Friday, March 4, 2011

Ambassadors or Bullies?

Followers of Jesus are charged with being ambassadors of the Gospel. The Apostle Paul, in a letter to a church in Ephesus, explains to us that we are to be ambassadors of the Good News that God’s redemptive and freeing power, made possible by death and resurrection of Jesus, is continually at work today through the Holy Spirit. The Bible makes it clear that the implications of the Good News knows no bounds—religion (2 Cor. 3:6), relationships (John 13:34), even politics (Luke 4:18)—everything is transformed in light of the Gospel. Yet when Christians unknowingly fight against the implications of the Gospel, we inadvertently blot out the glory of the God to a dark world and amputate the feet of very Good News we claim to spread. For example, it was only a few months ago that the United States Senate, a body composed almost entirely of self-identified Christians, voted against the DREAM Act and the repealing of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy on the same day—the glory of the God became hidden by our brokenness just a little bit more. And by the time DODT was finally repealed in December, the move was reluctant and managed to demonstrate an even greater hostility towards the DREAM Act.

The DREAM Act would have allowed children of illegal immigrants who were taken into this country when they were under the age of 16 to be put on a six-year long conditional path to citizenship if they could get into an American college or serve in the U.S. military. Each year 65,000 children are, through no fault of their own, brought to America by their parents and constantly live under the threat of deportation to their parents’ country. Currently, they will be deported regardless of their contribution to society, whether they have any ties to their parents’ place of origin, or even whether they can speak their parents’ language. The DREAM Act would provide a reasonable and fair alternative to that fate. Instead, politicians who prided themselves on standing up for “family values” voted it down without offering any alternative. Were these votes a demonstration of loving our neighbor or manifesting the Good News to these sons and daughters of illegal immigrants? Perhaps the Good News is only “good news” for some people.

The majority of these same politicians also voted against allowing gays and lesbians to serve in the military both in September and December, making strikingly similar arguments used to keep African-Americans from integrating into the Army in the 1940s. In spite of the Pentagon’s support of inclusion, numerous studies showing inclusion would not affect combat effectiveness, and the grim reality that we’ve already discharged 13,000 GLBT soldiers in the last sixteen years—including 59 Arabic linguists in the last five—many Christians in our Senate still felt the need to continue discrimination. Yet, with reluctant vote overcoming the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, our government is now finally treating homosexuals with the same kind of equal treatment under the law granted to heterosexuals (marriage notwithstanding). No special privilege or preference, just the same opportunity to serve our country. But for the Christians who voted against this repeal twice, were these votes a demonstration of loving our neighbor or manifesting the good news to gays and lesbians? Perhaps they just don’t count as our neighbors.

Tragically, these were not primarily nominal Christians-in-name-only, but instead strongly self-identifying and strongly outspoken Christians making the case against both of these chances to legislate justice: to be for the DREAM Act equated to supporting the lawlessness of illegal immigration, or to be for allowing gays and lesbians to serve our country equated to affirming sinful lifestyles. In reality, these are nothing more than false choices, just as it is false choice to say that defending the rights of the unborn means being anti-women. Yet beyond this tortured logic, the false dichotomies created by some Christian leaders who offer no compassionate solutions of their own make us look just plain nasty. In the eyes of a hurting world examining the legitimacy of our Gospel, we seem far less like ambassadors of the Good News and far more like schoolyard bullies picking on the kids that aren’t like us. Why are we Christians behaving like this?

A well-intentioned Christian friend of mine inadvertently pinpointed the problem when, in response to my lament of the first vote, he wrote to me, “I thought you were a preacher of the Gospel of Christ: the cross, redemption, belief in Jesus, holiness, repentance of sin? I didn't know that included actively drumming up political strife—unless your gospel is one that favors illegal immigration and homosexuality, in which case I wonder what gospel it is you preach.”

The reason why many Christians in politics look like bullies is simply because we have not yet understood the totality of the Gospel. We embrace only a fraction, but believe the fraction is the whole. In doing so we open up the potential for worldly philosophies and prejudices, as well as our own inclination for pharisaical thinking, to fill the space in our worldview where the Gospel is supposed to be. We can even end up working against the Gospel, not out of premeditated malice, but because we are unknowingly viewing an issue through something other than a Gospel-centered lens.

Yet if we are to avoid sabotaging the Gospel we have been entrusted with, we must seek to know it in its fullness. Declaring Jesus as the one and only redemptive savior of the world and striving for Biblical justice in the world are not competing “gospels”, they are both intrinsic in the singular indivisible Gospel (James 1:27). To focus on either one without the other is to see only a fraction and not the whole.

