Why that photo of Billy Graham matters
This photo, taken during a 95th birthday celebration thrown for the Rev. Billy Graham by his son Franklin, has caused quite the stir in certain circles this week. For an example of the sort of discussion this memento has ignited, check out this thread on my Facebook timeline.
In this and other discussions I’ve seen surrounding this photo, there seems to be a gross misunderstanding of why some people feel a sense of outrage over it. Some who take offense at this article, for example, seem to think that people are angry at Billy Graham for hanging out with the likes of Donald Trump, Rupert Murdoch, and the Fox News gang. Others also accuse the photo’s critics of taking it out of context.
On the contrary, the photo’s critics aren’t upset at Billy Graham for posing with these poseurs. We are indignant over what appears to be the use of Billy Graham as a prop by his son Franklin, in support of the son’s personal aspirations and conservative political agenda.
Lest anyone think this is just a crackpot conspiracy theory based on pure conjecture, here’s some context.
Seven years ago, as Franklin was overseeing the construction of the Billy Graham library (which in reality is more like a mini theme park/museum), his mother—then 86-year-old Ruth Bell Graham—was curled up in a hospital bed, suffering near constant pain from a degenerative spinal condition.
A number of years prior, she and her husband Billy had agreed that they would be buried together in the mountains of North Carolina, at a place called The Cove, not far from their home in Montreat.
Franklin had other plans. He wanted both his parents buried at the small theme park/museum he was constructing near Charlotte. Instead of a quiet space nestled in the place where they had raised five children, Billy and Ruth would find their resting place at the end of a high-traffic walkway, next to a fake barn and a talking animatronic cow.
From her hospital bed, six months before she passed, Ruth Graham called the site a circus. A tourist attraction. She also said the talking cow was tacky.
In the end, Franklin had his way. Ruth Graham is currently laid to rest at the Billy Graham library—not at The Cove.
Billy Graham’s health has been on the decline for years. He’s battled Parkinson’s disease since 1992. He made use of a walker at the 2005 groundbreaking for the Billy Graham library, and by 2010 he was hard of hearing and nearly blind. As of 2012, he had stopped doing public appearances. His son Franklin now acts on his behalf as a spokesperson.
In May 2012, a full-page ad appeared in over a dozen North Carolina newspapers with a statement from Billy Graham, in which he backed an amendment to ban same-sex marriage. “The Bible is clear,” the statement read. “God’s definition of marriage is between a man and a woman.”
In the summer of that same year, a statement was released from Billy Graham, expressing support for the Mike Huckabee-initiated Chick-fil-a day. The statement also praised Dan Cathy’s support for “God’s definition of marriage.” The statement ends, “As the son of a dairy farmer who milked many a cow, I plan to ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ and show my support by visiting Chick-fil-A next Wednesday.”
Given Billy Graham’s history, these statements struck many as extremely out-of-character for the reverend. Graham had previously been known for his “come to Jesus” messages, not for targeting specific social political issues. His son, Franklin, has historically been more outspoken about such matters. The decline in Graham’s health, along with his son’s takeover and the sudden change in his ministry’s focus, led many (myself included) to wonder whether these statements were the words of Billy or those of his son and spokesperson, Franklin.
Billy Graham broke character again in 2012 when he endorsed Mitt Romney for President. Once again, by way of a press release, Graham promoted conservative evangelical political positions, saying he hoped Americans would “vote for candidates who will support the biblical definition of marriage, protect the sanctity of life and defend our religious freedoms.” The statement also employed politically-charged language similar to that of the Romney campaign, saying “America is at a crossroads.”
In 2011, before the sharp increase in political activity from his camp, when he was still talking, Rev. Billy Graham was asked by Christianity Today if he had any regrets—if he would go back and do anything differently.
"I also would have steered clear of politics,” he said. ”I’m grateful for the opportunities God gave me to minister to people in high places; people in power have spiritual and personal needs like everyone else, and often they have no one to talk to. But looking back I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.”
Since then, Billy Graham has stopped making public statements, aside from the more recent out-of-character press releases that have come from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, which continues under the leadership of his son—Franklin Graham.
With the events of the past several years clearly in view, is it now unreasonable for any of us to wonder whether the legacy of the Rev. Billy Graham—a registered Democrat—has been hijacked, and his name used as a mouthpiece for the Christian Right? I find it difficult to imagine that any rational, thinking person who’s paying attention wouldn’t be asking this.
