An Open Letter to the Progressive Church

Initially written following my church community’s first Sunday gathering after the 2016 presidential election. Thankfully, since then, we’ve grown a lot in learning to set our hearts on Jesus before all else.


Tough Love


I am pained when I think about Sunday night.

I am pained that we did not spend dedicated time praying for Donald Trump and the new leaders of our government.

I am pained that instead of endowing us with the peace, love, and joy that transcend all understanding, our guest speaker spent his time directly reminding us how accursed, broken, and divided we are—reminding us of the state of things here on earth, and particularly in the shadow of an undeniably painful and hysterical presidential election.

Never have I ever been convicted to act out of Christ’s love by being reminded of the existential burden of brokenness I’ve felt since the moment I was born. [1] Only by beholding the absurd majesty and beauty of God’s glory, right here, right now, right in front of me, anew each day, have I ever been moved to act in a way that might resemble goodness, righteousness, or justice.

During communion, I was made to fight guilt as I sang the words, “It is well with my soul.” I know I was not alone in this.

This is not of the Holy Spirit.

No, this is what flows straight from the most vicious lie both in the “progressive” and the most bullheaded “conservative” sects of the American church, that is, that we must be tough in our love. It is a lie that slyly warps our desire for God’s truth and justice into a desire for an expedient sense that we have done something worthwhile or righteous by our own volition.

More specifically, it is a lie that gives us a false sense of comfort in the knowledge that we have acted with intent, charisma, or passion, as if such things were virtuous in and of themselves.

We do not love by intent.

We do not love by charisma.

We do not love by passion.

We do not love by toughness.

We do not love by assertiveness.

We do not love by any bit of anecdotal or empirical knowledge about how broken our world is.

We love by submission.

Our fight is fought by submission.

This is not stoicism.

This is not escapism.

It is the submission of our volition, the sacrifice of our desire for immediate positive knowledge about the world, for trust that a higher, more existentially and more eternally-rooted, knowledge and clearer convictions will come thereafter we set our gaze solely upon the glory of God, all that He has done, all that He continues to do, and all that He will do.

The strength and knowledge we need to help our world is found only as a gift given thereafter our meditation on God’s goodness.

We fear this as intellectuals. We fear this as academics. We fear this as “enlightened”, “open-minded” Portlanders. We fear this even as a “Spirit-led” church of intellectual, academic, enlightened, and open-minded Portlanders.

Why?

Because, regardless of church mission statements or even any knowledge we can claim to have about the Spirit of God, it still remains the least reducible, least comprehensible thing we know. [2]

The Spirit is capable of taking even the soundest principles we’ve set up in our lives, even those we’ve aimed directly at honoring God, and humbly, quietly, and lovingly, shake them until they are dust. The Spirit often forces us to let go of the idol we’ve fashioned out of what we think we know so well about politics, social justice, or about how Jesus’ love would pragmatically apply to this or that situation.

The Spirit scares us to death because it beckons us to step back and ask humbly for guidance anew from the living word of God every day. [3]

In our finitude, we cannot fully predict the living word, but only interpret it as it comes in light of the only truth that any Christian can claim to know with utter clarity and certainty, that God loves us and is for us. We cannot pin the living word down to our ethnic, cultural, sociological, philosophical, theological, or political groups. We can only pray that our beliefs would be made harmonious in some sense with God’s goodness, despite the fact that they will inherently be muddled with terrible things—since after all, they are muddled with everything that is inherently human. [4]

We do not achieve this harmony by spending all of our time trying to stay in the loop on the day-to-day happenings of the world at large.

We do not achieve this by staying glued to our phones all day and night so that we can produce a real-time rejoinder to the latest presidential tweet or so that we can be among the first to support the latest “social justice” trend.

Being humble and responsible in light of the living word takes time, lots of time.

It takes a lot of time looking in the mirror, squaring in on ourselves to make sure that the road ahead is not being paved with knee-jerk emotional reactions that are ultimately leading to more hell and hysteria than they are to more heaven come.

It takes a lot of time spent meditating on what things we can actually do in light of the reality of the deathly spiral of fighting fire with fire and our natural inclination toward this type of engagement that seems to come ever more so naturally with our erratic twenty-first century attention spans.

