Context or Heresy?

cross-1314136_640In this tense political season, I struggle to balance my Christian faith with what I see happening in my country. I question how my faith interacts with my culture and when those two things conflict, how to work them out. I know I’m not alone in this struggle.

Contextualization

As a former missionary married to a missions professor, I think a lot about how culture interacts with the gospel. What makes healthy ministry techniques? The concept of contextualization is important in that process. Contextualization of the gospel is what missionaries and pastors all strive to do. It means expressing biblical principles in a way that makes sense to people in the culture. The Bible makes it pretty clear that the good news of Jesus is for every person in every culture, so this is an important endeavor.

Let me give you an example of contextualization. Let’s say you’re in a church in Nebraska, where football is a really big deal. The preacher may include illustrations from football in his sermon. He may talk about the Church being a team with Jesus as the coach or he may talk about how the Holy Spirit brings unity and enthusiasm to our spiritual lives the way that cheering for a particular team brings unity and excitement to the fans. These illustrations help the people in the audience understand the Bible and apply it to their everyday lives by relating biblical principles to something they know about. This is contextualization, and it’s a good thing.

Syncretism

If we’re not careful, we can take contextualization too far and step into heretical teaching. Syncretism is contextualization taken too far. It means that a group binds the cultural expression of the gospel message so closely to the culture that the two parts cannot be separated. A person who wants to become a Christian must also adopt cultural norms in order to be considered part of the faithful. Syncretism is not a good thing because it adds cultural elements to the gospel and makes them necessary for faith in Jesus.

So if we took the example above to the level of syncretism, we’d have a situation where Christians began replacing worship services with tailgate parties in the parking lot, wearing athletic gear to the parties and including team cheers as a part of the worship of God. There’s nothing wrong with  doing those things unless we require that particular dress and activity in order to be a Christian. If someone is unwelcome in the church because he doesn’t wear the football jerseys we require and we say that attendance at a Superbowl party and rooting for a particular team  are essential to the gospel, we are stepping past contextualizing and into syncronizing.

It’s easy to look at the above example and know it’s foolish. We’d never say a person  had to be a football fan to be a Christian. That would exclude many people from the gospel and wouldn’t even make sense since football did not even exist in Jesus’ day.

Nationalism and Christianity

Unfortunately, syncretism has happened in many churches in America. We have intricately bound patriotism with Christianity. It’s now so completely wound together that we sometimes can’t see where one ends and the other begins. This is why we hear people say things like, “America is God’s country,” and, “America is a Christian nation.” (For a good article from the Christian Standard and a quiz to find out if you’re struggling with syncronistic beliefs, click here.)

How did this happen? One history professor who is himself a Baby Boomer and lived through the time immediately following World War II, tells me that after World War II, Christians began hearing stories of how some soldiers had “miraculously” escaped from certain death and about how America led the fight to free people from oppressive leaders. They believed that God used America to bring freedom to the world and to fight evil. Although nationalistic ideas were probably a part of the American church before this, the events during and following WWII fueled the idea that America was a Christian nation, created by God to bring Christianity to the world. Patriotism was necessary to maintain support for the war, and churches began incorporating patriotic themes into their services.

In order to garner support for the war and win elections, politicians targeted the Christian subculture and appealed to this sense of patriotism, further tying it to Christianity. Christians did not know about or overlooked questionable activities that America might have participated in overseas, saying these actions were necessary to keep the peace and prevent another world war and wasn’t that important in keeping a Christian presence in the world?

In the 1960’s people began balking at that because they began seeing news reports with actual footage of the Vietnam war and other American endeavors. They began to see that things the American government did weren’t always virtuous, so they began to rebel and criticize the government. And, of course, many evangelical Christians criticized those who protested and saw protesters as abominations against the Christian nation of America.  Thus began the tension between American culture and Christianity.

