“Meanings Will Change”

Forty-five years ago, I listened a lot to Noel Paul Stookey’s first solo album titled, Paul and…. Then I loaned it to someone and never got it back, and forgot about it. Last year, I happened on the CD in an online ad and decided to purchase it. It was like meeting a lost friend, and renewing that long-ago acquaintance. And it has been fun to ponder my life in the early 1970s and compare that to now.

One song especially has given me pause. I hear it far differently now than I did in 1971. And I want to share the words with you, and let you ponder them. The song is titled Meanings Will Change:

Meanings will change as you learn to grow,
And all that is known becomes suddenly old.
And that which you had to last you ’til the end,
Turns out to be just a passing friend.
And would you spend your life away
Collecting great treasures.
So you’d be safe someday?
And when you’re old, and when you’re gray
meanings will change; life’s just that way.
When you’re finally sure
You think you understand,
All about living and life’s demands.
Someone will touch you and you’ll see again,
Meanings will change; you just can’t win.
So don’t you worry ’bout your money friend
Don’t you worry ’bout your fame.
It’s all a conspiracy; all part of a game
And you’re the conspirator; the silent enemy,
and you’re the victim. You finally see.
After you get to where you have to be,
After you own everything you see,
When meanings don’t change
About the things you knew,
You might as well die, it’s all over for you.
If you’re wise and if you know,
What few things are real which never grow old.
Then take them now and make you a start,
With a simple life and a simple heart.
Songwriters: Noel Paul Stookey and Billie Keith Hughes
Meanings Will Change lyrics © Glass Sea Music Inc. % Noa Noa Music Inc.

“Evangelical”–A Word Whose Time Has Gone?

For all of my adult life, I have identified with the word “evangelical” without apology. Now, I am wondering if the term has outlived its usefulness given that the movement it identifies is now one sick puppy. Perhaps it is time for a new movement, one that retains the historical/theological character of early evangelicalism without all of the baggage that now comes with it, baggage that has come because of the bizarre beliefs and actions of many of its most recent advocates and so-called leaders.

A movement of individual and church renewal

Let me explain. Evangelicalism is not a church, a denomination, or an organization. It never has been, until recently. At its best, evangelicalism is a renewal movement. By that I mean that early evangelicals and their Anglo-American descendants sought renewal of individuals, congregations, denominations, and organizations through emphasis of four historical/theological characteristics.

First, evangelicalism at its best practices a healthy biblicism. The source for Christian faith and life rests not with church traditions (as important as those can be), the preferences of its leaders and academics, or what is deemed culturally relevant. What Christians believe and teach, and how they live are grounded in Holy Scripture, rightly interpreted.

Second, for evangelicals the cross of Jesus Christ lies at the center of God’s plans and purposes for humanity. Through the cross, the penalty for our disobedience is provided, the power of our enemy is broken, and our broken relationship with the Triune God is healed. Without the cross, Christianity is reduced to another human self-help scheme.

Third, evangelicals stress conversion. Faith in Christ is not a passive acquiescence to ritual. Evangelicals teach that authentic Christians are those who make an intentional commitment of faith and life to Jesus Christ and seek to practice that commitment in the ways that they live.

Finally, evangelicals are activists. Christianity is a faith that engages the world through calling men and women, boys and girls to active faith in Jesus Christ. Its emphasis is both missionary and social. It sees Jesus’s words in Matthew 28 18-20 as applying to all Christians and it seeks to reform social practices such as slavery, child labor, and other social realities that harm human flourishing.

A movement of Word and Spirit

These four markers have been codified by the research of the British Baptist historian David Bebbington based on his study of the First Great Awakening of the early 1700s. Not only is evangelicalism a renewal movement within the larger Christian church, in its Anglo-American form, it is now approaching its 300th birthday. But, as I look at and celebrate its past, I find myself wondering if the American evangelicalism we now see has abandoned the very historical and theological roots that gave it vitality as a renewal movement. Obviously, evangelicalism has never been anywhere close to perfect because it is a human movement. But evangelicals at their best were people of both Word and Spirit. They studied and believed what Holy Scripture taught, and sought their guidance from the Holy Spirit.

I wonder if that is the case anymore, especially with three pernicious trends that have infected the movement over the last 40 years. The first is the rampant spread of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” a faith grounded more in American greed and individual lust for wealth than in what the Bible teaches. What is obscene about this false gospel is that it baptizes our greed as God’s will, to the point where its advocates claim that to be without either material prosperity or physical health is a clear signal you are out of proper relationship with God.

