And the Angels Sang, “Let it Go!”

Sometimes I learn profound lessons from unexpected sources, like when my preschoolers decided that they absolutely must watch Frozen about twenty-seven times in a row, and suddenly, after plopping onto the couch in resignation to watch it yet again, I had a Disney-princess-induced spiritual epiphany.Featured image

As a mom of boys, I never expected to have the princess craze hit our house, and seeing as how I’m a feminist scholar who isn’t precisely thrilled with the gender ideology behind most of those animated gals and their beaux, I certainly never thought that I would learn (or perhaps remember something I had forgotten) from watching a pair of princesses.

If you are one of the lucky adults who has not been subjected to Frozen enough times to have it memorized, the key detail here is that Princess Elsa is terrified of her icy magical powers, and in the end, what conquers that fear and saves the day is not a charming prince, but rather the love of her sister, Anna.

Here is what I learned from Frozen: Fear, like hate, is an opposite of love. Anxiety is the opposite of peace. And as a high-anxiety type, I often need to “Let it go!” First John 4.18 tells us, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear . . . and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.”

God is love, and during Advent we take time to reflect on how Jesus came to reveal that love to us. We celebrate Emmanuel. God with us. Love with us.

As we strive to be Jesus-followers, we should participate in that perfect love that conquers fear, even when a thousand voices on the TV and the radio and the internet tell us that there is some BIG NEW THING to be terrified about today.

Fear makes us withdraw and disengage in order to protect ourselves. It makes us fort up and then lash out when our defenses feel threatened. Fear turns our focus inward, but God calls us outward, to the love of family, friends, neighbors, strangers, and even enemies. God calls us out to compassion, involvement, and vulnerability. To love, not its opposites.

Fear and love do not easily coexist; we must let go of one to make room for its opposite.

Some days, I am rather terrible about remembering this. So during this Advent season, I have challenged myself to listen to the angel proclaiming in Luke 2.10, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy!” This is the marvelous news of God’s love abiding with us, of God becoming a participant in the human condition, of God choosing to be vulnerable, involved, and known to us.

In these last few days of Advent, I challenge you to read the Christmas story and hear the angel’s words again. If you are holding onto fear, listen to the angel, and let it go.

Let it go and see what it leaves room for in your soul.



			

On the Excuses that Some Christians Use to Discredit the Faith of other Christians

Note: This is a two-part post. “Me and My DCFs,” recounts how I was mocked and insulted during an online conversation with a pastor and his friends. If you want to skip the set up and get right to the conclusions, scroll down to the title “Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (And Why You Should Not Accept Them).”

Me and my DCFs (Dear Christian Friends)

Recently I dove into a debate with fellow Christians because I shared a blog post from David Henson that offers a view of salvation based on the incarnation of Christ rather than one based solely on the crucifixion. I liked the post because I have become much more of an incarnational Christian, with my faith focused on the miracle of incarnation that allows us to know and be reconciled to God and to participate in God’s vision for the world by following Jesus in faith and action.

A pastor friend of mine commented on the post by blasting Henson, who is an Episcopal priest and an earnest Jesus follower, as ignorant and a “false teacher,” and then he reposted the link so that his friends could second his opinion. I will try to recount parts of the resulting conversation without insulting the people who were participating, but in case I am not quite successful, I want to state up front that I consider them fellow Christians who are worthy of respect. I grew up and first came to faith in a tradition like the one that they represent, and although I have come a long way since then, I still value and even love many aspects of that foundation. This conversation left me disappointed that the same kind of good, loving folks that I grew up with could be not only be so rude and disrespectful toward a fellow Christian, but that in the end, they could also pat themselves on the back for a job well done.

I joined the conversation, commenting that there are different ways of understanding salvation that are as valid as the view of my pastor friend (basically, penal substitutionary atonement). Another pastor who has never met me (I’ll call him my DCF – dear Christian friend) showed up to dismiss Henson’s post as part of a “satanic effort,” adding that his response would probably not sit well with “Ms. Leslie.” Nothing like a nice touch of faux formality to make the degree of condescension crystal clear from the start.

Though I let the snark bleed through by suggesting that he could call me Dr. Kaiura (my actual title), I did not attack my DCF’s response by attacking his theology or his faith. However, I did maintain that there are alternate understandings that should be respected when the theology bears good fruit (which is the criteria Jesus gave us for judging the teachings of others in Matthew 7). For my trouble, I was told, “You seem to have a ‘Holy Chip’ on your shoulder that has possibly been placed there by intellectual pride.”

