May Love Triumph over Fear for Syrian Refugees

May Love Triumph over Fear for Syrian Refugees

 

“There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.” John 4:18

 

This morning at the car loop, I helped kids out of passenger seats and wished them a happy morning. In class, sat beside them and painted pictures of Pokemon, Elsa, Star Wars, and Rainbow mountains. We had a brief dance party to the tune of “Come on Eileen” and belted the lyrics to Adele’s new song. Tiny hands held mine as we walked to the playground for recess. The ran around in the grass, laughing, squealing, and escaping the occasional bee. I heard their tiny voices calling out, “Look, Ms Stalvey!”

As I watched them, my heart ached. My mind was preoccupied with thoughts of children half a world away.

Currently, Syrian children are  drowning the Mediterranean Sea in a desperate attempt to reach safety on European soil. The infrastructure of their homeland has collapsed around them, forcing millions to drop out of school and flee their homes. Those who remain in their country are caught in the middle of a violent civil war which has claimed the lives of 240,000 people, including 12,000 children. Civilians are the victims of extremism: they are bombed, shot at, and attacked with chemical warfare on their own streets. Those who flee for their lives are left without basic human necessities like clean water, food, and shelter.

12 million people have fled their homes because of this conflict. Half of them are children. 

With numbers like that, the Crisis in Syria is being called “The Worst Humanitarian Crisis in the World Today.”

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Recently, prominent political voices have spoken out against the Presidents plan to allow 10,000  Syrian Refugees to seek asylum in our county. Their primary motivation in denying refugees reassignment in the US is fear. Many fear that ISIS or other terrorists groups could sneak into the country by obtaining refugee status, as they threaten to.

This fear was heightened by the horrific attacks on Paris last week, which left 129 people dead. In the face of such senseless, visceral violence, it’s natural to be afraid. It’s wise to be cautious.

But it’s also tempting to descend into terror and let fear rule in our hearts. In the middle of panic, it’s easy to forget the very real people who have been most victimized by extremism.

I believe that during this difficult, sensitive time, it’s important that we keep the following things in mind:
1. Obtaining refugee status in the US is an incredibly long and difficult process. Applicants are vetted rigorously, undergoing an intensive screening process which takes 18 to 24 months. The extensive process includes live interviews, medical examinations, and backgrounds checks performed by the State Department, Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, the National Counter-Terrorism Center, and the FBI, making it “The most stringent security process for anyone entering the US”  according to Deputy State Department Spokesperson Mark Toner.

It is more likely that terrorists would arrive on US soil via commercial airplanes than by refugee status.

Since 9/11, 750,000 refugees have been resettled in the U.S. and not one has been arrested on domestic terrorism charges.

2. Fear of terrorism, violence, and ISIS is something Syrian Refugees know all about. Their lives have literally been ruined by Islamic radicals. 

By succumbing to fear, we are help Terrorists to achieve what they set out to do. By rejecting refugees, we aren’t sending away terrorists, we’re sending away their victims. We’re sending away widows and children.

3. As Christians, we are called to care for the abused and the victimized, to plead the case of the orphan and the widow, and to embrace foreigners as if they were our own. This remains our commandment even when it is inconvenient,  uncomfortable, or risky.

Our scripture is full to the brim with a mandate for social justice, radical hospitality, and self sacrifice.

Leviticus 19:33-34 says to treat the foreigners as if he were native born and love them as yourself. Deuteronomy 10:18-19 Says that God loves the foreigner residing among us and commands that we love them as well.

Perhaps the most convicting passage for me is found in Matthew 25, when Jesus says that the way we treat the suffering is the way we treat Christ himself. Jesus’ words are poignant and haunting:

“Depart from me, you who are cursed…For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me...Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

To turn our back on the refugee, the poor, the displaced and the oppressed is to literally turn our backs on Christ. He places himself among them as one of them. When we embrace someone in in need, we embrace him. When we slam the door, we slam it in Jesus’ face.

