Category Archives: Theological Reflections
Seeking a beautifully Broken saviour.
In the year 1776, just a few short years after attempting to make the largest cup of tea in the history of the world in the Boston harbor, because Americans like big things or possibly other reasons, the American colonies declared independence from the United Kingdom. [The British were unimpressed, inspiring the idiom, “That’s weak tea.”] In doing so, they prepared one of the greatest documents in history, calling it the Declaration of Independence. The preamble of that declaration is one of the best and most beautiful pieces of prose ever written, saying:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
I’m not sure that anyone had ever said that treasured phrase before. See, I love that they said that. They were willing to set out at the beginning of their argument the things that they didn’t think needed proof or explanation. It’s possible, though, that they missed some truths they held to be self evident even before that, like who the “men” that were created equal included.
Things got awkward from there, as the constitution they established for their United States of America allowed for slaves without any right to liberty or the pursuit of happiness – or even life, really. Those rights certainly weren’t unalienable for them. Beyond that, in Article I, section ii, they say that for census purposes, all free people are to be counted fully, but all slaves are only worth 3/5 of a person. But all men are created equal. That’s self-evident.
Maybe it’s that they’re created equal but can be made less equal? Maybe it’s that “men” doesn’t mean slave men?
Maybe the problem is the term “self evident.”
Because all of our arguments begin with the truths we hold to be self-evident. They’re so evident to us that they remain unsaid but at their core aren’t evident at all to the people we’re arguing with.
I’m going to jump in on #TakeAKnee, here. Congratulations if you already got there before me. You’re very smart. Now bear with me, because afterwards we’re going to jump off somewhere different.
People in the United States are currently very angry with each other. You may have noticed. I’m Canadian, so I’m not angry with anybody, although I’m sorry for that. They’re angry because one professional football player decided that during the playing of the national anthem he would go down on one knee rather than stand. He chose to do this because he believed that it would bring attention to the fact that people who looked like him were generally not, in fact, considered by people who look like me to have been created equal with unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. People who look like me would generally deny that, of course, but based on what was going on in the news at the time, he held that truth to be self evident. Self evident is the fact that this garnered more national attention and conversation than just about any other peaceful way he could have brought this topic up.
It sparked so much debate that the President of the United States called him a son of a bitch, along with the many, many others who have followed up this football player’s lead, taking up the practice of kneeling during the national anthem until all the supposedly equal people who don’t look like me have the unalienable rights that I people who look like me have. It sparked so much debate that people have called for his job and his life. People are very, very angry.
So they argue. For the most part, the angry people aren’t even arguing about what the players are protesting, though – they’re arguing about the form that protest takes.They do it mostly in comments and tweets. And they aren’t hearing each other. They can’t understand… they can’t fathom why people on the other side of the debate can hold such stupid, ill-informed opinions and beliefs.
Maybe it’s because there’s no room for preamble in a tweet and no one reads a comment long enough to have one, and the truths that they hold self evident stand only in the background.
Leaving behind the reasons for the protest, we focus on whether or not it’s okay for someone to kneel during the nation anthem. After all, men have fought and died for that anthem and the flag it describes, and to disrespect that anthem is to disrespect them. And it disrespects the country. And the principles the country was founded on. And we hold those principles dearly. They are sacred. The flag is sacred. The anthem is sacrosanct. This is not an acceptable form of protest. That is self evident.
Leaving behind the reasons for the protest, we focus on whether or not it’s okay for someone to kneel during the nation anthem. After all, men have fought and died for centuries for the right to self expression and peaceful protest against government-sanctioned tyranny; for the rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness for all equal men. The greatest way to honor their sacrifice is to exercise the rights they fought and died for in an attempt to make better the country that the flag and anthem represent. Kneeling during the anthem is a profoundly patriotic form of protest. That is self evident.
And so these two mutually exclusive, self evident truths put pots on their heads and run at each other like rutting sheep until there’s nothing left but pain and a lot of loud, clanging noise. And that is a microcosm of how we treat each other all the time in every debate we engage in, and it’s why we just get angrier instead of understanding each other.
I’m not an expert in football. I’m not really an expert in America or American politics, although I have watched The West Wing through three times and have a Facebook account. What I am a theoretical expert in is communication and Christian religious expression. And that’s why it’s taken me a thousand words to come to what I really want to say.
Every embittered, vitriolic argument that we get into is because we hold truths to be self evident. And they aren’t. Virtually no truth is self evident. I mean, it’s evident to ourselves, but we can’t assume that it’s evident to everyone else’s selves. And that is incredibly difficult to get our heads around. We resist that discovery. We can’t understand how anything so MIND-BLOWINGLY OBVIOUS can’t be understood by THESE IDIOTS who are clearly OBSTINATE AND WILLFULLY IGNORANT. And neither can they. About us.
