Category Archives: God

The Bible Tells Me So Review: God Did What?!

This will probably be the longest blog post I write in this series, because the issue of violence in the Old Testament carried out in the name of God has been one that has plagued me for years. It caused me to fear the Bible, to question the nature of God, and live in the apprehension of one, hard question that I couldn’t shake: What if I just can’t stomach a God like that?

Ever since I read these stories for the first time, it has boggled my mind that so many faithful readers of scripture stand by these stories and insist on believing that they reflect the God of the Christian faith. When I truly read these stories and let them rest in my heart, I found that I just couldn’t grasp them in the way I was taught to grasp them.

These stories felt barbaric and archaic to me, so far removed from the picture of God that we see in the New Testament person of Jesus Christ. And they are supposed to be one and the same, are they not?

Reading how Peter Enns tackles these troublesome verses in The Bible Tells Me So was such a comforting experience for me. Here was a reading that was genuine, and did not attempt to gloss over these violent texts with an explanation that justifies God’s choices. Here was a reading I could believe.

Enns uses the most famous example of genocide in the Bible—the genocide of the Canaanites by Joshua and the Israelites—as an example for how to read such stories. He outlines the views on Canaan depicted in the Bible, beginning with the curse of Canaan that occurs in Genesis 6, and continuing with example of how the Canaanites seemed to be doomed for destruction every time they are mentioned in Genesis.

The next section proceeds to summarize in detail the gory details of the destruction that Joshua and the Israelites inflict on the Canaanites, including conquering thirty-one towns, beheading kings without mercy, and slaughtering surrendered enemies. This is all trotted out as the methodical fulfillment of the convenant God made with Abraham. Enns writes:

“Bottom line, the extermination of the Canaanites is not an afterthought. According to the Bible, Israel’s God planned it from the days of Noah and the flood, and he carried out the plan with bracing determination and precision, patiently encouraging and even training the troops to get it done.” (p. 40)

After laying the groundwork facts, Enns then goes on to outline several different approaches for how we can fit this story into the larger narrative of the Bible, and a God who in later OT passages and often in the NT is a God of peace and mercy who charges his followers with turning the other cheek when met with violence.

One argument that Enns lays out claims that God has a “nice side”, and that the compassion of God is the overriding theme of scripture. The destruction of Canaan is just an exception to the rule. And yet if that is your perspective, does it really justify that one instance of violence? If a man is benevolent his entire life, and in a moment of passion commits a murder, is that murder any less egregious because of his blameless life up to that point?

The most common way that people justify this story and others like it is to point out that the Canaanites deserved retribution because they had been living irredeemably wicked lives. God had to make an example of them and purge them from the land he had promised to Israel as a way of maintaining the purity of his chosen people and as a lesson for us about the seriousness of rebellion against him.

Ultimately, though, this argument also breaks down when you study scripture carefully and within the context of everything Enns has laid out about God’s covenant thus far. He writes:

“They were contaminating the land that God set aside for the Israelites since the days of Abraham and so had to be exterminated. Take any other people group and put them in the land of Canaan, and they would be the ones tasting Israelite steel, and their immorality would be described as the worst ever. Take the Canaanites and put them somewhere else, and we’d never hear about them.” (p. 51)

There was nothing special about the Canaanites themselves, and everything special about the particular land they occupied. We would be reading of God’s wrath if any other people group had settled there, and that group would have likewise been transformed in a scapegoat to justify the manner in which God fulfilled his covenant to the Israelites.

There is more. In the Old Testament narrative of Joshua’s conquest, there are instances when the Israelite army encounters towns of non-Canaanites. There is no indication that these towns are subject to the judgment of God in a manner similar to the Canaanite. Yet under God’s command, these people are to become slaves of the Israelites if they surrender. To be internally consistent in a “Canaanites are wicked” approach, you must also contend that it is God’s divine judgment to divide up innocents as spoils of war (For an example of such an occurrence, see Deuteronomy 20:10-15).

If we read the exact same stories in the Koran or any other religious text, we would denounce that god as utterly reprehensible, or at the very least archaic and irrelevant. Likewise, we must contort the biblical texts in order to defend God’s genocidal commands in our scriptural canon.

After laying out all the wrong ways to approach Old Testament violence, Enns spends his final sections of this chapter describing how we can apply an informed, holistic reading of these texts that takes cultural limitations into account.

