Can We Talk (Hell/Eternal Damnation Edition)?

I mentioned in the previous post in the “Can We Talk” series (Complementarian/Egalitarian Edition)? how I believe in the value of dialogue. I also introduced the concept behind this series:

Over the past couple of years, I have seen the idea of “orthodoxy” applied to issues I’m not sure it should have been. I have seen well-intentioned Christians say that other well-intentioned Christians are not in fact Christians because of their views on things like hell, gender roles and the like. So let’s explore some of these issues together. I’d like to propose a topic in the briefest way possible and let you help fill out the discussion. I’d like us all to listen and learn from one another. Maybe you’ll find your own position strengthened as a result, and maybe you’ll be persuaded to another view. Either way, it is a valuable exercise to to listen to one another.

In other words, we might think of this series as the online, interactive version of those “Four Views” books.

There are lots of important but not ultimate issues in Christianity. Your understanding and practice of God’s intended gender design matter; in family, in “church”, at work. They matter and they are important. But they are not ultimate. You can be Complementarian, Egalitarian, somewhere or nowhere in between and still be a Christian. This is not an issue on the defining edge of orthodoxy. There are issues of orthodoxy which define who is an who is not a Christian. The Deity of Jesus/the Trinity are some primary ones.

But we have a tendency to promote other views to the level of orthodoxy. We hold all kinds of views on which we believe those who disagree simply cannot be Christian. The problem, of course is that the people over on the other sides of those same issues probably view it as orthodoxy as well and they’re just as suspicious of your salvation as you are of theirs. It is vital that we think through our positions consistently in the light of God’s revelation. We should know and understand what we believe. We should know and understand the core of our belief. We must know which lines are borders and which ones are not.

Which brings me to a quick disclaimer, then today’s topic. First, in the context of this series, asking whether or not some topics are defining issues of orthodoxy is not an expression of my opinion on these topics. These are simply heavily-discussed topics upon which people sometimes place rather heavy dogmatic value. For some, to disagree is to disbelieve. It never hurts to take fresh looks at such issues.

The topic of “hell” and/or “eternal damnation” has often been a contentious one. No one likes to consider that they may spend eternity in a lake of fire. No one would wish any such thing on their loved ones. The notion of hell has also often been tied to questions surrounding the extent of the atonement. Believing in Universalism necessarily affects your view of hell. Some have argued that hell is not only literal but eternal. Others argue that, though there is indeed a literal hell, it is not eternal. At some point, God will simply wipe you from existence. Still others have argued that hell was never meant to be taken literally while others argue that God will one day win every one in to His family. Some slip in the snide notion that if you need the threat of eternal damnation to do good, then you’re doing it for the wrong reasons.

As you can see, this topic is deep and wide and we could chase lots of interconnected doctrinal rabbit trails together. Let’s talk it out. Here’s some questions to get us started (feel free to add others and don’t feel it necessary to answer every question in your response):

  • Do you view this as an issue of orthodoxy (must someone believe this to be considered a “Christian”)?
  • Can you believe in a non-literal or a non-eternal hell and still be considered “orthodox”?
  • Do you believe in a literal, eternal hell?
  • Do you believe that Annihilationism is a valid biblical position?
  • Is Annihilationism within what you would consider to be “orthodoxy”?
  • Do you believe that the Bible’s teaching on hell is meant to be understood figuratively?
  • Is Universalism a valid biblical position?
  • Is Universalism within what you would consider to be “orthodoxy”?
  • How does your view of hell relate to your idea of justice? Of grace? Of love?
  • What questions am I missing?
  • What do you think?

 As always, please be respectful. I can’t wait to learn from you.

Why Saying “America First” Is Not Compatible With Christianity

The American experiment is predicated on the notion of the peaceful transfer of power. We just underwent one such transition. On January 20, 2017, Donald Trump swore on a Bible to stand on behalf of others and gave an address. An inaugural address can tell us a lot about what a new president values.