When the Apostle Paul writes in Romans 1:20 that, “since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse,” what he’s saying is that the truth of God is self-evident. His qualities. His desires. His very existence. And we, who are Christians, tend to agree. Whether from our observations of the natural world, our studies of scripture, our indoctrination, or our experiences with the supernatural world, we enter into every conversation and debate with that underlying principle: God Is. And not only Is he, but his word and will known. And not only are his word and will know, but they are paramount.
Atheists enter the discussion knowing that the natural, observable world is all there is. There is no Invisible Sky-Man having a floating tea-party with a flying spaghetti monster. Religion is simply an attempt by the elite to control the masses or a crutch for the intellectually and emotionally needy. That is self evident.
And that’s fine when the argument is about God’s existence, because those core issues are in play. We’re debating those things that we each hold to be self evident, and even if we can’t understand why the other side doesn’t, we understand that the bearing they have on the discussion.
The problem comes during the myriad of other cultural land-mines we discuss.
Same sex marriage.
In every discussion one side enters in holding certain truths to be self evident. God is. His will is apparent. His will is paramount. [In the case of abortion, that a fetus or zygote or whatever is a fully human person, created equal and endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.]
The other side side enters in holding the self evident truths that personal equality, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are unalienable rights, personal decision is sacrosanct, and no one can take them away on the millennia old, made up word of some invisible sky-man.
Even within the Christian community, we carry beliefs about the nature of God that inform every position we hold, every nuanced interpretation of scripture, every way we live out our faith in the world. And we hold them to be self evident. Calvinists hold the truth to be self evident that God’s sovereignty extends to willing all that happens. Arminians hold the truth to be self evident that God’s love necessitates free will for his creation.
We all agree that God is Love, but somewhere underneath it is a self evident truth about what that means that others don’t find to be evident at all.
We all agree that love is good, but somewhere underneath it is a self evident truth about what that means that others don’t find to be evident at all.
We assume that our interpretation of scripture is correct.
We assume that other people should care about what we understand scripture teaches.
We assume that if we are just forceful enough, other people will accede to our self evident truths and thereby arrive at the same position we hold that flows from them.
But we keep arguing the position that flows from them and will never arrive at agreement unless we can agree on the foundational principles that under-gird them.
We need to take a deep breath and accept that the truths we hold dear are not self evident. They require knowledge and experience to arrive at. And maybe, just maybe, we haven’t had the knowledge and experience to arrive at the truths that someone else holds to be self evident.
Does this mean we quit talking? Of course not. But it means we have to have a measure of grace for each other. We have to understand that people who disagree with us are not intrinsically stupid or mean-spirited or whatever. They are using a different foundation to build on. Unless we understand their foundation, their building won’t make sense. And we ridicule things that don’t make sense. And that doesn’t make anything better.
So we talk. We share our stories. We share our beliefs. We listen as other people do the same. We stop making statements as if they are self evident. And we do all this with the basic assumption that their argument makes as much sense as ours does. We find out how they got there and discuss that. In order to be understood, we must first seek to understand. That’s useful communication. That’s loving communication. That’s Godly communication. Otherwise all anyone hears is a clanging gong or a noisy cymbal. That’s why the soundtrack of our world is a vast multitude of pots banging against each other and wounded people falling to the ground.
I hold that truth to be self evident.
For most of us, the Christmas season is marked by more chaos than peace. No matter how old we are, there’s this time leading up to the “big day” that’s marked by increasing expectation. For some, it’s a happy time, for others it can be closer to panic. It seems like it starts earlier every year. We plan, we travel, we decorate, we bake, we shop, we eat, we worry about how much we spent while shopping and how much holiday-weight we’re gaining while we’re eating. Sometimes it seems like we’re bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer until we’re flung out into the new year wondering where the holiday went!
I’m not railing against busyness or complaining about losing the spirit of Christmas, I’m saying that no matter what we believe, Christmas is more of a season than an event. In the Christian church, we have a word that encompasses that: “Advent.” For us, Christmas doesn’t come suddenly. Each year, there’s a four week lead-up that reminds us, in the midst of the busyness, of the hope, peace, joy, and love that come with Jesus Christ’s coming into our world. It’s a wonderful time of anticipation and celebration of the beautiful mystery that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is coming again.
I’m a bit of a word nerd, so I like to sink into the meaning of things when I talk about them. “Advent” is the same concept that we get the word “Adventure” from. It’s something new coming. Something expected, but somehow unexpected at the same time. It’s a time of profound change where the old passes away and something different takes its place and nothing can ever be the same afterward. Advent is a time that we eagerly anticipate the coming not of presents and turkey, or even the end of insane busyness, but of Jesus Christ.