We cannot pull these texts out of their historical context and treat them differently, despite being part of the canon of scripture. Enns writes:

“So much of Israel’s culture looks very similar to what we see elsewhere in the ancient world. Israel’s system of laws, worship practices, notions of kingship, style of poetry, attitudes toward women and slaves, ideas about how the cosmos was created, and on and on, were unquestionably shaped by its time and place—which is to say, Israel’s culture developed the way every other culture in the history of humanity developed: as part of a larger cultural environment.” (p. 56)

This larger cultural environment that Enns refers to is one in which you must conquer or be conquered, kill or be killed. It was a violent world in which mass slaughter was rampant, and a victory in battle was often attributed to the power of the god the conquerors believed in. Read in this light, it makes perfect sense that the story of Israel and its conquest of Canaan unfolded the way that it did.

Essentially, the Israelites wrote their own version of history that glorified the God they served and created an identity for themselves: God’s chosen people, inheritors of a land where they could establish themselves as a nation with roots.  In the pages of the Old Testament, we see a perspective of God that is limited by the perspective of His chosen people. God let his children tell their own story about Him in a language they could understand, a language heavily influenced by their own cultural understanding.

Advertisements

Putting Away Our Swords

Over the last few days, I’ve been mulling further over everything I was taught at the retreat last weekend. One of the recurring themes seemed to be standing up for our beliefs, and being vocal about defending the truth in the Bible. We talked about our roots as a Christian nation, and how much more moral our society was fifty years ago, and how we must hearken back to those days to recapture the values that the Bible champions.

Of course I have my own misgivings about that language, but what I want to write about today is the tendency we as Christians have to take matters into our own hands. We fret and worry about how degenerate our nation has become, and how we must rally to restore values that have changed in our culture. And we guilt-trip each other with the responsibility of witnessing: “What if this person dies in a car crash on their way home from work today, and you missed the only opportunity you’ll ever have to show them Jesus and save them from eternal damnation?”

I’ve been thinking about this tendency, and of all things, relating it to Peter’s actions in the Garden of Gethsemane right before Jesus was arrested. In Matthew 26:51-54, we read:

“And behold, one of those who were with Jesus stretched out his hand and drew his sword and struck the servant of the high priest and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, “Put your sword back into its place. Forall who take the sword will perish by the sword.  Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels? But how then should the Scriptures be fulfilled, that it must be so?”

Now, this could quite possibly be an interpretive stretch, but I think you and I have a lot to learn from Peter here (we know this is Peter because of a similar passage in John). I don’t think Jesus is just chastising Peter for resorting to violence when his beloved Messiah is threatened. Jesus is reminding Peter that He is God, that he is capable of constructing events in the garden however he wishes, and that if Jesus is arrested it doesn’t have anything to do with God’s failure to protect him—or Peter’s failure to protect him—and everything to do with a larger plan, a larger story playing out that Peter can’t see in the moment.

I think that when many Christians talk about how we are responsible for telling as many people as we can about Jesus, when we talk about how we are responsible for imposing “biblical” (read: conservative) values on our culture, we are guilty of doing what Peter did in the Garden of Gethsemane. We are relying on our own strength, and our own supposed knowledge of what God’s will is, to bring about change and usher in what we think God desires of our lives and our nation.

But just think about it: Peter thought he was doing what was best. He was defending Jesus. He was standing up boldly and making a statement of devotion by cutting off that soldier’s ear; it was undoubtedly a very brave thing to do.

But that wasn’t the plan God had in store. God had a larger, more beautiful, more liberating plan for Jesus in that moment. He wasn’t supposed to be just another revolutionary, inspiring people to take up arms and fight for his defense. It was never God’s intention to call down angels to the rescue of his Son. Instead Jesus went away calmly with his captors and subjected himself to humiliation and torture and death.

He lived and trusted in God’s plan for his life, instead of walking through life as if everything depended on his own actions and words to usher in the Kingdom. So perhaps we ought to live like Jesus, and a little less like Peter. Perhaps we ought to remember that we are not responsible for how God works in the hearts of people to draw them to himself. That his plan so far beyond our own limited vision, just as it was in that garden.

God’s kingdom will come, and we must have faith in that. God’s plans are so much bigger than inspiring us to cut off the ears of soldiers in our defense of him. Maybe the best way forward is to obey Jesus’ words to Peter, put away our swords, and trust in God’s future as we grow and walk with Him.

My God-Shaped Hole

They say that all human beings have a God-shaped hole in their lives. That we all are born with this innate sense that there is more to this life than the mundane routine of everyday life, that there is something bigger outside ourselves.

They say we starve for it. We desire it, even though we don’t really know what it is we’re longing for or waiting for. There is this elusive restlessness that sits in the underbelly of our being that is never satisfied, never allows us to feel at peace.

