Recently a friend and I got into a discussion about the word "secular," and it got me thinking.
The Dirty Christian...
Some backstory. Early on as a new Christian, I never heard that word until I went to a Christian friend's house. He was showing me his mp3 music collection and since music is one of my favorite topics to discuss, I was excited to share with him. I asked if he liked Nirvana, one of my favorite bands, and his response caught me wholly off-guard. He said, "I don't listen to secular music." Not knowing what that exactly meant, I quickly deduced it meant Not Christian Music, as in, Dirty or Unholy.
Noticing his music collection, I saw it was all Christian music, with worship songs and artists who announced they are Christian artists. I began to think of the music I listen(ed) to at the time. I did like the music I was newly experiencing in Church, but I still listened to Nirvana and many other similar bands. I felt dirty and somewhat less than. I don't know if this is what my friend intended, but it's the message I left with.
Coincidently, around the time, I became more intrigued with Christian music because I was falling in love with Jesus and wanted anything I could get of Him. My mixed tapes went from Slayer to Hank Williams singing "I Saw the Light." I just sensed new life in Christian stuff and wanted all I could get.
Then, I went through a period where I threw out most of my secular music, deciding they didn't have life in them, and that I should just listen to Christian music. As years went by, this was fine. However, in just being honest, it got really boring. I got tired of the same music, same lyrics, or same things. Occasionally I would hear a Nirvana song and liking it deep down. But, I felt guilty, harkening back to the word "secular." Am I dissing Jesus by liking something that isn't blatantly Christian?
Eventually, more and more of my old music began to be on my iPod, alongside some Christian music I actually liked and enjoyed. Somehow it kept me sane and feeling honest. But, whenever I had a Christian with me in my car, I felt a need to hide my tastes in music, harkening back to that "secular" concept.
Thank God for Brothers
Up until a couple years ago, I had that eggshell walk about secular vs. Christian, feeling like I was breaking a lot of shells. Then, my world was rocked in an unexpected way.
Getting into the writings and life of St. Francis of Assisi, I wanted to meet some Franciscans. I found a Franciscan retreat center up near San Jose and decided to go for a weekend. Upon arriving, I was introduced to a Friar and he let me tag along with him over the next couple of days, sharing his story with me. While eating, he told me about his role in the Franciscan life there, saying he was a Secular Priest. Feeling jarred by his statement, immediately a warning bell went off in me and I said to him, "I thought Franciscans were Christians? How can you be secular?" I felt it was my duty to correct him. Instead, he corrected me. He said that to be secular meant to be out in the world. Franciscans are secular in that they live and work amongst lay-people, i.e. not up in a monastery, but out in public. Their focus is outward, to be amongst, and not be professional clergy.
In the recesses of my heart, I felt I already knew that, as his comments resonated within me, "Yeah! That's what Jesus is like!!!" It occurred to me that Jesus interacts with anyone, from the religious professional to the whoever on the street. That's the Jesus in Scripture and the Jesus that lives. The Francis motif is that we'll show the world Jesus by being like Jesus out in the world. The Word became flesh with Jesus being born, but also when we are like Jesus, letting Him live in and through us to those around us.
The question for me became, "who am I around?"
Around the same time I started questioning a lot about Christian culture, at least here in America. It seems through the popular evangelical concept of secular, there is a great tendency to want to hide.
In much of life, there is a Christian subculture in everything from music, clothing, painting, politics, and businesses. In essence it means, no cussing, no sexuality, use of the word/name of Jesus makes something good, family-friendly, conservative American values, moral uprightness, and more that I'm probably missing. Those aren't necessarily bad traits or goals. But I find something happens with the idea of "secular" in that a wall is built up, safeguarding against fear of corruption from the world.
We Create Monasteries
Instead of being Christians in the world, "monasteries" are built in society, dividing the world. We create Christian ghettos that say Christians are allowed, avoiding contact with the outside world. It gets to the heart of asking, "What is Christian?" or, "what makes a Christian a Christian?"
As an example, a Tony Campolo quote comes to mind. Years ago during a sermon, he said,
"I have three things I’d like to say today. First, while you were sleeping last night, 30,000 kids died of starvation or diseases related to malnutrition. Second, most of you don’t give a shit. What’s worse is that you’re more upset with the fact that I said shit than the fact that 30,000 kids died last night."
That may sound like a harsh or extreme statement, but I want to make the point clear. What Campolo said comes as both shocking and true. In the idea of keeping the Christian away from secular, definitions or walls are put up. Christians don't cuss. If there's a cuss word in art, it's not clean and it's not Christian, thus the whole should be disregarded. It's not safe. And even now, I'm here trying to defend such a statement without barely acknowledging the 30,000 kids. The statistics have improved over the years, but there's still a lot of work and effort needed.
What are some things in the world we ignore because it's "secular" or packaged in a way we define as offensive? Recently World Vision, a Christian charity helping children around the world, got into trouble because they changed a policy, allowing openly gay employees. Upon this change, many Christian donors dropped their child-sponsorships and encouraged others to do likewise. So, many children in poverty lost financial help because of scared Christians. What if support was kept, and then argue about the policy change? Furthermore worth discussing, what is evil about a gay person wanting to work with Christians to help children in poverty?
