Merry Christmas (whatever that means)! That “whatever that means” isn’t mean to be snarky. No, not at all. For some of us, that may be a pretty simple idea, the idea of “Merry Christmas” that is. Of course, it depends on who you talk to. Your typical American might mention Christmas trees, lights, and presents. A historian might speak of the early Catholic Church’s attempt to co-opt a pagan celebration which occurred every year around this time. Your conservative Christian-types, like me, would speak of mangers, wise men, and the birth of Jesus. The idea of “Christmas” can have a variety of connotations depending on the individual’s belief system, understanding of history, personal experience during previous holiday seasons, and so many other potential elements.
But here’s the thing, Christmas is about all these things… Yes, it is a great reminder of the miracle of God becoming a human baby boy, amid all the muck, mire, and discomfort associated with childbearing and birth. Yes, it is a cultural celebration, here in America, that is a grand conflation of celebrating the incarnation, the legend of Santa Claus, and a number of American and European traditions, most of which have nothing to do with Jesus. Yes, it is a commercial season in which many retailers’ fiscal year is either made or broken. Yes, celebrating December 25 as Jesus’ birthday is rooted in the early church’s attempt to Christianize a pagan celebration. Christmas, as we celebrate it in 21st century America, is a great conflation of Christian tradition, western cultural celebrations, and spending money.
So, what if we let it be what it is on this Christmas Eve? What if we were to just be honest that it’s a fun cultural celebration that can be a reminder of the great miracle of God becoming one of us? What if we forgot about the so-called “War on Christmas”? What if we took off all the pressure and let it be what it is?
To my Jesus-following friends, I pray that you and I will learn to celebrate the miracle of Advent every day of the year… not just on December 25, but also on January 7, and April 15, and August 21 and every other day on the calendar? I mean, that feels appropriate for those of us who have pinned our hope on Jesus. AND, I pray that we’ll be able to be present with those around us this season. That we will truly love those around us… even Uncle Steve, no matter how belligerent he gets during the turkey dinner.
To the rest of my friends, I pray strong connection between you and your loved ones. I pray for good times, rest, and sweet, sweet Christmas presents. And, I pray you’ll get along with Uncle Steve as well.
To all of us, I pray for the peace inherent in the angels’ message to the shepherds in the traditional Christmas story. It’s not a fake peace. Not a peace that comes by ignoring our differences and disagreements. I pray for shalom: genuine well-being. Peace with God, peace with others, peace within.
Apparently, asking questions was not okay. That’s what was confirmed for me recently in an online conversation with some of my Christian brothers and sisters as we discussed some weighty doctrinal/theological issues. In one of my posts, I began asking questions about the nature of the Bible. These were questions, mind you, not statements. They focused on the limitations and brokenness central to being a human and how this affects our ability to comprehend and/or apply what we read as well as how it may have affected those who helped shape the biblical canon. I asked how we can be certain that our English translations of ancient writings rendered in old languages for which we have no original manuscripts are accurate representations of God’s Word. Such questions struck a nerve.
This was especially the case with one participant. His response was, I’m sure in his opinion, “loving.” He was concerned about the condition of my soul. He was worried my salvation was at risk. To him, even asking these questions represented a crisis of faith. But I didn’t see it that way. In fact, I felt (and feel) secure in my relationship with God and in my posture as a follower of Jesus. I was just asking questions… logical, important questions. But such questions, for this gentleman (and others), meant I may not be matching up with evangelical orthodoxy.
Last week’s TS10 playlist is likely one of my favorites thus far. Can’t explain it… but it touches me deeply. And one of the songs that particularly impacts me is Andrew Howie‘s Post. According to Howie’s site, the song’s title was inspired by the title of Dave Tomlinson’s book The Post Evangelical. Post is an autobiographical manifesto of Howie’s divorce from evangelicalism. Every time I listen to it, my heart is broken anew… for several reasons.
The very first line of the song is telling. And it resonates with me deeply in light of the question-asking situation mentioned above.
Goodbye evangelical certainty…
I’ve gone through most of my life highly regarding “certainty.” Much of that certainty revolved around statements like “the Bible clearly teaches that…” While I believe there is much in the Bible that’s as clear as a window, I also have come to see how I have been “certain” about other issues and “teachings” in the Bible that aren’t so clear. And I’ve found the only way I can maintain my certainty about the “clarity” of those muddier concepts is by ensuring I am surrounded by people who agree with that certainty. As I continue to follow Jesus, I am finding the weakness of such “safety in numbers.”
