Pay Attention and Don’t Drift Away

In all our hand-wringing over the demise of (insert here alternately “liberal” or “conservative”) Christianity, what should be remembered is that while we’re busy yelling at each other, we might be forgetting to listen. 

This is why it’s necessary for us to pay more attention to what we have heard, or else we may drift away from it. If the message that was spoken by angels was reliable, and every offense and act of disobedience received an appropriate consequence, how will we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? It was first announced through the Lord, and then it was confirmed by those who heard him. God also vouched for their message with signs, amazing things, various miracles, and gifts from the Holy Spirit, which were handed out the way he wanted. (Heb. 2:1-4, CEB)

Friends, the enemy is not us. The enemy is laughing at us.

It is time to renew our love and zeal for the One we need to hear once again.

Dividing Christ?

Near Emmaus put together a nice synopsis of recent articles regarding “liberal” and “conservative” Christianity in America.

I found Ross Douthat’s piece in the New York Times to be a great read.

As I have read the comments on Douthat’s page and other responses, what I have wondered about is just how far we will go as “labeled” Christians to hold onto to what vestiges of theological ground we think we have left to defend. There were some really upset comments made toward Douthat’s opinion. Then, of course, there were the columns wishing a pox (so to speak) on “conservative” Christianity as well.

Growing up “conservative” I have watched other “conservatives” become “liberal,” but in doing so, they don’t just become liberal. They become liberal with a decided bent toward tearing down what they came from. I have watched “liberals” moving to “conservative” Christianity doing the same.

And it just leaves me wondering, “Is Christ divided?”

Well… no. Christ is not divided. But his people sure don’t like each other very much, and that is the shame. And in the age of the internet the world gets to watch our squabbles. I’m fairly sure they’re not saying, “See how they love one another!”

I am not pure as the wind-driven snow on this… or any other subject, for that matter.

I watch “conservative” Christians get upset over “liberal” Christianity for some good reasons. I watch “liberal” Christians return the favor, and with good reason at times as well. The problem is this: There are plenty of times we are firing at each other for no good reason.

In the town where I pastor we have a fair mix of “liberal” and “conservative” Christians. We have met together for years over lunch once a month during the school year. Many years ago we had a great pastor who only wanted to discuss our differences. He was a great friend and I deeply admired him, but we all found we didn’t want to get together to discuss our differences. Attendance dwindled a bit.

What brought us back together was the determination to do something together in the name of Jesus. We put together a project that everyone agreed was something done in the name of Jesus and represented the Body of Christ. We dropped discussions over our differences.

That didn’t take away the differences. They are still there. At one point I went intentionally to a very good friend to quietly discuss the theological differences we had on an issue. But what I said in that meeting was though that difference existed there was nothing that would cause me to cease loving him as a brother in Christ. He is an incredibly close friend to me to this day.

There are things I hold to as a “conservative” that I wish I heard more from on the “liberal” side. There are things on the “liberal” side I hold dear as well, and wish my “conservative” friends would pay more attention to as well.

But I do not wish a pox on “liberals” any more than “liberals” should wish a pox on “conservatives.” That has just got to stop.

We are not dividing Christ, necessarily, but we are looking foolish in the process.

The Changing Face of Christianity

The Archbishop of Canterbury is resigning. Mark Stevens wants the job. I’d vote for him if I had a vote.

The issue with the Catholic Church and the Anglican Church is similar. The Catholic Church will face the selection of a new pope before too long, I’m sure. When Pope John Paul II died, they had the opportunity to step up to new realities, but declined. The Anglican Church is in the same position.

As Ross Douthat points out, the new reality is both churches are in decline in their “home turf” yet growing rapidly in other parts of the world. Maybe it’s time to step up and embrace that reality.

Not being Catholic or Anglican, I don’t get to make that call, or even have a voice in that call. It’s their communion. But when there is an opportunity to recognize the shift of the church’s base, why not make a fresh step? Both the Catholic and Anglican communions could embrace African leaders, where their churches are actually growing.

Not that they will take that opportunity, but it is a refreshing thought.

Christianity that matters, part 2

Thinking over Ross Douthat’s column, I have been thinking over and over about the crisis of Christianity we need to have in our culture. We don’t want one. It’s here, but we don’t want to recognize it.

It’s a lot like the economic crisis. We don’t want to deal with it. It’s like the environment. It’s like our crazy dependence on oil. It’s like a lot of things. We know there’s an elephant in the room and we just pick up some poop every once in awhile to knock down the smell a bit.

