As we prepare for the coming of Christ, the third Sunday of advent is celebrated in joy. As followers of Christ, it is reasonable to be exuberant about the birth of our Savior. The amount of happiness that can seep from the soul in response to a virgin birth, a perfect baby boy, and an adorable scene of livestock and shepherds befriending God’s family is immeasurable. Christmas music, Christmas decorations, and yes, even Christmas presents add to the joy and never fail to put a smile on my face.
This past weekend, as I tried to reflect on what it means to be joyful in Christ, my heart was temporarily hardened as I attended a Reentry Arts & Information Fair for returning citizens. I helped host a table for Becoming Church and their Why We Can’t Wait initiative.
What makes one a good person? Additionally, what makes one a good Christian? I have been spending some time wondering about this as news of Mandela’s death has been making it’s way across the planet. Was he a good man? I think so, but how do we measure that? How do we know? And if, as some have claimed, his greatness stemmed from his willing embodiment of his Christian faith, I need to know if he was a good Christian.
Guy Sorman writes of Mandela:
“The Commission for Truth and Reconciliation, founded by President Mandela and led by Bishop Tutu, is perhaps the most concrete example of Mandela’s Christian faith. Instead of the vengeance and reprisals that were expected and feared after years of interracial violence, the commission focused on confession and forgiveness. Most of those who admitted misdeeds and even crimes — whether committed in the name of or in opposition to apartheid — received amnesty. Many returned to civil life, exonerated by their admission of guilt.”
Mandela is exemplary not because he was perfect, always kind to everyone he met, an ideal husband and father, but because of these larger virtues that he also attempted to live out. He lived into these virtues — all of them, large and small, and all of them incompletely.
I think what turned me off the most was the hair. It was just so ... big. And the scrappy “don’t mess with Texas” vibe. And the fact that evangelical moms all over the country were fans. As a third generation New Yorker, cynicism and snark have been bred into me, along with an affinity for black clothing and pretentious coffee. So it has surprised everyone — including me — that I have spent the past year going through (and recommending) Beth Moore studies.
How did it happen? Well, I moved from my hometown of New York City to Washington, D.C., and while I was exploring various employment opportunities, I had a lot of free time. The wife of the former associate pastor at the church I’d started attending invited me to join a “women’s Bible study” that met on Friday mornings. They were doing a Beth Moore study called Breaking Free. It seemed fishy to me — who are the only women who have free time on Friday mornings? Moms. And Beth Moore? I had spent six years attending and four years on staff at a church in New York that got super famous because of its own rockstar, hyper-intellectual, and somewhat post-modern teaching. We prided ourselves on not being ... well, like Beth Moore.
Still, I was trying to be open to life in my new city so ...
I walked into the group a couple of minutes late wearing gold sequin pumps, skinny jeans, and a red leather jacket — what I would normally wear to bum around town in my old life. I could not have been more out of place amidst the yoga pants and baby blankets. But I met some of the most awesome women I’ve known in D.C. and more importantly — I met Beth.
“Sometimes I feel discouraged and think my work’s in vain, but then the Holy Spirit, revives my soul again.”
So where does this revival come? Often when we looked at a dilapidated building in our community, the revival comes with the eyes to see the possibilities of rehabbing, of new uses. The revival comes in community, in coming together to take action. There is nothing like some music and food, too, to bind us together.
PASADENA, Calif. — The first thing most people mention when they talk about Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber is her tattoos. She has many — most of them religious in nature, including a large icon of Mary Magdalene covering her right forearm.
Then they talk about how tall she is (6 foot 1), that she looks more like the lead singer of an all-girl punk rock band than a pastor and that she (unapologetically) swears a lot — even from the pulpit while preaching.
All of the above is true and part of what makes Bolz-Weber unique among high-profile pastors and so-called “Christian authors.” (I hate that term. The word “Christian” is best used as a noun, not an adjective.)
The Environmental Protection Agency held listening sessions Thursday to hear from the public about a forthcoming rule about carbon emissions from existing power plants. More than 20 faith leaders spoke on behalf of those Jesus called “the least of these.” In addition to such faith leaders as Rev. Dottie Yunger and Interfaith Power & Light’s Joelle Novey, other parties, from pro-coal Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and coal lobbyist Mike Carey to the Sierra Club’s Leslie Fields and League of Conservation Voters’ Gene Karpinski, were on hand to testify. Those testifying had three minutes apiece to voice their views on what the new rule on emissions should look like.
Prior to the testimonies, more than 20 faith leaders assembled outside of the EPA to pray that God’s creation would be restored. Organized by Creation Justice Ministries and Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light, the vigil featured songs of hallelujah and peace. Novey read a Jewish prayer for travelers, asking God to lead us into safety.
