The In Between Day

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Featured Image -- 3527Holy Saturday

Today is the quiet day.

In the church historic, the art for today portrays the Harrowing of Hell, Jesus making proclamation to the “spirits in prison” (1 Peter 3:18-22), trampling the devil, destroying the gates of Hades, and leading Adam and the dead patriarchs from the tomb.

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Unfortunately, life is not lived from eternity backwards. We aren’t with Jesus as he, as the Apostle’s Creed says, descends “to the dead.”  We experience life from the perspective of those living between Good Friday and Easter Sunday.

Years ago, before being president of Eastern Seminary, Tony Campolo was a comedian. He had a memorable bit about the brilliance of Black preaching. He said something to the effect that while white pastors waxed eloquent for thousands of unmemorable words, Black preachers might build a sermon around a single sentence, but it would pack a spiritual punch. Campolo’s example was, “It may be Friday, but Sunday’s a comin’.” It may have been comedy, but it was terrific preaching. (a link of Campolo reprising bits of it 25 years later.) Unfortunately, we do not spend most of our lives in Good Friday, where the wheels come off our hopes and dreams. And we do not, most of us, spend the lion’s share of our life rejoicing in the power of God on Easter Sunday. We spend most of our days in between, in the day with no name, Saturday.

Good Friday is “good” because of Easter. But it gets hard to remember and difficult to believe a dawn is coming stuck in Saturday.

Years ago I read a book by Philip Yancey, an author I knew from excellent devotions he had written in a youth Bible. In the book he relayed a story of a friend’s grandmother who was buried in an Episcopal church yard under an ancient oak tree. She had a single word engraved on her tombstone: “Waiting”.

For God alone my soul in silence waits.” -Ps. 62:5

*If you are a fan of the preaching of the early church, click the photo below for a fantastic sermon attributed to Ephipanius…

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Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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Holy Week for Newbies

Have you ever wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday?

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well. The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth is the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

The cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates.

I was a leader for 25 years with Young Life, a ministry that focusses on explaining Jesus to unchurched high school kids. Every semester leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe more than a million high school kids will hang on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that night. When the message was finished kids sat in stunned silence. Except for a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran up to my face and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life. I have NEVER heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?”

Without thinking I said, “Maybe the church is so busy telling kids what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was, it turns out, a pretty good answer. But Josh missed my accidental brilliance. “I don’t know about that,” He turned toward the door, “I’m going Starbucks.” He pulls open my friend’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open. I have to tell someone what Jesus did for them!” The door slammed and Josh was gone.

Knowing what Jesus did on the cross in detail, Josh connected the dots to what he did know, that Jesus went to the cross to satisfy a debt that only God could pay. That night Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do, why he would go to the cross. In John 19:30 Jesus tells us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. All of the wandering, brokenness, and idolatry, taken in one awful fell swoop. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha on a cross between two thieves. And the universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said,  “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” That as well, finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” Finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what, that, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet Satan stood in hell and clapped. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh, uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Why is an execution a “Good” Friday? Because, since that Friday, regardless of what you see or hear or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won, won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

*How does one commemorate Good Friday? Generally there are two ways: The Good Friday liturgy and by walking the Stations of the Cross. At St. John the Divine, Houston we have the Good Friday liturgy at noon, and stations at 7am, 1 and 6pm. We also have a very powerful 7-7:45 pm service called “The Service of Shadows” that is an adaptation of a medieval service that tells the story of Jesus’ suffering at the cross through Old Testament prophecy, chant, shared responses, and growing darkness.

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Good Friday: The axis of the cosmos

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Holy Week for Newbies

Have you ever wondered why an execution is known as, “Good” Friday?

The early church believed Jesus was crucified on March 25th. Further, they believed that, since re-creation happened on March 25th, the first day of creation must have happened that day as well. The early Christian’s view of time was much loftier than the later idea that time revolves around, Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.” The original idea of Jesus’ followers was that the cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates. It wasn’t that the earth is the center of the universe. It was that the cross is.