I’ve had more than my share of this safety in numbers
And strong certainties
I choose to live in a dangerous world
Where I know I am free
“I choose to live in a dangerous world…” Yes. Yes, please. For me, and my guess is for others as well, certainty brings a sense of safety and security. Certainty can be insulation from the dangerous and the unknown. But what if God, in his infinite wisdom, does not value certainty in the human experience as much as my evangelical family and I do? What if such certainty actually draws us away from mystery and from a need to pursue him, letting him be our safety and security amid uncertainty, danger, and the unknown? I am becoming more and more convinced a life following Jesus is a life lived on the “slippery slope.” It is a life of questions, risk, challenge, and “out on a limb.” It is a life in which certainties are few.
Even as I write these words, I can feel the inward tension of feeling the eyes of my evangelical brothers and sisters watching me, categorizing me, judging me. Asking questions and living in uncertainty are taboo for us evangelicals. They make us look, dare I say it, “liberal.”
So don’t tell me your stories
And don’t sing me your songs
And don’t presume that you know me
And that it’s me who’s in the wrong
And why would questioning things be problematic? Why would choosing to live with a measure of uncertainty rankle some of my church-going friends? I will not pretend to know what goes on in someone else’s heart and mind. But, based on what I have observed and experienced personally, I can take an educated stab at why these things are deemed dangerous or unsavory: fear. We are afraid that maybe we don’t have everything figured out just right. We are afraid to be wrong. Sometimes, I think, we are afraid to think. But even these statements reveal only symptoms and not a root cause. What is the root cause of such fear? Let me suggest this… the illusion of certainty and the aversion to critical thinking and questioning may be rooted in a lack of actual faith. What if God is not big enough to handle our questions? What if our intellectual meanderings reveal there is an element of our belief that is false or questionable? Again this is all rooted in fear.
Fear may well be the beginnings of wisdom and love
But I don’t want to be afraid anymore
The fear that leads to wisdom is not the same as the fear I’m talking about. Healthy fear involves a reverence for God, an acknowledgement of how awesome and great he is. Regardless, Howie’s expression of being done with fear resonates deeply with me. Like him, I don’t want to be afraid anymore. The kind of fear I’m talking about only leads to an illusory sense of safety.
And it leads to the creation of unnecessary rules and structures. Jesus consistently confronted the religious leaders for their habit of loading extra burdens on the backs of people who are seeking God. Unfortunately, I’ve seen time and again how, instead of following Jesus, us evangelicals have followed the ways of his religious opponents. Don’t dance. Don’t listen to rock music. Don’t wear jeans to church. Don’t play cards. Don’t drink alcohol. Don’t do this. Don’t do that. I’ve been hollered at for violating any number of rules, both explicit and implicit, that have nothing to do with what God wants and everything to do with bolstering an unauthentic security.
Goodbye cookie-cutters and Sunday schools
How can I be part of this game if I don’t play by your rules
As I consider these words, my heart hurts. Cookie-cutter methodology, in terms of how to “do church” or what it means for an individual to follow Jesus, has nothing to do with authentic Christian spirituality. There’s nothing wrong with Sunday school, but like Howie, I know that Sunday school has been the arena for fear-reinforcing dynamics. And the question, “How can I be part of this game if I don’t play by your rules?” Wow… that question has swirled through my mind and heart in various forms since I was a kid.
Can’t you see that the gossip, the grudges, the violence
Have taken their toll
Gossip. Grudges. Violence. Three dynamics which should be foreign to Jesus’ church… Three behaviors that are in fact diametrically opposed to the way of Jesus. And yet, they live in the church. Sometimes, they thrive more than faith, hope, and/or love. They are the fruit of fear.
I gossip because I want to feel better about myself and the choices I’ve made. I want to feel better about myself because I am afraid… afraid that I’m not good enough, that I won’t measure up, that I won’t be loved. I hold grudges for much the same reason. Grudges give me a sense of control, which once again makes me feel better and elevates me over the other person. Violence is about me forcing my will on the victim. Again, this makes me feel bigger and better. Gossip, grudges, and violence are the fruit of fear and they are destructive. Unfortunately, it feels as though these dynamics are the rule for many of us evangelicals rather than the exception.
I choose to escape from the clutches of your good intentions
And save my own soul
And this is where my heart breaks the most. As I listen to Post, I find myself time and again walking the same path Andrew Howie describes so vividly and poignantly. I hate the fear. I hate the cookie cutters… the rules… the gossip… the grudges… the violence. It would seem a common response to want to walk away from these destructive dynamics. I certainly do, no matter how they may be rooted in someone’s “good intentions.” But where my path diverges from Howie’s is in that second line.