Later on, after I had very seriously (and in a totally snark-free manner) explained how I understand my salvation in Christ, my DCF openly mocked me, writing, “What a blessing it is to sit at your feet of intellectual wisdom! Gods infinite capacity is truly revealed in your propensity to exult in the monotonous intellectual humility you reveal per post.”

Throughout the conversation I was repeatedly accused of being prideful simply because 1) I am intelligent and articulate and 2) I would not agree to every belief held by my DCF and his friends. Furthermore, I got this reaction when I was intentionally refraining from attacking their beliefs because, as I was attempting to explain, I think that Christians should have more respect for the beliefs of others who profess faith in Christ.

I don’t claim to be 100% pride (or snark) free, but another Christian who observed this exchange (and whom I have never met) messaged me to apologize for the way I was treated and to comment: “I didn’t think you were in any way prideful. I actually thought you were the most humble in that conversation. Thank you for being a breath of fresh air and Jesus in that stifling Pharisee-like comment section.”

Nevertheless, I was accused of being prideful while my DCF and his friends felt perfectly within their rights not only in “rebuking” me, but also in questioning my faith and being openly insulting. The coup d’etat was this anti-intellectual and assumption-filled statement: “I have met many like you, ever learning but never able to come to conclusive truth. Maybe this is why Paul stated that ‘not many wise…are called.’ Don’t you know that even your intellect has to be processed through redemption and sanctification as well? Your mind may be sharp but has it been renewed? [. . . ] your unredeemed intellect is not a friend but should be brought under submission to the Spirit of God.”

So let me lay this out. I repeatedly affirmed that I have faith in Jesus Christ and that I believe in the incarnation, the crucifixion, and the resurrection. And yet because I refused to agree that penal substitutionary atonement theory is the only way of believing or that the Bible is inerrant, I was mocked and relegated to the category of “apostate” (i.e. one who abandons belief and no longer belongs to the group). I had mentioned that I lead book studies at my church, and to this my DCF insultingly replied, as if from one Facebook thread he knew me and all of my beliefs: “No wonder many churches are in the apostate condition they are in…. I personally wouldn’t allow you to teach in the nursery.”

Ouch. Good thing I am confident enough in my faith not to be dissuaded from it by such rudeness and judgmentalism. I worry for those who are not.

Excuses for Discrediting the Faith of Others (and Why You Should Not Accept Them)

I hope that my Dear Christian Friend (who is a lead pastor, remember) is kinder and more respectful to seekers and inquisitive, thinking folks at his church than he was to me. If he isn’t, then I am fairly sure that he has driven some away from the gospel instead of leading them toward it.

Sometimes I am astonished at how unloving and judgmental some Christians can be in their attempts to discredit other faithful Christians. In fact, most of the hate mail and vitriolic commentary received by progressive Christian bloggers comes from other Christians, and that is ridiculous. It is also in direct contradiction to how Jesus commands us to love, adding in John 13.35 that “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Some Christians would do well to learn that objections can always be expressed in a firm but polite way, without compromising one’s own beliefs or insulting or demonizing another Christian (or anyone else, for that matter). (And since I sometimes have a tendency to let my frustration with black & white thinking turn to snark, I admit that I am still perfecting this approach myself.)

One of the final posts in the conversation described above lamented “I just hope an atheist doesn’t come upon this thread.” My DCF’s response reveals a total lack of self-awareness: “I think it is good that an Atheist or an Agnostic would see passionate believers passionately defending scripture.”

I’m sorry, my DCF, but all that a typical atheist would see on that thread is a group of Christians ganging up to discredit and ridicule another Christian who is simply expressing an alternate understanding of the exact same faith that they hold themselves. Not exactly inspirational or admirable. I am a dedicated Christian, and the only thing it inspired in me was a firm desire to never, ever walk into a church pastored by someone like my DCF.

However, the conversation did prompt me to reflect on the excuses that some Christians use to discredit other Christians. I critique some of them here in hopes of helping other earnest seekers and spiritual misfits and encouraging them to not let “well meaning” Christians belittle them or discredit their faith (or their attempts at understanding faith and making it meaningful) with these excuses.