As Stephen Mattson puts it, “Although there might be many political, financial, and logistical reasons for citizens to reject the influx of global refugees, there are no theological ones. It may be inconvenient, uncomfortable, and extremely hard, but Jesus wants us to care for these people — the poor, homeless, sick, persecuted, downtrodden, and oppressed.”

These commands-to love our enemies unconditionally and to welcome strangers-they are not easy for anyone. I have been especially convicted  as I reflect on these words and pray over the crisis. I want a heart that resembles the compassionate heart of God, but I don’t always want the pain, discomfort, and inconvenience that accompanies its transformation.

But I trust him. I know he loves these people so deeply, people who are suffering injustices worse than I can imagine. I listen deeply for the voice of God as it repeats, Do not be afraid. I remember that Jesus did not only call us to embrace the refugee, he was a refugee himself. 


 

As my husband and I drove through the rain last night, we talked about the things we’d read, seen, and heard on the radio.

He sighed. “If they’re going to send them away, they’ll need to change the poem on the Statue.” he said.

You know the one. Its engraved at the foot of our Lady Liberty, who ever extends a hopeful light towards the bay, beckoning for those who seek freedom to find rest on her shore:

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. 
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses, yearning to breath free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore,
Send these, the homeless, tempest tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”


 

I know that this issue is polarizing. But silence is not an option, because these people matter to My God and so they matter to me. I’ve  included links to various sources that I have found helpful while reading about this issue.


 

Church Hurt: Dealing with my Pastor’s Suicide

Church Hurt: Dealing with my Pastor’s Suicide

It’s hard for me to write about this. Because it hurts.

It’s hard to write about this because so many people were hurt besides me.

It’s a tangled web of raw emotion, betrayal, love, memory, and regret.

But I want- I need to talk about this, because it’s a part of my story. It hangs over me each time I walk through the doors of a church. Sometimes it catches me in traffic and stings my eyes. It’s haunts me. But giving words to the process is helpful, at least for me.

Our family came to my Church when I was fourteen years old. We were walking away from a painful experience in ministry and seeking to reconnect to something safe and solid.

We knew right away that we that were home.  

Beginning at the age of fourteen and leading through the formative years of my life, It was the pastor of that church, Isaac, who helped to forge my spiritual identity and my understanding of grace. He was young and spirited, kind and warm. It’s strange to think that when I first met him, he wasn’t much older than I am now.

He was simply the best of us.

He had a modest humor that endeared him to everyone and a natural way of disarming those who may be have been uncomfortable in their church seat. He spoke in a voice that was gentle and wise, drawing people in with his genuine affection for God, tempting us with the invitation that we too could be participants in this faith. He was never compromising, always unafraid to speak truth about the gospel of Christ. He did so in such a way that everyone could receive it no matter where they were in their lives or what baggage they brought to the table. He was well read, articulate, and brilliant at illuminating difficult passages of scripture so that they seemed relevant. He was sympathetic to the individual struggles of the people in his congregation, continually reminding us that “no one stands so tall that they are not in need of him, and no one has stooped so low that they are beyond the reach of his grace.” 

My father soon joined the pastoral ministry team at the church, and eventually my mother began working in Sunday childcare. Our family volunteered during church-wide service projects, rebuilding houses in the city, feeding the poor, painting walls, planting trees and rocking babies. The people around us were inspiring and kind. We joined book clubs and went to house parties and knew all the words to all the worship songs the band played. We kept in touch even when I went away to college. I was married on the stage of the Church. My sisters were baptized in the ocean with my father one one side and Isaac on the other. The bible I read from today was a wedding gift from Isaac and his wife, with a small inscription in the cover: “love God, love each other.”

The day he killed himself was surreal. I had just gotten off a shift at the hotel when I got the call. My sister’s voice sounded strange on the other end of the phone, tired and choked with tears. “Isaac committed suicide this morning.” I nearly fell over. The room seemed to tilt and blur.