So in the sphere of politics we must come to realize that one of our foremost roles in being ambassadors of the Gospel is in taking up the political cause of the voiceless and marginalized (Isaiah 1:17, Daniel 4:27, Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 15:1-2). On some level we already know this. Most Christians already see defending the lives of the unborn (and their mothers), alleviating extreme poverty, and stopping genocide as part and parcel with the nature the Gospel. But that is only part of the whole. We must be on the side of all who are voiceless and marginalized, without exception. Whether that's the unborn or the poor or the children of illegal immigrants or homosexuals rendering military service, for us to do anything less is treason to our charge as ambassadors of the Good News and a renouncement of our citizenship in the Kingdom of God. Instead then, let us seek to be loyal only to our King of Kings.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Covenanting With Your Church

This Sunday, our church membership class will be the first to be introduced to a “Covenant of Commitment” between themselves and the church. We’ve rather rapidly experienced the spiritual and practical benefits of making our membership class more rigorous, theologically deeper, and required for the joining the church. Prior to that, we saw everything from people joining and dropping out in a matter of months to non-Christians joining (Why this phenomenon, you may ask? Since our church community was so welcoming, they said, they could overlook the Jesus-Son-of-God thing).

It’s our hope that this covenant will not only clarify and confirm the investment we expect from people joining the church, but also make it clear what should be expected from the church receiving committed people to its community. I think this is important because mainline churches often seem to operate under the assumption that, apart from grave heresy, they can do as they please so long as there is reasonable unity with the elders and staff. However, a church that covenants with its members binds itself in a sacred contract to uphold its end of the promises. Should that church fail to live up to those promises, members have indisputable grounds for calling the leadership of the church to account.

To be honest, I’ll be excited when the first person does. It will likely be good medicine for this congregation in renaissance.

What are your thoughts on church membership covenants? Thoughts on the covenant below? It’s not a document that’s written in stone, so feel free to make suggestions.

I, _________________________________________ as a follower of Jesus Christ, covenant with my church, my God, and myself to:

Walk with God daily in Bible study, prayer, and following Christ’s teachings in turning away from my sins and pursuing a holy life.

Invest myself in sharing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with non-Christians.

Be involved in discipleship outside of Sunday worship because I recognize the need for accountability and community in my life.

Receive from those appointed over me accountability, counsel, and/or correction for my actions. Specifically, my actions that do not reflect how Jesus teaches me in the Bible.

Give generously the time, resources, and giftedness that God has blessed me with so that the Gospel is advanced and God is glorified.

Likewise, the leadership of the church covenants to:

Teach the Word of God to the best of our ability.

Consistently preach the Gospel in our words and actions and from the pulpit.

Offer the necessary programs and opportunities that will lead to your spiritual growth and maturity.

Provide care in sickness, counsel in crisis, and guidance in what it means to follow Jesus and His commandments.

Make programmatic, financial, staff, and leadership decisions with the advancement of the Gospel and the glory of God solely in mind.

In signing this, I affirm my membership vows and place myself in a covenant with my church to hold me accountable to those vows, even as I hold the church accountable for its vows, so that together we can be the body of Christ demonstrating the Gospel of Jesus Christ to our neighbor, city, and world.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

The South Carolina Senate Race

As you may have heard, in South Carolina we had two great choices for senator this election. One was Republican Jim Demint--a man so bigoted and ignorant that he just weeks ago advocated banning gays and sexually active single women from being teachers. The other was Democrat Alvin Greene--a jobless, likely mentally-handicapped man living in his father's basement who won the Democratic primary even with pending felony charges for forcibly showing porn to a college student. Oh, and some Green Party guy that doesn't like nuclear power plants.

Yep. Those we're my options. Go South Carolina.

Therefore, I decided my best option was for a write-in candidate. On the clunky machine that looked like the Ipad's obese cousin, I typed in, "Jesus of Nazareth".

Not to be confused with Jesus, my immigrant neighbor upstairs. Got to be specific about these things, y'know. Though Jesus the immigrant neighbor would also be more qualified.

Anyway, go Jesus (of Nazareth).

Friday, October 1, 2010

Pew Forum Proves I Suck at My Job

So for some odd reason you've missed having my commentary on your computer screen/mobile device, you have my apologies, but I've been working a good number of overtime weeks and writing sermons. I still don't really have anything for you other than to report on the most recent Pew Forum survey that you've probably already heard about.

