May 21, 2019

Rachel, we — the uncool — will miss you

Note from CM: It has been hard for me in the past couple of weeks to summon up the emotional energy to pay tribute to several folks who have died recently. Jean Vanier is one thing — I only know him through his books, and it feels more to me like I’m honoring a hero than a friend when I include posts about him.

But someone like Rachel Held Evans holds a different place in my heart. It’s not as though we were close friends or anything. We’ve talked a couple of times on the phone, especially when I was first writing on this blog, and I’ve corresponded with her occasionally. But I’ve followed her career and life with interest, and she was of the age and sensibilities of my own children. She gave me great hope of a better evangelicalism, a better church, a better spiritual/religious experience where doubts, questions, earthiness, and a more incarnational perspective on life and the Christian pilgrimage would lead the way.

Rachel allowed me to use this piece from her blog back in 2011, and I still love it. I still love her. We will all miss her. May she rest in peace and rise in glory with all the saints.

• • •

BLESSED ARE THE UN-COOL
By Rachel Held Evans

People sometimes assume that because I’m a progressive 30-year-old who enjoys Mumford and Sons and has no children, I must want a super-hip church — you know, the kind that’s called “Thrive” or “Be” and which boasts “an awesome worship experience,” a air-trade coffee bar, its own iPhone app, and a pastor who looks like a Jonas Brother.

While none of these features are inherently wrong, (and can of course be used by good people to do good things), these days I find myself longing for a church with a cool factor of about 0.

That’s right.

I want a church that includes fussy kids, old liturgy, bad sound, weird congregants, and — brace yourself — painfully amateur “special music” now and then.

Why?

Well, for one thing, when the gospel story is accompanied by a fog machine and light show, I always get this creeped-out feeling like someone’s trying to sell me something. It’s as though we’re all compensating for the fact that Christianity’s not good enough to stand on its own so we’re adding snacks.

But more importantly, I want to be part of an un-cool church because I want to be part of a community that shares the reputation of Jesus, and like it or not, Jesus’ favorite people in the world were not cool.

They were mostly sinners, misfits, outcasts, weirdos, poor people, sick people, and crazy people.

Cool congregations can get so wrapped up in the “performance” of church that they forget to actually be the church, a phenomenon painfully illustrated by the story of the child with cerebral palsy who was escorted from the Easter service at Elevation Church for being a “distraction.”

Really?

It seems to me that this congregation was distracted long before this little boy showed up! In their self-proclaimed quest for “an explosive, phenomenal movement of God — something you have to see to believe,” they missed Jesus when he was right under their nose.

Was the paralytic man lowered from the rooftop in the middle of a sermon a distraction?

Was the Canaanite woman who harassed Jesus and his disciples about healing her daughter a distraction?

Were the blind men from Jericho who annoyed the crowd with their relentless cries a distraction?

Jesus didn’t think so. In fact, he seemed to think that they were the point.

Jesus taught us that when we throw a banquet or a party, our invitation list should include “the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind.” So why do our church marketing teams target the young, the hip, the healthy, and the resourced?

In Bossypants (a book you should really go out and buy this very instant), Tina Fey describes working for the YMCA in Chicago soon after graduating from college. This particular YMCA included, “a great mix of high-end yuppie fitness facility, a wonderful community resource for families, and an old-school residence for disenfranchised men,” so Fey shares a host of funny stories about working the front desk. One such story involves one of the residents forgetting to take his meds, bumping into a young mom on her way to a workout session, and saying something wildly inappropriate (and very funny — you should definitely go out and get this book). Fey writes, “The young mother was beside herself. That’s the kind of trouble you get when diverse groups of people actually cross paths with one another. That’s why many of the worst things in the world happen in and around Starbucks bathrooms.”

Church can be a lot like the Y…or a Starbucks bathroom.

We have one place for the un-cool people (our ministries) and another place for the cool people (our church services). When we actually bump into one another, things can get awkward, so we try to avoid it.

