Friday, September 19, 2014

Things that keep me outside the camp

Some time ago, a friend of mine at church expressed surprise when I told him that I don't consider myself an evangelical.

I guess I can see why he might feel that way. I follow Jesus Christ. I think a commitment to faith is important. I read the Bible regularly. I was on the missions field for about two years, from 1992-94. Still, all that said, I often find myself outside the evangelical camp -- originally pushed there, but now here of my own volition -- for a number of reasons.*

1. I don't see the Bible as inerrant. If you want, I can even supply some pretty glaring inconsistencies.

2. I usually vote Democratic. Often I am stumped how a person of faith can support many of the social and economic policies of the GOP.

3. I regularly find myself appalled by the bloodthirstiness and bizarre sense of justice practiced in the Bible. And don't get me started on the subject of genocide.

4. I've never read anything by Rick Warren, and am wary of megachurches, particularly once they have radio stations.

5. I think the earth is 4.5 billion years old. Evolution fits into my faith just fine, and makes more sense to me than six-day creationism, both scientifically and theologically.

6. When somebody escapes injury or misfortune and says, “Wow, God was looking out for me today," I want to ask about the other people not so fortunate, and whether God had it in for them or just wasn't paying attention. Athletes giving credit to God for their wins just make me roll my eyes.

7. I ask a lot of annoying questions. Once when I was told to stop asking questions and just have faith, I ended my membership in that church.

8. I have issues with authority. I have a hard time heeding it in people who don't have or who have lost my respect. This includes a lot of evangelical leaders, past and present.

9. I mislike altar calls, which I find emotionally manipulative, especially for children.

10. As I read the Bible, I can't help but feel that sometimes the people who wrote it, just got it wrong.

11. I support gay rights; I'd even officiate at a gay friend's wedding if she asked.

12. I don't have a problem with Islam the way I do with Christians who vilify Muslims and mock their beliefs.

13. With notably few exceptions, I don't listen to Christian music, watch Christian movies, or read books from a Christian bookstore, because (aside from those few exceptions) they all stink, horribly.

14. I think there's room to criticize Israel, and I do.

15. I don't think Jesus is the answer to all my problems. Good planning, good health care, and good friends go a long way too.

I suppose the thing that drives me nuts the most is the evangelical approach to sharing the faith. Jesus proclaimed that the Kingdom of God had arrived, and set about healing the wounds of this world. Rather than follow his example, the evangelical approach is to spend so much time trying to convince people that they're sinners that in the end all they're convinced of is that we're jerks.

Still, to be fair, I should say what I find nice about evangelicalism.

1. By and large, evangelicals take the Bible seriously.

2. Evangelicals often provide the backbone financially and personally for world missions, including medical care, infrastructure and economic development in the developing world -- and this quite often is done without an eye toward gaining converts.

3. Stereotypes to the contrary, evangelical Christians aren't ignoramuses. A creationist is probably going to know more about the details of evolutionary theory than your average college graduate.

4. Evangelicals often have a sense of the immediacy of God that I wish I had more of.

5. There are signs that younger evangelicals are pushing the movement to the Left and taking a broader, more socially responsible view of things.

* N.B.: I want to stress that this post reflects my thoughts on evangelicalism itself, and not a critique of evangelicals qua believers. As a movement, evangelicalism historically has been a much broader, more encompassing movement than it is now, one that allowed for a wide range of doctrine and views. My prayer is that it would return to those roots. and shake off the narrowness that has defined it for the past thirty-some years.

Tip of the hat to Rachel Evans

Tuesday, September 09, 2014

Remembering the forsaken

Let me tell you about Jackie. I don't know the young woman personally; I read about her recently in a recent article from Rolling Stone.

Judging by what the article has to say about her, Jackie seems like an impressive young woman. She's a hard worker who graduated from high school at the top of her class. She's a respectful and dutiful person, religiously devout, and resourceful. Active in school. Active in sports. During her sophomore year at college when she told her parents she was gay, none of that mattered. Her credit cards? Canceled. The phone? Turned off. Her car? Leave it at a certain drop point, or it will be reported stolen.

And the thought of coming home and seeing her family again? Let's not even go there.

The Rolling Stone article interweaves Jackie's story with those of other teens and young adults in her situation. Of an estimated 1.7 million homeless teens nationwide, the Rolling Stone article notes that an estimated 40 percent of those teens identify as LBGT when they seek services. There's no way to know how many of them have stories that parallel Jackie's, but those who do are the shameful legacy of the church from the past 30 years.

For the past 20-plus years, the church in America has beat the drum and steadily raised its voice ever louder to denounce the increased social acceptance of homosexuality.