Then there is our unwillingness to confront the evil of continuing racism in American culture. For 250 years, many evangelicals acquiesced to slavery, Jim Crow, segregated housing patterns caused by government action, and the violence that so many African-Americans suffered even after a 19th century Civil War that was fought to eradicate slavery. And you know what? We’re ignorant of how many of our African-American brothers and sisters in Christ still suffer from the legacy of these practices.

One of the most important books that I have recently read is The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America. In it, the social historian Richard Rothstein documents how the American government from 1900 through 1970 through its housing policies and other means willfully excluded African Americans from schools, from public housing, and from neighborhoods that were predominately white. The source documentation is overwhelming, and the book left me to face the reality that Jim Crow was not just a few segregation laws in southern states, but a national policy that excluded African Americans from public life and economic well-being. The descendants of those policies continue to suffer today. And frankly, I wonder if white evangelicals even care. (If you think I am wrong, then I challenge you to read it!)

Finally, contemporary American evangelicalism has sold its soul to a witches brew of politics and religion. This has been gaining steam ever since the emergence of the Religious Right in the 1980s. Frankly, I am a bit stunned that evangelicals made the same mistake as the theological liberals of the 1960s, but there it is. Now, many who claim to be evangelical take their political cues from a President who makes Richard Nixon or Lyndon Johnson look like tinker-bell.

I don’t believe the polls that indicate that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. But I wouldn’t be surprised if almost half did. And the endorsements from self-designated evangelical leaders who should know better are the icing on a cake ruined in the oven. Personally, I don’t care who you vote for. Most of us try to do the best we can, but sometimes later wish we hadn’t voted for whom we did. (I know I have on more than one occasion.) But when we pretend that someone who is a sexual libertine, who is greedy beyond imagination, who is narcissistic, who traffics in hypocrisy, and who in his business dealings has treated others cruelly and with malice is somehow the candidate ordained by God, then I wonder if I want to be identified with a movement where many of its self-identified adherents view him as God’s man for the hour.

A new word for a fresh movement

I’m starting to think it is time to retire the word “evangelical” only if to redeem the historical and theological qualities that gave evangelicalism its strength in the first place. I have a new phrase to suggest (actually an old phrase renewed for our day and time). How about we simply identify ourselves as “gospel people?” Or, “gospel Christians?” The word “evangelical” is now too political and too nefarious to be used. I want a word or phrase that identifies more with Global Christianity than with the politics of the religious right, with the Christian faith more than with a political crusade, with world missions more than with efforts to keep all immigrants out of the country, with the Apostle’s Creed more than a gospel of wealth and greed.

How about it. Is it time for us who have long identified with American evangelicalism to write a new story, a story grounded in Holy Scripture, moved by the Holy Spirit, and attendant to  bringing the gospel to bear in the lives of people and societies? is it time for us to articulate a fresh narrative of God’s mission in the world, a mission that is moving all of creation to the culmination promised in Romans 8 and Revelation 21? i think it is. Will you join me?

MLK and Human Life: A Divided Church on the Third Sunday of January

This tells us an inconvenient truth about American Christians: that every one of us has some group of individuals whom we designate as other.

We’re just through the Christmas season (and our fellow Anglican and Orthodox Christians celebrate a bit longer than the rest of us do). Winter break is over for schools. Most of us are trying to get back to normal and deal with holiday debt. Congregations begin to look ahead to Easter, which comes a bit later on the calendar this year.

Then we come to the third week of January and an interesting juxtaposition of events.  The third Sunday of the month is Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with an annual pro-life march in Washington, DC and events that call attention to the destruction of human life through abortion. The third Monday of January is the Martin Luther King holiday, a national holiday signed into law by President Ronald Reagan to call attention not only to Dr. King and his work, but to the stark reality that for most of our national history, African-Americans were brutally treated through chattel slavery and the horrendous discriminatory practices through what came to be termed “Jim Crow laws.” And our fellow citizens who are African American continue to face the generational impact of that brutality.

One or the other?

I could go on about both of these hideous practices. However, my purpose is to think with you about something curious that I find in American Christianity when it comes to these two events. I have observed that most congregations will call attention to one of these commemorations but not the other. Most predominantly white churches of an evangelical bent will commemorate Sanctity of Human Life Sunday with special sermons and participation in anti-abortion events designed to call attention to the thousands of human lives brutally ended through abortion. But I’m willing to bet that few of those same congregations, especially in the American South where I live, even mention the King holiday despite that Dr. King led a deeply Christian movement to end the disenfranchisement of an entire people.

