When Religion Makes Things Worse

volcanoLet me begin this post with a test.  It’s a true-false test, and there’s only one question, but it may be the most important question you will ever answer.  Ready?  Here it is:

Q: Is your understanding of God true, or false?

Several years ago I got to hear Alan Hirsch speak.  Hirsch is originally from South Africa.  He has worked as a church planter in Australia, and has become one of the leading voices in the missional church movement.  I wrote down almost everything he said.  But one thing that stood out from all the others:  Hirsch said, “If your conception of God is radically false, then the more religious you are, the worse it is.”  Think about that for a minute.  The word radical comes from an old Latin word meaning “root,” and you could picture it this way: if the way you think about God is false at the root, then the trunk will be twisted, the limbs will be lopsided, the branches will be bent, and the fruit you find on that tree will not be the kind of fruit that will do anyone any good.  In fact, it could be poison—bringing death and not life.

All of which makes me want to ask, “Is our conception of God radically true?  Is the trunk straight, the limbs strong, the branches full of good fruit?”  It’s a question I’d like every Christian to consider because many of us have spent our lives going to church.  We’ve been to Sunday school and Bible school; we’ve sat through more sermons than we can count, spent hours in Bible studies and small group discussions; we’ve been on retreats and mission trips.  We should have learned something about God by now, but what have we learned?  Is our conception of God radically true or radically false?  Because if it is radically false—as Alan Hirsch warns—then the more religious we are the worse it is.  But how would we know?  How could we be sure?  In what may be the most important “True-False” test we will ever take how can we be absolutely, positively, one hundred percent certain that our conception of God is true, and not false?

I think that’s the question that got Nicodemus out of bed in the middle of the night, the question that had him up wandering around the house in his pajamas until he finally got dressed and went to see Jesus.  John tells us that Nicodemus was a Pharisee, and the Pharisees were some of the most religious people who have ever lived.  They had as their motto the words of Leviticus 19:2: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”  But they had interpreted holiness first of all as righteousness, which they did by keeping all 613 of those Old Testament rules, and secondly as purity, which they did by separating themselves from anything impure or unclean.  Jesus, on the other hand, ate with sinners and tax collectors, he didn’t always wash his hands before meals, and sometimes he broke the law by working on the Sabbath day.  And yet Nicodemus couldn’t deny that the Spirit of God rested on this young prophet from Galilee, and that the things he did and said seemed uncannily true.

He needed to know more.

“Rabbi,” he said, “we know that you are a teacher who has come from God, for no one could perform the signs you are doing if God were not with him.”  It was his way of starting the conversation, of acknowledging that Jesus was onto something.  He didn’t come right out and ask, “Do you think my conception of God is radically false?”  But that’s the question Jesus answered.  “Yes,” Jesus said.  “Your conception of God is radically false.  It needs to be ripped up by the roots and replaced with something new.  You need to start from scratch, Nicodemus.  You need to be born again.”  And Nicodemus said, “What?!  Can a man enter into his mother’s womb and be born a second time?” But maybe what he meant was, “Are you asking me to give up my conception of God, the one I’ve worked so hard to acquire, the one I’ve spent my life perfecting?  I’ve been to seminary, Jesus!  I got all the answers when I was there.  I sealed them up in logic-tight compartments.  And now you’re asking me to open those compartments and conceive of God in a whole new way?  I can’t do it, Jesus!  It would be like trying to crawl back into my mother’s womb!”