A new president can tell us a lot about what we value (even though he lost the popular vote in a landslide).

Trump’s speech was simply an extension of his campaign rhetoric promising us that we would win and that, from now on, it’s going to be “America First”. We’re going to put up a wall, we’re going to turn away refugees and immigrants, we’re going to tax companies that build things out of the country. In short, we’re not going to be pushed around any more and gosh-dangit, it’s about time we thought of ourselves. As Trump said:

From this day forward, a new vision will govern our land. From this day forward, it’s going to be only America first, America first.

I wrote the other day about how Christianity is always political. Our faith informs and fuels our politics. Every election season, Christians confound one another trying to convince each other that certain political positions that automatically mean you’re not a Christian. And, of course, if you only took your faith as seriously as I do, we would vote the same.

Part of the difficulty, of course is that, for many, Christianity also means being a patriot. We have adopted this sentimental notion of the “good ol’ boy” who loves his Momma, loves his truck, loves his guns, loves God and his country. To be a Christian in America, for many, means being an American, and being proud to be an American. There is a good section of our country that believes that America is a “Christian” nation and that to be Christian inseparably means supporting America.
But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? For example, Trump’s message is unbiblical at best, anti-Christian at worst. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Despite that the fact that many people claim to have voted for Trump out of sincere Christian convictions, he proved on Inauguration Day that he not only misunderstands Christianity, he stands in direct opposition to many core Christian convictions. Do you think that’s an overstatement? Let’s think about it.

During the campaign, Trump promised his supporters that, under his leadership, America would “win” so much that: “You will be tired of winning. We will win win win.” Every candidate promised to help get their country ahead. But “winning” in Trump’s world seems to be a zero-sum game. In other words, for us to “win”, someone else must lose. Trump has proven that he is not the forgiving type. He has admitted to holding grudges and promotes getting even with others.

The Christian understanding leads us to pursue the “flourishing” (shalom) of all. In other words, we win when others win. This is part of the reason why God tells His exiled people to seek the betterment of their captive cities (Jeremiah 29). Christians win when others flourish. But this is not what Trump means by “We will win win win.” He has already shown that, if Mexico is unwilling to pay for our wall, then we will punish them. Winning for Trump always means beating someone else. This is simply not in line with a biblical approach to dealing with others.

Christianity is, at its core, “other-centric”. It requires that we consider others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2). Paul tells the Romans that if they want to compete, they should out-honor one another (Romans 12:10). Jesus tells us that the path to true greatness is through humbling ourselves and putting others first (Matthew 20:16) and just in case we’re unclear, Jesus clarifies that greatness lies in serving others (Matthew 20: 26-27).

Yet, Trump promised to put “America first” and this is exactly what many of his supporters wanted him to say. Even many of his Christian supporters. But what do when “American values” contradict Christianity? Let’s unpack this a bit for a minute, speaking in the context of a presidential inauguration, to Americans, the contextual implication of putting “America first” equals the same thing as saying: “Let’s put ourselves first (even at the cost of excluding others).” “Let’s put ourselves first” is simply the plural of “ME FIRST”.

But Christianity requires us to put others first. Christianity is simply not compatible with the sort of nationalistic patriotism. Christians in America seem to be at a perpetual crossroads. Will we influence the American culture more than we let it influence us? Alan Wolfe argues in The Transformation of American Religion that, despite the best efforts of many Christians, American culture tends to win:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

Christians must separate themselves from a culture which promotes self-service. Christians must regain lives of sacrifice and the practice of service. God is love and far too often, no one would know it by watching us. What will we show a watching world? Will we buy in to a nationalistic patriotism that’s simply flag-wrapped selfishness or will we follow Jesus into servanthood seeking the good of others?