There have been ominous warnings about the homosexual agenda and the grave danger it poses to the American family, vicious and unfounded stereotypes about gays preying on young children. And as gay marriage has gained acceptability in society, it hasn't been enough for the church to lament a moral decline in the nation, we've also had to claim that gays are persecuting us by asking the state to recognize their unions and for businesses to treat them like any other customer.

This sort of talk, and this sort of fear, don't exist in a vacuum. They have a cost.

These youth are paying that cost. They are our legacy. When we use words like "abomination" so loosely, we teach people that they are worth less if they are gay.

When we call gay marriage an assault on marriage itself, we cast gays themselves as the enemy of marriage.

When we talk about "the homosexual agenda" driven by liberals and the media, we divide the nation and even families into opposing camps, the "good" side of us, and the "evil" side of them. Kids trust and respect their parents. What kind of message is that to receive your entire childhood?

When we wield Scripture like a club to settle an argument, we make ourselves secure in the rightness of our cause, but we also tell people that they're going to hell because of an instinctive attraction that they have no control over. Everyone else can see how self-righteous that is. Why can't we?

When we "hate the sin and love the sinner," what we really are doing is hating the sinner too, but glossing it over by saying that we'll show them that love once they stop doing what we object to. God's response is to pursue the sinner; ours is "to hand them over to Satan" and drive them out lest they corrupt the whole batch. (To our collective shame, this is exactly what John MacArthur advocates we do with our gay children, and he is a respected minister.)

People make a big deal over the silence of Jesus on the subject of homosexuality, but here's what it really boils down to. We don't know where Jesus stood on the moral nature of homosexuality. He never said. What we do know is that he stood firmly on the side of human dignity and respect.

It is entirely possible (though not, all things considered, very likely) that one of my daughters may at some point come to me and say, "Dad, I'm gay." The only response acceptable at that point is to say "I love you" -- because, in the end, that's what people need to hear.

That message is not one often shared in church the past 27 years, and people like Jackie are paying the cost.

Copyright © 2014 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Blue Monster

Like the rest of the country last night, I was shocked to hear the news that Robin Williams had died.

Williams, whom I grew up watching on "Mork & Mindy" and followed through movies such as "Good Morning, Vietnam," "Dead Poets Society" and "Good Will Hunting," died in his California home on Aug. 11. Reports indicate that his death was an apparent suicide by hanging. News articles relate that he had been struggling with depression.

Not surprisingly, I've heard a few people chime in with opinions on how selfish he was for killing himself, or other similar comments. I want to ask, do you even know what depression is, or what it feels like?

Depression is not being sad, or blue, or grieving for a period. Depression is a void. It's a void that starts out small and slowly, but as things fall into that void and disappear, the void grows larger.

The first thing to go is your happiness, so that things that once brought you pleasure now do nothing for you. Have a job you love? Soon it becomes rote drudgery. A hobby? It's pointless. The tiny little things that made you laugh suddenly don't seem funny any more, and you become a little grumpier when there's not as much left to lift you out of the slough.

The next thing to go is your joy. Happiness is fleeting and on the surface, but joy has deep roots that go all the way to your core. People like your wife and your kids bring you joy; your faith in God may be a source of joy to you. As your depression grows and your joy falls into the void, life itself begins to hurt.

It hurts so bad that you can't see anything worth living for. Every difference of opinion with a friend or a loved one blows up into something too large for words, and then you're left with a handful of shame for overreacting, made only worse when people you love start to demand, "What's the matter with you?"

Once the present has fallen into the void, the future goes next, because there is no longer any hope that things will get better. The past follows soon after, because you can't believe that it could ever have been that good in the first place. By this point, the void has swallowed everything, and all that's left for it to swallow is you.

Depression is patient. It can wait, and it does. It follows you minute after painful minute, day after exhausting day, week after wearying week, until time becomes a ravenous crocodile with years like teeth that will tear into your soul. And as the crocodile follows you, the void beneath you begins to speak.

"It doesn't have to be like this," it says. "You can stop the pain now."

There are always people who say that you can ask for help, and that's true. You can ask for help, if you think it'll be there; but depression robs you of the ability to see help. You can't ask for help if you don't believe that help exists. You can't ask for help if your life is so miserable that you can't convince yourself that anybody cares about you, or ever has. You can't ask for help if you have no reason to believe that anything can ever get better.

There are other people who say that depression is an act of supreme selfishness, and disregard for how others feel. Of course, when you wrapped in depression and it smothers you like a blanket, you can't see the others. You don't know that they're there, that they care, or that your death will be anything but a tremendous relief. People in the throes of depression aren't trying to make other people hurt; they're trying to stop their own pain.