We had all been living in a sort of limbo of disbelief since the previous November, ever since Isaac stepped down from his position as Pastor due to “moral failing.” I knew this kind of stuff happened- God did I know. It seemed like every week the Sentinel was reporting that some other mega church pastor was caught living a deviant double life, strone across the headlines and publicly shamed for their secret addictions and sins. It seemed symptomatic of something, some deep rooted problem in the way we structured hierarchies in the church. I knew it happened. But it didn’t happen with people like Isaac.

We met together as a church the next night. We wept. We held each other. We prayed. We were angry. We were sad, scared, and confused. We worshiped a God who was still good.

Isaac’s suicide left me with a broken heart and gaping holes of doubt. I joined the long list of people who had been wounded by the church and were disillusioned in the aftermath of a tragedy.

Something about being there, about watching other men stand and teach on the same stage where he had stood and taught- hearing them say the same words he had said- it hurt very much. It was hard to focus on worship when my mind kept getting pulled back into what had happened. I tried to suppress negative thoughts during each service, but I found myself overwhelmed with questions, getting defensive, going numb.

I started sleeping in on Sundays, and eventually venturing out to visit other churches- something I hadn’t done since college. I think I wanted a to just be someplace where I could worship without a cloud of sadness hanging over me.

But I was stunted by a paralyzing inability to trust any man speaking from the pulpit. I scoffed at bad theology and nitpicked sermons and had an inner voice that kept asking who is this guy, really?

In the process of trying out new churches, my husband and I were introduced to Calvinists who thought we weren’t part of the elect, Reformed Baptists who assured us that we were part of the elect and it was only other people who weren’t, fundamentalists who discouraged us from celebrating the evils of Halloween, Seminarians who discouraged me praying in my husband’s presence (because, you know, I’m a woman,) an Orthodox Priest who tried to convince us to be baptized into Orthodoxy, college-age ministers who tried so hard to be cool it felt patronizing, and an affluent preacher who encouraged his congregation to aim for corporate success by branding oneself and dressing nice.

It was exhausting.

In the past year or so, I have taken a step back and allowed myself some space to sort things out in my head. It’s given me time to reexamine aspects of my faith I have long taken for granted, I have begun to honestly ask myself what I believe and why.

I am becoming comfortable with ambiguity, with not knowing all of the answers, and with being wrong. Christ does not change, but I do: I am changing daily, evolving, shifting and learning. I have felt him leading me into new open spaces where it is okay to be unsure and to change my mind. It feels truer and healthier than standing still and never wondering.

I know that Jesus has room for my questions and doubts. His truth is big enough to withstand my uncertainties.

Slowly but surely, I’m collecting an inner voice with which to express these thoughts, and experiencing the comfort of a God who loves me right here in the middle of it.

In the end, I’m thankful that Isaac was one of the people God chose to speak into my circumstances and influence my faith during the formative years of my life. Because I believe the things he told me were true. God uses broken, ordinary people to do his work. I think I will always miss him.

These days I’m just longing for church.

Some days, I want church to be like an AA meeting, where we all sit in a circle in the basement and are viscerally honest about our shortcomings and addictions. Knowing that we are equal and that we are broken, we are free to cheer one another on towards healing, towards the light on the other side of decay.

Some days, I want church to be a concert, a dark and hazy crowd spattered by colored lights and blurred by smoke. I want to raise my hands and shake my hips and disappear into the mass, I want to lose my thoughts and find my heartbeat.

Some days, I want a reverent silence all around and the physical sacraments to feed my hungry soul. I want to breathe incense and taste sacred wine on my lips, to kneel in the flood of the stained glass light of morning and listen to an organ playing old hymns.

Some days, I want Church to be a dinner table. I want it to be good friends and laughter, board games and stout beers. I want it to be conversations that stretch long into the night, without a thought or mention of morning, with my dogs waiting beneath for scraps.

Some days, the thought of church just hurts too much. I don’t feel like getting my hopes up.

But other days, hope is inevitable.
I hold on to the feeling I am not alone after all in my experiences. If you’ve ever felt this way before, if you’re feeling this way now, reach out. I would love to hear your story as well.

