Why THIS Church Matters

Our church is going through a season where we are facing difficult budgetary constraints for the first time in our history. And so we’ve been talking a lot about “why does this church matter?” This is (one) of my answers to that question:

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Last week I got briefly distracted on Facebook by a Washington Post article about the Noah’s Ark replica that creationist Ken Ham built in Kentucky. While the article was mostly about Ham’s intention to build more theme-park style Bible attractions, the article also reported that the “single largest source of funding was actually $62 million in junk bonds floated by the town of Willamstown [sic]…”

Groups like the ACLU have been critical of the project, specifically the organization’s discriminatory hiring practices that should render it ineligible for state funding.

“As a condition of employment, the museum and ark staff of 900, including 350 seasonal workers, must sign a statement of faith rejecting evolution and declaring that they regularly attend church and view homosexuality as a sin. So any non-Christians, believers in evolution, or members of the LGBT community — and their supporters — need not apply.”

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Yes, I read the entire statement of faith. And yes, it represents a very conservative evangelical view of Scripture, theology and the world. I think most of you who would read this post probably aren’t that conservative.

However, it’s a loud view. It’s a definition of Christianity that gets a lot of airtime both because of media interest and also because part of what makes evangelicals “evangelical” is their boldness about their faith, their willingness to “stand on street corners” and wear their faith on their collective sleeve.

But this is what concerns me: many modern people are rejecting Christianity because “Christian” to some has become synonymous with a strictly literal reading of the Bible, rejecting evolution and judging homosexuality (their word, not mine) to be a sin (among other things).

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This is why I believe the progressive evangelical church matters, and specifically why I believe that my church – Imago Dei in Peoria, IL – matters.

Listen, I’m not going to throw stones here. If you know me, you know I disagree with a lot of things in the Answers in Genesis Statement of Faith. I think some of their beliefs are harmful and unhealthy. But I don’t feel compelled to call them “heretics” or anything like that.

But I do hope to offer a counter-narrative. I do hope to say to everyone, “there are many ways of being ‘Christian.’” What makes us “Christian” is that we’re all followers of Jesus of Nazareth. We believe his words, his teachings, his “way” matters, and it’s still worth following, 2,000 years later. It’s worth talking about, it’s worth arguing about, it’s worth orienting our lives around.

We don’t agree on lots and lots of things. But even though we disagree, we can still worship together, we can still argue together, we can still serve the poor and take communion together. THIS is what I think Jesus means when he says, “ that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”

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So here’s why I think my church matters. In the midst of an increasingly polarized culture where being “right” is more important than being loving, kind or civil, our church insists on 3 things….

The unity that Jesus is talking about in John 17 as the most significant form of witness.

That how we treat those at the margins is central to the “gospel.”

God loves everyone just as much as he loves Jesus. Everyone.

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Peace for Peoria

On Monday night, I had the incredible opportunity to participate in Peace for Peoria, a town hall Q & A event at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. I got to sit on a panel that included a Catholic, an Imam, a Rabbi and two Protestant pastors in front of a crowd at least 700 strong.

We were there to talk about how we can all work for peace, how all of us can have strong beliefs and still make space for each other, how we can have meaningful friendships with people of different faith and cultural traditions.  We also wanted to specifically address the irrational fear of Islam that seems to pervade our culture right now.

It was a breathtaking event. From what I could tell, there was great energy in the room. People seemed to be leaning into the conversation and many people were still hanging around the theater lobby talking nearly an hour and a half after the panel discussion was over.

This post is a collection of thoughts and impressions, two days after the event. I’ll be writing one more post in this series on interfaith conversations about an idea that emerged to me during the panel discussion. It’s written. I hope to have it edited and posted by Friday.