Christianity needs this conversation.

Having popularized the term “culture war” two decades ago, Hunter now argues that the “war” footing has led American Christians into a cul-de-sac. It has encouraged both conservative and liberal believers to frame their mission primarily in terms of conflict, and to express themselves almost exclusively in the “language of loss, disappointment, anger, antipathy, resentment and desire for conquest.”

All we are doing is experiencing whiplash Christianity, like we are experiencing whiplash politics right now. We don’t want to deal with deep issues. We would just rather lob theological grenades and feel better about ourselves.

Douthat continues:

Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.

We’ve lost sight of the gospel. We’ve lost sight of the core. We’ve reduced Christianity to bumper sticker slogans instead of preaching and living a gospel that changes lives. We’ve become so “hunkered down” we may just not want people to change. We may just want targets to blame for the demise of our culture.

Here is the question:

The question is whether they can become a creative and attractive minority in a different sort of culture, where they’re competing not only with rival faiths but with a host of pseudo-Christian spiritualities, and where the idea of a single religious truth seems increasingly passé.

Or to put it another way, Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago this week.

Welcome to the new world.

Christianity that matters

Ross Douthat has a marvelous column on the Christmas season and how Christianity is “doing.” Obviously, we are full of angst. That’s our main theme these days, it seems. The column is a good one and I am kind of setting this post as a “marker” to come back to when I have time.

One thought from his column for now:

Thanks in part to this bunker mentality, American Christianity has become what Hunter calls a “weak culture” — one that mobilizes but doesn’t convert, alienates rather than seduces, and looks backward toward a lost past instead of forward to a vibrant future. In spite of their numerical strength and reserves of social capital, he argues, the Christian churches are mainly influential only in the “peripheral areas” of our common life. In the commanding heights of culture, Christianity punches way below its weight.

This is a paragraph that is rich with challenge for my own life and ministry.

Popularity of Mysticism

Who woulda thunk it?

This Ross Douthat column in the New York Times reflects on the popularity of so many mystical practices, but it has its downside. We are dabbling in so many things, we are diving into nothing. We are not fully entering into ANY of the practices, so we might think we are mystics, but the proof is in the pudding.

As society has become steadily more materialistic, Johnson declares, our churches have followed suit, giving up on the ascetic and ecstatic aspects of religion and emphasizing only the more worldly expressions of faith. Conservative believers fixate on the culture wars, religious liberals preach social justice, and neither leaves room for what should be a central focus of religion — the quest for the numinous, the pursuit of the unnamable, the tremor of bliss and the dark night of the soul.

We have dabbled, but the goal of a true mystic has not been witnessed. We are more materialistic and less godly!

I sat in a conference this past weekend and one of the plenary sessions talked about the big elephants in the room. She went after racism, sexism, and homophobic attitudes. Initially, the reaction was positive. Actually, the overall reaction is probably still positive. Yet, what was unsettling in my spirit was this lack of the overwhelming love of Christ. Her point was to treat people we disagree with as human. Agreed. No quibbles or quarrels.

Yet, if true change is going to happen, and if we are going to genuinely engage homosexuality or other issues with genuine Christian faith, we are going to need the overwhelming love of God. We are going to need to be swept away by the beauty of Christ. That is the beauty of true Christian mysticism. It is not denial. It is not simply moving away in some monastic practice. It is the beauty of Christ. When his beauty overwhelms us, these other “elephants” are no longer huge issues. We act out of a true heart of love and change happens. It truly does. I have been witness to that and it is not only undeniable, it is beautiful. It is beautiful in an overwhelming way.

I call this blog “Apprentice to Jesus” because my goal is to attach our lives to Jesus in a lifelong journey. Part of that journey has a mystic content to it. But we cannot dabble in those practices. We must be full in for the overwhelming beauty of Christ to take effect.

What’s more, it’s possible that our horizons have become too broad, and that real spiritual breakthroughs require a kind of narrowing — the decision to pick a path and stick with it, rather than hopscotching around in search of a synthesis that “works for me.”

We need to quit dabbling. We need to be full in with Christ. Take up the ancient practices. Work with them. Live in them from time to time. There is no need to move away to a monastery. They can be lived out in the reality of our world. Adjustments need to be made, of course. Yet, isn’t Christ worth that?