Friday, October 07, 2016

Philip Yancey, Donald Trump, and the LDS difference

UPDATE: This post was written before a 2005 video surfaced wherein Donald Trump boasts that his celebrity status lets him get away with sexually assaulting women. The first Republicans to rescind their endorsements of Trump (and even call for him to drop out of the race) following that revelation were LDS politicians from Utah.

The morning after the first 2016 presidential debate, Philip Yancey was trending on Facebook.

This is unusual.

Philip Yancey is an evangelical author and a former editor of Christianity Today. I first encountered his work when I was going through a spiritual wilderness in high school, and someone gave me his book Disappointment with God. He's been communicating the gospel of grace for decades.

And he was trending on Facebook.

Why? It wasn't, as I immediately feared, because he had died. No, it was because he had spoken up about the Republican presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

You see, Yancey recently did an interview with Evangelical Focus, where he was asked about how American evangelicals have been approaching the election this year. He responded that he was "staggered" to see evangelicals standing behind "a man who is a bully, who made his money by casinos, who has had several wives and several affairs." He went on:
I can understand why maybe you choose these policies that you support, but to choose a person who stands against everything that Christianity believes as the hero, the representative, one that we get behind enthusiastically is not something that I understand at all.

You can see his full response here:

Yancey's not alone. Max Lucado, Albert Mohler (former president of the Southern Baptist Convention), Russell Moore (head of the SBC's Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission), Lecrae, and others have repudiated Trump over the course of the campaign season. Just this week, a survey from Christianity Today reported that only 38% of evangelical pastors say they are voting for Trump, while 44% remain undecided.

But why?

Well, Yancey mentioned the "several wives and several affairs," which, in years past, would have been enough for a candidate to lose the evangelical vote. (Remember the end of Herman Cain's campaign in 2012?) Yancey also mentioned the casinos, though he failed to point out that Donald Trump introduced strip clubs into Atlantic City casinos in 2013.

Then, of course, there's Trump's praise of Planned Parenthood, which should bother strict pro-life evangelicals, his demeaning remarks toward women (just ask Megyn Kelly), that time he mocked a disabled reporter, his perpetuating made-up, racist statistics about black Americans, his remarks about not asking for forgiveness, and that Playboy softcore porn video he had a cameo in back in 1999 (not his only work with Playboy). Among other things.

I was struck, during the first debate, by Trump's reaction when accused of stiffing countless workers whom he had employed over the decades. He didn't deny it and was unapologetic, instead justifying his acts by simply claiming he wasn't satisfied with their work. This brings to mind James's warning to the rich: "The wages of the laborers who mowed your fields, which you kept back by fraud, cry out, and the cries of the harvesters have reached the ears of the Lord of hosts" (5:4).

Even if evangelicals decide that they no longer care about a candidate's faith and character, Trump's general tone and attitude raise other concerns. When Jon Bloom, from Desiring God, looked to scripture to try and describe a "foolish leader," his discoveries almost felt tailor-made for Mr. Trump:
  • The foolish look with haughty eyes (Proverbs 6:17).
  • The foolish engage in slander (Proverbs 10:18).
  • The foolish joke about their wrongdoing (Proverbs 10:23).
  • The foolish make great boasts (Psalm 12:3).
  • The foolish are stubbornly right in their own eyes (Proverbs 12:15).
  • The foolish are quickly annoyed by insults (Proverbs 12:16).
  • The foolish lash out in rash words like sword thrusts (Proverbs 12:18).

  • That's not even half of his list, and, if you read on, it only sounds more familiar. This should be pretty unsettling to any Bible-believing voter.

    These are the sorts of things that lead many evangelical leaders to renounce the Republican candidate.

    And yet Trump's support among evangelicals is just as strong as Mitt Romney's was four years ago.

    Perhaps evangelical voters are indeed uncomfortable with Donald Trump, but they see Hillary Clinton as a greater threat. That seems to be why evangelical-favorite Ted Cruz recently took the shocking step of endorsing Trumphe did it to combat Hillary. It's a very pragmatic move. Many people feel that the most effective way to fight against abortion, to fight for religious liberty, is to fight the Democratic nominee. James Dobson of Focus on the Family recently penned an endorsement of Trump for Christianity Today to that effect, and Think Christian's 'Christian argument' for supporting Trump by Daniel Howell, a professor of biology at Liberty University, is little more than an argument against Clinton.
    (Of course, some evangelicals would argue that supporting Clinton is precisely what Christians ought to do.)