They say that there is only one Way that will fulfill that longing and satisfy that deep desire. They say that Way is found in the personhood of Jesus, in saying a prayer of repentance and submitting your life to the Lord.

That’s what they say.

I prayed that prayer when I was five years old. I don’t remember it, but I remember that my father walked me through it. I grew up raised in a Christian home, attending church nearly every single Sunday of my life, and doing all the kids’ programs when I was a child and all the youth programs when I was a teenager.

But that’s not all. I grew up with parents who valued authentic relationship with Jesus, who taught me and my siblings that this Christian life consists of so much more than what goes on beneath a steeple. We prayed as a family often, and we had Bible studies together. I would talk about God with my mom all the time, and I would argue about (okay, sometimes fruitfully discuss) God with my dad less than all the time. My parents are conservative, but not tight-fisted; they let us grow and mature on our own, teaching us but not holding it against us when we ventured outside the umbrella of what they believe is right.

Despite that upbringing, despite being raised to seek after God in every part of my life, I’ve never felt that fulfillment that Christians say only Christ can bring. When I am unflinchingly honest, I imagine that I feel as much doubt and angst and general yearning for more in life that the most die-hard atheist might feel.

Yet I believe in the miracle of the incarnation with all my heart. I claim Jesus as Lord, I claim the Bible as the Word God gave us to reveal Himself to us (even if I view scripture in a different way than most most conservative Christians). Shouldn’t that mean the God-shaped hole in my heart has been infused with the Holy Spirit?

I no longer think so. I don’t think that “hole” ever really goes away. I have moments of joy and peace, but they are always fleeting, always temporary. I think this Christian life is more like a series of hills and valleys, ebbs and flows, moments when God’s presence feels as near as your own breath, and other times when the most honest thought you can conjure is one of doubt and wondering, “Is there anything at all beyond this tangible life I can see?”

But I think that longing exists so we are drawn outside ourselves, driven to seek more, strive more, reach beyond our mundane existence for the hand of the Father, the hand of the One who is always waiting to embrace us with open arms.

A New Wineskin for the Gospel?

 Image Credit

It’s been weeks since the World Vision scandal happened, but I haven’t been able to work up the heart to write about it until now. It was such a terrible situation that disheartened me like no other culture war scandal has, and I wanted to wait until the visceral reaction had given way to a more studious, thoughtful attitude about everything that happened.

First, let me briefly outline the situation. On March 24, the magazine Christianity Today announced that World Vision USA had decided to amend its employment requirements to allow individuals in same-sex relationships to work for World Vision. They were clear that this was not a theological statement affirming gay marriage, but rather a neutral one that sought to treat married couples consistently. It was a courageous decision, one that the board claimed to have prayed over and considered for years.

And then, of course, the storm erupted. Christians across the nation were outraged at the decision World Vision had made. In the course of two days, the organization received an abundance of hate mail. After all was said and done, approximately 10,000 children lost their sponsorships. Let me say that again. Ten thousand children were dropped from sponsorship so that Christians all over the United States could make a statement about how wrong World Vision’s decision was. This is 10,000 futures altered tragically, 10,000 mouths that will go unfed, 10,000 little boys and girls who will ask why? and have no answer in return.

It fills me with such rage to think about it, to think about how evangelicals have turned children in need into pawns in a culture war, into collateral damage sacrificed on the altar of self-righteous indignation.

The way in which these people rallied to withdraw support from their sponsored children and from World Vision was the worst part of everything that happened, in my opinion. But then, to add insult to injury, World Vision decided to reverse their decision just two days after announcing it! I, along with many others I’m sure, was utterly shocked. Do you remember how I said they had considered their decision prayerfully for years? I don’t care what anyone says, I can’t believe World Vision reversed their decision because they believed it was the right thing to do. Not after they had prayed over their initial decision for so long. No. They had capitulated to the pressures of the conservative right, plain and simple.

Anyway, that is all I’m going to say about that. As I’ve thought about this whole situation over the last several weeks, I’ve realized that dwelling on my disdain for how so many evangelicals reacted won’t make what happened any less painful for everyone involved—for World Vision, for the kids whose needs went unmet, and for the LGBT men and women who undoubtedly felt like pawns themselves.

Instead I want to talk about what happened afterward in the blogosphere. This is where I saw the thread of new beginnings, in places where people understood for the first time just how far evangelicalism has strayed from the Gospel and how deeply immersed in the culture war it has become. Bloggers all over the place, in tones that were (mostly) not aggressive, not antagonistic, but rather heart sore and sad, came to realize that evangelicals no longer represent what they believe to be the Christian faith.

