Thinking Out Loud

October 27, 2020

Evangelical, Exvangelical, or Christ Follower?

Filed under: Christianity, culture, evangelism, Faith, politics, Religion — Tags: — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:07 am

I remember it as though it were yesterday. Two middle-aged, well-dressed men walking up the driveway to my parents’ house. I eavesdropped on the conversation. They were from a Baptist Church several miles away — one would need to drive past about five churches to reach it — and were inviting families in the neighborhood to church. Already being part of another church my father politely declined their invite and wished them well in the door-to-door evangelism.

Fast forward several decades and Christian denominations don’t bother going two-by-two in communities as before. The form was “co-opted” by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons (as they formerly preferred to be called.)

Today the same situation rages with regard to the word Evangelical. It’s been co-opted by a few whose political leanings often overshadow their allegiance to Jesus. So some are looking for another label.

That’s a shame. The “people of the good news:” (the evangel) had it first before those whose God is politics “co-opted” it. Perhaps instead of looking for a new moniker, they should be telling the political Christians to leave the camp and let them come up with a new word to describe whatever the heck that fusion of Christianity and conservatism is. Then inform the media who the true Evangelicals are.

This is not an American problem. The politicization of various issues among Christ-followers has spread. Where I write, north of the 49th Parallel, we see this polarization occurring frequently in non-U.S. contexts.

Our first identity must be to Christ. Not a political party. Not a fiscal or political ideology. Not an opinion on race, gun ownership, or dare I say it, even abortion. Christ, and Christ alone.

September 28, 2020

Lost Embraces: A Lament


by Capt. Sheldon R. Bungay

originally published as The Phenomenology of Embrace; used by permission

I see the images flicker across my news feed and my heart yearns for justice,
yet another unnecessary black death, another riot, another shooting,
another political party fueling the fire and building a platform founded on a lack of truth.

I see the vitriol, the hate, and hear the cries of the oppressed,
I see the disease, the hunger, the lonely, and the dirty faces.
I see the mother who named her child, “Jihad” so that he will never forget.
I also see the sign that reads “stay six feet apart,”
and I cannot help but feel:
If I had the ability to wrap the whole world in a vast global embrace,
I would.

Alas, I cannot.

There is much that I miss from the time before now,
Near the top of that list is the simple embrace.

Why?

Because a hug is more than a form of greeting, or a nice gesture,
It is a drama that unfolds in four acts that has the power to convey much about the relationship between the participants and walks a fine line between love and oppression depending on the intentions of the one who initiates the contact.

Act One: Opening the Arms

This act is an opening of one’s self to another that says “come, be part of who I am.”

Found within these open arms are both a twinge of pain because we feel incomplete without the other, and a welcome sign that suggests I have created space within me for you!

Like a door left open that requires no knock, you are invited in.

Act Two: Waiting

What humility and risk! What courage it takes to extend your open arms to another without guarantee of acceptance or a reciprocated act. The other cannot be coerced or manipulated to respond if the embrace is to have full positive effect;
We have no confirmation that this is what the other desires, or longs for,
and so we…. Wait.

Act Three: Closing the Arms

There it is — goal achieved!

Isn’t it wonderful to think that a hug is only possible when what is being offered is fully reciprocated?
Do you ever think about the beauty of that moment when you are offering yet also receiving?
A true embrace cannot be one-sided, it only works when what is being given is also taken.
And it just feels right.

Act Four: Opening the Arms Again

Notice that an embrace is only love when it is released, if one does not let go the embrace turns to oppression and things get uncomfortable fast.
In a weird twist, an embrace can only be appreciated for what it is when we let go,
only to begin the longing process all over again.
And so, I open my arms to you, and know not if I will be
misunderstood,
despised,
appreciated,
or reciprocated.
But “embrace is grace, and grace is gamble, always.”

Anyone need a hug?


Based on Miroslav Volf’s concept “The Drama of Embrace”
Embrace is Grace Quote – Lewis B. Smedes.

Capt. Sheldon Bungay is a Salvation Army Officer currently serving in St. John’s, Newfoundland, Canada as Divisional Youth Secretary. Husband, Father of two, student, persistent question-asker and listener.