    The 'well... Trump's better than Hillary' talk brings us to the ever-popular "lesser of two evils" thinking about this year's election. The logic here is quite simple: we've only got two options, and you have to choose one, so choose the one that will do less damage. (Russell Moore wrote a nice article back in the spring asking "Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?")

    Here's the problem with that logic: we don't have only two choices. Voting third party, writing-in a candidate, even abstaininggasp!are all options for evangelicals. "We only have two choices" is a lie. The fact that so many evangelicals are rallying nevertheless behind a man whose character is antithetical to their convictions and who, from a biblical perspective, lacks the wisdom to lead well reveals a stunning lack of imagination.

    This year evangelicals could learn from our Mormon neighbors.

    In Utah, that bastion of the Latter-Day Saints faith, Republicans always do well. They won the state in the last four presidential election with 66.8% in 2000, 71.5% in 2004, 62.2% in 2008, and 72.6% in 2012. Yet, as of the end of August, Donald Trump was polling at a dismal 39% in Utah. It's not because the Beehive State is supporting Clinton. Her numbers are just under Barack Obama's in 2012 and John Kerry's in 2004. The difference is in the third-party support. Those same polls from August show Libertarian Gary Johnson enjoying 12% of the likely vote and Evan McMullin, an upstanding and likeable young Mormon candidate with conservative policy positions, garnering 9%.

    Many conservative Mormons in Utah are refusing to compromise their values to support Donald Trump and resisting the lie that there are only two choices. They're listening to the dictates of their faith and then acting differently than the rest of the world. You would think that is the obvious course of action for deeply-committed religious voters... and yet evangelicals are supporting Trump. If only we had the conviction that LDS believers are demonstrating. They're going to come through this election season with more credibility in the eyes of the watching world. I'm afraid just the opposite will be true for evangelical Christians.

    But doesn't supporting a third-party candidate ultimately support Hillary Clinton? Maybe, although Democrats frequently sound the same warning: 'voting third party is a vote for Trump!' Regardless of how third-party votes affect Clinton and Trump, one thing is certain. Christians are not called to win elections. We're called to be faithful. We're called to take up our crosses and follow Christ, and, the last time I checked, crosses didn't get you any political power in Jesus' world.

    Wednesday, September 28, 2016

    God is actually quite Great: Frances Willard

    What good has religion ever done anybody?

    To a lot of people, that's a very good question.

    Maybe their experience with religion is limited to vicious jihadists on the news or so-called preachers who would call the victims of the June 12th massacre at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando "50 vile, perverted predators." Or, maybe they grew up in a church that looked at the rest of the world with smug superiority, confidently opined on who's going to suffer for eternity in Hell, and mocked the hard-won discoveries of modern science. Then again, maybe they sincerely held a faith that let them down spectacularly when suffering and loss struck, and they're left wondering why they ever believed to begin with. Everyone has a story.

    And I can't help thinking that stories are exactly what folks asking that question need to hear. What good has religion ever done? I say, look at Maria Skobtsova or Annalena Tonelli; look at Father Damien of Molokai or the seven peacemakers of the Melanesian Brotherhood.

    Or look at Frances Willard.

    Today is the 177th anniversary of the birth of Frances Willard (1839-1898), a Methodist educator, suffragist, and social reformer, and to commemorate her birthday, I want to share a nice video from the United Methodist Church about her life and work.

    The video opens discussing her work as a prohibitionist (cue the eye-rolls) - but it quickly points out how she saw temperance work as a women's issue, and how the temperance movement soon moved on to embrace a number of social concerns of the day. Willard and her allies fought to transform society for the better, and they did it because of their Christian faith.

    Her story, like so many others, is the story of the good religion did somebody.

    Friday, September 09, 2016

    an evangelical goes to university

    Fall's here, football season's begun, and at colleges across the country students are starting to get into the rhythm of school. Some of them are settling back into familiar patterns, but some others are just getting started in this new and different environment. They're making new friends, figuring out the best times to hit the dining hall, and slogging through those intro class like college algebra and English composition.