One of the real problems people were having with Jesus in those days—and it wasn’t just the Pharisees—is that he wasn’t what they were expecting at all.  They were expecting a Messiah, a political and military leader who would run the Romans out of Israel and restore the nation to its former glory.  When Jesus asked his disciples who they thought he was Peter said, “You’re him!  You’re the Messiah!”  But when Jesus began to explain what kind of messiah he was—that he hadn’t come to conquer and rule but to suffer and die—Peter said, “God forbid, Lord.  This shall never happen to you!”  He said it because he hadn’t been born again yet.  He hadn’t given up his old conception of God, or of God’s Messiah.  But on the Day of Pentecost, after he had taken a few deep breaths of the Holy Spirit, Peter began to say that this same Jesus who had suffered and died had been raised from the dead, lifted up to sit at the right hand of God, received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and poured it out upon his church.  “Let all Israel be assured of this,” Peter said to the crowd: “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah” (Acts 2:36).

But you see, that’s a radically different conception of messiah than the one Peter had started with, and he couldn’t take hold of the new without letting go of the old.  I think that’s what Jesus is trying to tell Nicodemus: that his old conception of God won’t allow him to be part of the new things God is doing, and that he can’t just modify that old conception, he’s got to give it up.  In another place Jesus says it like this: “You can’t put new wine into old wine skins” (Mark 2:22).  When the new wine begins to ferment and bubble it will blow those old, brittle wine skins to pieces.  You’ve got to put new wine into new wine skins.  You’ve got to open up those logic-tight compartments and get a fresh conception of God.  Jesus says to Nicodemus, “You’ve got to be born again, friend—born of water, born of spirit, born from above.  You’ve got to let God’s spirit blow where it will instead of trying so hard to control it.  You’ve got to learn to follow, not lead.”  I think Peter got that in the end.  The Spirit led him into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus had led him into a true understanding of who God was.

Which brings us to the Doctrine of the Trinity.

May 22 is Trinity Sunday, and as preaching professor David Lose likes to say it is nobody’s favorite day to preach.  “But,” he argues, “behind all the convoluted doctrinal, philosophical, and hermeneutical concerns that found expression in the Trinitarian controversies of the third and fourth centuries pulses the more concrete and urgent desire to describe the [true] nature and character of God.”  In other words Trinity Sunday is that one day each year when the church looks at its conception of God and tries to be sure that it is not radically false, to be sure that it is, in fact, radically true, and we do this by looking at God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  As I’ve suggested, the Spirit led Peter into a true understanding of who Jesus was even as Jesus led him into a true understanding of who God was.  David Lose says, “Perhaps the best way to approach the Trinity, then, is to think of it backwards. It is through the power of the Spirit that we can receive Jesus as God’s surprising and unexpected messiah who reveals to us the gracious and loving nature of the Father.”[i]

He focuses on one verse in particular, John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”  “What is striking about this verse,” he says, “is that everywhere else in John the word that is translated here as ‘world’—kosmos—describes that entity which is hostile to God. So we would not be remiss to translate the opening of the verse, ‘God so loved that God-hating world that he sent his only Son.’”  He says, “This verse has profound implications as, according to the Fourth Evangelist, all of God’s work in Jesus through the Spirit is to save us from our own folly and penchant for self-destruction. In fact, as it turns out God has no particular designs or plans for our punishment or rejection.  Instead, God only plans and works for our salvation and health. God desires for us only life, life in all of its abundance here and now as well as in the age to come.”  In other words, he concludes, what we learn about the Father from the Son through the Spirit, is that “God is, above all else, a God of love.”[ii]

Now, let me ask you: what kind of tree is going to grow from the root of love?  What kind of trunk, and limbs and branches will it have?  What kind of fruit will it bear?  If your conception of God is radically true, then the more religious you are the better it is—for you and for the world.  But if your conception of God is radically false, then being religious will only make things worse.  And there are some radically false conceptions of God in the world.  One of the more popular among them seems to assume that he does have particular designs and plans for our punishment and rejection.  This is one of the reasons I led a Wednesday night workshop for my church on the doctrine of the Atonement, trying to understand how the death of Jesus can make us “at-one” with God.  It’s a difficult doctrine.  I’m still not sure I understand it.  But at one point I said to the people who sat there listening, “I’m telling you all this because I don’t want you to be afraid of God,” because there are some theories of the Atonement that can do precisely that.