I wonder: What does your hope for the church look like? Where would your spirit, heart and mind feel fed and able to connect with the truth of God? Which church are you longing for today?

The Center of the Universe

The Center of the Universe

There’s an old book that rests on the shelf beside my fireplace, taller than the little novels surrounding it. It’s wrapped in a worn dust jacket with black letters printed on the spine

Life Before Man.

I found it at a thrift shop one October, buried beneath National Geographics and fashion magazines from the 70s. The vintage volume boasts 162 illustrations “in color.” It’s yellowing  pages are filled with sprawling landscape scenes from the Precambrian to the Cenozoic- of murky green waters, flora that twist and curl, primitive toothed fish, smooth skinned sea monsters and the brutish, towering T-Rex.

These ancient beasts are the monsters of science fiction, and yet somehow, find themselves in this book about the true history of earth.  

Archaeology is the science that proves the stuff of myth was once fact. There’s a magic to it; a tug on the imagination to fill in the mysterious cracks and crevices of history, speculating on what might have been. Swirling fossils pressed into dust, layers of earth, footprints, teeth- they whisper to us over the millennia. Man exhumed million-year-old bodies, brought them back from long sleepy deaths, and hung them from museum ceilings. Ancient bones dangle ominously like ghosts, haunting and delighting us as we pass below them.

Skeletons are a promise that there was once indeed flesh- there was breath, blood, sight, maternal love, jealousy, fear, and joy. Billions of creatures were born, lived, and died long before human beings ever existed.

Nearly 30 years ago, Astrophysicist Carl Sagan introduced a generation to the Cosmic Calendar, a visualization method in which the 13.8 billion year old universe is condensed into a single calendar year. The universe is born in a bright explosion at midnight, January 1st. The milky way is formed on May 11th. On December 5th, multi-cellular life emerges from the primordial waters of earth, and by Christmas morning, animals awaken, blinking, gasping, breathing, crawling, swimming, creeping, and soaring. Humanity does not appear on the scene until late December 31st.

I breathe in and recall the creation poem of Genesis, where the repetitive ebb and flow of words echoes the march of time. In it, an eternal spirit hovers over primordial depths; a divine, guiding voice brings order out of chaos. White hot stars burst forth from darkness, the sun and moon emerge spinning on their axis. The oceans and the lands churn and shift and settle, a new world grows green and teems with life. The divine breath of heaven mingles with the dust of the earth, and gives rise to humanity.

“The cosmos is within us. We are made of star stuff.”

There’s a profound humility that settles in your soul when you think about it. In all those billions of years before mankind arrived on the scene, God was there, present, spinning unspeakable wonders, and whispering: it is good, it is good, it is good.

It was not a lonely expanse of millennia. It was full of color, depth, drama and life. I was not “filler” time that merely anticipated the arrival homo sapiens. It was, in and of itself, purposeful, glorious, and significant, and beloved by God.

This is a potentially troubling thought for those who prefer to think that universe revolves around us.

I’ve heard it said that Christians view the universe in three categories: God, Humanity, and the rest of creation. As if all the world were a stage and we were its star actors. Of course, a better estimation would include only two categories: God, and everything else.

We’ve had a long, unfortunate tradition of placing humans at the center of the story. Anthropocentrism has lurked in the Christian religion for centuries, hinging on “dominion,” claiming unlimited power and obvious superiority over the rest of the earth.

Carl Sagan said that “Science came along and taught us that we are not the measure of all things.”

But was that revelation really so new after all? If we had been listening closely, wouldn’t we have known it all along?

Colossians 1:16 tells us that All things have been created through him and for him.

For him. Not for us. The animals, the oceans, the stars and the skies- they are not for us. They can be enjoyed by us, certainly, but our enjoyment and our use of creation is not creations primary purpose. We do not give significance to everything else.

The Creator does. It is his.

To me, the gospel has always demonstrated how small we are rather than how great.  It reminds us that we are only a breath (psalm 39:5) but dignifies our existence with meaning by extending an invitation to participate in the larger story of eternity.