It takes a lot of time spent praying and learning to trust that even if all we are called to do today is draw in the sand or make fish sandwiches for our friends, that God will multiply His glory and goodness through these things in ways that we could never imagine.

Our meditation on God’s goodness, our crying out to the living word to show up and breathe into us new life, new joy, new strength, and to saturate us with His identity and thereby restore us to wholeness and unity, is all we have in this life.

Jesus told us to forget even our mother and father for sake of His goodness.

Are we doing this?

Are we trusting in a humble meditation on God’s goodness to convict us? To teach us how to act? Or are we, as progressive and enlightened church peoples, trusting more in some sort of positivist knowledge about how the world is, about the state of evil, the state of injustice, about past or present ignorances and prejudices of certain people groups toward one another, to convict us toward right behavior?

I know what I see in myself, what I see in my community. I know what I see in Portland at large.

I see myself, my beloved church, and my beloved city trying so hard not to be fools to the world, that we’ve become complete fools to God’s glory.

When we hung Jesus on the cross, did He remind us about how “broken, shattered, and divided we are”; did he tell us, “to go to our rooms and think about what we’ve done”, as our guest pastor chastised us to do on the Sunday following the presidential election?

No.

He said, “It is finished.”

He declared victory in face of the greatest horror in the history of mankind.

He crushed our shame the moment it was the most unbearable.

Hereby, our fight as Christians is, simply put, submission to absurd celebration in face of the most rampant evils. [5]

On Sunday evening…

Yes, we sang praises together.

Yes, we celebrated as three beautiful souls were baptized.

Yes, we stood in solidarity with all those in our country and around the world who are hurting, confused, or fearful.

But, the biggest question I had and still have coming away from that service is, “Do we remain fearful, ourselves?” Or, to pose the question at large, do American Christians, progressive or otherwise, remain fearful?

And if so, why? Why are we fearful? Do we have the guts to let go of our fear? To actually give ourselves and our world over to God? Or has our fear, or call it “knowledge of” or “regard for”, horrible things that surely do exist, crept in to become the thing that we are actually putting our faith in? The thing that makes us feel most alive?

Has fear put on the guise of “awareness” and given us a false sense that if we know what justice doesn’t look like, that we thereby know what it does looks like?

Does further knowledge of darkness shape us to be more radiant creatures of light?


A Testimony on Empathy


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My heart is pained for my community and for the church in America at large.

My heart is pained for my dearly beloved family, that we might be causing ourselves to suffer in hopes that this self-actuated suffering will give us the empathy and knowledge we need to help our world.

I am pained by the thought that we might be putting back on guilt that God took away, as a blindly narcissistic attempt to shape for ourselves a false feeling of cleanliness, absolution, or even redemption.

Lord knows I know there is a time for tears, a time to feel free to hurt openly, a time to sit with one another in our hurt, shed tears together and share our troubles.

But, to pull from my personal struggles in the past seven years…

…the only thing that has redeemed me from a freak accident that left me in crippling chronic pain for three years…

…the only thing that has redeemed me from a traumatic brain injury and concurrent multi-dimensional post traumatic stress…

…the only thing that has redeemed me from innumerable concomitant symptoms that spawned from these core ailments…

…the only thing that has redeemed me from the embarrassment of having to nurse myself daily for years on end, go to four to five doctors’ appointments a week, not being able to make a steady living and have to live at home for years throughout my mid-twenties…

…the only thing that has redeemed me from having to defend the legitimacy of my suffering through two insurance lawsuits that lasted over four years…

…the only thing that has redeemed me from the frustration of having multiple doctors and loved ones conclude, to my face, that all my healing was taking too long (for them) and that thereby all my ailments must be “in my head”…

…the only thing that redeemed me from having to face the lie that it’d be better for myself and everyone around me if I was no longer here…

…the only thing that has had the power to rescue me from any part of this immense darkness has been being endowed with undeserved trust and hope, call it “blind empathy,” extended by a few people who concerned themselves with bolstering the heart of God in me before all else, before any consideration or judgment about who I was, where I came from, or the legitimacy of my suffering versus theirs or anybody else’s.