The reactions to World Vision’s announcement and reversal were the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Rachel Held Evans decided that “rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees.” Micah J. Murray voiced the truth that “a lot of us [are] walking away pretty sure that we’re not evangelicals anymore but not sure what that even means.” Zack Hunt wrote about how the Church is in need of new wineskins: “As the past few years have hinted at, and last week made crystal clear, evangelicalism is an old wineskin that is long past its expiration date.”*

Then, Ben Moberg wrote this piece, which had echoes of a farewell and a new beginning all rolled up in the same blog post. His tone was somber, yet hopeful. Full of expectation for a return to the heart of the Gospel that sheds the legalism and hard lines in the sand that have come to characterize the evangelical world.

So this is the silver lining. This is the redemption that is born out of the awful mess that was the World Vision scandal. It is sad, of course, that it took something like this to spur people of faith everywhere to search out a new way forward, but it is also exciting, in a way. We are on the brink of something new, a reimagining of how we live our lives as disciples of Jesus and followers of the Word, a step away from the constriction of the pharisees and a step toward the Kingdom. For I know that my God is a God of redemption, one who breathes life into the darkest of places, even when those places are of our own making.

* The wineskin is a reference to Matthew 9:16-17.

 

The Scandal of God’s Grace

A blog post I read awhile ago on Addie Zierman’s blog rings through my ears every now and again. In her beautiful and poetic writing style, Addie captures the scandalous nature of God’s grace. She writes:

“This is the only place in your whole world where there are no expectations; this is the one person you cannot disappoint. There is no test. God is not waiting for you to do some certain thing or to say some particular combination of words to give you Good Things.”

God’s grace is limitless—there is no end to His love for us and no time in our lives when we are required to earn it. We are infinitely loved exactly as we are—with all of our baggage, bad attitudes, shameful pasts, and every other part of us that the world might deem to be unworthy of love or forgiveness.

We are accepted by God, we are loved by God, and there is nothing we can do in this life to make that untrue.

More often than not,  I struggle deeply with this idea. My human nature rebels against the grace of God because it seems too marvelous, too beautiful to be true. And what’s more, I think most people struggle with this, because whenever I talk about that with someone—whenever I say, “God accepts us, God loves, we are cherished by God more deeply than we could possibly imagine exactly as we are” the response I hear is always one of conditions: “Yes but God doesn’t want us to stay that way. True repentance means turning away from sin.” Or they say, “Yes but, remember, God is holy, and he cannot tolerate sin.”

I listened to a sermon once that talked about that incredible story of the pharisees and the adulterous woman in John 8. If you don’t know the story, it’s basically about how the pharisees are trying to trap Jesus into drawing a line in the sand when it comes to sin and stoning a woman for committing adultery. But Jesus turns the tables on them, and tells them that only a sinless person has the right to condemn her. He defends her in such a beautiful way,  a way that would have been unprecedented at the time for a man to treat a woman. It’s a lovely story.

And here’s the part that is relevant to grace and our inability to come to terms with the enormity of it. During the sermon, the pastor talked about how that story was very nearly omitted from John’s gospel. It was too scandalous, too shocking, too incredible to imagine that the Messiah would respond in the way that he did, by offering her grace, by saing “Neither do I condemn you”. Early Christians thought it might communicate the wrong kind of message to put in print that Jesus would do such a thing.

They couldn’t conceive of a grace so exhaustive that it would rise to the defense of not only a woman, but an adulteress.

Yet that is exactly the depth and breadth of God’s grace. It knows no limits, and there is no corner of humanity that is so dark, so lost, so cruel or filled with hate, that God’s light can’t break in and wash it all away. It has no conditions, and no requirements to live up to in order to receive it. All that is required of us is to let it happen, to simply let God’s grace wash over us.

Noah: A Film Review

**Please be aware: this review contains significant spoilers for the film Noah**

Since its release, Darren Aronofsky’s film Noah has garnered extremely polarized responses. Some praised it as a masterpiece, and others deplored its alterations of the original story of Noah and the ark, which can be found in Genesis 6-9. I had been anticipating the film for some time, and my interest was piqued despite all the harsh Facebook statuses about how much it butchered God’s Word. Some of the more liberal blogs I follow were posting quite positive reviews, so I thought it was worth giving it a chance for myself.

I’m very glad that I did! I found so much to love about this movie, even if it did include a few plot lines that I felt were unnecessarily over-the-top. What I enjoyed most about Noah was how Aronofsky brought the characters to life and reminded us in very sobering fashion that the story of Noah is not happy one; it is a story about genocide.

