Saturday, June 25, 2016

I want to be Christian, dammit!

I aspire to be Christian.

The label is supposed to frick'in mean something! I don't mean the "okay, wait. Let me think up some squishy Jesus Christ Superstar, peace-love-happiness, tidied shirt" American definition of that label. I mean the badass "love-unconditionally but never back down from a serious philosophical, doctrinal, moral, theological brawl, no matter what it costs me" definition of that label. The message from the Savior (as recorded in the Gospels), and the subsequent teaching of the Apostles (which must be seen as ONE teaching with Christ; for how can the teaching of the Savior be separated from the teaching of those who we believe faithfully delivered his teaching to us?), is so alarmingly balanced! The love for the sinner shares equal time with the call to forsake their sin, repent and follow Christ. The love for all believers shares equal time with the fiery admonishments to remain faithful to The Faith. No compromise. No quarter. THIS...IS...CHRISTIANITY! could very well be spoken in the manner that Gerard Butler delivers the line "THIS...IS...SPARTA!" though it admittedly doesn't roll off the tongue with the same flare. You get my meaning, though.

When I first converted to Anglicanism in 2009, I had already been a product of the Promise Keepers movement in the 1990's, longing for some recovery of manliness in American Christianity that appeared to be lacking. As movements go, though, they seem to raise awareness for a time, but then they die off if no deep foundational transformation has taken effect. It's not unlike someone new to gardening discovering the difference between annuals and perennials for the first time. You plant something, thinking it's going to grow and create beauty for generations to come, only to discover that it died and a new plant will have to be purchased at Home Depot next season. Ugh. Not what I was after!

Anyway. After the masculine "chrysanthemum" seemed to wilt Evangelicalism, I wondered if I had bought the correct plant. Oh "men's ministry" seemed to really have taken hold (sarcasm is difficult without its own special font), but everywhere we turned, men were still being expected to emote, swoon, sigh and get hot flashes in church like the trends that had seemingly created the need for a "men's movement" in the first place. The masculine Christianity, with a steely spine and ancient grit, that I longed for, appeared something that would have to be re-planted in a future season. Then I encountered an Anglican church in Dallas. The pastor there (also called "rector" for those new to class) was not a physically imposing man. From the looks of him, and the gentle voice delivery, I wondered if this was the right place. Unacquainted with various colors, symbols and decorations, I figured I'd suspend judgment for a bit and see where this goes. It wasn't long before the short fellow in purple was saying things like, "We have kneelers in church because we kneel when we pray. If that's not your thing...well...it's ours, and we do things for a reason." In other words "Get over yourself! It's not all about you!" (my words, not his). I found the apparent unwillingness to revamp church tradition so that the newest newbie that ever stumbled in could "feel comfortable" unspeakably satisfying. This was one example, but there were other areas where I got the distinct impression that they were here for the long haul. You mean to say that some Christian traditions pre-date America? And you keep them so that Christianity continues to thrive even after America? You're joking, right! You're not going to budge? You've got a spine?!

That was my first exposure to catholic traditions, and the joys and feeling "planted" in a way that might just last beyond a season, or two, or two thousand. That flavors of Christianity can be found that don't follow the latest trends, succumb to social pressures, change with the times, or stick a wet finger in the wind to see which way it's blowing, was a refreshing revelation. Being "Christian" appeared to mean something again. There wasn't this distinction between being "Jesus follower," a "born-again believer," a "charismatic," or a "non-denominational, lights-camera-action, singing 'It's All About You, Lord' when it really all about me, Sunday marketing arm of the evangelical product industry" kind of "Christian." There was just "Christian," in its ancient, serious "your baggage with the label is not my problem."

The catholic (note the lower case "c") traditions (note the plural) of Anglican, Roman and Orthodox are the three major expressions of Christianity that predate the American experiment and it's influence of free market Christian-like spirituality. Those within the American-Christian hybrids that demonstrate their longing for greater depth and longevity, predictably, began adopting elements they saw growing over in greener, more ancient pastures. Smells and bells magically appeared in "postmodern" worship formats, forgetting how often perennials must be planted outside, where their roots can dig deep. Those trendy little pots just couldn't cut it.

Back to wanting to be Christian (dammit!). How frustrating it is when you see traditions that are SUPPOSED to be planted for the long haul, adopting the habits of plants that won't survive the winter. This is the crisis that many in Anglicanism face today. In some circles, the desire arises to achieve the "success" of the mega-churches of the latter half of the 20th century, forgetting what it produced: fractured believers in Christian-like spirituality, gathering weekly for a spectacle, then inwardly longing for another men's movement. If they didn't experience the rollercoaster of Evangelicalism's fickle tossing about from the inside (they were fighting liberal factions of their own; i.e. Gene Robinson), they don't have the experience to realize that trendiness left the faith of Millennials anemic and open to the heresies of the Emerging Church movement. Anglicanism was supposed to be my opportunity to just be "Christian," liberated from the habits that retard Christian maturity, longevity and a sense of "tribal identity." 

Why can't we just be "Christian" like when the Church of the first millennium who, while seemingly not having a sophisticated doctrine of the Holy Spirit, were "filled with the Spirit" enough to stare down the Roman Empire? Why can we just be "Christian" like St Nicholas who, balanced his benevolence to the needy with his firm stand at the Council of Nicaea? How's about just being "Christian" like those courageous Orthodox believers in Russia that outlasted the Soviet Union? Or those Christians that found the Roman Colosseum a petty annoyance compared to the glories of Christ? Or those Christians that have kept their unbroken liturgy of worship since before the time of PowerPoint, microphones, and electric instruments? I want "Christian" to mean something that doesn't need to be updated, improved upon, or made sexy. I want to be Christian in the way that people (men & women) wanted to be "Spartan" after Zack Snyder brought Frank Miller's vision of "300" to the silver screen. 

In my work, I'm around people of many different religions. "Muslim" means something, and few approach the Muslim expecting them to reinvent their beliefs to suit the curious. "Jewish" means something, and gets a similar reaction. But when people say they're "Christian," I find them accessing the creative part of their brain when asked to define it (you can tell by the eye movement). I want to be Christian in that sense that world powers used to respect. Oh they'd persecute it alright, but respect it too. The American-Christian hybrid doesn't need persecution; it'll rollover for anything practically without any prompting. 

When I see the loss of faith in Evangelicalism, it's no surprise. It remains the best "fishing hole" for the various pseudo-Christian cults invented in the United States (LDS, WatchTower, etc.). When I see the loss of faith in other "mainstream" denominations (Episcopal, Lutheran, Methodist, etc.), it's no surprise because of the various ways they became tied to social trends. When I see loss of faith in the catholic traditions, it's a little more surprising, for they have culture, history and distinction. Yet some trends within Anglicanism (evangelical, trendy, etc) make it seem like its shelf life is shorter than I think, and Pope Francis is doing little to make Romans feel comfortable either. But I won't regress to forms of worship that have proven the most fleeting. Longevity, and having "Christian" mean something serious for a long time to come, are monumental values. 

There is no perfect church. I suppose that disclaimer should have been stated earlier on. But there are forms of living as a Christian that are seemingly more mature, longer lasting, and offer a sense of being seriously "Christian" beyond the trends, geopolitics and cultural fancies of the day. In that way, it would be satisfying to be Christian in a manner that will still be around for a while to come. I want to be Christian! And I want that mean what it means a thousand years from now, because it meant that a thousand years ago. 

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