Monday, October 29, 2018

Becoming Liberal

I've written on this before, but a confluence of our Journey Group Bible study continuing to explore the parable of the prodigal son, the message this past Sunday on mercy, and current events have brought me back to my ongoing story of becoming more liberal.  This will be a longer post, but also a bit more personal and free-form.

There's an adage that states "if you are not liberal at twenty, you have no heart; if you are not a conservative at forty, you have no brain."  Well, I don't like to think of myself as heartless or brainless, but I seem to be on that opposite trajectory.  As I age, I am becoming more liberal.  More tolerant.  In politics, in religion, in life in general.

I grew up in the small town, conservative Texas and I'm currently living in another small town in Texas very similar to my home town.  And while the specific political party landscape changed in my early years, the bent towards the conservative always remained.  Small town America is the land of the status quo.  Change happens at the pace of life.  Things remain the same for what seems like forever, and then all of the sudden small things change here and there as the new generation fully replaces the old.

This is especially true in many churches that I've seen. Things do change as new ministers and preachers come into the church and the congregation adjusts to their particular formats, but the churches would inevitably set into a particular repetitive pattern.  For years in my home church everyone could plan out exactly when the congregation would standup, sit down, when the hymns would be sung, how long the message would generally be, etc.  While there is comfort in repetition and familiarity, it also runs a great danger of rote mechanism.  Of services run on human programming and familiarity and not the Spirit of God.

It should not come as a shock to anyone that knows me that while I've spent most of my life in small towns, I've always been a city boy at heart.  I can appreciate a beautiful view of nature, but give me a thriving metropolis and a great skyline any day.  I love the vibrancy, the culture, the arts, and the activities.  I love to find a city's soul and connect with the particular feel of that community.  To understand how Austin differs from Dallas (or at least how it used to).

As such, while I can be completely comfortable in my hometown (and by extension, where I currently live), I've sometimes felt at odds with the communities in which I've lived.  I was one of those students always ready to graduate and to move on to the next big thing.  For undergraduate, I really only applied to two schools.  And my heart was truly always set on the University of Texas.  I wanted to be in Austin.  In that liberal capital of Texas.  Not that I ever thought of myself as liberal at the time, I just wanted to be in the place where everyone could find their own way and be their own thing.

This desire was a prime example of being slightly in congruent with the community.  In my hometown and in many of the surrounding communities, if you wanted to go to a big school in Texas, you went to Texas A&M.  The school was seen as upholding more conservative values and Bryan/College Station was seen as a more approachable town.  From my visits to A&M with the band, I knew I couldn't go there.  Just from visiting, I couldn't handle the weight of the traditions and expectations.  I wanted to run across the grass and wear a hat in the buildings.  I wanted to spike my hair and dye it orange.  I don't know exactly why it brought out a non-conformist streak in me, but it did.

I have to pause here and thank my wonderful parents for recognizing this difference and helping foster this part of me.  Taking me to musicals in Houston, vacations to great cities and towns across the United States and beyond, allowing me to go to Brightleaf at Duke, just as examples.  And preparing me to be ready for whatever city and college that I wanted to attend.  I know my mom would have loved me to be in a community that was closer and a little more "safe" like College Station.  She did get to see some of the most eccentric parts of Austin when we visited for college selection purposes.  But they let me make that decision and supported me all along the way.

Freshman year at Austin was a culture shock, but a great one.  My dormitory housed more people than lived in my hometown.  It has its own post office and once had its own zip code (currently it makes up a large percentage of one of the Austin zip codes). But I loved being there.  I loved the openness that allowed people to be who they were, not what they were expected to be.  I loved the diverse makeup of the student body and the overwhelming opportunities the campus presented.

Had you asked me at the time, I would have still considered myself conservative, politically.  Even through all four years at UT and everything that Austin represents to most people, I voted for President Bush in 2000 and supported him openly.  Religiously, though, I was reaching a turning point. While I had found a great church community in Georgetown, I had a gnawing sense in me that something was missing, that something more could be done.  Several questions of why we continued to do certain things or believe certain things that were tied only to tradition and not any specific scriptural basis.  Why science was considered so antithetical.  Why so many people had been hurt by churches and how that was acceptable.  I read a few books that heretical approaches.  That threw the baby out with the bath water.  Thankfully, from getting involved with terranova, I was able to read several great books on a different approach, that stripped things back to Biblical basics, but opened up greater possibilities.  A New Kind of Christian, More Ready Than You Realize, A Generous Orthodoxy, Adventures in Missing the Point.  While these did not have all the answers, they started asking the right questions.

