is not in the gospel accounts, nor is much of the interaction between Joseph and Mary.  But we must remember, the Bible itself would make for a poor movie script.  Burnett and Downey had to use some artistic imagination 1) to make a watchable movie with an engaging script, 2) to allow us to connect with the characters, and 3) to make up for their lack of time.  So, perhaps there wasn’t a fight on the exact day that Mary encountered the angel, but these 2 images were put together to allow the producers to give the reader a feel for Jewish life under Roman occupation without adding a bunch of extra scenes.  To me, this is valid use of artistic license.  It is also faithful to the concept of the story genre.  Stories draw us in and invite us to engage imaginatively with the characters and scenes.  So are these scenes necessarily exactly how they played out historically?  No.  But do they give us images to help us get into the story?  Very much so.  And I think this is a good thing.

9:20pm: I loved the back-and-forth scenes of Herod’s anxious anger and the grateful and joyful nativity scenes.  This is a contrast–Empire vs. God’s Kingdom–that we see throughout the gospels.

9:24pm: From Lauren (my wife), “Maybe they could’ve fit more in if they didn’t have so many commercials.”  True.  This isn’t the Bible in 10 hours; it’s the Bible in 8.  In addition, the targeted marketing of Christian Mingle and Jeff Foxworthy’s Bible Challenge are kind of embarrassing.   Oh, and is it weird that all the Viking commercials are so easily confused with The Bible movie?  Enough about commercials.

9:35pm: This episode included a lot of extra-biblical events.  For instance, the story of Herod’s eagle on the temple is only found in other ancient sources.  The image of  the child Jesus returning to Galilee and witnessing the crucified man beside the road is another extra-biblical insertion.*  These events either actually happened or were very possible, and they provide important context for us about Jesus’ time.  But there have been other key things left out (Notably, the Ezra/Nehemiah stories including the return to Jerusalem, rebuilding of its walls, recovery of the Torah, and rebuilding of the Temple).  In fact, the Temple–a central piece to the Story–has been pretty much neglected.  This is a tough one, but in a movie called “The Bible,” when so must has to be cut already, I don’t know if these choices make sense to me.  As I said earlier, I think they made a lot of good choices in the first four hours, but am not as sure about this episode.

9:47pm: Great scene–Jesus’ temptation, especially the last part where Jesus pictures Satan’s promise to give him an easy road to a comfortable kingship versus the way of suffering to true Kingship.  This was artistic license at its best.  It conveys the exact thrust of the gospel accounts while imaginatively taking us into Jesus’ mind.  This is what any sermon on Jesus’ temptation could only attempt to convey with mere words.

9:59pm: Loved the scene with Jesus and Peter.  If you read the gospels, you know Jesus had flair, and it looks like this movie is picking up on that.  ”What are we going to do?”  ”We’re going to change the world.”  Good stuff.

One quick story.  Every other week, I meet with 6th-8th graders who are preparing for Confirmation.  We have been going through the Bible’s Story since October, focusing on the key movements (and skipping a lot).  Each week, we recap where we’ve been from the beginning, and each week, the recap goes slowly.  This past week, we flew through it.  Why?  They had watched the first episodes of “The Bible.”  They had pictures in their heads now of Abraham and Moses and the Red Sea, and had connected with the characters in new ways.  People in our culture are used to receiving stories visually, whether via tv or movies more than via reading.  That’s the reality.  And that means, we tend to be able to process and digest visual stories more easily than we do written ones.   So will “The Bible” disciple and evangelize people for us?  No.  But might it be a helpful tool to help people grasp the major movements of the biblical Story, and help people know what’s going on when they land somewhere in the Bible?  It certainly can.  And hopefully, “The Bible” might lead to more modern, artistic, historically accurate, and–dare I say–non-cheesy efforts of conveying the Story of the Bible to people in our image-saturated culture.  All of these are good things.  Not the magic bullet.  But good things.  And for that, I am thankful.

Have you been watching “The Bible”?  What are your thoughts so far?  Feel free to add to the discussion by commenting below!

*For a really engaging reconstruction of Jesus’ return to Galilee from the family’s time of refuge in Egypt, check out Anne Rice’s Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt.

 

You know when you cover your eyes because you don’t want to see something, but peek through your fingers because you need to see it?  That’s kind of how I feel sometimes when popular headlines contain something about religion.  Usually religion-in-the-news can be put into categories labeled “scandal,” “foot-in-the-mouth,” or “those crazy religious folk” (to be fair: scandalous, foolish, and crazy do tend to be the general criteria for newsworthiness in our culture).  So last week as I ran on the treadmill at the YMCA, I nervously tried to read the mildly-reliable closed captions on CNN that went along with muted images of Pope Benedict XVI  (the captions said something about the Pope’s “hair damage,” which I am about 60% sure was a typo for “heritage”).  As you probably know, the news story was not scandalous, foolish, or crazy.  The Pope had resigned.

The ensuing Sunday, I led my mainline Protestant church in prayer for the process of selecting a new Pope.  It seemed right to me.  But I got to thinking: this simple prayer may have been confusing, maybe even radical in the eyes of some members of my congregation.  Probably not that radical today, though certainly for much of the last 500 years, a prayer for the Roman Catholic Church (RCC) would not even have been a consideration for most Protestants, let alone the Papal selection process.  But definitely confusing.  Why pray for the Catholic Church?  We don’t follow the Pope, so why do we care who the next one is?  The Pope resigned.  So what?

While Roman Catholics (RCs) and Protestants of various stripes have experienced significant inter-denominational healing and collaboration in recent years, I think much of this has gone on at the “official” level.  Among congregants, I still get asked questions and try to correct misconceptions about Roman Catholicism, the Pope, and why we say “the holy catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed.  So let me offer some responses to some common questions/statements I come across, and I hope you will ask any other questions you might have either in the “Comment” area or in person.*