I’ve read the Bible story many times throughout my life, but it wasn’t until I watched the film that it occurred to me how tragic it must have been for Noah and his family to live through the destruction of all human and animal life on earth except themselves and the animals on the ark. What a burden!

Aronofsky fleshes out every character in the film, infusing the story with humanity. Most especially, I found his treatment of the character Ham to be absolutely fascinating. Of all the characters in the film, it is with Ham that I sympathize most. He creates tension in the story because he is Noah’s foil; Noah seeks to preserve nature, but Ham has no qualms about uprooting flowers. Noah is merciless (or faithful, depending on what way you look at it) in his insistence that all humanity is condemned according to God’s will, but Ham has compassion for a girl and tries to take her on the ark as his wife. Noah advocates non-violence, and uses his weapons only to protect his family, but Ham is fascinated when the film’s antagonist, Tubal-Cain, offers him a battle-ax. Ham is a complicated character, clearly lured by the evil in his heart yet desperate to rescue the victims in his life at all costs—even the cost of his father’s life.

I also found the character of Noah to be compellingly faithful to the biblical account. His loyalty to God—whom he and others call the Creator—is unwavering. Though the viewer senses his anguish, he remains stubbornly obedient to God’s will. Throughout the film, Noah is faced with decisions in which his own moral conscience is pitted against what he believes is God’s divine will.  His resolute determination to carry out that will, despite the pleadings of his wife and sons to the contrary, reveal a character consistent with the man described in the Bible.

Noah is committed to righteousness and obedience, and he is willing to follow God’s commands even when they border on the heinousness. In one of the most shocking scenes in the film, Ham attempts to rescue a girl from Tubal-Cain’s camp and bring her on the ark. As they are escaping, however, her foot gets caught in an animal trap, and when Noah arrives to fetch his son, he drags Ham away and leaves the girl to suffer a grisly death at the hands of an approaching mob of men. And later, aboard the ark, Noah is faced with an even more impossible choice in his commitment to carry out the task he believes God gave him.

There are, of course, several parts of the film that have caused contention among Christians. However, I had no qualms with the liberties Aronofsky took with the source material for two reasons. First, poetic license is inevitable. Not only is the biblical story of Noah quite brief, I found through reading various articles that no major detractions from the Bible story were spun purely out of the director’s imagination. Other, non-canonical ancient manuscripts such as the Book of Enoch and the Book of Jubilee were also used as source material for the film, and it is from these manuscripts that characters such as the fallen, rock-encrusted angels are derived. For an analysis of how these manuscripts were used in the film, check out this article.

Other viewers were accepting of the film’s deviation from the biblical account, but took issue with Noah because of the way God was depicted. Instead of a loving Father who is grieved at humanity’s wickedness and in close relationship with his servant Noah, God is depicted as cold and distant, relentless in his judgment of humanity.

I disagree with this analysis, and that is the second reason I found the film to be a fair and faithful representation of the biblical account and the nature of God.  In the climax of the film, when Noah is faced with the most difficult decision of his life in which he must choose mercy or judgment, he chooses mercy, and listens to the compassion in his own heart rather than what he believes is the divine, wrathful edict of his Creator. And Ila, Shem’s wife and the recipient of this mercy, suggests that God chose to save Noah because he knew his heart, and he knew that in the end when faced with the choice between judgment and mercy, Noah would choose mercy; Noah would choose love.

In conclusion, I found the film to be a remarkably profound adaptation that explores the deepest questions offered by its source material: Is humanity worth saving? Is God’s character one of love or judgment?  Are human beings inherently evil or good? At the end of the day, which characterization will win out? Noah asks all these questions and more in a manner that is bold yet tactful, urging the viewer to think beyond the basic frame of the story. And an adaptation that accomplishes that is, in my opinion, a faithful one.

CTW Conference Part 4: Millennials and the Church

In this post, I will be writing about the final three sessions of the conference, since they all revolve around one question: why are millennials leaving the church? Of course, as someone right in the middle of the generation labeled millennials (who are generally considered to be people born between the years 1984 and 2002), this conversation is very pertinent to me, and I found the discussions concerning this topic to be very enlightening.

The morning breakout, titled “Vanishing Acts”, discussed several key “felt needs” that the church should be addressing if it is serious about creating a space that is inviting for millennials. The breakout was led by Nick Cunningham, the young adult pastor at Ginghamsburg Church.

