Hearts of Flesh

'Field Day' photo (c) 2010, Kara Harms - license: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

Fundamentalism erases people. 

I’ve watched as men once alive with ideas and passion surrender their curiosity and intellectual integrity to conform to the ideological boundaries that will let them keep their jobs.  

I’ve seen women literally shrink—a pound at a time, a dream at a time—as they conform their bodies and their spirits to a strict ideal, as they try to make themselves acceptably small. 

I’ve seen the light go out in people’s eyes when they decide it’s safer to embrace a doctrine or a policy that their gut tells them is wrong than it is to challenge those who say it’s right. 

I’ve watched open minds close and tender hearts harden.

 I’ve seen people pretend to believe things they don’t actually believe and do things they don’t actually want to do, all in the name of conformity to God’s will, all in the name of sacrifice and submission. 

Fundamentalism erases people.  It erases their joy, their compassion, their instincts, their curiosity, their passion, their selves.  And then it celebrates this ghosting, this nulling and numbing, as a glorious “dying to the self,” just like Jesus demanded. 

 

But is this really what Jesus asked? 

Is this really the sort of fasting God demands? 

Or is it to loose the chains of injustice, untie the cords of the yoke, and set the oppressed free, 

to replace hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, 

to have life and have it abundantly,   

to proclaim freedom for prisoners and sight to the blind, 

to cast out fear,  

to find rest, 

to "learn the unforced rhythms of grace”

 

You see, Jesus never asks us to die without promising us resurrection.  Resurrection is the whole point!

The selves we die to are the fearful selves, the sinful selves, the imprisoned selves. The selves we rise to are the free selves, the life-filled selves, the brave selves, the whole selves, the Christ-like selves. 

Ultimately, we are not called to die. We are called to live. 

As Paul told the Romans, “What we believe is this: If we get included in Christ’s sin-conquering death, we also get included in his life-saving resurrection… God’s gift is real life, eternal life, delivered by Jesus, our Master” (Romans 6:7, 23, The Message). 

And later: “I can’t tell you how much I long for you to enter this wide-open, spacious life. We didn’t fence you in. The smallness you feel comes from within you. Your lives aren’t small, but you’re living them in a small way. I’m speaking as plainly as I can and with great affection. Open up your lives. Live openly and expansively!”  (2 Corinthians 6:11-13, The Message)

 

If we are animated by the spirit of Jesus, we have nothing to fear. 

There is no need to shrink. 

No need to pretend. 

No need to check out intellectually or emotionally. 

No need to disengage out of fear. 

No need to conform to anyone’s will but Christ’s. 

 

God doesn’t want to erase us. God wants to bring us back to life. 

So take this gift of life...

Eat it, drink it, and breathe it in. 

Taste and see that the Lord is good and you are alive. 

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A Christmas apology, and the seeds of hope

I wrote a post about the incarnation for CNN today: 

This week we celebrate Christmas, and as a Christian, I want to say I’m sorry.

I’m sorry that this season has become about fights over manger scenes on public property, about complaining when clerks say, “Merry Christmas,” instead of “Happy Holidays,” about rampant commercialism and faux persecution.

I’m sorry that Christians in the United States can be so entitled when we’ve long enjoyed majority status, when we can be so blind to our own privilege.

It is ironic, really, because in the church calendar, the seasons of Advent and Christmas call us to reflect upon and celebrate what Christians believe was the most radical act of humility of all time – the incarnation....

Read the full article. 

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5 Reasons I’m Glad I Was Raised Evangelical

'RSDigby_1553' photo (c) 2010, Robert S. Digby - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my evangelical brothers and sisters when it comes to politics, theology and gender, but there are many reasons I’m glad I was raised in the evangelical tradition. For those of us who wrestle at times with the religious traditions with which we were raised, I think it’s important to remember from time to time the gifts those traditions gave us. These are just a few that come to my mind: 

1.  I know and love the Bible. 

Whether I was slaying the competition in a sword drill or racking up crowns and badges in AWANA, I grew up knowing my way around a Bible. The images, stories, and words of Scripture so permeated my life that they gave meaning and direction to my own story and helped me make sense of things. My evangelical upbringing taught me to love Scripture, to consult it, and to believe it. And to this day, nothing sparks my creative energy more than a difficult passage, a stack of commentaries, and a few hours to dig in. The Bible just keeps on giving; it never disappoints. While I certainly wrestle with the Bible more than I once did, it is the love of Scripture my evangelical upbringing instilled in me that keeps me wrestling,  that keeps me from giving up. I am profoundly grateful for this. 


