On Backroom Conversions and Whether or Not God’s the “Decider”

So I guess Samuel said the “sinner’s prayer,” or something like it, last Sunday. I’m making this guess based on an email I got from the Children’s Director at the faith community we’ve been participating in. Her email mentioned a “discussion centered around dying and what to expect, and as many of the children have experienced death in some form or another, there were lots of questions and ideas about fear, heaven, and how we are certain of our salvation.” It goes on to say that they “prayed together, as some expressed a desire to ask God for forgiveness and Christ to be their Savior.” She further expresses her excitement “that some made a decision to follow Christ in their hearts and with their lives” and relates that some “of our children now have their names written in ‘The Book’ in heaven, and they are sure to be there.”

Folks who know me or have read this blog for a while will rightly guess that this raises lots of questions for me. It’s said that having children forces parents to come to terms in some way with many things, including their own faith life. Many people who have not been regular church service attenders for some time, for example, may go back for the sake of their kids, or at least send the kids. Anyway, I’m certainly experiencing something like that now. One of the issues this situation raises is a basic question of theology. I grew up, as you, dear reader, may know, in the “evangelical” milieu wherein being a “Christian” at least seems to be largely about making such a “decision” for Christ so that you don’t go to hell, and then following certain rules, like: don’t cuss, don’t drink (much), don’t watch certain movies or read certain books or listen to certain music, don’t participate in Halloween (in some circles; there’s remarkable inconsistency on this one), don’t have an abortion, don’t support social programs that would limit abortions or otherwise mitigate their impact, do support the death penalty, do support war, do “go to church” on Sunday, do be patriotic and do vote Republican, etc. That, in my experience, was basically it. There was an easy formula: say the prayer, follow the rules, recruit others to do the same, and you’re “good;” you’re otherwise free to pursue the “American dream” just like everybody else. Sure, there was some talk of being distinct or separate from “the world,” but it was a distinction with little difference because the “Christian life” as described above is little more than an affirmation of USAmerican civil religion, an amalgam of God and country that so dilutes the meaning of the former so as to make it irrelevant, if not meaningless. God, in this context, becomes a tool for serving the needs of the state. Religion is certainly an opiate, then, a drug used to keep the masses in line or whip them into a patriotic fervor, as the need may arise.

There is little in this that resembles the life of Jesus, who was crucified on a Roman cross in the ultimate act of “church”/state complicity. The religious leaders of his day saw him for the threat that he was, the ultimate threat to secular power whether wielded by the state or the “church.” Jesus spoke of a “kingdom that was not of this world” and said it was already “upon you.” He gave lip service to state authority by saying to “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s” (in that case, Caesar’s coins) but to God “what is God’s” (your heart, your soul, your life, everything that is). He further called into question state power by showcasing the injustice of state/military practices such as forcing civilians to carry soldiers’ gear for a mile by, in that case, saying that one should carry it for two. More subversion can be found in the admonition to “turn the other cheek.” As one writer has noted regarding this:

“Imagine being struck on your right cheek.  You probably get hit by the striker’s right hand, which means you get backhanded.  Backhanding does not happen in a fair face-off.  Backhanding is an insult, punishment, or just plain abuse.  Back then it represented a clear situation of oppression or dominance. So you could 1) fight back (not smart), or 2) meekly take it, maybe with ‘Yes, Sir’. Now Jesus suggests a third approach.  Offer the other cheek.  You are not fighting back, but neither are you meekly taking it.  You are asking for more.  You may get it or you may not, but either way you’ve made a point or two.  You are not exactly what they think you are, and you know it; you are a person, and deserve more equal treatment and respect as a person; you are aware of the truth behind the fraud.  You are amplifying awareness of, and insulting, their bullying behavior and the system that allows it.”