Some people are saying that Robin Williams was a coward for killing himself. I don't believe that. I believe he was exhausted from dealing with something that he had no idea how to deal with further. I believe he made the wrong choice, and I wish to God he could have found the help he needed, but I don't hate him. My heart goes out to his family and his friends, who now must contend with the empty questions of why, and whether they could have done anything to save him.

Robin Williams is gone now; and I pray that he'll never feel depressed again.

Copyright © 2014 by David Learn. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

Sunday, June 15, 2014

Grace, just not to you

John MacArthur, you've really missed the boat on this one.

MacArthur, well known both for his books and for his daily radio program "Grace to You," recently took a question from a follower who wanted to know how to respond now that an adult child has revealed himself to be gay. MacArthur's take? Shun them, that they may learn the error of their ways. Alienate them, don't have meals with them. Keep them at arm's length until they have repented.

MacArthur is advocating this position because of a flawed understanding of what holiness is, a view that a holy God cannot abide the presence of sin, and thereby removes himself. I say this is flawed because the story of the Christian Scriptures from Genesis through Revelation is that of a God who pursues a relationship with those who sin.

Adam eats forbidden fruit and hides; God comes looking for him in the garden, and calls out to him, "Where are you?"

Israel turns away, and so God sends judges, kings and prophets to call them back to him. The people continue to sin, but God sends a deliverer anyway, or even offers to give them everything he promised, even though he won't go with them.

Humans commit acts of great wickedness; and yet God sends the rain upon the just and the unjust; and at the heart of the Christian gospel is a message that God has begun the redemption of the world by raising one man from the dead and appointing him as savior of us all.

Holiness pursues and seeks to restore; holier-than-thou shuns and rebukes.

It's God's kindness that leads to repentance. (Romans 2:4)

No disrespect to John MacArthur, but come on; we're better than shunning our family members.

Copyright © 2014 by David Learn. Used with permission.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Loneliest Man in the Bible

Healing_of_the_demon-possessed[1]Let me tell you about the loneliest man in the Bible.

There's a lot we don't know about him. We don't know where things went wrong for him, whether he had once been wealthy and fallen on hard times that became too much for him. We don't know if he had parents whose hearts broke when they thought of him, or brothers and sisters who were ashamed to acknowledge their relationship to him. We don't know if he once had had a wife whose heart skipped when she saw him, or children who loved to climb on his chest and rub his beard with their hands. We don't know if he was once a pillar of the community, the center of a coterie of friends, the toast of the bar, or the champion at dice. We don't even know this fellow's name.

What we do know is how far he had fallen.

By the time the Bible brings us to this man's story, he is completely alone. At one point, people used to bind him with fetters, but he fought them so fiercely that he always broke the chains and got away. God only knows how he must have looked, bleeding where the iron had dug into his wrists and ankles, swinging broken chains whenever he raised his hand because he felt threatened. Eventually they left him alone. One imagines the good, clean people drove him out of town first, probably by throwing stones at him until he ran away, but in the end, they left him alone.

Alone is how he passed his days, and alone is how he passed his nights. There was no one to laugh with, no one to hold him when he cried, and given how people act when they're alone, it's safe to say that he probably did a lot of both. Aside from the jackals and the rats, his giggles and his shrieks were probably his only company. The gospel of Mark tells us that he lived amid the rows of the dead, and day and night would cry out in the desolation of the tombs and around the mountains where he wandered.

I've known people who say there is no hell, but they're wrong. This man lived there. He knew its every inch, its every uneven stone. He knew its unbearable heat and its unbearable cold. He knew its unbearable godforsakenness.

When Jesus asked him his name, he was probably the first person in years to attempt a conversation with this man. When he clothed him, he was the first to care about restoring this man's dignity.

Is there any place more desolate than the one where this man lived? Living among the dead is bleak and haunting enough, but when this man speaks to Jesus, he refers to the area where he lives as chora, a Greek word that means "the space lying between two places or limits" or "an empty expanse." This is a man with no place that wants him, no country that he can call his own. He's perfectly miserable, and he's terrified that Jesus will upset that status quo and send him from this chora, to some place where he'll be with other people.

We usually think of this man as possessed by a demon, or perhaps even by a thousand demons because of the memorable response he has when Jesus asks him his name: "I am Legion, for we are many." In the gospel of Mark at least, the writer specifically does not use the word demon. There is such a term in Greek; it's pneuma ponĂªron (evil spirit) or even daimonion. The writer of Mark's gospel instead uses the term pneuma akatharton, "unclean spirit." The word akatharton usually is used in conjunction with ritual uncleanness, the sort that makes you unfit for the company of other people, and unfit to enter the presence of God. Unclean spirits in Judaism were believed to inhabit desolate regions -- like the tombs -- and sometimes were equated with pagan gods

Legion's story is one of the most familiar passages in Mark's gospel. The unclean spirits afflicting this man beg Jesus to let them enter a herd of swine nearby, and he does. The pigs -- about 2,000 of them -- rush down the hill and drown in the lake, presumably bringing financial ruin to the owners of the herd, and when people hear what has happened, they beg Jesus to leave the territory immediately.

