In the September-October 2013 issue of Sojourners magazine, senior associate editor Julie Polter interviewed award-winning comic book author and artist Gene Luen Yang about his new two-volume graphic novel, Boxers & Saints.
The truth is that our faith and spirituality is often dependent on hundreds of different relationships, factors, institutions, and circumstances that we directly correlate with God.
When our Christian expectations are shattered, it’s easy to blame God. We mistakenly idolize the things that are associated with God, and assume that if one of these aspects failed then God failed.
“Christianity” will fail us. Our churches will attack, our pastors will lie, our mentors will manipulate, our friends will betray, and when this happens, our beliefs will be shaken to their core.
I live in Texas. To many of its millions of residents, it is the greatest state in the union. We like things big and we like them to be bigger than every other state blessed to be in the Union. Texans are proud of their state; chalk it up to early indoctrination of Texas history throughout the life cycle of Texas Public Education.
But being in Texas, especially East Texas, means that we are sitting squarely and firmly in the buckle of the Bible Belt. The Bible Belt is a term used to describe the area where conservative Christianity is the prominent player in the state’s religiosity; generally this term refers to a high level of conservative, evangelical Christians. This does not mean that you can’t find conservative, evangelical Christians outside of this arbitrary boundary, but for some reason they seem to cluster in these areas in high concentrations.
I didn’t grow up in a church that beat people over the head in church or judged people for they way they acted. I felt loved and welcomed in a place where people were friendly and they loved serving God. I learned about Christ and God’s love for humanity. It wasn’t until I was older that I began to hear more Christians speak more and more on the necessity of evangelizing to people or even being “saved correctly.” I can remember on several occasions a certain church in the town I grew up in going door to door and asking people if they were to die tonight would they go to Heaven. I can remember thinking that it was an odd tactic to get people to come to church. It seemed so stand offish and so self-righteous that it left a bad taste in my mouth.
Rather than a Third Great Awakening I believe we are standing in the threshold of a Great Grace Awakening. It’s a move of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from legalistic and fear-based beliefs to a place some of us would call grace.
On the surface, it may seem to fly in the face of some traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. But it is aligned with a broader, more universal ethic that seems to be developing around genuine Christian love and grace — the very essence of Jesus’ ministry and what makes it so revolutionary — as guiding principles.
Grace is the reason for the incarnation. God became human and walked in our sandals because God knows us and wants us to be known.
Grace says that there is nothing we could ever do that would make God love us less. And grace tells us that there’s nothing we could ever do that would make God love us more. You are loved simply because you are and for all of who you are. Full stop.
Our church is right in the heart of the city and as such, many who make their home outside find their way into our worship services on Sunday and throughout the week for various reasons. The first year Amy and I were here, we made a concerted effort to allow people to sleep on the steps and in the courtyard of the church if they so chose, as it seemed to be the bare minimum offering of hospitality required of us.
In the past few months, however, things have gotten a lot more complicated. Several fights have broken out over turf, a couple of people have fallen and lost teeth or broken ribs, and at least three times, people have broken into the boiler room to sleep. At least once or twice a week, we catch a group of younger folks shooting up heroin in the courtyard, their needles scattered about in the midst of the greenery. We have found every kind of bodily waste one cares to imagine in the common area, and this Sunday during our annual church cookout, I had to escort one man out of the restroom for masturbating to pornography in one of the bathroom stalls.
There comes a point when the hospitality afforded to those we are trying to welcome in has to be weighed against the safety of those already present in the community. Although the sanitation issues and the vandalism were less than pleasant, the violence, drug use, and sexual indiscretions finally pushed us over the line. We met with the Portland police and had a notice posted that said any loiterers who refused to leave upon request would be arrested.
"And God spoke all of these words…You shall not give false witness against your neighbor." Exodus 20:1, 16
Several months back I overheard a conversation in an office waiting room. A young, 20-something guy entered the waiting room with his board shorts on and his windblown hair haphazardly tucked beneath his backwards baseball cap as though he’d just come in from surfing – not uncommon in the beach community of Jacksonville, Fla. He strolled confidently to the receptionist and asked her a question about the availability of a person he wanted to see, made an appointment, and it seemed his business was done and he’d be on his way. Instead he asked the receptionist where she was from, if she liked her job, and then talked about the weather. He then began to tell her about a Bible study he was leading and a little about his faith journey – for the longest time he felt lost, was starting to get in trouble, then he found Jesus, was born again, and began to set his life straight.
After sharing his testimony he asked the receptionist, “What religion are you?"