Simply put, I cannot save my own soul. I need Jesus. Yes, he is my crutch (as many critics of Christianity have suggested). I am not ashamed of that reality, because Jesus is actually more than that. He is my life. He is the breath in my lungs and the beat of my heart. Without him, I can do nothing, let alone save my own soul.
Does walking away from the “clutches of (the evangelical church’s) good intentions” mean walking away from Jesus? I don’t think so. And I think that’s a worthy discussion point. Even though, quite literally, my greatest pain has come from within the “walls” of the church, that pain has not alienated me from Jesus. In fact, what I’m finding is it only compels me to connect with him more deeply. That pain reveals how deeply I need him.
Church wounds cut deeply because in the context of a church community we would (and should) expect to experience the love and grace of God. The community of people which make up “church” are to be an expression of these things here and now. We are to be God’s representatives to each other. So, when in our frailties and fear, someone within the church hurts me, it can feel as though God himself is wounding me.
But Jesus is greater than the church. And he is bigger than my wounds. He stands above my fear and grasps for control. In fact, I am naive enough to believe his love is so transformative that all of these ugly church dynamics can be addressed. The church can be transformed. I believe there is hope for the church (even us evangelicals).
Who is that walking towards me as I
Leave these sinking ships
Beckoning me ever forward
With a whisper on her lips
There is more than this
As I listened to these words the first few times, I wasn’t sure what Howie was describing here. And while I still cannot state for certain that I “get it,” I can say the “her” mentioned feels a lot like the “sister wisdom” of the Proverbs. If that’s the identity of this mysterious woman, then I find myself, once again, on the path with Howie. I cannot turn off my brain (or my heart) when it comes to the ills within American evangelicalism. I cannot ignore how easily we set aside the call to love because of our insecurities and need to be right. And these things lead me to that slippery slope I mentioned above. The only way I can stand with any sense of sure-footing in that place is if God grants me wisdom. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment that wisdom is calling out to us and whispering in our ears, “There’s more than this.” And as Howie and I (and others) branch out from the seemingly but illusory “safe and secure,” we need the companionship of Lady Wisdom.
So, as I take my own post-evangelical journey, I ask God humbly to provide that companion. I, like Howie, am ready to stand on the slippery slope of “I don’t know.” I am ready to admit my limitations as a human being and confess the mystery of God is greater than my little brain can handle. I am thankful that Jesus not only provides security while standing in uncertainty, but that he is beckoning me to follow him as he guides me on this path.
In 2006, my fandom of Derek Webb was at an all-time high. His album “Mockingbird” had rocked my world emotionally and spiritually. I was given the album as a gift and was hooked from the beginning. Sometime later, Webb literally gave the album away as a digital download. Over 80,000 downloads later, Webb was playing sold out shows and even saw a spike in sales of that very album.
On the heels of that experiment, Webb and a team of other folks launched a site called Noisetrade. The basic premise is that artists upload music and prospective listeners can download that music in exchange for their email addresses and zip codes (with the option to leave a “tip” for the artist). I was intrigued by the idea, but I found very few downloads I was really all that interested in at the beginning. That’s because the artists using Noisetrade were mostly independent artists, many with only a local following in their home areas.
A few years later, I decided to start giving some of these artists, that were unknown by me, a listen. Everything started to change for me at that point. One of the first albums I downloaded was Josh Garrels‘ “Love & War & The Sea in Between,” which remains one of my favorite albums to this day. In the coming months, I downloaded music from such great artists as The Civil Wars and Andrew Bird.
It was as if I had walked into a whole new world. My musical boundaries were being challenged all over the place, and I was discovering for myself some intensely talented musicians creating some intensely meaningful music. In the years since, I have experienced music from so many great artists because of Noisetrade, including:
The Autumn Film
Matthew Perryman Jones
Hurray for the Riff Raff
Jessica Lea Mayfield
The Civil Wars
Judah & The Lion
Justin Townes Earle
Trampled By Turtles
The Local Strangers
So, if you are unfamiliar with Noisetrade, I’d love to help you change that. First of all, here is the link to their site: www.noisetrade.com. Second, on the Noisetrade page (click here) is a sample of the kind of music you can download from that site. These are all songs that have been available (or are currently available) on their site. Enjoy this playlist and go download some music!! (And if you are so inclined, tip the artists generously!)