Graphic: File image, credited to James Sword

August 19, 2020

When the World Baits Us for Knee-Jerk Reactions

Filed under: books, character, Christianity, culture, current events, Jesus, reviews — Tags: , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:31 am

Review — A Gentle Answer: Our Secret Weapon in an Age of Us Against Them (Nelson Books, 2020)

While 2020 will best be remembered for its top health story, the year will no doubt also be marked by the increase we saw in both online hostility and public protest. There is no middle ground and no room for nuance as things because increasingly more polarized; more black and white.

What is the appropriate response for someone who is a follower of Christ?

Anecdotally, it is not much different than that of the general population, but Jesus — and the whole compendium of scripture — teaches us that as citizens of another place entirely, we ought to formulate a different type of reaction.

When Brant Hansen wrote Unoffendable, which I reviewed here in 2017, one pastor mentioned that this was a topic he had been drawn toward covering, but felt it was no longer needed, as Brant had done an excellent job.

But three years later, the world (and especially the U.S.) finds itself in a situation where it would seem someone was monitoring all the yelling and reached forward to turn up the volume button. From mask-wearing to racism to political candidates, everyone has both an opinion, and an opinion as to why their opinion is correct.

Maybe it’s time for another book on the subject.

Scott Sauls is a name unfamiliar to me even 60 days ago. Someone had asked me about A Gentle Answer but it was a few weeks after that I discovered a previously-received review copy. Around the same time I learned that Scott Sauls had served for many years alongside Tim Keller in New York City and was better known to people in the Reformed community.

There are many similarities between Sauls’ work and Hansen’s; but also many areas where Hansen is more of a journalist and Sauls writes more as a pastor. If I were asked to recommend either one to someone who needs to hear what scripture can teach us about our character in such heated situations, my choice would depend on who the recipient might be. They are equal but different.

Scott Sauls divides his attention between the gentle spirit of Christ which all his followers have experienced (the first three chapters) and how we ought to allow that to change how we respond (the remaining five chapters).

Although the book doesn’t often address the specific issues of the day (of which I mentioned three, above) it is certainly written with social media outrage and public confrontations in view. A few times he reminds us that this is a lesson which Martin Luther King, Jr. knew well; an arena whereby (to paraphrase Paul) we would do well to imitate King as he imitated Christ.

In the title of chapter two, Scott Sauls reminds us that Jesus, “reforms the Pharisee in us;” making us a people who can do anger righteously, receive criticism graciously, and forgive thoroughly.

I’ve posted some short sections from Sauls at Christianity 201 including an excerpt from the book at this link, and also included a shorter section that grabbed me as I wrapped up reading at this link.

I encourage you to also check out scottsauls.com.


Thanks again to Mark H. at HarperCollins Christian Publications in Canada for an opportunity to read A Gentle Answer. I’m going to miss those advance review copies!

June 13, 2020

Christian ‘Cancel’ Culture: The New ‘Farewell’

Invoking names like Amy Grant, Sandy Patti, Rob Bell, etc., the discussion was quite lively over the past 24 hours when Christian journalist Sarah Pulliam Bailey posted,

This morning, before my feet had touched the floor, I had read each and every one of the nearly 200 comments which were in the thread at that point.

If you’ve been aware of the modern culture term, “cancelled”

  • To dismiss something/somebody. To reject an individual or an idea (Urban Dictionary)
  • Canceling, today, is used like a massive, informal boycott when someone or something in the public eye offends … or when we’re just over them. The exact origin of this usage is unknown, but as is similar with most word trends, one clever quip sparks a cascade of copycat usage, and suddenly things we never imagined uttering are part of our vernacular. (Dictionary.com)
  • To cancel someone (usually a celebrity or other well-known figure) means to stop giving support to that person. The act of canceling could entail boycotting an actor’s movies or no longer reading or promoting a writer’s works. The reason for cancellation can vary, but it usually is due to the person in question having expressed an objectionable opinion, or having conducted themselves in a way that is unacceptable, so that continuing to patronize that person’s work leaves a bitter taste. (Merriam Webster Dictionary)

Christians are good at boycotting institutions (Disney), supporting other things (Chick-Fil-A) and wavering somewhere in the middle (Hobby Lobby). It’s something we — especially American Christians — do extremely well. Living blissfully as in a world of black and white before there was color. Or even greyscale.

