About Evangelicals…

People have a lot to say these days about the Christian faith, specifically the iteration of Christianity labeled “evangelical.” What does it mean to be evangelical? Should people continue to use the term because of historical or theological significance? Has the current political climate rendered the term void? The takes are countless.

I want to consider this from a different angle though. The word “evangelical” is derived from a Greek word εὐαγγέλιον meaning “good news” or “gospel.” Those in favor of keeping the term in use are often quick to point this out. Evangelicals, in the historic sense, are about sharing the “good news” or “gospel” of Jesus Christ, which has come to be understood as a personal decision to follow Christ, or “invite Jesus into your heart.” Beyond this initial deterministic step, the further implications of this 21st century gospel are left largely to the discernment of local church congregations and, moreover, to the individuals who are claiming relationship with Jesus themselves.

What is the gospel? To many 21st century Americans, it’s that Jesus died for their sins, and that they can now have a personal relationship with Jesus, resulting in everlasting life.

Historic Christian tradition (as well as current Christian tradition in communities of color, and in countries outside of North America) would invite us into a deeper understanding of “gospel.”

During the Roman Empire religion and politics were completely enmeshed. The Caesar was referred to as the “son of the gods” and was venerated along with the other Roman deities in the temple. To gain access to the marketplace, a person would use money imprinted with the image of Caesar, they would sell meat that had been sacrificed to the gods, they would barter with crops they had grown after praying in the temple to the gods for rain.  Religious life was neither considered private nor something of personal determination, it was simply the order of public life.

As the Roman Empire spread, the Caesar would send out envoys with “good news” to the newly conquered towns and villages. “Good news! Caesar is lord! You are now part of the Roman Empire!”  The gospel of Rome was inherently political – in that it reorganized the way of life for the people in the newly conquered territory. It was also inherently religious – because Caesar was considered a god.  But the gospel of Rome had a cost to those who were forced to encounter it. Namely, pledge your allegiance to empire or die. The Romans called it the “Peace of Rome,” but this peace was only wrought by exterminating all opposition, often in violent, public displays serving to terrorize any others who may dare to defy the Empire.

Enter in to this time, a man of disputable birth from a town of no repute.  An ethnic and religious minority, who begins to gather followers around him and make proclamations about what belongs to Caesar and what belongs to God. As though Caesar were not god!

In a time when the proclamation of “good news” meant more authority for the empire, heavy taxation of the poor and the risk of execution if one dared to raise dissent, Jesus enters with this:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

What kind of Good News is this? Certainly not the kind Caesar’s messengers were carrying out.

Good News, you who are poor. You are blessed, you will be filled, and those who are rich? They’ll be sent away empty and cursed.

Good News, you who are in chains. You are released! You who have been called an enemy of the empire, a threat to our peace – go free!

Good News, you who are blind. Receive sight.

Good News, you who are oppressed. Your burden has been thrown off!

The time has come for God’s favor – the year of jubilee! All the scales will be balanced. All that has been taken from you will be returned. Those who are growing fat off their excess while you starve in the streets must give up their feasting so that all may live well.

This is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Gospel he himself claims!

Yes, there is forgiveness of sin, and in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit we are now caught up in the life of God. We are promised inheritance and renewed, full life as the children of God. We do a gross disservice to the Gospel of Jesus when we divorce our “spiritual” understanding of salvation from the implications this carries in the here and now. In the season of Christmas of all seasons we remember that God in Jesus Christ has taken on flesh and blood, and is shouting over the earth, our bodies and all of creation: “Yes and amen!” The birth of Christ is a witness that spiritual hope must be connected to physical hope; that the saving of our souls must also mean there is a redemption of our bodies; that the hope of the life to come is bound up with answering the groaning of creation. This hope is not a general, warm sentiment, Jesus’s proclamation of Isaiah’s words assures us that the Gospel Jesus offers is very specific: this is Good News for the poor, the oppressed and the outcast.

We cannot claim a life in Christ if our telling of the “good news” isn’t one and the same.

As so many weigh the implications and the usefulness of keeping “evangelical” as a label, I hope we consider well that there have been people proclaiming different versions of “good news” for thousands of years.

Good news! The empire is bigger. The wealthy and the ruling class will receive even more. Your crops, your land, your livelihood will be heavily taxed – but it’s for your own good. Really.

Good news! Caesar is lord, the son of the gods! Our political might and genius is beyond questioning or critique. You are so blessed to now be under this authority. Be grateful.