These folks did not sit me down as many others did and assume that they could tell me “how it was” in my world.

They sat with me, listened, cried, felt for me, prayed for strength and grace and beauty to abound in me even as they could not identify with the specifics of what I was going through. And I was strengthened, exponentially and unfathomably.

These saints, whether Buddhist naturopaths or born-again hipsters, let go of any requirement for specific understanding, for positive knowledge about my situation, and simply served and loved on me.

They let go of any assumptions that they could say something that would set me straight or even point me in the right direction, and thereby, through the endowment of their implicit trust, allowed God to speak volumes of truth and validation into my life like never before. This is the definition of empathy.


What Divides Us


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It’s funny how much our understanding of empathy and this tough love business (along with its often simultaneous requirement for positive knowledge), have in common.

In my health journey over the last seven years, I’ve come across numerous individuals who’ve assured me that they could never know what I’ve gone through, that they could never identify with it.

They say, of course, this with humble intention.

They are trying to comfort me by affirming the uniqueness of my suffering, while simultaneously acknowledging the reality of their ignorance to the particulars of my situation.

However, despite my gratitude for their loving intentions, it’s kind of funny how I’ve never really found such statements to be very comforting.

In light of my present convictions, I think I’ve finally figured out why this is.

I think our concept of empathy has been perverted similarly to how our concept of God’s love has been twisted into this tough love business.

We’ve come to believe that in order to empathize with a fellow human being, in order to truly feel for them, we must have an intimate, positive sort of knowledge about the specifics of their suffering; that is, must have life experiences of our own that are fundamentally the same as those of another before we can identify with them.

This is a lie.

That is not what empathy is.

Can Jesus not empathize with the pain and terror of a woman who’s been raped because he never was raped? Or because he only experienced life on this earth as a Jewish male? Did he consider such dissimilar specifics about himself in relation to the woman at the well?

Must Jesus come back and experience life as a white, black, Hispanic, Muslim, Buddhist, gay, straight, whatever (hyphen) American in the twenty-first century before he can empathize with any of us?

If this burden of proof, this false requirement for positive knowledge is truly the benchmark for empathy or for us to be properly “woke” to the world around us, then we are completely screwed. [6]

No matter how many racial reconciliation groups or justice conferences we attend, no matter how many countries we travel to, no matter how many refugee families we take in, no matter how many political campaigns we give money to, no matter how many photos we take of ourselves at marches and rallies, we will never in a million years be able to meet this standard for our love’s legitimacy.

Jesus justifies our love.

Jesus justifies our celebration.

Jesus justifies our “wokeness” to the world around us, because he himself is wokeness.

This lie, this requirement for an impossible knowledge in order to justify our love, this, is the thing that actually divides us.

It is idolatry of the most basic sort. [7]

An idolatry that is pitting academics, political parties, social justice warriors, our churches, our states, our communities, friends, and family members against one another.

It’s turning us tribal because we’ve lost focus of the only thing that can bring us together, the only thing that gives us reason to love, the only thing that can give us common identity and free us to empathize with one another.

If we claim to follow Jesus but continue to set our attention more on our differences than on our infinitely glorious given unity, then we will not only assuredly fail to have empathy for one another, but we will also completely fail to see the point of, “For God so loved the world, that He gave his only Son…


What It Means to Follow Jesus


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What’s sad is, that even when we come to realize that this requirement for positive knowledge is idolatry, and thereafter, we refocus ourselves towards meditation on God’s goodness before all else, that this orientation can also be misunderstood, seen as weak, and shamed, even within a Spirit-led community.

Not long ago, a friend told me a story of a pastor who preached a sermon where he posed the idea that before we go out to march and protest in the streets, before we block interstate freeways and break the peace for others, we ought make sure we’ve looked in the mirror and centered ourselves squarely on Jesus first.

As the story went, a loved and respected deacon, brother, and teacher in this pastor’s community took offense to this and challenged the pastor saying that he had set an unjust requirement of crispy-clean cleanliness on his congregation before they were allowed to go out and even try to change the world.

This challenge weighed heavily on the pastor.

The next week, he apologized to his congregation for what he had said, explaining that he had been convicted by the deacon’s words.