Not to be outdone, most white churches of a more liberal bent often commemorate the King holiday with similar activities—special sermons that call attention to the brutality of racism and participation in activities that invoke the need for continuing the struggle for full inclusion of African Americans (and other persons of color) in the mainstream of our society. And there is little doubt that racism has morphed into something more subtle but just as pernicious. At the same time, I’m happy to wager that in most of these congregations, little if any mention is made of the Sanctity of Human Life Sunday, despite the reality that the Christian faith places human life at the center of its Christian ethic. I wonder if the discomfort those folks feel when abortion is mentioned is the same discomfort their forebears felt when the topic turned to slavery. (My African American Christian friends mostly care about both, and they don’t draw bright lines between them.)

Who is the other for American Christians

Yale theologian and ethicist Miroslav Volf has written a profound book titled Exclusion and Embrace (Abingdon, 2001). In it, Volf demonstrates how in any society there are always those we see as other. Those classified this way by the larger group are the ones who are bullied on the school-bus, the ones whom we think nothing of killing with drones, the ones for whom we find excuses to deny full humanity. We do it in our day and time through vehicles like politics and theology. You have heard it before. The ones who embrace Dr. King’s work are the liberals and liberals deny the essence of the Christian faith. Or, the ones who protest abortion on Sanctity of Human Life Sunday are nothing more than narrow-minded fundamentalists who want to tell everyone else how to live.  Our political and theological ideologies shape whom we see as other.

This tells us an inconvenient truth about American Christians: that every one of us has some group of individuals whom we designate as other. My guess is that this is true for almost everyone, Christian or not, around the globe. It is as true for the movers and shakers gathering this week in Davos, Switzerland. It is true for many of those who want to outlaw almost all immigration in this country. It is true for many evangelicals who want to pretend that we fixed all of the civil rights problems in the 1960s. It is true for theological liberals who deny humanity to those children waiting to be born.

I think Christians, no matter their persuasion, need to reach beyond these ideologies. We start by identifying who is other for us as individuals and as communities. That does not mean we always agree with how they see the world, but it does mean that they are individuals for whom Christ died and who need to hear of his forgiving love. I’ve been asking who is other for me, and I must confess that the answer I hear is one that I don’t necessarily like. But, my Lord Jesus Christ did not tell me to love everyone else except for those I see as other. I think the gospel is for people of a variety of political persuasions—Democrats, Republicans, Independents, Socialists, Libertarians, and the list goes on. We now live in a world so fragmented that many see those who disagree with them as other.

We will not address this overnight, and I don’t pretend that this is easy. But here is a way that we might start. How about next year, January 2020 as the presidential primaries begin, we mark both the King holiday and Sanctity of Human Life Sunday in our churches. Some folks will get mad, but that is fine because oftentimes our anger is an important first step toward unmasking our idolatries.  That leads to conviction of our sinfulness in this matter. Why don’t we use both to address this matter of the other and the overt and covert ways we dehumanize those whom we categorize this way. Both events teach us that throughout American history, groups of human beings have been denied their full humanity as people who (imperfectly, as with all of us) reflect the image of God. Wouldn’t be great if on the third Sunday of January next year we would mark both of these events by using Martin Luther King’s haunting words from Memphis on the night before his death to call attention to the work we have to do as the people of God?

Now that would be something I think the Triune God would bless.

Jesus, the Fullness of God’s Glory

“In the beginning…” With those words the Apostle John links Jesus Christ to the creation of heaven and earth described in Genesis One. Jesus Christ, the very Word of God, was “with God in the beginning,” and through Christ “all things were made.” Moreover, Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” God has taken on human form through Christ, and through him not only do humans have opportunity to see the very nature and character of the Triune God, but “grace and truth [come] through Jesus Christ.”

Note how John 1:14-18 parallels Exodus 33-34. First, God’s word is revealed through the Torah, and then even more fully in Jesus Christ. Second, Moses tells us that God dwelt among his people in the tabernacle (Exod 33:10-16). John teaches that Jesus Christ, the very word of God, “tabernacled” among us (Jn 1:14). Moses beheld the glory of God. Jesus disciples beheld the glory of the Son, and in both instances that glory was full of grace and truth. While no one can see all of God’s glory (Exod 33:20), it has been fully revealed in Jesus Christ (John 1:18).

Recently, I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around a staggering reality: that the God of the universe became a human being, lived among us, died, and was raised to life so that each of us would have the possibility of reconciliation with our Creator. When we embrace that reality, nothing can ever be the same in our lives, in our relationships with others, and how we live in the world. The New Testament scholar Ben Witherington suggests that the entire New Testament can be seen as its writers struggling to come to grips with this reality.

I wonder if this has become so familiar to us that it no longer amazes us. So many evangelicals live their lives as if God doesn’t exist, or if he does, that he needs lots of help from us to accomplish his purposes. Perhaps we need to step back and once again ponder what it is we claim to believe and teach. Perhaps we need to consider what God desires for his followers, and that is simply that we learn to participate in his Triune life as his adopted daughters and sons. That is a journey that begins now and will stretch through all eternity.

