First Principles

This past week my wife held a conversation using the app Meetup to bring folks together to discuss spirituality and religion. I went with her this week and the question we discussed was, “What is your guiding principle in life?” We had a diverse group of people with various backgrounds and experiences and unsurprisingly the question provoked an interesting and wide-ranging conversation. At first the question came off as a bit challenging for people to fully answer but no one objected to the topic. I think at some level we all want to feel we have clear life principles and goals.

I grew up in a Christian home and have attended church all my life. I was even essentially a missionary overseas for two years after college. I feel like I grew up being taught, and then taking as my own, very clear first principles that have guided my life. These principals include the centrality of a relationship with Jesus for salvation, reading the Bible and praying regularly, and loving others. To give you a landmark these principles could be described as conservative protestant evangelical.

I have been far from the perfect Christian in my life but my adherence to these principals has always been near the forefront of my life. In high school I got into fights about abortion more often than I discussed going out with friends. I developed a huge interest in Christian apologetics in high school in order to better defend my faith. I have always tried to be as best I can to be honest, respectful, and kind to others. Friends and others, even when they disagree with me, have noticed these qualities in me repeatedly. I have grown a lot in the last ten years and I see many pros and cons to these first principals of my life but overall I am grateful for the grounding they have provided me.

The reason I mention the above is I read an article a couple of weeks ago that put these first principles up for a debate that infuriated me. You can read the article here. The article discusses how Trump earned the wide-ranging support of white evangelicals. The same white evangelicals I have been a part of my entire life. The most damning quotation to me in the article reads,

“The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.”

Conservative evangelicals whether you agree or disagree typically have incredibly clear and strong first principals. They are rooted in scripture and, if you grow up in church, you hear them from cradle to grave. I do not think all these principals are good or helpful but I think many are. And until November 8th, 2016 I thought most evangelicals followed them. With the advent of the Trump candidacy and now presidency, it is evident that many conservative evangelicals have either rejected, or never had, many of the first principals I thought they did.

I realize, as I have said before, that many evangelicals did not vote for Trump. I also realize why politically, morally, or spiritually many felt they could not vote for Hillary Clinton. What I cannot wrap my head around is why people with the strong first principles that conservative evangelicals supposedly have could justify voting for a man like Trump. As I have written before, he is a leader with the opposite in character, temperament, and ability that any conservative evangelical would want. Or so I thought.

This is not merely a political issue for me. If white evangelicals had gone for Cruz and Rubio I would not be writing this. This is not about a mostly republican base voting for a republican candidate. This is a about a group who promotes clear first principles reject them to vote for a chance at what they perceive as power.

I am beyond disappointed at how all this has gone down but ultimately I am not worried about myself. In spite of everything I will still attend church and believe that , at our best, Christians can do much good in the world. I do worry about our witness to the world though. What does it say to the world when our first principles have to be so soundly ignored and rejected to bring us to a man like Trump? What does it say to our young people? Why should a secular person care about the moral compass of a philosophy that explains away the incompetency and moral failings of our current president?

I do not write this to demean people who voted for Trump. Many did who are not, in fact, evangelicals. He was elected at a specific point in history, via an arcane electoral system. But it needs to be said, as a life-long evangelical, I feel betrayed and this cannot bode well for the church or its mission in the world.

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An Opportunity for Gordon College

In July I wrote three entries dealing with the media firestorm that Gordon College in Massachusetts had been facing. While the school is no longer making daily headlines they are still grappling with the fallout of those events. The current situation is they are taking 12 to 18 months to review their policies as relates to same-sex behavior. Despite this Gordon has said that their accreditation is not under threat and they have no plans to change their “Life and Conduct Policy.”

Depending on your view of things this may engender great hope or great despair. For me, I see it as a great opportunity for Gordon College to show to the world how a conservative Christian institute of higher education can interact with and include LGBT people in their community.

Gordon is allotting at least a year to think on these issues. To spend so much time on something and not come up with at least one good idea worth pursuing seems to me to be a waste. Some will probably say that Gordon has been unfairly depicted in this whole incident and should not be pushed into change too quickly. I agree, the media’s coverage this past summer left much to be desired in the nuance department. I think Gordon came off as a much worse school than it, in fact, is. I find that highly unfortunate. But what has happened, happened and now Gordon is taking the time to give these issues the hearing they deserve.