The cross of Christ is the Axis Mundi, a timeless, still center to the universe, around which the entire cosmos rotates.

I was a leader for 25 years with Young Life, a ministry that focusses on explaining Jesus to unchurched high school kids. Every semester leaders do a talk on the crucifixion. One Monday night 140 high school kids were shoehorned into my friend Rawleigh Grove’s living room as I gave the “cross talk.” Regardless of what you have heard of high school kids interest in the things of God, I can tell you that all over the globe more than a million high school kids will hang on every word of the story of Jesus’ crucifixion that night. When the message was finished kids sat in stunned silence. Except for a church kid named Josh. Josh jumped up, ran up to my face and said, “I’ve been in church my whole life. I have NEVER heard this. Why has no one has EVER told me this?”

Without thinking I said, “Maybe the church is so busy telling kids what not to do that we forget to tell you what Jesus did.” That was, it turns out, a pretty good answer. But Josh missed my accidental brilliance. “I don’t know about that,” He turned toward the door, “I’m going Starbucks.” He pulls open my friend’s front door and yells over his shoulder, “It’s the only place still open. I have to tell someone what Jesus did for them!” The door slammed and Josh was gone.

Knowing what Jesus did on the cross in detail, Josh connected the dots to what he did know, that Jesus went to the cross to satisfy a debt that only God could pay. That night Josh’s world began to pivot around a new axis: the immovable cross of Jesus Christ.

Centuries before Jesus lived, Isaiah passed along (in Isaiah 52 and 53) what God told us Jesus would someday do, why he would go to the cross. In John 19:30 Jesus tells us how it panned out – “It is finished.”

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “I am finished.” He didn’t say, “Oops.” He didn’t say, “three cheers for the attempt.” Jesus said, “It is finished.

Jesus’ “it” was nothing less than the forgiveness of all that stands between us and the Father. All of the wandering, brokenness, and idolatry, taken in one awful fell swoop. The relationship of a lifetime for all eternity freely offered, the opportunity to join God’s high and holy mission to redeem a lost world. That is what Jesus finished on a hill called Golgotha on a cross between two thieves. And the universe rotates around that event.

Isaiah said,  “He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows;” And Jesus thundered, “It is finished.”

“He was pierced for our transgressions,” and “crushed for our iniquities.” It is finished.

“His chastisement brought us peace, and by his wounds we are healed.” That too, finished.

“The iniquity of us all was laid on him.” Finished.

“By oppression and judgment he was taken away.” Done.

“Cut off from the land of the living, stricken for the transgression of my people.” That as well, finished.

“It was the will of the Lord to crush him; and put him to grief.” Finished.

Because of him “many shall be accounted righteous.” Finished.

“He poured out his soul to death and was numbered with the transgressors.” Finished.

“He bore the sins of many.” And guess what, that, too, is finished.

And while the world grew quiet Satan stood in hell and clapped. And Jesus, with perhaps the faintest hint of a grin, shook his head, “uh, uh.” And said, “It. Is. Finished.” And he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.

Why is an execution a “Good” Friday? Because, since that Friday, regardless of what you see or hear or think, the entire cosmos pivots on the axis of the victory won, won on the immovable, finished, cross of Jesus Christ.

*How does one commemorate Good Friday? Generally there are two ways: The Good Friday liturgy and by walking the Stations of the Cross. At St. John the Divine, Houston we have the Good Friday liturgy at noon, and stations at 7am, 1 and 6pm. We also have a very powerful 7-7:45 pm service called “The Service of Shadows” that is an adaptation of a medieval service that tells the story of Jesus’ suffering at the cross through Old Testament prophecy, chant, shared responses, and growing darkness.

