Monthly Archives: March 2018

Why I am a horrible evangelist

One of my Lenten things, one I actually did, was read through Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life again, for the first time in several years. Since I use his 5-fold framework for the Christian life – worship, community, discipleship, service, witness – as an examination of conscience on an ongoing basis, it wasn’t surprising, but his, well, evangelical point that the Christian life should be centered around the Great Commandments (Love God and neighbor) and the Great Commission (go into all the world, preaching the gospel and baptizing) came out strong in my reading this time. Mostly because, while I am working on the former, I am horrible at the latter.

As if to prove the point, a friend of mine who is a professed atheist but who gets dragged to church (long story) posted this:

An Early Thought for Sunday: Faith is weird. SRSLY. It’s weird. As The Holy Bible explains it, “Faith is the substance of things hoped for; the evidence of thing unseen.”

My faith in science fits this description perfectly, but I would add: Test it, test it, and then test it again. And when you’re done doing that, test it again.

An absolutely crucial element of my faith is bold, unapologetic, doubt.

Doubt. I call bullshit.

My faith in science makes me hammer against it with questions science cannot answer. Science asks. It challenges. And challenges. It doesn’t worship. Faith does.

The fact that my first reaction is “I love this” – the authenticity of his faith claim, the frank assessment of his view of Christianity, the challenge of doubt – probably can be admitted into evidence in the case against me as an evangelist. I mean, the really good evangelists are great counterpunchers who would be already prepping their responses before they finish the first sentence of his post. Not me.

First of all, he’s right. Not only that, he’s not the first to make the point. Lookit, St. Paul writes at the beginning of I Corinthians, one of the oldest books of the New Testament, that we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles (I Cor 1:23). Weird, in other words. SRSLY.

So, if I were a half-decent evangelist, I would point to the arguments of St. Thomas Aquinas, who built on philosophical principles to argue for God’s existence at the beginning of his Summa Theologica by pointing to the sheer orderliness of creation as an argument for a creator. Or I would cite the astrophysicists and microbiologists who started out as atheists but realized that what the comic improbability of what they studied with the tools of science led them to a reasoning toward an ordering force. Or throw Lee Strobel’s Case for Christ out there as an example of an atheist journalist who was flipped by his own research. Or I would point to the seeming universality of a moral code, even one we flaunt, as a sign of a natural law. Or that we see cross-cultural examples of heroic self-sacrifice, flying in the face of natural instincts of self-preservation. Or the unfailing existence of laughter, joy, art and beauty as signs that we were made to be more than efficient Darwinist survivors.

But, honestly, I’m not interested in making those cases. It’s not that I’m lazy (though I am). It’s that the God who I seek to center my life around isn’t an impersonal force that philsophical arguments can get me to.

Ultimately, I’m a lousy evangelist because I’m not faithful, I’m not a believer, in the sense that agnostics and atheists are operating in the question. In the West we think of belief as a matter of the intellect, as the will accepting tenets of who God is and what that enjoins upon us. But that’s not what it is, at least for me.

Faith is about the heart, not the head, first. It’s about being in a loving relationship, not a cognitive acknowledgement.

The best I can do as a comparison is to say, I love my wife. Intellectually, I want to understand her as best I can, to know her as well as I can, to figure out how best to serve her, to be sure I understand what she’s saying to me. If you want a discussion about whether or not she exists? Sorry. If you want to hammer me with questions about whether I can prove she is real? That’s a bullshit conversation that’s a waste of my time as I pursue loving her to my fullest. Not interested in the conversation. I’m just going to focus on loving her.

Same thing about God.

Now, before you go Aww, that’s so sweet, stop it. What I just said there is a horrible thing for a Christian who is called to spread the Gospel. Because I’m basically saying to my friends who haven’t already had a loving encounter with God, Good luck to you. That’s awful. I should work harder at helping you meet this God that I say that I know and love.

But the learning about, for me, comes after the encounter, not before, and I can’t manufacture that encounter for you. I could have learned every possible thing about my now-wife, without meeting her, and it wouldn’t have made me love her. I can tell you a lot about this God, but about really doesn’t do the trick. All I can do is ask God to go meet you where you are, and, I’ll be honest, God doesn’t do a lot of things I ask.

Incidentally, my favorite professor in seminary, a New Testament scholar of no relation named Luke Johnson, made a sorta similar argument about the origins of the Gospels.

Today, we get caught up in whether the Bible is historically and scientifically accurate as if the accuracy by modern standards proves its worth. But Dr. Johnson’s belief was that the central moment of Christianity was the Resurrection, which lay chronologically between the life of Jesus and the founding of the “religion”. The earliest ones to encounter the resurrected Jesus were dumb-founded – they had an experience of a risen Jesus that was strong enough that they all died horrible deaths as martyrs rather than renounce that core experience. But they really didn’t know what the heck happened in that experience, and so they used the language they had – not just the actual language, but the stories and archetypes of their culture – to try to make sense of what they had lived.