Sojourners president Jim Wallis was recently a guest on HBO's "Real Time with Bill Maher." In the course of the show Maher confronted Wallis on the Bible, asking him some very pointed questions about some of its more troubling texts. You can watch the exchange HERE.
Maher asks, "How do you reconcile this idea that it all comes from the Bible, but the Bible is so flawed... I mean, it's just so full of either nonsense or viciousness." In response, Wallis steered the conversation back to the topic of social justice and compassion, often overlooked Biblical mandates. Maher objected several times, accusing Wallis of "cherry-picking the good parts" of the Bible while ignoring the bad parts.
I'm a big fan of Jim Wallis (heck, I blog for Sojourners!), and I appreciate that he moved the conversation away from Maher's attempted divisiveness and back to caring for the poor and immigration reform in this country. He's totally right that caring for the marginalized should be the priority of us Christians, and I understand that he wanted to stay focused on that.
At the same time, I think the question Bill Maher was raising is an important one, too, because it ultimately has to do with caring for the marginalized as well. That is, when the Bible is read in a hurtful way, it can and has been used throughout history to justify horrendous violence and mistreatment. That matters, and consequently it matters how we read the Bible. So as someone who has focused on confronting those "bad parts" in Scripture, I wanted to take a stab at addressing Maher's questions.
Last night, my wife Janny and I had the honor of sharing a table with a gathering of local Muslims for an Iftar meal. It is currently Ramadan, which means the Muslim community around the globe fasts everyday day from sunrise to sunset. No food. No water. No tobacco. No sex. Each night they have a celebration feast to break their daily fast called the Iftar meal. It is sacred, joyous, and a time to sit with those they love to worship the One they love, Allah (which is simply the Arabic translation of God).
It was into that sacred gathering that they expanded the table and pulled up a seat for us and a few other Christian and political leaders throughout San Diego. Their hope was simply to create space in their daily practice for their neighbors to experience life with them. They were both acknowledging city leaders who have been proactive in creating an environment of dignity and mutual relationship, and creating a space for new/renewed understanding of one another. Acknowledging our core faith differences, they made clear that it should in no way detract from our ability to share a common vision for the good of our city. We are neighbors who live, work, and play on the same streets with a common desire to see deep, charitable relationships, sustainable economy, and mutual understanding and a celebration of diversity.
As I often say, as followers of Jesus, we have no choice but to move toward relationships with those who are marginalized, dehumanized, and in need of love. We don’t compromise our faith by hanging out with people we may or may not agree with. No, in fact, we reflect the very best of our faith.
During a layover in the Phoenix airport on Friday, I caught the tail end of President Barack Obama’s remarks about the Trayvon Martin case. Struck by Obama’s words, I said to no one in particular, “It’s about time he said something about this.” The man next to me looked in my direction as I walked to get a snack, and I considered for a second going back and asking his impression of the president’s remarks. I kept walking toward the green licorice, but fate had other plans.
Who ended up being in seat 18B next to me? Yep. We smiled as we made eye contact, a mutual recognition that we had an overdue conversation coming and the time to have it.
For a living, I teach and facilitate dialogue. I train others how to — and why to — have challenging conversations that transform relationships and design community change. I have facilitated more than 10,000 hours of dialogue in the past 15 years.
I was feeling confident and curious. We got right into it.
“Well, looks like we are supposed to talk about it,” I said as he laughed. “What did you think of the president’s remarks?”
“I think I thought differently than you did,” John said
Sarah Decareaux was lying on the cold, concrete floor of a barn.
She closed her eyes, curled her knees into her chest, and told herself that what was happening wasn’t real.
She felt claustrophobic. She was having trouble breathing. Her vision tunneled, the same way it had when she’d been in labor. She could see only a few feet in front of her.
The Christian church is full of Christians, right?
Sadly, the answer you'll get to that question is heavily dependent on whom you are asking. Certainly, the church should be seeking to follow Christ, seeking to follow the teachings of Jesus. However, increasingly, there are those who claim the church is full of hypocrites. They are not saying the church only has hypocrites. That's clearly not true. They are simply pointing out there are surprisingly high numbers of people going to church, calling themselves Christians but whose actions run counter to what Jesus taught. I believe we can do better.