Jesus’ religious subversion was no less troubling for the powers that be. He repeatedly said, “you have heard it said…but I tell you…” and thereby either took the Bible of his day and turned it on its head or stretched “the (religious) rules” so far as to make them impossible to follow, thereby showing the ultimate impossibility of a system dependent on them. An example of the former can be found when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5:43-45).” An example of the latter is when he spoke about adultery, saying “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:27). Moreover, he repeatedly broke the religious rules by healing (doing work) on the Sabbath, touching (or being touched by) the “unclean,” claiming the power to forgive sin, etc. The Roman overlords at the time were not so quick to call for his death, but the Jewish religious leaders could not allow him to subvert their supposed authority any longer, and saw to it that Rome would help them put him down. In short, Jesus was dangerous, and this was no small part of why he was killed, the simultaneous cosmic significance of his death notwithstanding. Obviously, then, his life and witness bears little resemblance to the “Christian life” I described above.

Perhaps obviously, it is my hope, then, that following Jesus is more about living as he did and less about living as far too many of his supposed followers do now. It’s more about loving my local and global neighbors, enemies included, and less about fully identifying with the country in which I reside, let alone with either one of its political parties, however sympathetic I may be toward one or the other of them. Jen Hatmaker says this far better than I could. This is slightly long, but worth it. She says:

Politics are rife with power-plays, hypocrisy, corruption, agendas, contradictions, good platforms, bad platforms, men and women who love their country, men and women who’ve lost their moral compass, good policy, dangerous policy…in the red and blue camps alike. That any believer imagines a political platform will either usher in or threaten the kingdom of God is worse than dramatic; it is unbelief.

 No president can take the Kingdom out of our hearts. No candidate can steal what Jesus has already won. As the Kingdom came, so will it continue – not through Empire but through radical, subversive faith. It cannot be shaken, it cannot be removed. It lives and breathes through the work of Jesus on the cross, not the position of any human on the throne. Nor can any man in the sphere of government ever represent the comprehensive gospel of Christ. Never. He may reflect elements, but rest assured, those tenets will be contradicted elsewhere in his platform.

Our faith and outrage and hope and trust is misplaced in any leadership model other than Jesus’, who resisted all earthly power and position and rejected any political identification:

The last shall be first.

The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

My kingdom is not of this world.

The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.

Jesus’ subversive teaching taught his followers to shame and expose the evils of political oppression by audacious acts of humility, not through bedding down within the system. I particularly like how John Piper discussed voting in his post “Let Christians Vote As Though They Were Not Voting”, referencing 1 Corinthians 7:29-31 (by the way, do not google “John Piper election” in hopes of pulling up this article, because you will find seven hundred thousand pages of predestination sermon links):

“So it is with voting. There are losses. We mourn. But not as those who have no hope. We vote and we lose, or we vote and we win. In either case, we win or lose as if we were not winning or losing. Our expectations and frustrations are modest. The best this world can offer is short and small. The worst it can offer has been predicted in the book of Revelation. And no vote will hold it back.”

These things remain: God’s kingdom exists anywhere believers are choosing love and grace and reckless obedience; it is undeterred by a red or blue context. Sisters and brothers in Christ will vote differently, because as we all must, we simply have to choose between two platforms that each include some gospel-centric policies and others that contradict. Either way, we will swallow some ideologies that belie the message of Jesus. Regardless, God is still on His throne, and our true allegiance rests in His sovereignty. Four or eight years of an administration cannot compromise the historical work of a holy God.

If discipleship means loving the broken, then love the broken.

If following Jesus means abandoning our rights, then abandon them.

If you care about the sanctity of life, then devote yourself to its care – womb to grave.

If you worry about the vulnerable, then give your life away for them.

If Scripture tells us perfect love drives out fear, then it does.

If your trust is in a Servant Savior, then put it there and leave it there.

 

As children of God, we should be unthreatened by secular power. The Law was never able to bring redemption, and it is still insufficient to make all things new. The healing and hope and goodness we long for is realized fully in Jesus, extended through His people despite hardship or distance or the passage of time or the changing of guards. No political party can see it through or take it away. It was finished on the cross, and the discussion is over.

So may we deal kindly with one another in a manner befitting the Bride, as a people who loosely engage the system of the day, retaining our prophetic voice and refusing to malign one another for a false kingdom that will soon pass away. May we preach Jesus crucified and risen, the only hope of the world. And whether we vote red or blue, may we reach across the lines, join hands, and proclaim:

“To the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.” ~Romans 16:27

 

That, my friends, is the Christian life I hope to be a part of, someday perhaps.