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The thought that occurred to me over and over again on Monday night was that this event was pretty unique. I don’t know of other conversations quite like this one, happening on a town-wide basis, anywhere else in the country. Part of it is because of Peoria’s size. Before the panel discussion we had several of the CEOs of the largest companies in Peoria talking about religious, ethnic, and cultural diversity in their workplaces, and the Mayor ended the night with a few comments. (I was also told that most of the city council was in attendance as well, although I haven’t confirmed that.)

Key civic leaders, business leaders gathering to listen to clergy talk about faith? In 2016 America? That just doesn’t happen!

I don’t know that I’ve ever been so proud of our city.

The other reason for the uniqueness of this event is that, behind the scenes, there are actual friendships between those of us who were on the stage Monday night. We’re blessed in this community to have an Imam like Imam Mufti and a Rabbi like Rabbi Bogard who are so open to conversation.

And special props to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) and Stephen McKinney-Whitaker of United Presbyterian for being the catalyst for making Monday’s event happen.

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If I had any disappointment, it was that events like the one on Monday are largely an exercise in preaching to the choir. People who affirm interfaith conversation and cooperation are more likely to attend an event like this one. The people who are most ignorant of Islam, the people who have the most fear, the people who most need to witness peaceful conversation between religions aren’t likely to attend this kind of event. Which is really too bad. We talked fairly in depth about important questions people have: Do we worship the same God? What about the violence of Islam? Don’t Muslims just want to convert us all and institute Sharia law?

But at the same time, even preaching to the choir, it was affirming to me.

My background, my roots are in an evangelical Christianity that would most likely NOT attend. The religious context I grew up in would largely see Monday’s event as some kind of selling out of the gospel. So it was personally affirming to me to be engaged in the conversation and to receive affirmation from people who attended that this conversation is the good work.

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And finally, I want to recap one thing that was said during the discussion. The first question was, “Do we all worship the same God?” and I want to recap highlights of that discussion, because I think, at least to some people, it’s the most important question.

When people ask that, it’s often a red herring. Regardless of how I answer, as a Christian I’m compelled to love. And to quote Pastor Stephen in his concluding remarks, “Listening is so close to loving  that you can hardly tell the difference.” (One of my favorite quotes of the night, even though I’ve heard him say it before!) And so while I said that to some people it’s the most important question, personally, it’s just not that important to me.

But, to answer the question you have to first answer the question “what do you mean by same?” So it quickly descends into a matter of linguistics. Of course, all of us on the stage have different ideas about the God we worship. None of us prescribe to a lowest common denominator expression of our faith. I think we would all be insulted if someone said that inane thing that people sometimes say, “All the religions pretty much teach the same thing.”

We don’t.

Same doesn’t mean identical.

But at least among the Abrahamic faiths, we have what Yale Professor Miroslav Volf calls “sufficiently similar” understandings of God that enable us to have meaningful conversations. (Here’s a link to a discussion about his book Allah: A Christian Response.) And in a Twitter exchange with Northern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Scot McKnight, Volf says that if Evangelical Christians insist that they don’t worship a “sufficiently similar” God to Muslims, then they also need to apply the same logic to their understand of Jews. This is a trade-off that I think very few Evangelicals want to take.

But, in the conversation that we’re having in our community with Christians, Muslims and Jews, “sufficiently similar,” is enough at least to get the conversation going. “The God of Abraham,” is enough common ground that we can at least talk together. And, surely we can work together for peace in our community!

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So, anyway, these are my impressions. So proud of my city. So proud to be a part of this event.

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Some Rules for Interfaith Engagement

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A next Monday, May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center Theater. Please help us plan by signing up in advance. (And if you don’t sign up, please come anyways.)

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Okay, so suppose a new family of a different faith moves into the neighborhood. And your kids are the same age, attend the same school, play on the same sports team and you find a great affinity with the new family. And now it’s an evening in the summertime, and you’re sitting on your back patio after having a great cookout and the subject of religion comes up.

What do you say?

What do you not say?

Breathe.