    And biology.

    Biology, for some students, will be especially jarring, because they're going to be taught the basics of evolution. At a school like LSU (my alma mater), some freshmen will have never learned about evolution before at allmaybe, like me, they had a high school biology teacher who, on principle, refused to teach it. That won't happen in college. Other students will have only learned about evolution from an antagonistic source in their church, and they'll come to class convinced that they know better. They're in for a rude awakening. Meanwhile, there will be professors who remark that there's no reason for the topic to conflict with someone's faith (I heard that from one biology professor), and then there will be professors who make a point to ridicule religious ideas about, say, the age of the planet (and that was my geology professor).

    For college freshmen coming out of more conservative evangelical churches, this semester could make or break their faith.
    If what they've been told in church, if what they've read in the Bible, if it turns out some of that isn't true... well, that could be the Jenga block that brings down the whole structure. If this isn't true, what else isn't true? How do I know what to believe anymore? Can I believe any of it?

    This happens to evangelical students every single year.

    And it doesn't have to.

    I remember wrestling with questions about the Bible and what's true, what's not true, after learning more about our planet and the incredible array of life on it. Thankfully, I had some good teachers helping me throughand I don't mean my science professors. I mean C. S. Lewis, St. Augustine, Kenneth Miller (professor of biology at Brown), and others. I was reading the right books, and they guided me through that quagmire. Unfortunately, a lot of young Christians aren't reading the right books, and they aren't finding any satisfying answers to their questions. And they're throwing in the towel.

    So I'd like to offer a few pieces of hard-earned wisdom to my evangelical brothers and sisters who are struggling through that biology course or that geology course this semester.

    1) Don't believe the false dichotomies. A false dichotomy is when you're presented with two options as if they were the only two options. For example: 'you must vote for either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton'. Well, that's not true: you could vote for Gary Johnson or Jill Stein or Evan McMullin or any number of other options. 'Hillary or Trump' is a false dichotomy. And when someone tells you that you must either believe religion or believe science, that you have to choose either the Bible or your biology professor, those are false dichotomies. There are other options. Me, I choose both: I study and love and believe the Bible, and I also learn about the best scientific ideas about the origins of species on earth from biologiststhough when the biologist tries to tack some theological claims about a god or no god onto her science, I put on my skeptical hat. After all, that part is not her area of expertise. But I don't feel the need to listen to one and reject the other. Why on earth would I do that?

    2) Taking the Bible literally doesn't always do the Bible justice. There are plenty of stories in scripture that some people want to read as allegories or symbols or simple fictions that are meant to describe actual events. The accounts of Jesus' resurrection are a shining example of that: Luke, for instance, goes to great pains to show that these things really happened, in the real world. You can't read it any other way without disregarding Luke's intentions. But that's not always the case. Sometimes we disregard the writers' intentions when we insist on reading a passage as if it described a literal, historical event. (Two examples: if you read the parable of the prodigal son as a factual account of a real family's problems, or Revelation 12 as if it were about an actual dragon, fire-breathing or otherwise, trying to eat a baby, you're reading them wrong.) We have to let the Bible speak for itself. Be careful about expecting it to say things that it's not.
    Along those lines, I agree with what Old Testament scholar Peter Enns said in his fantastic little book, Inspiration and Incarnation, that "It is a fundamental misunderstanding of Genesis to expect it to answer questions generated by a modern worldview... It is wholly incomprehensible to think that thousands of years ago God would have felt constrained to speak in a way that would be meaningful only to [us] several thousand years later" (55). Don't demand that Genesis answer your questions about science or history. When Genesis was written, modern biology and modern historiography didn't exist; the book isn't trying to address those issues. It was written to speak to its first readers in a way that they'd understand. Honestly, I don't think Christians need to conform how they read the Bible to modern science. I think we just need to do a better job of reading the Bible on it's own termsthen these problems would go away.