The first felt need Nick talked about is the need for relationships. He cited a study which revealed that 60% of millennials who have chosen to stay in the church do so because of the friendships they have developed. Often, however, churches can make this environment difficult by structuring small group gatherings as classroom lectures.  When a group leader spends a whole hour teaching a lesson, it creates an environment that prioritizes lessons over relationships and gives people the perfect opportunity to leverage curriculums as a shield against forming genuine relationships.

Another felt need we discussed during the break-out was the need for authenticity. Nick used a pop-culture example to illustrate this need: Anne Hathaway, whose image has traditionally been associated with the smiling, sweet girl next door (think The Princess Diaries, Ella Enchanted, and Bride Wars) didn’t gain the respect of the public until her role in Les Miserables. In this film, her life is tragic, and her distressed emotional state is revealed for all the world to see. In short, Anne plays a role that is authentic.

Millennials today are looking for an oasis from the hype—a place where all the gaudiness and unrealistic representations of life are blessedly absent, and we can be real about our dreams, fears, doubts, and hopes about our faith and our future. We are looking for a place where the truest, hardest questions in our hearts will be handled gently yet seriously, instead of being glossed over with an oversimplified answer that doesn’t really hold water when we step outside the doors of a church and into real life.

Admittedly, vulnerability is hard; revealing our authentic feelings is hard. But it is also the truest way to form meaningful relationships, and in that way, the first and second felt needs we discussed are inextricably interrelated.

Nick concluded his break-out with an appeal to millennials. Of course, the work to reconcile the lost generation of young people back to the church cannot be a one-way street. He encouraged our generation to challenge ourselves in three ways: first, to stop being cyncial, and look for the hope that is the kingdom of God instead of dwelling in wariness at every turn. He also encouraged us to not be reluctant to make decisions and step outside our own bubble of comfort. And lastly, he acknowledged that it is often so easy for us to become ensnared by shallow, trendy approaches to church. He encouraged us to continue seeking that authentic community which is so important in the body of Christ.

After the morning sessions, we broke for lunch then continued on to the final two sessions of the conference—the two I had been anticipating greatly during the weeks preceding the conference. Rachel Held Evans, a popular blogger and author of two books, delivered the afternoon keynote entitled “Keeping the Church Weird.”

She started with the sobering statistics: today, 59% of millennials have stopped attending church. Rachel contended that the reasons for this are varied and complex, but at the heart of it is grace. We wrap the gospel in so many layers of theology—so many principles for “right belief”—that we make Christianity more exclusive instead of more inclusive.

Rachel also talked about the story of Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch, which you can read in Acts 8:26-40. Traditionally, pastors use this story as a framework for evangelism: this is how you reach people who are seeking after Jesus. However, to connect this story back to Nick’s point about authenticity, reading the story that way overlooks the absolute scandal of what Philip was doing.

As a eunuch, the Ethiopian was ceremonially unclean. He was a outcast of the religious right, deemed unworthy to participate in temple worship, let alone be baptized. Yet when Philip explains who Jesus is to him, he does not hesitate to ask Philip to baptize him. Rachel points out that alarms must have been going off in Philip’s head: “But this guy isn’t clean; how could he understand the gospel?” “This man is the last sort of person I would expect to baptize!”

Yet when the rubber met the road, and Philip was poised with a simple question, he did not hesitate. He led the eunuch down into the water, and he baptized him.

It is a beautiful example of the truth that the Gospel isn’t offensive because of who it keeps out; it is offensive because of who it lets in. If we get out of the way, and let God do his work in the world, he might use methods we don’t approve of, and that thought can be terrifying for those who have the methods—who have the theologies—all hammered out.

Church, Rachel reminded us, needs to be a place where the outcasts, the eunuchs of today, feel just as welcomed as the middle-class “acceptable” people. It needs to be a place where everyone can pass within the doors of church, breathe a sigh of relief, and lay out the real and true baggage of our lives before our fellow believers.

In short, church needs to start looking like an AA meeting.

After Rachel’s enlightening discussion, there was time for Q&A, and of course one of the first questions asked was what church leaders can do practically to demonstrate that they are serious about implementing this sort of change. At this point, Rachel bravely shifted the conversation from the eunuchs of the ancient world to the eunuchs of today: the LGBTQ community.

She talked about the many changes we can make in order to demonstrate genuine compassion for them: first, use their language. Learn what the acronym means, and why they use it (and as a side note, don’t ever use homosexual as a noun!). Create room for their voices to be heard, and listen to their stories in the same way that Philip listened to the eunuch as he explained his fascination with Isaiah 53.

Rachel concluded her talk with reminding us that solidarity is not the same thing as conformity, and people rarely fit into the categories that we try to assign them. She offered the idea that the best way to establish that solidarity despite the differences is confession. Confession drops our guards and puts us on level playing ground as equally broken human beings. When we are honest about what hurts, honest about our own shortcomings, we pave the way for others to do the same.