Giving Up On Christian Radio
Personally, I've given up on Christian radio in general, at least in the Evangelical sense. It's not to say it's all bad, but it just seems like it's hiding from the world and not interactive. There are many "secular" songs out there that are inspirational. What if those were played on the radio? What if we acknowledged talent?
I watch TED talks from time, enjoying a lot of outside the box discussions from a variety of topics. Some disregard TED Talks as "secular" and liberal. I may not agree with everything put out there, but I enjoy hearing and learning new ideas. Science, by many, is something some Christians are afraid of. Because some scientists are atheistic, it must be concluded that Science is bad. For me, the more people learn through questioning, the stronger their beliefs can be. The sharing of ideas helps. It's how Christianity spread in the Greek world. Paul the Apostle was invited to speak among many greek stoics and philosophers. Paul talked about the death and resurrection of Jesus among Athens' top scholars. Rick Warren was invited to speak at TED Talks, sharing his story among scholars in our day. They went where it wasn't safe and were themselves.
How many churches do you know where a non-Christian is allowed to speak? Would a muslim be invited and allowed to speak about Islam? It's not safe.
Some Christians write books that are helpful in many ways. But, often times, they're only marketed towards Christians or available in Christian stores. How much of our Christian gifting and wisdom is available to the outside world? Would Jesus only heal Christians or Jews?
Are You A Friend?
In thinking about Jesus's earliest disciples, it says a lot about Jesus. What I think is often overlooked is what their backgrounds were. Some were fishermen, i.e. blue-collar folk. Some were zealots, more like militant versions of our tea-party contemporaries. Others were tax-collectors, people considered as scum and thieves. That's big a variety, not to mention former prostitutes, adulterers, thieves, priests, Romans, or Rabbi's. Think about that for moment. Who are you willing to be friends with? If a Christian's stated goal is to be like Jesus, who are your friends?
We Need Help
There is a charge, directly from Jesus, to go out into the world and make disciples of Him. We need encouragement for this, reminders that it's ok to go out into the world...Jesus says so.
I'll end with a story from the life of St. Francis of Assisi. In 1219, the Fifth Crusade was under way with a frontline in northern Egypt. The Church at the time was busy recruiting for this war, calling it a holy war. Much of the teaching at the time was that Islam was of the devil and should preached as so. It was to be argued against in any occasion. St. Francis (along with many others) didn't think this war was a holy endeavor and taught his companions not engage in arguments, but rather just call themselves Christians, deciding that arguing only furthered the flames of anger between the two groups.
Francis desired to go meet the Sultan al-Kamil, the captain of the Muslim/Saracen armies. After earlier attempts to journey there, Francis and one companion finally were able to go. They reached Christian army, camped at the frontline. This was during a cease-fire.
The generals wouldn't allow Francis to pass over to the Muslim side, not being able to secure safe passage. While Francis waited on the Christian side he, being known as a holy man, began to tell soldiers that God was not approving of this war. This message coming from him began to have a moral effect on the soldiers, so much so the generals didn't like it. Finally they said, "ok Francis, you can't stay here. Either go home, or forward to the Muslims. We can't and won't protect you should you cross to enemy lines." So, Francis and his companion decided to move forward to the Muslim side.
From this point in the story, what happened exactly is not known, but there's a rough estimation. As they crossed, they were immediately arrested and suspected as being Christian spies. They were beaten and locked up shortly. After being questioned, they said, "we aren't spies. We are Christians, come to talk with the Sultan and offer peace."
Eventually, they were granted an audience with the Sultan. Again, they were questioned, "who are you, why are you here?" Some traditions say Francis preached the gospel message to the Sultan, to try and convert him, but it doesn't seem to fit the style in the rest of his life. Instead, they more likely used their familiar Franciscan greeting, "the Lord's peace be upon you." It's the Jewish blessing of Shalom that Jesus prescribed to His disciples upon entering another person's house. Peace, as in, God's goodness be upon your whole life, this was their greeting towards all.
Along with the greeting, they said they are servants of Jesus Christ, come to offer peace. Along with their greeting, they offered their service to the Sultan, since Jesus said He is a servant and that we should be subject to all.
From their interactions with the Sultan, he was greatly impressed and moved by them. He offered them feasts of food, in the grand hospitality of the East. Francis was humble and refused a couple times, but eventually took the Sultan up on the offer. Francis was impressed by the Sultan and Muslim's similarities, in their prayers. He seemed like a kind man. After about 20 days, Francis and his companion left to go back to Italy. They were given safe passage and gifts from the Sultan; a Quran and an Ivory trumpet. Both exist today at the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. The Sultan said Francis seemed like the first Christian he had ever met to be most like Jesus.
Sadly however, the Fifth Crusade still went on, and the Western armies suffered a heavy defeat. The same Sultan, after another cease-fire, offered to help all the wounded of the Christians, also allowing safe passage back to Western lands. Also, in the Middle East and Holy Land, Franciscans became the only Christian group allowed to control Christian holy sites, as a reflection of the interaction between Francis and the Sultan. This was so for many centuries, up until recent times.
Next time you see a St. Francis statue guarding a garden or birdbath, remember St. Francis was a badass!
Lord Jesus, help us to be like You.