So the virgin birth, the prophecies, the allusions to the Jewish Messiah, the exorcisms and healings? Yes, there were contemporary parallels to all of these in the literature of the day. That was the authors’ point, to Johnson – take all that those roles and images applied to a slew of now-forgotten contemporary heroes, and Jesus was all that and a bag of chips. If they could have found other stories of divinity conjoined with humanity, they would have used those too. Not to try to sell someone on a concept that was, well, seriously weird. But to try to testify who it was that they experienced after Jesus died a gruesome death, who it was they loved so much that they followed him down that same road. Experience first, about-ing later.

Sorry. I really do wish I was a better evangelist. If I find a good one, I’ll send her or him your way. If I ever get the knack, I’ll circle back to this. (Not that you wanted or asked for one.) But Happy Easter nonetheless, whether it comes wit a life-changing experience or just nightmarish parking in the church lot and some milk chocolate bunnies.

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The Four Essential Elements of Successful Living

Last year, I was asked by a group to come talk about healthy living. (Obviously, they did this sight unseen.) As I tried to gin up a talk about this, I stumbled back upon a favorite framework, the Power 9 pulled by Dan Buettner and his colleagues from the Blue Zones study. It worked well with the group, even though the Blue Zones are identified as places where people are significantly more likely to live to 100, and the group were 20-somethings. That underscored for me that they are pretty universal.

But something told me they were more and less than they needed to be. So I tried to boil them down, and I ended up with four essential elements of successful living: Health, Security, Connection, and Purpose.

Blue Zones has a rap for just focusing on health, but as I read it, the study actually goes 3-for-4, especially as it’s implemented in the US as a designation for communities that aspire to be great places. Yes, the focus is on physical health: diet (plant slant, hari hachi bu, wine at 5), exercise (move naturally), rest (sorta – they actually could do more about this, but “down shift” makes the cut). But they also get connection (right tribe, belong, family first). And purpose is its own one of the 9. So it misses on security.

But let me flesh out what I’m using for my four, because I’ve added a little around the edges:

  • Health
    • Nutrition (plant slant, hari hachi bu, hydration)
    • Exercise (cardio, strength, flexibility)
    • Rest (sleep, play, reflection/meditation/prayer/worship)
  • Security
    • Physical (from the elements, from violence)
    • Emotional (protection from harmful levels of anxiety about present or future conditions)
  • Connection
    • Close friends and circles of mutual care
    • Casual connections – face-to-face daily interactions
  • Purpose
    • Meaningful work (paid or informal)
    • Legacy (contributing to a better future)

These are the things, I will posit, that we all need to thrive. We don’t need them all, all the time – anyone who has pulled an all-nighter to get an important project finished or to spend time with someone beloved can attest to that – but over the long run, we need all of these to be present at some level for us to live well.

And here in the US, our systems and our culture our failing us because they make these elements unduly difficult to achieve for most people. The nature of work is such that it too seldom diminishes help, provides insufficient emotional (and sometimes physical) security, hurts some of our most important connections, and does not feed a sense of purpose. That’s not true for everyone, of course. But it seems to be true for a growing number of people.

So, what to do? Change comes at the legal, systemic and cultural levels. Changing laws is hard, but is simple when compared to the others. Unwinding systems of, say, racism or classism, takes not only changing laws but changing economic incentives. Changing culture – what we as a collective body of people value – is even more complicated and difficult.

We get caught up in changing laws. That’s probably because it’s a competitive battle of interests that is easy to understand in the context of our tribal nature and our modern competitiveness. Laws change when “we” triumph over “them” (or vice versatile). But when we change laws, we really have only begun, and if we don’t recognize that, we are doomed to fight an eternal war over whatever issue it is we’ve picked. To bring true change, we need to replace the systems that made the laws we changed make sense, and we need to change the cultural values that celebrated the outcomes of that unjust system based on those unjust laws. Even beyond the changing of laws, those changes require the changing of hearts, which is almost always slow work.

If what we have in American society is not bringing most people what they need to thrive, what arrangement can do better? I don’t think “What the hell do you have to lose?” is a compelling argument. We need to find a better place to go before we decide to leave where we are.

I don’t have a certain answer, but I want to flesh out a hypothesis. I’m going to work from an assumption that may or may not be right; if it’s wrong, perhaps that discovery can point us to something better. My hypothesis will be that two principles, well applied, can get us to a better outcome. One is solidarity. The other is subsidiarity.

By solidarity, I mean the essential recognition that we all are worthy of dignity and we all belong to each other. Those of us who are advantaged in each moment are called to recognize this true equality of dignity and value in those who are disadvantaged in this and every moment.

By subsidiarity, I mean the theory that the decisions that communicate the most dignity are the most personal ones, those that are made closest to the subject. This goes beyond what Americans know as federalism (the idea that government is better at the state level than the federal one) and even beyond government alone to apply to all institutions. All things considered, the smaller, the better. The family should provide what it can provide. Local institutions – neighbors, communities of membership, local collectives, should support the family. Local governments should support those local institutions. And so on.

I’m going to work on this hypothesis for a while and see where it takes us. Specifically, let’s see if it can deliver a better model for empowering health, security, connection and purpose than what we have today.