    3) Something doesn't have to be a historical fact to be true. Have you ever watched a movie or read a book and thought, 'wow, that's so true'? I don't mean biographies and documentaries. I'm talking fiction. Think about Jurassic Park (or, for some of you youngsters, Jurassic World): there's so much truth in the story, about man's reach exceeding his grasp, about the awesome and uncontainable power of Mother Nature, and about the destructive potential in unbridled scientific and technological innovation. It's totally fictitious, but there's still a lot of truth there. Again, that's how Jesus' parables work, toothey're fictional stories that reveal powerful truths about God and ourselves. A truth isn't discredited just because it's not a historical fact. Stories often convey the truth better than facts. That's why Abraham Lincoln supposedly called Uncle Tom's Cabin the book that started the Civil War. If, say, the creation account in Genesis 1 weren't a depiction of a literal, historical sequence of events from however many years ago, it could still be true. Only, instead of teaching us the facts about the development of life on Earth, it would be teaching us about God's pre-existence and choice to create the world and life-giving power, about the goodness of the world God made, about humanity's special role in the world, and about the holiness of resting and savoring creation (among other things). For me personally, each of these lessons is more important day-to-day than the details of the development of life anyways.

    4) These aren't new ideas. A lot of books are written today that aim to mesh Christian teaching with modern, evolutionary biology. It can feel like Christians are giving in, simply bowing to the pressures of modern science and letting it shape our thinking instead of letting the Bible shape us. But the idea that some of these passages shouldn't be taken literally isn't a new idea. In fact, Christians were reading the Bible like that long before Charles Darwin's grandparents were a twinkle in his great-grandparents' eyes.
    For instance, listen to this line from Origen of Alexandria, a great Christian thinker and martyr who died in the mid-200s (yes, 1600 years before Darwin's classic, On the Origin of Species, was published):
    If God is said to walk in the paradise in the evening, and Adam to hide himself under a tree, I do not suppose that any one doubts that these things figuratively indicate certain mysteries, the history have taken place in appearance, and not literally. (De principiis IV, I)
    Origen's not watering down the Bible to reconcile it with science. That science didn't exist yet! He just doesn't think that reading Genesis literally there is the right way to read it. Looking for other ways to interpret certain passages of scripture doesn't mean you've given the game away. You'd actually be part of a long, ancient tradition of Christian interpreters.

    These simple points were enormously important to me when I was in school, and I hope they can help guide some other young evangelicals through this bog. College is a time to learn and growand to be challenged. There's no reason the challenges can't make your faith stronger than it was to start, if you aren't taken in by the 'science versus faith' mindset that you're going to find on campus. There's another way, a better way forward for evangelicals.

    Thursday, September 01, 2016

    GM2016: Faith in Him


    That little word is at the heart of Christian teaching.

    "By grace you have been saved through faith" (Eph 2:8).

    "If you have faith as a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, 'Move from here to there,' and it will move" (Matt 17:20).

    "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me" (Gal 2:20).

    "For we walk by faith, not by sight" (2 Cor 5:7).

    "The righteous shall live be faith" (Hab 2:4/Rom 1:17).

    It's everywherein our memory verses and our favorite songs, hanging on our walls at home, and even in a lot of our weddings ("Now faith, hope, and love abide, these three...").
    But what does this important little word really mean?

    In English, "faith" and "belief" are two different words. There's a verb, too: "believe." But in Greek, the language of the New Testament, there's just one word, pistis, which is translated in our Bibles, sometimes as "faith," sometimes as "belief" or (when it's used as a verb) "believe." Jesus talked about pistis like a mustard seed; we walk by pistis, not by sight. And in John 3:16 you also get a form of pistis: whosoever believes in him will not perish. That's the same word. So when we talk about "faith," a lot of times we're talking about belief. And "belief" usually has an intellectual sense: it's something that happens in your head, or maybe in your heart.

    But we use faith in other ways, too. Sometimes when we talk about "faith," we mean something like 'trusting Jesus to save you'. It's not just a teaching that you mentally accept, like believing that Jesus was born of a virgin, but it's an active trust.

    Then there are passages of scripture that make you wonder if faith is more than just belief, if it isn't really an interior thing at all. "Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead... You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe [pistis again]and shudder" (Jas 2:17, 19). "The only thing that counts is faith working through love" (Gal 5:6).

    Well, George MacDonald was convinced that that's right, that faith is about more than just believing something.