  • I’m not Catholic, I’m Christian.  Please don’t say this.  The alternative to Catholic is Protestant or Eastern Orthodox–or more specifically, Presbyterian, UCC, Baptist, etc.  Without getting into a long conversation about the proper definition of “Christian,” let’s just say both Catholics and Protestants (not to mention Eastern Orthodox) can all be “Christians.”  A similar error, in my opinion, is to talk about Catholics as a different “religion.”  It is probably most descriptive to talk about it as a different “denomination” within the Christian religion (a Church family tree).
  • Isn’t that a Catholic thing?/That’s too Catholic.    Firstly, Catholic history is pretty much Church history for the first 1000 (Eastern Orthodox split)-1500 (Protestant split) years of our existence.  Protestants have broken from the RCC so thoroughly in many cases, that we have cut ourselves off from 1500 years of Christian insight, meaningful spiritual practices, and encouraging stories of Christians living out their faith.  Not to mention the last 500 years of those same contributions to the Kingdom of God by our RC brothers and sisters.  Whether we are imposing ashes, practicing lectio divina, or talking about the importance of confessing to another person, we are trying to draw on the best of Church history, engaging in practices that have been and can be beneficial to our spiritual journey towards Christ-likeness.  Who cares if it’s “Catholic” or “Protestant”?  As Paul says, “test everything, hold onto what is good.”
  • Catholics believe the Pope is perfect.  Technically, the term is “infallible.”  But even so, this is not true.  Officially (as of the First Vatican Council in 1869-1870), the RCC believes the Pope speaks infallibly when he speaks “Ex Cathedra” (from the chair) in the area of faith and morals.  This official proclamation has only been exercised a handful of times in Church history and not since 1950.
  • There’s nothing in the Bible that justifies the RCC’s understanding of the Pope.  The RCC would beg to differ, pointing to Matthew 16:13-19.  While I do not agree with the RCC interpretations and applications of this passage, let’s at least say that the proper interpretation is not obvious, even for Protestants.  But the bigger point is that accusing the RCC of just making stuff up without any consultation of the Scriptures is unhelpful and false.
  • Catholics worship Mary.  Nope, at least not officially.  More accurately, Catholics “honor” Mary.  Here’s the most helpful logic I’ve heard.  Jesus was Mary’s son.  Christians are adopted brothers and sisters of Jesus.  Thus, Mary is our adoptive mother.  In the 10 Commandments, we are told to “Honor your father and mother.”  Thus, we are to honor Mary.  Make sense?  It does to me.  Practically, I think there tends to be far too much emphasis on Mary in the RCC, but the accusation of worshipping Mary on par with the Trinity is false.
  • Why do we say “I believe in the holy catholic Church” in the Apostles’ Creed?  Some Protestant churches have actually replaced this line with “the holy Christian Church” or “the holy universal Church” to avoid confusion.  But this is merely for clarity.  “Catholic” literally means “universal.”  You’ll notice in the Creed that “catholic” is in lower-case letters.  This is because it is an adjective, not a proper name.  We are stating our believe in the Church that exists in all times and places, not the Roman Catholic Church.
  • How does the Pope have anything to do with us Protestants?   Let’s be honest.  The history of the papal office is a squirrely one.  It is riddled with corruption, political power-struggles, and moral failures.  Unfortunately, so is the history of the Church in general, and not just “those Catholics.”  As I have engaged a bit more with Catholicism in recent years, I have found: 1) Many of the Popes (especially since the RCC got disentangled a bit from its political/empire influence) seem to be deeply spiritual, Jesus-following, God-loving, people-serving men, and 2) There is some profound and inspiring theology in the RCC and in papal writings that provide a super-helpful perspective for us Protestants, who tend to lose our historical roots quite easily.  Essentially, if we just dismiss the Pope and Roman Catholicism out-of-hand, we are missing out on a treasure trove of wisdom, fellowship, and great Kingdom work.
  • The Catholics are too hierarchical.  I like that we can do whatever we want.  I have an acquaintance who says that there are two vital values necessary for the Church to faithfully accomplish her mission in the world: Truth and Unity.  The hierarchy of the RCC emerges out of its great value on Unity–sometimes, perhaps, giving ground a bit in the area of Truth or voices that present different angles on Truth (I say this as a typical Protestant critique).  But we Protestants must be very aware that our pursuit of Truth, completely free of hierarchical influence has done untold damage to the Unity factor in the Church.  Thus, we have created serious roadblocks to the Church’s mission, which Jesus clearly says is bound up in our success at presenting a unified witness to the world.

This is very simplistic.  We could spend lots more time trying to bridge the Catholic-Protestant gap.  We could also spend lots more time talking about the very real barriers to full unity among Catholics and Protestants.  But let’s just leave it at this: the Pope is important to the whole Church, not just the Roman Catholic Church.  For us Protestants, we have a great deal to learn from whomever is appointed the next Bishop of Rome (Pope).  He will take his place with a deep understanding of the Church’s complex and valuable history, a love for God’s people, and certainly a reputation of wisdom and faith.  Beyond this, we should care about the Pope because the mission of the Church is bigger than just our individual lives, congregations, and denominations.  The world doesn’t care about all our labels and distinctions.  They need to see the light of Christ shining out of anyone who claims the name of Christ.  And when Christians of any denomination stumble, it is a black eye to the whole Church in the eyes of the world.

And so please join me in praying for our Roman Catholic sisters and brothers in Christ, that those discerning God’s desire for the next Pope would be given wisdom and insight, and that the whole Church would shine more brightly with the deep unity we find in the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

*I have asked a Catholic Priest friend of mine to check my accuracy.  Graciously, he made one addition, which I have included.

So I was going to write a simple post on an article I read last Sunday about how Pres. Obama should not swear on a Bible due to the separation of Church and State, and how, though I do think there should be a separation of sorts, this argument completely misses the point of the Bible in the inauguration.  Yada yada yada…

And then I read this…and watched this…and I changed my mind.  January 22nd, the day after Pres. Obama’s inauguration and Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, was the 40th anniversary of Roe v. Wade, a court decision that essentially legalized abortion in the United States.  While limitations on when, how, and after what procedures abortions can be performed have been enacted nationally and on state levels, abortion continues to be a practice that is both legal and common (in 2009, the CDC reports that approximately 1 fetus was aborted for every 6 live births, and well over 50 million legal abortions have been performed since 1973) in the U.S.

The abortion debate is widely known to be inflammatory (sometimes literally) and divisive.  And while I have hinted at my convictions on this matter elsewhere on this blog, I have generally been cautious (fearful?) about airing my own opinions either here or elsewhere.  I know there are people in my congregation who have strong opinions on either “side” of the debate, and others who have strong opinions that the topic should be avoided.  It is well known that some of the most vocal opponents of abortion can be found in evangelical and Roman Catholic Christian circles.  On the other hand, I pastor in a denomination (the United Church of Christ) that calls women’s right to have an abortion one indicator of “reproductive justice.”  So, in some ways, I exist in the middle of the debate.

So let me begin by affirming some of the points made by my more “pro-choice” brothers and sisters:

  • Yes, the pro-life movement contains some hypocrites who call themselves “pro-life” and then blow up abortion clinics or assassinate doctors who perform abortions.
  • Yes, there are many conservatives for whom it is true that “they will do anything for the unborn, but once you’re born, you’re on your own” (potentially offensive language in this link), who have fought tooth-and-nail to outlaw abortion but never cared to get into the messiness of poverty, shame, etc. that make abortion an attractive option.
  • Yes, as a whole, the pro-life movement has treated the unborn as full humans while failing to fully appreciate the humanness of women who have unwanted pregnancies, the complexities of their situations, and the systemic challenges they face.
  • Yes, if abortion were illegal, it would continue to happen in unsafe ways.
  • Yes, it’s disgusting that men can and do run away from unwanted pregnancies, leaving the woman on her own to make it work.
  • Yes, rather than “speaking the truth in love,” pro-lifers have had a tendency to speak words that lead to condemnation and shame, especially on the part of the women who have had abortions.

Living in the center of theological/political battlegrounds , I work very hard to put myself in the shoes of other Christians (and other people, in general) who hold different perspectives than I do.  As I have imperfectly and stumblingly allowed myself into the ethical complexities and gray areas of our broken world, I have generally found my heart softening on many issues.  I may still hold a different conviction and opinion (I’m no relativist), but I can see how some might interpret the Gospel and the will of God differently than me.

This has not been the case for me when it comes to abortion.

I see how acting in compassion and seeking  justice for women in unenviable circumstances is a Gospel mandate.  I deplore the ways pro-lifers have often been simplistic, hypocritical, and downright evil in their pursuit of their “cause.”  I weep for the personal and systemic forces that have moved and will continue to move women to endanger themselves for the sake of an illegal abortion.  And still, I fail to see how the right to have an abortion has anything to do with the Kingdom of God.  Moreover–and here is why I address this topic this week–I fail to see how abortion can be anything more than a tragic-if-necessary evil, let alone something to be celebrated.

Unfortunately, like most “political” debates, the abortion debate regularly gets derailed as people talk past each other (fail to address what the other is actually saying), ask loaded or unproductive questions, operate on surface-level principles (“pro-life”/”pro-choice”), and disregard the possibility of any possibility outside “A (overturn Roe) or B (keep Roe).”

At the risk of falling into the same traps I just outlined, I would like to offer a few thoughts on why I oppose abortion and how I respond to those who count Roe v. Wade a victory worth celebrating.