The Culture Wars

During the 1980’s, leaders like James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Sr. came into prominence, leading a movement to fight the influence of groups who opposed the American government and this nationalistic form of Christianity. They hoped to do this by fighting what has become known as “culture wars.” I grew up in church and listened to many sermons about the evils of the culture around us, about how we had to take a stand and fight against what we saw going on in America, about how bad rock music or movies were. We were led to believe that we owed it to God to stand up for our faith in a culture that opposed it, that fighting the culture proved our faith.

How many times have I sat in a church service built around 2 Chronicles 7:14 that says, “if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land”? How many times have I heard the preacher say, “This is a promise to us, America! We were made to do God’s will in the world. Our country has lost its way and now must do what God says in that verse: as a nation we must repent so that he will heal our land and bless us again”? This teaching is heresy. It takes a passage meant for the Israelite people in the Old Testament and incorrectly applies it to America, a country that did not even exist at the time that promise was made.

So we mixed our cultural belief in America with our faith. Influential leaders in the evangelical movement have moved the focus from Jesus to political issues. Those issues are important, but they take second place to the true gospel.

constitution-1486010_1280If what I believe I should do to further American strength conflicts with what Jesus taught, I am following the American flag and not Him. If I believe that God has ordained the United States as a special country to promote democracy and freedom in the world, I have mixed my patriotism and my faith, and I have decided to follow a heretical teaching using a misunderstanding of the Bible as its basis. If I believe that I have a Christian duty to stand up for the United States as an effort to preserve freedom and the Christian way of life, I am living according to nationalism and not Christianity.

Is it wrong to promote freedom, to vote based on your convictions and desire to preserve freedom or eliminate abortion, for example? No! Of course not! Our freedoms are important to us as Americans, and it is important to protect those. However, when I say that I do so because I am a Christian and Christians must vote the same way, that they must support a certain candidate or cause in the same way that I do, I am participating in the syncretism of nationalism and Christianity. If I say that I want America to be a Christian nation so that only Christians are free to live here, I no longer speak as an American or a Christian. I am no longer promoting religious freedom. I am promoting a nationalistic, heretical form of Christianity that seeks to eliminate other religions that I believe may threaten my freedom.

Why Does It Matter?

Why is this even important to me? I spent a lot of years just telling myself it was no big deal, that the old school Christians may be wasting their time talking like they did about the culture wars, but in the long run the idea would die out when the older generations did. Now I see I was wrong.

Lately, that idea has made a resurgence. We see it happening in our country in the form of a political candidate who has stirred up those feelings of angry nationalism and has used the evangelical church’s obsession with patriotism to garner votes, despite the fact that we can clearly see that he displays none of the characteristics the Bible tells us to look for in a leader. On the other side, we see Christians urging us to vote for his opponent out of fear that if the first does become president he will take down America. Both of these views smack of nationalism, a dependence on policies to protect our freedom of religion, and not the Christian faith. I admit that I also find myself trapped in this thinking at times. It is a very strong temptation for someone who grew up in an environment where this type of teaching was common.

cross-1448946_640A Crossroad

This is about more than the election, though. The church is now at a crossroads. We can follow the flag and claim we’re following Jesus or we can step away from our patriotism, our desire to make America into some sort of force for Jesus in the world, and actually become a real force for Jesus ourselves, the way that he taught the Church to do. We can live the gospel message, removing dependence upon nationalism and eliminating our reliance on a particular political platform as a test of our faith, or we can continue to fight these culture wars that push people away from Jesus.  We do not need a free American “Christian nation” to influence the world for Him. In fact, in both Bible times and modern times we see the Christian faith thriving in places where practice of it is illegal.

Jesus taught his followers to live within their society and to be different from it. The New Testament tells us that the world will know we are Christians by our love, not by the way we promote our causes. Looking at the gospel without clouding it with cultural nationalism, we see that pushing our political agendas as essential to the faith makes about as much sense as incorporating team cheers into our worship services.