The region this all happened in is just outside the Decapolis, in what is modern-day Jordan. The Decapolis was on the eastern frontier of the Roman Empire, and had been settled after the death of Alexander the Great, and during the time of the Seleucid dynasty that succeeded Alexander. This, incidentally, was the same Seleucid dynasty that conquered Judea and tried to Hellenize the Jewish people. Among other things, the Seleucids desecrated the Temple by sacrificing swine in the Holy of Holies. The eventual Jewish victory over their oppressors is celebrated every year during Hanukkah.

So here we have Jesus, fresh on the heels of the parables in Mark 4 that illustrate how his heavenly kingdom will grow, bringing restoration and deliverance to the most tragic figure imaginable. His mere presence is enough to overthrow the Greek gods, represented in Legion, and to purify an area polluted with the unclean animals that once had defiled the Temple.

When the encounter ends, Jesus commissions the former madman to become the Billy Graham of the Decapolis, traveling throughout the region and telling people what Jesus had done for him. Rome employed the services of heralds like this all the time, when it would send them into newly conquered lands to declare the evangelion of Caesar, that the country was now Roman territory, that the people would now enjoy the benefits of Rome's peace, protection and wealth. The gospel notes that when Jesus returned, the people awaited his arrival eagerly.

The entire experience is something of a Bizarro Hanukkah, affirming both the sovereignty of Jesus and the peaceable nature of his kingdom.

Of the people in the story, which one should we identify with? Are we Jesus, bringing deliverance to the lost and lonely with no sense of belonging; are we trembling madman tormented and afraid of being well; or are we the people of the Decapolis?

I think we want to be the first and believe we used to be the second; but I think that too often we belong in that third group: basically decent, satisfied with who we are and our place in the world, just waiting until that moment when a former madman will come by and upend our world.
Copyright © 2014 David Learn. Used with permission.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

First Thoughts on the First Disciples

jesus_and_net[1]As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.

It's just a short passage, there are still a few things that come to mind immediately. One is that Jesus is not calling these, his first disciples, in isolation, but in pairs. Peter and Andrew are brothers, and James and John are brothers. Thus, right from the start, he is affirming the importance of family -- and specifically of siblings -- in the Kingdom of God.

Which is rather interesting, if you consider the history of siblings in the Bible: Cain and Abel, Esau and Jacob, Joseph and his brothers, Amnon and Absalom, and Solomon and Adonijah, just to name a few. I have three brothers, and I think we would all agree that there is no one in all the world who can drive you nuts faster than a brother. Heck, my younger brother is 41, and he doesn't just find ways to annoy the older three of us. He has been known to go out of his way to look for them. Sometimes I suspect the psalmist was feeling particularly wistful when he wrote, "How pleasant and sweet it is when brothers dwell together in unity."

Based on this pattern of behavior among brothers, one might say this enterprise of Jesus is doomed from the start, except there clearly are times when brothers put aside all their differences and band together so that no one will come between them. The author of the book of Proverbs also says, without a trace of irony, "There are those who pretend to be friends, but there is a friend who sticks closer than a brother," and thus holds up brothers as the gold standard for measuring the value of a friendship. What's that definition? "A brother is someone who will make fun of you relentlessly, and will beat up anyone else who tries."

So, in a sense, Jesus right from the start is building his kingdom on a fractious group. It gets even worse when you consider that the gospel writer notes that James and John left their father, Zebedee, with the hired men. This was a family business that they stood to inherit, making them fairly well-off. Peter and Andrew, meanwhile, appear just to have been hired workers. So the invitation to follow him is made without respect of social class or education. In many ways it's like trying to forge a community out of the children of the 1 percent, and the children of working-class parents.

And what strikes me about this is that in this gospel, Jesus promises Peter and Andrew something specific -- come with me and I will teach you how to fish for men -- but all he says to John and James is to follow him.

Let me close with an observation here that Jesus didn't talk to anyone at this point about morality, or sin. His entire message so far has been "The Kingdom of God is here" and "Come, follow me." Since the apocalyptic tradition of Judaism from which Jesus comes was concerned with the arrival of the Kingdom of God and the radical restructuring of the world order so that social injustice was ended, and not with the stuff that we get so worked up about today, this is a radically different and much more welcoming message from what we're used to hearing. It's not "God wants to save you from the sins you have committed," although that surely is a part of it; as much as it is, "God wants to save the world, and he wants you to be a part of it."

Copyright @copy; 2014 by David Learn. Used with permission.