2.  I have fond memories of being a teenager, primarily because of youth group.

Anyone who grew up in youth group will know exactly why I’ve titled the chapter about it in my next book, “Chubby Bunny.” I was fortunate to have had an amazing youth pastor—Brian Ward—who to this day remains one of my most important mentors, champions, and friends. (And who actually kinda hated Chubby Bunny.) High school can be a disorienting, angsty time, but because of youth group I made lifelong friends, I got to travel, I deepened my faith, I had opportunities to teach and lead and use my gifts, I learned to not take myself so seriously, and I learned exactly how many marshmallows I could cram into my mouth without chocking to death. I am glad so much of my identity was forged in the context of church and in the company of people who really loved me. Not everyone’s memories of youth group or of high school are as happy as mine, so I never want to take that (mostly) wonderful experience for granted. 

3.  I've always had a deeply personal faith. 

It’s often said that evangelicalism is characterized by a personal commitment to faith, and this was certainly true of my experience. The activism, the testimonies, the active prayer life, the hours spent reading the Bible—these things emerged from a deeply experiential and powerful relationship with Jesus and the church that until my young adulthood went almost totally unquestioned. (Check out Evolving in Monkey Town for the story of how things started to unravel.) I know not everyone who was raised evangelical felt that same connection to God growing up, so there may be a personality component involved, but I’ve never been afraid to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” because I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to Jesus already. And I think it was because my faith was so personal, so deeply important to me, that I couldn't just let it go the moment I started having questions and doubts. 

4. Potlucks. 

Evangelicalism introduced me to deviled eggs, macaroni-and-cheese casserole, chili cook-offs, and lemon squares…and to hospitality, and fellowship, and the value of just showing up with a chicken casserole in hand when your neighbor is sick or grieving or lonely. The healing power of a chicken casserole should never be underestimated. 

5. Grace at home. 

I didn’t always experience grace in the church. I saw my fair share of legalism, division, and exclusion there, and, like most people, I’ve been hurt by other Christians. But there was always grace at home. Always. My parents—committed evangelicals—taught me, by example, to be compassionate, empathetic, patient, forgiving, open, inclusive, curious, and kind. They taught me to focus on the most important thing—Jesus—and to hold the rest of my theological and political beliefs with an open hand.  They gave me the space I needed to become my own person with my own faith, and they were never afraid to say, “I don’t know” when that was the truth. No parents are perfect, but mine have been pretty great. And so when I’m at a progressive/liberal Christian conference and people start bashing evangelicals as closed-minded and exclusive, I pipe up and say, “Hey, that’s my mom and dad you’re talking about.” They totally ruined my ability to paint all evangelicals with a broad a brush, and I’m glad. 


Of course, this is not to say these experiences are unique to an evangelical upbringing. Certainly you can find a love for Scripture, personal faith, deviled eggs and Chubby Bunny in other Christian traditions as well. 

So I’d like to open the floor to all—those raised evangelical, those raised Catholic, those raised Presbyterian, those raised Mormon or Jewish or even as secular humanists….

What are you thankful for about the faith with which you were raised? What positive effects did that tradition have on your life? 

Happy Thanksgiving! 

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On being ‘divisive’….

'Splintered' photo (c) 2009, Steve Snodgrass - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

For writers, tone is a tricky thing to get right.   

It’s also one of the most important things to get right.

And like most writers, sometimes I get tone right and sometimes I get tone wrong. As a Christian, I work especially hard to make my writing as irenic and winsome as possible, while remaining faithful to my authentic voice. Which is hard. Because my authentic voice is kinda snarky. 

But when I began writing about gender equality in evangelicalism, it became apparent to me that no matter how careful my tone, no matter how reasoned my arguments, no matter how gentle my critique, my work would inevitably be characterized as “divisive.” 

“How dare you challenge a man of God?”

“The world can’t see us disagreeing like this; it hurts our witness.”

“We should be talking about more important matters.”

“Let’s just focus on what we agree on and let these minor issues go.”

“Can’t this be settled privately and not publicly?”

"You need to calm down and stop being so emotional."

“Stop being so divisive. Jesus wants us to be unified.”

Just yesterday, when I raised some challenges about an evangelical leadership conference in which just 4 out 112 speakers were women, another writer characterized the situation as a “meltdown…from which no one has seemed to emerge more Christlike” and then issued a call for unity, complete with a prayer.

Similarly, when a group of Christians in the Asian American community recently released a letter detailing some of their concerns about common stereotypes and prejudices within the evangelical community, I saw many on social media critique this action as “divisive” and “harmful to Christian unity.” One person asked why this group had to “air the church’s dirty laundry” before a watching world?

This is a common response to those of us who speak from the margins of evangelical Christianity about issues around gender, race, and sexuality, and it’s an effective one because it appeals to something most of us value deeply: Christian unity.

Like most Christians, when I read the prayer of Jesus from John 17, my heart aches for the day when the Church will be unified, when our love for one another and for the world will be our greatest witness to the truth of the gospel message. And any time another Christian suggests I’m not doing my part to help make this happen, I feel a sharp stab of guilt.

Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.