The worst is the one I’ve come to call the “Virgin-in-the-Volcano” theory.  When my daughter Catherine was studying abroad in Costa Rica she took a side trip to Nicaragua and visited an active volcano that her tour guide described as one of the “seven entrances to Hell.” In primitive times the people of that region thought that some angry god inhabited the volcano, and when it would start to rumble they would throw virgins or young children into the volcano to appease it.  That’s unthinkable, isn’t it?  We reject that as primitive, pagan superstition.  And yet there is a theory of the atonement that sounds almost exactly like that.  It suggests that our sinfulness so offended God’s holiness that he was on the verge of destroying us, and none of us was perfect enough or pure enough to appease his anger.  But then along came Jesus—the sinless Son of God—who offered himself as a sacrifice for our sins.  And that did the trick; God was no longer angry.

That may sound familiar to you.  It may sound like something you learned in Sunday school.  But think about what it does to your conception of God: it teaches you that God is angry with you and wants to destroy you, and that the only thing that will appease his anger is the sacrifice of his sinless son.  If we were still talking about the god of the volcano we might say that there wasn’t a virgin on earth perfect enough or pure enough to satisfy him.  That in the end he had to give the people his own son, so that they could throw him back into the volcano, so that his anger could be appeased.  Can you see how twisted that logic is?  And can you see that if your conception of God is anything like that then the tree that grows from that root will be similarly twisted, its branches broken, and its fruit rotten?

But here’s the good news:

A Trinitarian theology won’t let us get away with that kind of thinking.  To speak of one God in three persons is to insist that Father, Son, and Spirit work together, that they share a common purpose.  You can’t have one person of the Trinity angry with us, eager to destroy us, while another person of the Trinity loves us, and steps in to save us.  No, God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit work together tirelessly toward the goal of our redemption.  As it says in John 3:17, “God didn’t send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world,” and it must mean to save it from something other than God’s wrath: I think it means to save it from us.  We’re the ones who keep threatening to blow the world to smithereens.  We’re the ones who keep going to war with each other.  We’re the ones who can’t seem to love our own neighbors, much less our enemies.  We’re the ones who don’t love God as we should.  And maybe it’s because—at the heart of it—we don’t love ourselves.  We look in the mirror and what we see is not a beloved child of God, but a miserable sinner who deserves no better than death.  It’s not hard for us to believe that God would be so angry with us that he would want to destroy us.

“Enough of that!” the Father says to the Son.  “Go and show those people how much I love them.”  And Jesus does.  He comes and loves us and loves us and loves us.  And some of us can’t accept it.  We reject it and we reject him.  We put him to death on a cross.  And he goes willingly, not so God will finally stop hating us, but because he wants us to know that God has never stopped loving us, and that there is nothing he wouldn’t do to show his love.  Not long ago I went to a friend’s ordination service, and at the end of the service communion was served in the Baptist way, with deacons passing out little pieces of bread and little cups of juice.  I’m usually up front leading communion.  I don’t often get to sit out there and contemplate its meaning.  But on that Sunday afternoon I did, and as I looked down into that little cup I didn’t see the blood of sacrifice, I saw the wine of celebration; I saw Father, Son, and Spirit loving me enough to forgive my sins and restore our relationship; I saw the Holy Trinity raising a glass and proposing a toast to our now-and-forever friendship.

Now, you tell me: what kind of tree will grow from that root?  What kind of trunk will it have, what kind of limbs will it lift up, what kind of fruit will it bear?  Is it the kind of fruit that will nourish the world God so loves, or the kind of fruit that will make it sick to its stomach?  This is a “True-False” test, and as I suggested earlier:

It may be the most important one you will ever take.

–Jim Somerville

[See the video! Click HERE]

 

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[i] David Lose, Professor of Preaching at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, from his comments on the Trinity Sunday reading for Year B (John 3:1-17) at the Good Preacher website.

