That may be one of the longest titles for a blog post ever.
I spent over 30 years of my life at Cedarville University, and most of it was wonderful. It’s where I learned to study scripture and think critically and it’s where I met many of my most important life-long friends. I will be forever grateful for that experience.
It’s also where I contributed to an approach to spiritual development that I have now rejected. One assumption of some fundamentalists or conservative evangelicals is that you can discipline people into becoming like Jesus. I rose to a position of authority in that culture and became the chief disciplinarian for a student body of over 3,000 evangelical college students.
That’s when I kicked Michael Hidalgo out of college a week or so before his graduation for telling the truth about drinking a beer. Michael was in a group of guys who got together for a few drinks the week before their graduation. Their gathering came to the attention of the Dean’s office and Michael was the only one who admitted to drinking a beer while his buddies all denied it. His buddies all graduated and shared the special occasion of commencement with their families, but Michael chose to tell the truth even though he knew it would come at great personal cost. Upon receiving Michael’s confession we dismissed him from the university. As I said, it was one week before his graduation.
Looking back I believe the greater evil was perpetuating a system so unlike the grace that is on full display in the New Testament. I often joked that I was glad that Jesus didn’t attend the university because I am sure that I would have had to dismiss him. That isn’t a slam on Cedarville, it’s a slam on a much broader culture of self-righteousness and legalism that defined fundamentalism and much of evangelicalism. All these years later I am proud of Michael’s actions and ashamed of my own.
Now, about 15 years later I consider Michael both a friend and mentor. Michael is a gracious guy who readily forgave me for doing him harm. While passing through Denver this fall I did my best to make amends by taking him out for dinner and buying him a beer.
Today I was looking for something interesting to listen to while on the treadmill and I came across an interview with Michael on a podcast called Space for Faith: Re-imaging the Church for Our Current Moment. I highly recommend that you take an hour or so and listen to the podcast. In this space, I just want to highlight a few phrases or sentences near the beginning of the interview that resonated with me.
First of all, in a world of constant and dramatic change he talked about the importance of being “tethered to Jesus.” I love that image as a metaphor for finding our way through cultural and ecclesiastical fog. For many, who like myself, consider ourselves post-evangelicals it is critical that we practice and teach others to tether ourselves to the person, teaching, and example of Jesus. I grew up in a church where we understood Jesus through Paul, and now I find it more important to understand Paul through Jesus. Instead of using the word tethered we tend to talk about being Jesus-centered. No person or organization is truly Jesus-centered. It is an aspiration rather than an accomplishment. The best we can do is to be Jesus-centerting, constantly keeping an eye on Jesus and making the necessary adjustments to become more like him, or as Michael might say, tightening the tether.
The second phase that stood out was “proximity to the vulnerable” to describe the space where the most spiritual growth takes place. If you want to feel closer to Jesus, spend time with people who live on the margins, the poor, the displaced, the addicted, the imprisoned, and others who are undervalued and under-resourced in our world. When I was a child my parents used to provide a meal for homeless people at a rescue mission in Pontiac, Michigan. In order to get a meal folks had to sit through a service of preaching and hymns. My dad would preach and I would sit there with people off the streets feeling as though I was in heaven. I still get the feeling of being closer to heaven, and closer to Jesus when I’m with vulnerable people.
The final phase that I wish to highlight is “give people a compass not a roadmap.” I find this to be true. Constantly pointing people in the right direction is better than trying to list each specific spiritual turn and stop. I think the roadmap approach creates dependency while the compass approach fosters discernment. It may be true that spiritual beginners need a roadmap to get started but as people mature I think a compass better equips them for the real life decisions that they will need to make.
Michael is now the Pastor of Denver Community Church and a leader in post-evangelicalism. Post-evangelicals are people who love Christ, the gospel, and the Bible but who have rejected overly politicized, and I would say wrongly politicized culture that evangelicalism has become.
If you are passing through Denver check out Denver Community Church, and if you have time, buy Michael a beer.
When I was in the 5th grade, coinciding with my commitment to Jesus, I became a fundamentalist. Soon after my conversion my family left a church with a nearly non-existent emphasis on major parts of the gospel. We joined a Baptist church steeped in a fervent brand of fundamentalism. And I loved it.
The fact that I loved it surprises my adult children when they hear of all the rules I was expected to obey, rules against women wearing slacks, men having hair over their ears, listening to popular music, playing cards (unless it was a game called Rook), drinking, dancing, thinking about sex, and strangely, singing while holding a microphone (it just plain looked worldly).
It was culture brimming with rules, a sense that we had a corner on truth, shame, and judgment. But it was also a culture where I was deeply loved by a network of adults who would have done anything for me, men like Ron Beardsley, Frank Watkins, and Lloyd Reuther invested in me deeply and later rallied around my family when we faced a crisis brought on by my father’s mental illness. They drove my mom back and forth to the psychiatric hospitals where my father was being treated for an especially severe case of depression, or paid for hotel rooms so that my mom could stay near the hospital while my dad received electroshock therapy. It was a dark time and I couldn’t have gotten through it without them, thinking of the sacrifices they made for me brings back tears forty-five years later.
It was also a culture that placed a great emphasis on studying scripture, sharing the gospel, and personal piety, all values that continue to shape and bless me. It wasn’t until high school that I began to notice fundamentalism’s inconsistencies, a propensity for following the Pharisee’s example of coming up with increasingly long lists of new sins, a tendency to worship Jesus but listen only to Paul, and a practice of preaching a gospel of salvation but ignoring the gospel of justice. It was a culture that allowed us to talk about the love of Jesus and also mock people who were different from us in any number of ways.
For better or worse, I wouldn’t be who I am without religious fundamentalism. The strengths of fundamentalism were its level of commitment, its emphasis on scripture, and evangelism. Its weaknesses were its fear of the other, its self-righteousness and judgmentalism, and its lack of concern for social justice.
I think the history of Christianity is a long story of getting it wrong, veering off course in one direction or the other. It’s sobering to know that thirty or forty years from now my own blind spots and spiritual failures may be glaringly obvious to a new generation of Christians. But the history of Christianity is also filled with shining moments where the church gave the world a taste of heaven, caring for the sick during the plagues, defending children and bringing about an end to inhumane child-labor practices, and finally calling for an end to slavery (though parts of the church actively promoted and defended it).
The key to bringing out the best in Christianity is constant recalibration centered on the person and example of Jesus Christ. True Christianity isn’t just the defense of a set of theological doctrines, and it's not just the avoidance of evil. It is the active practice, day in and day out of trying follow the teachings if Jesus, forgiving those who have hurt us, loving those who are different than us, and doing for others as we would have them do unto us.
"This blog is my way of connecting with people at Central and beyond to encourage them to make their space in the world more like Heaven."
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this blog reflect my thoughts and opinions as an individual, not the formal positions of our church. Central includes people with a wide range of opinions on important issues like those addressed in my posts. It is also a place where we can discuss these issues with civility and grace.