Every time Andy and I talk about “the church,” a certain air exits the room. Its really kind of amazing. We’ll be talking about something we’ve read, or sadly, a recent bit of politics that’s somehow connected to the church at large and his reaction is almost predictable. He gets this look on his face of concern mixed with sadness and the pace of our conversation slows down a hair.
To be clear, this doesn’t happen in discussions about our local church or the churches we’ve attended in the recent past. Its really in relationship to the portions of the universal church, which for him historically, has meant the evangelical protestant church (EPC).
Truly, you’d have to have lived in a bunker for the past year to have missed the crisis the EPC has unveiled after it was revealed that 80% of us voted for our current president. Men and women I admire who have grown up in these circles have been left shaking their heads wondering what happened to the communities that raised them. Andy’s not the only person I know who slows down at mention of the state of things.
Raised in a moderate Catholic family, I’ve often struggled to relate. My mom, who taught us that the life of the church was fundamental, also taught us to hold it with a loose grip. I now believe that was healthy. In better words I’d say this: I learned that I needed the church to live a whole life while also learning that a fallible church with fallible people could not ultimately save me. This is an important distinction. Modern psychology would call this the ability to “differentiate.”
My first impression when I heard that 80% of white evangelicals voted the way they did was that maybe the term “white evangelical” doesn’t necessarily mean what we all thought it did. A recent article by Tim Keller in the New York Times suggests I might be on the right track as he states that evangelicalism is now more likely a political term than it is a term that suggests alignment with any historical Judeo-Christian ethics.
The slight comfort this could be, it still has people wondering HOW the church they loved has become so unrecognizable. HOW did people who stood for morality and righteousness become aligned with a party that elected someone so unfit for office. WHY do the people who formed us seem to now align with a man we wouldn’t allow in the presence of our children.
An answer came to me last night as I finished Eugene Peterson’s 1983 book Run with the Horses. The book walks a reader through the book of Jeremiah and describes the prophet’s commitment to a faith partnership with God in the face of years upon years of difficulty and tragedy. At the end of the book as Jeremiah tries to rally the remnant of people who remain in a ravaged city, encouraging them through the Lord to stay and see what God will do, the Israelites decide they are tired of “living by faith,” to use Peterson’s language. Looking around at the devastation, they believed it was too much for them and for their (clearly limited) understanding of what God could do. They informed Jeremiah that they would be going to Egypt.
Egypt, Peterson tells us, did not require much faith. Egypt had a verdant Nile river valley to water crops, animals and people. Egypt had a clear social hierarchy where you knew where you stood. Egypt had mathematically perfect architecture with its towering pyramids and a theologically understandable system that required little more than an understanding of which god to pray to for which need. Egyptian religion to the Israelites could be what a baseball game is us. By a game’s end we know who won and who lost. Who advanced their ERA a percentage and who didn’t. How many singles, doubles, balls and strikes made the game end the way it did. Which is all incredibly comforting until we get home at night and wonder who won the day after a fight with our spouse and a successful visit to the dentist. Baseball game religion, Egyptian religion, only works until the “religious moment” is over and everyone goes home. The best you can hope for is less and less time between “games” which is why, for all my love of the part of the evangelical church that has matured me into adulthood, I believe we’ve identified our problem.
Living by faith is hard and we want to be in control.
Here’s my point made a little clearer…Yesterday the Public Religion Research Institute released new data regarding our society’s opinions about the fact that in the next couple of decades the country’s population is projected to be populated more by people of color (African, Asian, Hispanic) than people of European descent. Sadly, 52% of white evangelical protestants viewed this probability as a negative thing for our country.
Now, I still don’t believe the term “White Evangelical Protestant” means what it used to. I don’t believe all people who identify as WEPs are spirit led Christians in the same way I don’t believe everyone who voted for Donald Trump identifies as a died in the wool Donald Trump supporter. Take a breath, y’all. I think we can all say with solidarity that we walked to the polls in November holding our breath.
I will say this though. If 1 of every 2 people who are in the very least Americans (who I would assume believe in the American Dream), or at the very worst, American believers in a triune God that states very clearly in scriptures that ALL people are made in the image of that diversely-unified God, then we are working with a people that are more interested in a system of worship that they can control than a life of faith that everything will work out for the good.
Diversity, after all, is hard. Its unpredictable and it takes a measure of faith. What if we close our eyes at the wrong time or say hello in the wrong way or chew our food differently. What if instead of minor custom infractions something worse happens. What if someone gets hurt.
Well, to put it far to simply than I’d prefer, the cross tells us we’ll be OK. I think it tells us that there’s no pain we will endure that GOD HIMSELF hasn’t already endured for and with us. I think he’s saying we can go even there. Even into pain.
Further still, I can’t help but wonder if a controlled “Egyptian” faith experience could be hurting us in ways we don’t even realize. ‘Cause here’s something else I know. I think I’ve seen my husband cry a total of six times in the 14 years we’ve known each other. The man is not prone to lead with his emotions. Of that handful of times though? At least two were in the presence of a black gospel choir where the Spirit of the Living God touched his heart in a way that his head couldn’t stop.
Living by faith is so incredibly hard. Sometimes it feels impossible to follow a God I sense but cannot see. But I truly believe it’s our only way out of the dark.
Where shall I go from your Spirit?
Or where shall I flee from your presence?
If I ascend to heaven, you are there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, you are there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there your hand shall lead me,
and your right hand shall hold me.
If I say, “Surely the darkness shall cover me,
and the light about me be night,”
even the darkness is not dark to you;
the night is bright as the day,
for darkness is as light with you.
Psalm 139: 7-12