After the worship service, the faith leaders joined a diverse audience to testify to the EPA about the importance of battling climate change. I saw five faith leaders speak, reminding the agency that they not only have a technocratic responsibility to create a stringent rule limiting carbon emissions, but also a moral responsibility to do so.
For many, including myself, the past few weeks have been discouraging, given the state of our politics and culture and what many vulnerable people across the country are experiencing. But despite the frustration and even grief sometimes I have been reminded of the importance of “saving faith.”
My favorite Twitter response last week said this, “If all American Christians behaved as you do, I wouldn’t have to be such a huge a**hole of an atheist.” (Edits mine.) It came in response to a column I wrote about the new film, 12 Years A Slave (see it if you haven’t yet!), the continuing realities of racism in America that we still tolerate, and the need for churches to provide leadership in the changing demographics of the country by becoming the multiracial faith communities we were intended to be.
The week before saw many of faith leaders, pastors, and young people out in the rain at the U.S. Capitol during the government shutdown in a “Faithful Filibuster,” reading each day through the 2,000 verses in the Bible that speak of how we should treat the poor and vulnerable. One of those nights a family friend, the father of one of the boys I have coached in Little League baseball, came over to our house. He said, “You know I am an atheist, but I really admire what you are doing at the Capitol — that’s what Christians ought to be doing.”
Right after the government shutdown ended, Sojourners had our annual staff orientation. The program included each staff member telling their story of when and why they came to join us. Listening carefully, I was struck by how many Sojourners staffers recalled times in their lives when they were about to lose their faith, but rediscovered it after stumbling upon Sojourners. In my remarks to them that day, I also told stories of a few of the legion of people who have told me over the years of how they had lost or were about to lose their faith until they heard the messages about a faith that does justice.
It has all reminded me again how Sojourners began.
For some months now, I have been ruminating on the writer John Podhoretz’s eulogy in Commentary magazine for his sister Rachel Abrams upon her death, from stomach cancer, at age 62. Commentary effectively being the Podhoretz family house organ, and the Podhoretzes effectively being the mythological family of the origin of neoconservatism, the essay would be of interest to anyone interested in cultural and religious sociology — or at least to me.
I, too, come from a family that has also tended to think of itself in somewhat mythological, contrarian terms — This is what Langstons are like — so a meditation from the heart of another large, bustling family is an immediate and natural draw for me.
But lay that all aside. The eulogy wins, and haunts, because it is the passionate remembrance of a sister by her brother. Despite their being part of a prominent East Coast family, its focus is relentlessly on the small acts of family and home that transfigure quotidian existence. Podhoretz dwells lovingly on Rachel as a housewife, a lifetime foul-mouth, an exuberant and dedicated mother, an artist, and finally a writer who let loose with political commentary in her late fifties as online blogs began gathering steam.
“I loved you, Rachel,” he concludes poignantly, in words I could read over and over. “I liked you. And oh, oh, oh, how I admired you.”
So much of that poignancy is derived from direct address to his sister, who is no longer there to receive it. Having just hit 45, Dante comes to mind: midway-through-the-journey-of-our-life-I found myself within a dark wood for the right way had been lost. Who can know how our days are numbered? The lesson for me is that I should tell of how I love my brother John, even as he lives.
Sojourners supports the National Religious Campaign Against Torture (NRCAT). NRCAT recently released five Youtube videos to counter the claims found in pop-culture that torture is acceptable. Check out this video of people of faith speaking to core faith values that underlie their anti-torture work,, which features Sojourners' Lisa Sharon Harper.
Within the evangelical Christian universe, few things are more damning than being labeled 'Legalistic.' The term evokes images of strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, unforgiving judges, and worst of all —unpopularity.
When churches, schools, pastors, institutions, and communities are viewed as legalistic, they are demonized and shunned — sometimes rightfully so.
One disturbing trend I’ve noticed — especially among young believers — is to assume that everything associated with a few of legalism’s attributes: structure, requirements, consequences, and work, is legalistic — it’s not.
Most Americans share a common understanding that many public schools in poor neighborhoods aren’t great. It’s rare that I engage anyone who doesn’t know this basic fact on some level. But what’s less common is a deeper understanding of the extent of the problem. And sadly, even less common than that? Finding individuals who express a deep conviction that educational inequity can be eliminated. Faith communities are poised to add our voices to this much-needed conversation.