Once upon a time, the world was Christless, and it waited with baited breath for the one who would make all things new. Then, like a silent ray of starshine, He was here.
That’s what we celebrate. That’s what we still wait for. The old made new. The broken made whole. The greatest gift the world has been given. He was given when He was least deserved and most needed, and that pattern has been followed in countless lives in the centuries since.
This Christmas season, take some time to ponder what the advent of Jesus Christ means, or could mean, in your own life. Look at the world around you. Look up to the stars. Jesus is coming.
I had another tough question come in from a friend and spent some time turning it over this morning. I figure if he’s asking, the answer might be useful to someone else too, so to you, dear reader, I offer my response as well:
Your question was, “Can you explain ‘He gives and takes away?’ Since God doesn’t punish, what might he take away?”
That’s a heavy question. It hits a lot of people on a very personal level. It’s also not one that I can give a short, pithy answer to. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever given a short, pithy answer to a theological question. They’re usually wrong.
So, rather than give an answer, I’ll share a bit of thought process.
First, there’s an assumption in the question that God doesn’t punish. There are definitely times in the Bible that God does actively punish, although it’s usually on a national level rather than an individual level. There are some times that God does actively give or bless people in scripture. Let’s hold that in an open hand for a minute.
Second, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” is from Job 1:21. The context of Job is a drama that teaches Jewish people how to respond to struggle and pain. As Job says this, he’s just had three servants come and tell him that he’s lost everything he owns and his family is dead. Job’s response is to acknowledge that he didn’t come into the world with anything, he won’t leave with anything, and God is sovereign over all. He’s saying, “It wasn’t really mine anyway.” This is true. When he says that God took it away, though, he’s wrong. According to the narrative he’s not aware of (irony), Satan took it away with God’s permission as a test – some sort of celestial bet, although God gives permission. So within the immediate context, the statement, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” was wrong, and basing theology off of it is dangerous – as dangerous as basing theology off his friends’ statements that what was happening was his fault and God was punishing him (which was still a very common belief in Jesus’ time).
Third, people want to reduce theology to the simplest possible, most easily digestible form. They want black and white; always and never. What we see in the whole of scripture, though, is “sometimes.” For those who want consistency and certainty, it’s easiest to say “consistently, certainly sometimes.” God is God, and he’s allowed that. What we see is that sometimes God does give. Sometimes God does take away. Most of the time, he lets stuff happen and leaves his justice for later.
So the statement he gives and takes away is accurate. Sort of. Sometimes.
The greater truth is in the heart attitude behind it, though. We remember that God is sovereign. Everything that we have, whether given actively or inherently is from him. I tremendously enjoy the air he gave me to breathe this morning. Someday I’m going to stop breathing it. I go. Everything I have goes. God remains. God is greater than me. God is greater than my stuff. The mini-lesson found in the following verse, what the audience is supposed to get, is that even though Job thinks God is actively responsible (he’s not) is: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
It’s a statement of peace. It means that whatever our circumstances are, God remains, and we find our worth and being in him. Growing resentful or angry at him for our circumstances is sinful. Worshiping him in the midst of pain is glorifying.
What we should be saying as we echo that statement is that it doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. God is God and God is Good. He doesn’t stop being God in hard times. It’s what Paul echoes in Phillipians 4:11-13 – “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
So maybe it’s God’s fault and maybe it isn’t. Maybe stuff just happened and he didn’t stop it. We still worship, though, because worship isn’t about us and what we have. It’s not transactional. It’s conversational. It’s relational. It’s about who he is and who we are in him.
I hope that answers your question. If not, bug me more. I’m cool with that.
I haven’t been feeling particularly moved to “blog” lately, but if anyone has any honest questions – not “heh-heh what about this” questions with the intent of trying to trip me up, but honest questions seeking answers, head over to the contact page. I’ll be happy to make posts from them and leave your name out of it.
I haven’t written for a while. Excuse me while I ramble for a bit.
Each morning (well, most mornings… sometimes afternoons… sometimes I skip it because I’m busy or lazy or in a mood or whatever), I dig into JD Walt’s Seedbed Daily Text. I highly recommend it as a Biblically rich devotional written by a servant of God with a broad intellectual skillset and the heart of a poet.
We’re in the Gospel of Matthew right now, as John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!” As I process some of my thoughts on his thoughts on God’s thoughts, I’m going to piggyback on some of what he said this morning. I’m just saying that this is mostly me, but he deserves credit (or blame, if you disagree) for the direction and it’s only fair that he get it. If you want to catch up, this particular devo is permalinked here.