Many Christians are overwhelming frustrated with how many people in American society see them today. They are tired of being called bigots and hateful and homophobes. I am not trying to paint them as victims but just to highlight what people on the ground are feeling. Gordon College has an opportunity to change this, to be a beacon for engagement and inclusion towards LGBT people. If they get the next 12-18 months right they will not have to defend themselves against a society and millennial generation that has largely decided that Christianity has little good or moral to offer it. Gordon will be able to highlight that they do not hate, discriminate or stigmatize their LGBT students because they have done this and this and this. They will have set the model for every conservative Christian school to catch up to. They will become a magnet for Christian students who want strong doctrine but also reject the exclusiveness of other schools. Gordon’s long-term legacy and success will be assured. Of course some will never accept that a entity based on religion is worthwhile and no changes by Gordon will dissuade them of those feelings. Those people though are not why Gordon should be changing in the first place.

So what exactly should Gordon do? I’m not sure, I do not run a college or university. I will say this though. Gordon can institute changes that result in what I describe above without giving up their Christian identity, doctrine, and religious belief. Of this I am sure. Many commentators have argued in recent months that their is no “third way” on the issue of LGBT people. Gordon is taking the next 12-18 months to prove those commentators wrong. It is my hope and prayer that they do not waste this opportunity.

Louie Giglio in the news.

I did not imagine that the day after I wrote an entry about Christians, family values and LGBT people that something like this Louie Giglio news event would occur but here we are. This news story is yet another example of what Christians and evangelicals (my faith) will have to deal with in coming months and years and our response is clearly vital not just for the practice of our faith but also our relationship with the greater culture as a whole.

Some background for folks who have not been following: Giglio is a well-known pastor from Georgia. His main focus has been Passion conferences and a movement to end sex trafficking. This anti-slavery work garnered an invitation from the Obama Inaugural committee to offer a prayer at the ceremony. A couple days ago a website publicized a sermon by Giglio from the 1990s that preached negatively about homosexuals. After much outcry, Giglio released a statement respectfully declining the invitation to speak.

Full disclosure: I have watched a few sermon series by Giglio and went to one of his conferences when I lived in South Africa in 2008. I have not kept up with his Passion or anti-slavery movement but by most accounts I find him to be an engaging speaker and a great and thoughtful man of God.

Unsurprisingly the battle-lines have been drawn after this event. Somewhat unexpectedly though they are calling each other out about the same thing: tolerance and inclusiveness. LGBT advocates denounced Giglio as someone who is “anti-gay” and unworthy of the inaugural stage. Evangelicals accused LGBT advocates for promoting tolerance for everyone except them and other conservative religious followers. The question has been raised, is there any space in the public square for the conservative evangelical pastor or leader? Giglio himself expressed the issue concisely in his statement backing out of the invitation saying, “…individuals’ rights of freedom, and the collective right to hold differing views on any subject is a critical balance we, as a people, must recover and preserve.”

As an evangelical christian these are tough issues to think about and navigate. I foresee these issues continuing to come up in the days and years ahead. Here are just a few thoughts on things I think both sides could be thinking about in the days ahead.

Evangelicals need to realize that the standard “Christian” response to homosexuality is largely untenable to large segments of our present society. Most LGBT people have no desire to change, do not believe it is possible and are gravely insulted when Christians tell them that they can. This does not make them “anti-christian” as much as it makes them “pro-themselves.” In a nation that values “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” Christians need to accept that some will find all those things outside of the “evangelical” model. In addition, they need to accept that while they believe they are speaking “truth in love” this truth can be and has been incredibly hurtful, unhelpful, and destructive to people trying to not just live their lives but also find Jesus. Evangelicals also need to accept that the “Biblical” model of sexuality is not their own exclusive domain. There are many churches now that openly accept and affirm LGBT people and their relationships. We can debate and argue about who is right but are we willing to condemn all these other churches even as they preach Jesus as well? “…for whoever is not against us is for us.”

 

On the part of LGBT advocates I am sure it is wildly frustrating and even infuriating to hear over and over again how destructive their lives are from people who do not even know them. Realize that most have no idea how hurtful their words are and are often genuinely trying to simply follow their faith. I have no doubt in my mind that Giglio is not a bigot. He is however, trapped by his set of circumstances. If he were to disavow that sermon from the 90s he would likely have to give up his entire life’s work up to this point. He would lose his pastoral job and with it the leadership of his Passion conferences and leadership of his anti-slavery movement. Please understand I am not comparing his troubles to the myriad injustices LGBT people face simply existing in the world today but simply noting this is a tough issue that will take time. I personally feel it was unhelpful and unwise for Giglio to refer to LGBT people’s desire for acceptance as an “agenda” yet again yesterday. But I also think that labeling him a “bigot” does little to respect the great good he has done in his career or move the conversation forward.