[ii] Ibid.

What We Can Do about ISIS

Father NabilAt one point on my recent trip to the Middle East an Army chaplain said to me with tears in his eyes, “We are at the beginning of something like the Protestant Reformation, and Father Nabil Haddad is like Martin Luther.”

Father Nabil Haddad is the Catholic priest who invited six of us to World Interfaith Harmony Week in Amman, February 1-7. For several years now Father Nabil has been working with Episcopal priest Bill Sachs, who convenes our interfaith group in Richmond, and he and Bill agreed that it would be good for us to have this experience. Apparently our group is something of a novelty–Muslims, Christians, and Jews who not only “dialogue” about the serious business of interfaith relations, but who also eat together, travel together, and sometimes, just for fun, bowl together. Father Nabil wanted to see that for himself, and also wanted his colleagues here in Jordan to see it.

And so he invited us to his house for dinner, where we were greeted by his wife and adult children (“Wait a minute. Wife and children? Didn’t you say he was a Catholic priest?” Yes, he is. A Melkite Catholic priest, which is closer to Greek Orthodox than Roman Catholic, and yet in full communion with the worldwide Catholic Church). His children were perfect hosts (I got the feeling they’d had some practice), and his wife had cooked the entire meal we enjoyed, and we enjoyed it entirely.

Along with our delegation Nabil had invited a half-dozen US Army chaplains he’s become acquainted with. This was a surprise to us, but we’re learning that with Father Nabil you have to be ready for almost anything. The chaplains turned out to be terrific guys and one of them identified himself to me as a Southern Baptist pastor from Washington state.

As we were getting to know each other our conversation was interrupted by the news that the Jordanian pilot being held by ISIS had been executed, and in the most horrific way imaginable. Someone asked Father Nabil if he would lead us in prayer, and we all stood and joined hands while he prayed for the family of this pilot, and for the country of Jordan, and for peace in the Middle East.

For the rest of the evening this tragic news was the topic of conversation. We ate dinner with the television on, and at one point Father Nabil got a call asking if he could come and make an appearance on national television. That’s when I got into a conversation with the chaplain who told me that Nabil was like Martin Luther.

It surprised me, coming from him, because in the course of conversation I learned that he was a Mormon, and I felt my spine stiffen just a little bit. I can talk to Muslims and Jews. I can even talk to Episcopalians (smile). But here was someone who was not exactly “orthodox,” if you know what I mean: someone whose religion was just enough different from my own that all I could see were the differences and all I could feel was an urge to distance myself.

But I stayed with it. I kept on talking with him. And then he said that remarkable thing, with tears in his eyes, and it made me look at him in a different way: as a fellow human being, certainly, but as someone who was also looking for peace in the world and between our warring religions.

Like me.

That’s been my experience over and over on this trip, as I ride on the tour bus beside a Muslim imam, and talk with my Jewish rabbi roommate after the lights have gone out at night: I’ve been seeing all the ways in which we are like each other on the human level, but also in our desire to see that day when all of God’s children can live in peace. Father Nabil said, “When my Jordanian friends see you–Muslim, Christian, Jew–eating together, traveling together, laughing together…I think they are very jealous! You are setting an example for us.” That doesn’t mean my interfaith group is trying to create “one world religion.” Not at all. In fact we are finding that the more passionately we embrace our own religious identities–as Christians, Jews, and Muslims–the more we are able to respect and appreciate each other’s religions. And what is central to each of them is a love for God and neighbor.

Which makes it clear that ISIS is not Islamic.

When ISIS killed that Jordanian pilot (a faithful Muslim) it let the world know that its agenda is not Islam vs. Christianity; its agenda is to gain control through fear, and it doesn’t care who it kills in order to achieve that goal.*  But suppose that instead of eyeing each other with suspicion the world’s religions joined hands and prayed–for the end of ISIS, the end of extremism, the end of fear?