Way back in the day (colloquially speaking – it was actually an evening), my youth pastor taught one of many lessons on repentance. This one stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, because it was a time in my life that I was in a weird tension that a lot of Christian teens go through… I had “given my life to Christ,” but had developed excellent compartmentalization skills. I’d given the part of my life that went to church and youth group to Christ, but the part of my life that smoked pot and was committed enough to take the time to download porn on a 28.8k modem and other bad stuff remained firmly separate. The tug of war that ebbs and flows and never seems to quite stop completely was at a high point, and I knew that I needed to “repent.”
I mean, I’d pented at least a few times before, and it obviously hadn’t stuck, so I apparently had to do it again.
Repent is a powerful word. It’s explosive, just in terms of its sound. It gains momentum coming off the lips, pulsing out in a way that leaves an impact. It hangs in the air waiting for a response. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, it sits there, slapping at your conscience, demanding acknowledgement, even it it’s just to turn it away again.
It’s also foreign to our modern language. It’s become the exclusive domain of religiousity, and so, while demanding, its also somewhat amorphous and confusing.
The second reason that his lesson sticks in my memory is that he gave a pithy, one sentence definition of repentance that was easy to grasp. He said that, “Repentance is a 180 degree turn from where you’ve been going,” and had kids demonstrate in an object lesson by walking in a straight line across the room and when he yelled, “Repent!” they’d have to turn around and go back in the other direction. It was a good lesson. It was simple and to the point and something a teenager could understand. And so I repented.
And no matter how many times I did that about-face and turned 180 degrees from where I was going, my course would slowly wander and I’d find myself heading back exactly the way I had been.
Because he was wrong.
And I was wrong when I taught the same thing.
The problem with viewing repentance as a 180 degree turn from the way you were going is that it still focuses on you and the way you were going. It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror. It’s appealing to a self-absorbed, self-addicted people because it maintains our self direction – even if we’re directing ourselves by not going somewhere. It’s our direction – anchored by our former direction – dependent on our vision and our conscience and our experience. Our new direction is entirely dependent on our old direction. That doesn’t work well.
The whole idea of trying to navigate by going away from something is just profoundly stupid. And that’s kind of what John is saying.
The good news is that the true point of navigation is near. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract. It’s among us now.
Yes, repentance is a firm re-orientation, but it’s not reorienting away from something, it’s changing direction to move towards something. As long as we’re moving towards it, it doesn’t matter what we’re moving away from. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’re inclined to drift towards. It doesn’t matter what we… what we… what we… what I.
It matters what God.
Repentance isn’t about us. It’s about him. It’s about Emmanuel. It’s about God With Us. JD says it better than I can:
To be clear, behaviors will change but that change will come from a far deeper place than mere compliance with the rules. It will come from the deep wells of our transformed dispositions, affections, desires and from the Holy Spirit inspired dreams of the beautiful, good and powerfully loving lives we were created to live. To repent means to realign our entire lives to become the remarkable kind of people Jesus would be if he were you and me. Repentance does not start with a stinging self examination of our shame-filled selves. No, it begins by beholding the face of God in Jesus Christ, inhaling the Holy Spirit breathed Word of our own beloved-ness and exhaling the breathtaking beauty of the now-appearing-all-things-are-possible Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s probably enough for today. I’m not done thinking about it. It feels important.
Because there’s something in me that needs to be pent. It needs to be contained and constrained and confined because it has its way with me in a way I don’t like and I don’t like myself when it does. I’ve pent it. I’ve repented it. I’ve repented it again. The only way it’s going to stay pent-up is if God does it. To stop moving away and move towards. To stop being defined by it and get a new definition.
So that’s my prayer for me this morning. It’s my prayer for you. That we be defined not by our failing, but by our calling – by the one who succeeded on our behalf. That we be defined not by what we don’t want to be, but by what we were made to be, and the one who made us. That we be moving towards the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
“Mercy triumphs over judgement,” says James. This is not to say that mercy eliminates judgement, or that which is to be judged is no longer worthy of judgement, but that after judgement comes mercy.
Judge. Judge rightly, and with justice. Know the difference between right and wrong — righteousness and disregard. Dig a deep hole, and pour that judgement into it. Dig it deep enough to fill it to the brim! Once you’ve poured it all out, look at that pool of judgement and admire the rightness of it. Feel confident in it.
Then cover it with mercy.
Spread the mercy on thick. If you don’t have any of your own to put on there, pray for it. It should come from the same place your judgement does, or else your judgement isn’t righteous; it’s self-righteous. Keep adding mercy until the judgement stops seeping through. Keep tending it until something new starts to grow from its fertile soil.
In the end, the judgement is still there, but all anyone should see is mercy.