    A few weeks back in my daily reader based on MacDonald's writings, Consuming Fire: The Inexorable Power of God's Love, he posed the question: What is faith in Christ?
    I answer, the leaving of your way, your objects, your self, and the taking of his and of him; the leaving of your trust in men, in money, in opinion, in character, in atonement itself, and doing as he tells you. I can find no words strong enough to serve for the weight of this necessitythis obedience. It is the one terrible heresy of the church, that it has always been presenting something other than obedience as faith in Christ. (July 28th)
    He refuses to separate "faith" from following Jesus. He says, a little further on, that there's only one plan of salvation available to us, "to believe in the Lord Jesus Christ; that is, to take him for what he isour master; and his words as if he meant them, which assuredly he did" (July 30th). The only way to take his words as if he meant them is to obey them, and the only way to take him as your master is to follow him.

    George MacDonald was concerned that Christians send more time arguing over theology and questions of how someone can be saved than they spend taking up their crosses and following Christ. That can happen when you think faith is about having the right beliefs. And so MacDonald points us back to obedience, to faithfully following Jesus.

    It reminds me of the end of Jesus' sermon on the plain in the gospel of Luke. After calling his followers to turn the other cheek, to give to anyone who begs from you, to love their enemies, and to quit judging and groping for the speck in their brothers' eyes, Jesus simply asks: "Why do you call me 'Lord, Lord,' and do not do what I tell you?" (Luke 6:46)

    Wednesday, August 24, 2016

    Stranger Things and the theology of monsters

    Image credit: Netflix

    UPDATE: The sub-titles on the show reveal that El was not saying "God"she said "gone." So my whole interpretation of the episode goes out the window. (Well, that's embarrassing!) But hopefully there's still some good, biblical theology to take away from it all.

    My wife and I just finished watching Stranger Things, Netflix's latest hit series.
    If you haven't seen this show: watch it. Now. It's a relatively tame (TV-14) sci-fi/fantasy/horror series centered on small town residents trying to unravel a super-natural mystery. It's The X-Files meets The Goonies meets E.T., complete with the delightfully '80s setting of the latter two. It's smart, well-written, suspenseful, and entertaining. I was shocked when I realized that I liked every single character on the show. Nerd culture is front and center, too, making the series even more fun for, well, people like me.

    Also, if you haven't seen this show: stop reading here. Sorry, but SPOILERS ahead. But if you have watched Stranger Things (wasn't it so good!?) then, by all means, read on.

    At the heart of the story is a young girl named Eleven ('El', for short), whose mother was the subject of military experimentation which resulted in her daughter being born with, as one boy repeated puts it, "superpowers." El has the ability (among other, very Stephen King-esque powers) to make out-of-body journeys to "the Upside Down," a nightmare landscape that is the dark shadow of our world. Locations on Earth are mimicked in the Upside Down, only there they're cold and dark, and deadly. The danger lies in the Upside Down's one natural resident, a nightmarish and very hungry monster. When a gateway between that world and our own is opened inadvertently, the monster begins to prey on the unsuspecting towns-people.

    Only once does this shadowy, alternate world and its resident draw any kind of theological reflection from the characters on Stranger Things. Late in the series, when El is searching the Upside Down for a missing person, she finds a dead body. In her terror and horror, El begins to cry out, "God! God!!"

    Where is God in a world of nightmares? Is there a God in a world of monsters?

    El's question receives an immediate answer: a kind voice calls back to her, "It's ok... We're right here... It's ok... We've got you... Don't be afraid." This is not God speaking, but the mother of a missing boy El is searching for, who is waiting with El's body back in our reality as the girl explores the Upside Down. The mother assures this frightened child that she's not alone, that she's safe.

    Stranger Things's answer to our search for God in the midst of darkness and horrors is the presence and comfort of others. Friendship is a major theme in the show, but by the end it's not only friends who are relying on each other: a new, unlikely community has formed, made up of all of those who've encountered the truth and are committed to fighting against the darkness together. They support each other, and because they have one another, there's hope that good will prevail in the end.