Here are a couple of ideas for Interfaith conversation and engagement that may steady your nerve. Of course, if you have more ideas, please add them in the comments below:

    1. The goal is not conversion, it’s relationship. So relax. In the tradition in which I grew up, there was tons of pressure to convert people. In my tradition, people from church would go door-to-door “soul-winning.” They would knock on the door and launch into a spiel about their faith, trying to convince people to convert.

      I suppose we could have an argument about the effectiveness of such strategies, but that’s not what you’re after here. You want to have an ongoing friendship. So stop stressing about getting people to “pray a prayer,” or “come to our church,” or go through “four spiritual laws.”

      Coming from a Christian perspective, your goal is to live out your faith in this relationship, to demonstrate love towards every human being. So relax, be yourself, and be loving. 

    2. Ask questions. Sometimes we convince ourselves that some questions are too dumb to ask, and so we choose to stay ignorant. Which is itself dumb. If you don’t know why your neighbor wears a headcovering, ask her. Ask kindly, and respectfully, but ask. I have NEVER been offended when someone asks me an honest, sincere question. And especially when it comes to matters of faith – where there are thousands of different religions, sects, denominations and viewpoints, asking why someone practices in a particular way isn’t out-of-bounds at all!

      (2a) Get curious. This is true of ANY relationship, but if you want to grow a friendship, get curious about your friend. Ask them about the things they care about. Ask them to teach you something about what they’re interested in. Do they have a great flower garden? Ask them about it. Do they fly the W? Ask them about why they love the Cubs so much! Ask them about their religion. Learn something new about their faith.

      A couple months ago I read a book just because I heard my good friend say, “It’s my favorite religious book.” I’m curious about my friend, so I read the book he was talking about. I recently listened to the Hamilton soundtrack, because my friend told me she liked it so much. And so I gave it a listen because I was curious about my friend and why she might like it so much. (And then I too, fell in love with Hamilton!)

    3. Don’t project upon your neighbor what you read in a Facebook article. In other words, there is no Christian that speaks for all Christians, Muslim who speaks for all Muslims or Jew who speaks for all Jews. So, just because you read an article online that said “Christians want to drop bombs in the Middle East,” you shouldn’t assume that represents the views of your neighbor. So, invoking rule #2, just ask the question, “I read something the other day online, what do you think?”

      (3a) You might need to stop reading online articles. To be honest, there’s a lot of BS out there – especially about Muslims. If you aren’t reading it on CNN, NPR or NYT or some other respected news site, you really need to be careful.

    4. Find things you agree upon. Even among my closest friends, we don’t agree about everything. And while we aren’t afraid to talk about those differences, we also don’t focus on those things either. Rather, we probably spend more time talking about the things we DO agree on, causes that we can all rally behind. And if this is a neighbor we’re talking about, you have things built in: common schools, the neighborhood, etc.

    5. Don’t back down from what you believe. In fact, a healthy relationship can tolerate and actually benefit from a degree of tension. Oftentimes we only grow when pushed. Having friends of a different faith, denomination or sect can actually strengthen our own beliefs. So, when the conversation “goes there,” don’t be afraid to say what you believe in the kindest, most loving way possible. As my friend Michael Danner said, in response to my last interfaith post, “I actually want my friends of other faiths – and of no faith – to try to proselytize me. Not disrespectfully. Not manipulatively. Not coercively or arrogantly. But through passionate, informed, loving persuasion.”
    6. Believe the best of your friend or neighbor. Believe that they believe the things they believe for good reasons. Believe that they are equal to you in intelligence, equal to you in devotion, equal to you in their love for their religion and the country you both live in. Believe that they believe following their religion is helping them become a better version of themselves.

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Okay, that’s my list. I’m sure there are other great ideas. What are some additional guidelines for interfaith engagement?

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Jesus on Interfaith Dialogue and Cooperation

I’ve been working with a team of local clergy to bring together the next Peace for Peoria event – a town hall style Q&A on May 16th at the Peoria Civic Center. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be writing about interfaith issues.