1) The Attribution of Pridefulness: An accusation of pride is often code for “You dare to have a different opinion and refuse to submit to mine” by people who are prideful enough to believe that they are 100% correct about everything. I think that this accusation is probably applied more to women and young people than to others, but we all deserve more respect than that. It is true that we should not be unduly prideful and that we should be open to learning, but simply stating your beliefs and sticking to them (particularly when they are informed and thoughtful) does not equate to having sinful pride.

2) Criticism of Intellectualism: Christians who critique intellectualism or resort to quoting 1 Corinthians 1:27 (“But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise”) at you when you are engaging intellectually with faith are trying to force you to abandon your own ability to read, pray, think, and come to conclusions in favor of their conclusions. If a person or community will not honor your own earnest efforts to study (2 Timothy 2.15) and work out your own salvation (Philippians 2.12), then find one who will.

3) Insistence on Biblical Inerrancy and the Impossibility of Interpretation: People like my DCF will not only insist on the inerrancy of the Bible (a relatively recent and problematic belief), but 1) they will also reject the very idea that the Bible can be interpreted (all the while vociferously preaching the interpretations like penal substitution, which is also problematic), and 2) they will make believing in Biblical inerrancy a prerequisite for salvation. My DCF claimed in our conversation that “There is only one thing that produces faith…. The Word!,” and by this he referred to the Bible, not to the Word of God incarnate in Jesus Christ. In my humble opinion, that is idolatry of the Bible and a deformation of the gospel.

Featured image(Image borrowed from nakedpastor)

Jesus called us to have faith in himself and in God. Don’t let anyone tell you that your faith has to be placed elsewhere to be valid, and don’t let anyone convince you that the Bible cannot be interpreted as a way of shoving their own interpretation down your throat. It is the nature of language that every spoken utterance and written word is subject to interpretation, but that does not mean all interpretations are equal. We can and should seek out faithful and intellectually honest interpretations that shore up and enliven our faith.

4) Claiming that because you interpret the Bible differently, you have “dumbed it down” or made it “easier” to follow for your own benefit. People who claim this are willfully ignorant of the fact that any genuine attempt to follow the teachings of Jesus is hard and requires sacrifice. That being said, if your understanding of Christianity requires no sacrifice or transformation, you should perhaps take a second look at it what it means to follow Jesus.

5) Excusing their own rudeness and lack of love and grace by pointing out that Jesus and Paul rebuked other believers. There is no excuse for insulting a fellow believer (or any one else), particularly when you do not know the person. Assuming that you have a free license to rebuke others in any situation is a mark of pride, not humility or spiritual maturity. When we form loving and supportive relationships with other believers, there is a place for instruction, correction, and at times, even rebuke. In the absence of loving and meaningful relationships, those things are fruitless and often based on incorrect assumptions. Make sure that when you give a pastor, a mentor, or a community spiritual authority in your life that they know how to exercise that authority in a loving and respectful manner that allows you the freedom of thought and conscience to follow your faith.

Final Thoughts

To fellow seekers, I say this: Do not let anyone insult or belittle you out of their concern for your salvation (which usually masks a concern for being right and a desire for you to submit to their often questionable rightness). If you are looking for a vibrant and meaningful faith, there are reputable Christian leaders and mentors out there who will love you and respect you and your journey to faith. Don’t settle for leaders who use excuses to badger you into submission to their authority rather than to the authority of Jesus. Never let anyone shame or guilt you into giving up your quest for an authentic and intellectually engaged faith.

As for me, I have a lot to learn. I have beliefs and ideas that need to be fleshed out, tweaked, and perhaps even reconsidered completely. But I also have the capability to read and interpret scripture and to choose wisely which authorities (theologians, Biblical scholars, pastors, mentors, friends) I look to in order to shape my understanding and my faith. And not only do I have that capability, I have that responsibility.

And so does everyone else. 


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Happy Birthday, Santa! Adventures in Advent with Preschoolers

I love Advent and Christmas. I also love the nativity story, but apparently I’m not that great at explaining it to small children. On the first Christmas that my oldest (subsequently referred to by his nickname, Goo) was old enough to have a bit of a conversation, I pointed out every nativity scene on our street and talked about how Christmas was a celebration of Jesus’s birthday. I encouraged Goo to wish a “Happy Birthday!” to each baby Jesus that we passed.

I figured that this was the easiest way to begin to explain the meaning of Christmas to a not-yet two year old, but before I knew it, Goo was wishing an enthusiastic happy birthday not only to the wooden baby Jesus cut-out in the life-size nativity scene, but also to the huge blow-up Santa in one yard and to the jolly snowman in the next. “Happy Birthday, Santa!”

