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“Do you want to have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?”

For most of my life, a personal relationship with Jesus was the center of my faith. The Biblical story was summed up in a personal exchange of my sins for God’s salvation. I’d never heard of “corporate” worship let alone collective guilt or confession. Social justice didn’t seem to matter as long as I wasn’t the one who was racist or going astray.

Today, my notion of a personal relationship with Jesus has been deconstructed, it lies like a thousand Lego pieces across the table of my spirituality. Embracing my role in the world beyond a one-to-one relationship with the Divine has been difficult. It’s led me into tension: the tension of seeing systematic injustice as my problem; the tension of holding numerous theological traditions in balance; the tension of faith that is nuanced and debated because it is witnessed by more than my own eyes. I’ve found what I didn’t know I wanted: faith that exists well beyond my personal status on the divine grade sheet.

But the pendulum has swung the other way.

My struggles with some of the problems that come from a heavy focus on one’s personal relationship with God has resulted in me neglecting mine altogether. It’s like I helped plan the prom but forgot to ask my SO to go with me. My rejection of an ego-centric faith has become a hall-pass for holding God at arms-length.

Take, for instance, confession. I’ve become rather comfortable with confessing my role in oppressive and systematic injustice. Which is good. The world needs more straight, white, men who point to their towers of privilege and declare that they’re feats not of architecture brilliance but of oppression.

But I can (and do) hold such sin at arms-length. While corporate confession should involve personal grief, it’s all-too-easy for me to bypass it. I confess the oppressive nature of my white privilege on my Facebook feed, close the computer and then go on with my evening. But confessing arrogance, gluttony, and excessive drinking? Those require that I shut up then pass-up on the second taco and margarita, even if its Tuesday. It requires energy and humility; it requires that rather than face confession as a “we” I face it as just a “me.” It requires that I stand before God, alone, just me, waiting in the isolation of what I’ve done to hurt others, waiting for grace to intercede on my behalf; waiting because some fires we start together, but other times I’m the only one holding the match.

All of this feels like a drift into legalism and shame. And it goes back to the root of my frustrations with an isolated emphasis on the personal. I wish that half the time I’d spent as a teenager confessing lustful thoughts to my ‘accountability partner’ had gone toward advocating against the police brutality that took place in my hometown. I wish that I’d cared more about how gay kids in my high school were treated than whether or not I was ‘saved.’ I wish that the core teaching of Jesus dying for all my sins had been corrected prior to planting a cavity of shame deep within my own being.

But if I live in the regret of these errors, I’ll only perpetuate others. You can’t hike a trail backward, wishing you’d taken a different turn, without wandering off the path altogether.

I may vote for generous policies for the marginalized but how many vacation days do I spend in a soup kitchen?

I may call for racial reconciliation, but do I have the humility to develop deep enough relationships with people of color that my own racist tendencies might come to light?

Do I berate misogyny but value my own recognition in the workplace above that of others?

I may advocate for sexual minorities, but do I honestly wrestle with the dark corners of my sex life?

I don’t believe that my calls for reform in the church are unfounded. But I’ve thrown out the baby with the bathwater while calling myself an advocate for adoption. Neglecting my personal relationship with God quickly leads me to a faith that is directionless at best, blindly hypocritical at worst.

Grace is tension; it demands that I acknowledge the darkness around me enough to know when I’ve been liberated from it. It demands that I live in the tension of personal culpability alongside corporate confession and systematic advocacy.

I want to live in that tension; Christ calls me to that tension. It’s time to take two steps forward in terms of advocacy, but also find a way to take one step back, back to me and God, back to personal.

On Learning (Trying, Really) To Pray

learning to pray

I close my eyes. I fold my hands. I bend my knees. I breathe, in, out, in, out. I clear my mind: did I schedule the dentist appointment yet? I wonder if I should have salad  or chicken parmesan for dinner. God, it’s so effing humid out. I can’t wait till football season; was it really a good idea taking Peyton again in my fantasy draft? I’m not sure I like these sandals. I breath again. And then I … then I … I …

I pray.