It is my hope that my meditations on Christ would open the door wonder rather than shutting it. I hope that I always take seriously the fact that God loves his creation, in and of itself, and that that inspired me to love it, too. And I hope that whenever I am tempted to place myself at the center of my own proverbial universe, I pause and remember how small I am in the scheme of things. 

Red Cups and the War on Christmas

Red Cups and the War on Christmas

Today I went to Starbucks and ordered a Tall Caffe Americano with soy milk. My Coffee was delivered to me in a plain red holiday cup. The lack of snowflake designs on the cup infuriated me, because it clearly indicated that Starbucks hates Christmas. If any corporation hates Christmas, then they must also hate me and hate my God. I immediately threw the cup on the ground and took to the internet to express my rage over being religiously persecuted.

Except, No. I didn’t. Because that would be ridiculous.

The only thing I care about on the outside of my coffee cup is the daily note scribbled on it by my friend who works as a barista.

It’s worth mentioning that I have yet to have one real interaction with someone who was actually offended by the red Starbucks cup. Despite the massive stir it has caused, #cupgate represents the opinions of very few. This is yet another example of an extremely small group of people with very loud voices who are profoundly good at missing the point. Everyone else in the Christian community is just shaking their heads in confusion and shame.

Still, this whole “scandal” is indicative of an unfortunate trend.

I saw a “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper sticker on the back of a pickup truck yesterday. As if anything could keep him out, I thought.

As we approach our American Christmas, a season marked by comfort, affluence, consumerism, and excessive consumption, some people will claim that they being religiously persecuted by a lack of Christmas Cheer. God help the unsuspecting store clerks who wish them a politically correct  Happy Holidays in place of Merry Christmas.  

For some religious people, being vocally “against” something makes them feel more pious, as if being offended by secular tends proved the authenticity of their faith.  

This is probably a good time to pause and remember that in most of the world, Christians are actually persecuted.

When American Christians claim persecution in the face of absolutely neutral situations, it diminishes the very real struggles of our brothers and sisters all over the globe, who are being incarcerated, tortured, and killed for their faith.

Perhaps the cup offended you. Perhaps you feel that your excessively marketed, over the top consumeristic, exorbitant American holiday has been, in some minuscule way, not celebrated enough. Fine. But to suggest the being wished “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or getting a plain red cup instead of a sparkly one is religious persecution is kind of like spitting in the face of actual victims of persecution.

No one has declared war on your Christmas. But maybe someone ought to.

If Christians really want to “Keep Christ in Christmas,” we would do well to remember that it is a holiday which marks our savior being born into poverty, in a barn, to a teenage girl. It is the story of how God emptied himself of all but love, and in complete humility, came to live among sinners.

We should take every opportunity this season to express our gratitude and humility instead our of outrage and resentment. That will keep Christ in Christmas better than any cup can.

The Care and Keeping of the Earth

The Care and Keeping of the Earth

I used to think that environmentalism was not a christian issue. Now, I believe that the care and keeping of the earth is at the heart of God’s plan for humanity.

“I know who made the environment and he’s coming back and going to burn it all up. So yes, I drive an SUV,” megachurch pastor and mega Christian-celebrity Mark Driscoll told his congregation in June of 2012.

Not so long ago, I might have chuckled along with the rest of the congregation.

Cringeworthy as it sounds, this line of thought is widespread among Christian communities: What’s the point of trying to protect the environment if God is just going to throw it away like trash eventually?

I had the image painted for me countless times: in the end, souls would be evacuated into heaven to escape the steaming garbage heap of the earth, which was to be burned up and abandoned by God.

But is this really our story? Is this what God has in mind for the world he created?

The truth, I have found, is more gloriously hope-filled than I ever dared to imagine.

Leading New Testament Scholar NT Wright has spoken extensively on this topic, helping people accurately reorient their understanding of The true Christian Hope. “We have been right, deeply right, to think that Paul is concerned with the salvation of human beings and all that goes with that: the redeeming death of Jesus, justification by grace through faith, and so on.” he writes in his book, Surprised by Hope, “But we have been wrong to suppose that the only purpose was the salvation of humans- as it were, away from the world, away from the whole created order.”