That’s what we did in Father Nabil’s living room. I joined hands with a circle of friends that included a rabbi, an imam, a Catholic priest, a Baptist minister, and a Mormon chaplain, and we prayed together for an end to the kind of violence and hatred that could do such a thing to another human being. We did it in part because Father Nabil believes this is the only way to achieve peace in the world–for the many religions to stop arguing with each other and join hands in prayer to the One who would love to see his children come together…

…in peace.

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*When Ammar Amonette, the imam who was traveling with us, heard what ISIS had done to the Jordanian pilot he said, “This is not Islam.  The Quran does not allow this kind of killing.”

KOH2RVA: Day 131

empty churchAt a conference at Georgetown College last week I led a breakout session called “What to do when your church is dying.” I said a lot of things in 90 minutes, but the essence can be found in this brief summary I typed up for Baptists Today not long ago. So, if your church is dying, or you know someone whose is, take the time to read the few paragraphs below. I hope it will give you a fresh vision of what the church can be and do in a time when so many congregations are struggling just to survive.

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When I started my work as a pastor 25 years ago the church in America was in decline, the leadership of the church was in a state of panic, and their strategy was the so-called Church Growth Movement. I went to New Castle Baptist Church in Kentucky assuming that my job was to get as many people as possible into the building for worship on Sunday morning, and then to get as many of those as I could to come forward at the end of the service so that they could make a profession of faith in Christ, or rededicate their lives to him, or move their membership from another church to that one. But I was still in seminary at that time, and in the New Testament class I was taking I kept hearing about the “Kingdom of God.” It seemed to be the only thing Jesus wanted to talk about. In fact, some 120 times in the Gospels, in one way or another, he refers to that Kingdom. I began to get the idea that this is what Jesus really came to do: to establish the Kingdom of God, on earth as it is in heaven.

This is what I think the church of Jesus Christ ought to be doing—bringing heaven to earth—and the Lord’s Prayer is a perfect reminder. It’s the kind of prayer a soldier might pray before going onto the battlefield, the kind of prayer a missionary might pray before going onto the mission field. “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name,” it says. “Thy kingdom come! Thy will be done!” but then (don’t miss this part) “on earth as it is in heaven.” And then we ask God to give us our daily bread, because we’re going to need our strength. We ask him to forgive us our sins, because they would only drag us down. We ask him to lead us not into temptation, because we can’t afford to be distracted–this mission is too important. And then, just in case we begin to have some success and think it’s because of our efforts, the prayer reminds us that the kingdom, and the power, and the glory belong to God forever and ever.

Amen.

Can you see how bringing heaven to earth is completely different from propping up the institutional church? I don’t think it’s easier, not at all. Without God’s help it would be impossible. But it is so much more…liberating. When the members of First Baptist Church ask me how to do it I say, “Just look around for anything that doesn’t look like heaven and then roll up your sleeves and go to work.” And what I find is that they all see through their own eyes. One person will see a need to teach poor children in the city of Richmond how to read, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to share the gospel with people who don’t know Jesus, and go to work there. Another person will see a need to provide decent, affordable housing, and go to work there. Some people will visit with those in the nursing homes, others will make time to have coffee with a friend in need, still others will teach little children in Sunday school. As a result, church begins to happen everywhere, all the time, and not only in our building at 11:00 on Sunday. In fact, I have said to my congregation, “Let’s stop counting how many people happen to be in church on Sunday morning and instead start counting how many times church happens between one Sunday and the next.”

That’s liberating, isn’t it?