On July 4th I will be attending the annual party at my son and daughter-in-law’s home. They will be serving up smoked chicken and spare ribs while fireworks from neighboring towns inscribe a nearly 360° circle around their backyard. While we are waving our flags with differing degrees of enthusiasm, one member of my family will not be with us: my sister the Jehovah’s Witness. As much as we’ve tried to persuade her that the holiday is just an excuse for the family to get together, she will not give succor to patriotic fervor. By partaking of our celebration she feels that she risks having her attendance misinterpreted as an endorsement. For Jehovah’s Witnesses, the trouble with patriotism is twofold: 1) it tempts us to equate God and nation, and 2) it provides a sacred cover for violence.
God and nation are not the same, my sister believes. When a government’s demands come into conflict with God’s, Witnesses obey God. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that Jesus emphasized love of neighbor and service to others and that the early Christians refused to become soldiers and fight in wars. In emulation of that dedication to serve God and not governments, Witnesses not only refuse to celebrate national holidays but they are conscientious objectors to military service.
In the Methodist tradition in which I was I raised, there is a concept of perfection. We “strive for perfection” in loving each other and loving God. It is not about avoiding all mistakes. It is about growing in love for neighbor and being hospitable to all we come in contact with. This is the point of our theology: as we grow in faith and love, we become closer to God. In the end, resisting God’s call to love others is pretty hard to do.
And yet we know not everyone we meet is irresistible. We all have moments when some folks are harder to love than others. Sometimes those we find difficult to love are members of our own families. Other times they are friends we’ve had a conflict with. And for some of us, they are hard to love simply because of whom the other person loves.
There are lots of biases and assumptions about Christians out there, many of which are founded in real-life experience. And yes, we Christians have done our share of damage when it comes to tarnishing our so-called “brand.” But there also seems to be this tendency to understand Christianity and its adherents as one generally monolithic group that can be described in simple (often negative) terms that they would never be acceptable to apply to any other group.
Part of this is because of the historic dominance of the Christian culture in the modern Western world. It’s the same reason that stereotypes of men on network sitcoms are pervasively unflattering, while the same stereotypes would cause a firestorm of negative publicity if applied to the female counterparts. Some of this is entirely warranted and necessary in tearing down false or damaging constructs of power. But sometimes, if we’re being honest, they’re just wrong. And stupid.
During the Christian spiritual journey, followers of Christ are forced to eventually face some basic faith-related questions. Here are a few of the most common ones:
1) What is salvation?
What does salvation really mean? When does it happen and is it permanent? Do you choose your own salvation or is it predestined? Is everyone saved or just a select few?
The idea of salvation is extremely complex, and our concept of it directly influences how we live, evangelize, and interact with the people around us.
Vampire Weekend are a little like a college-educated version of the rich young ruler in Mark 10. I say a little because, despite the fact that they have gotten flack for being “privileged, boat shoe and cardigan loving Ivy League graduates,” the New York-based foursome actually probably aren’t as wealthy as skeptics think, and the late 20-somethings probably haven’t been as straight edged as the rich young ruler. I mean, they’re rock stars. And even though they went to Columbia University, rock stars aren’t widely renowned for their moral rigidity.
But on Vampire Weekend’s third album, Modern Vampires of the City, which was released last month to critical acclaim and commercial success, we find lead singer Ezra Koenig asking honest questions of God, much like the young ruler.
On this album, the third in what Koenig sees as a trilogy, Vampire Weekend manage to mature their poppy, eclectic sound, drawing from all sorts of genres and international songs — as they normally do — but also exploring deep questions of morality, love, faith, and belief in complex ways.
A few years ago I wrote a book about the experience of watching 24 consecutive hours of bad Christian television. My friends and family signed up for an hour each to watch along with me. The whole thing was insane, but things got especially crazy around 1 a.m. when a show called the Power Team was on. Now, thePower Team are a bunch of enormous steroid-muscled men who hold really loud Christian rallies in which they tear phone books in two and break 2x4s over their heads by the power of the Holy Spirit. And they talk a lot about what “the Lord” had done for them. It’s impressive stuff.
Anyway, so our own Andie Lyons was watching with me along with my friend Jerry. And the three of us watched in stunned silence for a moment trying to understand what it was we were seeing, at which point Andie finally said “so wait, basically they break stuff for the Lord?” and I answered yes, and then Jerry said “big deal, I break stuff all the time,” to which Andie asked, “but is it for the Lord?” and Jerry said, “well, it is now!”
Honestly the only reason I told you this story is by way of saying that I’m not a fan of the over-use of the term “the Lord. ”Like when people say “I just love the Lord,” I just never really know what that means. The way it’s casually thrown around makes me uncomfortable especially after Harry Potter, since Voldemort is called the Dark Lord. I just, I don’t know, I’m not saying it’s wrong, I’m just saying that for whatever reason, I can’t handle it.