Want to be Generous? Join a Generous Tradition and Community

In a recent Slate column, Brian Palmer, writing about Christian missionary doctors working in Africa, asks, “It’s great that these people are doing God’s work, but do they have to talk about Him so much?”  Palmer is an atheist and in the column he publicly wrestles with his distrust of religious motivations and admiration for those working among the poorest of the world’s citizens, often receiving little compensation for their efforts. Palmer cannot shake his skepticism that Christian missionary medical workers are practicing a poorer form of medicine than their secular counterparts, but in the end arrives at a begrudging respect for the missionary doctors and nurses since they do the work few others seem willing to do. Still, he clearly sees the missionary medicine as an unsatisfying placeholder until better, secular medicine can pick up the slack.

Palmer seems to claim medicine is best practiced when it is free of religious thinking. He merely applies to medicine the old Enlightenment fantasy that all human endeavors — from the physical to the political sciences — would be better off if they freed themselves from theological traditions. But religion has long played a role in Western medicine. Most American medical students still take the Hippocratic Oath in which they swear to Apollo and “call all the gods and goddesses” as they commit to practice medicine ethically. The Christian commitments to love one’s neighbor and care for the sick not only aided in the faith’s expansion in the Roman Empire, they have also given rise to medical schools and hospitals. To remove the theological influence from medicine would be to create a whole new tradition of medical work that would be foreign to the system we have today.

But I do not intend to give an account of the historic theological and religious roots shaping modern medicine. Rather, I want to reflect on the phenomenon that Palmer illustrates — namely, the great amount of medical missionaries in the developing world. He writes:

[W]e are deeply reliant on missionary doctors and nurses. The 2008 ARHAP report found that in some sub-Saharan African countries 30 percent of health care facilities are run by religious entities. That system is crumbling due to declining funding, possibly motivated in part by growing Western suspicion of missionary medicine. We have a choice: Swallow our objections and support these facilities, spend vast sums of money to build up Africa’s secular health care capacity immediately, or watch the continent drown in Ebola, HIV, and countless other disease outbreaks.

A doctor need not be a Christian to sacrifice her own wellbeing in order to help those most in need. Plenty of atheist and areligious doctors work to save lives in rural areas and slums. But it would seem one is much more likely to engage in philanthropic activities if she is rooted in a tradition that encourages such behavior. If we, like Palmer, think it a good thing that doctors and nurses are making sacrifices to help others, we have to begin to ask how are such generous people formed? From where do those values and energies emerge? A tradition that teaches the good life is found in giving away oneself for the sake of others, that doing good works is what we are made for, that in serving others we serve the creator and source of reality (i.e., God), is much more likely to produce altruistic behavior than a tradition that teaches, say, radical individualism and self-gratification are the highest forms of good. It is not a mistake that people who are a part of a community that believes sacrificially loving others is essential to what it means to be human will help their fellow human beings, often at great cost to themselves. That so many Christians are working to help the most vulnerable in the world is to be expected given the God they worship.

Michael Brown, Ferguson, and the Church Risking Irrelevance to the Gospel

Many evangelical Christian writers have responded to Michael Brown’s death at the hands of a police officer and the subsequent protests and civil unrest in Ferguson, Missouri. I appreciate how they let the gospel of Jesus Christ inform their views of these events. The African American leaders of my denomination, the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC), wrote a response emphasizing their commitments to reconciliation and to standing in solidarity with those who suffer. Dominique Gilliard, a pastor in the ECC, gave an interview to Amy Julia Becker on Christianity Today’s “Thin Places” blog in which he offers some broad strokes advice on how Christians can be agents of reconciliation. He says, “To foster reconciliation and healing within churches and the broader culture, Christians must be humble, repentant, and longsuffering. This process begins by having candid conversations about race, history, and injustice.” Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, offers some other steps Christians can take to address the reality of systemic racism in our nation with the truth of the gospel. Christians need to educate themselves, listen from those who suffer, stand in solidarity with them, and act for justice. Morgan Lee of Christianity Today reports key findings from research on white and black evangelicals’ views of race. The results sadly show their views are moving further apart, with 69% of white evangelicals now believing, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” But we should be careful not to think all talk of racial reconciliation is a white and black matter or the events in Ferguson only effect white and black people. Eugene Cho, another ECC pastor, writes churches cannot ignore what happened in Ferguson and must instead address it head-on, for, “The integrity of the church is at stake because when it’s all said and done, it’s not a race issue for me, it’s a Gospel issue.” Thabiti Anyabwile, writing at The Gospel Coalition, also argues the costs for churches to ignore these matters are extremely high. He challenges evangelical churches—really, white, conservative evangelical churches—to respond to racism or face becoming irrelevant. It is not the irrelevance to the larger culture that concerns him, but irrelevance to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Anyabwile writes:

Around the country evangelical leaders participate in “racial reconciliation” conversations and repeatedly ask, “How can we diversify our church?” or “How can we attract more African-American members?” Why would diverse groups want to belong to an evangelicalism that does not acknowledge their diversity where it hurts when it matters? You want diversity in your membership roles? How about forgetting your membership statistics and further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights? We don’t want to be your statistics—whether wrongful death statistics or church membership statistics. We want a living, breathing, risk-taking brotherhood in the gospel lived out where it matters. Until evangelicalism can muster that kind of courage and abandon its privileged, “objective,” distant calls for calm and “gospel”-this or “gospel”-that, it proves itself entirely inadequate for a people who need to see Jesus through the tear gas smoke of injustice.