 

When God Goes the Wrong Way

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The “triumphal entry” of King Jesus into Jerusalem was through the back gate. Ironically, at roughly the same time, the other key player in the drama, Roman Governor Pontius Pilate, would have been arriving through the cities’ front gate on his way to the Roman palace just inside the city wall. Kings may outrank governors, but conquerors outrank the vanquished. So, while Pilate arrived in a caravan, with horses, trumpets, and armed retinue; on the back side of the city, the king of the Jews, arrived on a donkey. People bowed for both. For Jesus, though, they bowed in expectation rather than spear-point. Matthew 21:1-10 tells us, they shouted, “Hosanna!” and “spread their clothes and cut branches before him.”  These people were in.

The whole city was stirred.” They were all in.

At least they were on Sunday.

By Friday, though, they were all out.

By Friday, the crowds had abandoned Jesus. The 72 had abandoned him. Even his twelve closest friends abandoned him. By the time they nailed Jesus to a cross on skull hill, none remain save his mother and John, a teenager too young to matter.

Why did the crowd…so passionate on Sunday, jump ship so quickly?

Their disillusionment seems to have begun when Jesus entered the temple the next morning. It would have been a pregnant moment: the crowd anticipating Jesus, their long awaited political deliverer, to turn to the right, toward the Antonia fortress, built by Rome on the temple wall to stare down into the Jewish temple – Big Brother making sure Israel remembered who’s boss. Jesus would show them!

Except that Jesus entered the temple and, where everyone expected him to turn right and shake his fist at the conquering pagans, Jesus wheeled left and began overturning the tables of the moneychangers. Moneychangers had a nice little business converting secular money into special temple money to buy animals for the sacrifices. At a profit, of course.

This act must have been befuddling. “Jesus, we might be getting a C in following God, but at least we are trying. How could you go after us? The Romans are the problem here.”

Palm Sunday exposes an inconvenient truth: No matter how excited we are about God today, we are only days away from turning our back on all that is good and true. It is human nature to turn from God when things don’t make sense.

We can go from “I’m all in” to “I’m so out of here” on a dime. 

I do not want to minimize your pain. It is all too real. When the wheels come off, the crash is brutal. Circumstances appear purposeless. God seems to work slowly. Or worse, God seems to give evil and injustice the nod. It was true on that first Palm Sunday, and it’s true for us – Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose.

We can’t imagine our deliverer turning (what seems to us) the wrong way.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we want.

But he is the savior we need.

The savior we desperately need.

When you are tempted to think Jesus doesn’t get it, remember this:

Jesus knew temptation: He was in the desert forty days…tempted by Satan” (Mark 1:13).

Jesus knew poverty: “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.” (Matt 8:20)

Jesus knew weariness: Jesus, tired as he was from the journey, sat down by the well.” (John 4:6)

Jesus knew sorrow: “My soul is overwhelmed to the point of death.” (Matt 26:38)

Jesus knew loneliness: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46)

Jesus knew frustration: He overturned their tables saying.…’how dare you turn my Father’s house into a market!’” (John 2:15-16)

Jesus knew disappointment: “O Jerusalem…how often I have longed to gather your children together…but you were not willing.” (Luke 13:34)

Jesus knew ridicule: “Again and again they struck him…and spit on him. Falling on their knees, they mocked him.” (Mark 15:19)

Jesus knew rejection: “many of his disciples…no longer followed him.” (John 6:66)

The author of Hebrews tells us that Jesus is a not “unable to sympathize with our weaknesses.” He gets it.

In that day when the world least makes sense, the pain seems unbearable, when confusion reigns; do not lose hope. God will redeem even this. On your worst day, I believe the Lord is grabbing your face, gazing into your wounded eyes and saying:

“I promise you my child; the magnificence that will one day be yours will so overwhelmingly repurpose and overcome the suffering and pain you are experiencing right now, that it will turn even this tragedy to indescribable joy and unsurpassed splendor.”

So, friend, don’t give up. Don’t pack up your palms and go home. Stay the course. Hang onto your Hosanna when you expect God to go right and he jukes left.

Jesus Christ is not the savior we would choose. But he will never, ever, ever…be anything other than the savior you and I need.

 

 

Do I matter?

The encouragement of an obscure Saint.