Fifteen million children live in poverty in the United States. Given poverty’s impact, many of these children already face additional challenges in their lives. For many young people, education can be “the great equalizer.” A high quality school can provide students with the necessary foundation to go to college and have a variety of opportunities opened to them. Poverty can become a thing of the past. But students growing up in poverty are more likely to attend low-performing public schools. In fact, only 22 percent of children who have lived in poverty do not graduate from high school. Only 9 percent receive college diplomas. And, not surprisingly, given our nation’s historical intersection of racial injustice and poverty, African American, Latino, and Native American students experience some of the nation’s biggest educational inequities.
Author Malcolm Gladwell may not be known for writing on religion. His New York Times best-selling books “The Tipping Point,” “Outliers,” “Blink” and “What the Dog Saw” deal with the unexpected twists in social science research. But his newest book, “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants,” also includes underlying faith-related themes, and not just in the title.
Gladwell said that while researching the book, he began rediscovering his own faith after having drifted away. Here, he speaks with RNS about his Mennonite family, how Jesus perfectly illustrates the point in his new book and how Gladwell’s return to faith changed the way he wrote the book.
Christian culture, along with the spiritual leaders, churches, institutions, communities, and other entities it consists of, are supposed to make our faith stronger. But in many cases the opposite happens, and it actually causes our faith to die. In religious environments often surrounded by cynicism, hypocrisy, hurtfulness, and disappointment, it’s easy to give up on Christianity. Here’s how to prevent spiritual burnout:
1) Avoid Legalism
Historically, Christianity has always struggled with legalism, where churches often forced beliefs and practices on people with domineering power. Legalistic groups thrive on strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, and authoritarian judgment.
Various agendas — that are valued more than the loving gospel of Christ — are promoted and pushed onto people. And it wasn’t that long ago (in fact, it still exists) that American believers were expected to be anti-gay, conservative, pro-choice, anti-evolution fundamentalists.
If fear, condemnation, and shame are used as spiritual weapons to gain power, influence, and control — run!
Reviews of the new hit movie Gravity note that it’s an unusually fine science fiction film. What they don’t mention is that the main character represents an increasingly common theme in American religion: The spiritual “none of the above.”
Yes, the special effects are splendid. And I’ll take the word of astronauts who say the visuals capture amazingly well what it’s like to work in the microgravity of near-Earth orbit.
But there are moments where spiritual and philosophical themes take center stage.
(Spoiler alert: I’ll give no more away than I’ve seen in most reviews, but if you really want to know nothing about the movie, see it first.)
I can’t count how many times I’ve heard people within mainline Christian churches note that, though they don’t embrace all of the theological positions of their evangelical sisters and brothers, they are impressed by their aptitude for organizing and affecting change on a large scale. At the same time, I see thousands converge at festivals like the Wild Goose festival in North Carolina, feeling both fed by the invigorating sense of community, but also frustrated to be leaving with the still unanswered question:
What do we do now?
The CANA Initiative, which is a joint collaboration of Brian McLaren, Stephanie Spellers, and Doug Pagitt, seeks to help answer that nagging question. Cana seeks to be the connective tissue that helps hold together communities of faith that share common priorities in addressing the pressing socioeconomic issues of our time.
From their website, “The CANA Initiative brings together innovative leaders from all streams of the faith to collaborate in the development of new ways of being Christian ... new ways of doing theology and living biblically, new understandings and practices of mission, new kinds of faith communities, new approaches to worship and spiritual formation, new integrations and conversations and convergences and dreams.”
Following is an audio interview I conducted with these three key voices in the CANA conversation. We talked about why CANA is needed now, more than ever, and what sort of transformation they hope to affect within the greater Christian body.
Every day, my previously stable faith is replaced with a little more hungry curiosity. I consider this progress.
I posted this brief statement on my Facebook and Twitter accounts yesterday and promptly received quite a bit of interest in return. Not surprising, really, that my typical readership would resonate with such a claim, but I also found some surprising affirmations from those I would not have expected to appreciate my sentiments.
I write fairly often about moving away from emphasis on a propositional faith and toward one that is more implicitly lived out in our daily experience. Said another way, I would much rather have the teachings and values shared by Jesus revealed through my actions and through what people see in me, rather than simply through any particular rhetoric that I offer them as an act of persuasion, or even coercion. This is also selfishly motivated, as I am increasingly convinced that, whereas a faith centered on the proclamation and defense of particular statements is one that lends itself to inertia, a way of life that reveals your values without explicitly having to state them is both more compelling to others and more fulfilling for ourselves.
They’re rarely at worship services and indifferent to doctrine. And they’re surprisingly fuzzy on Jesus.
These are the Jewish Americans sketched in a new Pew Research Center survey, 62 percent of whom said Jewishness is largely about culture or ancestry and just 15 percent who said it’s about religious belief.
But it’s not just Jews. It’s a phenomenon among U.S. Christians, too.
Meet the “Nominals” — people who claim a religious identity but may live it in name only.