Looking through the New Testament, particularly the letters of Paul and the book of Acts, we see two great themes: the fulfillment of God’s promises through Jesus Christ and the reconciliation between Jews and Gentiles in the new covenant. In other words, the majority of the New Testament concerns itself with grace and race. In Ephesians 2, one of the great chapters of Scripture, Paul describes the power of the gospel to take people who were dead in their sins and make them alive again in Jesus Christ. The first part of the passage contains one of evangelicalism’s favorite statements, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (2.8-9, NRSV) But we often stop reading around verse 10, even though the argument continues. Paul goes on to show how this new life affects the relationships among Jewish and Gentile believers in Jesus. Ethnic and cultural distinctions, while still important, are no longer barriers to fellowship. Just as Jesus Christ made reconciliation between God and people possible, he also makes reconciliation between ethnic groups possible.

Ephesians 2 is not unique in the New Testament. Rather, it fits well with other passages that show the good news affects more than just our relationship with God. Paul does not see reconciliation with God and reconciliation between races as separate objectives—they are the same mission. Notice how explicit Paul is when he talks about ethnicity and race. Paul does not believe, “one of the most effective ways to improve race relations is to stop talking about race.” He seeks to improve race relations by bringing the tensions and conflicts into the light of the gospel. The New Testament does not discuss race relations in the abstract. Rather, the conversations are very real, very earthy. The New Testament contains passages on how we share a common table, what ethnic markers we place or do not place on our bodies, how we worship God together, etc. The discussion of racial reconciliation in the New Testament assumes many of the early congregations comprised different ethnicities.

How can we white evangelicals say our congregations are faithful to the New Testament witness if we do not discuss and pursue the dual themes of grace and race? I wonder if we don’t give as much attention to the second half of Ephesians 2 because we do not worship in diverse communities and our privilege in the larger society means we don’t have to think about race on a daily basis. Perhaps we white evangelicals don’t pay attention to the biblical emphasis on ethnicity not because we find that topic uncomfortable, but because we find the New Testament’s teaching on the subject irrelevant to the issues our congregations face. The real issue is, however, that our congregations risk becoming irrelevant to the New Testament. If our faith communities do not wrestle with the challenges that come from diverse people groups sharing life together, whole swaths of the Bible will not make sense to us.

As the events in Ferguson show us, we need racial reconciliation not merely so we can enjoy one another’s musical traditions in a worship service. The gospel places demands on us to stand with those who suffer and seek justice on their behalf. Racial reconciliation cannot take place only within church walls, though we obviously have a long way to go on that front. The gospel compels us to take risks and walk with those who seek justice. Anyabwile is right to offer the challenge to let go of our membership statistics for faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus, which stands beside the oppressed.

I appreciate Anyabwile’s post because he reminds us having uncomfortable conversations about race is not enough. Christian communities cannot be satisfied with honest, gracious dialogue. Those conversations are absolutely necessary, but not an end to themselves. If our conversations about race do not lead us to prayer and to, “further diversifying the picket lines and protests thronged by the disenfranchised in their just fights,” then our conversations are merely theoretical exercises. Theoretical exercises will not help establish the vision of the African American Denominational Leadership of the ECC of “a church and society where reconciliation and justice are indispensable norms.” These leaders rightly remind us it is the cross of Christ that will break the wall of hostility. That is, Jesus’ actions and not merely his words create peace and justice. As followers of Christ, we must remember Jesus’ example and allow our theological reflections lead us to action.

We have to ask how have our communities of faith addressed the events in Ferguson? What has been the conversation? How have we prayed for peace and justice? What actions have our congregations taken? How has this event catalyzed our commitment to stand with those who suffer?