►► You don’t need to be using the Twitter app to follow the link to Sarah’s post, but be sure to read through as much of the tread as you can. Just click this link.

Here’s two I especially liked; though the sub-themed posts about Rob Bell were especially interesting:

(Love that last term; border maintenance.)

What do you think? Is cancelling a more final-sounding word than farewell-ing? How does grace fit in?

 

September 5, 2019

When Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy Collide

Filed under: Christianity, culture, doctrine, ethics — Tags: , , , , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:54 am

Orthodoxy = Right belief.
Orthopraxy = Right practice.

I mentioned on Twitter that I would love to write an article with this title. I’m not sure this is the one. It seems to me that this is a topic that deserves a much fuller treatment.

Today, I simply want to document the observation that sometimes, even though we are dogmatic about what the Bible says on particular issues, and we’ve got our doctrine absolutely certain, advancing that is not always the best approach where real people are involved.

I think the popular phrase is, “Welcoming but not affirming.”

When you know real people, especially in your family, workplace, church community, or neighborhood, it’s hard to trumpet the judgment of God when the person involved is sitting right there in front of you.

Our approach is going to vary. Jesus didn’t always minister to people in similar situations in exactly the same way.

One of my regular C201 contributors shared this:

I like to think of God as Heavenly Father. My experience of fatherhood is that what is best can vary according to situation and the maturity of the children etc. I also have an expression: What is right is not always what is best.

I used the illustration in a sermon that it was completely fair how my brother and I took turns on the Atari 2600 depending on how long your guy lasted. It seemed that my brother played for hours while I played for minutes.

What is right is not always what is best.

It would be difficult for some Christians to wrap their minds around that. We’re supposed to be champions for truth, right? 

Some of you will sense that I had something else in mind when I first considered this, but Paul’s message in Romans 14 is certainly applicable:

13 In light of this, we must resolve never to judge others and never to place an obstacle or impediment in their paths that could cause them to trip and fall. 14 Personally I have been completely convinced that in Jesus, our Lord, no object in and of itself is unclean; but if my fellow believers are convinced that something is unclean, then it is unclean to them. (The Voice Bible)

Choosing a graphic image for these articles often adds an extra dimension. Today’s image (from MGM Ministries) reminds us that our words and actions can point people in one of two very different directions. 

The graphic below (from Christian Paradoxes) is a reminder that there is actually a trio of factors, but to delve deeper, I encourage you to use a search engine, as this topic is well covered online.

November 15, 2018

This is For All the Lonely People

Lorne Anderson is a Canadian living in Germany. This appeared on his blog earlier today.

Lonely People

Guest post by Lorne Anderson

As an introvert, I try my best not to overload on people contact. I need space and solitude.

I’ve come to the realization that is one of the reasons why learning German is difficult for me. It is not just that the language is hard, but I was also thrown into a classroom with a bunch of people I didn’t know and expected to interact. Tough to withdraw into your shell in a such a situation.

Despite my preferences, I understand the need for human contact. Living a solitary life isn’t healthy, no matter how appealing it is. When my wife wants to invite someone over, I usually agree. And enjoy myself.

I am introverted, but not shy. I have no difficulty standing on a platform speaking to thousands of people at a concert, as I have had to do from time to time in my radio career. But that is something that comes with the job, not out of my desires.

Most people, I think, crave human interaction far more than I do. And with the social changes of the past 50 years or so, people are getting far less of that interaction than they want or need. As a result, many people are lonely.

I suppose it was inevitable that government would step in to deal with the loneliness problem. The United Kingdom now has a Minister of Loneliness. I seem to recall hearing that other jurisdictions are introducing similar positions. To say I have mixed feelings about that is an understatement.