Christianity Is Always Political

We are fortunate to live in a country in which we get to re-choose our major leaders on a rotating cycle. The up-side of this is that we get to regularly examine how we come to our political positions. We regularly have the opportunity to discover anew how our worldviews create our political opinions. The down-side is that it is easy to simply take party loyalty for granted and simply assume that (if you are a Christian as am I) our party affiliation is, “of course the most biblical choice” without continually re-examining whether our votes really align with biblical values.

In other words since voting for major offices is such a regular part of our life in this country, it’s tempting to simply fall in to patterns of voting without really thinking about why we’ve aligned with a certain candidate or party. It seems even rarer still for adults to switch party loyalties once they have been ingrained.

But Christians are called to continually re-examine their beliefs, “taking every thought captive” (2 Corinthians 10:5, etc.), striving for a maturity that is not easily swayed (Ephesians 4:9-16). We are told to strive after maturity and expected to think deeply.

The 2016 election cycle has been contentious to say the least and it has caused lots of division among Christians. Many (including myself) have felt as though the Republican candidate is completely and utterly out of step with what I value as a Christian. Others have argued that the Republican party is always the more biblical choice regardless of the candidate. Still others take it a step further and say that Donald Trump is actually God’s candidate.

As I’ve dialogued with family and friends about the different positions Christians might take over this election cycle, one view repeated itself enough that I’ve been thinking a lot about it. In short, many people told me that they have actively tried to separate their faith from their political opinions and votes. Several people told me that Christianity can be interpreted and applied by people of both major political party and can be inconclusive at best and divisive at worst, so they have decided to vote aside from their faith. 

As I’ve tried to understand this position, I’m driven more and more to the conviction that Christianity is always political. Our faith cannot be separated from our politics. In fact, I would argue that our politics are an outworking of our faith. Christianity addresses how we should care for the poor (Psalm 34:6; Proverbs 22:9, 31:20; Daniel 4:27; Matthew 19:21; Galatians 2:10, etc.). Christianity addresses our attitude to violence (Exodus 14:14; 1 Samuel 17:47; Psalms 11:5, 17:4, 20:7; Matthew 5:9, etc.). We could go on, but my point is that Christianity directly addresses issues which fuel our voting habits.

We tend to forget that Rome viewed Christianity as a political threat. Part of being a citizen meant declaring that Caesar was Lord. But as people came to faith in Jesus, they were no longer able to declare such things because Jesus was now their Lord. This might be difficult for us to understand in our current political day and age but it is fairly easy to see why political leaders would not only view this as insubordination but as a threat to their own positions of power.

We tend to forget that it is the Christian faith which has led many to acts of civil disobedience and to become directly involved in politics. Whether abolition, women’s suffrage, the fight for civil rights, Christianity has not only always been political, it has often been quite unpopular.

Christianity in America has often been co-opted to support the pursuit of wealth and comfort. It has been used to justify oppression rather than combat it. Christianity has been turned upside down and used to endorse power structures which directly oppose biblical convictions.

We live in a time whose importance will only really become apparent with time. Christians in America have the opportunity to shed the skin of consumerism and leave behind (and fight) systems of oppression. Christians in America have the duty to follow Christianity rather than America. Christians have the chance (and perhaps obligation) to reclaim the practice of civil disobedience. Part of our prophetic voice in culture has always been to speak truth to power, not to court favor.

The heart of Christianity is for social justice, care for the poor, nonviolence and the flourishing of our cities. These convictions have unmistakable political ramifications. Christianity is always political and it’s up to us to work this out in public.

I look forward to your thoughts.

Can We Talk (Complementarian/Egalitarian Edition)?

One of the things I love about you, my online friends, is that (for the most part) we can have active and respectful dialogue, even (especially?) when we disagree.

I have said this before, but dialogue is one of the ways I process issues. I love to hear from people with different opinions than mine. It helps me to see where other people are coming from and how they arrived at their positions. It helps me clarify my own positions and respect others. The trouble, of course, is that we all think we’re right and we sometimes have a tendency to elevate the importance of our opinions, forgetting that they are just that: opinions. This is all the more difficult when we are passionate about a particular issue or we view it to be somehow controversial.