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Strangers Among Us

hospitalNot long ago, a young man named Ansar* came to Omaha from Central Asia with plans to study at a university in town. Before classes even started, when he had been here only a few weeks, he suffered a life-threatening brain aneurysm. Knowing no English, Ansar had only one friend in this country, another young man who grew up with him in his home town and came to the US to study a few years ago. This friend took it upon himself to care for Ansar in the hospital, bringing him things he needed, translating at times and helping however he could.

Connections

Someone who heard about Ansar and knew that he spoke Russian asked my husband Andrew to visit him in hopes that a visitor who spoke his language would speed his recovery and prove a helpful resource. Andrew took our son Alex to visit Ansar in the hospital and spent time talking with him and his friend, getting to know them a little bit. Since then, Ansar has moved to live with the friend and a roommate, and Andrew has visited him a few more times there. His housemates work opposite shifts, a convenient schedule since Ansar requires round-the-clock supervision. He’s scheduled for several more surgeries before he’s out of the woods, and, although he can go on very short walks close to home, riding in a car for more than a few minutes makes him sick, and overexertion could easily kill him.

As we learn more about the situation this newcomer to our country faces, I keep thinking about his family back in Central Asia. Imagine putting your college-age son on an airplane, knowing you wouldn’t see him for years. Then imagine receiving word that he’d had a brain aneurysm, of all things! Not a broken leg or a case of the flu. A stroke. Something that kills about 12,000 people a year in the United States alone. When Alex broke his arm at his grandparents’ house in Virginia last summer, I just about went crazy until I could get to him and see him and care for him myself. The thought that this boy’s mama had to hear long distance that her son almost died and might still–I can’t imagine!

Not only that, but how great is it that this happened in a place with good medical care? If this had happened in his third-world homeland, he probably would have died. Instead, he was in the right place at the right time to receive top-notch treatment. He’s still alive today because of the medical personnel who saved his life. In addition, his friends have rallied around this young man, taking on the job of family and caring for him when he can’t care for himself.

Strangers Among Us

Ansar’s story is important. This story shows me the importance of welcoming immigrants, people who are different, people who require something from me. It’s easy to love my friends. I want to love my family. But when it comes to loving a stranger, ummm… I’m not so excited about that. However, when I read the Bible I see over and over that I’m instructed to love “strangers.” Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35). I looked it up in the Greek, and the word “stranger” does mean “foreigner.”

The command to treat foreigners in our land well can be found all over the Old Testament (see Leviticus 19:33-34, 25:35, Exodus 22:21 to name just a few). Those verses tell the Hebrew people to welcome foreigners because they can remember how they were once foreigners in Egypt. In other words, they were to show grace because they could understand how it was to be in need in a foreign land. Even the temple was designed with a special place for foreigners to worship. Despite the fact that the Old Testament focused on setting apart the Hebrews as special, God did not leave the Gentiles out of his plan.

I realize this is the Old Testament, so some Christians today can dismiss that by saying the instructions for hospitality to strangers in the land applied to those who lived before Christ but not necessarily to us today. However, I see giving hospitality to strangers show up throughout the scriptures, in both Old and New Testaments. It’s a theme that runs throughout the Bible. Treat other people the way you want to be treated. If you were living in a foreign country and needed something–whether brain surgery or directions to the closest toilet–you’d have to rely on the kindness of strangers. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to say, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (13:2).

Our Culture

In our culture, this concept of welcoming foreigners seems to have become a foreign one. Daily we hear people debate about putting up walls along our borders, whether to let people from Muslim countries enter, even as legal immigrants, what to do when refugees need refuge. These questions, they’re not just ideas. They represent real people whose families are altered for generations based on what we do today. Do we stand on our soapboxes and scream that they need to get out because they’re taking all our jobs and using our tax money? Or do we open our arms to welcome them the way the Bible tells us to do?

Back to Ansar

bible-koran-fundamental-difference-in-approach.jpg.crop_displayThere’s something else about Ansar that gives this story some even more interesting and relevant twists. As you may have guessed, Ansar is a Muslim. He’s not a terrorist, he’s not dangerous. He’s a college student who now has lost his visa because he’s not able to go to school. So he’s not legally in the country because he is in the middle of a potentially fatal episode. He’s working on changing his visa to a different type, but in the meantime, he’s receiving medical care from a hospital who may never receive payment for their work. He doesn’t have insurance, so he’s racking up staggering medical bills.