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On Wednesday morning, groggy with sleep and sinus infection, I stumbled into the chapel vesting room to prepare for the 7AM Eucharist. Out of the corner of my eye I noticed a splotch of a red on the liturgical calendar. Red indicates the commemoration of a martyr, in this case St. Bartholomew, one of the twelve apostles. Bartholomew, tradition tells us was martyred by being flayed. He is portrayed in art with a knife in one hand and his own skin in the other.

Think about Bartholomew for a moment…Allow the great childhood Sunday school stories of Bartholomew fill you. Ponder all you know of Bartholomew from your personal Bible study…

Is your mind flooded with remembrances of this great saint? Are you overwhelmed with gratitude at the anecdotes of his faithfulness? Or does your mind, like mine, draw a TOTAL blank?

We drew a blank because a Biblegateway search reveals no information about anyone named Bartholomew in the Bible outside of his being listed among the twelve in the synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke). We know nothing about Bartholomew from scripture. But we do know the fruit of his life: Bartholomew, tradition tells us, was the evangelist of the Armenians – The one ethnic group in the middle east to have successfully resisted Islam and wave after wave of persecution from every direction.

Bartholomew may have lived anonymously and died tragically, without a word or deed of his life recorded. But 2000 years later the results of what he did and said are still bearing fruit. The Armenian people, the subject of genocides and persecution, are sustained by the faith learned from Bartholomew the obscure.

Life, for all of , includes the tragic and painful. You may toil in obscurity. But the fruit of a life given away in service to our Lord Jesus points others to him not ourselves anyway. The legacy of a Christian is not our words, but his…not our deeds but his on our behalf. The example of St. Bartholomew tells us that a life given away for the Master always bears fruit. And always, always, matters.

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*Bartholomew may be the apostle identified as Nathanael in John 1. Nathanael is the apostle that when Philip went and found him to take him to Jesus said, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” When Nathanael went with him to Jesus,  Jesus said, “There is an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” Nathanael responded, “How do you know me?” When Jesus told him he saw him sitting under a tree miles away, Nathanael responded with an astounding statement of faith, “You are the son of God, the King of Israel.”

Spiritual but not religious: Code for “trendy yet not helpful”

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I recently walked the final leg of the El Camino de Santiago in Spain.[1] Before leaving I was in a coffee house having a conversation about the trip. A guy behind me asked, “Why Spain?” My response, “It’s a spiritual thing.” Today a lot of people, particularly millennials, care about “spirituality.” 250,000 people walked The Camino in 2015. More will this year. My coffeehouse acquaintance, reflecting the cultural trendiness of “spirituality” said predictably, “I’m curious about that, after all, I’m spiritual but not religious.” To be “spiritual but not religious” is all the rage. Everyone wants “spiritual,” but many desperately reject “religious.” The question is “What do people mean by, “not religious“?

My friend Michael, a really smart priest in Dallas jokes, “‘Spiritual but not religious’ is code for ‘too lazy to get out of bed on Sunday.’” But I don’t think that’s it exactly. After all, millennials seem to be fine with ritual: We watched 2000 people a day crowd the pilgrim masses at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela. So while my coffee house acquaintance and many others seek “a personal experience of the divine,” and are also willing to check out a religious service, they are most definitely not running out and joining a church. So, if “religious” doesn’t mean, “I don’t like ritual” or “I’m too lazy to get up on Sunday,” what does it mean?

What is “not religious”?

In the very least, “not religious” means “I don’t see value in joining a faith community.” Perhaps this is because the churches they know are engaged in social causes they don’t like. Or because it is too narrow…or too broad (“everyone is too similar,” or “no-one is like me”). The cynical might say millennials are like Goldilocks – impossible to please. My snarky reply is that the body of Christ has done church by focus group and now doesn’t like it when the masses return the favor.

The second thing “not religious” seems to mean is “I want to do my spiritual life on my own terms.” It is to this group I appeal: Doing your spiritual life on your own is ultimately empty.

