“The gospel at its best deal with the whole man, not only his soul but his body, not only his spiritual well-being but his material well-being. A religion that professes a concern for the souls of people and is not equally concerned about the slums that damn them, the economic conditions that strangle them, and the social conditions that cripple them is a spiritually moribund religion..” –Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Nothing like getting me back into blogging than this election. Here are a few thoughts…
A few weeks ago, I preached a sermon at my church. Let’s just say…It wasn’t great. There are many reasons for this—I was exhausted, I’m hitting all of the Covid/2020 walls that I thought I was somehow immune to because I’ve always been fairly good at survival mode, I over-prepared in content and under-prepared in cutting all of that content down into something that was in line with the 12-15 minute Zoom sermons that are the new norm. Ah yes…ZOOM! Another factor. While I had previously preached over Zoom at another church, that particular church continued to use the format of a zoom call as opposed to a webinar format like we use at our church. At this other church I could see all of the little faces—for an Enneagram social 9 extrovert like myself, even awkward pixilated little squares of people are better than no people. A few weeks ago was my first time preaching to the VOID and it threw me off—something that is not easily done. By the time I was done giving some context about the Philippian church, I had 6 minutes for the actual sermon. I wanted to be honest and authentic, to speak from the heart to this community that I love so deeply, and I haven’t quite figured out how to do that in 6 minutes. I sped through my material, went over my allotted time, and then proceeded to enter a shame cycle for the rest of the day.
However, there was a benefit to that shame cycle! In the midst of the could-a, should-a, would-a spiral, I kept coming back to one of the things I preached on and that should have actually been the only thing that I preached on, rather than the million things I tried to add. The center of the text I preached on was in the first chapter of the book of Philippians. Paul is in the midst of his own processing of life and death, his longing to be with Christ in the midst of trying to live for Christ here on earth which he sums up in his proclamation that “To live is Christ and to die is gain.” He wants to encourage this community, whom he dearly loves, to remain faithful while he is in prison. He isn’t harsh to them as he is in letters to other churches. The issues they are experiencing aren’t as dramatic as the issues in the Corinthian church, for example. But, he is concerned because he loves them and he’s noticed that they are beginning to experience seeds of disunity among themselves. He encourages them by example—with stories of his own joy in the midst of his trying circumstances, by praying for them, and finally in the text I preached, by offering a word of exhortation.
He identifies this main word of exhortation by using as the Greek word monon which means, “only” or some translators translate it at “just one thing” or “only one thing.” Regardless of the translation, he’s telling them to pay close attention to this one plea: “Live your lives in a manner worthy of the gospel.”
I grew up reading this particular verse in Philippians 1 (vs 27) since I was a young girl in Sunday school and in my bible classes at my Christian school and, as I read most things back then, I have always read this as if it were…all…about…ME. This verse and others like it helped to cement the idea that I was unworthy, so I better live my life in order to make me worthy so that Jesus would love me…more? Or that Jesus who I was told already loved me would keep loving me? Not be disappointed in me? First of all that is just some bad theology, and second, it was all about me.
I was missing the point.
First of all, the “you” is plural—the good old “y’all.” It isn’t all about you. Or all about me. It is about US. Second, the Greek word used for “live your life” is polituesthe, literally, “to behave as a citizen” or “to live the life of a citizen.” The root of that word should look more than a little familiar. It is a political word. So there we have it—“live your lives as citizens in a manner worthy of gospel. “ Now go vote!
Whoops. Not so fast.
There is still text to unpack…..”worthy of the gospel.” The word for “worthy” is an adverb meaning essentially, “having worth that matches the actual value.” So matching the value of what? The gospel.
That is where my sermon should have focused for whatever time I had: what is the gospel? For my whole life I have been told that the gospel means “good news.”
So my question is, “when did the gospel stop being good news?”
“The gospel” is not just random good news—the NT version of Oprah’s “you get a car!, you get a car!, you get car!” I mean…that would be good news. Rather, this text tells us that this is specifically the gospel, the good news, of Jesus Christ.
But what is this gospel? What is the good news of Jesus Christ? And how specifically can we live out this gospel as both citizens of this world and citizens of heaven?