Oops.

I do cut myself a break on this one considering that he was only 20 months old, and I was in a fog of sleep deprivation (and possibly pain meds) from having delivered his little brother Roo via c-section the week after Thanksgiving.


Fast forward three years to our current Christmas season. The exact same nativity scenes, Santa Clauses, and snowmen have popped up on our street. Every afternoon when I pick up the kids, we make the obligatory trip around our block to see and comment on all the important sights: the neighborhood fire station, the backhoe loader parked by Publix, the bridge over the creek, and now, those familiar wooden cut-outs of baby Jesus in his manger. In this repetitive loop that is life with small children, I invariably say “Look! There’s baby Jesus! He was born in a stable. And there’s his mommy . . . ” and so on.

I was fairly pleased with the progress of these little conversations until I had to take Goo to the doctor early one morning. As we were leaving the office, he noticed this Christmas display outside:

Featured image

He excitedly pointed to it and exclaimed, “Look! There’s baby Jesus! He was born in an ‘O’!”

Of course, from my reaction, Goo realized that he had made a funny, and then for the rest of the day he kept saying with a big grin (and let me tell you, this kid has a grin), “I saw baby Jesus born in an ‘O’!”

Sigh.

But at least Goo has a sense of humor, and at 4 1/2 and 3 years old, Goo and Roo (collectively known as the ‘Oos) are at least curious and excited about the Christmas story even if they can’t quite get the details sorted.

To my credit, I recently searched the bookstore high and low for a good nativity storybook for young children because the books we had didn’t explain the story very clearly. I picked up one book after the other and put them all back only to leave empty-handed. Why?

Some told sweet and cutesy stories from the point of view of the animals in the stable, which is fine, but it isn’t going to help clarify the basics of Christmas for my kids.

Some padded the nativity story with theology that in my opinion doesn’t really belong there, especially in a book for small children. They don’t understand hints at the concepts of sin or atonement, much less what those ideas have to do with the Christmas story. Obviously, they have enough trouble digesting the story itself and giving it meaning!

Also, I have to admit that I put back a couple simply because the holy family was way too white (I mean, have you seen the Little Golden Book’s ginger Joseph?!). While I don’t have a problem with Jesus being depicted as white (or any other race), I do have a problem that depiction being so prevalent that people (like Megyn Kelly of Fox News) believe it to be a historical fact and forget that Jesus is quite foreign to us in time and space even as Christ is universal. My kids regularly see depictions of Jesus as white, and that’s fine, but on my book-hunt I was determined to inject just a tiny bit of diversity into that picture.

Picking out Christmas books was so much easier before I became a theology nerd! After much looking, though, I found two that the ‘Oos and I like. So if you are looking for simple and engaging nativity stories for your little ones, check these two out:

This is the Stable, by Cynthia Cotten, illustrated by Delana Bettoli. This colorful and beautifully illustrated book tells the events of the nativity with a gentle, repetitive rhyme reminiscent of “The House the Jack Built” (but much less annoying to read!). Mary and Joseph, who look like they could reasonably be from the holy land, appear full of love and joy as they gaze at their new arrival in precisely that way that new parents do. On another page, pale angel women in bright floral dresses fill the sky as they announce the news to startled shepherds who then gather with the wise men at the stable, which despite the season, is a bit overgrown with morning glories.

The Nativity, illustrated by Julie Vivas with text from the King James version of the Bible. I love this book because it takes the oh-so-familiar language and cadence of the biblical Christmas story and matches it with wonderfully whimsical illustrations that feature a cast of surprising and ethnically diverse characters. The pictures are also loads of fun to talk about as you read and explain the KJV text. Gabriel arrives with torn-paper wings and unlaced work boots to talk to Mary over a cup of coffee. Mary’s belly (and her bottom, as Goo pointed out) swells to uncomfortable size and poor Joseph has a hard time boosting her onto the donkey. Baby Jesus peeps onto a page, fresh from the womb, and then Mary slumps exhausted as Joseph tenderly cradles the newborn. The illustrations tell the familiar story in a delightfully unexpected way, with a glimpse at the miraculous yet very human birth of Jesus.

It is a wonderful first glimpse of incarnation, and that’s what Christmas is all about.

Emmanuel. God with us.  

Do you have a favorite nativity storybook for young children? If so, please share in the comments!


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