It’s easy to pick on Elevation Church in this case, but the truth is we’re all guilty of thinking we’re too cool for the least of these. Our elitism shows up when we forbid others from contributing art and music because we deem it unworthy of glorifying God, or when we scoot our family an extra foot or two down the pew when the guy with Aspergers sits down. Having helped start a church, I remember hoping that our hip guests wouldn’t be turned off by our less-than-hip guests. For a second I forgot that in church, of all places, those distinctions should disappear.

Some of us wear our brokenness on the inside, others on the outside.

But we’re all broken.

We’re all un-cool.

We’re all in need of a Savior.

So let’s cut the crap, pull the plug, and have us some distracting church services — the kind where Jesus would fit right in.

Richard Beck on Weakness and the Spirit

Self-Portrait – Disintegration. Photo by Cyril Rana at Flickr

Note from CM: Thanks to Richard Beck for his series on Paul and the Law at his blog, Experimental Theology. Here is a tremendously insightful post on Paul’s concept of “the flesh” that opens the door, in my view, for a much richer, deeper, and broader understanding of salvation.

• • •

Richard Beck on Weakness and the Spirit

In my post yesterday regarding Paul’s observations concerning Law and Sin a critical piece was missing: the flesh.

Specifically, according to Paul Sin seizes opportunity through the Law because of the weakness of the flesh. As Paul writes in Romans 8.6-7:

For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot.

In Chapter 7 Paul gives a vivid description about how the flesh is unable, under the power of Sin, to obey God’s Law:

Romans 7.14-15, 18
For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

Notice the key theme: Incapacity.  The flesh does not submit to God’s law; indeed it cannot. I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out.

The deep issue for Paul is human incapacity and weakness, our congenital inability to carry out God’s good, righteous and holy commands.

To be clear, Paul isn’t preaching “total depravity.” In the picture Paul is painting we both know and desire to do the right things. Deep down, we are good people. The problem is that we’re too weak to be the good people we desire to be. The issue isn’t wickedness, but weakness.

Overcoming this incapacity, then, is the main point of salvation. And according to Paul, our fleshly incapacity is overcome by the power of the Spirit: “For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8.13)

What’s interesting here is how this reading of Paul isn’t new or modern. This is the primary way the church fathers understood salvation. Specifically, salvation is less about the forgiveness of sin than the Spirit healing human weakness.

For example, Athanasius describes in On the Incarnation how Adam’s sin returned humanity to a mortal, animal existence. In the Garden, when we had communion with God, we had been protected from death and corruption: “Because of the Word present in them, even natural corruption did not come near them.” But after the Fall, we fell into a weakened mortal state: “When this happened, human beings died and corruption thenceforth prevailed against them.” Under the sway of death, sin began to dominate human existence the whole affair tipping toward madness, violence, and darkness. The Image of God began slipping away from us: “For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated.”

The human being was disappearing. That was the problem. The Image of God in us was being slowly obliterated.

So as we see in Athanasius, the issue isn’t really about our need for God to forgive our sins. The problem was that, separated from God’s life, the entire human project was falling into darkness and chaos. The human being was disappearing, leaving only beasts upon the earth. Sure, God needs to forgive us. But God needs to do something more drastic and dramatic to keep the cosmos from tipping over into death and dissolution, to save and secure the Image of God that was fading from the world.

And God does this more dramatic and drastic thing by reuniting God’s divine nature with human flesh through the Incarnation. In the Incarnation God permanently marks human flesh with His Image. More, through the resurrection of Incarnated flesh, humans were given power over death and corruption.

The key idea here for Athanasius, and for Paul in Romans, is that salvation is fundamentally about power, a power human flesh lacks when separated from God’s divine life. And for Paul, it’s the gift of the Spirit that gives us this power. The Spirit is our tether, our umbilical cord, to God’s life.

So for Paul, the gospel message isn’t primarily about “the forgiveness of sins.” The Good News is fundamentally about reunion and participation in the Divine Life, the power of the Spirit to overcome our weakness and incapacity in the face of Sin and Death:

If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.

Another Look: Emmaus

Emmaus

road taken
friend welcomed
hearts broken
grief spoken
word opened
then home

guest summoned
meal proffered
grace offered
bread broken
eyes opened
christ known

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