Good news! The way of salvation is alignment with Caesar. Mostly because the way opposing Caesar leads to your death and the death of everyone you love, but try not to think of it that way. Caesar will take care of you!

That’s one version of the εὐαγγέλιον – the good news. It’s a version that has been in circulation for thousands of years, and that persists even today. If you listen closely, it is not that hard to spot imperial evangelicals. Their enthusiasm for the days ahead, the coins in their pockets. Their undying allegiance to the empire, void of any critique or concern of what may lie in the wake of the machine that serves them so well. Their insistence that their leader has been appointed by god – chosen! A savior! Thank goodness this one is leading us now, we are so blessed.

This is not the εὐαγγέλιον – the Good News – of Jesus though.

Good News! The poor are blessed, the captives are set free, the outcasts are restored, and the oppressed are liberated.

Good News! The days of this empire are numbered. There is a new Kingdom breaking through, where the first are last and the humiliated are exalted.

Good News! The way of salvation is sacrificial love of one another. The empires and authorities will lie and tell you to watch out for your own, they’ll tell you to be afraid, they may even kill you. But there’s nothing to fear, even death gets swallowed up by life now.

So, is “evangelical” still useful? Can “evangelicalism” survive, or be redeemed? My life doesn’t hang on the answers to those questions. There have always been multiple meanings, multiple messages when an εὐαγγέλιον is spread. But only that which is εὐαγγέλιον – Good News – for the poor is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Any other εὐαγγέλιον is just the empire parading around it’s false peace and dying authority.

For me, I will live and die on the fullness of the Good News of Jesus Christ – which is the revelation of the God Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Good News! The Child born in Bethlehem declares that all the dirt and sweat, mess and beauty of Creation is good and worthy.
Good News! The Man on the Cross ends the need for punishment and retribution forever.
Good News! The Risen One pronounces that the reign of death and destruction is over, and new life is always bursting out in unlikely places.
Good News! The Ascended Lord Jesus is the rightful King and Authority, and this rule and reign is unlike anything we’ve ever seen, or could dare to imagine:

The hungry are filled.
The lost are found.
The oppressed are liberated.
Those cast out are given the seat at the head of the table.

And it is all Good News for the poor.

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Weekend Reading

Life Interrupted: Mindfulness and Community in a Culture of Rugged Individualism
“As I have grown as a follower of Christ, I have come to believe that one of the greatest challenges we as modern believers face is the temptation to conform to a culture that encourages individualism and independence over shared community.  In our increasingly fast-paced society, it has become easier to separate ourselves from the world around us.   With emails to answer, dinner to make, and kids to run to soccer practice, we can become consumed with convenience.  We can lose sight of the incredible notion that we are all inextricably linked as the beloved of God.”

In which I’m a feminist, sure, but first I’m a disciple of Jesus Christ 
“When I chose to follow Jesus, it meant I chose to apprentice myself to his way of life and living in the world.
If we want to live counter-culturally as disciples, we have to live our lives and seek mercy and do justice counter-culturally as well. It’s tempting to want to employ the same tactics and arguments or methods that have been used on us or others but that is a temptation we must resist.  I don’t believe that silencing and shaming and other tactics of the world will really bring about God’s redemptive movement for women. We are to be gentle as doves and cunning as serpents.”

How Music Could Make You a Rocket Scientist
“Children exposed to a wide variety of arts and crafts were more likely to eventually invent something so unique that they earned a patent, or come up with an idea good enough to form a new company, or publish provocative papers on science and technology.

That led them to conclude that cutbacks by the educational system on creative subjects — whether it be music, art or woodworking — may deprive the nation of the kind of innovation it will need to remain at the top of the global heap.”

On similar misandry in Christian fundamentalism and consumer capitalism?
“And yes, it’s true, if Sarah’s quote above is the description of how men are seen in American Christian fundamentalism and likewise-minded circles, it does not differ much at all of how the media and the advertisement industry in our Western system of consumer capitalism is constantly abusing us, just for profit.
The only big and very substantial difference here is that fundamentalism wants to stop this, to keep men down and to draws walls around them and puts us in boxes imprisoned by guilt, and that consumer capitalism abuses it, that it wants to make money out of it, reducing both men and women to less than humans for the sake of Mammon, which is very, very, very, low.”