Put in another way, “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”
In recent breaking news, Starbucks has given in! Christians have won! Christ is back in Coffee Christmas! The infamous coffee chain has acknowledged their nefarious plot, bowing to the righteous indignation of Red Hat Guy and his friend Donald. CEO Joe Starbuck was quoted as saying:
Yeah, they caught us. You can’t hide anything from the internet. The recent influx of angry patrons named Merry Christmas has forced us to give up on the Red Solo plan and come forward with an offering filled with real Christmas spirit.
Despite a 23% spike in sales due to outraged Dunkin’ Donuts regulars switching to Starbucks to stick it to the man in the name of Jesus, the coffee giant has hired famed guerilla artist Akiro Arukiddingme to bring together an amalgamation of the designs that captured Christmas past for coffee loving evangelicals. In his first media appearance in years, he told reporters:
I believe that Starbucks needed to make a true, meaningful apology in this cup. White on red graphics have come to mean so much to so many people at this time of year, so I have reached into their hearts to give them the vision they have craved. I may be punished for saying so, but Starbucks was ill-advised in using so much red. Red is the colour of anger. White has brought peace, so I combined the white designs of past years. I overlaid them on this year’s red cup to bring a vision of the peace of Christ, because what is in the hearts of Evangelical Christians passes all understanding.
Hailed as the most Christmassy cup ever, Arukiddingme’s design incorporates every Christmas image used before, and should satisfy even the most demanding Evangelical:
In other news, come on, people.
I’ve been frustrated at people on the Internet lately. I know, that’s shocking and new, but try to contain your surprise and stay with me. Some of them are friends. Some of them are colleagues. Some of them are random strangers that I theoretically share a belief system with. This post
may will probably offend them. They may even call it persecution from within. That would certainly fit with the rhetoric that I see floating around.
There was a great post on cracked.com (home of tremendously well-written and researched articles that people are tricked into reading by dick jokes and cussing) recently about 5 Ways Powerful People Trick You Into Hating Protesters (or Underdogs if you visited before the title was changed). There’s some really interesting stuff about how the majority is made to feel like a threatened and oppressed minority. It really resonated with me because that’s the way a lot of North American Christians are feeling. The rhetoric floating around the Christian Right is calling it persecution.
I have trouble with that, because (to me) it belittles a lot of things. Sure if you really want it to, it may be massaged to fit a dictionary definition of persecution in that treatment of Christians in North America can at some points be annoying or cause someone to suffer, but I believe that’s because North American Christians have a VERY low threshold for suffering. That’s what happens when we’ve lived in coddled privilege for generations, holding the stick for so long we’ve come to feel that it’s part of our hands. Persecution, like suffering, is a loaded word. When I think about persecution, I think about people losing jobs or being beaten or being sent to prison or killed because of what they believe or who they are. Historically in North America, that’s been how many “Christians,” or at least our “Christian society,” has treated people like blacks, gays, and women.
That’s a hard thing to hear, because no one likes to think of themselves as persecutors. That was what used to happen. It’s not us. At least, it can’t be us because we’re not that bad anymore, right?In the face of damning evidence, one of the easiest ways to make ourselves feel better is to simply call ourselves the persecuted. After all, Christians are being persecuted around the world, so how are we any different? It must be true, because we see it in the news. We’re “persecuted” when:
1. People Vote With Their Wallets
There are Christian businesses that are losing money because people choose not to frequent those establishments. Those people don’t want to give their commerce to people who they perceive as being bigoted and intolerant. Forget for a second that this happens infrequently enough on a major scale that it’s major news when it happens, it’s REVERSE BIGOTRY!
2. People Are Jerks on the Internet
Nothing makes a person happier than being superior on the Internet. There are whole websites devoted to the “triumph of reason” and articles shared around about how profoundly dumb it is to believe in God like a bunch of sheeple. Blah blah blah flying teapot spaghetti monster. How dare they poke at our insecurity to make themselves feel better! Of course, it’s not actually directed at YOU, but it’s adjacent to you and that sucks. It’s not like you’d ever make blanket statements about a whole group of people.
3. We Lose Privileges
Did you know that churches may lose their tax-exempt charitable status if they preach against homosexuality or refuse to perform gay marriages!?! It’s all over the Internet. How is that possibly fair? We’re entitled to special treatment! We must be—we’ve had it forever. So what if by doing weddings we’re acting as agents of the state? They have no business changing their policy to something we disagree with. And taking away preferential treatment to reduce us to the same status as any other group? Preferential treatment is our right! What a hateful mess.
4. We Get Made Fun Of
It’s often said in youth group circles that the worst that can happen if you share your faith with someone is that they’ll laugh at you. Really, though, that’s bad enough, isn’t it? Who wants to be mocked or made fun of for their beliefs? Christians never do that.
