Is the Evangelicalism of Old White Men Dead?

This morning I worked through my daily list of readings--beginning with God's Word. I have worked my way through the One Year Bible each year for nearly 30 years. If I didn't, my spiritual growth would be stunted, deformed. I would read books more to my liking (Mark, Philippians) and read books less to my liking (Leviticus, Ezekiel). I might focus on the red letter edition.

Included in my morning prep is the NY Times, articles from The Atlantic, a perusal through the list of articles in RealClearPolitics, and (if it is Monday) Peter King's Monday Morning Quarterback. On most days, I am challenged, convicted, comforted, stimulated, entertained, and provoked. Today was no exception.

What caught my attention was a column in the NY Times by Tony Compolo and Shane Claiborne-"The Evangelicalism of Old White Men is Dead." The article was written out of a conviction that among the casualties of the recent election is the reputation of evangelicals. How could it be, they ask, that 80% of white evangelicals voted for a man who is racist, sexist, and looks at the world with an obvious xenophobia? It is time for a new movement, for it is clear evangelicalism is not a community where younger, nonwhite voices can flourish. It is time for a new reformation. It is time to be Jesus centered, giving focus to His words. This is a moment in our history for evangelicals to "repent and be 'born again' again as Red Letter Christians."

I'm not surprised to find this in the NYTimes. Reading and re-reading this article, I find their views disturbing, even antagonistic. Some might respond, "Of course,  you are an old white evangelical, as well as male." But I believe this has little bearing on my reaction. First of all, I am not trumping the cause of Trump. Like many evangelicals I know--young and old, Anglo and non-Anglo, I found the choice presented to us on election day very difficult. I could not look past the character issues of either candidate, nor could I ignore party platforms that went deeply against my core convictions. I believe these writers missed what many of us, perhaps the vast majority of us--on all sides--wrestled with. They read far too much in how one voted.

Second, because of my passion for ministry to be multicultural (I led a multiethnic, multigenerational church for 16 years and pastored a ministry of 35 nationalities in Europe for seven), I resent articles that paint with a broad brush a particular ethnic or age group within my faith. The writers note that as white evangelicals, they admit the future does not lie with them. It lies with other ethnicities. But here's my question--shouldn't we, together, affirm that the future of our faith must lie with all of us, young and old, white and non-white? Why do we marginalize one group at the expense of another?

Finally, the call to be "born again, again, as Jesus-centered, Red Letter Christians" is most troubling of all. It is both naïve and unbiblical. Again, the writers marginalize. In this case, their words demote the other members of the Trinity. What they are saying relegates the "black letter" portions of Scripture to something less important, less inspired. Wouldn't it be far better to say--"Maybe this is a moment in our history for evangelicals to repent of marginalization--of one another, of God, and of Scripture. It's time we be this Trinity centered movement that reveres all of Scripture, as well as respects one another."

Am I somewhat embarrassed by some evangelical leaders who publically endorsed Trump (despite his character and some of his policies)? Yes. But I was also troubled by other evangelicals who endorsed Clinton (despite her character and her stand on abortion and marital redefinitions). Looking back over these months, I would have preferred that all evangelicals, of all ethnicities and ages, were determined to be a faithful presence (Hunter, To Change the World), speaking with their actions and declaring with their words that our hope is not in this kingdom but in God's kingdom. Leaders come and go, like flowers of the field (Isa. 40). But God's kingdom endures.