My Problem with the Word “Biblical”
“And so this idea that the Bible presents a comprehensive guide for relationships that is Biblical is, in fact, not a Biblical idea. Nor is it ‘biblical’ for us to use the Bible as a guide to understand science. Or psychology or finances or a guide for how to build a church. In fact, our desire to use the book as an end-all be-all for all things earthly and spiritual is a misuse of it.”

Homosexuality, Evangelicalism and The Danger of a Single Story
“Can you imagine if people spoke of the ‘heterosexual lifestyle’ and pointed to footage of women flashing their breasts at men to receive beads at Mardi Gras as the single example? Or if they spoke of the ‘heterosexual agenda’ and used Miley Cyrus as the single spokesperson?”

5 churchy phrases that are scaring off millennials
“It may just be semantics, but being loved on feels very different than being simplyloved. The former connotes a sudden flash of contrived kindness; the latter is simpler…but deeper. It suggests that the relationship is the point, not the act of love itself.”

marriage actually is for you…kinda
“our marriage was meant not just for our re-shaping for God’s pleasure as a self-contained unit. No, our story together was also purposefully thrown into the middle of a community for the sake of those who are watching us. We’re not unique in this. This is true of every marriage properly considering all that God has for the couple. We’re not special, super-holy people with loads of our own virtue. No. In fact, that should be obvious to all the watchers. That’s the genius of God’s plan. People will know how hard marriage is and see how sinful we are but they’ll see how powerful God’s love and grace are in our lives. Our marriage, then, acts as an invitation into the grand story of God, into His infinite love and commitment to true joy and delight. Our marriage is for us but because it’s for God, it’s not about us.”

My Jesus. A Feminist.
“Standing on my porch, with our boys giggling in the background and colorful leaves swirling around our feet, between a lesbian feminist priest-to-be and a judgmental evangelical urban missionary, Jesus was there, challenging my stereotypes and undermining my legalism.

When we said, ‘Amen’ together, I felt the Holy Spirit whisper back to me, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.'”

Bolz-Weber’s liberal, foulmouthed articulation of Christianity speaks to fed-up believers
“‘This isn’t supposed to be the Elks Club with the Eucharist,’ Bolz-Weber said in a taxi ride before her Austin talk. Religion should be ‘something that’s so devastatingly beautiful it can break your heart. Instead it’s been: ‘Recycle.’ And ‘Don’t sleep with your girlfriend.’ ”

Dangerous Presence: Risk Management

This is the third post in a series discussing the book Dangerous Presence by Jason Butler. You can read more or purchase the book here.

“Americans typically don’t like risk.  We see risk as bad, dangerous.  Risk can get us into trouble, ruin our finances, and mess up our future.  Most of the time, we play it safe – in our finances, careers and businesses…We’re OK with some risk, but not much.”

Butler begins chapter three with a brief examination of American culture, in which “risk management” isn’t just a job description – it’s a lifestyle.  He makes the distinction between “risk” and “greed” in this assessment, saying that “‘risk’ is the danger of losing something” and “‘Greed’ is the desire to gain more.”

American culture is a mess of dichotomies surrounding risk and greed.

On one hand, we’re told that the pot is only so big, that we should work hard, save what we earn, store up for a rainy day, make sure that if we do give any of our money/time/resource away that it is going to something truly worth it.

Scarcity is embedded in the America as inextricably as our fingerprints.

On the other hand though, we are also bombarded dawn to dusk with the message that we need more.  That what we have is not enough, and therefore we are not enough.  We must have the latest, greatest, shiniest, fastest.  Our current home is too small, too old, or in the wrong neighborhood and so we need a new home.  Our current car is not safe enough, consumes too much gas, and is lacking in the latest, life-changing features that will warm our hearts and seats simultaneously.

Protect what you have, but constantly be reaching for more.  No wonder we feel like our hands are so full.

“Because of this matrix of fear, greed, and scarcity, American culture values safety above almost any value.  We want to keep our kids, houses, future, and retirements safe.  We have become so obsessed with safety that we have produced a culture of fear…
…The Bible calls it ‘the way of the world.’ Don’t conform to it.  Repent of it.  Renew your mind out of it.  Sin is dangerous, but fear is like nuclear fallout.”

It’s interesting to think about fear being the way of the world, and not something of God.

I grew up, like I’m sure many of you did, praying for safety over trips our church would take.

Assessing whether or not we should be ministering to certain populations based on how much it may be a detriment to our personal safety, our public image as a church or organization, what people might say or think.

Being instructed not to feed or spend time with the homeless, because it was too risky and just not worth it.