When I started blogging years ago, one of the things that attracted me to the format was the interactive nature. I always leave the comments section open. So, let’s try something completely dependent on your participation. If you don’t participate, this post is basically just a bunch of questions.

I know that people say that online comments are not the place to make insightful arguments but I have gleaned a great deal from many of you on this exact platform. You have challenged me to grow and I have (hopefully) learned to think more clearly as a result. So I’d like to try an experiment: let’s discuss some topics together.

Over the past couple of years, I have seen the idea of “orthodoxy” applied to issues I’m not sure it should have been. I have seen well-intentioned Christians say that other well-intentioned Christians are not in fact Christians because of their views on things like hell, gender roles and the like. So let’s explore some of these issues together. I’d like to propose a topic in the briefest way possible and let you help fill out the discussion. I’d like us all to listen and learn from one another. Maybe you’ll find your own position strengthened as a result, and maybe you’ll be persuaded to another view. Either way, it is a valuable exercise to to listen to one another.

Let’s start with “complimentarianism” and “egalitarianism”. For those not familiar with these terms, they have to do with the idea of gender roles, particularly in ministry (at least that’s what we’ll focus on for the sake of this conversation though the issue certainly applies to marriage and gender-relations as a whole so feel free to take the conversation there if you’d like). Most Christians would argue that men and women are created equal, that’s not the issue here. Instead, the question becomes gender role, particularly within a ministry context.

Complementarians argue that, because of unique gender roles found in Scripture, women are prohibited from leadership roles within the local church such as “elder” or “pastor” while Egalitarians argue that not only do no such Scriptural barriers exist, women are just as called and qualified to serve in such roles.

Of course this is an over-simplification of the issue but I’m just wanting to get the conversation started; it’s up to you to help fill it out further and help the rest of us understand how you arrived at your particular convictions. Let’s help others understand the issue better. From both sides.

So, some questions to get us started (feel free to add others):

  • Do you view this as an issue of “orthodoxy”? In other words, if someone holds a different position than you on gender-roles, do you believe them to still be a Christian?
  • If you do not view this as an issue of orthodoxy, how important is this issue to you? Where would you rank it on a scale of theological/cultural importance (top, bottom, middle, etc.)?
  • Do you hold to either position? Why? What Scriptures or outside books/authors helped you arrive at your position? How do you succinctly explain your position to others, especially those who might disagree? What pushed you in one direction or the other?
  • Why do you believe that this issue seems to cause such division? Why has it been so controversial to so many?
  • How can people on all sides of this issue come together without sacrificing their own convictions? Or can they?

 As always, please be respectful. I can’t wait to learn from you.

2016: The Year In Review

Year-end is a time for reflection. What went well, what didn’t? What would you change or keep the same? What lessons can be learned?

2016 continued to feel like a holding pattern. After resigning from vocational ministry in January 2015, I have struggled to find solid footing. I have found part-time employment but have struggled to find “what’s next” for me and my family and we have struggled to find a faith community.

But through it all, I have felt challenged to know myself more fully. I have been thinking a lot about the fantastic Tom Waits quote: “Be devoted to the unification of the diverse aspects of yourself.” I have been fascinated by both Mennonite and Anglican thought. I have moved away from Republianity and deeper into a desire to understand how Christianity fuels social justice.

Through it all, I am deeply thankful for family and proven friends. When you resign from ministry, you realize that many people who you thought were your friends were . . . well, I don’t know, except to say that it’s easy to feel lonely. I am thankful for friends who prove themselves to be just that, regardless of my position.

The past couple of years have felt like a pruning and I’m excited to see what flowers from it.

In the meantime, let’s look back a bit.

  • Browse my favorite books and authors of 2016.
  • Browse my favorite albums of 2016.
  • Stream a two-volume mix of some of my favorite 2016 songs.

