Monday, May 3, 2010

Rethinking the lingo

There's an awful lot of lingo, or Christianese, floating around in churches these days. It's been this way for as long as I can remember. But in the last few years, I finally started revisiting this lingo, questioning the meanings and usages of it, wondering where it came from and if it accurately represents the language of the kingdom Jesus proclaimed. I can't speak for anyone else, but I know there are many out there who are unsettled as I am about the language often encountered in churches. I've got just three words I'm curious about today, and that is more than enough content, though I can think of many more and will probably reflect on them at a later time.

Born again.
It's a well-worn, often ridiculed in media, perhaps largely misused in the church phrase. What does it mean, if not to become a Christian? I've heard "born again Christian" used frequently in my life in the church, which seems rather redundant. I have to wonder, is "born again" so much an adjective, if an adjective at all, as much as it's a verb signifying an active process we must undergo in order to know Jesus? More than defining one clear moment when we cross over from "non-Christian" to "Christian," I think it's more involved than that. More involved, I'd say, than a date to remember on the calendar of our lives, marking the point of our conversion.

Being born again strikes me much more as particularly poignant for us adults. After all, we're already grown up. We've been born and raised and have been set in our ways and worldviews for quite some time, at least many of us. We've gone to school and learned a ton of things (in theory) in both the classrooms of school and of life. For Jesus to come to us, in answer to our questions about the meaning of life and say, "You must be born again in order to live fully," leaves us scratching our heads. In effect, we must leave behind what we've known up to this point in life and scrap it all, starting over like babies. Learning everything over again, this time with a new paradigm. And in order to do this, we must be humble and teachable, not pompous and stubborn. We must have an insatiable hunger and curiosity, as well as an innocent trust in and reliance on the One who is teaching us. That is no one-time event. It's a marked starting point, yes, but it's largely an attitude and a way of life.

Blessed. I'm not so interested here in what the word blessed means as I am with who we commonly associate as the recipients of God's blessings. What I'm thinking of seems to be mostly a phenomena of Western Christianity, more than anything else. Over here in the U.S., we have it pretty good, even in the bad parts, compared to much of the world's inhabitants. I think the "blessings" of being an American have trickled into our churches, particularly the more well-to-do churches, and influenced our understanding and teaching of what it means to be blessed.

I'm in a really well-to-do church right now, and I love and respect them, more than I ever have. For years, I judged this bunch, without even knowing them. But I've got to say, and I say this without feeling critical, I just don't buy into their entire teaching of being "blessed." It makes me scratch my head, that we so often look at people who dress really well and have really successful careers and are well educated and popular and beautiful, who own nice condos and houses and drive nice cars, and we say, "Surely God has blessed them!" And the scriptural evidence for this is often taken from the Old Testament, from the stories of men like Abraham and Isaac, who were among the wealthiest in their lifetimes, more so than their neighbors, and had many possessions. Proponents of this teaching on blessing will say, we, too, have received the same blessings as Isaac, since the New Testament talks about followers of Christ being the children of promise, like Isaac, with the same blessings and same inheritance.

The discrepancy for me comes when I read about Jesus' life and teachings. It hits me square in the face. He never promises blessings to those who love him, in the form of material wealth and prosperity. In fact, whereas in the OT, material wealth is a sign of prosperity, in the teachings of Jesus, this is turned upside down. In a shocking upheaval, Jesus clearly states that now the ones who are blessed are not the rich, but the poor; not the bold, but the meek; not the happy, but those who mourn; not the popular, but the despised and persecuted; not the warriors, but the peacemakers; not those who kill their enemies, but those who love them. In all of Jesus' stories and interactions, the favored ones are not the rich and religious, but the prostitutes, the tax collectors, the homeless, the beggarly, the sickly, the blue collar workers, the women and children, the marginalized.

I don't believe Jesus is a proponent of poverty by any means, but I don't think he came so we could live cushioned lives, insulated from the needs of our neighbors. He often blesses us with resources so that we can be a blessing to others, and he encourages extreme generosity, but I think the real blessing lies not in the sum of the gift but in the giving of ourselves. We can be blessed and have next to nothing, and still give generously of ourselves to others.

Spirit-filled. Ah, this is a touchy one, for many Christians. The ones in the more "Charismatic" or "Pentecostal" churches will claim that being Spirit-filled is a baptism of the Holy Spirit, something that often occurs separately from salvation, an infilling of the power of the Spirit of God in the life of the individual believer. The evidence that this has occurred, they say, is that the individual will speak in tongues (a whole other topic I won't touch on here). Christians in Evangelical or Protestant churches more often teach that being Spirit-filled is a given when someone chooses to surrender her life to Jesus and follow him. I've been in both kinds of churches, so I can see the points of each, but I've got to say, I feel the use of the phrase Spirit-filled is, more than anything, divisive.

When I read the letters to the early Church, I see that the the Spirit is alive and active in the lives of believers in many unique and powerful ways - ways that are natural, and ways that are supernatural. But were I to narrow it all down, I guess I'd say that the most beautiful evidence of the Spirit of God filling a life is in what Paul describes as the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. In the famous "love chapter" in 1 Corinthians, Paul says that speaking in tongues and prophecy and every other "gift" of the Spirit is nothing if not motivated by love. Love, he says, is the greatest gift of all, and it is the top of the list for the fruit of the Spirit. I hope that, whatever our belief is concerning the meaning of Spirit-filled, it is above all affirming of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of all believers who love and obey Jesus. This is the highest thing.


  1. Well written Amber, as is everything you write. Another "Christianese" word that tends to rub me the wrong way is the over-used word "discernment." I believe it is important to have good discernment, but in my experience the word is a comfortable term for judgement (in the negative connotation). I sat through a sermon once that outlined 8 or so lifestyle areas where it was prudent of the righteous believer to cut off ties with the one "living in sin" with cause of good discernment. I left angry because I believe in loving people where they are at and I don't need to compromise my belief systems to accomplish that. How is it good discernment to judge someone else for their sin because it isn't sin we potentially struggle with? How do we witness Christ's love to others this way? Every single believer struggles with some sort of sin in their life. The body of Christ was created to be a body, not large collection of cut off appendages.

    Anyhow, I didn't mean to run off in my own tangent.

  2. No, I like your tangent... thank you. You've got a great point, and I see how that would be frustrating. It would frustrate me, too. I love how you put it, that we were created to be a body, not large collection to cut off appendages. I think a lot of people have been very wounded this way. There are very few, rare instances in the NT when we're instructed as a body to dissociate from someone who is in sin - and it's only because they are completely unrepentant. Sadly, we tend to err more on the side of shunning people than loving them, even though, as you said, we ALL struggle with our own junk.