Several years ago I found a quote in a book by Walter Brueggemann that has given shape to my ministry ever since. Brueggemann is a renowned Old Testament scholar, but he is also a committed Christian, who is devoted to the church. He said, “The central task of ministry is the formation of a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that has the courage and the freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality.” I love that quote, not only because it gives shape to my own ministry, but because it reminds me so much of Jesus’ ministry. Do you remember how he started? He called some disciples, or, in other words, he formed a community. And then he started teaching them about the Kingdom of God, saying, “the Kingdom is like a mustard seed, a treasure, a pearl.” He did his best to inspire in them an alternative, liberated imagination. And then, through his own example, he showed them the courage and freedom to act—to preach the Gospel, to heal the sick, cleanse the lepers, raise the dead, cast out demons—even to turn over tables in the Temple. He did it to bring in the Kingdom, because when he looked at the world around him he saw not only what was but what could be. He had a different vision, and a different perception, of reality.

That’s the kind of work he calls us to: not the anxious preservation of an earthly institution, but the fearless, faithful, joyful work of bringing heaven to earth. I think that’s why he spent his time forming a community with an alternative, liberated imagination that had the courage and freedom to act in a different vision and a different perception of reality. And that’s why, at the end of every staff meeting at Richmond’s First Baptist Church, we stand and join hands around the room and say the Lord’s prayer, but instead of saying, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven,” we say, “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, in Richmond as it is in heaven.”

That’s our mission.

KOH2RVA: Day 41

I had coffee with Chris Backert yesterday morning.

Thursday is my day off, but Chris and I hadn’t been able to work out any other time and the idea of having coffee at Starbucks with a missional church strategist didn’t sound like something I would hate. In fact, it sounded like something I would want to do.

Plus, Chris is a really nice guy.

We started talking about the decline of the church in America these days and the recent statistics suggesting that twenty percent of Americans claim no religious affiliation at all, a number that has grown by five percent in just the last five years. That means that in the last five years roughly fifteen million people have stopped saying they are Baptist, or Catholic, or whatever. Now they just say they “unaffiliated.”

The evidence is everywhere.

Church attendance in America is falling off at an alarming rate. While some 40 percent of Americans say they go to church, the truth is that on any given Sunday the number of people in the pews is less than half of that. In fact the latest statistics suggest that only 17 percent of the population is in church on Sunday.

It wasn’t like that fifty years ago, and the people who can remember how things were fifty years ago—when about half of all Americans went to church—are anxious. That anxiety often expresses itself in hurtful ways. I talked with a pastor last week who had been forced out of his church, not because he wasn’t preaching the gospel but because he wasn’t filling the pews, or, more truthfully, because he hadn’t figured out a way to make it 1962 again.

I told Chris I thought that kind of institutional anxiety is just beneath the surface in most of the churches in America these days, and that many of them keep hiring and firing pastors in the hope that they can find the one who will “pack them in,” just like they did back in the good old days. I told him the church in America seems to be going through the stages of grief Elisabeth Kubler-Ross described so many years ago: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, and Acceptance. And that’s when he began to tell me about the church in England.

The church in England has already worked its way through those stages. These days less than 17 percent of the population in Great Britain can say “I know God really exists and I have no doubts about it” and only about three or four percent of the population goes to church. In other words, Christians in the U.K. have had to accept the fact that the church as it once existed in that country is dead, and rather than try to merely resuscitate it, they are trying to resurrect it in new and different forms.

And that’s what Chris wanted to talk to me about: not just another way to boost church attendance, but ways of thinking about God’s mission that may not look like church at all, what Chris and his friends in England are calling “Fresh Expressions.”

I don’t have time to tell you everything we talked about yesterday, but here’s a link to Fresh Expressions in the U.K., and another to Fresh Expressions in the U.S. If you have some time take a look, and then tell me what you think by leaving a comment below. This is a conversation we need to continue as we think about how to bring the Kingdom of Heaven to Richmond, Virginia.

An Old Joke and the New Jerusalem

I found this version of an old joke that you’ve probably heard before:

A man arrives at the gates of heaven. St. Peter asks, “Religion?”  The man says, “Methodist.”  St. Peter looks down his list, and says, “Go to room 24, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

Another man arrives at the gates of heaven. “Religion?”  “Lutheran.”  “Go to room 18, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.”