2016: The Year in Music

I love year-end lists. I love to see what other people loved.

2016 was a fairly quiet year for me when it came to music. There was a lot of great music but there didn’t seem to be a single album that really “defined” the year for me. Nothing found its way to repeat-for-weeks level. The closest two albums for me in that regard were A Tribe Called Quest’s We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service and Heart Like A Levee by Hiss Golden Messenger.

Still, it was a year filled with great albums. Here are 30 of my favorites from this year. I have included comments that are probably not really helpful for you in you determining whether or not you would like each album for yourself. Instead, you’ll have to go and do some listening for yourself. I hope you enjoy, maybe find something new, and I look forward to your feedback.

 

 

 

 

We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service by A Tribe Called Quest – The album no one expected but struck us all with its timeliness. The Tribe’s first album since 1996 avoided sounding dated while navigating the loss of Phife Dawg. The album is not just a return to form but found everyone at the top of their games. (buy)

Fantômas by Amiina – After serving as Sigur Rós‘ string section, Amiina set out on their own. Fantômas, their fourth release continues their pattern of complex meditative music. (buy)

Wildflower by the Avalanches – Their first new album in 16 years, sample kings the Avalanches create a richly woven tapestry that gives nods to its sources without ever feeling simply pieced together. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Blackstar by David Bowie – David Bowie’s final album cements his status as a sonic explorer to the end. Partnering with exploratory jazz and lyrics that seem to hint that he might have known that his end was near. (buy)

case/lang/viers by Case, Lang, Viers – The partnership between Neko Case, K.D. Lang, and Laura Veirs creates an atmospheric album which not only brings three great voices together but builds on each one to create something more. (buy)

Coloring Book by Chance the Rapper – Joyful rap is often difficult to come by. Much less rap with Christian overtones. Plus the weird noises he makes can be quite fun. (buy)

 

 

 

 

You Want It Darker by Leonard Cohen – Another great artist lost this year who seemed to know what was coming. Though he didn’t need to do so, Cohen reminded us why he was one of our great songwriters and lyricists. (buy)

Give A Glimpse Of What Yer Not by Dinosaur Jr. – Reunited in 2007, teh band remains on a solid streak that gives you everything you want from the band, including a solid performance from Lou Barlow and J Mascis‘ guitar wizardry. (buy)

Ere Gobez by Debo Band – The 11-piece Ethiopian band incorporates funk, afr0beat, jazz, rock and nearly everything in between but never sounds cluttered and always sounds unified. (buy)

 

 

 

 

The Rarity of Experience by Chris Forsyth and the Solar Motel Band – 70’s instrumental guitar psychedelia for the modern age. You know; if you like that sort of thing. Which I do. A lot. A WHOLE LOT. (buy)

Future Standards by Howe Gelb – Tucson’s Gelb has continually reinvented his persona and has long toyed around with classic jazz. If one were to follow him on Facebook, one would see plenty of classic jazz videos posted. Gelb has ditched the Giant Sand full-band approach and has shifted his focus towards jazz. Only time will tell if these are, indeed future standards. (buy)

Requiem by Goat – Staunchly anonymous world-psychedelic outfit Goat turns in a strong album of staunchly anonymous world psychedelia. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Eyes On The Lines by Steve Gunn – Over the course of his last couple of albums, this masterful guitar player has also proven himself to be a masterful songwriter. Lots of great guitar playing that never seems flashy and lots of songs that capture the wanderlust many of us feel but will never indulge. (buy)

Late Bloomer by Matt Haeck – PopMatters says: “Late Bloomer and it couldn’t be a more appropriate moniker, given that it took Haeck 30 years of life to really begin discovering his own voice.” Having known Matt for several years and watching his musical growth for that whole time, I am pleased to say, he has indeed found his voice. It may be late, but let’s hope he’s not done blooming yet. (buy)