The Pew Forum conducted a little pop quiz on a random sampling of Americans regarding how much they know about religion. The results? We bombed it worse than when I failed high school algebra two years in a row. Even people with post-graduate educations only made a D+ on average. And much to the chagrin of some Christians, atheists and Jews scored significantly higher than their Jesus-lovin' friends. Oh, how the media enjoyed spinning that one! However, a closer look at the survey finds that Evangelicals and Mormons actually knew their own faith better than atheists and Jews, but that the latter groups scored higher on the overall general knowledge about religion. This doesn't come as a surprise to me. After all, when you have the absolute truth in your hand, why would you need to know about what anyone else thinks? (Please hear the sound of sarcasm)

That all being said, the Pew Forum also proved that I must be sucking at my job. Mainline Protestants, of which the Presbyterian church I work for would be included, knew less about Christianity than atheists and even *gasp* Catholics. That's when you know your denomination is having a bad era.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Official, Authoritative, and Divinely Inspired List of the Five Best Christian Bands

So as a Christian music hater-turned-unabashed Christian music snob, I feel it’s only appropriate to finally release the names of the five best Christian music bands in the world. After all, when Saul became Paul, he had some pretty important things to say about Christianity. However, I’m going to do my best to be (sorta) impartial, avoiding giving you a list of my favorite bands for the sake of edifying your ears and minds.

These bands were selected for their theological depth, staying power, crossover (without selling out) appeal, and general musical brilliance—which means you won’t be seeing the likes of Toby Mac, Newsboys, or MercyMe within a mile of the top five. However, it does also preclude a lot of really good Christian bands for various reasons. Anberlin hits every category hands down—except theological depth. House of Heroes, Abandon, Deas Vail and the like are likely going to be huge—but they’ve only released one or two full-length albums. Mat Kearney’s early work was genius—until he decided to become the illegitimate child of Chris Martin and John Mayer. The Psalters changed my life—but almost no one has ever heard of them. This was a lot harder than I expected.

But I didn’t let nights of crying into my pillow about whether to include (SPOILER ALERT) Relient K stop me from completing the epic task I set out to do. And due to my importance as a Christian music critic, I predict after publishing this list, the record sales should increase for the following honored bands by .001 percent. Enjoy my analysis.

5. mewithoutYou

The best band you’ve probably never heard of. I would compare them musically to a more manic Modest Mouse, and with a raw and honest theological input from Sufism, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity that provides the counterbalance Modest Mouse’s grating nihilism. They get the highest marks for originality, crossover appeal, and brilliant lyrics—and if they could just come out with one more good album, you’ll see them jump down the list.

4. Relient K

I hesitated to bequeath a pop-punk group an honor such at this, but the Relient K is the king of pop-punk in the Christian world. And even if their music isn’t the most creative, they’ve consistently carved out numerous tracks over a decade with a good range of spiritual depth that preaches well to the less-theologically astute listeners. Got to give them credit for that.

3. Switchfoot

I’ve praised Switchfoot before (as well as criticized them), but I’ll praise them again: these guys rock. They’ve been around for nearly forever, constantly growing and maturing with every album. Every album puts out songs that are catchy and theologically reflective, not to mention a few nationwide chart-toppers here and there. You might not be a fan (and I am only on occasion), but it’s really hard not to like them and they are definitely worthy of the being a best band.

2. Sufjan Stevens

For an Episcopal-Presbyterian who isn’t afraid to quote Scripture in his lyrics, it’s surprising that Sufjan has far more secular than Christian fans. He’s that freakin’ good. You got to be when you have entire songs about the transfiguration or impending death of Jesus. Sufjan’s material runs the gamut from folksy minimalist to full orchestras, and it tends to show up in the most random of places (e.g. Little Miss Sunshine, Brooklyn Academy of Music). Sufjan is one of the better contemporary musician/composers of our time and certainly pulls of one of the best infusions of spirituality and music.

1. Thrice

I’m sorry, but this was really a no-brainer folks. This post-punk-now-art-rock band wears their faith on their tattooed sleeve, but in a way that attracts even some of the most skeptical people (my friend, Colleen, for one). Nor is their spirituality only wading knee-deep in theological waters. They go deep, constantly quoting C.S. Lewis and exploring less hip themes—like of the total depravity of man. The lead vocalist, Dustin Kensrue, has been studying Reformed theology for the last two years and it really shines through in their most recent album, even as it shows a pattern of continual theological evolution on the part of the band. Oh, and their music is just plain good, with each album venturing into new musical genres. They may a bit too hard from some tastes, but that shouldn’t stop you from listening to them. Their lyrics and passion are worth the occasional screaming you may not like, and they are one of THE reasons why the Devil doesn’t have all the good music.

And now comes all the agreeing and mostly disagreeing. Oh yeah. It’s on.

Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Why I'm Not Religious

"Religion kills," says anti-theist Christopher Hitchens. I couldn't agree more. In fact, I'm surprised Hitchens is so behind the times. The Apostle Paul beat him to the punch when he wrote to a new church in 55 A.D. that, "The (religious) laws kill, but the Spirit gives life." But Paul wasn't just waxing poetic. The decisive case against religion came from Jesus himself.