Join the Conversation
Seeking, Saving, Finding
When I applied for admission to the inaugural conference of The Reformation Project, which took place last month in Kansas City, one of the questions on the application was about my vision for reform. (The Reformation Project is a Christian non-profit that seeks to reform church teaching in regard to sexual orientation and gender identity through the teaching of the Bible.) As someone whose life has been blessed beyond measure by people in the LGBT community, and as someone who believes the church has carried out tremendous harm against such people, this movement for change seemed long overdue, and I wanted in.
"The change we seek through the Reformation Project," I wrote in my application, "…is and should ultimately be a Spirit-led movement that occurs by the renewal of hearts and minds. Otherwise, we are just another ‘progressive’ propaganda machine. The Reformation Project as I understand it, as an undertaking of the kingdom, is less about ‘progress’ than it is about seeking and saving that which is lost."
At the time I wrote this, the “lost” who needed to be sought and “saved,” in this scenario, were those in the church who continued to shut the door of God’s kingdom in people’s faces on the basis of sexuality or gender identity. Since then, I have come to realize that the “lost” are instead the ones who have been shut out. And they aren’t necessarily lost in the sense that they’ve strayed and wandered so far outside the church that they can’t find their way back—they are lost primarily in the sense that the church has suffered great loss by rejecting them.
Some of us may not actively participate in the shunning of LGBT persons, but have remained content to sit idly by and allow this to occur, as if to agree with the moral logic of the shunners even if we despise their methods or attitudes. The result has been something akin to the body of Christ cutting out its own heart.
This self-mutilation cannot continue. Like the woman in Jesus’ parable of the lost coin, we need to stop what we’re doing, light a lamp, sweep the house, and search for what has been lost. And when they have been found, as with the woman in the story who found her treasured coin, we need to call on our friends and neighbors to rejoice with us.
This business of seeking and saving the lost, which we should be very much about, is less about pulling people out of burning buildings than it is about stopping the bleeding. It’s less about trying to “fix” something that’s “broken” than it is about recognizing the value of a person and welcoming them into a place where true, Spirit-led transformation can take place.
To build on my original vision for reform, or perhaps to simplify it, what I want to see happen in the church at large is what I witnessed in Kansas City. Rarely have I seen as much joy in a church as I witnessed in the services with my fellow reformers. Seldom have I sensed so strong a divine presence among believers as I did here. Never before have I believed so strongly that the kingdom of heaven was well and truly at hand.
During my time in Kansas City at the Reformation Project conference, I finally began to understand the true meaning of what it is to seek and save that which has been lost. I found myself surrounded by dozens of people who love Jesus but have been made outcasts by those who claim to exercise Christian authority. In those four days, we studied and worshiped together as brothers and sisters—as equals. At last, what had once been thrown out like garbage was recovered for the treasure it was, even if only for a few days. In that sanctuary, there was no male or female, no gay or straight—we were all one in Christ Jesus. And we called together our friends and neighbors, and we rejoiced, for what was once lost had been found.
Join the Conversation
We Must Be About Love
When I look around the church today, and by the church I actually mean places like Facebook, where many of us tend to spend our time somewhat religiously and aren’t always on our best behavior, I sense a very unloving attitude in a multitude of things I see. It seems it has become nearly impossible to disagree without encountering some variety of snarky, vitriolic, or hateful dialogue. Rather than loving, we often come across as stubborn, dogmatic, crotchety, hateful, condemnatory people.
We cannot afford to gloss over this matter and pretend it isn’t of utmost importance. It is fundamental to who we are, or who we claim to be when we identify as Christians—and far too often we have gotten it wrong. We cannot, on the one hand, say that we are Christians—that we follow Christ—and on the other, live in such a way that our actions and attitudes are in direct opposition to his gospel.
In John 13:35, Jesus said the world would know his disciples by their love. It was Passover, and Jesus and his disciples had gathered to share a traditional meal, what we now call the Last Supper. Judas had just excused himself from the table to conspire against Jesus. After Judas left, Jesus said to the rest, “A new command I give you: love one another. The world will know you are my disciples by your love for one another.” Then he looked at Simon Peter and told him, “You’re going to deny knowing me three times before the rooster crows tomorrow morning.”