I pondered this story with a good friend from my community.

We pondered whether or not the pastor had actually done what the deacon had suggested.

We both agreed that if our hearts had to feel completely squeaky clean before we could act altruistically or push for justice, that we’d rarely, if ever, be able to do such things.

However, we were both at a loss as to how and why the deacon had taken what the pastor had initially preached as being indicative of an “unjust requirement.”

We both agreed that what the pastor had actually done was paint a picture of submission to God’s goodness before all else, and furthermore, a trust in that goodness as being the only means by which we have any hope of mounting a proper conviction about anything.

In other words, a picture of human beings sacrificing our emotions, experiences, and even our well-reasoned arguments (as valid as they may be), to first and foremost reminding ourselves of the inexplicable hope and crazy beautiful joy that we have in knowing God—a posture of openness to actually hear from God, to let Him show us again how get ourselves out of the way and let His glorious light radiate into our world.

If this is an unjust requirement, then I’m not sure what it even means to follow Jesus.


Hope


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Reflecting on this story in the weeks following the election, I couldn’t help but recall moments of pain and sorrow seeing brothers and sisters in our community, who I love, who love Jesus, posting pictures of themselves rioting, blocking an interstate freeway at rush hour with the hashtag, #nopeacefultransferofpower.

No peace?

Haven’t we been given peace that transcends all understanding?

This really broke my heart.

After church on the Sunday following the election, I sat with a friend in the car for hours praying, pleading, crying out to God for our church, for our friends who we love so much, that the Spirit of joy and the knowledge of our eternal hope would cease to be silenced behind the vicious spirit of remorse that had taken hold of many in our community, and seemingly, half of the country.

Remorse is not of Christ. [8]

Repentance is. [9]

But, even as I cry while writing the final words of this letter to my beloved church, I must once again look in the mirror and smile unabashedly. If I’m to practice what I preach, I must repent.

I must turn to trust the most infinitely glorious, most intricately beautiful, most immensely benevolent, personally known God.

I trust Him because He has given me so much knowledge of His goodness.

I praise Him for the million manifestations of His splendor that He has poured out into my life through my beautiful church community.

I orient myself toward His incomprehensible goodness, and thereby become as confident in my hope for my church, His church, as I am about anything.

His goodness will prevail. He will deliver on His promises.

Much Love.
-Alec


Notes


1. A need to incessantly remind ourselves of our brokenness seems to come from a place of either spiritual immaturity and/or a place of excess goodness taken for granted—that is to say, if we need to be reminded of our brokenness to feel alive, we’ve probably got things pretty good, maybe too good to the point at which we’ve forgotten that most of life in an imperfect and finite world is characterized by pain and suffering, at least of some type.

2. Isn’t it beautiful how we can intimately know the very thing that the we will always have the least knowledge of?

3. I’ve always figured that the Living Word should be capitalized since it is effectively synonymous with the manifest workings of the Holy Spirit. It’s a beautiful synonym, one that elicits an image of how God’s ever-flowing, ever-exponentially empathetic love and truth can reach us whatever our state of mind, heart, body, education, etc. If the Spirit weren’t living and adapting in this manner, God would not be knowable the way He is. An image, an understanding that unfortunately seems quite lost on the meditations of modern American Christians.

4. “…with everything that is in us”: including such thoughts and desires as enter my mind, often daily, that if acted upon or even spoken, would, in comparison, make Donald Trump’s comments about women look like wrist-slappable offenses.

5. By this measure, the right identify and empathize with our fellow man, even on the level of our common humanity, will always be a moving target.

6. What brings people together? Locking ourselves in our rooms and reminding ourselves of the intricacies of our brokenness? Or, getting together for a potluck every other week, sharing homemade bread, hummus, pumpkin stews, kombucha, beer, technicolor salads, gluten-free blueberry muffins sweetened with low-glycemic coconut sugar (that taste better than any glutinous baked goods you’ve ever had), and then ending the evening by sharing our hurts, hopes, and victories and together lifting them up to God in a show of absurd vulnerability and solidarity? To be sure, both require some sort of conviction. But I know which conviction speaks a million tongues of God’s glory into my life and which ones does not.

