If “God’s Not Dead,” Then Why are Christians Anxious?

 

God's Not Dead 2

Here we go again.  “God’s Not Dead 2” is soon to hit theaters.  As a minister, some people expect me to eagerly expect its release, and to encourage people to see it.

I might tell people to see it, but not for reasons you might think.  I urge Christians to see it so that you will look at it from a different perspective than your own.  Look at it through the eyes of all those yearning to know God, to be forgiven, to belong to a community characterized by compassion.

Compassion is what was sadly lacking in the first version of this movie, at least in the principle plot.  A professor whose belief had been shattered by tragedy in his life was degraded in front of his class while a student mocked him for his world view.  The audience in the theater applauded the student’s “win” in the debate, while disregarding the pain that this man was suffering from.  In addition, the movie was so rife with stereotypes of Christians, seekers, and atheists that it made me despair of the state of “Christian” screenwriting.

“God’s Not Dead” unfortunately gave credence to widespread complaints against evangelical Christianity in the U.S. because it fortified the “us vs. them” mentality that has not only alienated millions of people but also serves nicely as political rhetoric.   Many Christians of all stripes do not have this attitude, but this comes across far too often in the media and in our own public relations as representative of Christianity itself.  Hence the sweeping dismissal of faith in Jesus Christ by millions in our country.  We cannot blame them for missing the point if we are missing it too.

A few thoughts to explain my reaction.

When we sense a challenge to our faith that makes us fearful, the “fight or flight” response is too often our gut reaction.  But this is not the way of Jesus.  Jesus railed against the religious establishment of his day for their defensive stance against his message about the kingdom of heaven.  The Law of God that had been gifted to the people to make them a beacon of love and compassion to the world had, over the centuries, become a handy tool for judgment and self-righteousness, and thus enabled the elite to wield power over the masses.  Yet God’s chosen people were originally called to show the world that a compassionate, life-giving God is the sovereign one who does not keep score or take revenge as do the gods of the pagans’ making.

Human nature compels us to find the right way and follow it, but in the process of sorting this out, we think we must condemn those who don’t play along.  Religion that serves only to make us feel good about our beliefs vs. those of the “other” is not a religion that transforms us or seeks renewal and peace in a world gone bad.  Instead it is prone to moral outrage that condemns what we do not understand.  Violence against the perceived enemy is the inevitable result.  Movies such as “God’s Not Dead” foster this kind of suspicion and superiority.  Forgive me, but I have to ask, “What would Jesus do?”

What Jesus did was to reach across the lines so carefully drawn by his society and by the temple system.  He reached out to the untouchables, the unclean, and to all those who actually suffered from exploitation by the religious establishment.  He spoke gently but clearly to those who didn’t understand God’s ways.  And when asked what really matters, he stated it succinctly: “Love God and your neighbor.”  As his disciples, we, too are directed to reach out to those whose ideas contradict our own, to understand and love them.  Even if they are mortal enemies, Jesus commands us to love them and pray for them.

That kind of self-giving love is the essence of the gospel we proclaim to a hurting world, yet I had a hard time seeing it in “God’s Not Dead.”  There are those who will say that godly love is not mushy; it has boundaries.  True, but those boundaries are not about being right.  They are about protecting the vulnerable ones.  Love does not demonize those whose beliefs differ from ours; it engages and seeks common ground so that we can share in the abundant life God offers.  It suffers when persecuted.  It seeks not to win, triumphing over our opponent in terms of proving who is right.  It strives to win them over with love and compassion.  As we continue through the season of Lent, I hope you might recognize Jesus doing exactly this when he suffers torture and death for our sake in spite of our violent tendencies.

The resurrection of Jesus we will soon celebrate shows us that God is not dead.  How good it is to know that God’s love cannot be killed by a cross or anything else!  God loves us all, in spite of our self-righteousness, unbelief, and ignorant killing.  God calls us beloved, and asks that we spread the message of this good news to all the world.  God does not ask us to hit people over the head with correct doctrine.  Doctrine takes care of itself when we let Jesus Christ show us how broken we all are, and how great is the living God who loves us always.

 

Running on Empty

Lent.  The word creates both anticipation and dread in me every time we flip the calendar to a new year.

I anticipate it because the congregation I serve participates in its ritual gatherings—Ash Wednesday, midweek Lenten worship, Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday—with intention and faith.  I choose the themes carefully and enjoy this season with them.  We observe the passion of our Lord together and arrive at Easter morning having taken the time to appreciate what it took to get there.

But all of that is intense and exhausting, hence the dread.  I mentioned to a colleague one year that I have to fight crabbiness as Lent wears on.  She gave me a little plastic crab to put on my desk, so I have added this small tradition in order to take myself less seriously and enjoy the process more.

I prayed for strength this morning, for perspective to see both the needs and the gifts that the day will bring instead of whining internally about all this work.  To be an instrument of grace and healing for those who need it.  To see the many indications of God at work instead of letting my to-do list grind me down.

As I prayed, God’s grace flowed in again with a new perspective.  I often decry the ‘zero sum game’ attitude in others, but I recognized it in myself.  It is not helpful, especially in the demanding work of ministry, to think of each task or person as another swipe at my limited store of energy.  It only makes me more miserly, more jealous of the time I claim as my own to mete out.