Look for example in Luke chapter 7. The first ten verses give us the story of a Roman centurion whose favorite servant is dying. Hearing that Jesus is on his way to town, he sends the town’s Jewish religious leaders with whom he is on good terms to request that Jesus heal his servant. Jesus turns and heads toward his home. The centurion, realizing that a rabbi visiting the home of a gentile becomes ceremonially unclean, sends a second set of friends to tell Jesus, “Lord, do not trouble yourself. I am not worthy” for you to be in my house, “therefore I did not presume to come to you.” He finally says, “You don’t even need to come. Just send the word to heal, and I trust that it will be done. After all, I am under authority too.” Jesus sends the word and the servant is healed. Then it says, “Jesus marveled at his faith.” He then turns to the crowd and, in one of the very few instances of Jesus interacting with a non-Jew, holds the gentile military occupier up as the example of “spiritual.”

What makes the Centurion Jesus’ model for “spiritual”?

First, notice that the man calls Jesus “Lord” (master). Every single one of the the bible’s 66 books uses the word “lord.” It appears nearly 8000 times in the Bible. (For comparison the word “love” is used about 800 times.) As a title for Jesus, “lord” emphasizes his authority, his rule over the whole world. Unlike most religious leaders, the centurion calls Jesus, “Lord.” Let that punch land for a moment: the leader of the most powerful military the world had ever seen calls Jesus, “the one with authority.” Whereas the religious leaders treated Jesus as a colleague, the truly spiritual defer to Jesus as Lord.

Jesus calls that deference “faith.” Faith in the bible is the opposite of sin. Soren Kierkegaard, father of existential philosophy, in a little book called The Sickness Unto Death said, “Sin is: in despair not wanting to be oneself before God….Faith is: the self, in being itself and wanting to be itself, grounded transparently in God.” Sin, regardless of what you may have learned in Sunday School, is not “doing bad things.” Sin is more subtle and much more dangerous: It is seeking our identity apart from God. While its’ antithesis, faith, is finding our identity in God. Faith, finding our identity in the God revealed in scripture and lived out in community, is why being truly “spiritual” always involves being “religious” as well.

Why do we need a defined faith and a defined faith community?

 Simply because they bring us into our created purpose: Finding our identity in Christ as we humbly, confidently surrender to the one rightly called, “Lord.” And having to express that faith by surrendering to other troublesome humans in the community of faith.

 The world, my friends, has realized the vacuousness of life without God. “Spirituality” is an acknowledgement of our unavoidable religious nature. “Spirituality without religion,” though, is an attempt to be nourished through a steady diet of dessert. It is the idolatry of the almighty self. The repeated more than reflected upon millennial mantra of “I’m spiritual but not religious,” reminds me of the six junior high girls I once saw walking through the mall wearing matching red “Dare to be Different!” T-shirts. Convinced they were saying something unique and profound, they failed to see the irony.

Whose fault is this?

Whenever those outside the Christian faith fail to connect there are two dynamics at work: Humanities’ own sin nature (“There is none who seeks God, no not one.” Rom. 3:10-11), and the church’s communication and demonstration of the faith. Unfortunately, instead of showing the way of faith as joyful surrender, popular Christianity has too often attempted to make faith palatable – serving up healthy doses of what Dietrich Bonhoeffer called, “Cheap grace.” Too often the evangelical church has dropped surrender for wish-fulfillment. Conservative churches have often settled for a message of self-help: “seven steps to…(fill in the blank) – diminishing God to one who exists to meet our desires.

While the conservative church has lowered God, the progressive church, on the other hand, has tended to elevate humanity. The progressive church removes the need for redemption by purging our documents of the words of surrender: Father, king, Lord…if a symbol might be deemed “oppressive” or “problematic,” it is not to be understood in its’ redeemed context, but struck from our hymnals, prayer books, and bibles. But God is not known either by shrinking him or elevating us. God is known through faith in the triune one who joined us and became “obedient to death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