Anyway, this brings us back to what happened in Sunday School with Samuel. “Evangelicals” follow a pattern in which a baby is born and then in some way “claimed” by the community on behalf of God through a “baby dedication.” A sympathetic spin on this, I think, would be to say that it’s less about the community dedicating the baby to God, though there may be some good symbolism to be mined there, and more about the community dedicating themselves to love and raise the baby in the grace of God. Nonetheless, later the child grows up and makes the faith that was claimed for them as a baby their own through baptism, after making the “decision for Christ” described above. Lutherans follow a similar pattern. For the record, though I was raised in the “evangelical” milieu as noted above (or as a “fundagelical,” as I like to call it), I went to Luther Seminary and the faith I hope to have as an adult is grounded in Lutheran theology, which is part of why- for good or ill- the faith community we now participate in is an ELCA one. The afore-mentioned Children’s Director at this Lutheran congregation, however, is a paid staff person who is not a member and in fact is part of the local “evangelical” mega-congregation, perhaps obviously.

So Lutherans follow a similar pattern to the one I just described, but I think the meaning is much, much richer. For Lutherans, a baby is also “claimed” in some way in God’s name, but in this case this occurs through infant baptism. If, for “evangelicals” baptism is the act that somehow “seals the deal” of the baptized’s identification with God, this is no less true for Lutherans. For the “evangelical,” however, the onus is put on the person. You have to make a decision to say the prayer and accept God’s forgiveness, and then you’re “saved;” you’re “in,” and you show this symbolically by getting baptized. For Lutherans, conversely, what “saves” you is so much less about you that you’re removed from the equation. It’s ALL about what God does. God does the saving; God’s “the decider.” God claims you in the waters of baptism as an infant. God, who stands at both ends of time, dies for you “while you were yet a sinner.” In Lutheran theology, and, I would argue, in Scripture, faith is a gift, fully given by God. This raises lots of other questions which are more appropriate for another time, but obviously I find this theologically much more compelling.

The second part of the pattern, then, for the Lutheran occurs when one is older through Confirmation. In Confirmation the child who has been baptized, who has been “saved” wholly by God’s grace and nothing more (or less), then takes the initiative to more fully live like someone who has received the gift of faith. They may not take “ownership” of it, I would like to think, because it’s God’s good gift, but they live much more intentionally like a beggar who has received bread and knows where to get more.

As my seminary buddy Mark said about all this:

Samuel has both been baptized and made some sort of decision for Christ now, is that right? Lutherans would say he became a Christian upon baptism, and if he had a moment of illumination in Sunday School, well, the Spirit is involved in those too I figure…but I would want Samuel to know that he has a relationship with God that will last forever because of God’s initiative in adopting him and unconditional promise through the sacrament. What (the Children’s Director) is teaching here really suggests that baptism is irrelevant, and the equating of salvation with getting into heaven is narrow and doesn’t resemble much the Bible, as N.T. Wright has probably shown best in Surprised by Hope.

I couldn’t agree more.

Giving Up for Lent?

And who shall I blame for this sweet and heavy trouble? 
For every stupid struggle?
I don’t know.
I could buy you a drink.
I could tell you all about it.
I could tell you why I doubt it, and why I still believe.

But I can’t say it like I sing it.
And I can’t sing it like I think it.
And I can’t think it like I feel it.
And I don’t feel a thing.
Oh no – I don’t feel a thing.

I’ve quoted Pedro the Lion/David Bazan’s “The Fleecing” lyrics before, and for good reason. I don’t feel a thing, usually, and I doubt “it,” usually, but still believe (usually). These days, and for some time now, the sweet and heavy trouble I would sing of is simply life itself. It is so very, very heavy; yet thanks to the presence and love of my wife and children still retains some of its sweetness. But the struggle is so very stupid, and in short, I’m tired. I don’t feel a thing because I don’t dare. There’s simply too much risk involved. Readers of this blog know my story; so there’s no need to tell it again, and I suppose that’s part of the problem. When I was younger and had opportunity to begin telling my story, I found it cathartic. It helped to get it out, especially when my hearers really made the effort to listen and empathize. Questions like, “how do you keep at it?” or “how do you get out of bed every day?” were not uncommon, and I found them comforting. They meant that someone actually “got it,” for once.