Heart Like A Levee by Hiss Golden Messenger – One of my favorite bands in recent years put out one of my favorite albums of recent years. MC Taylor continues to grow as a writer and bandleader. Exploring issues of faith, family, travel and finding one’s self in the world. Definitely a standout album for me this year. Plus I finally got to see the band live. (buy)

 

 

 

 

House in the Tall Grass by Kikagaku Moyo – Some long-haired Japanese guys put their spin on psychedelic folky rock that still rocks and I dig it. (buy)

Mangy Love by Cass McCombs – On his eighth album, McCombs continues to mature as a songwriter. Though this album wrestles with themes of confusion, it does so with soul. And there’s something to be said for that. (buy)

How To Dance by Mount Moriah – Chapel Hill’s Mount Moriah continues to force many of us to ask: “what exactly is ‘alt. country'”? They have definitely found their voice as a country band, but not one you’re likely to hear on any country station. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Entranced Earth by the Myrrors – Tucson represented yet again! This time with a blistering bout of noisy psychedelic trance music for the sunbaked set. (buy)

Night Fiction by Cian Nugent – It can be a mixed bag when instrumental musicians (in this case, world-class guitarist Cian Nugent) decide to try their hand at being a singer-songwriter. Thankfully, this time around it works. Nugent adds depth to his already textured music. (buy)

Malibu by Anderson .Paak – Groovy, soulful, R&B, hip-hop, funk. (buy)

 

 

 

 

PAO! by Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra – I am a Phoenix native who loves afrobeat. How is it that I just discovered this band in 2016. Maybe because this is their first actual album and, having eight kids, we don’t make it out to as many shows as we’d like. Whatever the reason, I’m glad I found it. (buy)

A Sailor’s Guide to Earth by Sturgill SimpsonFollowing up a break-through album can be a challenge for any artist. Simpson tackles it by adding a horn section and Memphis soul to his psychedelic country sound. (buy)

Letting Go and Holding On by Shawn Skinner and the Men of Reason – Yes, I’m biased because these are some great friends. But dang it all if this isn’t a great album of sunbaked Americana. (buy)

 

 

 

 

A Seat At the Table by Solange – Exploring notions of black womanhood, this album could not have been more timely. Soulful, deep and moving. (buy)

Get ‘Em Next Time by Star & Micey – Sometimes you just need some fun rock and roll. Memphis’ Star & Micey are there with your fix. A solidly fun album 0f soulful indie pop-country. (buy)

Blue Mountain by Bob Weir – An album of reflecting on Weir’s early days in Wyoming, this album knows where it’s going and is in no hurry to get there. Self-assured and reflective, it is not only about looking back but continuing forward. (buy)

 

 

 

 

Schmilco by Wilco – Recorded in the same sessions as last year’s Star WarsSchmilco is a more understated affair. Largely acoustic and mellow, this album reveals more with each listen. (buy)

The Ghosts of Highway 20 by Lucinda Williams – Interstate 20 cuts a 1500-mile swath from South Carolina to Texas. This swatch of highway provides the backdrop for Williams to deal with love and loss. (buy)

City Sun Eater in the River of Light by Woods – Moving away from their blissed out alt. country, Woods incorporates bits of Ethiopian jazz to surprising effect (and affect). (buy)

  • Stream a two-volume mix of some of my favorite songs of 2016.

 

2016: The Year in Songs

This year’s year-end mix turned out to be much less thematic than last year’s mix. My wife thinks it’s “pretty dark” but I’m not sure about that (what do you think?). As I was putting this year’s mix together, I kept thinking of the fantastic Tom Waits quote: “Be devoted to the unification of the diverse aspects of yourself.”

I love all kinds of music. But mixes often focus on a particular genre or style. I tried to push that a little bit this year and placed afrobeat next to country, next to hip hop and ended up with a two-volume mix. I hope you don’t mind. The only song that didn’t make it on here was ‘Push’ by Phoenix Afrobeat Orchestra, because they are not on Spotify, so just imagine it’s here

Here you go.