I applaud that the problem has been recognized, while at the same time decrying the solution. I don’t believe government has the answers to our problems; nor do I believe government is my friend. I’ve worked in politics; if I was lonely it wouldn’t be politicians I was turning to for companionship.

Dealing with loneliness may become one of the central issues of our time. We live in a world where it is increasing possible to be always connected to others through social media. In theory people should not feel lonely, surrounded as we are by so many others.

Yet social media does not bring with it intimacy. It may indeed discourage it. Your posts are there for the world to see. It makes sense therefore to hold back some of yourself rather than let your personality show, warts and all. After all, others may be judging you. Better to put your best face forward. But is your best face your real face? Do you trust people with the real you? And if not, does that holding back take a toll, isolating you and increasing the chances of being lonely. Just because there are always people around doesn’t mean that you have anything deeper than a superficial relationship.

Which is why I doubt that having a Minister of Loneliness can have positive effects, aside from providing jobs for some otherwise unemployable social science graduates (full disclosure – I am a social science graduate.).  Government no matter how well-meaning, isn’t going to find friends for me, or anyone else who needs them. If it tries, I suspect it would fail – despite data mining, it doesn’t know me that well.

At this point I could make some theological observations about human nature and being created in God’s image, which would be relevant but would also make this post longer than it should be. So, I’ll hold back on that thought, maybe for another day.

One basic observation though. I wonder if the cure for loneliness starts with cutting back on or even eliminating electronic communications? Maybe we would be less lonely as a society if we spent more time fact to face and less time face to screen.

It couldn’t be that easy, could it?

 

April 14, 2018

When Religion Capitulates to the Broader Culture

We often encounter discussions under the general category, “Women in Ministry” and even the most staunch complementarians have to agree that in Christianity as a whole, changes are certainly afoot. While I lean more egalitarian, I do believe there are God-ordained differences between the sexes which could manifest themself in differing church leadership roles depending on the dynamics of the local church.

So it was with great interest this week that I came upon two different articles revealing that similar changes are happening in other faiths.

The first one was in our Wednesday collection of news stories. Mayim Bialik, an actress who played the lead in Blossom and also acts on The Big Bang Theory, is Jewish. She asks the question, “Ever heard of an Orthodox woman who holds a clergy position?” She then proceeds to profile “B’nai David-Judea, the only Orthodox synagogue in Southern California which employs a female clergyperson.” She speaks of “Using our evolving sense of obligation to modernity to find ways to let in more voices.”

Read that last sentence again. You don’t need to be Jewish to see the parallels between that perspective and what’s taking place in Mainline Protestantism and Evangelicalism. You can watch Mayim’s video at this link.

The second one was at Religion News Service, Jana Riess reporting on the Latter Day Saints (Mormon) Annual General Conference.  Among the takeaways she noted, “Sister Bonnie Oscarson, the outgoing Young Women president, gave a heartfelt plea for the Young Women to have important responsibilities in church and to feel that their contributions are valued;” and “Women spoke in three of four sessions…In the April 2017 conference, which featured thirty total speakers over four general sessions, only one woman—Primary president Joy Jones—spoke. One LDS viewer suggested on Twitter on Saturday that it would be great to hear from one woman during each general session, bringing the ratio of male to female speakers to something more like six or seven to one. For this modest entreaty she received significant hateful pushback from some on Twitter as well as support from others.”

The rest of Jana’s article is at this link.

…So returning to Protestants and Evangelicals, inasmuch as we see a broader trend taking place, we have to ask ourselves if we move with those trends simply because we are caving into societal pressure.

For Evangelicals, the bottom line is always, “What does the Bible teach?” But with, for example, the Apostle Paul’s statements on women, some will easily prefer to choose the interpretive analysis as the reason for opting out of traditional teaching. ‘Yes;’ we will say, ‘This is what the church has commonly understood this passage to mean, but we now understand the Greek word [insert Greek word here!] actually meant something in that time closer to [insert different meaning here!].’