I’ve had occasion to tell my story numerous times now over the years, and the cathartic effect seems to have waned. Perhaps my story still holds the same power; I don’t know. Usually I would tell it while making an effort to build community, often in a “cell” or small group, occasionally with new friends. Always, though, the need to find and build such community drove much of what was happening. Some of those efforts historically have met with success, but they were always later disrupted by one out of state move or another. Here in Northeast Ohio that struggle for community has been equally difficult, and has met with only mixed success. Eight years (this fall) after buying our house here (minus our 18 month sojourn in Dallas for my dad’s death), we have just a handful of good friends, but those relationships are limited by just a little bit of geographic distance and ever changing dynamics. Moreover, we’ve struggled, for eight long years now, to find our place in a church community here. We’ve made various commitments to several congregations, only to struggle to follow through with them for a variety of reasons usually having to do with perceived “fit” (or lack thereof). In short, the closest Circle of Hope-like cell church network working hard to “be the church” for the next generation is five hours away, in Philadelphia (namely, Circle of Hope). Likewise, the nearest House of Mercy-like church for the “un-“ and “over-“ churched that “isn’t that bad” is 7+ hours away, in the Twin Cities (namely, House of Mercy). There is no local congregation that gets that it needs to “be the church” for the next generation and that can effectively do so for those for whom the “good news” of the gospel has become bad news while simultaneously speaking truth to power and working to fight injustice in the city. There are some great groups locally doing great things, and I’m privileged to know some of them, but there are none that do all of the above, all at once.

I know; I’m asking for too much. If the gospel is true, if God is and if God is love; if love is about relationship, about community, and if the “rules” we seem to need are for relationship; then I have to believe not only the good news, but also that God is building that community I yearn for, even here in Northeast Ohio, and both the big picture and all the little details are best left up to him, all of which means I must embrace community as I find it, not as I want it to be. I must accept what is and work with what partners I can find to together become what God dreams for us all. I must love those in front of me and quit trying to change them, especially when I myself am in need of so much change.

I get all that; I really do. But it’s so, so very hard, and I am so, so very tired. I’m tired of telling my story. My story wears me out. I’m tired of trying, of starting over again and again and again. I feel…….old, ready to lay my burdens down. Maybe this is good. Maybe my struggle is part of the problem. Perhaps I’ve been fighting so hard for so long to will into existence myself that which only God can create. And this, finally, brings me to today, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent. Today many would be Christ-followers get a visible reminder of just what following him means. To follow Jesus is to follow him down the path of our own death, our own execution. Dust we are, and to dust we shall return. We die with Christ in hope of resurrection, to be sure, but I must echo those who would say that we move on to resurrection much too easily, much too readily, as if it wasn’t the most profound and enduring miracle. Among my many struggles is the struggle to believe despite so many good reasons not to, and I can’t help but wonder if maybe this too isn’t a labor from which I need to rest, an enemy to which I need to surrender. Luther (and Paul) reminds us that faith is a gift, after all, and so I am reminded that I need to receive that gift and quit trying to create it myself. I can’t give it to myself, after all; it is sui generis. It is unique; it stands alone. It comes from outside me and does not relate to anything that I can make or force to be. Like matter, it cannot be created (or, one hopes, destroyed). It simply is.

So I must lay this, this struggle to believe, and all my burdens down as I follow Jesus to the cross, to the executioner’s chair, to the guillotine and the firing squad, to the place of so many skulls….to death. I do it, as I hope to do all things, for love. Christ loves me, after all, while I am yet a sinner and will soon die for me and with me rather than see our separation continue. But this is a long journey, and like all journeys it starts with a single step. Today, Ash Wednesday, I take that step. So for Lent I’m giving up the struggle to believe. Sure, I’ll take some things on too, like the usual effort to run, eat right, and observe “the hours,” but those are all things that I at least want to do year-round. They aren’t “new.” No, my primary Lenten discipline will be the effort to…make no effort, to quit trying, to open up enough of a space for Jesus to maybe get in for once. Lord, let it be so.