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Last week, I had the opportunity to sit on a panel for a class at Illinois State University on interfaith dialogue. I sat on the panel with an Imam and Rabbi from Peoria. The question we were each asked for our opening remarks was something like this: what in your religious tradition draws you to interfaith dialogue? Here’s what I said:

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I need to start by owning my story. I grew up in a very xenophobic religious context. For example, I remember religious tracts from my youth that depicted the pope burning in hell. While we didn’t strictly believe we were the ONLY faithful remnant, we sure were wary, even of those in other Protestant traditions. But as I grew up, went to a more broadly evangelical seminary, and got to know people in other faith traditions, my horizons expanded.

I’m just saying, I’ve grown in my understanding of things, and I’m sure I will continue to grow. So these thoughts are still being formed. But to answer the question, I think there are generally three theological camps when it comes to interfaith dialogue, and Jesus has something to say to each.

The first is that “they” are our enemies. A Presidential candidate who says, “I think Islam hates us,” is choosing to propagate a narrative that says “they” are our enemies. When I wrote a post about the open house at one of the mosques here in Peoria a couple of weeks ago, I had a couple different people contact me with questions out of this perspective. And one of the things I heard is a common Christian idea about Islam, that “Muslims may say they are peaceful, but they’re just saying it to get power, and once they do, they’ll implement Sharia law.”

Even if this is in fact reality, Jesus couldn’t be more clear in the Sermon on the Mount that we are to love and pray for our enemies. And if, for the sake of argument, I grant the premise, it just feels like an excuse not to love. And yes, what it means to love and pray for ISIS is super complicated. But it’s much less complicated to love and pray for our Muslim neighbors in the Midwest.

So, even if you believe that Muslims are your enemy, if you identify as a follower of Jesus, then you are compelled to find ways to show love to Muslims in our community.

A second theological idea is that those of other faiths are not enemies but, rather, are just misguided. For example, many people I know are able to look past the rhetoric of conservative media and understand that Muslims and ISIS are not one and the same (just like Christians and the KKK are not one and the same). Many Christians believes Muslims (and those of other traditions/religions) are wonderful people who are simply on the wrong path.

I would suggest then, that our theological compulsion in such cases should be driven by Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan. If we believe someone is misguided, don’t we have a Christian responsibility to reach out and care for them, even at personal cost?

FInally, I believe there’s yet another way to view interfaith dialogue and cooperation. I was thinking the other day about these verses in the Gospel of Luke:

“Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

“Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”

-Luke 10:49-50

Whatever you may think about demons, can we all at least agree that in the context Luke is written, driving out demons is a good thing? So, Jesus seems to be saying that anyone doing good things is “for you.”

I was thinking about the blog post I wrote a couple weeks ago. If the local Imam is doing something to promote peace, isn’t he then my co-laborer as a peacemaker? If the Rabbi is doing something good in the community, isn’t he “with us”? It seems Jesus is pushing his disciples to think of “us” as a much bigger concept than “those with whom we agree.”

I know it’s challenging for those of us who grew up with a strong sense of “our group is right” to think this way. But I’m challenged by Jesus’ words. I think our mentality most of the time is “If you’re not with us somewhere close to 100%, then you’re against us.” But Jesus said almost exactly the opposite.

Hmmmmmm.

So what do you think? Does your theology drive you toward interfaith dialogue and cooperation? Why or why not?

 

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They Will Know We are Christians by Our Love (by our love)

We are one in the Spirit. We are one in the Lord.

And we pray that all unity will one day be restored.

And they’ll know we are Christians by our love (by our love).

This dirge of a song – written almost entirely in minor chords – was penned in the 1960s by a parish priest in Chicago’s south side. Peter Scholtes wrote it for his youth choir for a series of ecumenical, interracial gatherings when he couldn’t find an existing song to express the unity of the groups gathering.

Somehow, I’m pretty sure when we sang it in my church youth groups and at Sunday night church (where we got to wear jeans and sing “casual songs”… gasp!) we didn’t sing it in the spirit in which it was written.