7. Idolatry of self, that says to the self, “I can redeem myself in the eyes of the world”. Whether it is for political purposes or for a sense of peace in the knowledge that “I have taken the steps to wash my hands clean from my shame that others haven’t”, the lie remains the same. It is a lie that for example leads “white” people to crouch in public squares with ox yokes around their necks and signs that read, “I’m sorry for slavery” even when there is an infinitesimally small chance that their ancestors owned slaves and extremely high chance that they in fact owned no slaves, abhorred slavery, and came to America in the twentieth century fleeing something like starvation or poverty in Northern Europe. Regardless of whether our ancestors were slave masters or abolitionists, if we can’t believe that their sins, whatever they may have been, are forgiven, how can we believe that ours are, much less how can we do as Jesus told us to and “go and sin no more”? If we have to apologize for the sins of historical peoples to whom we have some sort of genetic connection, then by that measure, Christians, who believe that we are all part of one big family, i.e. that God created humanity in His image (Gen 1:27), really ought to start spending our days apologizing for every sin of every person ever. Thank God that is not the mechanism by which His redemption works.

8. Remorse, i.e. “deep regret or guilt for a wrong committed” (Apple Dictionary).

9. Repentance, i.e. “the action of repenting; sincere regret or remorse: each person who turns to God in genuine repentance and faith will be saved” (Apple Dictionary). Though this is a very insufficient definition, the key words here are “turns to God”. Repentance is, most importantly, an act of accepting God’s call for us to answer our otherwise naturally occurring feelings of remorse, shame, and guilt with His complete forgiveness. In other words, repentance can be said to describe the whole of the process from guilt to glory, the whole of our process of turning to God, the whole of our struggle with the simultaneous absurd realities of sin and God’s still present love and provision.


Echoes from Others


“Hope is one of the Theological virtues. This means that a continual looking forward to the eternal world is not (as some modern people think) a form of escapism or wishful thinking, but one of the things a Christian is meant to do. It does not mean that we are to leave the present world as it is. If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next. The Apostles themselves, who set on foot the conversion of the Roman Empire, the great men who built up the Middle Ages, the English Evangelicals who abolished the Slave Trade, all left their mark on Earth precisely because their minds were occupied with Heaven. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at heaven and you will get earth ‘thrown in”: aim at earth and you will get neither. It seems a strange rule, but something like it can be seen at work in other matters. Health is a great blessing, but the moment you make health one of your main, direct objects you start becoming a crank and imagining there is something wrong with you. You are only likely to get health provided you want other things more–food, games, work, fun, open air. In the same way, we shall never save civilization as long as civilization is our main object. We must learn to want something else even more.

Most of us find it very difficult to want ‘Heaven’ at all–except in so far as ‘Heaven’ means meeting again our friends who have died. One reason for this difficulty is that we have not been trained: our whole education tends to fix our minds on this world. Another reason is that when the real want for Heaven is present in us, we do not recognize it. Most people, if they had really learned to look into their own hearts, would know that they do want, and want acutely, something that cannot be had in this world. There are all sorts of things in this world that offer to give it to you, but they never quite keep their promise. The longings which arise in us when we first fall in love, or first think of some foreign country, or first take up some subject that excites us, are longings which no marriage, no travel, no learning, can really satisfy. I am not now speaking of what would ordinarily be called unsuccessful marriages, or holidays, or learned careers. I am speaking of the best possible ones. There was something we grasped at, in the first moment of longing, which just fades away in the reality. I think everybody knows what I mean. The wife may be a good wife, and the hotels and the scenery may have been excellent, and chemistry may be a very interesting job: but something has evaded us.”

– from the opening two paragraphs of Chapter 10 on “Hope”, in C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity

every thought a Thought of You

no more thought, I ought to do…

when there’s not a thing we see

or touch we trust is true

every thought a thought of You

every look in search of You

what need for books when we’re with you?

you wear a thin disguise,

O, Light within my Brother’s eyes!

every look in search of You

every song in praise of You

our darkest nights are days to You

the Trees raise branches high

like arms in church to grateful Sky,

every song in praise of You

from the song “every thought a Thought of You” by mewithoutYou

How ought we to praise?


 

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