 

 

 

 

Black Friday Proverb

"Two things I ask of You; don't deny them to me before I die: Keep falsehood and deceitful words far from me. Give me neither poverty nor wealth; feed me with the food I need. Otherwise, I might have too much and deny You, saying, 'Who is the Lord?' or I might have nothing and steal, profaning the name of my God."  Proverbs 30:7-9

If there is a time to be live skillfully—it is this week. Black Friday ads are practically ubiquitous. Everywhere you turn—merchants have gotten in on the act. You could call this the mother of all shopping events. It is also the day (change that, week, soon to be month—Black November?) when people tend to take on the semblance of folly. There is wisdom to be gained by Agur’s prayer in Proverbs, but you can find some needed wisdom even in the news—

1-Remember why it is called Black Friday

-it is the day stores move from operating in the red to operating in the black. As one put it, “the day when  people get their discount dopamine hit and stores get their profits.” Merchants may seem generous, and maybe they are. But they are also cashing in on the season.

2-Beware of good deals on items you know nothing about

-the truth is, most people have no clue what things really cost or what anything is truly worth. And much of what happens on Black Friday is cheap prices on really cheap stuff.

3-Remember that decision after decision depletes good judgment

-there’s a reason this madness often begins at 3:00am. When you are exhausted, the brain gets drunk with stupid. Decision fatigue soon kicks in, and now you no longer use discretion. People end up buying more than they planned, paying full price for other things they never intended to buy.

Alongside this is the more centering wisdom of this prayer. Money appears early in wisdom’s agenda, and is a main theme of Proverbs. But some of the best advice is found here in Agur’s prayer. It is a rather bold request to be kept in the middle. Agur petitions to be delivered from two extremes--desperate poverty and self-sufficient affluence. He knows what he will do if he has too little—and what he will become if he has too much. Do we?

When it comes to money and the acquisition of goods, he asks God for a heart of indifference (a theme repeated in 25:16). He knows the heart can obsess over things. We have a tendency to take credit for the deals we have made and the things we have amassed (just as God warned Israel in Deut. 8:17). With each accumulation, the realization that we are totally dependent on God has a way of fading. The prayer, “Give us this day our needful bread,” is no longer a daily discipline but a thoughtless repetition in a service of worship. Wealth can create the illusion that God is no longer necessary. We might even forget who He is (just as the prophet Hosea observed in 13:6 regarding Israel: “Having their pasture, they became satisfied…therefore they forgot Me.”) And this should scare us. It scares me.

Black Friday preys upon some of our worst impulses—greed, pride, impulse-buying, discontent, self-indulgence, and ungratefulness. It’s not to say that acquiring a new TV (something we just did) or looking for a great deal on a computer is wrong. Just yesterday in the faculty lounge one of the profs was raving about a website that can get you roundtrip tickets to Europe for 400 dollars. But when these things add up, we just might get too distracted to remember God.

A person of much wealth can still be godly--can still wake up on one's knees declaring, "Apart from You I can do nothing." But we need to be wise. We must not be deceived, caving to the lies that greed throws at us ("Hurry! This is your last chance to save"). Hence the first line of his prayer). When it comes to whatever we have, we must retain the mental clarity to live with a certain simplicity,  honoring the Lord with all of our wealth and all of our things (3:9-10). It means placing all that we have under His ownership and control. It is His generosity that enables us to have anything at all--and it is His generosity that calls us to be generous.

 

REPORTS FROM MY ANNUAL PILGRIMMAGE

 

For a few brief days every November, I step into a world of scholars. I sometimes feel a bit like a fish out of water. Out of a pastoral world of broken marriages and prayer requests (like a family sharing their fears that their daughter will be evicted or a cancer will continue to spread), I get on a plane and walk into a world that feels a bit foreign. I am in a fancy hotel with 2600 hundred theological educators.

It is almost guaranteed that I will experience a wide mix of emotions. I will sit in a three-hour session with theologians debating the subordination of the Son to the Father, and if this was temporal or eternal. This is a big deal. Hundreds are listening as scholars duke it out. But I am wondering—would the people I minister to really care if Jesus is still under the authority of the Father, and the Spirit is under the Son?