Jesus must have known what a difficult command he had issued. I imagine there, in that Upper Room, flanked by betrayal and denial, his trial and crucifixion mere hours away, for him to make that statement—a command to love, a line in the sand by which the world would identify them, depending on which side they stood—must have been excruciating. Peter protested. “Not me, Jesus! Deny you? I would sooner die for you!” Yet when the moment came, Peter chose to stand opposite love, denying Jesus three times.
Love isn’t just a nice idea that we keep in our periphery, or an obligatory saying we use in situations where we don’t like someone very much but feel forced to “love” them because God said so. It is foundational to our Christian identity, and if we are to take our faith seriously—if we are to take our commitment to Christ seriously—we must be about love.
When I compare dialogue among Christians with dialogue involving non-Christian people, the discussions involving disagreement among Christians are often far more incendiary and counterproductive. Part of the reason is that some of us, as Christians, will argue our side of things armed with a perceived knowledge that God is on our side, and that anyone who stands against us, including another Christian, also stands against God. It is often said, “I’m just telling people the truth, and that’s loving! If someone’s going to hell and I don’t tell them, that’s not loving!” For the sake of this discussion, let’s assume this is the case. If our position is God’s position, what sort of attitude should we have?
Paul answered this in Philippians 2, when he said, “You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.”
What would the church look like if we gave up our divine privileges? What if we stopped clinging to a position of equality with God and took on the humble position of a servant? What if we were known, not as judgmental, hypocritical, and anti-gay, but by our love for one another?
I’m not saying we shouldn’t have strong and deeply held convictions, opinions, and beliefs, or even that we shouldn’t express, talk about, or even defend these things. What I am saying is that if we do so, when we do so, we must do so with the attitude of Christ Jesus, in such a way that our love for one another is never in question. This means, among other things, resisting the temptation to reduce another human being to a position, argument, interpretation, behavior, orientation, citizenship status, or what have you. If we disagree, and we are most certainly allowed to, it must be with a heavy dose of grace and Christian love. What does that look like?
"Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." —1 Corinthians 13
Think about a hot-button issue that directly affects you or someone you love. Imagine someone aggressively and abrasively attacking your side of it. How do you engage? What language do you use? More importantly, how do you see that person? Are they even a person now, or have you stripped them of their humanity, reduced them to an argument, and set about tearing them apart or hitting them with the Truth? When you respond, are you patient and kind, or boastful and arrogant? Are you rude? Do you listen without insisting that they take your side? Are you humble and respectful, or irritable and resentful?
These are questions we need to be asking ourselves. For those of us who acknowledge Jesus with our lips and then deny him by our behavior, our identity has gone off the rails. Unless we act here and now, unless we repent and turn from our sin, we run the risk of becoming something far more sinister and ugly.
Some of you may have already chosen your path. For those who haven’t, I implore you to enter a state of deep personal reflection and prayer. Open yourself anew to the influence of the Holy Spirit and allow the attitude of Christ Jesus to illuminate your heart and mind. You may have denied Christ three times or more by choosing a path devoid of love, but the story need not end here.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Simon Peter returned to fishing. Although Christ had chosen Peter to play an integral role in the church’s founding, perhaps he felt unworthy after thrice disowning Jesus. The resurrected Christ appeared to Peter during one of his fishing trips, and as they ate breakfast together on the shore, Jesus asked his friend three times if he loved him. Three times Peter affirmed his love for Jesus, and three times Jesus replied, “feed my sheep.” In a profound reversal of the denials, Peter’s sin was forgiven and his call to lead the early church was renewed. He never looked back. Early church tradition holds that Simon Peter was crucified—a martyr.
If we are to take one thing from this brief examination, it must be something that aids in healing the wounds we have opened up in our failure to demonstrate Christ’s love to the world. May we once again be known, as Jesus said we would, by our love for one another. Whether we agree or disagree, above all else, may we do so with humility and respect, laying aside our divine privileges, embracing one another unconditionally as sisters and brothers.
"I remember your genuine faith, for you share the faith that first filled your grandmother Lois and your mother, Eunice. And I know that same faith continues strong in you. This is why I remind you to fan into flames the spiritual gift God gave you when I laid my hands on you. For God has not given us a spirit of fear and timidity, but of power, love, and self-discipline. So never be ashamed to tell others about our Lord. And don’t be ashamed of me, either, even though I’m in prison for him. With the strength God gives you, be ready to suffer with me for the sake of the Good News."