We read in the Gospels dozens of stories where Jesus, an itinerant rabbi, confronts the gatekeepers of his own Jewish faith, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The religious leaders of Jesus' day viewed themselves as the protectors of the ancient agreement made between the Hebrew people and God -- you might say religious UPS deliverymen (sorry ladies) -- delivering the perfectly received truth from generation to generation. There was only one problem though: Imperfect people were involved in this process. Over time, the religious deliverymen started stuffing the package with things that God had nothing to do with, literally adding 6,000 extra rules meant to keep people from breaking the original few rules. And since they thought they already had God in a box anyway, anyone who thought outside of it was a dangerous heretic.

In response to this, Jesus declared that religion -- as defined by a bounded set of doctrines, rules and structures -- was useless to the God and a "burden" to people. God's truth could not be bound up in a neatly packaged religion. Rather, it was found in the nebulous but centered pursuit of living out the "greatest commandment": "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind," and the equally important: "Love your neighbor as yourself." Jesus said you could sum up true faith "and all the demands of the prophets on these two commandments."

Seems so simple, right? But life is complicated, and our concoction of motives causes us to miss the mark more often than not. So the voices of religion tempt us with an easy solution, offering to put God back in the box if we would just adhere to the bounded set of doctrines, rules and structures. It's not hard to imagine why so many people choose to live life that way. It's safer, more defined and, in theory, unchanging. But Jesus calls for a spirituality that is more dangerous, fluid and dynamic than most people will ever be comfortable with. Besides, if the past 3,000 years of history -- not to mention the hemorrhaging worldwide membership of the most calcified denominations -- is any sign, it seems self-evident that in the long run, religion leads far more people away from God than ever to God.

So how does the institutional Church, which by its nature is an organized body with doctrines, rules and structures, not offer the kind of religion that Jesus condemns? Churches must move from places of bounded-sets to centered-sets, that is to say, evolving from an organization with doctrines, rules and structures that define who is in and who is out (as the Pharisees did) to a community where the doctrines, rules and structures are adjustable around the spiritual center of following Jesus and living out the greatest commandment (as the early Church did).

Like I said though, this is nothing new, but my generation is manifesting this reform in new ways. We regularly change churches based not on a particular doctrine or denomination but on the spiritual transformation we observe occurring within the church. The Internet allows me, a Presbyterian, to read an Anglican blog before discussing it on Facebook with friends from a nondenominational church. Our individual theologies, made in overlapping groups of equals, look more like something worked out on Wikipedia than beliefs cut-and-pasted from the encyclopedia.

Proponents of religion may call this unorthodox, heretical or even watered down. We would call it the way of Jesus.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

The Awkward Return of Jennifer Knapp

So the almost-mythical Jennifer Knapp is back, replete with new album, a new tour, and a newly announced same-sex orientation—but she still loves Jesus. If you’ve missed the news, you can catch up on things with this article.

Now, some folks might be bit disappointed about her “succumbing” to homosexuality while still acknowledging her devout faith, while others will no doubt see her as potential poster child for gay rights. I would find myself somewhere closer to the latter view, but more from a point of her example advancing dialogue on an issue where the Church always seems to be dragging its heels. Unfortunately, her new tour will likely not be a positive contributing factor.

Even with a local radio appearance and feature in the Charleston City Paper, her concert failed to draw much of an audience. Probably about fifty people made up this scattered crowd—and what a crowd. Half the room seemed to be 20-something fans who listened to Knapp when they we’re 16. The other half were lesbians. The bartender behind me wanted to know what the hell was going on—and that was before a 13-year-old girl came on the stage for the opening act. Then he was just weirded out.

When Jennifer got up, things didn’t improve as much I was hoping they would. Her new music, which is more instrumentally diverse than previous albums, was unable to covert to the single acoustic guitar she played alone on stage. When she played her oldies—songs much better suited for a solo show—it gave the impression that this singer-songwriter’s best days were already behind her (which I don't believe is the case at all). Oh, I had so many questions by this point.

But despite providing a decent shot of scotch to our throwback musician, my request for a three-question interview was met with a very polite “just one second” followed by a hasty departure out of the bar fifteen-minutes later with someone who was either her overassertive butch bodyguard or partner—we couldn’t figure out her title. Dang. Fail. (UPDATE: It was pointed out to me that Jennifer apologized on twitter to me for forgetting the interview. Case in point about her politeness.)

Yet, let’s end on a positive note. Jennifer did speak really highly of the quasi-controversial artist Derek Webb, who, according to her, “Is one of the only [Christian] musicians I know that lives what he says.” I thought that was cool. And even if the tour may only be a warm up for better things to come, I encourage you to check out her new album.