In the debate about immigration, he’s the poster boy for all of those opposing it. Yet, he’s also the perfect example of why we can’t just toss out people who don’t conform to strict standards. Before campaigning against immigration and crying out on Facebook to close our borders and round up and deport all illegal immigrants, we have to look at the people behind the statistics. Every foreigner in our country has a story. Ansar is not an exception.

Do we force a young man who cannot ride in a car for more than a few minutes without putting his life in danger to board a plane and fly for 12+ hours to a country where he will probably die, if he survives the trip, when we have the capability and skills needed to heal him here? Do we stand on a questionable principle that says we should keep our resources for our own people, no matter what? Or do we show mercy to the stranger among us and understand that immigrants are humans, loved by God?

It’s easy to talk about issues like immigration in an abstract way when we don’t know anyone who is affected by these policies. No one would say that their own child should die in a hospital just because he can’t pay for care, but some are more than willing to say that very thing when it comes to a stranger from another land. May we begin to see our fellow man the way God does, without prioritizing because of nationality or race.

*His name has been changed.

Witches and Salem and Halloween

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I wish I’d bought this t shirt!

If anyone has reason to remember Halloween, Salem, Massachusetts does. The approximate site of the famous Salem Witch Trials, which took place over 200 years ago in 1692-93, Salem has capitalized on its reputation as a center of the supernatural. People from all over the world converge on this small town during Haunted Happenings to dress up in costumes and parade through narrow streets lined with old buildings renovated to hold shops and restaurants.

In a way, I can’t believe I was there just a couple of weekends ago. Until a few weeks before, I had no idea the place even did this. Visiting the town famous for witchcraft wasn’t really on my bucket list. Halloween hasn’t ever been my favorite holiday. In fact, helping three kids plan and don costumes and carve pumpkins tires me out, and walking around in the cold and sometimes in the rain at night with three small children and without warm attire that might cover up their beloved costumes worries me.

To Celebrate or Not to Celebrate?

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Andrew eating clam chowder from a booth run by three older ladies who danced to the music as they served our soup.

Early on, though, Andrew and I decided to go ahead and celebrate the holiday, despite the fact that some Christians reject it because they fear its historic association with evil. We noticed when we moved to our first house that our neighbors, who almost never saw one another throughout the year, came out in droves at Halloween. They sat in chairs at the end of their driveways passing out candy to trick-or-treaters and visited one another, talking and laughing together. We decided that hiding in the house with the lights off would only alienate us from the people we were trying to build a sense of community with, so we dressed up the babies and took them out in the cold.

That being said, we never considered driving across the country to celebrate the day before. However, Andrew is working on a book about ministry to people who practice pagan religions like witchcraft, and he heard of an outreach that some believers have to the witch community in Salem. It takes place around Halloween, at the festival there. He wanted to see it firsthand, and since we’d be “close” for ICOM (if a ten hour drive counts as “close”!), he wanted to go. We left the kids at the grandparents’ in Virginia and made the longer-than-we-thought drive through New England.

Fearing the Unknown

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The lines for these touristy things were long. Everybody wants to take a ghost tour on Halloween.

Even before we went to Salem, when we told people we were planning on going, we got a variety of reactions from our Christian friends. I think there’s a pervasive idea that inherent evil surrounds Halloween in general and the practice of witchcraft or any kind of pagan religion in particular. Many Christians think that believers should stay away from pagan religions or risk being somehow influenced by evil in ways that they don’t realize until it’s “too late.” It’s as if people think that just because they interact with someone who practices witchcraft or another pagan religion they will be possessed, haunted or pursued by demons.

The more I’ve learned about different religious practices, the less I fear them. There are a couple of reasons going to a place like Salem doesn’t bother me. In fact, I feel that it’s pretty important.