A third man arrives at the gates. “Religion?”  “Presbyterian.”  “Go to room 11, but be very quiet as you pass room 8.” 

The man says, “I can understand there being different rooms for different denominations, but why must I be quiet when I pass room 8?”

St. Peter tells him, “Well the Baptists are in room 8, and they think they’re the only ones here.”

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Thinking about that joke I remembered a passage from the Book of Revelation, where the new Jerusalem comes down out of heaven “adorned as a bride for her husband” (21:3).  A little later in the passage John tells us:  “It had a great, high wall with twelve gates, and [each gate was made of a single pearl]…. There were three gates on the east, three on the north, three on the south and three on the west” (vss. 12-13).  And I smiled, wondering if there was a sign on each of those pearly gates, one that said “Methodists,” one that said “Lutherans,” one that said “Presbyterians,” one that said, “Baptists,” and so forth, all around the wall.

The joke, I thought, would be on all of us, when we dutifully entered through our respective gates and discovered that we were (in fact) all in the same place.  I hope we would only stare at each other for a moment before we all burst out laughing and said, “Good one, God!”

You know what’s funny?  In that passage there are actually names on the gates of the New Jerusalem.  “On the gates were written the names of the twelve tribes of Israel” (vs. 12).  It makes me wonder if those twelve tribes sometimes had trouble getting along, if the tribe of Benjamin occasionally turned up its nose at the tribe of Dan, for example.  Would the twelve tribes be surprised when they came through their respective gates and found that they were (in fact) all in the same place?  Would they stare at each other for a long moment before they all burst out laughing? 

It doesn’t seem to be God’s intention to keep us separated.  He seems to want to bring his big, scattered family together in one place.  One of my favorite parts of this passage comes a few verses later, where John tells us that there wasn’t a temple in the city, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are its temple; and it didn’t need the sun or the moon, because the glory of God gives it light, and the Lamb is its lamp; and the nations will walk by that light and the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into that place, and the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there (vss. 22-25).

Did you catch that last part?  The “nations” will walk by that light (the word in Greek is the same one used for “Gentiles”).  The kings of the earth will bring their splendor into the New Jerusalem.  It doesn’t sound like it’s only going to be a place for God’s chosen people; it sounds like it’s going to be a place for all of God’s people.  And the gates will be open by day, and there is no night there, which means, of course, that the gates of that city will never be closed.

The New Jerusalem will always be open.

“Hey, wasn’t that you at the mosque?”

Yes.  Yes it was me.  Those of you who have studied the photograph on the front page of the Richmond Times Dispatch “Metro” section have correctly identified the out-of-focus figure in the back as Dr. Jim Somerville, pastor of Richmond’s First Baptist Church, standing somewhere behind Imam Ammar Amonette in a show of solidarity during yesterday’s press conference at the Islamic Center of Virginia. 

I wasn’t one of the featured speakers, and nobody from the press asked why I was there, but if they had I would have been ready.  I would have said, “I’m here because I’m a Baptist.”

That’s right: Baptist.

For more than 400 years now Baptists have been passionate defenders of religious liberty.  That’s why we came to this country: we were looking for the freedom to worship as we pleased.  Even so, some of our preachers were arrested and jailed because (as British colonists) they didn’t have a license to preach from the Church of England.  When the Revolutionary War was over Virginia Baptist pastor John Leland met with James Madison to insist that the new Constitution of the United States of America be amended to include the right to religious freedom.  The situation was tense.  Leland had a huge following.  If he didin’t support the new Constitution it might not be ratified.  If Madison wouldn’t amend the Constitution Leland wouldn’t support it.  In the end, Madison made the amendment, Leland endorsed it, and the Constitution was ratified.  What we now know as the First Amendment begins with these words: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…” 

If we cherish this freedom for ourselves, we cannot deny it to others.  And although the headline in today’s newspaper read, “Area faith leaders ask for tolerance,” we cannot merely “tolerate” the existence of other religions. 