As I said before, I think that in my childhood and young adulthood that good news centered around one person: ME! “Jesus loves ME, this I know.” Even when I started to think beyond myself, the narrative was that this was good news for “us.” I wouldn’t have been able to articulate it at the time, but there was a pretty specific “us”—midwestern, Christian, educated, successful—I went to grade school all the way from Kindergarten to 8th grade on the Wheaton College campus—that should give you a good idea of who I subconsciously assumed was “us.” Often times after school when my older sister, Marci, was hanging out with her friends and I had to wait for her for us to walk home together, I would wander over to the Billy Graham center on the campus and go to my favorite room: the “heaven” room. It was a small but tall room with blue sky, white clouds, and tons of mirrors making the room seem like it went on forever. But the cumulative effect of all of those cumulous clouds, blue skies and mirrors was a whole lot of nothing, and whole lot of ME. I could see myself in those mirrors if I looked over the edge of the glass. So what I had to look forward to in heaven was blue sky, clouds, and lots of people who looked exactly like me?!?! Is that what Jesus was talking about when he said to his disciples, “ I go to prepare a place for you…”? No thanks! Where was the good news in that?
That is a silly story from my childhood, but I have a lot of them! More of those to come in consequent blogs. While every story in my childhood has something to do with me trying to make sense of my faith since my whole life centered around Christianity at home, school, and church, I often struggled to make sense of myself politically as a Christian. A few fun examples:
*The year was 1984. I was six years old when I first got in trouble for who I voted for–setting off a long tradition, I might add. Our class held a mock election. And, I voted for Walter Mondale. I was the only one. It might seem odd, but I actually remember what I was thinking at the time. He had bags under his eyes so I felt bad for him–my number one strength on the CliftonStrengths assessment is empathy and coupled with a six-year-old, the worse you look, the more I’d vote for you. But I also remember that I liked that next to his name was the name of a girl. Some things never change. The votes were tallied, and since I had boldly written my name at the top of my ballot, it was crystal clear who had cast the lone vote for the Democrat. my teacher called me out of the room to ask me why I had done that. I don’t remember what I said or if I even said anything in reply. I do remember being confused. While she was talking to me, I was itching on my side a ton—turns out I had the chicken pox! Not only did I vote for a Democrat out of both sympathy (bags under the eyes) and identification (female VP nominee Geraldine Ferraro) but now a horrible disease was upon me!
*5th grade: The year was 1988. Our class held an election party. Bush/Quayle signs only. There was no talk about a decision people were making or any issues at play. I simply remember that it was obvious, an “of course” that we (and our families) were all in support of Bush. I also remember the way that Michael Dukakis was talked about–I was terrified. This Dukakis person must be the spawn of Satan. There was an overwhelming sense of “Good thing we are on the “right” side.” We had the news going in our classroom during the party and a clip played of Dukakis and his wife, Kitty. People were getting their cupcakes and signs and I remember watching the TV and thinking several thoughts ranging from the most 11-year-old girl surface-y vibes to “His eyebrows are so thick,” to the preternaturally prescient: “They don’t seem evil. They actually seem nice.” From what I was seeing, the “spawn of Satan” narrative was not working. These were human beings. I also remember noticing that when the news would show scenes of crowds at a Bush/Quayle rally there were mostly, if not all white people and a lot of men in the crowds. Alternately, there were more women and “not all white” people around Dukakis and Lloyd Bentsen. These were “noticings” at the time and I wasn’t sure what to do with them, but I was aware. During this time I noticed that I loved watching the news. I loved hearing about my own city of Chicago—we lived in suburbs, but my grandparents lived downtown, we loved the city, and it was close, so we went often. I loved our mayor Harold Washington and remember sitting in my family room not more than 12 inches from our TV hearing the news of his passing and feeling so sad. I remember Carol Mosely Braun and feeling a sense of pride that she was our Senator, but I didn’t know how to explain these things or where to put them.
*9th grade. My sister and I got super into this election. I was a Freshman, she was a Senior in high school. The issues started becoming clearer to me and I found myself leaning left—not exactly a popular direction in my environment. I started reading Tony Campolo and realized that it would be impossible to tie one of these modern, American political parties to being the party of Jesus, despite one party’s attempt to do so. For many years I believe this was based on the one single issue of abortion*, even though the Religious Right was not originally organized around abortion, but around religious freedom in schools—a freedom such as Bob Jones University’s freedom to forbid interracial dating. (for more on this particularly disturbing era, see The Color of Compromise, by Jemar Tisby)
Our excitement around the Clinton/Gore campaign also had something to do with age. After old man after old man after old man in the presidency, and on the walls of so many institutions and churches that we were a part of, the Clinton/Gore campaign was intriguing to us. There was so much youth. We loved the “Gore Girls” because we were commonly referred to as the “Gulbranson Girls”—so we immediately felt we could relate (kind of). There was discomfort on my part with the rumors about Bill Clinton—Paula Jones, Gennifer Flowers,….at this point we were a full 6 years away from Monica Lewinsky, so I chalked them up at the time to be just rumors.