Speaking only for myself, I think I meant it exclusively in the context of the room where I was singing it. What I meant was something sort of like this:

We (young, white, middle class, conservative Baptists) are one in our beliefs about the Bible and probably some other stuff, including the Spirit (who, by the way, does NOT cause people to speak in tongues!).”

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I’m a Protestant. At the root of our identity as Protestants is Martin Luther standing at the Diet of Worms declaring, “On this I take my stand. I can do no other. God help me.” And while historically, I don’t believe Martin Luther exactly intended for the fractures that ensued, protesting, splitting off, starting over, creating one’s own thing based upon one’s ideas about God, church, etc. became the calling card of Protestants. (If you want to get overwhelmed, go check out the Wikipedia entry of “List of Christian Denominations.” YIKES!)

Occasionally, a denomination starts out of geographical convenience or a sense of community and fellowship that emerges amongst friends. Most often though, new denominations start when our beliefs about God convince us that we can no longer worship or partner with our fellow believers. And sometimes this is true. Several years ago, I was meeting with a monk and we talked about the eucharist and worship and how we would each be welcome in each other’s’ church and how praying together seemed right and good, but neither one could take the eucharist in each other’s church because of our theological differences.

This is fair. Some differences really are so significant that they get in the way of worshipping together. But, even in this conversation where we respected each other’s differences, we looked for our unity in Jesus. (And, I’m completely comfortable going to mass and receiving a blessing from the priest, rather than the Eucharist. I wouldn’t want that to be my experience every week, but I’m cool with it when the occasion arises.)

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But can I be a bit ornery? Can I play devil’s advocate for just a minute?

Isn’t our unity as believers supposed to be found in Jesus? Isn’t our unity supposed to be found in the eucharist, no matter what we believe happens to the bread & wine? Isn’t it possible to say, “we might have different ideas about God, but we agree that Jesus is the center of our unity”?

Sometimes I feel like we’ve bought into the whole stupid enlightenment idea that we are defined by our thoughts about God. But it seems like Jesus is more concerned with our posture in relation to God – that we live in a posture of following after him.

And following Jesus looks like this: love.

“Hey, Jesus. You say a lot of great things, tell a lot of perplexing stories, but boil it down for us to a headline: what’s the greatest commandment?”

“Love God,” Jesus replied, then continued, “And the second command is like the first. Love your neighbor in the same way you love yourself. Everything else hangs on these two.”

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I’d like to imagine Mr. Peter Scholtes sitting at his keyboard trying out lyrics…

“They will know we are Christians by our right beliefs about God.” I hope not, because we’re all wrong somehow.

“They will know we are Christians by our stance on abortion/gay marriage/health care/political affiliations.” The church can’t even get anywhere close to a unanimous answer on these!

“They will know we are Christians by our morality.” Dear, God, if this is the case, we are screwed. Even our clergy have a hard time keeping themselves pure!

“They will know we are Christians by how great our band sounds and how much fog the machine rolls out onto the stage.” <facepalm> I hope no one actually says this.

“They will know we are Christians by the wittiness of our t-shirts and/or bumpers stickers.” “Faithbook: Jesus wants to put you in His Book. Do you accept?” (Here’s a pinterest board of the Christian t-shirts…again, YIKES!)

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“They will know we are Christians by our love (by our love).”

So simple and so difficult at the same time. I think this is the problem. Understanding what Jesus is saying is simple but it’s really, really hard to love well. Especially, when the standard is my own love of self. And so, we opt for the easier pathway: t-shirts, morals crusades, and intellectual positions about God.

Yes, I know this whole choosing to love, choosing to do the hard thing, choosing to stay in it (whatever “it” is), when what you really want to do is run away is hard and messy and not always clear. But this is the pathway of Jesus.

“They will know we are Christians by our love (by our love).”

(the photo is of Sarah Bessey’s book Out of Sorts)

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