1) People confuse today’s witchcraft practices with what is actually superstition. They read about the Salem Witch Trials and to some extent believe the things the community in Salem believed about the women accused of witchcraft—that they had a special communion with the devil, that they held evil power over the people in the community. If we study the Salem incidents, we find that those were superstitious, bored people participating in mass hysteria. Their belief that the women accused of witchcraft had some communication with the devil or demons actually stemmed more from superstitious beliefs about evil than biblical teaching about it.

2) Even if I did think there was inherent evil in today’s practice of witchcraft, I believe the Bible. Throughout it I see that God has more power than any evil spirits. The New Testament is filled with stories of Jesus and his disciples taking control of evil spirits, and they don’t seem intimidated in the least by them.

3) I’m not afraid of other religions somehow corrupting my faith. I don’t mind hosting a Muslim for dinner or talking to Hindus. Witchcraft is another religion, and I don’t feel more threatened by that than other world religions. I know what I believe, and I don’t have to change that because I’m with a person who doesn’t believe the same as I do.

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In front of a shop full of witchy stuff. If you look very closely, you can see Andrew in his blue hoodie inside the shop talking to the owner, a self-described shaman who responded enthusiastically to Andrew’s request for information about his beliefs.

4) Signs and symbols and the interpretation of natural events are things Christians see as part of Witchcraft. They shy away with fear that learning what they mean to other people will somehow give them power in their own lives. However, those things only mean what we let them mean to us. For example, when we lived in Ukraine people told me over and over not to sit on concrete. They said the cool concrete would give me a “cold” that I didn’t even know I had until years later when I couldn’t conceive a child. Then I’d know I probably had sat on concrete once and gotten that mysterious cold in my reproductive organs and, well, I had to pay the consequences. I told them if that’s the case I’m surprised the US is populated at all since everyone sits on the concrete! My friend, a highly educated young woman, told me once, “I know it’s not true, that it’s just an old wives’ tale, but I still just can’t do it. It’s still in the back of my head.” The old fiction meant something to her because she gave that meaning to it. She gave it power over her thinking and her actions.

5) If believers don’t reach out to people of other faiths, even witches, who will? This should probably be #1 in the list. Are we just waiting for them to come to us for some reason. Put a church on the corner and surely witches will want to go there? I don’t see that happening.

What We Saw

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people.

Most of what we saw there was people. A lot of people. In fact, this picture doesn’t show well how big the crowds were.

When we finally found a parking space in the small town of Salem, which was flooded with more people than it was ever meant to hold, and made our way to the middle of the town, we saw a huge crowd of people, many dressed in anything from Harry Potter to Frankenstein and lighted jellyfish. Music and laughter filled the air. People stopped for selfies with scary zombies and ducked into souvenir shops full of witch-themed memorabilia. Tourists lined up to take tours of the important historical spots in town and museums dedicated to the history of the area and the witch trials.

Andrew was hunting the pastor he’d corresponded with who leads an outreach to witches during the festival. We didn’t know what to expect and only had a basic idea of what they do, but he wanted to see their outreach firsthand. We never managed to meet up with that pastor, but we did meet people working with him. One of them had a tent with signs advertising free spiritual readings, free hugs and dream interpretation. This ministry rents space around a small square in the heart of the festival. A great band singing pop music played at one end, and people sat around the square eating or talking.

Andrew started a conversation with one guy standing in front of the tent. He led us into the tent to a woman who sat in the corner. Andrew introduced himself and said he was doing research on outreach to the Wiccan community. The woman, Kelly, was friendly and open. She offered to interpret a dream for him. Now this is where I know I’m losing you because in our branch of the Church there’s not a lot of dream interpreting going on. Most people I know don’t put much stock in it or in God communicating with us through dreams. Hang in here with me, though, and give it a chance!

A Dream’s Meaning

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The tent we visited.

