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Why Christian? – The difficulty of having a Progressive Faith in a Conservative Tradition

I consider myself an orthodox Christian.

Not Eastern, but orthodox in the sense that I adhere to the essential core doctrines of Christianity, like the Trinity, Original Sin, two natures of Christ, the real resurrection, etc…

I also belong a Lutheran denomination (ELCIC) that allows same-sex marriage, ordains women and LGBT people, teaches its pastors historical-critical methods of biblical scholarship, and does any number of other things that many Christians consider heretical.

There is an inherent difficulty in operating in an orthodox and small “c” conservative faith tradition while adopting socially progressive ethics and post-modern scholarship. This difficulty has been churning in the back of my mind for months, and this week it is about to come to the forefront.

My wife and I are headed to the Why Christian? Conference hosted by Nadia Bolz-Weber and Rachel Held Evans. In preparation for the conference, Rachel Held Evans asked the question on her Facebook page “why christian?

And the question was asked in light of recent events in news: The hype around Kim Davis’ stand for “Christian values” in refusing to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples contrasted by the photos of a dead three-year-old Syrian refugee washing up on a Turkish beach.

When fellow Christians are rallying behind someone trying to use the government to impose her beliefs on others in the name of religious freedom, how does one stick with this Christianity business?

When ‘Christian nations’ seem so passive about doing anything about the plight of refugees escaping violence because they are muslims, how do you continue to call yourself Christian?

By definition, Christianity is a conservative faith. No, not conservative in the political sense. Christianity is conservative in the practical sense. Christianity seeks to maintain, protect, promote and conserve the teaching, preaching and good news of God in Jesus Christ. Christianity is trying to bring the past forward – a conservative way of being. And yet, along the way Christianity has also conserved things like patriarchy, sexism, systems of power and abuse, bigotry and racism, judgementalism and close-mindedness.

Christianity has a lot of baggage to contend with, and our baggage is frequently getting in our own way. Our baggage is often the thing Christians mistakenly hold up and shout loudly to the world that this is what God – not just Christianity – is all about.

A common refrain among those who struggle with the conservative baggage has been to drop the Christian label in favour of “following Jesus.” And who can blame them? Considering the Christianity that is so frequently presented in the media and practiced so widely, or when Kim Davis or Donald Trump or Fox News is our spokesperson, we should want to say, “I am not with them.”

The Kingdom of God is Near - the Lion of St. Mark
The Kingdom of God is Near – the Lion of St. Mark

Ten days ago, I got a tattoo (insert joke – “a pastor walks into a tattoo shop…”). Getting a tattoo is a very intimate experience. For four hours I had to lay still as someone literally did artwork on my body. And yet, during those four hours I had an extremely familiar experience. My tattoo artist and I talked for hours about all the ways that Christians are judgemental, agenda-filled and often put off and offend unchurched people like her. Yet she didn’t find me that way.

My tattoo artist told me that I was not like any pastor she has ever met (well, not quite, as my wife spent an afternoon with her a couple of  weeks before me). I get told that a lot. When I meet with unchurched couples coming to get married, when unchurched families come to have a child baptized, or when unchurched families come for funerals they often tell me that I am not what they expected. Most unchurched people that I get to spend some time with tell me I don’t sound like the Christians on TV, or like their one friend who can’t stop talking about their megachurch pastor, or like their grandma who looks down on them for having tattoos, piercings, not going to church, living in sin or whatever else. I don’t sound like those other Christians because I am cool with questions, even encouraging of them, I share my doubts, and I even share my own frustrations about the judgemental behaviour of many fellow Christians.

Maybe this should make me wonder if I got Christianity wrong along the way? Is the way I practice it so uncommon?

It isn’t.

I have spent far too long studying history and theology in university and at seminary to not know that the way I practice Christianity is fairly consistent with the way it has been practiced throughout history. And most of the Christians I know approach faith the way I do.

Yet, despite the baggage that Christianity carries these days, despite the undignified death that Christendom is undergoing, despite the pop-culture caricature that Christians have become, I can’t walk away from the religion.

I am a Christian, even if Kim Davis gets to speak for me, or Fox News or even… heaven forbid… Donald Trump. 

And I am Christian because following Jesus means being a Christian. It means hanging out with sinners and other people who struggle with the baggage. With people who want to hold on to the baggage at all costs, or people who have been trying to toss it from the bandwagon since before they can remember.

Because believing in Jesus just doesn’t work outside of community. Because taking up our cross and following means we don’t get to avoid all the crosses in the world, but instead Jesus’ ministry happens right where the crosses are. The crosses of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, abuse, control and power.

Dumping Christianity to follow Jesus doesn’t jive with the God who put our baggage on, who literally became our baggage, who used our baggage as his flesh in order to come and meet us in the incarnation.

And of course our baggage, our flesh, made things much more difficult for Jesus, but that was the only way to reach us.

As much as I shake my head this week every time I see a Kim Davis news story scroll by on Facebook. As much as I get enraged when I read that Christians are rallying behind Donald Trump, or rallying behind Stephen Harper here in Canada. As frustrating as it is that the Christianity that is represented in the media is one I neither recognize nor practice.

But I know that this is not the whole story.

I know that the church I grew up in is full of people just like Kim Davis, and they have sponsored 3 refugee families over the past 15 years. In fact, churches are some of the most frequent sponsors of refugees. I know that the grandmothers who guilt their grandkids into bringing their babies to be baptized also knit quilts for Canada’s northern communities and brought sweaters by the truck-load so that Canadian Lutheran World Relief could send 70,000 sweaters to Syrian Refugees last winter. I know that church people who struggle with how fast world is changing and who long for the golden age of Christendom are also regularly volunteering at the soup kitchen, filling the food bank, visiting people in hospitals and old folks homes and are caring for the world in their own small ways.

But most importantly, I know that Christianity is at its best when it is practiced by sinners. Even when those sinners like to tell everyone outside the church that they are the sinners. Christianity is still for sinners.

Christianity, the religion with all this baggage, is also the means by which God meets our broken world and speaks words of promise, grace, and mercy. The baggage filled traditions of Christianity are the means by which God washes and claims us as God’s own, the means by which God feeds us with God’s very Body.

Christianity is the community where God transforms us from broken and flawed people into forgiven and whole. 

And as filled with baggage as Christianity is these days, I need it. We all need it.

Because we need God

and those promises

and that washing

and that food.

I can’t believe in Jesus alone, I need all these messed up people – Christians – to do it with me.


 

Why are you still a Christian? What are your frustrations with Christianity? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

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