This same reasoning is used with the very same apostle when it comes to homosexuality. Without taking sides on this, presently it’s clear that many contextual studies and word studies are brought forward which suggest that Paul was speaking to something other than that which is usually assumed and, Voila! We suddenly find ourselves in a different paradigm.

But that doesn’t mean everyone buys in. These issues can be quite divisive.

In the Roman Catholic Church, change is more stringently created and applied. The Pope merely needs to publish an encyclical redefining the role of women (or other such issue) and the new guidelines would be in effect overnight, but basically there would also be an appeal to a newer, higher understanding of the original Greek or Hebrew texts. He cannot just change the rules out of nothing — out of thin air — there would need to have been significant study.

So again, it’s interpretive.

But how does the book on which we base everything so important and so vital to our faith lend itself to so much interpretation? When absolutes are crumbling? Is this what Jesus means by “knowing in part and understanding in part;” or what Paul himself means by “seeing through a glass darkly;” the still-used KJV rendering of a metaphor in 1 Corinthians which has a variety of expressions.

Are we capitulating to the culture? Or is the culture a catalyst for an awakening of sorts?

The related question: While the deity of Christ and his death and resurrection are absolutes, are there other things which are negotiable?

 

March 22, 2018

Marriage and Marijuana: When the Rules Change

Changes in the law are often viewed from a variety of vantage points.

I often wonder what happens when someone who has done prison time for pot possession thinks as they see state after state making weed legal. Or the person who was persecuted by family or friends for their homosexual cohabitation watching gay marriage legalized.

I realize that most of the people reading this fall into neither category. You may not directly know people who do. However, such individuals would have a rather different perspective on changing legislation in various states as well as Canada.

The end result of what pilots call a “graveyard spiral.”

Then there are those who will simply use this as an example of how society is going downhill; to use an aviation term, the graveyard spiral of society. It’s great sermon material if you want to get people revved up; what Skye Jethani would call pandering to the Fear-vangelical mindset.

But there’s another viewpoint I was considering today: The youth.

In particular, what does all this look like from the point of view of a child who is too young to smoke weed and too young to enter into a marriage relationship?

In some ways, it sends this message: If you wait long enough it — whatever it is — will eventually be made legal.

I know you’re thinking, ‘Yes, but some things are absolutely wrong and not subject to discussion.’

Really? Take the commandment, “Thou shalt not kill” and then consider euthanasia, abortion or (for some) even war itself.

“Thou shalt not bear false witness.” What about lying where it is expedient, or situation ethics, manipulation of statistics, or the popular term today, fake news?

Again, I’m not talking about the “moral decay” itself, but about the appearance all this must present to young people who see nothing as absolute. Rules regulating behavior and lifestyle appear as in flux or in transition with no fixed reference points.

I’ve noted elsewhere on the blog that rules are often created at one time or for one group of people or in one particular place; whereas principles are timeless and transcend the limits of who they apply to or where they apply. The rules derive from the principles.

So in a world where alcohol is in common use, the addition of marijuana to the recreational mix may not appear to reflect a change in principles, but a kid or young teen doesn’t know that.

To children and youth, as things are subject to constant revision and updated legislation, all bets are off when it comes to whether anything is truly wrong.

August 22, 2017

Church Life: Special Music

In a majority of the middle part of the last century, a feature of Evangelical church services was “the special musical number” or “special music” or if the church didn’t print a bulletin for the entire audience, what the platform party often logged as simply “the special.”

While this wasn’t to imply that the remaining musical elements of the service were not special, it denoted a featured musical selection — often occurring just before the message — that would be sung by

  • a female soloist
  • a male soloist
  • a women’s duet
  • a men’s duet
  • a mixed duet
  • a mixed trio
  • a ladies trio
  • an instrumental number without vocals

etc., though usually it was a female soloist, who, in what would now be seen as an interruption to the flow of the service, would often be introduced by name. “And now Mrs. Faffolfink, the wife our beloved organist Henry, will come to favor us with a special musical number.” This was followed by silence, with the men on the platform party standing as the female soloist made her way to the microphone. (We’ll have to discuss ‘platform party’ another time.)