Before all of this, one of the first things you do is sit down and peruse the schedule.  There will be around 750 papers presented. This will be hard. Even if I ran from one presentation to the next, I will only make about twenty-five over the course of three days. I can choose to go to “Life in the Body: An Americanist Considers the Impossibility and Necessity of Evangelical Monastic Ressourcement” or “The Exegesis of Maximus the Confessor’s Ecclesiology in the Mystagogia.” The choices are agonizingly hard. So many opportunities—so little time. In the end, I decided to go hear “What is the Future for the Christian Past?”

One day I went to hear a lecture on the challenge of inequality. Okay, I admit that I chose this because there was a free lunch. But honestly, I had no idea what this economist and responding theologian were talking about. It was like entering into a conversation that had started long ago. Like others, I nodded my head at various points until I began to nod off. Thank God for Zippfizz. I went through five tubes.

One of the annual highlights is the Presidential Address. Part of the rush of it all is the banquet meal of chicken and green beans. Like every year, the ballroom is packed with theologians, and the newly elected ETS President again speaks words of inspiration. This year, the address was again edge of the seat stuff—“Medieval Manuscripts and Modern Evangelicals: Lessons from the Past, Guidance for the Future.” The speaker is a noted scholar, and he has devoted his life to studying ancient manuscripts. Stands to reason this would drive his presentation. And actually, if anyone could make this topic interesting, it was this man.

One of the things that amazes me is the effort given to how these scintillating, brilliant, and fascinating papers are presented. Given these are educators with PhD’s, you might assume their pedagogical skills are borderline supernatural. But it seems like every effort is made to make these presentations as absolutely dull as possible. Most speakers read their papers in a monotonic way, rarely looking up, and drone on for 30 minutes. There are exceptions, but this seems to be standard fare. Maybe this is why I like coming to present a paper. It’s the one time I can give my full attention to what I am going to read, without thinking about the audience (sort of the opposite in the pastoral world, where one is tempted to give full attention to how one comes across to his audience and little attention to the substance of what he is saying).

In fairness, there are exceptions. Every year, I find one or two papers that make the trip worth it. Some of these scholars are truly amazing. The mind is a gift of God, and some use their skills to take me to another world. Which is perhaps why I wish the Presidential address amounted to a call to action. The hope of the world is the church, and the hope of the church is its future leaders. And these leaders must know how to think. Too much is on the line. Too few pastors are thinkers these days. But sadly, all too few theologians are relevant. But those who are—are truly astounding gifts of God.

 

 

 

Time to Get Back To What We Promised

On the fortieth anniversary of his ordination, Eugene Peterson went back to review the vows he made before God. Vows are often made when an Ordinand sets his/her life apart for service. But then, all of us who have come to Christ are called to a life of promises--promises that are critical. They are the pitons, the pegs driven firmly into the vertical rock face stretching between heaven and earth. They protect one against mood swings and weather changes, miscalculation and fatigue. They provide stability during dark nights of the soul; they keep one from going off the cliff when one walks through a spiritual desert, or faces a disappointing loss. 

Vows are promises that say--no matter what, no matter the distractions of this life, the temptations to other priorities--I am committed to my first love.

As Peterson reviewed his vows, the sixth vow stood out: "I will seek to follow the Lord Jesus Christ, love my neighbors, and work for the reconciliation of the world." Reading this today, I was struck by its simplicity, as well as its applicability for all of us who know Jesus. It asks the necessary, penetrating questions in this post election moment--

-will I seek to follow the Lord Jesus? Will I, no matter what, keep Him in front of me--rather than letting myself get in front of Him? Will I follow, even if it isn't where I thought I would go? Will I give my best energies to contemplating today where He is asking me to follow Him next? Will I guard against becoming diverted, following my own impulses, and getting off course? Will I be more absorbed with following Him than following the evening news?