2 Timothy 1:5-8
When I look at myself, and the life of the church around me, I sense much fear and timidity in the way we operate. Very few of us, at an individual level or an institutional one, can honestly say that the spirit with which we live out our faith is one of power, love, and self-discipline. My suspicion is that our fear is driven by a desire to escape suffering and a lack of faith that we will pass through said suffering into something far greater.
It is popular these days to talk of having radical faith. We read about following Jesus with reckless abandon, like the fishermen who dropped their nets and left their friends and family behind to proclaim the gospel. We hear from the pulpit that we need to be more than just fans of Jesus, more than simply consumers who come to church, get what they want and leave. We have been told that our fears are holding us back, that we will never live the life God has for us if we don’t release those fears and live boldly for the kingdom. And although all of these messages are true, it seems that we still struggle and fail as people to incorporate them into our lives. Perhaps more significant, though, is that those in church leadership often seem just as frail when it comes to following Christ and proclaiming his truth with boldness.
This dilemma is perhaps no more evident in these times than in our independent, non-denominational church gatherings. The non-denominational nature of these indie churches makes them extremely vulnerable. Whereas church gatherings at parishes within many long-established denominations (such as Catholic or Episcopalian) are funded and sustained on a regional or diocesan level, an indie church is more directly dependent on the donations of regular attenders to support its operation. Because the indie church is an island of sorts, if attendance drops and the money stops coming in, it could spell disaster for the staff, as it could result in layoffs and the eventual closing of the church’s doors.
Faced with this very real possibility, the choice is often made to take a very challenging or difficult message and soften it—tame it—to make it less threatening. Less imposing. More entertaining. More palatable.
Let me be clear: I’m not saying that money is normally a pastor’s main concern, or that these types of churches are evil or bad. These leaders ultimately want to see lives redeemed and restored through the work of Christ. This is why they started a church, probably while working a full-time job elsewhere, receiving no salary for the first several months, trying to put together a staff who would work for free. They didn’t get into this line of work for the money—they got into it to see lives changed. And they stepped out in faith, despite fear, to pursue that end.
But what starts as a bold leap of faith in the face of fear often leads to an increasing dependence on donations to support church operations, as well as a salary and a lifestyle that is, in many cases, already somewhat modest. The pastor’s faith is put to the test: Do I proclaim truth, even difficult truth, with Christ-like boldness, and risk losing members and donations?
Far too often, the answer to that question is no, or a yes, but. The result is a message that began with great promise, but ultimately falls short.
The teachings of Jesus were and are extremely difficult. The main concern of Christ’s ministry was never to grow his numbers or reach as many as possible with his message. His recruitment was of a select few, and many who followed him at first ended up walking away when they learned what was required of them: things like forgiveness and loving everyone, as well as suffering and death. His inner circle deserted him when the chips were down, save for a few faithful women.
Jesus knew what he was in for when he told people to take up crosses, or pray for their enemies, or that those with material wealth would find it nearly impossible to follow him. He said what needed to be said knowing that people would desert him. How many of us, when called upon to follow his lead, play it safe by tempering the message? How much more concerned are we with maintaining our income or boosting attendance than with proclaiming truth, even if we think it will drive people away?
Jesus said that anyone who tries to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their lives for his purposes will find it (Matthew 16:25). These things we try to save in life: money, material possessions, status, comfort, the desire to avoid offending people—how long will they keep us from proclaiming the kingdom with the boldness and conviction of Jesus and the early church? What will it take for you and me to stop taming our faith, where we move to the edge of our comfort zones and maybe just slightly outside, stopping just shy of any action that could be truly transformative?
What will it take for us to stop being afraid?
The World Will Hate You Because Of Me
This post is a continuation of The World Will Hate You.
Many people today seem to follow this line of reasoning:
"I’m a Christian. People who aren’t Christians seem to hate me. They must hate me because I’m a Christian. Jesus said so."
Some of these people are the same ones who like to boycott stores for not saying Merry Christmas during the holiday season. When someone says Happy Holidays, these people will respond with something like, “What holiday could you mean, hmm?” As if Christmas is the only holiday that happens around that time.
Others will claim to be hated because of Jesus when people reject their overt attempts to convert them to their religion, or, as some may put it, to “save” them.