But okay, hold up. Let’s be honest. I don’t really know what prayer is.

Christ taught his inner circle to pray with a formula: “Lord,” said the disciples, “teach us how to pray.” And so he did. He gave a word-by-word guide: you don’t know how to appeal to God? Here take my hand and I’ll show you. Don’t know how to give due reverence to the Father? Let’s start with “hallowed be thy name.”

Jesus laid the foundations, the stepping stones with which we, mere humans, could converse with the Almighty. And then-most importantly- he paved this pathway with his death on the cross. “To pray in Jesus’ name,” Timothy Keller writes, ” [is] to reground our relationship with God in the saving work of Jesus over and over again.”

Which is fantastic, remarkable, unfathomable. But this still doesn’t answer the question at hand: what is prayer? Is a brute recitation of the Lord’s Prayer the only means by which we can talk to God?

The answer- thankfully, gratefully, wonderfully- is no. Prayer, though it should never be less, invites us to expand on the conversation with God which Christ began on our account. And across Church history we see the personality of the saints painting the portrait of prayer in a myriad of colors:

John Donne prayed through writing poems, tediously selecting words, phrases, rhymes and meter to compose something beautiful unto God. Martin Luther was in the habit of finding a quiet corner and reading to himself, word-for-word, the Ten Commandments, the Apostles Creed and finally some selections from to gospels or the psalter. Eric Liddell, the Scottish Olympic runner turned missionary, infamously spoke of how he felt God’s pleasure while running- the the other side of this conversation we call “prayer.”

The problem with such examples of prayer (if “problem” is really the right word) is that they focus on the personal aspect of a relationship with Christ. Since the Reformation, Protestantism has been steadily but surely pushing back on the once-held notion that the clergy (pastors, priests, etc) exist as mediators for the laity, the common people, you and me. The reformers (with due credit allotted to the timely invention of the printing press) insisted that all believers can -and should- encounter God through the Scriptures, receive him in the sacraments and approach him in prayer. Faith- and with it prayer- became personal.

Which is good, wonderful, necessary, and Biblical.

But, as with all things, needs a dose of moderation.

Because when prayer becomes just a personal endeavor, when prayer is removed from the context of communal faith, we also lose our framework for how to actually pray.

For prayer brings the believer into the community of the saints. The words “Dear Lord,” “Our Father”, “Precious Jesus kind and good (…)”; these words unite us to the confessing Church, like a college’s fight song unites its alumni. Prayer is not a matter of enhancing a personal relationship with Christ, boxing out everyone and anything and focusing entirely on his relationship with you. Rather, prayer is the act of taking the hands of believers before and around you, of approaching God’s throne as a member of his bride, the Church. The words I mutter at church, the thoughts I think (intentionally, aimed towards God who- best as I can imagine- is somewhere in the sky) at night, the Psalms I read, the times I yell in anger, shout with joy, laugh, dance, run- the flutters of goodness, hope, gratitude and praise that lift from my inner being…these do not isolate me as a believer in a personal relationship but identify me as a member of the universal Church.

In other words: prayer is personal, but it is also something so much more than just the expression of a single bond between myself and Christ. Every member of the choir matters; but it’s the joining of their voices in harmony and unison that the bridegroom has come to hear.

And this is of great comfort to me as I’m learning (trying, really) to pray.

Because suddenly my conversation with Christ does not rely on me. When prayer is seen as something much greater than my own direct line to Christ, when prayer is understood as a joining of voices, my shouts of “hurrah!” rising with the thousands, then prayer does not end when I open my eyes, think about dinner, speed-read the Psalms or forget to mutter my grocery lists of requests and praises prior to going to bed. When prayer moves outside of something that I control and into something in which I participate, then the act of trying to pray is itself caught up grace.

Prayer is not a pre-paid phone line between myself and Christ; the conversation goes on even when I hang up, or perhaps cannot bring myself to call.