Imparting Faith: Forgiving My Father and Being a Father

In the Bible, God gives parents a vocation to pass their faith on to their children. This central aspect of my vocation as a father consumes my thoughts more than remembering Elijah’s vaccination schedule, cooking him healthy meals, or offering him adequate educational stimulation. I see too often the gloomy statistics of children walking away from the faith once they leave the home. These statistics concern me because I want my son to experience the love and joy from Jesus I have known. I want him to “take hold of the life that really is life.” (1 Tim. 6.19)

Gary Walter, president of the Evangelical Covenant Church, recently published, “Teach and Love Your Children Well,” in which he encourages parents to consider how to raise children in the faith. He points to University of Southern California sociologist Vern Bengtson’s research that shows faith is best passed on in families in which parents prioritize and talk about faith and model faithful practices. Another factor, creating an environment of familial warmth, is actually the greatest indicator of faith being passed between generations. Bengston’s research shows a close bond with one’s father matters more than with the bond with one’s mother, though that bond is still important. As Walter summarizes, “Dads, when you combine a sincere faith with a quality relationship with your children, you enhance the likelihood of your children owning their own faith.”

Walter’s article made me reflect on my father as well as my role now as a dad. What did I receive from my father and how can I pass the faith on to my son?

My parents created an environment of familial warmth, but for the majority of my childhood, my father was not a model of the Christian faith. He did not tell my brother and I the stories of the Bible. He seldom attended church services—usually Christmas, Easter, and Mother’s Day—and chose instead to work on the Christian Sabbath. He bowed his head at prayers for meals but rarely, if ever, led them. I only remember him reading the Bible when asked to during Advent candle services in the home that my mother initiated. My mom was the spiritual leader of our house, communicating the truths of the faith and modeling the practices for us. She taught us to pray. She showed us the Christian basis for generosity and compassion. The faith I have today is more a product of my mother’s faithfulness than my father’s example.

Near the end of my adolescence I grew jealous of my friends whose dads were spiritual leaders. I longed for a father who could impart to me the wisdom and truths of the Christian faith. I resented my dad for not being a spiritual father figure to me.

In college I read Henri Nouwen’s book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a powerful reflection on Jesus’ famous parable and Rembrandt’s painting of it. Nouwen explores the characters of the younger son, the older son, and the father. The sons must each, in his own way, return home and accept the father’s unconditional love and their identity as their father’s beloved child. Nouwen tells the personal story of coming to the realization that in order to truly find his place as God’s beloved son, he must forgive his own human father for his shortcomings. Nouwen describes this forgiveness, this release as a “return from a false dependence on a human father who cannot give me all I need to a true dependence on the divine Father.” The return to the divine Father “allows me to let my dad be no less than the good, loving, but limited human being he is and to let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.” (83)

These words helped me to forgive my human father for not being the spiritual father figure I desired. In doing so, I learned to allow my dad to be “the good, loving, but limited human being” he was. My eyes opened to the many ways he did embody the Christian faith in his quiet and radical generosity, his refusal to speak ill of people publicly, the hospitality he and my mom extended to people who needed a meal or a place to stay.

Walter’s article and Nouwen’s book remind me that though God tasks me with passing on the faith to my son, I will not be, indeed cannot be the perfect Heavenly Father Elijah needs. I pray fervently that Elijah will know, love, and follow Jesus. I work hard at telling him the Christian story and modeling faithful practices to him, even at this young age. My wife and I seek to create warm familial bonds with him. All the same, I must remind myself that I will fall short, and one day Elijah will have to forgive me for not being the heavenly Father he needs. This fact is humbling and at times humiliating, but I cannot let it shame me. I have to let my shortcomings draw me even deeper into prayer.

“Mental” Theology

My friend Emily Perez recently preached a sermon that discussed prayer, depression, adoption, the psalms, community, God’s unrelenting pursuit, and grace. Exploring all those topics at a deep level and making them cohere gave the sermon a high degree of difficulty and Emily stuck the landing. She delivered the sermon at City Life Church in Sacramento, using Psalm 126 as her text and titled the sermon, “‘Mental’ Theology.” (The audio can be found here. It is dated 4/27/14.)

I recommend the sermon highly because Emily articulates the darkness of depression as well as the good news God offers those who suffer. For many, that good news does not come in the form of immediate alleviation from the pain, but in people willing to travel with the other person through the darkness. I think Emily clarifies the mission of the Church to be like Emmanuel, “God with us.” We are called to be with those sitting in darkness and who cannot yet see the light. We are not there to answer all their questions, correct all their confusion, but to be with them, listening. The Holy Spirit comforts us through friends who do not judge or frighten easily when we ask angry questions.

For those who preach or speak publicly, I also recommend the sermon as a wonderful example of story-telling and reflection. It really is amazing that Emily could cover all those topics and still craft a unified sermon. When preachers try to cover a myriad of topics in sermon, they often dilute their message. Emily’s sermon, however, grows stronger as she combines these important matters.