Listen to what John Leland said:

“The notion of a Christian commonwealth should be exploded forever…Government should protect every man in thinking and speaking freely, and see that one does not abuse another. The liberty I contend for is more than toleration. The very idea of toleration is despicable; it supposes that some have a pre-eminence above the rest to grant indulgence, whereas all should be equally free, Jews, Turks, Pagans and Christians.” 

Those are strong words.  They were uttered more than 200 years ago by a Baptist minister from Culpeper, Virginia, where several of his fellow Baptists had been locked up in the local jail for preaching without a license. 

He wasn’t going to let that happen again. 

John Leland is widely recognized as a hero of religious liberty.  His image is featured in one of the stained glass windows in the chapel of Richmond’s First Baptist Church.  As pastor of that church, I felt compelled to go to the mosque yesterday, and take a stand for religious liberty.

It’s what John would have done.

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The quote from John Leland, above, is from A Chronicle of His Time in Virginia.

Are Christians “Too Political”?

religion_politics_articleI’m almost finished with the book Unchristian (some of you will be glad), but I wanted to share a quote from the chapter called “Too Political.”  According to co-authors David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons 75% of young adults outside the faith think that Christians are “overly motivated by a political agenda, that we pomote and represent politically conservative interests and issues, [and that] Conservative Christians are often thought of as right-wingers” (p. 30).  Again, this may not be true of you or your church, but it’s the way 75% of young adults outside the faith perceive us. 

Do perceptions matter?  You bet they do.  And so, at the close of each chapter in the book, Kinnaman and Lyons have asked some well-known Christians to offer suggestions for how we might change the perceptions of young adults.  I was shocked by what Jim Wallis had to say:

Christians should be involved in politics.  The question isn’t “should we engage?” but “how?”  The conservative religious movement in America today has been corrupted.  Evangelicalism has been hijacked and usurped by partisan political forces.  Conservative religion is now being driven and dictated by secular, right-wing political forces.  So basically the conservative religious movement—or at least parts of it, the politicized part of it—has sold its soul to partisan politics (p. 179).

These are strong words, something Wallis (founder and executive director of Sojourners/Call to Renewal) has never shied away from.  But I have found myself thinking about them over the last 24 hours and wondering if he is right.  Did some political strategist do the math and realize that if he could get all the Christians in America to vote for his candidate he would win?  And then did he sit around wondering which issue would have the most potential for bringing Christians over to his side?  And then did he start telling us that his candidate was against abortion, which made us sympathetic (because, really, what Christian is going to be for abortion?).  And have politicians been using Christians to win elections ever since, by finding out what we are for or against and convincing us that their candidates are for or against the same things?  Wallis goes on to say:

Many young evangelicals see that this is just Republican politics masquerading as conservative religion.  When they observe this, they don’t like it.  And they are concerned that it could happen on the Left too—exactly what happened on the Right—the politiczing and corrupting of religion for the sake of political power.  That’s not what they want.

The young people I meet don’t want to go Left or Right.  They reject these narrow political orthodoxies.  They’re not happy with Christianity being either a list of things you shouldn’t do, or just about being nice.  They want to go deeper.  Young evangelicals really want their faith and lives to count for something.  They want their faith to somehow connect with changing the world…

“They want to go deeper,” Wallis says, which is what I would want for them and what I think Jesus would want, too.  When he taught his disciples to pray that God’s kingdom would come and God’s will would be done on earth as it is in heaven he invited his disciples to join him in changing the world from what it was to what God had always dreamed it could be.  He is still inviting his disciples to do that.  How tragic would it be to confuse that vision of heaven on earth with only what can be achieved through the political processes of a fallen society?

These young people may be on to something…