  1. First of all, I believe that it is possible to be pro-women while at the same time being anti-abortion (and so do many women who oppose abortion).  I do not aim to demonize women who have had or are considering having abortions.  The forces at work in our culture are way bigger than a single person making an isolated decision.  Given the burdens and challenges many women experience, I can see how many women do choose the route of abortion.  If I were facing the same burdens and challenges, I can only guess at what I might do.  But regardless, the basis of the following thoughts is not blame and condemnation, but grace and the possibility of a more just and loving society where men and women, adults and children, born and unborn have every opportunity to thrive.
  2. I frequently hear proponents of reproductive rights make the claim that the fetus is not a person with a right to life.  In fact, one is almost required to hold to this position to support abortion.  A fetus, then, is merely a piece of tissue.  I’m not going to pull in any Scripture to argue that life begins at conception (such references very rarely pay attention to what the biblical writer is actually saying).  But here’s the thing: we don’t treat fetuses as just a piece of tissue.  When we are hoping/praying for children, we celebrate at the first signs of life blossoming in the womb.  And even when we are not hoping/praying for children, we know full well that that first sign of pregnancy has deeply human implications.  I’m afraid the whole debate about precisely when the “tissue” becomes a “person” (conception, 3 weeks, 2nd trimester, birth…?) misses the point (more in #7).  We must proceed with great caution, however, whenever we feel the urge to put limits on who is and is not a member of the human community.
  3. To continue #1, it should be noted that multiple serious philosophers, in order to argue against the personhood of the fetus, have found it necessary to extend their support for abortion to “infanticide.”  In other words, if we are saying fetuses are not human/persons because they are completely dependent on another human or because they are not self-conscious, that is equally true of newborn babies.  Really, the biggest difference between a child in the womb and a child outside of it is that the fetus is invisible and voiceless to us.  Not less human.  And this is why pro-lifers see opposition to abortion as a dire matter of justice for the unborn: acting as a voice for the voiceless, making visible the invisible, and protecting the most vulnerable members of our human society.
  4. On the topic of justice, the problem is not just that people choose to have abortions, but who is chosen to be aborted.  With all of our medical technology and genetic testing, we can be particularly careful about which “tissues” are worth keeping.  We know that in cultures (like China), where boys are more desirable, female fetuses are disproportionately selected for abortion.   Talk about a “war on women.”  In our country, studies indicate that a wildly disproportionate number of parents who find out that their fetus has Down Syndrome are aborted.  I find these to be disturbing facts.
  5. As true as it may be that some pro-lifers only a) care about human well-being pre-birth and/or b) are so caught-up in legal battles about abortion that they ignore the host of other factors related to abortion, these accusations are convenient and inaccurate generalizations of pro-lifers.  Crisis Pregnancy Centers, which are often supported by pro-lifers, have proliferated since 1973, seeking to serve women with pre-natal care, counseling, and material needs once the baby has been born.  Many Christians have put their faith into action by adopting unwanted children both domestically and internationally.  And “social justice” has increasingly entered the evangelical/emergent vocabulary in the past decade.  Thankfully, this accusation is less and less true and should not have such a prominent place in the debate.
  6. I would suggest that advocating for abortion is “the easy way out” for people who recognize the systemic pressures on pregnant women.  Abortion is not the only solution to the problem of abandoned pregnant women.  I would much rather see the energy that goes into reproductive rights advocacy go towards developing creative ways to hold fathers accountable in caring for the life they helped create, provide programs that reframe sexuality and procreation, make adoption a more financially viable option for willing and loving families who struggle to afford huge adoption costs,  subsidize childcare costs for single mothers, to name a few alternatives.  Abortion is not the only or best way of addressing the problem of unwanted pregnancies in ways that are compassionate toward women.  It’s just the easiest.
  7. Abortion does not solve the problem or empower women.  In fact, it lets men off the hook.  ”Hey, you have the option to abort.  If you don’t want to, that’s your problem.”  Abortion leaves women in the powerless spot of choosing between an unwanted (potentially coerced) abortion and single motherhood.  This is merely moving the problem of powerlessness, not solving it.  At the moment a woman finds out she is pregnant, men are supposed to be responsible as committed partners and fathers, and yet Roe v. Wade gives men absolutely no legal responsibility to determine whether the child lives or dies.  If women want responsible, committed men at this time, the law is undermining that desire, and giving men a convenient excuse to abandon women–as if men needed any more encouragement to be irresponsible.  (This is a big part of what makes this ad so deplorable, in my opinion.)
  8. Roe v. Wade reinforces the disjointedness of our understandings of sexuality and procreation.  It puts a big bracket in the beautiful process of procreation, disconnecting new life from loving relationship.  It says, “Sex is for individual pleasure.  Pregnancy is about the woman’s individual rights.  Birth begins the mutuality of parenthood.”  Contrast: “Sex is the physical pinnacle of relational intimacy, and in this expression of love, new life is created to be celebrated and cared for by its co-creators from beginning to end.”  For Christians, the biblical story is that God’s love is the source of creation and Life.  And so procreation is this process from love to life.  Anytime we try to jump in, parse out, and disconnect that story, we are walking on shaky ground.  I’m not naive enough to think that this narrative is always reality, but I will say that the incessant touting of “rights” and “individual freedom” and “ownership” as predominant values is an enemy of relationship, community, and love.  It hinders our culture from thinking, dreaming, and imagining in relational terms of love, intimacy, partnership, and mutual loving sacrifice.  Roe v. Wade, here, is not the primary culprit, but rather a legal rubberstamping of community-unfriendly values surrounding sex, relationships, and procreation.
  9. None of this is to say that Christians should put all their resources and resolve into getting Roe v. Wade overturned.  Rather, I believe it is our first calling to live the Kingdom of God and to present our surrounding culture with an alternative.  What does this mean in this case?  Presenting a narrative of sexuality in our communities that connects sex to procreation and committed relationships.  Simultaneously creating communities of grace, which shower women with unintended pregnancies and women who have had abortions with love and support.  Opening up our families, homes, and spirits to women who are not sure whether or not they can support a child and to the beautiful opportunity of adoption.  Seeking ways to hold men accountable to the procreation process.  Offering society a fuller view of humanity and hope that makes abortion a less viable option.  The questions we must ask ourselves: “Were Roe v. Wade completely overturned, would the Church be prepared for the consequences?  Are we working to create a society where abortion just doesn’t make sense?”  This, to me, is a more holistic ethic of Life than simple pro-life v. pro-choice debates.

Well, my simple post has become a weird mix of a long-but-not-long-enough and complicated-but-still-simplistic treatment of this controversial but vitally important issue.  I have gone past my normal blog length, and yet there is still so much more to say.  I hope you will take time to respond, to see through my eyes, to challenge me, and to point out more constructive ways of approaching this issue.  Although I feel strongly about this issue, I promise respect and love to any who disagree with me here, and will hold your comments to the same standard.

 

(Note: when I share a link, I am only passing on that article for your reading and discernment, not as an endorsement)

http://www.onbeing.org/program/pro-life-pro-choice-pro-dialogue/4863

http://www.ucc.org/justice/womens-issues/Reproductive-Justice.html

http://www.guttmacher.org/

http://www.nrlc.org/

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/tgc/2013/01/22/creepy-pro-abortion-ad-celebrates-anniversary-of-roe-v-wade/

http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justintaylor/2013/01/22/5-things-you-didnt-know-about-jane-roe/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+between2worlds+%28Between+Two+Worlds%29

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/22/opinion/leeches-lye-and-spanish-fly.html?_r=1&

http://www.freep.com/article/20130128/NEWS05/301280075/Abortion-rights-supporters-opponents-turn-out-in-metro-Detroit-to-mark-40th-anniversary-of-Roe-v-Wade-decision?odyssey=nav%7Chead

http://www.pbs.org/wnet/religionandethics/headlines/protestors-mark-40th-anniversary-of-roe-v-wade/14605/

This Sunday, April 22, is Earth Day.  Earth Day has been observed in various ways for about 40 years, and some might say it has “hit its stride” with the prominence of the Green movement.  A number of earth-conscious slogans have shaped how my generation thinks about the earth–from the political imperative “Go Green,” to the philosophical approach “Think globally, act locally,” to the practical “Reuse, Reduce, Recycle.”  Proponents of earth care have been effective in getting their message out.