5. Ezra Levant Rants About Something
The “rebel commander” and his offense du jour give wonderful self-pity breaks for Canadian Christians. I’m sure the US has their own equivalent (Fox News?). There’s nothing like taking isolated incidents and painting a broad brush conspiracy to marginalize or attack all Christians, to make us feel appropriately threatened and justified in defending ourselves. We should be grateful to people like him for pointing out how persecuted we are, when we otherwise might not have noticed.
6. We Are Held Accountable For What The Bible Says
The Bible says things that people disagree with. That is because they are sweaty heathen sinners who don’t know better. Sometimes that means that our beliefs require that say things or we have to live in ways that they find offensive. Since our beliefs are the right ones and their beliefs are wrong, if their beliefs require them to say or do things that make us uncomfortable or feel “attacked,” that shouldn’t be allowed. We’re the only ones who can do that.
Yes, there was a sneer on my face as I wrote those things. And yes, I actually feel bad about that. I struggle with posting this, because I feel like anyone who agrees with me already knows, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me isn’t going to be swayed by it. Sometimes the Internet is great for venting though, so at least there’s that.
If you’re still reading this far and haven’t shut the tab or jumped to the comments, the takeaway I want to leave is this: There is a difference between Christians being persecuted and A Christian being persecuted and YOU being persecuted. Beyond that, I want to say there’s a difference between things being mildly inconvenient and uncomfortable for you in a distant way and being persecuted. However you want to work your own definition, I can tell you that it’s wrong.
The reason that I know that is this: The persecuted Church grows. Always. It can’t be stopped, and when we are “persecuted for righteousness sake,” it witnesses to the world in a way that draws them to Christ. If we’re persecuted for being jerks, that’s not the same thing.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of Default Christianity. At least I hope so. It’s been hanging on for so long it’s hard to believe that it can ever die. I want to be at the funeral just so I can take a good, hard look in the casket. Default Christianity showed up at a family reunion one day, ate the food, slept on the couch, and after a while everyone just assumed that it must be someone’s cousin that no one recognized. It showed up year after year until we believed that it was part of the family. It learned the family stories and picked up the family way of talking, but the truth is that it was never part of the family.
Recent news reports have been citing a Pew Research Study that says, among other things, that in America Atheism and Agnosticism are on the rise and Christianity is on the downturn to the tune of 8% over the past seven years. The percentage of people surveyed that identify themselves as Christian has fallen from ~79% to ~71%. “Christianity is in sharp decline,” they say. Christians see this and are running around with their hands in the air—here’s proof positive that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Atheists are rejoicing—people are coming to their senses. Christianity in the West is dying. They’re putting religion to death!
Is it, though? Those numbers are saying something very different to me.
I don’t believe that 8% drop represents the loss of a single point of Christianity. In fact, I think that the 71% is still an incredibly soft number. Look at it this way: If we’re walking around town, and seven out of ten people are actually committed Christians, our world looks pretty good. If seven out of ten people were Christian, I’d be incredibly excited. I’d also wonder what I was doing here as a pastor. Everything I preached would be preaching to the choir.
Honestly, though, I think it’s obvious to everyone that seven years ago, eight out of ten Americans were not Christian. Today, I think it’s pretty clear that seven out of ten Americans aren’t followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our churches are Christian. Christianity isn’t dying. If there’s a decline, it’s not anything new. What’s happening is that the number of people who say they’re Christians is declining, and that’s a very different thing. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good thing.
I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our CHURCHES are Christian.
So what’s going on? Shocked, SHOCKED we are to find that gambling is going on here. The dirty little secret of American Christianity is being revealed: Many Christians aren’t Christian. The big numbers were great for making ourselves feel better, or giving weight to our political arguments, or the vague prestige of being the “dominant” religion, but deep down, I think we all knew they weren’t real. At least everyone that didn’t think that coming to church on Christmas Eve and—if pressed—saying that Christmas is about Jesus, and having neither of those things make a tangible impact on your life made you a Christian knew.
The truth is that much of that 79% were Christian by default. They weren’t anything else and they didn’t feel like they weren’t Christian, so they checked the box. It was like a more-true-than-not-true answer that cost them nothing. Their parents said they were Christian. Their neighbors said that they were Christian. Their politicians said they were Christian. They didn’t look any different, so they must be Christian.
They aren’t checking the box anymore, and that scares us.
Where some people once saw prestige and membership in a dominant club, they now see more prestige in being areligious. There’s not the same social pressure to be a “believer”. These are people that are going to jump on the popularity train whichever way it’s going. They’re not “Christian” anymore, but nothing has really changed. I don’t think they’re really atheist, either, just popularist.