Another segment claims they are doing it right when their harsh judgment and condemnation of other people’s “sin” is met with a less than friendly retort.
Hopefully the common thread here is obvious to most readers. The examples above are of people who are behaving in un-Christlike ways and interpret the resulting hate from others as proof that they’re a faithful follower of Jesus. This is an overly simplistic and ultimately fallacious view of the scenario presented by Jesus in John 15.
To fully understand what Jesus meant here, we first have to understand the terms he used. The term “world,” for example, has been misunderstood by Christians for decades; it has been made synonymous with anything that isn’t overtly Christian. Nonbelievers, atheists, agnostics, “liberals,” people who drink and curse (or break any number of other rules) are seen as “the world,” and it is the job of the church to tell the world how wrong it is and that they should repent and turn to Jesus. Even if… nay, especially if it causes them to hate the church.
At the time that Jesus delivered this message, the Roman Empire was the world. The systems in place at the time under the rule of the Caesar, which promised safety and security but often delivered chaos and violent oppression, were the manifestation of the world system. This is what Jesus was referring to when he talked about “the world.” In that day, it was the Roman Empire; in a general sense today, the term applies to entities who wield great worldly power, not to unbelievers, rule breakers, or people that you think might be going to hell.
With that understood, why would the “world,” as it were, hate Jesus and his followers? The answer is actually quite simple. The gospel was a revolutionary message that severely undermined those in power. Jesus and his disciples traveled around announcing that the kingdom of heaven was at hand—that God was now in charge. All the while, Israel was held captive by the Empire.
To announce at such a time that the kingdom of heaven had arrived, that God had replaced Caesar as king, was extremely dangerous. The claim that Jesus was the Son of God didn’t help things either. In fact, that landed him in hot water with Rome and Israel. In ancient Rome, Caesar was considered divine and actually claimed the title “Son of God” for himself. On the other side of things, those who claimed religious authority within Israel saw the claim as blasphemous. And thus Jesus’ words in John 15 came to full fruition when he was arrested and tried before both Roman imperials and Judaic authorities, who together conspired to put him to death.
After Jesus’ death and resurrection, his earliest and closest followers set out on journeys of their own, proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom, declaring Jesus as Lord. Those of us who grew up in church probably heard the phrase “Jesus is Lord,” or some variant, quite often. Today this phrase seems like a somewhat old fashioned and formally religious expression, but in its original context, it would have been incendiary. They weren’t simply saying “Jesus is Lord” as a statement of faith or devotion. Coupled with the gospel message they were preaching, what they were really saying is that Jesus is Lord and Caesar is not. It’s a message that infuriated the empire, and early church tradition holds that the first apostles went to their deaths as a result of the message they preached.
It’s hard for many of us to imagine such a scenario in today’s world, particularly for those of us who live in the “enlightened” “western” world. Here in America, we have religious freedom and face very little opposition or actual persecution. Then again, much of our American Christianity has been domesticated and made safe. We do good works and donate money, which is important, but how quick are we to confront injustice at home and abroad? How concerned are we really with the poor and marginalized? How willing are we to stand up to those within the world system and face evil head-on?
In countries like China and India, where the church lives under severe persecution, the threat of torture and death are very real indeed. And yet, in those countries, the church is experiencing staggering growth. It is easy to see the prophetic words of Jesus fulfilled in areas like this, where following him actually does draw hate from the world.
There are people here in America who are making an effort to confront the evils of the world and stand up for what’s right, even if the world hates them. Dr. Cornel West is a prime example. He worked closely with President Obama during his 2008 campaign; the two used to speak regularly, and Dr. West attended 65 campaign events in support of his candidacy. But after Obama took office, West started to confront him on some of the injustices that have been perpetrated during his administration.
"We elected a black president and that means we are less racist now than we used to be. That’s beautiful," West said in a recent interview with The Guardian. “But when you look at the prison industrial complex and the new Jim Crow: levels of massive unemployment and the decrepit unemployment system, indecent housing: white supremacy is still operating in the US, even with a brilliant black face in a high place called the White House. He is a brilliant, charismatic black brother. He’s just too tied to Wall Street. And at this point he is a war criminal. You can’t meet every Tuesday with a killer list and continually have drones drop bombs. You can do that once or twice and say: ‘I shouldn’t have done that, I’ve got to stop.’ But when you do it month in, month out, year in, year out – that’s a pattern of behaviour. I think there is a chance of a snowball in hell that he will ever be tried, but I think he should be tried and I said the same about George Bush. These are war crimes. We suffer in this age from an indifference toward criminality and a callousness to catastrophe when it comes to poor and working people.”