Which is why prayer is not a test. The Tabernacle, Levitical law, Old Testament sacrificial system… if anything was, these were the test between God and his people, a test no one can pass. Except Christ. And when he aced the test, when he died on the cross, he opened up a channel of accessibility between God and his people. Prayer- this conversation with God- is a reflection of our relationship to God; and so it hinges on his work, not ours.

Prayer, ultimately, is not something we do, but something we accept, and partake.

We accept God’s desire for a relationship with his bride, the Church. We accept our role in said Church, the community of saints, the gathering of sinners now redeemed. We accept the conversation occurring between the Creator and created of which we are a part. We accept and the acceptance, the acknowledgement, the bowed head, still moments, whispered Psalms, and shouts of “hallelujah!”, these actions are not our own but are Christ’s. They are Christ’s who works in grace and through the believer in very act of prayer itself.

And so I do want to pray. And I’m always learning different ways: reading the Psalms aloud, five every day, the entire Psalter each month; repeating liturgical phrases (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy”; “the Lord bless you and keep you”; “the word of the Lord, thanks be to God!”) every spare moment of every day; sitting in silence and awe of his creation: a park bench, a food court in the mall, a scenic overlook, a sandy beach; closing my eyes and thinking thoughts directed to a God who wants to be known but- at the same time- one could never comprehend.

I pray. I try.

And with every breath I’m all the more thankful that the prayer does not depend on my technique, effort, desire, or even purity of heart.

Instead it depends on Christ. And therefore it is heard.

Thanks be to God.

 

Are ‘Liberals’ Really Destroying the Church?

Are Liberals Really Destorying the church

David French, an attorney and staff writer for the National Review, recently wrote an article titled “If You Want to Destroy Your Church, Follow Liberals’ Advice.” It goes downhill from there.

The article was a rebuttal to an editorial by Rachel Held Evans in the Washington Post. French finds apparent frustration in Evan’s critique of contemporary Evangelicalism. Evan’s main point, French proposes, isn’t an attempt to reform the style or face of the church but rather its “substance”;  Evan’s pushes reforms that are not theological but really just “a progressive writer’s wish list.” He further categorizes Evans (and presumably all ‘liberal’ progressives) as desiring to unlock the “Millennial spiritual energy found in the old ways- not its actual beliefs, mind you, but the trappings of the faith. To (Rachel Held) Evans, the answer is combining high-church traditions with no-church theology.”

French goes on to make the claim- based on statistical data- that mainline churches that have adopted progressive beliefs are “committing slow-motion suicide.” His conclusion is that Evans’ approach to church is not only theologically fallible but that “theological liberalization and cultural conformity” are paths to certain extinction.

“Yes, there are liberals who ‘long’ for the church to change,” French states. “But that’s because they long for it to disappear.”

It’s hard not to discard David French’s article as a straw-man tirade against progressive Christians and/or any Christian who’s ever registered as a Democrat. He uses the word “inclusive” like profanity, conveniently notes that President Obama’s denomination has seen serious decline in recent years, and attributes the demise of mainline denominations to their adoption of gay marriage (while overlooking the recent decline of the Southern Baptist Convention as mere happenstance). French doesn’t exactly invite open discussion on the topic at hand. Which- from a mere glance at Evans’ new book- was kind of her point.

But there is- at the heart of French’s fear-mongering- a pertinent question: is “liberal” theology destroying the American church?

In the aforementioned book Searching for Sunday, Evans joked that “you don’t have to believe much to be an Episcopalian.” (That’s the beauty of self-deprecation; Evans beat French to the punch.) This seems to give further validity to French’s point: Millennial Christians are looking for wide paths on ground that can only support narrow gates. 

Or are they?