Sadly, I’m not sure how much “progress” has really been made in the 40-some years since that inaugural Earth Day.  And also sadly, the Christian Church (especially in its association with the Republican Party) is often seen as an enemy of this movement to care for the earth.  Most recently, then-candidate for the Republican presidential nomination Rick Santorum stirred the pot with this comment critiquing what he perceives as President Obama’s theology: “[the President's] idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.  The Earth is not the objective.  Man is the objective. I think a lot of radical environmentalists have it upside-down.”  So what is an American Christian to do?  Or more foundationally, how is an American Christian to think in regards to the environment and the Green movement?

Let me start by offering 3 theological principles:

1) We are talking about Creation, not just the Earth.  Of anyone, Christians have more reason to take environment issues seriously.  If this is just a planet that we happen to live in; if we are just dust moving around on a pile of dust, I don’t see a whole lot of reason to care about “going Green.”  But if this is a beautiful piece of art created by the ultimate Artist, a protective home created by a Heavenly Father, a reality declared “good” by the Lord of Life, well that’s a horse of a different color.  We cannot honestly praise God as Creator in one breath, and then abuse his creation in the next.  Some people seem to think earth-care requires an alternative theology to Christianity that makes the earth into God (pantheism) or puts humans on the same level as (or beneath) the world Earth.  Obviously, I disagree, and think that this claim misunderstands the biblical Story (mostly due to misunderstandings within the Church itself).

2) Human beings are the crown of creation, kings and queens over the rest of God’s creation.  In this one thing, I agree with Santorum (and disagree with many environmentalists): humans have been appointed to “rule over” this world.  Sounds oppressive, huh?  What does that mean?  Here is the key.  If we learn anything from God’s kingship or Jesus’ expression of authority, we learn that to rule “in God’s image” is to serve, to cultivate, to care for, to sacrifice for.  Yes, we are called first to serve God–not the earth.  But God directs our service back to cultivate beauty and life in his creation just as God has done.  One dimension of being made “in God’s image” is being a ruler over this earth as God is Ruler.  Again, as opposed to undermining earth-care, Christian theology actually bolsters a calling to care about creation.

3) God is still interested in creation.  N.T. Wright has done a wonderful job calling Christians’ attention to the fact that the Bible’s Story does not end with heaven, but with New Creation.  Think with me for a moment: if God originally thought it would be “good” for us to cultivate and care for creation, might not creation-care be our fulfilling work in the New Creation?  In fact, Revelation picks up this idea.  In the New Heavens and New Earth, we are told that “[God's people] will reign forever and ever.”  Far from making creation-care irrelevant in this fading creation, in caring for creation now, our disposition and abilities are being prepared for the wonderful work of eternity.

OK, I could go on.  But let me briefly offer a couple implications I see for Christians who want to live out these truths:

1) We must look past the politics of environmentalism and into the heart of God.  What the heck does it matter if global warming is fact or fiction?  We have been called to care for the beautiful and good creation God has made.  And I don’t think that the desire for our nation to compete economically with other nations is going to hold much weight in justifying our abuse of creation in God’s courtroom.

2) We must live and preach against consumerism.  The math is simple.  More consumption = More creation-abuse.  Put another way: voting Democrat is not your duty to creation-care.  Many of us want to get married to the Green movement without forsaking our mistress of consumerism.  Here’s the deal: as long as we continue to demand the ability to travel whenever and wherever we want, greater environmental risks will be taken to get the oil; as long as we continue to demand more meat, animals will continue to be raised in unhealthy and unjust conditions; as long as we demand more…things, the more factories will pollute, trees will be chopped, and landfills will be filled.  As in the whole Christian life, creation-care begins with our heart disposition to the creation.  Do we prefer the way of personal pleasure at any expense or the way of love?

Thanks be to God for grace.  It is nearly impossible to live in this world without getting tangled up in the destructive webs we have created (often to free ourselves from the old destructive webs we were in).  God doesn’t tell us we must “save the earth.”  Jesus is doing that.  And that grace compels us to simply follow him into the Way of Love, the Way of Life.  It compels us into creation-care not with the weight of the world on our shoulders, but with the encouraging call of God to love as we have been loved. Where is God calling us to curb our own appetites or alter our own careless practices as an act of servant-ruling over his creation?  How is God calling us to speak lovingly and persuasively into the political realm–not just on environmental issues, but also in various economic and international issues that have implications for the creation?  What is God calling us to do in our local communities to model and encourage others to have a healthy relationship to the material world?  When might we speak the Gospel to people who need to see the bigger picture of “going green” and of what God is doing in this world through Jesus?

Surely there is more to say and better ways to say it.  Here are some places you can go to read more about the Gospel and creation-care:

Wendell Berry–if you haven’t read him, do; if you have, read more.  Especially this and this.

http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2010/october/17.27.html

http://bawulskis-in-scotland.blogspot.com/2009/10/towards-theology-of-national-geographic.html

http://www.ucc.org/environmental-ministries/

http://www.earthday.org/

 

Rick Santorum brought religion back to the center of political conversation this week.  It seems that everyone has an opinion about what place Christian faith has (or does not have) in the political arena.  Is this a fair conversation to have?  Absolutely.  In fact, it is necessary.  Is it fair to suggest that a public figure is applying his/her faith in a way inconsistent with the Gospel?  I believe it is–at least for the sake of our own learning process of how to live our faith.  But is much of the conversation that is actually going on thoughtful and helpful?  I would say, “No.”

Let’s look for a moment at Santorum’s recent comments in Columbus during a discussion about energy policies and the environment: “[The President's policies are] not about your job. It’s about some phony ideal, some phony theology.  Oh, not a theology based on the Bible, a different theology. But no less a theology.”  He later went on to clarify his comments: “When you have a worldview that elevates the earth above man and says we can’t take those resources because its going to harm the Earth, it’s just all an attempt to centralize power and give more power to the government…[Obama believes] man is here to serve the Earth… Earth is not the objective. Man is the objective.”  What is Santorum suggesting?  I believe he is suggesting that President Obama’s environmental and energy policies derive from his basic way of understanding the order of humanity’s relationship with the Earth; and that he believes Pres. Obama’s worldview to be different from that which is set forth in the Bible.

To those quotes, many people jumped up and cried, “Foul!”  The title of one Huffington Post article summed up a common opinion: “Religion and Politics Don’t Mix, Major Religious Groups Tell Presidential Candidates.”  Upon reading the article, you will find that the headline doesn’t really describe what “major religious groups” actually told presidential candidates, but the sentiment is clear: Religion has no place in government!  If I may (and I may, because it’s my blog), I’d like to offer a few ideas that I wish came up more in these conversations.