The Church and Stupid Fathers, All in Time for Mother’s Day

I don’t write much about being an at-home dad. One can easily find plenty of solid blogs written by good guys. That said, I want to address a couple of videos that recently crossed my path and deal with fatherhood. The makers of these videos seek to honor in a comedic way the hard work that mothers do. The videos they produced, however, rehash tired stereotypes found in the popular culture as they portray dads as bumbling incompetents who should not be trusted with the care of their children. I’m all for celebrating the unique work of mothers—I merely don’t think we need to make dads look like idiots in order to do so. I address these videos in particular because they are produced by Christians and are marketed toward the Church in preparation for Mother’s Day celebrations. (I wonder, how many churches will celebrate non-Church holidays like Mother’s Day, Father’s Day, and Memorial Day, but not the Ascension of Jesus or Pentecost? That’s another post.) I am concerned some Christians think the best way to honor one group of people, mothers, is to ridicule another group, fathers. Further, we should not be in the business of mocking dads as inept, but instead celebrating dads who are deeply involved in raising their kids and encouraging dads to be even more involved and Christlike. Let’s look at the videos.

First is the trailer for the film Mom’s Night Out.

I hesitate to comment on a film I haven’t seen since trailers can be cut in misleading ways, but we can at least discuss what appears in the trailer. Here we have overworked moms needing a break from childcare. They set up a mom’s night out and leave their husbands to take care of the kids. The dads are so inept they can’t think of anything to do except take their kids to a restaurant/indoor playground where they can lock their kids up, “like Shawshank Redemption.” This inevitably leads to a trip to the emergency room. Another dad leaves his child at a tattoo parlor and goes out on the town by himself. All this fatherly incompetence requires the moms to cancel their night out and save the day.

The second video comes from The Skit Guys, entitled, “Mom Goggles.” They make short videos with faith-based messages and often use humor to make their point. The set-up for this video is essentially the same as the trailer above: a couple moms take some time for themselves, leaving their children with the fathers. The dads worry about possible outcomes, realize they don’t have the necessary skills, and thus order “Mom Goggles” from a “Daddy Doomsday Survival” website—doomsday for a dad is apparently having to take responsibility for your children. Through this wonderful invention, the men are able to see the world as their wives do. Toddler babble suddenly becomes intelligible. A child’s painting becomes a masterpiece. And the greatest miracle of all, these men realize just how hard their wives work as mothers. Thankfully, “Mom Goggles” does not fully encapsulate The Skit Guys’ view of dads. As Chris Routly points out, The Skit Guys have produced an excellent video extolling the virtues of fatherhood and show dads being great in their roles.

Since these videos are intended for Christian audiences, we can take a look at the theology they communicate.

Positively, these videos seek to honor mothers, which is one of the Ten Commandments. It is right to remember how our mothers offer us unconditional love and grace and to thank them for it. It is no accident that biblical authors describe God’s love like that of a mother’s. To that extent, we learn more about who God is when we experience our mothers living into their vocation.

By adopting the dominant culture’s mockery of dads as 8-year old boys trapped in middle-aged men’s bodies, the Church offers no counter narrative, no city on a hill to be a contrast to the rest of society. Instead we say the dads in the Church are selfish, immature, and obtuse. Sure they have their moments of epiphany, but that only happens after some catastrophe or because of magical tools. As my friend Chad wrote, “If you need Mom Goggles to change a diaper or see the beauty in your kids’ artwork, well I’m just going to say it, you suck as a dad.” What we’re saying is that the gospel has largely not transformed these men into people who think of the interests of others before their own. At least they cannot be bothered to work at becoming better dads until after the kids are released from the emergency room. I do not think we need to present Christian fathers as though they are without blemishes, but it would be nice to see how the good news has made a difference in their vocation as dads.

I am also concerned that these jokes can only work in a world in which there are hermetically sealed gender roles. A mom is honored only when a dad crosses the boundary and tries to engage in a different role. Worse, these videos encourage keeping those roles entirely separate. These videos actually don’t encourage men to become more involved and caring fathers. Instead they warn dads away from engaging in childcare. The videos communicate, “Just stay on the couch and watch football. Don’t try to do what your wife does because you’ll hurt the kids and yourself.” Theologically, this is dangerous, because just as we learn about God from the examples of our mothers, we also learn about God from the examples of our fathers.

If you think I’m being obstinate or just can’t take a joke, which is a possibility, I invite you to engage in a thought experiment. Imagine someone made a video or a feature length film wanting to honor dads by employing the same gender stereotypes, but reversed the players so that the filmmakers mock moms. Are churches going to show a Father’s Day video in which a couple moms have panic attacks about mowing the lawn and needing to order special “Dad Gloves” so they can teach their kid to throw a baseball or work the circular saw without cutting their fingers off? Imagine a movie in which moms have to fill in for their husbands at the office and then make such a terrible mess of it that the dads have to come in and save the day because, well, you know, the office just isn’t the woman’s place. We would say those stereotypes are backwards and sexist because mothers—and women in general—are capable of excellence in the workplace and can skillfully use power tools.