I’m weary of any discussion on the state of the American church that draws lines based on “liberals” and conservatives.” But, if we’re dealing with the categories as French has arranged them, then we must also say that French represents a facet of American Christianity that is unwaveringly stubborn (or at least tone-deaf) to Millennial calls for reform. We have an arrogant belief in our own flexibility: “unity in non-essentials” we like to say. But who decides the “non-essentials”? In French’s world, it’s the conservatives. This, naturally, means that any congregation which supports gay-marriage has crossed a line from whence they can only return with sackcloth and ashes. That’s hardly flexible. And it’s as ineffective in promoting a theological way forward as was the Diet of Worms.

David French’s approach to the next chapter of the American Church is old and cliche. The use of statistics to measure the health of the church may be practical, but its not theologicalAnd it’s ridiculous- but thoroughly conservative- to quantify theological health with statistics; “well, churches who support homosexuality are shutting down, so obviously it’s decrepit theology.” We’re a religion begun by one man who gathered a small group of people and, with them, defied the religious majority of his age and the most dominant empire known to man. Jesus didn’t win the numbers game; but conservatives like French love to think they should and will. 

What is equally cliche is for conservatives to hang the fate of Christ’s church on a single, politically charged issue. Christ’s gospel does not hinge on preservation of traditional family values, pro-life movements, or Reformed Theology any more than it does on hymns and liturgy. The gospel of Jesus Christ hangs on a cross and pours out of an empty grave. French may decry the “inclusivist” mentality that’s seeping into American churches; but its equally valid to decry the moralistic agendas that attempt to roll the stone back over the grave.

And if we’re really trying to move the church forward, then fear-mongering is an unhealthy way to go about it. French operates under the belief that liberal notions, like the “gay-agenda”, will overtake and destroy the church. So Emperor Nero couldn’t wipe out Christ’s followers but the gay couple on my block will see it through? Thinking such as this is why most theological circles can’t take Evangelicals seriously.

Perhaps ‘liberal’ churches are too lenient. And that’s nothing to disregard. But conservative churches, if we’re playing off stereotypes, have a tendency to kick you while your down then slam the door in your face. Don’t get me wrong-if you fix yourself, then they’ll gladly let you back in. The prodigal son sent a wonderful precedent for church potlucks. But some scars don’t fade. As many know all too well.

So which would Jesus abhor? The wide gate or the harsh Pharisee?

It’s not for me to say. But I think we ought to at least be fair in saying- be we “progressives” or “conservatives”- that the other side, though maybe not right for us, isn’t authoritatively wrong. I’m sure this notion makes David French’s skin crawl. But a dose of practical humility would’ve helped things in 1521. And it would really help things now.

I don’t consider myself a progressive. I don’t consider myself a traditionalist either. I consider myself a Christian and an Evangelical one at that. Yet I feel myself being pushed out of my pew. And I don’t want to leave. But it’s increasingly difficult-especially when encountering voices like Mr. French’s- to find reason to stick around.

Unless, of course, I care less about my theological agenda and more about the church

David French might find it absurd that I could allow a gay person to become a member of my church. That’s fine. I find it absurd that he would see this as a threat to Christ. On the other side of the coin, Evans might find it absurd that I support pro-life movements as opposed to advocating for women’s rights and women’s health. That’s fine, too. Let’s all go to Christ’s table together.  

Because it’s within the questions we ask, within the disagreements in humility, that the noise fades and we can hear when Christ calls us to the table. And he calls us to stop quarreling, stop drawing lines, stop slapping labels and making moral diagnosis; he calls us instead to sit and eat and drink and maybe even laugh. He calls us to realize we’re all human and we’re all feasting on his grace together. 

Are liberals really killing the church? I doubt it. And even if they are, even if all the hordes of evil should assemble on red and blue donkeys, I still maintain that Christians shouldn’t be worried. After all, as Rachel Held Evans reminds us:

“Death is something empires worry about, not something resurrection people worry about.”

Which is to say that- worst case scenario- if ‘liberals’ do manage to kill the church, they might prompt the resurrection we’re all are together waiting for, the resurrection we all truly need.

It’s not likely. But it’d be nice.