And even now, so many people, people who love Jesus a lot, are floored when they find out where Ben, Cadence and I live.

“Is it safe there?”

No.  Not always.

But someone once told me that the safest place you can be is in the middle of God’s will.

I clung to this for years, through good times and bad, but I’m starting to move away from that idea, because you see

God doesn’t promise us safety.

 

There was a song back in the 90’s that went something like “You created nothing that brings me more pleasure than You, and You won’t give me something that gives me more pleasure than You” (“You Created” – Caedmon’s Call).

I think for most of us in the U.S. we derive more pleasure from our own safety and self-preservation than we do from the Lord Most High. 

Even in saying that the “safest place we could be is in God’s will” is a bending of our knee to the idols of safety and self-preservation.

“Okay God, I will follow you anywhere because the safest place I can be is where you want me to be.”

What if we went wherever God wanted us to be, did whatever God called us to do, loved whoever God wanted us to love even if it wasn’t safe?

And before you protest, may I remind you that our history as followers of Jesus is rife with the death and destruction of our brothers and sisters for the sake of Christ.

The twelve were beaten, exiled, crucified and otherwise killed like the Rabbi they walked so closely with.

You don’t have to look very hard to find countless stories of missionaries who were endangered or killed for their presence.

Lottie Moon marching through a battlefield in China.

Nate Saint, Jim Elliot and others killed for going to reach the unreached, and moreover, their wives and families staying faithful to the tribe that murdered them and bringing a whole group of people to Christ.

When I think about my spiritual heritage, I’m really not doing anything that crazy or dangerous.  Everyone in my neighborhood speaks English.  I have running water and heat and air conditioning.  I have a car.  I eat what I like, whenever I want and drink coffee every morning.

I’m not suffering, but according to so many I’m really living on the edge.

“We come from a long line of risk takers, of great lovers, of those willing to put others in front of themselves, of those willing to pour themselves out for the benefit of others.”

“Where is that risk today?”  Butler asks at the end of this challenging chapter.

“We settle for selfish, individualistic, small lives when God is calling us to live into a bigger story.”

What about you?  Is your walk with Christ more centered on risk management and the pursuit of safety, or the pursuit of Christ wherever God may take you?
Are you worshiping your own self preservation or the God who calls us to love in extraordinary ways, in dangerous places, to broken people whom God Godself is aching and yearning to redeem?

How big is your story?

“You come from a long line of risk takers.  Please don’t settle for safety – take a risk for the kingdom of God.  You were told that the world will know you by your love, not your pursuit of self-satisfaction.  Let go.  Embrace the life God has for you – the life centered around others and not yourself.  Do that and you will have a story to tell, a story of redemption, a story of grace, a story of restoration.

You will lose much, but you just might gain everything.”

Spiritual Selective Hearing

It's Too Loud

When I was a child, I was plagued with this disorder that my mother liked to call “selective hearing.”

Perhaps you’ve experienced this as well: whenever mom would call that dinner was ready or say something like, “Hey Megan, I’m going to run some errands at the mall, do you want to come?” I would always hear her.  But when she would ask things like “could you take out the trash?”  or “hey, could you clean up your room please?”  my ears were a little less attuned.  I almost never heard those requests the first time.   And interestingly enough, my dad and my brothers seemed to have the same issue.

I think we all experience the phenomenon of selective hearing sometimes.  We experience it with our friends, our spouses, our children, co-workers. And we’re guilty of it as well.

It’s easy for us to hear things that benefit us, that are comfortable and familiar, but when we are confronted with things and ideas that maybe cost us something, are out of the ordinary or uncomfortable for us, it’s easier to block it out – even if we do so subconsciously. 

It’s not just in our work and family lives that selective hearing exists.  I think there is such a thing as spiritual selective hearing as well.   And the Church has developed a serious case of it over the years, especially with respect to hearing both a male and female voice from God.

Our story starts like this:  God bends down, scoops up some dust and forms humanity in God’s own image.  The breath and Spirit of God filling them, giving them life.  God’s image bearers.  Male and female.  Created in the image of God.

But somewhere along the line, the image became distorted.  The image-bearers fell away from the God who created them and loved them and in doing so they fell away from the ideal of representing God as a unit – male and female.  The image-bearers fought each other, they dominated each other, they constructed systems that held one another into set roles and rankings.  Like a broken mirror, the image of God became distorted and broken and our ears began to fall deaf to certain rhythms of the divine. And the world lost sight of the true image of God.