West and Obama are no longer on speaking terms. The White House has declared Dr. West to be “un-American.”
So what are we doing? Are we living in such a way, are we following Christ so closely that the world hates us? Are we prepared to be called “un-American” for standing up for what is right? For confronting injustices? If we truly are ambassadors of the kingdom, as Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5, where is our allegiance? How far are we willing to go to stand for truth? To be that transformational force in the world—to partake in the righting of wrongs, in the baptism of all things from death into new life? What will you do?
The World Will Hate You
“If the world hates you, remember that it hated me first. The world would love you as one of its own if you belonged to it, but you are no longer part of the world. I chose you to come out of the world, so it hates you. Do you remember what I told you? ‘A slave is not greater than the master.’ Since they persecuted me, naturally they will persecute you. And if they had listened to me, they would listen to you.” —John 15:18-20
In his brief earthly ministry, Jesus threw open the gates of the kingdom and invited anyone and everyone to enter into the work that he was undertaking. The New Testament gospel books are filled with accounts of people from many walks of life, all of them imperfect, many of them incredibly broken, who approach Jesus humbly, almost fearfully at times, essentially asking, “What about me? Am I in?”
Without exception, Jesus replies, “Yes—you’re in.”
Along the way, though, Jesus said and did things that would have made it very difficult to follow him. During his ministry, many of those who had begun to follow him decided the commitment was too great. The warnings issued by Jesus included assurances that his followers would be hated and persecuted. He even went so far as to use crucifixion imagery when describing the commitment that would be required.
Although there are many today within American Christian circles who like to say that our nation has forgotten God, that our society is now in outright rebellion against the Almighty, that Christians are under attack, and that we are hated for our beliefs, I believe that statements like these are reflective of a very narrow view of Christianity and the way it lives within and interacts with society, both domestically and abroad.
Think of places like China, where Christian leaders have been known to suddenly vanish from their homes, whisked away to prison camps where they are tortured and held without trial. Or like India, where Hindutva (Hindu nationalism) has generated an escalation of violence against Christians in recent years, and where several states have adopted anti-conversion laws requiring would-be converts to submit a month’s notice to the government.
Still, if Facebook is any indication, many Christians in America feel they are hated because of their beliefs. Some of them will cite John 15 as evidence that they are fulfilling their duty as Christians. That they’re doing something right. The world hates them, they will say, because they hated Jesus first. Our Lord said this would happen. Why would we expect any different?
The hate to which they refer, however, is not in response to their feeding the poor or caring for the environment, nor is it in response to their protest of unjust wars or the abuse of those who harvest our food or make our clothing. The “hate” is in response to statements in favor of things like gun rights and the death penalty, or against things like unemployment benefits and food stamps. Or statements about people they believe are going to hell, or most certainly will unless they change. Or because they posted a meme of an eagle spouting political rhetoric, or made George W. Bush their profile photo.
I spoke recently with someone who recounted an interaction they had witnessed at a funeral of all places. One of the attendees was someone who, like many of us, said some things that she regretted many years ago, and now freely admits to this and other shortcomings in the past. As she approached some close family members of the deceased to comfort them, she opened her arms to offer a consoling hug. Her open arms were met with a cold rebuff and a flat refusal. Their response was, “As a Christian, I have to love you, but I don’t have to like you.” The woman then asked them for forgiveness, and they refused.
Make no mistake: there is a lot of hate in the world today for Christians, but there is also a lot of hate out there for being an asshole. And to reiterate, Jesus said that the world would hate his followers because of him, not for being assholes. Unless one can make the case that Jesus fell into that category, it stands to reason that Jesus did not intend for his followers to be known as assholes.
With that said, in order to rightly understand what Jesus meant when he said the world will hate his friends and followers, we have to look at the context within which this statement was made. We must understand what Jesus meant by “the world,” and why “the world” hated him in the first place. If we can know why the world hated Jesus first, we should then know why we who follow Jesus are to be hated. I’ll talk more about this in my next post. Until then, let’s all agree to work on not being assholes.
Incomplete Worship: Power and Suffering?