1) Everyone has a worldview, and we all live out of it.  Frankly, it drives me nuts when people say that religion has no place in politics.  Santorum was absolutely right saying that the President’s policies come out of his “worldview” (I wish he had used that term to begin with).  A worldview is, simply, a system by which we view the world.  I know, revolutionary.  Our worldview is the set of foundational assumptions we have about life in this world that informs the decisions we make and opinions we hold.  All of our worldviews are based on beliefs: beliefs about where the world came from, what the purpose of humanity is, what is good and bad, etc.  I’m not just talking about Christians or even religious people.  I’m talking about everybody.  To be a Christian means to accept a Christian worldview–or at least to determine to develop a Christian worldview.  Jesus and the Bible present a worldview and distinguish that worldview from other worldviews.  They speak to the purpose of human life, our place in the cosmos, how we should act, etc.  Realizing that not all Christians are of one accord on what a Christian worldview is and that we don’t all live it out perfectly, a Christian should aspire to live out of the Christian worldview.  And I think it is hard to call a worldview “Christian” if it doesn’t have implications for how we act in all areas of life: family, work, politics, etc.  A politician who is a Christian, I believe, should have his/her policies formed by Christian worldview beliefs.  Here’s the kicker: even atheists have worldviews.  And atheist politicians are going to have their policies formed by their worldview beliefs as well.  It is nonsensical (I know that’s strong) to suggest that Christians should keep their beliefs out of politics because everyone brings their beliefs to politics. 

2) We need a calm, thoughtful conversation on the separation of Church and State…desperately.  Christians need to understand two things: 1) this separation thing was our idea–it is good that the government cannot take one particular kind of religious belief and impose it on the whole country, including churches who don’t hold that particular belief; 2) the New Testament never talks about having our values and beliefs legislated by a government.  Non-Christians need to understand a couple things as well: 1) just because an idea comes out of a religious worldview does not mean that it is not a good policy (intentional double-negative); 2) the establishment clause does not delete religion from the public sphere, but, on the contrary, protects its expression in the public sphere.  In other words, Christians cannot and should not be able to impose an idea just because it is Christian; but Christians have every right (and responsibility?) to influence politics by demonstrating that something Christian may be good for society.  In the present example, the fact that Santorum claims Pres. Obama’s policies are “unbiblical” is irrelevant legislatively.  But if he demonstrates convincingly a) to Christian citizens that the President’s policies are outside a Christian worldview and thus not a helpful way of living in this world and/or b) to the general public that a more “biblical” approach to the issue is really for the good of society, then he has fairly and legally applied his faith to influence the political process (in my estimation).

3) We need to watch our double-standards.  Rick Santorum has been criticized for calling the President’s theology/worldview “phony” and “unbiblical.”  People have said that he “stepped out of bounds.”  It seems to me that I’ve heard quite a bit of criticism of Rick Santorum’s theology/worldview, specifically as they relate to his positions on abortion and gay marriage.  Seriously, do people who are pro-choice and supporters of marriage equality not disagree with the theology/worldview that leads to Santorum’s positions?  Do many of those who claim the Christian faith not think, then, that Santorum holds a phony and unbiblical theology?  Some of the people I hear criticizing Santorum for un-Christianly dismissing liberal/progressive theology are the very same people I hear speaking negatively and dismissively of evangelical or “fundamentalist” (another widely misunderstood and misused label) theology.  If it is wrong for Santorum to do it, then it is wrong for his opponents to do it as well.  And I do think both “sides” (including whichever “side” I’m on) would do well to spend as much time thinking about HOW we disagree as we do thinking about WHAT we disagree on.  It’s the whole speck-of-sawdust-plank thing.  We can openly disagree, even with our fellow Christians.  We can even rebuke and hold each other accountable.  But we tend to call the very same practices “righteous rebukes” when we use them and “evil mudslinging” when our opponents use them (ok, most of us don’t use the term “righteous rebukes,” but you get the picture).  When Christians disagree and when it happens in public, we can still be a witness to the world of how to disagree in love and sister/brotherhood.

So to sum up.  I don’t love the way Rick Santorum went about disagreeing with President Obama this week, I’m a little queasy about his clarification (“If he says he’s a Christian, he’s a Christian”–what does that mean?), and I don’t subscribe to a lot of Santorum’s political/theological positions.  I do think the whole situation brought back to the surface an important conversation about faith and public life.  And I think that conversation about faith and public life needs to be reframed and reformed.

What can we do?  Well, as normal pastors and Christians, we can watch the way we talk about politics and politicians this election year.  We can pay less attention to the billowing smoke of media reactions and more attention to the fire of what is actually being said and suggested.  We can point out when people we agree with are making their points in unloving and unfair ways.  We can sit down for coffee or a beer or a shamrock shake (mmm!) with someone who votes differently than we do and ask them lots of questions about what they believe and why.  We ask God to help us develop in us the character to engage politics in a Christian way before asking God merely to show us what to vote for.

In my mind, complete disengagement from politics is not an option.  Nor is trying to legislate “Christian values” to people who don’t share our worldview.  We are called to shine like stars in a crooked and depraved generation.  What more relevant place to start than everything political!

 

http://www.sojo.net/blogs/2012/02/21/santorum-question-should-theology-affect-way-we-vote

Do you ever notice a theme that seems to be converging from a bunch of different areas in your life?  This week, I was writing my article for the December church newsletter and then came across this article via facebook (which I strongly encourage you to read–especially the end).  And now that my pre-Thanksgiving ban on Christmas music and watching Christmas commercials has been lifted, I am fully in the paradox that is the Christmas season in America.

If it weren’t for the wondrous beauty of the Incarnation, Christmas in the U.S. could be pretty depressing as a Christian.  There are so many things we associate with Christmas that run the gamut from odd (“Grandma Got Ran Over by a Reindeer”?  Really?) to incongruent (Black Friday mobs) to just plain offensive (find your own example).  Perhaps one of the most upsetting parts of the Christmas season to me, however, is the way Christians conduct themselves.  This runs the gamut from total assimilation to cultural versions of Christmas (lots of shopping, busyness, no focus on Jesus) to utterly misrepresenting the whole point of Christmas in the name of protecting Christmas.  Towards the latter end of this gamut is the barrage of facebook posts, yard signs, etc. that declare one’s intention to reject “politically correct” holiday greetings (ie. “Happy Holidays”) in favor of the more “traditional” “Merry Christmas.”  In the article linked above, “The Fat Pastor” talks about why “Happy Holidays” is a perfectly acceptable greeting for Christians to use, but I want to go a step further and make a case that it may actually be the “more Christian” way to greet a stranger during this season.

I’ll start my case with what Christmas is all about.  I don’t agree with “The Fat Pastor” that Christmas is a relatively minor part of Christianity.  Perhaps the day itself, but certainly not the Incarnation, that God was “enfleshed” in Jesus.  This is truly a striking theological statement.  As Paul writes in Philippians, “[Jesus], being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”  This description of the Christmas moment is filling out Paul’s call to Christians: “Your attitude should be the same as Christ Jesus.”  So, to sum up, Christmas is about God lovingly humbling himself and sacrificing comfort and ease to meet us where we are by identifying with us so that he can serve us, and we are supposed to follow that example.

Now, someone please tell me in what way saying, “Merry Christmas!” to a person who is Jewish, Muslim, atheist, or even ignorant of Christianity is following the example of Jesus.  How is that identifying with them, serving them, helping them to know God’s love for them, or sacrificing for them?  What I hear Christians insisting is, “It’s my right!” which is exactly what the Incarnation is opposed to.  Jesus does not grasp onto his rights or prerogatives as God, but lets them go.  He rejects rights-thinking in favor of love-thinking.

Surely some will say, “I’m not going to be ashamed of my faith.  I’m a Christian, and we’re supposed to boldly proclaim the Gospel!  We shouldn’t hide out of fear or shame.”  I hope you see that foregoing “Merry Christmas” need not be an act of fear or shame, but of love.  Not to mention that saying, “Merry Christmas” is hardly proclaiming the Gospel.  Proclaiming the Gospel in love requires knowing something about the one(s) to whom you are preaching it: understanding their worldview, assumptions, and beliefs and seeking their good, none of which really applies to a random person at the store.