In the 1970’s there was a movie called “The Stepford Wives.” In it, a newcomer to an idyllic NYC suburb notices that the wives are unbelievably beautiful and docile. It turns out that the husbands have been eliminating their wives and replacing them with lifelike robots who behave according to the husbands wishes. “Spiritual but not religious” is code for “I want God on my terms.” “Spiritual but not religious” creates a Stepford God who comes on command and exists as a cosmic Jeanie in a bottle or as a dysfunctional parent who wants to be your buddy but won’t give you the discipline your heart craves. And, by the way,”spiritual but not religious” is a natural result of American Protestantism’s uncritical embrace of individualism and rationalism. It is Protestant Christianity that insisted that the world is not a magical and sacramental place and that the almighty self does not need the church to mediate God’s presence. How is “spiritual but not religious”  not the ultimate natural byproduct of the Reformation?

Overcoming the idolatry of the Almighty Self is why the historic church does the things she does when she gathers in worship: In the liturgy we remind our hearts that God is God and we are not. That God is Father and we are not. That God is King and we are not. That Jesus is Lord and we are not.

Jesus calls us to be spiritual and religious; to view our humanity perfectly fulfilled in Christ and our broken idolatrous selves perfectly redeemed by Christ. That can only truly happen in a community of other broken, annoying people.

 

[1] We did a very small portion. Our iPhones say we walked 150 miles in 10 days. It is fantastic!

Photo from: here

What is the church to do in a 5-4 world?

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A Brave New World supplants the illusion of Christian America 

We now know what we have long suspected: America is not and never was “a Christian nation.” We may have put “In God we trust” on our coins and “one nation under God” into our pledge during the red scare, but those were merely the vestigial organs of an America of church attenders familiar with the scriptural imagery of Western civilization. But Western civilization is quickly fading away, swept under the rug of social change in a brave new world of neoliberalism and its deity, the self-identified eros.

Harbor no illusions, neoliberalism is a puritanical and absolutist form of progressivism. It is characterized by “tolerance” – the buzzword of an orthodoxy of the unfettered self. We are watching its fruit as our culture, unmoored from classical ideas of truth, beauty, and dignity, descends into hedonism. Regardless of the rhetoric, in neoliberalism truth is not actually relative. Truth may be a social construct, but it is absolute, and, as in all puritanical schemes, difference of opinion is not “tolerated.”

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Artist Theo Eshutu-Brave New World http://africa.si.edu/exhibits/brave/index.html

Perhaps nowhere is neoliberalism on clearer display than in the triennial meeting of my Episcopal Church. For us, the “movement of the Holy Spirit” is determined by popular vote. To oppose the winds of change then is nothing less than to oppose God. The neoliberal “Spirit,” is a “spirit” of triumphalist glory, a big-brother who squashes dissent quickly and quietly. In the deliberations of our bishops yesterday, a small and quiet conservative minority wished to read a statement indicating their disagreement with the redefinition of marriage. They were cut off on parliamentary grounds. Neoliberal tolerance can tolerate no dissent. The vitriol, social shaming, and gloating on my Facebook after the Obergefell ruling stands in stark contrast with the rhetoric of pluralism and classical liberalism we hear so much about. Our delegates heard from a Sunday school teacher shacking up with her boyfriend who has no interest in marriage, then passed a resolution to “continue work studying the growing contemporary reality…that is redefining what many mean by ‘family’ or ‘household.'”  This explicitly includes, “those who choose to remain single; unmarried persons in intimate relationships; couples who cohabitate; couples who desire a blessing, etc).” It implicitly includes “listening” to another type of emerging family structure – polyamorous families. I report this, not to be shocking, but because our church takes its establishment roots quite seriously and is generally a reflection of where progressive culture desires to go next. And, as you will have noticed, for culture crusaders addicted to the fight, there is always a next fight…

Time magazine this week posted an article by Mark Oppenheimer arguing for the elimination of church’s tax exempt status. It is spreading through social media like wildfire. The new elite smells blood: it is the last weak pulse of traditional America. Somehow they have forgotten that orphanages, hospitals, universities, literacy, and abolition were all ideas given to the world by that enemy of humanity – Christian thought.