To accurately understand our creator’s vision of the world is to see that he fiercely committed to its renewal and restoration.

The gospel is the story of how God is working to redeem, heal, and set right what has been fractured and broken in the world. This includes the hearts and minds of his people, but it does not end there; it extends into the entire cosmos and created order. The Bible begins in Genesis with the words “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”and ends in Revelation, where we hear Christ Jesus proclaim “Behold! I am making all things new.” These bookends of scripture describe God’s intent for a good and peaceful world, and his promise to rescue it out of chaos and decay.

Scripture is sealed with a promise that God will cleanse the earth of all that is wicked, broken, and unjust, and that he will then restore and renew his creation to it’s original intent.

The passage of scripture that really helped me grasp hold of this is in Romans 8:

19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.

“The trajectory of Christian Salvation is not God saving us out of earth into heaven, but heaven coming down to earth and renewing everything that’s here.” explains Tim Keller in his sermon, Lord of the Earth. When we pray your will be done on earth as it is in heaven, we are longing for the day when God will indeed unite heaven and earth as one.

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It has been profoundly exciting for me to reorient myself with God’s vision, and to realize that he invites us to participate in this restoration by bringing forth the first hints of renewal in this present day.

“If you believe that you’re going to leave and evacuate to somewhere else, then why do anything about this world? A proper view of heaven leads not to escape from the world, but full engagement with it, all with the anticipation of a coming day when things are on earth as they currently are in heaven.” says Rob Bell.

Our view of the future helps to shape our mission in the present. To be in alignment with God’s plan for creation gives us a political and spiritual mandate to protect the earth and all the living creatures within it.

It is, in fact, our oldest calling.

Our first mandate in scripture is the care and the keeping of the earth. In the creation story of Genesis, Adam and Eve are placed into the Garden of Eden and given dominion over all the fish of the sea and birds of the air. They are blessed with the imago dei, the image of God, which carries with it a profound responsibility of reflecting God’s likeness to the rest of creation.

Lest we are tempted to use our powerful dominion as an excuse to abuse, use up, pollute, and tear down the earth, we may do well to remember which God it is we are called to reflect. Our God is not a greedy, plundering overlord, but Jesus, whose self sacrificing love and humility were his very definition. It is his image that we are called to reflect back into the oceans, the skies, the forests, the animals, and our fellow man.

God’s mission from the beginning was that we would be protectors and guardians of the earth, and he has not given up on that mission.

Meditating on God’s promise of the new heavens and new earth has led me to reevaluate many of my simple, daily choices. I began considering the unseen consequences of what I put on my plate, how I spend my money, and how I regard the rest of creation. It’s led me to advocate for the welfare of animals, preservation of species, and the protection of the environment. I now recognize that these things are not secondary, “liberal” issues, but valuable to the heart of God, and a part of our holy calling as his people.

I  am filled with  profound hope, knowing that we worship a God who is making all things new, and that we are able to participate along side him in that renewal. 

Through the Dim Glass

Through the Dim Glass

Jesus looks down upon me, his weary head cast in bronze. His delicate frame is mounted on a wooden crucifix above the kitchen table. There’s a golden circle haloing his crown of thorns and a gathering of saints attending to him, their eyes rolled back dramatically in lament.  The sorrowful gaze of his round, deep set eyes meets mine over a morning bowl of cereal.

I’ve always wondered how Jesus looked, sounded and smelled. With so few biblical hints about his physical appearance, we rely only on lore: of Robert Powell’s baby blue eyes and Shakespearean accent, the ghostly shroud of Turin, and pamphlets featuring a friendly, long haired white man cradling lambs.

Saint Paul promised the church in Corinth that one day, they would see their savior face to face. But not quite yet. For now, we’re in something of a fog. He compared our experience to looking through a dim glass; our vision is faint, obscured, and incomplete.