Finally, some will argue, “But our culture is taking Christ out of Christmas.  They’re defiling our holiday.”  To which I would say, “We kind of took over someone else’s holiday first.”  We ought to beware of judging others lest the same standards of judgment be turned back on us.

Friends, we do not need to win any battle for the culture.  As has been said about the battle for prayer in public schools, “Maybe we should focus on getting prayer back in our churches first.”  And of the battle for the 10 Commandments, “Maybe we should be able to at least list the 10 Commandments ourselves.”  I say of the battle to keep Christ in Christmas, “Maybe we should focus on putting Christ at the center of our lives first.”  Have the same loving, sacrificial, humble approach as Jesus had.  And be prepared with an answer when someone asks you what reason you have for such hope this time of year or any time.

“But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”  1 Peter 3:15

I’m sure some of you like hot weather.  Not me.  Once the temperature gets above 85, I start to yearn for the days of Spring or Autumn.  Those are my kinds of seasons.  Here in the midwest, it’s not just the heat that makes the summer months tough, but the heavy humidity that opens the perspiratory floodgates at the slightest activity (I’m pretty sure one of the preceding words was made up).

But thank goodness for churches, offering liberation from the oppressive heat.  Apparently, heat stroke is on the list of ailments for which laughter is the best medicine.  In talking with a friend last week, my attention was drawn to this summer’s trend in church signing: “You think it’s hot in here?” (ok, so maybe it has come back “into fashion” every summer for the last decade like most church trends).  While I may be ambivalent about church signage in general, this one gets me “heated up.”

Over the past few months, hell has been one of the main topics of discussion among American Church leaders.  Rob Bell’s recent book, Love Wins, questions whether a loving God could allow such a thing as hell, while other theologians and pastors have responded in both support and disagreement.  Regardless of what one believes, I don’t think trying to make a joke about hell on a church sign is helpful in any way.  ”But it’s funny!” you say.  ”Funny isn’t God’s ultimate standard.  Love is!” I reply.

I’ve spent a good amount of time with elementary through high school-aged kids over the last few years as a child-care provider in seminary, a high school substitute, and a youth leader.  Riding home from soccer practice one day, a 9-year-old boy made a joke about “getting wasted.”  I promptly suggested that I didn’t think it was an appropriate topic for joking.  ”But it’s funny!” he argued.  I remember another conversation about a boy’s interaction with a girl his age.  She had gotten upset because he had told her she was overweight.  Again, “But it’s funny!”  In a high school setting, some students reffered to someone or something as “gay.”  ”But it’s funny!” was again the protest when I intervened.

I like jokes, satires, spoofs, and stand-up comedy.  I laugh a lot.  I do think God has a sense of humor and I think there will be lots of laughing in the New Creation.  We Christians often face the temptation to take ourselves too seriously.  But none of that makes, “But it’s funny!”  axiomatic.  Joking about “getting wasted” as a young boy minimizes the ramifications of underage drinking or the problems many teens face in their personal and family lives with alcoholism.  Joking about a girl’s weight–especially at a time when most kids are feeling insecure–is exactly the kind of thing that contributes to the epidemic of negative body image among women in our culture.  Joking about something or someone being “gay” causes kids who are really wrestling with some of those confusing feelings to bury their struggles and questions for fear of becoming the butt of the joke.  Yes, kids have teased each other in almost every time and place, but that alone isn’t a very convincing axiom either.

God created humor, I believe, to be a wonderful part of our human experience.  Sin enters the picture not as a separate entity from what God has created, but a diabolical twisting of God’s good creation.  Just like family, food, and sex, humor can be a wonderful blessing, but has the potential to be extremely harmful if it is taken out of the context for which it was designed.  And we need not look far to see obvious examples of how all of those good things can turn harmful.  Humor, like anything else, can be twisted.

How about doing a little experiment?  Ask a woman what she’s looking for in a man.  One of the first responses will likely be, “a sense of humor.”  How could this possibly trump things like trustworthiness, respectful of women, willingness to love sacrificially, and even a similar worldview?  Well, it often does, and I believe this provides a commentary on our culture’s idolatry of humor and offers insight into the prevalence of unhappy (ironically) marriages.

Another example?  Church signs that read, “You think it’s hot here?”  Sure, it may be clever.  But let me offer four reasons why churches would be wise not to put up that sign.  Each of these assumes that the people putting out these signs believe in the reality of some version of hell.  I hope you find that one or all of these are compelling enough to beat out “But it’s funny!”

  • Making a joke about hell gives everyone permission not to take your warnings about hell seriously.  When many people think of hell, it is already a laughing matter.  Some devilish figure with a red cape, horns, and a creepy mustache poking “sinners” with a pitchfork.  This version of hell has become the kind of stuff “cute” or promiscuous Halloween costumes are made from.  Joking about the heat of hell (which for all we know is simply symbolic language) feeds these images, and even gives church sanctioning to them.
  • A sign like this reinforces many people’s preconceptions about churches; namely, that scaring people out of hell is our go-to marketing ploy.  Like it or not, we have to overcome stereotypes of fire-and-brimstone preachers who lock the doors and shut off the air conditioning until people begrudgingly succumb to the “conviction of the Holy Spirit.”  For those of us in the churches who are constantly hearing (hopefully) a message of God’s love and grace in Jesus, this joke may be a clever twist.  For those who don’t know that’s what we talk about, there is no love and grace context for the sign.
  • It’s an oversimplification.  This goes back to my ambivalence about church signs in general.  In a sound-byte culture, we are tempted to make our faith into a series of cliches and one-liners.  Jesus does have some great one-liners, but his cut to the heart while ours tickle the ears.  If we are going to believe in the spiritual reality of hell in a culture that generally abhors the idea, we must be able to recognize the issue’s complexities and present it thoughtfully, clearly, and gently (for instance).
  • I don’t see how love fits into any rationale for displaying this sign or even making the joke.  One expression of the Gospel says that we were once dead in our transgressions and sins, following the ways of the world and the devil, by nature deserving wrath, separate from Christ, foreigners and strangers to God, but by the blood of Christ have been reconciled to God and drawn near to him all because of grace!  Can that grace possibly allow us to laugh at those who have not received it, who are still dead, separated, and strangers to God?  If anything, for a Christian, the thought of people experiencing hell on earth or eternally should make us weep, not joke.  As a parent cries with their hurting child, love compels us to weep over tragedy, not mock the beloved victims.
I believe that in this case, “But it’s funny!” is at odds with “Love your neighbor.”  And when that happens, Christians are called to embrace “Love your neighbor.”  Love for God (which Jesus ties to obedience) and for others is the gold standard for understanding God’s design for humor or anything else he has created.  I hope we come to see that fulfilling God’s mission of love to the world is worth sacrificing a cheap laugh every now and then.
So take down those signs, and for goodness’ sake, find a church with some “prayer conditioning.”  ;)

What do we do with Colton Burpo, whose story of his trip to heaven and back is the topic of NY Times Bestseller Heaven Is for Real?  Do we shout his story from the rooftops?  Laugh at the childlike certainty with which he tells such a story?  Dismiss the story and the family for fabricating this get-rich-quick scheme?  