Antisemitism and “Replacement Theology”

Last summer, the murder of eleven Jewish people while at worship in a Pittsburgh synagogue stunned so many of us, not just because it represented an assault on religious freedom in the United States, but because it served as an ugly reminder that Antisemitism still lurks in the shadows of American life. In the last ten years, we have seen horrible Antisemitism manifested in Europe and the Middle East, but beginning with Charlottesville and the alt-right “tiki-torch” march through the campus of the University of Virginia in the summer of 2017 we were shocked to see it expressed in such hateful ways in our own country.
All of this has caused me to reflect on subtle ways that Antisemitism can shape even movements that I identify with, like American Evangelicalism. I had never heard the term “replacement theology” until I heard it used several years ago mostly in contexts related to forms of Dispensationalism. So at first, I was unsure of what those who used the term meant by it. I have heard a similar idea expressed as “succession” in terms that the church succeeded Israel as the people of God (something I have never ascribed to). Roman Catholicism sees the visible church centered in Rome under the Bishop of Rome as being the visible successor of Old Testament Israel. Luther and Calvin (and the movements they established) identified the church as primarily invisible made up of all Christians both past and present. Hence for many who identify as Protestants, this invisible church was the successor to Old Testament Israel.
My view is framed by the olive tree analogy that Paul uses in Romans (as well as Jesus’s description of the vine and branches in John 15)–there is one people of God made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Jewish followers of Jesus represent the true Judaism and are “natural” branches on the tree. Gentile followers (probably most of you who are reading this) are the “wild” branches grafted onto the same tree. So we have a tree (representing the People of God) with a strong trunk rooted in the Triune God with natural branches (Jewish followers) and wild branches (Gentile followers). Jews and Gentiles retain their distinctiveness but are one new people.
When Paul wrote Romans (I think around AD 55 or so), Christianity had begun its transition from being mostly Jewish in its first two generations, to mostly Gentile in the aftermath of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70. In reading Romans, I think Paul is writing this to a church in the midst of this transition. He had spent the first eight chapters describing the essence of the Gospel and how it was available to Jew and Gentile alike through faith in Jesus Christ. So the question emerges among the Roman Christians, both Jew and Gentile, as to God’s intention for the Jewish people. And Paul was adamant that God was not yet finished with the Jewish people. Personally, I think that Paul is referencing Jewish Christians in Romans 9-11, and despite the shrinking number of Jewish believers for a variety of reasons, God will bring the gospel to bear once again among them.
I find it fascinating that in our day and time, we see two trends among those who trace their ethnic heritage to Judaism. First, so many Jews in Europe and America, and even in Israel, have become atheist or agnostic in their religious beliefs. I attribute much of this to the aftermath of  the Holocaust. When I read Jewish writers like Vicktor Frankl, I hear deep pain in their words as they wrestle with what they perceive as the absence of God in the midst of the horrors of Nazi Germany and the Antisemitism from which those horrors emerged.  And there is little doubt that those who have claimed Christianity over the centuries have contributed significantly to Antisemitism becoming such a force in the world. The Holocaust raises theodicy to whole new levels–not simply intellectual but deeply personal. One cannot be a Christian and blow off profound questions regarding suffering and evil in the modern world.
But the second current gives me great hope. Today there are more Jewish followers of Jesus than at any time in human history. While still a small portion of the 13.5 million ethnic Jewish people in the world, the number of Messianic Jews is now in the thousands. And this even with the legacy of Antisemitism that has permeated much of the Western world and too large a portion of Catholic and Protestant Christianity. In one way, I hope that my dispensationalist friends are right, and that there will be a major movement to Christ among the Jewish people as we approach the end of history.
I am one who believes that the primary signal of the return of Christ to earth will be the preaching of the gospel worldwide. Even while society continues to become increasingly bound to sin and lawlessness, I think that God will bring revival like we have never seen before as the gospel is preached and people respond. And this great revival before the end of history will include a move of God among Jewish people, something that I think has already started in earnest.
For now, understanding that God is still at work among Jewish people must cause us to reject all forms of Antisemitism. We should never be afraid to speak in opposition to anti-Semitic attitudes and actions. We should recognize and repudiate the Antisemitism that characterized many who claimed Christianity throughout the past nineteen centuries. As the late Edith Schaeffer titled one of her books, “Christianity is Jewish.” The one whom we claim to follow as Messiah was a Jew as were almost all of his followers during the initial years of the Jesus movement.
Holy Scripture allows no room for Antisemitism. Neither should any of us who claim to follow the Messiah Jesus Christ.