What Kelly did was no different from what I’d do if someone came to me for advice or asked me why I thought they dreamed something. While I don’t know if I really believe God usually talks to me through dreams, I believe that our dreams can tell us something about ourselves and can lead us to seek God in certain areas of our lives. So it makes sense that someone intuitive who listens to God and seeks him in her own life could ask the right questions to help a person understand why he’s dreaming what he’s dreaming.

Kelly did just that. She asked Andrew to describe a dream. She told him what she thought it meant. She asked how God could use his dreams to show him areas he wanted Andrew to turn over to him.

That’s pretty straightforward, I think, but she did something else with it that neither Andrew nor I had thought about. She said that sometimes the things we worry about, when turned over to God, become strengths to us. The things he worries about and sometimes dreams about could become areas where God could use him more powerfully. That makes perfect sense when you think about it.

Since Andrew told her about the research he’s doing, he asked some questions about her work. She told us a little about the outreach she’s involved with, how it aims to connect with people at the festival by meeting them on their own turf and communicating in ways they could connect with. Obviously, dream interpretation appeals to the people there. Her kind demeanor, her care for the people who come into her tent attract people who are in need of that acceptance. She spoke to me as well, and I felt so drawn to her that I could completely see how effective she is in her ministry. I left that tent feeling positive and with a renewed sense that people are doing some great things for Jesus in the world.

It is possible to minister to people very different from us. I think God prepares each of us through our life experiences, our personalities, our giftedness and even our family histories to do what it takes to reach out and share Jesus with those who need him. We don’t need to fear contamination by the world but can step boldly forward into the work set in front of us!

I Think I’m a Clanging Cymbal

My husband sometimes accuses me of liking controversy. He’s a peacemaker to an extreme. He hates conflict. I think at least half of his life is spent trying to avoid it. I’m not like that. I don’t mind conflict. I’m not sure I’d go as far as he does and say I like controversy, but some kinds of controversies interest me. I don’t mind a little debate.

If you’ve read my blog before, you probably could figure that out. I like to write about things like the struggle between government and religion and the Christian response to it. I don’t do that just to get clicks on my blog. Those are issues I care about. When I see reports of Christians protesting at gay pride celebrations or refusing to serve people who are different from them, I have an internal reaction that tells me something’s not right.

Jesus’ Reaction to Sin

I think some of that reaction comes from reading and studying Jesus’ life and his treatment of people commonly regarded as sinners, people who messed up and got themselves into a lot of trouble. I never, ever see him hurting them. I never see them leaving him feeling judged and mistreated. Instead, I see these people meeting someone whose very essence changes who they are. The grace they receive, the forgiveness they experience before a change has even been made motivates a shift in lifestyle.

Jesus had a handle on what people need to feel loved by God. People wanted to be with him. They came to him because they liked how they felt when they were with him. I’m not saying Jesus was this feel-good hippie who just wanted love and peace and never asked people to change. I think from reading accounts of Jesus’ life that people wanted to change when they were with him, and it had nothing to do with him pointing out what was bad in their lives. When people stand up and say, “I’m a Christian and, by gollly, God says you’re wrong, and I’m gonna tell you in detail why, and I’m gonna do it with a nasty attitude!” I feel what I think is righteous anger. How dare people bring God into such a hurtful exchange? When someone’s attitude is pushing people away from God instead of drawing them to him, I feel not so happy with that person.

Keep Reading…

I’ve written about this stuff so much that I think you’re all like “Oh my goodness, not again!” Don’t stop reading because here’s where it changes. My reaction to Christians judging is just as judgy as the judging they’re doing. The difference is they judge the people they deem as “sinners” and I judge the ones already in the Church. I feel sooo judgy of them. Sometimes I want to stand up to them and say “Shut your mouths because you’re hurting people!” but maybe in doing that I’m participating in their sin as well.

The other day I heard a sermon, and the preacher read the verse in 1 Corinthians 13 that says, “If I speak in tongues of men and angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” An earlier verse (8:1) says “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”

It'd be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

It’d be nice if this were the size of my symbolic cymbals.