Maybe you have a dream to get out of debt, pay off your house or be free from that burden of lack, but it looks like it’s impossible in the natural. Business is slow. The economy is down. You’ve gone as far as your education allows. But God is saying, “I’m not limited by those things. I’ve got resurrection power. I can give you one break that will thrust you to a new level. I can open up doors that no man can shut. I can bring talent out of you that you didn’t know you had. I can cause people, for no reason, to go out of their way to want to be good to you.” —Joel Osteen
Within the current movement of modern worship, which has been occurring over the past few decades or so, churches across the western world have been gravitating toward songs and sermons that encourage and inspire, conveying a positive message of God’s resurrection power. This theme rarely manifests itself in a literal sense, rather it uses Christ’s resurrection to draw a parallel to the various types of symbolic death each of us may encounter in the day-to-day, e.g., loss of a job, insurmountable debt, lack of education, or slow business. Christ died, the message implies, to demonstrate his power to resurrect your dead life. If you believe in God’s resurrection power, you will get that job. Your business will pick up. You will get out of debt. You will live the best life ever!
This upbeat and positive focus extends into our modern worship music as well. God is “mighty to save [us],” “because of Jesus I’m alive,” “he knows my name,” “oh how he loves us all!”
Is this the message of the gospel? Did Jesus die in order to secure us a great life? To save us from mediocrity or financial ruin? Are we selling ourselves short if we don’t tap into that “resurrection power” Joel Osteen bandies about, or focus almost entirely on how much God loves us?
Although the concept of resurrection in the New Testament is inescapable, it seems that some branches of western Christianity have latched onto it as the whole of the gospel message. A look around many of today’s suburban, upper-middle-class evangelical churches might lead many to believe that the Christian life, particularly in regard to our worship experience, leaves little to no room for suffering.
Suffering? Like the kind you experience right before Jesus swoops in with his resurrection power and saves the day?
Actually, I’m talking about the suffering you sign on for when you become a follower of Christ.
For an example of what I mean, take a look at what Jesus told his closest followers in Mark 9, right after he predicted his own suffering, death and resurrection: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.”
The cross was as vivid an image of suffering and death as Jesus could have evoked to his disciples. It was also a sign of the captivity under which they and the entire nation of Israel lived at that time, and thus may have also come across as a call to submission to the governing authorities of their day.
“There is every sign,” says N.T. Wright in How God Became King: The Forgotten Story of the Gospels, “that the earliest church understood this very well indeed, just as there is every sign (alas) that today’s church does not—except, of course, in those parts of the world, like China and the Sudan, where there has been no choice.”
Indeed, those of us in the modern western world, particularly the part that has been colonized and/or ruled by some form of Christendom over the past several centuries, have known very little of this suffering.
But as Wright said, the earliest followers of Christ knew what they were getting into, as Jesus told them plainly. “You will indeed drink from my cup,” he told them in Matthew 20, before stating that he would soon be sacrificing his life.
The apostle Paul also wrote, in his letter to the church at Philippi, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death…”
Hold on. I was with you on the resurrection power thing, but we can do without the suffering and death part, right? I mean, resurrection power will fill a stadium, but suffering and death… well, it just seems so negative!
In today’s western society, where comfort is worshipped above almost anything else, perhaps this is true. You aren’t going to run a successful marketing campaign if you list suffering as a feature or death as a benefit. But if we’re to be completely honest, we must admit that we have allowed the culture to shape the western church instead of believing that God can use the church to transform our culture. Our hyper-focus on the positive, happy side of things has created a massive blind spot when it comes to the reality of suffering, not just in the Christian life, but in the life of all of us. We have become dishonest in our worship.
“Yet a time is coming and has now come,” Jesus told the Samaritan woman, “when the true worshipers will worship the Father in the Spirit and in truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks.”
Notice that he said Spirit and truth, not Spirit and half-truth.
How can we fix this? A good start may be to admit that there is more to the gospel than living a blessed life. Resurrection may be the ultimate payoff, but unless we admit to and rightly understand the role of suffering in the fulfillment of the gospel, we will be rightly exposed as dishonest, deceptive, and fake.
I’m not nearly finished with this topic, but for now, I’m curious what my readers think (all two of you). Have we ignored, to our detriment, the role of suffering as it relates to our call to follow Christ? What are some ways we can start to remedy this, if indeed it is something that needs to be remedied?
Join the Conversation