"Our big cities are filled with younger brothers who fled from churches in the heartland that were dominated by elder brothers.  When I moved to New York City in the late 1980s to being a new church, I thought I would meet many secular people who had no familiarity with Christianity at all.  I did, but to my surprise I met just as many people who had been raised in churches and in devout families and had come to New York City to get as far away from them as possible.  After about a year of ministry we had two or three hundred people attending services.  I was asked, 'Who is coming to your church?'  Upon reflection, I answered that it was about one-third non-believers, one-third believers, and one-third 'recovering' believers - younger brothers.  I had met so many younger brothers who had been hurt and offended by elder brothers that neither they nor I were sure whether they still believed the Christian faith or not.

The most common examples of this I saw were the many young adults who had come from more conservative parts of the U.S. to take their undergraduate degrees at a New York City school.  Here they met the kind of person they had been warned about for years, those with liberal views on sex, politics, and culture.  Despite what they had been led to believe, those people were kind, reasonable, and open-hearted.  When the students began to experience a change in their own views, they found that many people back home, especially in churches, responded in a hostile and bigoted way.  Soon they had rejected their former views along with their faith.  The elder brothers had turned them into younger brothers.

We discovered, however, that younger brothers were willing to come to our church because they saw that we made a clear distinction between the gospel and religious moralism, and that provided and opportunity in which they could explore Christianity from a new perspective.

It is natural for younger brothers to think that elder brotherness and Christianity are exactly the same thing.  But Jesus says they are not.  In his parable, Jesus deconstructs the religiosity that is one of the main problems with this world.  In this parable Jesus says to us, 'Would you please be open to the possibility that the gospel, real Christianity, is something very different from religion?'  That gives many people hope that there is a way to know God that doesn't lead to the pathologies of moralism and religiosity."
Tim Keller, Prodigal God

terranova started by looking at a simple but difficult question - why did the church in a Christian school town have such a hard time getting college students to come to church?  Despite Southwestern University being two and a half miles from First Baptist Georgetown, the college and career class of First Baptist Georgetown only had a handful of students.  And so began a study to understand why so few of these students felt church to be an integral part of their life.  The most common refrain was that of the younger brother who had been put off by elder brothers and wanted no part of it anymore.  Of students who had already been hurt or ostracized by the church and were through with it all.  This lead to studies regarding the post-modern church movement and the emergent church movement, and again, while they did not provide perfect answers, they did help challenge a lot of pre-conceived ideas about what church has to be that are extra-Biblical.   To start us asking the questions that could help loosen some of the unnecessary traditions that we hold onto too tightly.  Does church have to only be early on a Sunday morning?  Why are the only forms of worship explored during the service music and sermon?  What about artists?  Is there a Biblical basis for an altar call?  Should the altar be open throughout the service for prayer and petition?  Why do we have age based Sunday School?  Would it be better to organize by topic?  To mix the ages so the young learn from the old and vice versa?

Can we be intentional in structuring church to make it approachable and graceful to the un-churched and de-churched, and not just comfortable for the current churched?  Are we using language that only makes sense to those already here?

From this framework and this beginning, I've been drawn to those churches that hold to Biblical truths, but are free to question everything else.  Unchanging message, but ever adapting methods. And as I age, I find this something that is not only something that aligns with my preferences in worship, but something that I am discovering is vital to the health and welfare of the church.  I've written before on the negative perception the church can have in America, and wondering if we have forgotten how to love our brother.  Has the church become too rigid to meet the needs of the lost anymore?  Are we too set in elder brother ways?  It's why this statement from Prodigal God has continued to impact me.  "If the preaching of our ministers and the practice of our parishioners do not have the same effect on people that Jesus had, then we must not be declaring the same message that Jesus did."

This past Sunday, the message was on the Beatitude "Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy."  I think our pastor summed up my concern better than I could in the closing to his message.

"Now let me just end with this last thing.  I really thought, man, if I could just find a really great story of forgiveness to kinda wrap this thing up, then that would just be kinda like the cherry on top, you know what I mean.  And here's the deal, you can read literally hundreds of stories online, much of which are a parable of sorts, not necessarily true, others of which aren't faith based.  Others that people are making into movies like Louie Zamperini and Unbroken.  

Great Stories.  

You know here's where I've found a little bit perplexing, (and not just because I couldn't find these stories, but also because of what I've witnessed just in my own life) is that most of the stories of forgiveness come outside the walls of the church.   

And that perplexes me.  

Most people leave churches because of forgiveness issues.  Relationships are estranged, they're broken, they're confused.   And I think we are the people who have received the greatest mercy, and yet we tend to be the less merciful.  

I hope that perplexes you as much as it does me.  

Why are churches so hateful to one another?  

Why is there such a spirit of competition?  

Why are there so many malicious things said? 

Why are we so mean and hateful?  

Because it's a sign of people who do not understand what mercy has been granted to them.  And oh, how far we've come from being beggarly.  And so may we return to the heart of the beggar.  And may God do a great work in us as we deal with other people the way that God has dealt with us.  

Brandon Bachtel, Stonepoint Church, Upside Down Week 5

And it is these questions and the perception of the church that have also pushed me more liberal politically, especially because of the increasing entangling of the Republican party with the evangelical conservative church.  With the idea that the salvation for our country lies with one political party.