Other people are just becoming more and more willing to actually define what they believe. They were default Christians because that was all there was for them. They either weren’t able because they didn’t see a viable alternative, or they hadn’t really thought through what they said they believed. When they dug in, they found that what they said they believed didn’t line up with what they lived out, or what they wanted to believe, and they said so.
I really believe that those are the 8% that have dropped. I also think we need to see at least another 20% go.
We shouldn’t be afraid when we see these numbers drop; we should be rejoicing. There’s three big reasons for this. The first is that, if we’re people of truth, we want to see the numbers reflect reality. Artificially inflated numbers should bother us. In fact, WE should be the first ones calling them out. The second is that, if the numbers keep going the direction they are, it means that the Church might soon be free to be the Church. Without being weighed down by vague cultural expectations, or people that want to be along for the ride without any of the cost, we can follow Christ. Cultural Christianity—Christianity by default—has been an anchor that keeps the church stagnant and uncommitted, even irrelevant.
The transforming power and presence of Jesus Christ isn’t going anywhere, nor are the people who have experienced that transformation. The third reason is wrapped up in that. When the numbers line up with reality, we can see clearly the multitudes who really need to know Christ. There are so many people—Default Christians—that we pass by on the streets and church picnics and ignore. We think they’re “saved” or whatever, in the group. We lament that they aren’t doing their part or that they aren’t living up to our expectations, but we never stop to consider that even though they check the box, they still have yet to know Jesus. These are the unreached people in our pews.
Maybe if they’re out of our pews we might be moved to reach them.
So let’s let Default Christianity die. It was nice while it lasted, and definitely convenient, but its time has passed. Over and over again, the Church has found that convenient Christianity has been cancerous. Maybe we should be looking at those numbers not as a sign of overall health and strength of our faith, but more like BMI. There is a point where the higher number is just showing fat.
In the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to watch a debate that was happening in schools and bars and social media move into governments and courts. Right now, the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing arguments about whether or not individual states should have a right to legislate whether they will allow same-sex couples to get married, or whether it should be a federally protected right. You may have heard about it. Some people have opinions. Many of them are loud.
The popular perception is that Christians want to keep the world firmly ensconced in an idealized version of the 1950s by keeping all the marriage for themselves, while people with functioning brains want to be nice to people. The other (somewhat less popular) popular perception is that Christians want to save the world from a toboggan ride to hell, while sweaty heathens want to steal marriage so that they can have sex with everything and not pay taxes. The unpopular perception is that even within the Christian community, there’s a pretty sharp split between those in support and those against, and they might be even angrier with each other than the rest of the internet is.
My name is Aaron, and I’m a Christian moderate. That’s not an easy thing to be, especially when debates get heated. There’s a lot of hurt flying around on all sides, particularly from people who seem to think there’s only two of them. Once again, as a Christian moderate, I’m catching my fair share because—
1. Some people believe there’s no such thing
In Revelation 3:16, God says that, “because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth,” and a lot of people seem to think that means that if your theology doesn’t go to the logical extreme, you don’t care about God. They see moderate Christians as being wishy-washy or apathetic. They think that if you aren’t at one end of the spectrum or another, you just haven’t bothered to think through your faith. Most of the time, though, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Most Christian moderates and moderate denominations place a very high priority on scripture and applying it passionately to life. The difference is that they see that application in the middle of the two extremes. I am a passionately hot and cold middle-ground believer, because that’s where I see the Bible leading. I have very strong opinions on it, and right now it leads to arguments because—
2. Liberals think that that you hate gay people
I can’t do the exegetical (critical interpretation of religious text) and hermeneutical (art and science that shapes biblical interpretation) back-flips that let them say that God is giving a thumbs-up to same-gender sexual relationships. I’ve dug in and tried, because I want to and it would be much easier for me to hold that position in so many ways, but I can’t. That conviction means that when I’m asked, I have to say that I believe that homosexual practice is sinful. I can’t endorse it because I don’t believe that the creator of sexuality endorses it. As a pastor, I can’t conduct a wedding of a same-sex couple. I also don’t believe that people should be forced to participate in the event under threat of losing their business, either, through everything from flowers to food to photography. If they believe that their participation amounts to support and/or endorsement of something they believe is wrong, they should have the right not to. This position has led to a lot of people on the internet being very angry with me. Despite that—
3. Conservatives think that you throw out the Bible