The moment I heard that familiar passage, I knew it: I am a clanging cymbal. I’m all puffed up with knowledge. My certainty that my understanding of Jesus’ attitude toward sinners is the right way and I know it and all people who think different are wrong, wrong, WRONG is just…wrong.

I admit it. I like to hide behind a holier than thou approach, feeling superior to other Christians who blast people on their Facebook feeds and post all sorts of stuff about kicking out immigrants and standing up for their own rights. But in doing that, I’m no better. I’m not judging the people out in the rest of the world, but I sure do judge those sitting in the pew next to me. I feel quick to empathize with people who don’t know Jesus and don’t conform to Christian values, but I have such a hard time empathizing with Christians caught in the sin of self-righteousness and spiritual pride.

Here’s whats hard for me, though. Jesus treated the religious leaders differently from regular people in society. He did hold them to a higher standard. Their attitudes prevented people from coming to God, and he did not stand for that. Later in the New Testament, we also see Paul talking frankly and even harshly to church leaders whose policies threw stumbling blocks in the way of unbelievers coming to know Jesus.

So how does this fit together? If it’s counter to Jesus’ teachings to treat non-believers in a judgmental, legalistic way but we see him standing up to the religious leaders of his time and not letting them get away with a bad attitude, what’s my responsibility as a Christian who sometimes sees other Christians acting like Pharisees?

And suddenly it dawns on me, even as I type this. Maybe I have trouble empathizing with self-righteous religious people and treating believers with grace because I myself am trapped in that same sin of spiritual pride that the religious leaders of Jesus’ day exhibited. Maybe I’m like the televangelist who preaches so emphatically against sexual sin every Sunday and later reveals that he’s been visiting prostitutes himself all along. Maybe God is pointing this hypocrisy out to me in other people because he wants me to see it in myself.

Or maybe it is more complex than that even. Maybe it’s the motivation and method involved with the reprimand of Christians who falter. Is my motivation to bring them into a closer relationship with God and protect the helpless who sometimes get caught in the crossfire or is it to prove that I have the right answers? And does my method actually help people understand that they’re hurting people or does it just make them dig deeper into the defense of their position and become more entrenched in their ways?

Let’s face it, it’s easier to evaluate other Christians who I think should know better and say things that make me look progressive and accepting and politically correct than it is to step out and actually do something to make the situations we’re debating better. I’d rather write about it from the safety of my high tower than climb down the steps and meet people in their needs.

Change My Mind

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This is the house we worked on for a few hours one morning.

A few weeks ago, I had a chance to volunteer for community service day at the college where I work. One of the students asked me to be on her team. I felt pretty happy about that, actually. My job has always involved a lot of me sitting in my office organizing student records and not a lot of me interacting with those students. Being asked to go made me feel like maybe I’m getting the chance to make some actual relationships with the students now. But the night before the event, I realized I was pretty sick. My nose was horribly sneezy/stuffy/runny, and I felt like a nasty old tissue myself. I tried to get out of going, but I didn’t want to make trouble for this group of girls, and in the end I went.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

It was a lot dustier than it appears.

I’d love to say that I skipped happily toward cleaning out a gutted house in the inner city, but I didn’t. The extreme dust–EXTREME– and my nasal distress added up to me not being too fun to be around. I just didn’t really feel exuberant about serving Jesus at that point. Why? Not just my nose felt uncomfortable. I felt uncomfortable. I had to drive to a part of town I’d never seen. I had to work with people I didn’t know well. I had to be hot in the 90 degree weather and covered with dust. Uncomfortable.

That’s what it takes, though, isn’t it? Being uncomfortable? Realizing our vulnerabilities in an effort to understand and connect with others who are vulnerable? I wonder if part of conquering spiritual pride takes getting involved in something that makes me uncomfortable. Instead of sticking with the things I’m comfortable with and good at, maybe I need to do something I’m pretty bad at because how proud can I be of my own spirituality when I’m covered in snotty dust?