Volume One:



Volume Two:



2016: The Year in Books

I made a concerted effort to read more books this year with no constraints on what I read. Simply read what I want. I didn’t make it to a book a week, but I did make it through 45 books, which I think is pretty good.

Though I had no intention to do so, I read mostly fiction this year and it turned out to be great for my soul. Fiction has a way of capturing the human condition and imagination in a way that many non-fiction books don’t.

Here are some of my favorite things I read in 2016 (in no particular order):

The Dark Tower Series by Stephen King – I started this series something like 20 years ago but (for no reason I can remember except that my reading habits became captured by theology for several years) never finished it. But there was something about Roland that would reappear in my imagination from time to time so I decided to finally work through the series and I’m glad I did.

Combining elements of epic quest tales with a spaghetti-western vibe, this is not what you might typically expect from Stephen King. (buy)

The March trilogy by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell – Dispatches from the front lines of the American Civil Rights movement. Don’t let anyone tell you that comics can’t be important. This should be required reading for anyone trying to understand race relations in the U.S. Your heart will break and you will be inspired. (buy)

Kurt Vonnegut – I read more Kurt Vonnegut than any other author else this year. By my account, I read 12 of his books. I know that his openly humanist atheism might cause some of my Christian friends some concern but Vonnegut’s books dwell deeply on the human condition. He often wrestles with the idea of what it means to be human in the midst of inhumanity. His keen insight, sense of humor and absurdist situations allow us to reflect not only on war but how we can achieve peace. Vonnegut has quickly become one of my favorite authors and I look forward to reading the rest of his material. (buy)

What were your favorite reads of 2016?

Beware of Formulaic Gospelism

One of the beautiful things about Christianity is that it often look so different; it comes with great freedom. One of the most difficult things about Christianity can be when we expect everyone to look the same.

American Christianity has a long history of diminishing the good news of Jesus. Americans like to simplify. Boil it down to practical, sellable bits and bytes. Though Christianity has had a tremendous cultural presence in America but it often finds itself watered down. As Alan Wolfe notes in his informative book The Transformation of American Religion:

“in every aspect of the religious life, American faith has met American culture – and American culture has triumphed. Whether or not the faithful ever were a people apart, they are so no longer”

The basic premise of Wolfe’s book is that, though Christians in America talk a big talk, they’re not all that different from the rest of us, so don’t worry.

Christianity in America has often had a rocky road. We often add to it, making it more difficult than it need be. We often take away from it, making it more simple than it really is. We attach certain behaviors and codes and tell people that if they don’t meet them, they can never be saved. Or we tell people that all they have to do is believe a certain set of propositions without any change in heart.

One of the American mistreatments of the Good News of Jesus’ life, obedience, substitutionary death, ascension and intercession is sometimes known as “easy believism”. The problem with this approach, for many is that it simply requires nothing but belief. No heart change, much less lifestyle change. This approach teaches that we should not even expect behavioral change or repentance, just belief. The result is often people who claim to be Christians with no discernible difference in life, heart or conduct before or after “salvation”. Belief with no requirement of sacrifice.

At the heart of this discussion, among other things, is the question of how salvation is related to our actions. The Bible seems clear that our actions cannot produce salvation but that salvation will always affect our actions. Our behaviors will change.

How people change has been a keen question for pastors, counselors and all Christians for years. This is at the heart of many approaches to what we call “discipleship”: the process of becoming more like Jesus and helping others to do the same.

There has been a helpful trajectory over the past few years to regain the centrality of the Gospel in the life of the Believer. The Gospel is not simply how someone “gets in to heaven” when they die, it is the answer to ongoing transformation (leaving sin behind) in this life; for the here and now. But as is sometimes the case in matters such like this, many Christians have begun to turn this reliance into a formula.

Christianity has had a tenuous relationship in America with the self-help movement, often forgetting that Christianity is not, in fact about just becoming better people. It has always been about more than “your best life now”. But we love to boil things down. We love alitteration and simple steps. We love formulas that can be distilled and packaged.