Heaven Is for Real is written by Colton’s dad, Pastor Todd Burpo, along with author Lynn Vincent.  It’s a quick read of 154 pages and the story is well told.  Actually, about the first 60 pages are the story of the Burpo family and the many trials they had undergone over a short period of time which culminated in a life-changing stint in the hospital for their 3-year-old son, Colton.  Colton had a stomach ache that went misdiagnosed and mistreated for five days before doctors realized that his appendix had burst.  On the verge of death, Colton underwent emergency surgery (actually two) before making a miraculous comeback.  Only a good while after the surgery do Todd and Sonja (Colton’s parents) begin to notice clues that Colton had experienced something supernatural during that first surgery.  And little by little, the rest of the book follows Todd and Sonja as they unpack their son’s heavenly memories over the next couple of years.

So what do we do with Colton’s story?  I’ll try to respond to three potential responses I’ve noted above and then offer my own:

1. Shout it from the rooftops!  Some will read this story and be utterly convinced: yet another proof that the Bible is true and heaven is for real.  But before you buy 10 copies to hand out to all your unbelieving co-workers, let’s just hold off for a moment.  Back in my blog about Jim Tressel, I wrote about Christians’ short-sighted tendency to jump on the back of the latest “Christian celebrity,” assuming that God must be using them for big things.  This book came out in November 2010 and by March it had reached #1 on the NY Times Bestseller list.  Obviously, it has popular appeal, especially to Christians who already believe in the heaven Colton is telling us about.  But consider your unbelieving friends.  They have heard numerous tales of near-death experiences, testimonies about heaven and hell, enlightenment, nirvana, etc.–probably some of these from followers of other religions.  God does have the power to use these stories, but it may not be what God wants to use in the life of your friends and family right now.  Books like this can easily become another way for Christians to avoid the cross-carrying, sometimes maddeningly slow process of becoming a loving, faithful, Christ-like person, patiently waiting for the Spirit to soften and prepare another person’s heart.  In this era of the Balloon Boy, people are skeptical of a story from some previously and personally unknown family from rural Nebraska.  God’s primary design for spreading the Kingdom is by forming people who love others, seek justice for the oppressed, and live out the Gospel Story in word and deed.  This is the Story we shout from the rooftops and are called to verify with transformed lives.

Furthermore, without getting too much into theological questions, there is a good bit of Colton’s experience that has a very distinct midwest 20-21st-century American flavor to it.  Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that.  I wouldn’t be surprised that rural midwestern-American Christians have a lot right that people in the ivory towers (or my own pulpit) don’t.  Or perhaps God was speaking to that time and place in their own understanding, offering encouragement more than theological correction.  But I don’t think we should go too far beyond that.  This story may be an encouragement to those whose faith is firmly rooted in the Gospel Story and maybe even a story that makes doubters think and consider the Gospel.  It is not a sufficient grounds of faith in and of itself.  It is not the foundation of Christian belief–Jesus is.   So I think it would be wise to refrain from building too much of our own theology, faith, or mission/evangelistic hopes on this story’s foundation.

2. Laugh at Colton’s childlike certainty.  Many will approach this story as a cute, warm-fuzzy story in the “Kids say the darndest things” category.  I think there is more to the story than that.  Really, the book deals with some heavy issues: Colton reassuring his mother that his unborn sister was in heaven (who was miscarried before they knew what her sex was), Todd’s very real struggle with God as he faced the loss of his son on the tail of a number of other trials, the generosity of a community coming around a family burdened by medical bills, even Colton’s disclosure to his dad that the Holy Spirit sent down power when he preached.  One of the most striking moments of the book is when Colton explains to his dad why he was yelling for him coming out of surgery: “Jesus came to get me.  He said I had to go back because he was answering your prayer.”  Honestly, I almost teared up just considering this illustration of what I already “believe”: God hears our prayers and lovingly responds.

Then there is Colton’s childlike, but profound description of Good Friday: “Well, Jesus told me he died on the cross so we could go see his Dad.”  I love two things about this quote: 1) It very simply gets at the heart of why Jesus went to the cross, and 2) Wouldn’t that be how Jesus would explain it to a child?  When Jesus teaches us about God and his Kingdom, he puts it into terms we can understand.  There is plenty of complexity in the Scriptures, but even its most complex moments are surely a simplified “incarnation” of the Truth, written so that our limited human minds might understand something as unlimited as God.  As Caedmon’s Call sings, “Most things true are simple and complex, so it is with You, what else should I expect?”  The Gospel is surely broader and more complex than Colton’s statement, but it is also just that simple at the same time.

3. Dismiss this fabricated get-rich-quick scheme.  Undoubtedly, many will take this approach.  As I mentioned, many non-Christians will remain unconvinced and fall into this category or #2.  But I can also see some Christians whose skepticism leads to this conclusion.  One of the Burpos’ first clues into Colton’s experience occurred when Todd was on his way to perform a funeral for a man he only vaguely knew: “Colton’s face bunched up in a terrible twist of worry.  ’He had to have Jesus in his heart!  He had to know Jesus or he can’t get into heaven!’”  Or after affirming that he had seen Satan, “Colton’s body went rigid, he grimaced, and his eyes narrowed to a squint.  He stopped talking…he absolutely shut down, and that was it for the night.”  In this same section, he speaks of a coming battle in which the men fight the powers of evil.  Some will not like some of this theology (I hesitate at times when biblical passages are applied to Colton’s vision).  But for those who aren’t sure about the theology, neither is Pastor Todd.  Throughout the book, one gets the picture that Colton’s dad didn’t quite know what to do with Colton’s experience either.  He is not dogmatic on all the points of theology, but seems to be trying to figure out how to square the childlike descriptions of heaven with what the Bible has to say.  The author is appropriately humble both in how he writes the book and in the non-threatening/leading manner in which he and his wife say they approached the topic with their son.  He even admits to being a bit embarrassed at times (like when Colton insists on the necessity of knowing Jesus at the funeral home).

Is it possible that this is a fabrication?  I suppose, but I don’t find any real reason to come to this conclusion.  There are so many wonderfully unexpected moments as Colton describes his experience: of heaven (lots of colors!), Jesus’ hands and feet (they have marker on them), God the Father (“God is the biggest one there is.  And he really, really loves us, Dad.  You can’t belieeeeve how much he loves us!”), and the Holy Spirit (what does the Holy Spirit look like?  ”Hmm, that’s kind of a hard one…he’s kind of blue.”)  After rejecting countless pictures of Jesus over the years, Colton fixates on one done by a young art prodigy, who also claims to have received visions of heaven.  Todd’s account of Colton’s experiences emphasizes aspects of the faith, Jesus, and heaven that I would not expect from someone trying to scam America (though you never know, I guess).  As much as the story has some culture-bound moments, I was impressed with many theologically viable and refreshing observations that fit biblically without over-literalizing those biblical texts.

Heaven Is for Real frankly left me wondering, “What do I do with this?”  In many ways, I want to believe it.  In others, I find myself drawn away in skepticism.  I find myself, however, warning myself against one particular reason for skepticism: rejecting this simply because it is a supernatural experience.  Rudolf Bultmann was a 20th century New Testament scholar.  One of his approaches to the practice of biblical interpretation was called “demythology.”  Bultmann thought that in order to make Christianity more palatable to an increasingly empirical, scientific age, we should downplay the importance or reality of anything “supernatural” in the Scriptures.  This approach has had a great deal of influence in more liberal strands of Western Christianity.  We may even be a little embarrassed when we come to passages in the Bible that speak of Resurrection, healing, casting out demons, or visions.  Yet, Jesus and the biblical writers are very clear on the reality of the spiritual realm.  The prophecies of Joel, played out at Pentecost insist on God’s working through his people through visions and dreams.  And whether we accept the Burpos’ story or not, as Christians we can boldly and courageously affirm that God may and does, in fact, work through people’s lives supernaturally.  I believe the Scriptures give us some firm ground for evaluating the validity of these claims of supernatural intervention, but even then we must come to the Scriptures humbly, allowing ourselves to be corrected in our interpretations and systems.  In this way, we follow John’s advice: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see if they are from God.”