Something started changing during Barack Obama's two terms as president.  While I did not agree with all of Obama's policies, I recognized him as someone who was trying to do what he thought best for the country.  He was someone who was well-reasoned, principled, and moral.  For the life of me, I could not take the vitriol, the hate, and often outright lies that were shared and fully believed about him and his presidency.  Those that ran from day one of his term of office and are still continuing today.  You could say that social media played a large part of my growing dissatisfaction as it made all of this misinformation and grumbling very, very visible on a daily basis.

By the 2016 primary season, I had reached my tipping point. Trump seemed to represent the antithesis of everything the Republican party I knew stood for.  As I've said before, I see a lot of comparison between Bill Clinton and Donald Trump.  Both known womanizers.  Both in many ways populist candidates.  And yet, somehow, Bill Clinton was to be opposed at all costs, but Donald Trump was embraced and hailed, all for the want of a particular letter at the end of their name.  I couldn't handle the dissonance.  And I have yet to be shown anything different.

This was especially galling to me because of the support that Trump developed and continues to have among conservative evangelicals.  To have pastors outright state you have to vote Republican to be a good Christian was shocking and repulsive.  And to see those pastors like Robert Jeffress continue to rise in prominence when he makes statements like "I believe any Christian who would sit at home and not vote for the Republican nominee...that person is being motivated by pride rather than principle...".  Even Franklin Graham more recently with "Christians should be aware of candidates who call themselves progressive.  Progressive is generally just a code word for someone who leans toward socialism, who does not believe in God & who will likely vote against Godly principles that are so important to our nation."

This mixture makes me think of a warning from Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor.  "Jesus was not killed by atheism and anarchy.  He was brought down by law and order allied with religion, which is always a deadly mix.  Beware those who claim to know the mind of God and are prepared to use force, if necessary, to make others conform.  Beware those who cannot tell God's will from their own."

That is the ultimate way of the elder brother.  To force conformity to the social norm, to the expectation, to the "moral" requirement.  And to write off anyone who does not hold to those standards.  But Jesus in the parable of the prodigal son, revealed that this path was just as wrong as the younger brothers and was potentially more disastrous, for it blinded the elder brother to his own need for salvation.  That worldview allowed the elder brother to continue to believe he was "good" in his own eyes.

And that is the greatest issue I have with this political relationship between the church and the current Republican party.  The blindness the mix has to the effect of the relationship.  To its impact on our witness.  The great increase in number of younger brothers turned away from elder brothers now seeking to impose moralism on a religious and political level.  The increase in people turned off by this quest for political power.  That cannot handle the disconnect between the actions we call sinful and shameful on one hand but excuse on the other.  I guess you can say I am one of those younger brothers in this respect.

Throughout this process, I began to question why I originally held myself out as conservative.  Why I identified with the Republican party.  Was it because that is what my family generally aligned themselves with?  Did it adequately align with what I believe?  And it made me question why I was so opposed to the Democratic party.  Were their policies truly antithetical to what I valued?  And of course, what I found was that each party has policies I support and policies I do not.  Particular policies that are of greater emphasis in each election.   A reminder to myself that while parties provide a general framework, the individual candidate is more important to my internal decision process.  Again, I discovered better questions.

Further, I traveled more and saw what life was like in other countries.  Saw that those scary systems that some politicians would say could never work over here worked quite well for a large part of the world.  That other countries probably had a healthier division between the church and government, to the benefit of both.

I became a parent.  And I started discovering I wanted better things for my children.  That some of the answers provided as to why things are the way they are were not acceptable any more.   That we could do better and that we should do better.

I want a church that stands separate and apart and that proclaims the unabashed Truth regardless of and distinct from any political party or candidate.  A church devoid of nationalism or American exceptionalism, focusing only on the great nation to come and the broader body of believers that we belong to that cuts across nationality, race, and creed.  A church that is not afraid of questions.  That's not afraid of the answer "I don't know" and not afraid of digging in together to learn more.

I want a government that protects the rights of all its citizens, speaking up for the least of these and protecting them from the tyranny of the majority.  That fights for social justice and equality and does so in a religiously neutral fashion. 

I want us all to see greater freedom in both.

I write this not to persuade anyone regarding their vote, one way or the other.  If you would like a deeper conversation, I'm happy to have that in a more direct manner to discuss specific issues and why my vote sides in a particular direction there.  I write merely to offer background and perhaps provide color to my posts of late.  Particularly given the increase in politically related posts surrounding the mid-term elections.

I pray you all have similar deeply held convictions for your overall outlook on life.  I pray for younger brothers to recognize their need for direction and to return home.  I pray for elder brothers to recognize the inability of their works and to go in to reconcile and join the feast.  I pray for us all as we try to navigate in a continually fracturing and factioning world.

I pray we all start asking better questions.

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