    Sometimes, when faced with the true monsters in our right-side-up worldmonsters like depression, suicide bombers, human trafficking, Alzheimer's, or cancer (one which, we eventually learn, casts a long shadow over the story of Stranger Things)we're going to find ourselves wondering where God is. When people are horrified and afraid, when the darkness seems overwhelming and people cry out for God, the Church has to be the voice that says: It's okay. We're right here. We've got you. Don't be afraid.

    After all, we believe in a Savior who destroys monsters.

    Demons routinely retreated before him. In a battle of wits, he outmatched the Devil himself (depicted later on, in Revelation chapter 12, as a man-eating dragon, all heads and horns and teeth). Jesus entered into the jaws of Death, and carved a path out the other sidea path that, one day, will allow all of his followers to elude Death's grasp and cause Death to die. That dread monster that consumes everyone and everything in its path will be swallowed up forever (Isa 25:8; 1 Cor 15:54).

    And not only do we worship a monster-slayer, but we are his deputies in the world today.

    Ever since Jesus ascended into heaven and sent the Holy Spirit to inhabit the Church, we have been called the "Body of Christ," his hands and feet in this world. When El cried out for God, a voice of human compassion answered her. We must be that voice of compassion, not because God is absent, but because God is present in the Church. God is not silent; God has chosen to comfort the afflicted, heal the wounded, and rid the world of monsters through the work of the Church. We're the community of those committed to fighting the darkness together, carrying on what Jesus started.

    The darkness is realmaybe not the kind of horrors you can see on Stranger Things, but horrors no less. Things that break our hearts, scar our souls, and shake our faith. The good news about monsters is that they're things that will pass away one day, things that God will heal and make new (Rev 21:1-4).
    But in the meantime, while we live in this broken world, Christians can't simply offer words of deferred comfort and imperceptible hope. We have to stand in the gap and, empowered by God's Spirit, confront every horror we can spot, so the world can know what God is about and see that God's work isn't done.

    We have to demonstrate with our lives what a good theology of monsters looks like.

    Wednesday, August 17, 2016

    What is mission?

    When I was growing up in the church, "mission" (if we talked about it at all) meant evangelism. It meant sharing a message about sin, faith, and eternity. Mission was about saving souls. And so we'd carry tracts with us to school for classmates and leave them on restaurant tables with our tip; we'd go door to door in neighborhoods asking people questions about Jesus; we'd memorize scriptures that could sum up this gospel; and we'd generously support missionaries serving overseas. Occasionally, those missionaries would do some odd, side-tasks, like teaching English in schools around the world, or leading sports camps for a community's children, but the heart of the mission, the reason we sent them out there, was to share "the gospel," in a very John 3:16/Romans Road sense of the word. That was what "mission" meant.

    But over the years my idea of "mission" has expanded.
    It expanded as I learned to use a chainsaw and helped clear debris at people's homes after Hurricane Gustav. It expanded as I read the gospel of Luke and Jesus' manifesto about bringing good news to the poor (Luke 4:16-21). It expanded as I learned that my money is God's money, given to me to help others, not to spoil myself. It expanded as I connected Martin Luther King Jr.'s demand that "justice roll down like water" to the Old Testament prophet Amos (5:24). It expanded as I spent time studying scripture and praying with "the least of these" (Matt 25:31-46) living behind bars, and heard about their dreams, their regrets, and their struggles.

    Over the years, these experiences stretched my understanding of mission, and today I believe that "mission" means bringing good news and blessing to the world in Jesus' name.

    Mission means telling your friend, whose choices are destroying his life, how you found a better way with Jesus.

    Mission means delivering sandbags to people who are watching the water get closer and closer to their front door.

    Mission means taking bags of dog food to the local shelter, so the creatures God called "good" don't go hungry.

    Mission means treating folks who are homeless to a trip to the beach and a pizza dinner in the heat of summer.

    That's what Pope Francis has been doing lately. I read this about a bus from the Vatican that, each afternoon, picks up 10 homeless individuals, and gives them a ride to the beach  (towels and swimsuits included!). After some fun in the sun, the group stops at a local pizzeria on their way back to Rome. (Once back in the city, the archbishop and others deliver free dinners to the hungry. You can read about more of Francis's efforts to serve the poor in the article above.)