But, oddly, there was something about that campaign that gave me a great sense of my call as a woman, what I wanted to do and be when I got married. Hillary Clinton and Tipper Gore were smart. They were engaged. They had careers and were good moms. That wasn’t something I saw a lot of in my particular context and in that particular era. We were excited when Clinton won. Even though I felt at the time that he wasn’t “perfect”—something told me that nobody was. The day after the election, I went to my private Christian High School. My first class was Bible. We were taking prayer requests and one of my classmates, who was actually a good friend, asked that Bill Clinton would be assassinated. Everybody laughed. Except me. My astute Bible teacher, the late and phenomenally great, Carol Riebock, asked me on the way out if I was okay. I wasn’t and felt safe enough to tell her the truth. I thought what my friend said was wrong. She told me that she agreed, but she invited me to comb through the scriptures that night and come up with a reason why.
I feel like 28 years later, I am still coming up with reasons. I think the day after, I gave her a lot of Biblical texts about “authority.” I probably used some of the same “biblical gymnastics”—a phrase I heard this week from the brilliant pastor and scholar (and a mentor to me), Rev Dr. Brenda Salter-McNeil—that Trump supporters use today about God putting someone in power. I was more focused at the time on the wrongness of praying that someone should be assassinated, rather than what was underneath that concern but what I couldn’t articulate: what does it mean to live out my citizenship in a way that reflects the good news of Jesus Christ? Did that mean I had to be a Republican, as it seemed in my context?
When Jesus stood up in the temple at the beginning of his earthly ministry, recorded for us in the gospel of Luke, he was clear on what he came here to do.
“18 “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
and recovery of sight to the blind,
to let the oppressed go free,
19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor”
He was quoting a text from Isaiah and then responded: “today, this scripture has been fulfilled.”
I have continued to struggle with how to live out my citizenship in a way that is worthy of this gospel—a gospel that is grounded in practical, not just spiritual, transformation. Jesus preached
“good news” to the poor. What might that look like? Healthcare? Getting the chance to send their kids to college. This good news looks like the release of prisoners who were unjustly imprisoned, healing to those who are ill and outcast from society, freedom for those who are oppressed…in essence, all of those who are suffering. Jesus continued to spread good news in word and deed, “get up,” “you are healed,” “woman, where are your accusers?” “your faith has made you well,” “on the third day I will rise,” “I go to prepare a place for you,” There is so much good news!!! And it is primarily directed at those who are sick, who are suffering, who are on the outside and on the margins. The hardest and most challenging words are directed towards the church. Towards religious leaders, who are more focused on intricacies of the law and dogged adherence to it, rather than the spirit of the law that is meant for freedom, for liberation, for justice, for wholeness, and a witness to God’s grace and love.
I am still figuring this out in the midst of this two-party system. I love so many people who are Republican and I love so many people who are Democrats. I do believe that there can be faithful Christians on both sides, but it doesn’t seem that there is a perfect solution when you are dealing with imperfect human beings.
However, I do believe that there is something different about this election and I felt the same in 2016. While I want to be committed to continuing to love people despite our disagreements, I am finding it hard to “agree to disagree” on this one. I can’t stay quiet on this one. I am going into the voting booth (actually via my mail-in ballot) and will vote for an imperfect candidate, but one whom I believe is the committed to practical, on-the-ground good news to those who have been left behind by a Christianity complicit with racism and exploitative capitalism. I’m grateful for people who are taking this seriously and helping us think through this—who aren’t just voting a party line, but are trying to be thinking of this in terms of a gospel that was and should still be good news to those who need it most.
At an SPU event on Race and the future of the church this past week, one of the panelists implored participants to vote like his black life matters. His life does matter and I will vote like it does.
Today, our family will take our ballots (the two of us of voting age and the two teen-onlookers), and we will do our very best to live out our citizenship in manner worthy of the gospel. We want to cast a vote that will be “good news” in the same kind of ways that Jesus talked about for the people who are longing for some good news.
Blessings to you as you seek to live this out as well…
*Side note: I am personally pro-life for myself, but I am aware that I have never had to think of an unwanted pregnancy outside of my staggering privilege of loving family, lots of help, healthcare, etc. And, I am coming from a theological framework where I believe life begins at conception, but understand that even other Christians might see that differently than I, so there is room for disagreement in that. I also firmly believe that if women had access to free birth control, and actually felt like they had a choice to see a pregnancy through (healthcare, tuition assistance, generous paid maternity leave, etc)., then we would see the number of abortions go down. For a great conversation on this “wedge” issue in Christianity see www.theallytour.com (week 2)