So here’s a novel idea for me to try: what if I started asking myself in every encounter what it would take for that person to feel loved and cared for? What if I started really thinking about how each person feels, empathizing with them and the confusion and pain that causes some of the mistakes? What if I started extending this empathy to the Christians I sometimes am in contact with who focus on how bad the rest of the world is and tried to see them as Jesus does, as people who struggle to do the right thing? What if I gave them time to change and used a less abrasive method to show them what I saw as necessary in their lives? What if I did some things that made me uncomfortable? What then?

Maybe I’d stop sounding like a clanging cymbal and start making a difference.

 

Religious Freedom and Jesus

picA few months ago, I had a conversation about posting controversial conservative viewpoints on Facebook. In the conversation, the other person said that she felt compelled to stand up for her beliefs and her rights as a Christian on Facebook and in other public forums. She said that this was her duty as a Christian. Since then, my home state of Indiana has passed the infamous religious freedom law that has brought them to the forefront of the nation’s attention and has flooded my Facebook feed with all sorts of opinionated talk.

Growing up in the Bible Belt in a conservative home, I was faced with this stand-up-for-your-rights point of view quite a bit. I saw a lot of loving, kind people reject anyone different. I saw people hide their real beliefs because they were different from what other Christians believed and they didn’t want to rock the boat. I saw my friends pushed away from Christianity because of differing points of view. I am convinced that church people did this out of a sense of conviction that good Christians did not support anything sinful and out of a lack of understanding of how to accept people who are different while allowing those differences to exist. People feel that in order to love someone they need to reject the things about them that they think are bad and this will somehow show them the error of their ways and turn them to the path toward godly behavior.

In the Gospels I read about Jesus’ ministry and how he did not stand up for his rights at all. In fact, he didn’t stand up for his rights so much that he let people murder him. I think there’s one major passage in the Bible where he does talk about Christians standing up for their rights, and that’s in the Sermon on the Mount. There he says that his followers should give up their natural rights in order to love other people. You want revenge? You have a human right to revenge. However, as a Christian, give up that right and love your enemy instead. That over-the-top love is what turns people toward Jesus and not away from him.

In the controversy over religious freedom laws, it seems that there are actually two separate things happening. There is a desire for freedom as Americans. As an American, I want my freedom to worship, my freedom to believe whatever I want to believe, and my freedom to tell the world about that belief. That is my right as an American, as long as I’m not putting someone else’s life in danger.

However, I feel the tension between demanding those rights and the second idea–showing the love of Christ. I must be careful not to mix my freedom as an American with my faith. I may have a right to turn someone away based on my religious beliefs, but is rejecting them the best way to show the love of Christ to them? What if I decided that I would pay particular attention to the gay community and provide fantastic service to them in an effort to show love to a group of people who has been rejected repeatedly by those who follow Christ? I’m not saying anything at all about whether I agree with them, but as human beings I care about them.

I see the focus in this religious freedom issue shifting away from Jesus and onto our rights. From the viewpoint of the non-Christian segment of America, we Christians spend more energy advocating for our right to refuse service than we do on loving other people the way Jesus did. We get caught up thinking that part of our duty as Christians is to stand up for God, as if our willingness to be outspoken for our faith is a test of our spiritual maturity. In reality, our faith is tested by our willingness to love like Jesus did. The New Testament says “they will know you are Christians by your love,” not by your right to religious freedom.

So in this case where Christians are faced with serving people who are different from rainbow cakethem and live in ways they think are wrong, maybe the way to deal with those situations according to Jesus’ teachings is to make sure they have the best service possible. If you’re a wedding photographer and a gay couple asks for your business, make sure you give them the best photos ever. If you’re a baker, make the most beautiful cake. People who don’t and who reject the business of the gay community lose the rather rare opportunity to show extravagant Christlike love to a group of people who has only been repeatedly hurt by the Christians they know. This may mean a loss of support from your Christian friends, but, hey, those are people who have experienced God’s love before. If we care about reaching those who do not know Christ, maybe it’s time to stop focusing so much on our rights as American citizens and start focusing on loving the ones Jesus loves.