The Q&A with Rachel continued into the afternoon break-out session, where we returned to the broader discussion of evangelicalism in the United States. Rachel discussed how it is troubling that those who are most committed to the evangelical label are also the ones who define it most narrowly.

This is very problematic in the Church today, because our narrow theology has led to what Rachel called the “cost of false fundamentals”: people are leaving the church because the feel they must make choices that aren’t central to the Gospel (i.e., believe in creationism or evolution, be gay or be Christian). And when their reading of scripture and their experiences of the world lead them to embrace a view contrary to the conservative one, that rejection is equated with rejecting the Gospel.

Yet, for every rule we create, for every stipulation we place upon what constitutes a faithful follower of Jesus, there will always be someone for whom the rule doesn’t fit. There will always be someone who is walking unashamed in the grace of the Father, yet who seems to our limited vision to be living a life contrary to our idea of Christianity. Embracing these people and accepting that sometimes God accepts those we deem unacceptable is the epitome of grace.

This, Rachel suggested, is the direction the church must turn. We must embrace those who seem unlovable. We must be willing to step out and speak an honest word, even when we fear upsetting other or losing their respect. Sometimes, our capacity to love despite our differences is more resilient than we expect.

Thank you for listening along with me as I write out my experiences at the Change the World Missional Conference at Ginghamsburg Church. I learned lessons there that I will never forget, and I hope you learned a little something as well by reading about the teachings of these incredible men and women of God.

 

Sometimes It Seems like Faith is Fickle

This Christian life is such a freaking roller coaster ride. Sometimes, it’s downright exhausting.

Until a few weeks ago, I was sailing along pretty easily. I was thinking gracious thoughts towards those around me, and meditating on what God wants of me. I was reading my Bible hungrily and with a submissive spirit that feels pretty rare these days. Basically, things were going pretty well for me, spiritually speaking. I was at the top of a hill, convinced that the valleys were far behind me.

Yeah, right.

Then, in the space of a week, my circumstances took a huge turn for the worse. My roommate moved out unexpectedly, leaving me having to suddenly pay extra on rent and depleting my savings account, which is always something that stresses me out tremendously. Then just two days later, I got bad news about my family. I’ll spare you the details of it, but basically my dad has bi-polar disorder and had to be hospitalized. I know this  doesn’t sound like too much of a crisis, but trust me, it was.

So in the space of those few days, I went from feeling positive and optimistic and loving towards my heavenly Father…to not caring a bit about anything related to God, and just wanting to be home with my family. So I made the drive, and spent a weekend with them. I visited my dad twice, which was extremely difficult for me emotionally. And then I drove back to an ordinary week at work, when inside I was falling apart at the seams.

Right now, my heart is still heavy, but I am on the mend and am able to process everything I’m going through. I still haven’t found a roommate, so I’m still feeling incredibly anxious. But my dad’s situation is improving a lot, and he may be released from the hospital early next week. So all in all, things are looking up for me. But during that week while I was still an emotional wreck about everything that was going on, I just didn’t give a fig for God. He wasn’t the one I turned to for comfort; it was to friends and family. I regarded my Bible with bitterness and angst, instead of drawing comfort from its holy words, as many of my friends tried to help me to do.

And now, as I process all of this, there is one thought that recurrently runs through my head: Geez. Faith is so fickle.

All it took was my circumstances being derailed out of my control for any sense of security I felt in Jesus to evaporate into thin air. All it took was a combination of these two crises—mostly what happened with my dad, but the roommate situation really wasn’t helping matters—for every faithful, positive thought I had about God to just drain completely out of me. I think the reasons for this are complicated, because I really believe it has a lot to do with the specifics circumstances of my dad’s story, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating.

Because seriously. What does that say about me? What does that say about the true strength of my walk with God? I get dealt a bad blow in life, and suddenly a faith that felt alive and vibrant and pushing forward suddenly felt dead and useless? In the space of a week I went from feeling secure to feeling hopeless, feeling optimistic to feeling apathetic, feeling joy to feeling downright miserable pain and abandonment.

How does that happen?

It’s so discouraging. And yet, if nothing else, what I’ve gone through over the last few weeks have taught me this: God’s grace, God’s love, are not dependent on my feelings. Whether I am soaring to the peak of a hill, or trapped in a valley so low I don’t even care if God exists at all, He is there, loving me still. That will never change, no matter how difficult and emotionally taxing my circumstances are.