I guess what I am calling for is a dose of humility from both sides. The more entrenched we become the less likely we will be able to meet each other going forward as citizens and Christians.

 

Messing up the Message

Social networking has hit our culture in remarkable and pervasive ways. Millions of people across the globe are active members of one site or another. From Facebook to Twitter people are using the sites for a huge and varied number of applications. This blog post, when I publish it, will be posted immediately to my facebook and twitter feeds allowing people to read my entire blog at the click of a button. No doubt social networking has done a number of interesting things to society. My motivation for this entry however is how Christians aren’t quite getting it.

For evangelical Christians such as myself it has always been pretty hip to show how hardcore you are for Jesus. Jesus freaks if you will. Whatever this may have meant in the past, for most Christians today this entails how loudly you can blare online how down you are with Jesus. We advertise how much we have been praying, or how great the latest Christian conference we have been to was. We post Bible verses by themselves. We post “Halleujah, Jesus reigns!!!!!!!!” We state how great our prayer and devotion time this morning was. None of these posts are bad in themselves. But lacking relational context with the people viewing them they only serve to widen the divide between people who know Jesus and those who don’t. Put more simply, regardless of their intention, posts like this do little more than reaffirm an “us vs. them” mentality that pushes non-Christians away from faith in Jesus, not towards. We tell ourselves (and are taught growing up) that its totally cool if people think you are weird and crazy and perhaps even bad because you are living for Jesus, not for people.  The problem with all this is not the acts themselves but the way people perceive them.

I’m a Christian. I love God and Jesus and going to Church. I really do think knowing Jesus is the best way to live. However I do not think expressing this with exclamation points in phrase form will result in ANYONE from America coming to these realizations. However that is what Christians do EVERYDAY!

50 years ago a well-placed Bible verse might really convict the random passer-by of a church. Today in a post-Christian, post-modern culture most people, especially young ones, will see something related to God online and simply say, “I’m glad I’m not one of the crazies.”  This has also been my experience. Most of my young adult life I have spent trying to figure how that yes “I’m crazy for Jesus but I’m not crazy.” It is HARD. And most people will stereotype you regardless, unless of course you get to know them well. Most Christians know that to effectively evangelize you generally need to build a relationship with a person. But how often do we actually practice it in America?

Christianity and church is not a social club. The point of going to church is not to thank God that you’re not a sinner like the Pharisees. It is to be overwhelmingly grateful that you are saved by the God of the universe and that you have the privilege and purpose to tell others about Jesus when you have the opportunity. Out of context Facebook posts declaring how much you love tithing isn’t going to cut it. We need to not just be radical in the fervency of our Facebook postings but in living them out with love toward and for his creation and humanity. We need to invest in relationships so that when people do find out we are Christians they are not put off but that they desire to know more.

I freely admit I have generalized a bit in this post. I welcome thoughts and comments covering any blind spots I may have missed. But my overall point is to start a conversation we need to be having about how we relate to the rest of our culture as opposed to merely demonizing it. This isn’t about pandering to sin but about effectively portraying Christ in our world for HIS glory, not our own.

Let’s not forget the fun…

This entry was inspired by church this past Sunday. During the sermon I kept thinking about how I would like to use my thoughts this summer at camp but realized that’s too far away. So I’m writing it down now while it’s fresh.

My church is doing a sermon series on family and each week identifying a room of a typical house with the bigger point. This week was on the “family room” where generations meet together. The overall point was how important bringing up your kids in the right way is so that they have the best opportunity to live a life of faith as well. The thing that struck me was that many parents err by being too intense about their faith. They are incredibly strict and/or mandate large amounts of prayer or Bible study. Perhaps they have ministry of their own that they focus on too much, to the detriment of their relationship with their kids. Regardless of how the intensity is expressed, the results are similar. The kids don’t feel the vibrancy of Christianity, they just feel restricted. When they leave home their first instinct is to do anything and everything they want that isn’t steeped in religion.  Note these parents aren’t bad, they almost certainly love their kids deeply. But the way they are passing on the faith is flawed.

What many Christians forget it seems is that following Jesus is fun! It is awesome and joyful and no matter how it looks for you it truly is the best way to live. This isn’t to say prayer, Bible study, or rules are bad or inappropriate, they are essential. But if they are given without any notion of freedom, joy or fun you risk falling into legalism and putting your child off from religion permanently.

I’m going to generalize a bit here but it seems like a lot of the more emergent Christian writers today are getting most of their writing fuel from the experience of growing up in an incredibly strict Christian environment and now are trying to come to terms with it. They know Jesus is great and don’t want to reject him outright but they are trying to match up real, true, joyful christianity with their decidedly miserable upbringing where everything involving God was at best a chore and at worst punishment.