-will I love my neighbor? As Peterson puts it, "the first casualty on the fields of ordained leadership is usually the neighbor." But this is true on every field. People today have become functionalized, treated as resources, units, assets, friends on Facebook, and consumers (or this week as voters--Democrats, Republicans, or Independents). These are times believers can and must stand out as those who value people regardless of their function--who insist on flesh to flesh relationships rather than impersonal, digital ones. Will we love one another, even amidst deep differences-be they political or otherwise? Will we disavow ourselves of all mean-spiritedness? Jesus declared that love and respect is what authenticates genuine faith (John 13).

-will I work for the reconciliation of the world? Will this be my main work, to see people move from "alienation from" to "reconciliation with" God? On a flight two weeks ago, I met a man who shared that he once followed God, but now he sits on his agnostic "perch", neither drawn to atheism or Christianity. Sadly, much of the reason had to do with the failure of the church in his life.

In these moments, I realize I am called to this work of reconciling. As Peterson notes, it is a work the world does not necessarily notice. It happens in places like prayer. It happens as we quietly and lovingly probe, exposing the lies of the evil one, and sharing how much God desires that we come back home.

Reflecting on all of this, Peterson concludes: "This vow lays down essential protection against losing touch with the primary work in which Christ Himself is engaged." Now that this election season is behind us, maybe we can get back to our primary work--back to our vows.

Beirut Diary

He caught my eye the moment he sat down. This man had just come in from Aleppo, Syria. Along with other pastors from the Mideast region, he gave a brief, matter of fact report. "Things are difficult in Aleppo. There is news that chemical weapons were used again today. People will stay indoors. I will return tonight."

I could not help but ask myself--would I have such courage? Would I go back?

Whenever I am in the Middle East, I meet both men and women who impress me because of their commitment to their calling. And that's what keeps many of them here--this sense that God has called them to a task. Yesterday I sat next to a pastor from Baghdad, another place off the list of favorite tourist sites. Though most believers have left the region, he remains. Most of his family have moved to camps in Jordan, but he has stayed to shepherd those God has committed to his care. He is there because the churches that still have their doors open are filled with people. Many of them are Muslim seekers searching for shelter, help, community, and answers that their faith does not offer. It may appear Christians are leaving the whole region, and there is some truth to this, but it seems God is more present than ever.

Here in Beirut, in one church I visited last Saturday the attendance has grown from 200 to 1200 in the past 18 months. Many of those coming are refugees. The humanitarian crisis is horrific. It is worse than WWI and II combined. In this country, there are no formal camps, so 1 to 1.5 million people are scattered about in informal camps and urban areas where families live in basements or rooms (sometimes five families to one small room). Abuse is widespread. Fathers rent out wives and daughters to survive. The stories are gut wrenching.

Thankfully, many of the ministry leaders I have met have stepped up to the challenge. They are heroes as far as I am concerned. And while God grieves over the terrible choices of man, He makes good things out of bad. Many are coming to Christ. Amidst the sadness, there is also genuine excitement.

How does one process all of this in 4-5 days? I can't. I am grateful that I am part of a ministry dedicated to helping these ME ministries partner together. And this is what happens. Pastors and humanitarian workers and parachurch leaders gather to give reports from the field. Others of us--from places like the US, China, and South Africa--come to encourage. Together we collaborate and worship and pray. Really pray. And hopefully those on the field here go back renewed, while others of us go back more committed to the cause of the gospel..

I would have liked to have spent the whole day with this pastor from Aleppo. Maybe it is because I have been to churches in Aleppo and Damascus and small towns like Sweda. It's too difficult to go right now. We did share a meal together. He shared with me things I have never heard before, movements and motives and events that have my head still spinning. I am determined to not forget him, or his church. I shared with him that there are brothers and sisters who stand with him and pray for him and his church, as far away as Portland, Oregon (a number of us have committed to meeting every third Sunday night to pray for this region--if you want to join us, let me know. We have only one agenda item--prayer).

If I have learned anything, it is that much of what is happening in this part of the world never makes the news. In some ways, it is far worse than the news reports. In other ways, it is far better.