Somehow lost in both the sophomoric euphoria and the licking of wounds is the fact that political solutions simply do not work. We are forty years into our legislative solutions to our race issues, yet those issues are still present. And in this mess Christians are still forgiving and angry nuts are still burning down our places of worship.

How should the church respond to culture shift?

We could keep financing losing political battles. We could keep encouraging ugly rhetoric. We could fight to keep our tax exempt status’ and tax deduction for charitable giving. We could keep trying to support political parties for whom nearly half of my state has disengaged and reregistered as “independent.” We could do what many have chosen to do this week and simply remain silent. We could flip-flop on 2000 years of unbroken Christian tradition and the clear meaning of the words of scripture.

Or…

…we could go back to what the church was good at. Remember, when we were eleven scared dudes hiding out in an upper room? That group had a unique methodology unused since the faith embraced power in the fourth century…

Lessons from the first Christians

First, they gathered in remarkable unity across ethnic, cultural, and social barriers in formational, seeker-insensitive worship services – This may surprise many of my evangelical friends, but there are eucharistic pointers in every NT author. The story of God is taught and formed with remarkable clarity in the format of Word and Sacrament present in Acts and given to us as ancient practice by Justin Martyr in 150 CE. We must form Christians. This is more than sermonizing. It involves enacting and imprinting the story of God on human hearts.

Second, from their deep formation, the ancient Christians moved missionally in service and proclamation into the world. They loved, gave, and proclaimed Jesus’ to the least, last, and lost.

Third, they were annoyingly clear about the exclusive claims of Jesus in a pluralistic world. This made them the target of recurring persecution. A persecution which they generally embraced.

Fourth, they were not worried about their “rights.” They worried about the world’s lostness. We can stop worrying about being persecuted and start embracing and supporting Christians who are actually being persecuted. Embrace the loss of status and prestige! Let us join our African American brothers and sisters in turning the other cheek, blessing those who persecute us, and forgiving the offender.

Fifth, they modeled internal civil discourse (Acts 15). In our churches we can teach the “faith once delivered.” But we can teach it as truths we are being conformed to, rather than using the faith as a bludgeon to beat non-Christians into an eternally irrelevant social-conformity.

Fortuitously, these are exactly the lessons we learn from many of the fastest growing millennial-heavy churches. Millennial-heavy churches (churches with hundreds of millennial generation attenders) tend to be liturgical and artful, with deep biblically-based sermons. They are high on diversity and community. They fearlessly preach on difficult topics with a “hard on me, soft on you” hermeneutic. They actively engage in social action. They tend not to engage in political action. They even seem to have a significant number of young lgbt attendees who respect their authenticity. Or, as one millennial said when she left her mega-church that is moving to gimmicks to drive attendance, “I want to go where the Christianity is what is on display.”

So, church, do not change the “deposit of faith” to make it more “relevant” to the culture. There has never been a time that has not failed to be a losing proposition. There is a reason that the fellowships that change least account for the most of us – Catholicism and Orthodoxy continue to account for 2/3 of the world’s Christians.

The Christian faith is neither the moral improvement program that many conservatives wish for it to be, nor the affirmation of desires that many progressives seem to want to make it. The Christian faith is nothing less than a radical reorienting of the human experiment to a new master. To quote, Abraham Kuyper, “There is not one one square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Jesus Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry, ‘mine.'”

Or, as our spiritual forebearers said, “Jesus is Lord.” 

So let us stop trying to remake a secular society in our own image. Let us instead worry about God’s priorities: “The redemption of the world through our Lord, Jesus Christ.” (BCP, 101)

We have work to do. Politics is not that work.

*Brave New World photo labelled for reuse.

***I should say that I support full protection under the law for lgbt relationships, not because it is the government’s business what adults choose to do, gay or straight, but because adults have children, and children need the protection under the law afforded by the cultural values of monogamy and fidelity. I also see a big difference between what a pluralistic government protects and what the church, as recipients of scriptures and the tradition of the apostles, defines as marriage.