Faith has never been about my emotions.

It’s just so hard to remind myself of that when the emotions are all negative ones.

The Shame of Morality

Let me tell you a little bit about me. I’m the girl who grew up the perfect archetype of a good Christian girl. I can’t remember a period of my life when I wasn’t attending church consistently, often multiple times a week. I breezed through high school with easy straight A’s, then went on to attend one of the most conservative Christian colleges in the nation. The first time I had a drink just because I wanted to was a thrilling moment during which I giggled inwardly at the scandal of my rebellion.

I’ve always pursued morality tenaciously, and I’ve felt plagued with guilt every time I inevitably fell short of the standard I enforced upon myself (though I always told myself it was God who enforced it on me).

This might seem like a good thing, but I can assure you it is not. When you ride yourself so hard, you have a way of turning good morals into an idol, and conflating your adherence to those morals with God’s love for you. So when you fall short, the worthiness you feel in the sight of God also diminishes, and that is something that should never happen.

Now I’m going to turn a corner, and tell you a secret. I made it to third base with a guy I was in love with. I compromised my values, capitulated to lust, and awakened desires and impulses that I never knew existed.

And to this day I feel the shame of that. My idea of morality is so hopelessly entangled with my desire to please God that I can’t really sort out whether I feel ashamed because that’s what I’m supposed to feel when I compromise my sexual purity, or because I sinned, or just because it all felt so good in the moment.

I think there might also be a deeper, more profound reason for this saturating sense of shame. Messing around with my (now ex) boyfriend was the first time I’d ever deliberately committed one of the “big sins” I’d been taught to avoid. In other words, it was the first sin I’d committed that truly tarnished my image of myself as a “good Christian girl” and came face-to-face with the reality my own depravity.

So maybe, in a weird and ironic way, something good came out of my choice to compromise. I learned how weak my flesh can be, and how disposed to sinfulness I really am, in spite of my upbringing and my commitment to my values. I’ve come out the other side a wiser and more careful woman, though also a woman who now has some emotional baggage to work through that I didn’t have before.

So, what do you know. Perhaps good can come of sin after all—even the sexual kind.

Relationships and the Church

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been feeling very uplifted and encouraged at church and in my personal walk with God. I’m not sure if it’s just because my mood is at the high point of an ebb, and if the flow will soon come and I’ll go back to feeling cynical. Or perhaps it’s because God is genuinely working on my heart, making me more malleable towards those who think differently than I do. I think, more than anything, I have come to realize that compassionate hearts can be found in the most unlikely of places, and that the Christians I have chosen to surround myself with don’t deserve all the harsh negativity that I have lately been directing at evangelical Christianity as a whole. These people are my brothers and sisters, and our common bond in affirming Christ as Lord always comes first.

This is why I can forgive when the Christians around me fall short of what I believe God desires of us as Christians.  This is why I can think before I speak, consider the impact of my words before I let them fall from my lips, because I know just as well as anybody that words have consequences. This is why I can try to practice patience and grace, even as my heart pushes back against the conservative values  my church teaches, values I know so well and have come to regard with a wary eye.

We are all sons and daughters of the same Kingdom, and we are all beautiful and indispensable parts of the body of Christ. Some of us defend the literalism of the Bible protectively, and some of us have learned to see truth in it whether the events it describes actually happened or not. Some of us find their relationship with God strengthened by leaving organized religion, and some of us desperately need to be surrounded by other church-goers in order to stay sane in this crazy world. For some of us, love and compassion come easily, but so does scripturally unsound compromise.

We all have different battles we fight, and different gifts we have to offer the Body. No two of us are the same, and this is why we need each other so much. Even when I’m not in a  good place like I am now, and angsty thoughts about the Church are the only kinds of thoughts I can find it in my heart to generate, it is still so wrong to give up on her. The Church is my family, my support, a powerful catalyst that God can use to keep me connected to himself. And the kicker is, the Church is made up of people who are no more flawed, misguided, and capable of lousy judgment than I myself am. And when I remember that, I find it very hard to keep those angsty thoughts churning.

So I’m going to keep building relationships. I’m not going to stop challenging the status quo, or thinking critically about how we can best approach how we do community together and how we stay unified even though we will never wholly agree on how it is we’re supposed to go about being Christians. Because at the end of our lives, when Jesus calls us home and we stand before the judgment seat, I don’t think he’ll be interviewing me about my beliefs when he assesses my devotion to him. I think he’ll be asking me how I loved him with my life, and how I loved his children. And I want to be able to say that I loved his children by offering them the exact same thing that he offered me: a relationship.