On cold nights and in the white light of Sunday mornings, I find myself squinting at that dark glass, pressing my fingers on the foggy frame. In an attempt to wipe it clean, I smear and scrape at the grime which distorts his picture. I want to see the man on the other side, but often find I’ve only smudged and further distorted his image.

With so many people speaking on his behalf, it’s hard to discern the voice of Christ. When we the actions and attitudes we experience in our churches do not match the Jesus we read about in scripture, it’s hard to know where to turn.

Jesus never wrote a book. What we know of him is what was written down by the men who knew best, who walked with him and called him their teacher and friend.

They wrote about how he shocked them with the things he’d teach, how he flipped classical ideas about servant-hood, leadership, wealth, and strength upside down. He said that in him that the hungry would be fed and the weary would have rest.

They described how he infuriated religious people by associating with sinners; sharing meals with thieves and sex workers, extending a healing touch to diseased men and women, and showing mercy to the least qualified. He dignifying people by listening to them, restoring them, and offering them a place at the table.

He demonstrated humility by washing his disciples feet, reminding Peter that it is only by coming face to face with our filth that he can make us clean. God, from the moment he was born to a poverty stricken teenager in a Palestinian barn, proved he was not afraid of a mess, least of all the mess inside of us.

When I read the scriptures, I’m overcome with him. I bet he smelled of wood chippings and the sea, of dust and sweat, of wine and anointing oil. He calmed the storms and touched the wounded and called a rich young ruler to give away his possession to the poor and to follow after him, because it is in him, and not in wealth, that the fullness of joy could be found.

Two Thousand years later, Joel Osteen and Oprah Winfrey sit comfortably in their luxury homes, television cameras filming as they roll their heads back in laughter. “What kind of God would want anyone to be poor?” They ask, rhetorically. “I just don’t see the bible that way.”

On another channel you might see Christians protesting gay rights, with picket signs and loudspeakers.

Another still may feature the story of a christian who feels he is being religiously persecuted by a lack of gender specific toy aisles at Target, or an abundance of “Happy Holiday” decor where “Merry Christmas” ought to be. Eventually, you just turn the TV off.

One of the main frustrations our generation has with the church is the dissonance we sense between the person of Jesus and the culture of American Christianity.

It would a terrible mistake to suggest that all churches are guilty of close mindedness, derision, or exclusivity. That may be an easy generalization for people to make, but it’s simply not true. However, it is also a mistake for Christians to decline to talk about the problems in our traditions, some which are not so obvious as the ones we see on TV. We should not ignore or excuse commonplace distortions of the gospel that affect people both inside and outside of the church. It’s okay to be frustrated.

I certainly have my own frustrations.

At many a Sunday morning service, a Christian’s job is to show up, smile, and listen to 40 minutes worth of good advice. We do not raise our hands to pose a question, we do not struggle out in the open, or bleed on the clean church floors.

We keep a checklist of the things we are for the things we are against: of things which are sins and things which belong on our moral to-do list. We remain in God’s karmic good graces by observing them.

We advertise our disdain for the actions and opinions of those whose theology contradicts our own, waging holy war with detailed, bullet pointed facebook messages, citing bible verses in our favor.

We disqualify our fellow Christians for having the wrong doctrine, wrong denomination, wrong music, wrong clothes, wrong scriptural interpretation, and wrong political party, as if these things were really the point after all. We repeat our individual idioms until they become as important to us as biblical law.

We vote to criminalize behaviors we deem immoral, so that even if our fellow Americans do not share in our affection for Christ, they can be legally forced to act as if they did.

We pick “pet sins” to rail against in the public spheres, while conveniently avoiding our own, petrified of our shortcomings and clueless about how to walk in humility.

We stir up culture wars around these sins, repeating the mantra “hate the sin, love the sinner.” We do an excellent job of communicating the hate, but allow the part about love to remain mostly theoretical.

I cannot help but wonder what part of these culture wars we wage in Jesus’ name represent him. I cannot help but groan when they become our focus. Are these battles over politics, theology, and rhetoric really worth the casualties they cause? Because for every so-called victory won, we can rest assured that the people outside our church walls have heard the message loud and clear that they are not welcome within.