One last thought. At my Christian camp that I have worked at many summer previously, there seems to be three main groups of kids. Kids who aren’t from Christian homes and are hostile to the gospel, kids who aren’t from Christians homes and are neutral (i.e. they haven’t thought about religion much) and finally, kids who have grown up in good, solid Christian homes who may even be Christians themselves. Now as you might expect the focus is almost always on the first two groups. Counselors long for the kid who doesn’t know God to get on fire for him in their week at camp. This is logical and good but I think we are mistaken if we ignore the “good” kids too much. Who knows what their home life might be? Camp might be the most fun experience they have involving Jesus in their entire childhood. I’ve had kids essentially tell me this more than once. By showing them that Christianity can be fun, they latch on to it with all their might. We must never forget the Gospel but we also must make sure that in presenting it we don’t neglect how truly good it is. In fact it is the best thing and any kid who doesn’t know that is going to be severely missing out. We can’t force kids to follow God but we can show them how truly good following him is.

Defending Church

It is easy to knock church these days. Organized religion is being seen less and less as a positive thing. At best it is seen as a boring, unimportant, harmless chore for unusually dedicated folk to do to feel better about themselves. At worst it is a unsafe incubator of hate, distrust, scandal and secrets, more worthy of being protested against than a beacon of light to society.

As I sat in my church today I realized how unfair both these extreme views are. I was also reminded how important church is for the Christian who seeks to have a vibrant, growing spiritual life not only with God but the others in their community. Yes, church is easily lampooned but that doesn’t make it any less powerful and important when it is done right.

For me church keeps me focused on the important things in life. It engages me. It reinforces beliefs that I hold. It encourages me. It reminds how I am supposed to (and want to) live. It allows me to see, meet and enjoy the company of other believers. It gives me a place to refresh and renew myself. It gives me a safe place to emotionally open myself up to a God I rarely am open to. Church does so much I am convinced that no Christian should go without it on a regular basis.

I have had a very positive experience with Church my whole life. I realize many others haven’t. Their churches and leaders have not been what they should have been. Instead of love and truth, people have experienced distrust and judgement. Some have even faced serious abuse in church. Others have simply been bored to tears waking up earlier than desired on Sunday mornings. All of these failings are tragic. However, none of this means that all churches are wrong or unnecessary.

If you are a Christian who has never found the right Church I encourage you to start looking again. If you aren’t a Christian and think going to a church would be crazy, I encourage you to give it a try. If you live in the Boston area I’ll  pick you up and drive you. It’s easy to dismiss and disregard church. Finding a good one can be difficult. But for my money there is nothing better for my faith than a building full of dedicated, worshipful people seeking out God’s will for themselves in this world.

Remember the 1st amendment?

A story recently broke in the Boston area that I found interesting not only because of the mild controversy it has caused but because of the (in my view) troubling views of people who have commented on the event.

Here is my understanding of what happened. A group of 6th-graders from the suburb town of Wellesley went on a field trip to a local mosque. This was part of a social studies unit they were in the middle of called, “Enduring Beliefs and the World Today.” Before their trip to the mosque they had visited an synagogue, a gospel music performance, and met Hindus. My understanding is that the primary purpose of the visit was to have a tour of the building. At some point there was a prayer time (Muslims pray 5 times a day so the fact that their visit coincided with one of these is unsurprising.) During this time of a prayer, a number of the students on the field trip decided to join in. From what I have read, it looks like they did little more than line up with the people praying and briefly followed along with their actions. It doesn’t look like there was any coercion or involuntary participation.   A few wanted to join in and were allowed to do so. Strikingly, the least offended people of these student’s actions were their own parents who were helping chaperone the trip.

An outburst of media activity has set people off about this however. Some think having a field trip to a mosque is too much. Some are offended that students were allowed to join in the prayers. And some think that simply having students observe the prayers went too far. To all these people I say firmly, “Remember the 1st Amendment?”

In America we have freedom of religion not freedom from religion. Learning about religion in an academic, non-proselytizing manner is legal. In addition voluntary religious behavior by anyone , student or otherwise, should be legal as well. I never understand people who say prayer isn’t allowed in school. Of course it is. If I want to bow my head quickly before starting a test, I can. If I want to sit by my locker and pray, I can. If I want to start a voluntary after-school prayer club on school grounds, I should be allowed to. And if students asked me to go sit down briefly with people they have been learning about to experience what they are doing, I would, time allowing, let them. It’s called getting an education.

We are blessed to have many freedoms here in the US and it is bothersome to see how woefully blown out of proportion this non-event has become.