Maybe I should just let it go.

Maybe I was wrong to bring it up.

At times, these are good instincts to follow and it’s best just to let something go. But far too often, the “stop-being-so-divisive” line is used by those in power to diffuse, or even silence, difficult conversations about why things might need to change. 

In fact, I know from speaking with several survivors that in some extreme cases, this same rationale—“You don’t want to cause division in our church, do you?”—has been used to discourage victims of abuse from reporting their abuse to the authorities.

One of the easiest ways to discredit another Christian is to label their questions,  concerns, or calls for justice as too "divisive."  

Obviously, there are issues of privilege at play here. Because the reality is, some folks benefit from the status quo, and it is in their best interest to characterize every challenge to the status quo as wholly negative and a threat to Christian unity. This makes it difficult for those who perceive inequity within the status quo to challenge it without being labeled as troublemakers out to make Jesus look bad.  

In other words, the advantage goes to the powerful because things rarely change without friction. And if friction is equated with divisiveness, then the powerful can appeal to Christ’s call for unity as a way of silencing critics. This was an effective strategy for white clergy who opposed Civil Rights. 

Meanwhile, those on the margins are typically working with less power, smaller platforms, thinner finances, and fewer numbers and in the face of subtle but pervasive stereotypes, prejudices, and disadvantages that make it nearly impossible to advocate for change without causing friction.

For example, it always makes me laugh when I’m told that women shouldn’t use social media to advocate for gender equality in the church, but should instead do so quietly within their own congregations. These people seem to have forgotten that social media is often the ONLY platform women have for speaking to the church! That’s kinda what we’re trying to change! And when it comes to discussing gender issues in particular, things get extra challenging because where outspoken men are often described as “passionate,” “convicted,” and “strong,” outspoken women are often perceived as “shrill,” “emotional,” “whiney,” and “bitchy.”  So women speaking about gender issues in the church have a lot working against them when public questions or critiques are automatically dismissed as divisive and whiney. 

I don’t like being divisive. Believe me. 

But I don’t like being silenced either.

There has to be a way to discuss controversial, difficult topics—even on social media—without resorting to outright hostility on the one hand or sanctimonious silencing on the other.

And I wonder if it begins with acknowledging that friction doesn't mean division.  

We Christians suffer under this rather fanciful notion that no one in the early church ever argued about anything, that the first disciples of Jesus sat around singing hymns and munching on communion bread, nodding along in perfect agreement about how to apply the teachings of Jesus to their lives.

But the epistles would suggest otherwise. The epistles would suggest that when you throw together a group of people from vastly different ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds there is going to be some serious friction. Within the early church raged debates over everything from the application of the Mosaic law, to whether Christians should eat food offered to idols, to how to handle the influx of widows in the church, to disagreements around circumcision, religious festivals, finances, missions, and theology.

So when Paul urged the Ephesian church to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” he followed this with an acknowledgement of the Church’s diversity, in which there are “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers…so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

This Body is still growing, so there will be growing pains. 

But if we love one another through these growing pains, “then we will no longer be infants…instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

I suspect Paul combined this call for the Body’s unity with an acknowledgement of the Body’s diversity because he knew that unity isn’t the same as uniformity.

We’re not called to be alike; we’re called to love.

We’re not called to agree; we’re called to love.

We’re not even called to get along all the time; we’re called to love each other as brothers and sisters, as people united in one baptism, one communion, one adoption.

Maybe we need these differences to be animated, to be alive, to mature. Maybe friction isn’t a sign of decay, but of growth.

The world is certainly watching. But this doesn't mean we hide our dirty laundry, slap on mechanical smiles, and gloss over all the injustices and abuses, conflicts and disagreements, diversity and denominationalism present within the Church;  it means we expose them. It means we talk about them boldly and with integrity, with passion and with love. I suspect that talking about our differences is better for our witness than supressing them, and I'm sure that exposing corruption and abuse is better for our witness than hiding them.

And when it comes to injustice, a far more important question to me than "What will the world think if they see us disagreeing?" is "What will the world think if they don't?"

So when we find ourselves in a position of privilege in the Church, this means listening with patience to the concerns of our brothers and sisters from the margins, even when their calls for change strike us, at first, as bitter or unwelcome.  

When we find ourselves speaking from the margins, this means putting in extra effort to ensure that our challenges are issued respectfully and kindly, even when it seems exhausting and unfair to do so. And it means responding to shaming tactings (deliberate or inadvertent) by pressing on and continuing to speak the truth, even when it makes people uncomfortable.  

For all of us, I think it means abandoning the notion that unity requires uniformity and that arguments, even heated ones, mean we don’t love one another.

We are, after all, brothers and sisters. 

Let's fight like them. 

***

[P.S.: I think Jonathan Merritt responded in a helpful way to the situation by taking a few steps back and examining the overall Christian conference culture here.]

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