While the song in question might be anything out of the hymnbook, these were usually taken from a range of suitable songs from the genre called “Sacred Music” designed chiefly for this use, compositions often not possible for the congregation to sing because of (a) vocal range, (b) vocal complexity such as key changes, and (c) interpretive pauses and rhythm breaks. These often required greater skill on the part of the accompanist as well.

A well known example of this might be “The Holy City” which is often sung at Easter, though two out of its three sections seem to owe more to the book of Revelation. “The Stranger of Galilee” and “Master the Tempest is Raging” are two other well-known examples of the type of piece. Sometimes the church choir would join in further into the piece. (The quality of the performance varied depending on the capability of soloists in your congregation.)

By the mid-1970s commercial Christian radio stations were well-established all over the US, and broad exposure to a range of songs gave birth to the Christian music soundtrack industry. More popular songs were often available on cassette from as many as ten different companies. Some were based on the actual recording studio tracks of the original; some were quickly-recorded copies; and some of both kinds were offered in different key signatures (vocal ranges.) Either way, they afforded the singer the possibility of having an entire orchestra at his or her disposal, and later gave way to CDs and even accompaniment DVDs with the soundtrack synchronized to a projected visual background.

Today in the modern Evangelical church, this part of the service has vanished along with the scripture reading and the pastoral prayer. If a megachurch has a featured music item, it’s entirely likely to be borrowed from the Billboard charts of secular hits, performed with the full worship band.

This means there is an entire genre of Christian music which is vanishing with it. This isn’t a loss musically — some of those soloists were simply showing off their skills — as it is lyrically. The three songs named above were narrative, which means they were instructional. They taught us, every bit as much as the sermon did; and were equally rooted in scripture texts. The audience was in a listening mode, more prepared to be receptive. Early church historians will still despair over the passive nature of listening to a solo, but I believe the teaching that was imparted through the songs was worth the 3-4 minutes needed.

My personal belief is that this worship service element will return, albeit in a slightly different form, as congregations grow tired of standing to do little more than listen to pieces they can’t sing anyway because of vocal range or unfamiliarity. This may be taking place already in some churches.

We’ll be better served when that happens.

 

May 28, 2017

If This is Hipster Christianity, The Church is in Trouble

Filed under: Christianity, culture, media — Tags: , , — paulthinkingoutloud @ 9:12 am

I will be the first to admit that not everything that appears on my computer screen in the course of a year is G rated. A few things might not even be PG-13. I tend to censor violence more than sex, but the latter has its limits; too far and we’ve crossed the line into p0rn0graphy. As for swearing, I find 99% of it unnecessary.

But nudity, sex and coarse language were what was on offer in the first episode of a 32-minute HBO series we tracked down and watched on Thursday night.

Why did we watch it?

It was the subject of a four-page spread in the current print of Relevant Magazine.

Of interest to Relevant were two things. First the setup: The key character is a former youth pastor who gets into stand-up comedy who discovers his wife is having an affair. Right away we see a conflict between the guy’s still-Christian worldview contrasted with what his wife has become and what the people in his profession already were. The second thing the magazine found interesting were a couple of clips where the same person is driving in New York listening to audio sermons by Joel Osteen.

I can see that from Relevant’s perspective the latter was a bit of a curiosity piece. It deserved one of those one-paragraph mentions in a sidebar toward the back, where the magazine offers a large variety of reviews of books, movies and music from both mainstream entertainment and Christian subculture.

But not four pages.

Furthermore, because the series is based on the actor’s real life, my wife wondered what the real life cheating spouse in the story would have to say about the manner in which she is portrayed. I trust the producers got her to sign a waiver.

I like Relevant. I often will check out their music reviews and then go to YouTube and listen to the solo artists and bands they feature. From that, I get to listen to some trending new music I might otherwise be oblivious to. I appreciate the book and movie reviews as well.

This was not that.

It was a four-page feature.

I really hope that in subsequent episodes of the series, there is something redemptive here that justifies the opener. I just would hate for anyone to be watching this because of a perception that Relevant had “recommended” it to readers.


I contacted Relevant Magazine online early Friday for a response but they did not reply.

 

 

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