Instead, I can see each encounter and each task as an opportunity for God’s limitless love and energy to flow through me.  This energy is not my own to give.  The love that motivates me to give and to heal does not originate in me.  The knowledge, creativity, and resources at my disposal are mine to steward, not to hoard or bestow at my whim.

I often think of grace as a river endlessly flowing, never running out.  I am free to float along, to see the sights along the way, to paddle for more speed at certain times or to simply enjoy the slow pace at others.   To experience God’s grace is to realize that it is endless, and it carries me along.

I once spent three days in a canoe on the Mississippi.  Our group had to paddle for hours to traverse the 55 miles on that wide river.  We took welcome breaks, floating with the slow current.  We spotted dozens of eagles and marveled at the ecosystem and history of that watery thoroughfare.

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But here’s the thing about rivers: I don’t create the current.  To act as if I do is to resent the ministries of each day for all that they take from me, because if I have to muster the energy and get things moving on my own, it will destroy me.  I do not have to act as some sort of turbine making the water move instead of harnessing its power.

My task is not to get the river moving along; it is already flowing beautifully.  My part is to set my craft on the current and enjoy the ride along with everyone else.  To offer sustenance to someone who has run out of provisions.  To speak words of comfort to someone who is grieving along the way.  To point out the beautiful sights to another whose gaze is cast down.  To help someone who is trying to paddle against the current, lending him a hand in lifting his paddle so that the current can turn his boat around.  And yes, leaving those behind who need someone else’s help more than my own.

If the Lenten season drains me of all energy, then I have been victimized by my own ego which wants to take credit for everything I do.  How much better to let God’s energetic love flow through me in this time of added responsibility.  I suspect that I will experience grace in new dimensions, in abundant measure.  I have so little energy and love if I depend on myself.  With God there is always more than enough.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Cor 4.7)

Thin Places, Child Faces

I have read about “thin places,” where people go to sense God’s presence, places where it does seem God feels more palpable.  Places in nature or in old structures where people have felt a deep connection with God somehow.

One of those places for me is the railing in the sanctuary.  (These are rural, practical folks.  Clergy might call it a “table” for the Eucharist, but they see no reason to call this place of holy thanksgiving anything but what it is: a railing.)

It is there that the hands are outstretched for the bread and cup.  But it is also the place where they kneel and receive the ashes on Ash Wednesday.

Ash Wednesday has become one of my favorite practices in the church.  In our congregation’s after school program on that day, each class of children has its time with me in the sanctuary, when I give a simple explanation of the ashes of palms that we swipe onto our foreheads to begin the season of Lent.

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Most of them can remember the Holy Week stations of the cross from last year, when they enacted the story of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem and waved the palm branches just as the people did all those years ago.  But it is only five days from Palm Sunday to Good Friday.  We talk about how quickly we can go from welcoming Jesus to being mean.  We can be so good, but then turn around and be angry or naughty.  During Lent we ask Jesus to give us steady, loving hearts.  We burn the palms and wear the ashes to help us get started in this process.

The young students are solemn and curious, very engaged in this mysterious ritual.  Most accept the ashes, but a few refuse them since they have been told they can do so by saying “no, thank you.”

A class of preschoolers skipped and scurried down the aisle to the front pew.  Abby* was one of the last, walking with less exuberance than her peers, wearing her little princess dress.  Her mother must have let her choose the purple frock with sateen and tulle skirt to wear that day.  Her face was screwed up with anxiety, not unusual for this child.  Before I could say a word, she blurted, “I don’t want those ashes on me!”  I reassured her that we would not make her do it.

After the pastor’s talk, the children were invited to the railing for the imposition of ashes, and obediently remained as quiet as preschoolers can be.  Some received them, and others politely declined.  I expected a refusal when I reached Abby near the end of the line, but I could see her mustering her courage.  She took a deep breath, lifted her chin toward me, earnest and brave.  “I think I want them!”  I signed the cross in ashes on her forehead before she could change her mind.

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Another thin place happens occasionally in the act of teaching.  We gather around the stories of God and wonder what they might mean for us.  Children often perceive God’s handiwork instinctively.  They make connections that we adults miss.  Perhaps their perceptions are still “thin” enough to allow the presence of God to be the primary essence in the encounter.  Or maybe they are still unguarded, willing to innocently say aloud what their elders might suppress.

Before the evening Ash Wednesday service began, the leader of the fourth and fifth graders told me about the visitor in her class.  Cody had attended our program when he was younger, but we haven’t seen him for about three years.  In fact, I have known Cody since he was born, having interacted with his family in another ministry.  I know that his family struggles to make ends meet.  He came with a friend this time, and we were happy to welcome him back.

Sue told the story of the raising of Lazarus.

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Afterward, she wondered with her students what might be a reason to hear this story on the first day of Lent.  Well, it seemed obvious to the first to respond: this story is similar to the Easter story.  In both accounts a stone was rolled away, a man was raised from the dead.  Cody was instantly captivated.  “I think I want to hear that story!”

Children at the railing, soberly receiving the ashes.  Praying for Jesus to change our hearts.

Children in a circle, pondering the story of a God who can give life where there was none.

Thin places.

*Names have been changed to protect privacy.