We are in danger of trying to reduce the transformative power of the Gospel in to simple, easy-to-follow steps. Where we once had easy believism, we now face formulaic gospelism. We sometimes expect Christian growth to look the same for everyone and instead of urging one another on to holiness, we judge each other based on how much they do things the way we think they should be done.

The Bible is clear that Christian growth comes through the repeated process of faith and repentance. But this doesn’t always look the same for every one. That’s part of the beauty of Christianity, it meets each one where we we’re at and takes us each to the destination of Christ-likeness. But it moves us at different paces through different scenery, struggles, strains and trials. It works within every unique personality in unique but universal ways.

We must fight the urge to expect everyone to look the same. We must resist the notion that Gospel transformation can be boiled down to a few simple steps. The Gospel is deep and powerful and moves us all in the same direction but it cannot be controlled. As we journey together, let’s not believe that a common destination requires that we walk in lock-step. Formulas are great for math but not necessarily for holiness.

 

The Advent Hope Of Adoption

Over the past couple of years, I have become beguiled by the beauty of the Christian Calendar (if you’re not familiar with the practice, here’s a great, quick introduction). Many churches observe the pinnacles of this tradition in Christmas and Easter. Others have expanded their observance by including Lent and Advent.

One of the Christian seasons many people are most familiar with is that of Advent. Traditionally the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, the theme is that of waiting. Waiting from the double perspective, first, the idea of the New Testament people of God waiting for the coming of Jesus and second, the Post-Cross people of God awaiting Jesus’ Second coming.

As the Old Testament closes, we have a 400 year period of God’s silence. Even before the close of the Old Testament, as God’s people languished in exile, they had already become accustomed to waiting. God had promised them that One would come who would crush the head of the serpent, be a true and better Prophet, Priest and King. And the Israelites find themselves in exile . . .

. . . 400 years . . .

And as the New Testament opens, the Jews find themselves under different oppressors but oppression is still oppression and waiting is still waiting. The people trusted God but the answer seemed dim at best. It’s like in Psalm 46:5 when the Psalmist says that God will be the help of the holy city “when the morning dawns”. But what do we do when it perpetually feels as though it’s 1:30am? We may believe that God will show up when the morning comes but what do we do when it feels like the morning is never coming?

A sense of waiting pervades Christianity. We trust in the future promises in the present because of His past faithfulness. He has shown Himself to be faithful. He has proven trustworthy. But He is not in a hurry. And his timing is not ours. This is the theme of Advent. We must trust in the waiting. We know that the darkness is not permanent. The morning will dawn. As Cheryl Bridges Johns says: “Advent asks us to sit a while in the darkness, waiting for the light of God.

Over the course of this Advent season, I have been dwelling deeply on this sense of waiting and the hope which much see us through the waiting. I like in the Modern West. Christians long for Jesus’ Second coming but I’m not sure we can our waiting always translates into longing. In the West, most Christians live fairly comfortable lives and we don’t often identify with the need of rescue felt by the oppressed.

But I think that Scripture provides us with some insight into the true longing represented in the Advent season. Consider Romans 8:18-25:

For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now. And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

This passage has meant a lot to me over the years but I don’t know that I’ve ever really dwelt deeply on one of its key ideas: “we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” Something about this recently laid me low. As of September 2016, there are 18,000 kids in the Arizona foster care system. 18,000 children waiting to for their home. “We ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons.” Paul asks us to identify with those waiting to be adopted. This is the spirit of Advent.

And yet, on this side of the Cross, we do not wait or hope in vain. Christ has already delivered the firstfruits. His first Coming assures us of His second. As a parent of four adopted children, this imagery has brought new depth to Advent for me. Parentless children longing for promised-adoption, the homeless brought home, the far-off made family. Advent asks us to remember that the darkness will not last, the morning will dawn again because the Son has come.