The Image has become so distorted and our ears so selectively tuned that it is now common for evangelicals to affirm certain roles for genders.  It is common to believe that there is a certain hierarchy within humanity, that women should submit, they should help and support – not lead.  And a woman certainly should not be exercising spiritual authority over a man.  Here is the problem with these ideologies though:  when we create hierarchies within humanity we fail to represent the God whose image we bear. 

As we look back to where we come from, the creation narrative, God speaks and declares “let us make humanity in our image” God is, in very essence, three distinct persons – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – yet one God.   Within this Trinitarian image there is community, there is relationship – things we see fleshed out in humanity as image bearers.  There is not, however, hierarchy. 

Phillip Carey writes:

“The difference of roles in the Trinity cannot mean anything like a relationship of command and obedience, where one persons’ will is subjected to anothers’.  Father, Son and Holy Spirit are always, necessarily of one will, because there is only one God and therefore only one divine will.   And where there is but one will there cannot be the authority of command and obedience, for that requires one persons’ will to be subordinate to a will other than his or her own.”

Within the very being of God we are given a picture of complete alliance, three persons working within one and the same will to accomplish God’s own purposes – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  This is the image which we were designed to bear.  This is the glimpse of God we were intended to put forth to the world God so desperately loves and desires to redeem.  But we cannot portray this image on our own. No single gender can advance or clarify the image of God to this broken and hurting world without the partnership of the other.

It is all too easy though, for male-female relationships to become the wedge which separates rather than the tie that binds.  Denominations the theological circles split over what to do about women in leadership.  Both genders become frustrated and angry and wound each other as the battle of the sexes wages on in every sector of life.  But we were not made for this.

Carolyn Curtis James writes this:

“God’s original vision—a vision He has never abandoned but revives in the work of His Son—was for relationships between men and women to be dazzling points of light on this spinning globe. Dynamics between men and women were never intended to be a battle of the sexes or a heated debate within Christian circles. Male/female relationships in Christ are to be a glowing testament to the fact that we are followers of Jesus. This is where God means to put on display a gospel-powered love. This is where the world is supposed to see men and women laying down their lives for others, offering strength and wisdom to each other, and investing ourselves fully for God’s kingdom.”

We were made for more.

More than patriarchy and dominance-based structures have to offer for men.

More than lone feminist philosophy and empowerment have to offer for women.

We were made to live in what Carolyn describes as “blessed alliance” portraying an illuminated image of our God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit – as we live, work and lead in partnership with one another.

In a world where little girls – some as young as seven years old – are bought and sold daily for sex, is the Church really to silence the voice of women? 

In a world where one out of every three women will be raped or abused, is the Church really to call for female submission?

In a world in which more young women will die from gender-based violence than from car accidents, cancer, malaria and war combined is the church really going to stand up and declare that abuse that doesn’t cause her to sin and “only” hurts her must be “endured for a season”?

If this is the image we are portraying then the image is horrifically broken.  Our hearing has become selective at best, if we have not fallen completely deaf.

I believe it is time for the church to rise up, broken and mangled as she might be, and return to the design set forth in Eden: the image of God – male and female – on display for all to see.  We must begin to define both genders not by the roles or stereotypes laid out by culture, but primarily, predominantly as Image Bearers of the Most High God.  We must reject hierarchies and chains of command within cross-gender relationships – inside and outside the home and the Church – as these ideas undermine the Image of our God – Father, Son, Holy Spirit.  We must tune our ears once more to hear the voice of God – male and female – even when it makes us uncomfortable, even when it costs us something.

We have turned a blind eye to half of God’s image. We have turned a deaf ear to half of God’s voice. We have crippled one hand and one foot of the Body of Christ. We have muted half of the messages God wishes to convey.

But there is hope. 

The prophet Isaiah wrote long ago

“Strengthen the weak hands, and support the unsteady knees. Say to those who are panicking:  ‘Be strong! Don’t fear! Here’s your God, coming with vengeance; with divine retribution God will come to save you.’ Then the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf will be cleared.  Then the lame will leap like the deer, and the tongue of the speechless will sing.” (Isaiah 35:3-6, CEB)

The Image is broken, but the Blessed Alliance is still God’s plan.

God has redeemed and is yet redeeming humanity one piece at a time, a little more every day.

Let us unite and hand in hand march boldly together, bringing God’s Kingdom a bit more fully with each of our paired steps.

 

 

 

 

 

photo credit: “It’s Too Loud” by Eric Spiegel