Personally, I find encouragement in Colton’s story.  There are a number of refreshingly profound and theologically sound moments in the book.  And it makes sense to me.  In explaining The Exorcism of Emily Rose, the Virgin Mary states, “through you [Emily], many will come to see that the realm of the spirit is real.”  I don’t know if Emily Rose’s or Colton’s stories are true, but it fits with my understanding of God from the Scriptures that he might send a message to our very materialistic and empirical culture that there is something more.  God may use this story to move some people into a real faith and discipleship.  And it wouldn’t be wholly unlike God to do it through an energetic, sword-loving, rural Nebraskan four-year-old.

 

http://www.reclaimingthemind.org/blog/2011/02/book-review-heaven-is-for-real/

http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/12/books/heaven-is-for-real-is-publishing-phenomenon.html

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F3xItrGOi6Q&feature=related

http://www.simplypastormatt.com/2011/03/book-review-heaven-is-for-real-by-todd-burpo-thomas-nelson-2010/

http://heavenisforreal.net

http://www.donpiperministries.com/products.asp

http://corinthpastorbob.com/2011/01/heaven-is-for-real-by-todd-burpo/

 

 

 

 

Well I’m going to try my hand today at addressing a question that has stirred much emotion, debate, accusation, and bumper-sticker production over the years.  But first, I want to begin by saying what might as well go before every blog I write: “I could be wrong.”  I always seek feedback and hope that I am open to being persuaded, just as I hope my readers are open to being persuaded by what I have to say.  The question in question:

Is the United States of America a Christian nation?

Obviously, this is in response to the July 4th holiday, when grills will be fired up, apple pies will be made (or bought), flags will be waved, and fireworks will be evoke “oohs” and “ahhs” all over the country.  ”Proud to Be an American” and “The Star Spangled Banner” will be blasted on stereos and parades will honor the USA’s history and ideals.  Many times the phrase will be proudly or defiantly uttered in churches and around patio tables, “America is a Christian nation!”  But is it?  And what does that even mean?  Let’s take a look at it from a few different angles:

American history. It is commonly held that the founders of our country were Christians.  Let’s skip ahead in the story to the “founding fathers,” the men (in this example) who shaped the American Revolution, Declaration of Independence, and Constitution. Undoubtedly, a number of them were devoted Christians.  But also prominent among this group was Deism, a belief that God had created the world, but then left it to run on its own without intervention (for direct quotes from many of the founding fathers on religion, click here).  In my opinion, this is contrary to the Bible, which hammers home the point that God is involved in this world–to the point of becoming part of it in Jesus.  Deism tried to adapt many of the moral and social teachings of the Bible, but separated them from what I would consider to be the core message of grace and hope of the Gospel.  Many saw the Bible as a good law book or book of morals, not the Story of a loving God graciously redeeming a fallen world or anything of that nature.  So does having some select elements of Christianity’s moral and social teaching influence our founding documents make us a Christian nation?  Perhaps not any more than we would want to be labelled a Deist nation.

American ideals. Here’s where it gets really dodgy.  What are the ideals of the USA?  Justice and equality?  Ok, good so far I think.  Freedom from religious coercion?  Yes, that sounds godly. Pull-yourself-up-by -the-boot-straps self-reliance?  Surely an American ideal.  And the Bible does say, “God only helps those who help themselves…”  Oops, that’s Ben Franklin, not the Bible!  The Bible actually makes a bold declaration that Yahweh is in the business of helping those who cannot or have not helped themselves.  American images include men who work from rags to riches by a 24/7 work ethic, Lone Ranger individualism, and take-the-bull-by-the-horns self-determinism, while the Bible commands rest, prioritizes community, and encourages patient trust.  So do some American ideals draw from some Kingdom of God ideals?  Absolutely.  But does this mixed bag make the USA a Christian nation?

American demographics. Maybe a Christian nation is determined by being filled with Christians.  Historically, the majority of Americans have claimed to be Christians.  On the other hand, Gallup research suggests that only about 40% of Americans actually attend a worship service in a given week.  That might be on the high side, according to some.  Or, a Barna Study indicates that only 12% of Americans say faith is the top priority in their lives.  In fact, you may run into a brother or sister in Christ who has come over to the U.S. from another country to proclaim Good News to Americans!  Even if we take at face value studies where 76% of Americans claim to be Christians, is describing ourselves as a Christian nation really an accurate reflection of who we are?  Would the other 24% beg to differ?  Or are there other, more accurate labels for who we are as a nation when it comes to our ultimate concerns and priorities?

American behavior. Individually and communally, we are not always the best judges of who we really are.  So what is the reputation of the USA around the world?  At times, we are seen as a nation who welcomes in immigrants and refugees, a land of opportunity.  But depending on whom in the world you ask, let’s add to the list arrogant, decadent, addictive, wasteful, sexually promiscuous, and myopic.  This makes it difficult to suggest that we are a Christian nation based on our character or behavior on the whole.

Prosperity. Some would claim that the prosperity and growth of the U.S. is evidence that we have God’s favor as a Christian nation.  This argument falls short historically, looking at the many prosperous nations/empires who have not exhibited any particular commitment to God or Christian principles.  Prosperity and power are not necessarily indications of God’s favor, though God may choose to rain certain material blessings at times on those whom he loves.   God blesses the righteous and unrighteous, the honest and the dishonest.  So I would suggest caution in using a couple hundred years of prosperity as proof that we are somehow God’s new chosen nation.

Missions. For many of the above reasons, the common identification of the U.S. as a Christian nation gives foreign missionaries headaches.  Missionaries have to break through all of the associations that have been built up between America and Christianity before they can truly get to a plausible invitation to follow Jesus.  In other words, while the USA is not preaching the Gospel to the world, many non-Christians around the world do associate the message the USA is sending with Christianity.  This often leads to confusion and even distaste when missionaries approach people in other countries who have never had anyone distinguish for them the Gospel from American message.  In the case of missions, the label “Christian nation” may actually be detrimental to God’s mission.

So for all of these reasons, I find it difficult to label the U.S.A. as a “Christian nation.”  And personally, I would rather it not be labeled as such.  The mission of God has been given to the Church, not to any particular country.  We have enough trouble maintaining a clear witness and message within the Church, let alone trying to get a largely apathetic nation in on it.  Should we let our faith influence our politics and our dreams for this nation?  Absolutely.  But trying to battle for some official association between the U.S. and Christianity is a waste of our valuable time and resources.  The mission of God will go forward when the Church and true disciples all over the world live out the Gospel in their communities and proclaim the Good News that the God of all nations is alive, moving, and loving all the peoples of the earth.

For more on this topic, you can listen to my July 3rd sermon, “Dual Citizenship,” at http://www.pointplaceucc.com/sermons.html.  Below are some more articles, blogs, or sermons on the topic that I’ve found helpful or provocative.

http://corinthpastorbob.com/2010/07/christian-and-american/

http://www.patheos.com/community/karenspearszacharias/2011/06/30/god-does-not-love-america/?utm_source=feedburner&utm_medium=feed&utm_campaign=Feed%3A+KarenSpearsZacharias+%28Karen+Spears+Zacharias%29

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jim-wallis/american-ideals_b_55098.html

http://www.beliefnet.com/foundingfaith/default.aspx

http://www.patheos.com/community/philosophicalfragments/2010/09/28/scot-mcknight-on-the-nature-of-national-idolatry/

http://www.patheos.com/community/philosophicalfragments/2010/09/22/are-conservative-christians-worshiping-america/

http://www.davidpauldorr.com/american-as-apple-pie/