I believe that same-sex couples should receive equal treatment under secular law, and when I say that, conservative Christians seem to think I’m possessed by the devil. They see it as a betrayal as scripture and a governmental endorsement of sin. The problem is that they can’t separate the moral/religious implications from the legal/secular ones. They also can’t seem to see the way the argument demeans and belittles real people with real feelings who don’t share their beliefs. I’ll talk to Christians about God’s intent for human sexuality, but applying that to people who don’t believe in God is ridiculous. I can’t make a religious argument in a legal debate, and I don’t believe that the state has any compelling interest in discriminating against homosexuals. I’m honestly not sure that Christians have any place entering into the conversation and saying so. When I make that argument—
4. You realize that half the problem is that everyone is speaking different languages with the same words
Everyone looks at me like I have two heads. I feel like whenever I’m talking to someone about it, I’m arguing someone else’s position. I think that it would be a lot easier to come together on this if we could just replace the word marriage with the word sandwich. It’s probably descriptive enough, and is far enough outside the norm that people would actually have to think about what each other was saying rather than slapping their own interpretation on it. Using the word marriage means carrying very different assumptions into the conversation. When a Christian says marriage, they usually mean Holy Matrimony. Christianity is unique (to the best of my knowledge) among the major religions, as it views marriage as a sacramental union, through which God binds a man and a woman together in reflection of his relationship with humanity and not a civil process. When someone outside the church says marriage, they usually mean a legally formalized permanent romantic relationship between two people. Given that, it makes perfect sense that conservative Christians would be utterly confused when someone says that homosexuals can have a marriage and secularists would be baffled by anyone who says they can’t. Sometimes I feel like if everyone could understand that, we could all stop ALL CAPSing at each other, but—
5. You know that’s not the half that matters
It’s really less about faith than it is about fear. I get that. I’m afraid too. Not the way some conservatives seem to be—that everything will turn into a slippery slope that’s slippery because of all the sweaty, hedonistic sex people are having on it, and not in the way that liberals seem to be—that people will be ground beneath the pointy boot of conservative discrimination, but that people are going to come after me and the church I love. I’m afraid that I will be legally penalized for believing what I believe. More than that, though, it’s about pain. Pain and deprecation. On one side, you have people who passionately love God and love the Bible and people are telling them that they’re stupid and ignorant and bigoted—the God they love doesn’t exist and the Bible they love is a fabrication. Of course they’re going to come out with guns blazing. On the other side, you have people who believe their sexual identity is intrinsic to who they are and people are telling them that who they are is evil and they should be relegated to second-class citizenry. Very few people make the arguments in those extreme words, but those are the words that are heard. Most of the arguments on both sides have gone well beyond reason and into stupid, illogical, personal attack, and I’m not sure there’s any coming back from that.
Anyone who’s actually made it this far without jumping straight to the comment section might be wondering what my moderate position is. Here you go: To be honest, I think that the church has absolutely no business legally solemnizing any union, heterosexual or otherwise. Let us handle unions spiritually according to our own beliefs and let the government handle legal unions secularly. If someone wants both, they should do both. My moderate opinion is that same sex couples should absolutely be afforded the same rights under the law as opposite gender couples. Under God is a different story. Nothing the church says is going to change the one, and nothing the court says is going to change the other.
You’re free to disagree.
It’s been a long time coming, but The Art of Being Broken will be available for purchase June 15, 2015.
Four years ago when I started writing it, this was a different book. I was a different person. In a way, I’m grateful for the 3 year hiatus my writing took while I was at Cornerstone Wesleyan. During that time, I published a book of devotionals for worship teams, which led praise teams together through the Gospel of John, prompting them to take a deeper look at their ministry together. That process gave me confidence in my writing, and helped me learn a lot about putting a book together for publishing. The experience was invaluable as I prepared The Art of Being Broken for print.
More than that, though, I grew as a person and a pastor. When I started writing this book four years ago, it had a very different focus. Really, it boiled down almost entirely to “Don’t be fake. If you’re messed up, be authentically messed up so that people can know the real you.” There is definitely still an element of that, but it evolved so much. Part of that was becoming convinced that God wants more for us than authentic brokenness. He wants to take our brokenness and turn it into holiness. He wants to take our wounds and mess and broken pieces and turn it into art that shows his grace and love to the world in a real, authentic way.
I’m not great at self-promotion. Most of the time, I have trouble seeing what I do as really good or valuable. This book though, I believe is excellent. That feels really weird to say, but I think that if you sit down to read it, you’ll find that it speaks to your heart. Maybe you’ll find God speaking to your heart through it.
What if everything isn’t fine?
What if there is life outside of our shells?
What if there is beauty under our masks?
What if there is healing beyond brokenness?
What if we could see the image of God in ourselves?
What if God’s art is made from our broken pieces?
In The Art of Being Broken, Aaron Mark Reimer opens up an authentic, sometimes awkward, occasionally hilarious, one-way conversation about our brokenness, the things we use to cover it, and the healing that can come through exposing it.