    An afternoon at the beach may sound a little superfluous—after all, these men and women don't have anywhere to live! Shouldn't we focus our energies on that? Obviously that's important. But, at the same time, God doesn't just want people to survive. God wants people to thrive, to experience joy, to have life "more abundantly" (John 10:10).

    I don't think I'll ever forget a story Rob Bell shared, in his book Sex God, about the liberation of a concentration camp at the close of World War II. The Allies who liberated the camp were totally unprepared to begin to address the horrors they found there. They didn't have the supplies of food and medicine and clothing that they needed for the prisoners they'd freed. One thing they did have, for whatever reason, was lipstick. Probably not the top of their priority list. People were sick; people were starving; people were suffering the effects of malnourishment - what good was lipstick gonna do? But when women from the camp found the lipstick and started putting it on, there was a transformation. The Nazis had treated these people like they were sub-human, like their lives didn't matter at all. A little human luxury like wearing lipstick? That reminded these women that they were human beings, that they were people of worth. The lipstick wasn't going to help their physical survival, but it was going to help them learn to thrive again.

    Taking a homeless man to the beach and out for pizza reminds them that there's more to life than scraping to get by, and that people love you and want you to flourish. I hope that, there on the beaches in Italy, those men and women feel a little more like someone made in the image of God. As the archbishop who's driving these groups to the beach said, "We are not solving the problems of the homeless in Rome, but at least we are giving them back a little dignity."

    People are being blessed; they're having some good news proclaimed to them, and it's being done by the Church in the name of Jesus Christ.

    And that is mission.

    Tuesday, August 09, 2016

    "My identity is rooted in Christ"

    Last night team USA's David Boudia and Steele Johnson took home the silver medal in the 10-meter men's synchronized platform diving at the Olympics in Rio. (I missed the event, but you can watch their dive, as well as the gold-medal dive by the Chinese men, on the video above.) It's an incredible thing to see.

    But what lit up social media last night was Steele Johnson's faith. In July, after the duo qualified for the Olympic team, Johnson told NBC Sports, "It’s cool because this is exciting, this is fun, but this is not what my identity is going to be in the rest of my life. Yeah, I’m Steele Johnson the Olympian, but at the same time I’m here to love and serve Christ. My identity is rooted in Christ and not in the flips we’re doing." (You can watch the qualifying dive and the interview here.) Boudia also spoke of his faith on the occasion, but it's Johnson's remark that people are talking about: "My identity is rooted in Christ and not in the flips we're doing."

    There are all kinds of thingsgood, important thingsin which we can find meaning and purpose: in our work, in our passions, in our family, in our accomplishments. These things all help form our identity: I am a husband; I am a mother; I am a teacher, a nurse, an uncle, a musician, a pastor, an Olympian.

    Yet, being a Christian means allowing Jesus to give you your identity.

    The apostle Paul realized that after he met Jesus on the road to Damascus. In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote:
    I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me a gave himself for me...
    May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. (2:19-20; 6:14)
    Paul used to find his identity in his faith and his heritage: he was "a Hebrew of Hebrews" (Phil 3:5). Now he finds his identity in what Jesus has donethe love and faithfulness that we see at the crossand in the new thing that Jesus is making out of Paul's life ("a new creation," Gal 6:15). Christ gives him his identity. Who he was before has been "crucified." That life is over.  Now he lives a new life, a life of love and faithfulness, a life that comes from Jesus.

    His identity is rooted in Christ.

    What is my identity rooted in? Am I trying to keep on living my own life, or am I letting Christ live in me? Am I trying to make my own identityhusband, son, friend, pastoror is my identity found in Jesus: what he's done and what he dreams that I can be?

    Is my identity rooted in Christ, or in the flips I'm doing?

    I'm grateful that Steele Johnson gets to love and serve Jesus as an Olympic diver. He is! He's being a light to the world, and he's reminding those of us whom claim Jesus that Jesus wants to claim us. Christ is not only the Son of God we worship on Sundays, pray to before meals, and ask for help when the going gets tough. He is our foundation, the roots of our identity. The only way to be a faithful pastor, friend, artist, grandparent, chef, CPA, or anything else is to first be the new thing that Jesus's life can create inside of us.

    You can read more about Steele Johnson's faith and his road to the Olympics here.