I recently listened to an episode of This American Life which was recorded in 2008. It includes a story from writer Dan Savage who recounts his Catholic childhood, the death of his religious mother, and how he felt drawn to the church during his time of grief.

“I fantasized about returning to the sacrament of confession. ‘Forgive me father, for I have sinned. It’s been 29 years since my last confession. Hope you packed a lunch.’  I want for there to be heaven. And I want her to be looking down on me…. Catholicism now tempts me. I wouldn’t be wasting so much time in Saint James if it didn’t. My boyfriend would not have found a “WELCOME BACK” card in the back pocket of my jeans if it didn’t.

But when I am tempted, when I feel like, maybe, I could go through the motions, Return to the sacraments, take what comfort I can, the Pope goes to Africa and says that condoms spread AIDS, or an archbishop in Brazil excommunicates a Catholic woman for getting her nine year old daughter an abortion, but not the Catholic man that raped the nine year old girl. Or I contemplate how the church views me and the two people I love most in the world, my boyfriend of 14 years and our 11-year-old son, and I think, I can’t even fake this.”

This is what happens when the evangelical church chooses to define itself by what it is against and which types of people it wants to exclude instead of defining itself by Jesus: a man whose radical inclusion of even the most deplorable sinners was so offensive to religious people it ended up getting him murdered.

So what are we to do?

For many young people, the answer has been to give up on church and Christianity entirely. They’re tired of trying to fit in somewhere their friends are not welcome. They don’t feel the freedom to doubt or ask questions without their whole biblical worldview unraveling . They don’t feel they are able to maintain both their faith and their intellectual integrity.

“Oh well,” we say to ourselves with a sigh, “Following Jesus may be a nice idea in theory, but it just doesn’t work out in reality. The church is too flawed, Christians are too crazy, and I am not the kind of person who can go along with this nonsense.”

There is a problem though: If there is even a chance that Jesus is who he said he was, we can’t just throw him away along with the broken church. Too much is at stake. As C.S. Lewis points out, we cannot be contented to merely think of him as merely a good moral teacher. “Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse.”

We have to deal with Jesus. We can’t just leave this question half answered in our hearts: we have to make up our minds about him. We owe it to ourselves to cut away from the noise and the antics associated with him, and seek to know the truth. Who is Jesus is the single most important question we will ever ask, because the answer has massive implications on all our lives.

My life-long pursuit of an authentic vision of Christ has led me, time and again, to trust in him.

Some days it is hard to hear his voice. Others I am so frustrated and disheartened by by his “people” that I wane on the edge of despair. But I press on. I know that to seek him is a worthy struggle. I am convinced that to even see a glimmer of Christ shown back to us through that dark mirror is our only hope of bringing life out of this death and beauty out of this chaos. I remember the grace he has shown me the countless times I too have failed to represent him, and the merciful love which first drew me to believe.

 The amazing thing about Jesus is that he doesn’t leave us helpless in the dark. Instead of expecting us to become good enough or clever enough to rise and obtain the faraway secrets of God, he stoops down and encounters us where we are. He can handle our doubts, our anger, our most controversial questions. They do not scare him. He does not turn us away for having them.

Through the fog and the confusion, he walks towards us. I hold on to hope for the the church, because I still believe in the one on whom it stands: a God who redeems human failures and restores what is broken to new life. A God who invites us to pursue him with our whole heart and our whole mind, drawing us into greater depths of both wisdom and joy.

I can feel it in air, I hear it like rustling leaves. People are having much needed conversations in which they are getting permission to be their full authentic selves. They are sharing their stories and doubts, working through their wounds, and beginning to heal. People are learning to address the problems within their religious structures without dismissing their faith, because it is a faith that is predicated on redemption and grace.

There are many Christians who, when faced with frustrations and disappointments of Christian culture, do not throw up their hands up in despair, but rather, reach them out to touch; to serve; to build, to feed the hungry, to fold in prayer.

I want to be among them.