Monday, April 30, 2007
Saturday, April 28, 2007
I have mentioned more than once recently that I was reading I'm OK - You're Not (subtitled The Message We're Sending Nonbelievers and Why We Should Stop) by John Shore. I even bought a friend at church a copy so that we could discuss it while we talk about mission. Following is my review of the book.
The gist of I'm OK - You're Not is simple - we Christians in America should focus much less on the Great Commission and much more on the Great Commandment. John's reasoning is that in the United States at least, pretty much everyone has heard of Jesus Christ, and all the hard-sell proselytizing we push on "Normies" (his word for the unconverted, i.e., there are Christians and then those people in "normal" life, hence Normies) is actually doing more harm than good. Why? Because Jesus in the Great Commandment tells us to love all people and treat them as we would be treated ourselves. If you'll note, you rarely want to be told, "I love you - but you're really messed up and need to change". In fact, for someone who doesn't even know you to tell you that out of the blue, unasked and unwelcomed, is pretty much the height of arrogance and rude behavior. Worse - it doesn't work. People can't be browbeat into conversion - God doesn't work that way. "For God so loved the world that He sent obnoxious people door to door with pamphlets" is not quite how John 3:16 is translated in any of my Bibles.
Note that Shore is not saying we shouldn't share our beliefs with others when we are asked. The Spirit leads people to Christ all the time, and we may very well be up to bat at any moment when a friend, a coworker or some other acquaintance starts questioning us and prodding about our beliefs. I look back to my time when I was slowly, slowly, slowly circling back to the faith and remember asking probing questions (more like picking fights, really) with a couple of my friends who I respected, trusted and knew were strong believers in Christ. We had some very interesting and intense discussions from those questions. That an immediate conversion experience didn't arise out of them is not their fault, nor do I think it was God's intent. He knew I needed to be led back in slowly, like a skittish dog that would run away at any aggression, so He led me to friends who could talk about their beliefs in ways that matched what I needed, a little at a time. Really, because we were friends first, and I trusted that they weren't trying to convert me, I was then able to open up and share my doubts and desires and questions in a way that helped lead me back to the faith. And this is a vital point of I'm OK - You're Not - when we love others as we would be loved, when we make friends with Normies, it cannot be with the hidden, ulterior motive of "As soon as I lure them into friendship, ha! then I will convert them!" No. We have to love them just to love them, as we would ourselves be loved. Full stop.
He is also not saying we shouldn't spread the word to the world, since there are still people throughout this planet who have not heard the story of Jesus and the Good News He represents. Instead, Shore is discussing how evangelizing in the United States is actually turning many people away from Christ because of the tactics they used, and it is time to stop and do what Jesus said we should do.
Every chapter ends in a section entitled "Ouch", in which non-believers talk about their experiences with having Christians rudely push their beliefs on them. Lots of them hit close to home, but as a former Normie myself, I would say the one that struck me as completely correct was very short and to the point:
"Religion always seemed too personal for me to take advice about it from people I don't know."Indeed. We may feel we have the Best News in the Whole World (we do) and want to tell everyone about it. But think about this - how would you react if some stranger came up to you touting the world's best investment plan? The world's greatest sex advice? All of it for free? You already know how you'd feel. You get emails with these very pitches every day - they're called spam. Well, when we think we have the right to tell some stranger how they need to get right and find God, we've just taken a very good message and spammed them with it. And guess what? Their spam filters are going to do with our message what we all do when whacko strangers offer us unsolicited advice - delete it, and quarantine themselves off from us. Perhaps it is time to stop pushing people as if we had any say in their conversion at all, and trust the Spirit to do His job.
As I have written before, I am not a big fan of apologetics - at least not as a way of converting others by force of logic. I think most apologetics are actually more helpful to those that have already converted and are looking for deeper understanding of their own faith. However, John does end his book with a short and useful chapter on some questions we may get asked by a Normie at some point when they've learned we're not going to push Jesus on them, and trust that we respect and love them as a friend. At that very point, the Spirit may lead them right to us to talk about God, and they are going to have some questions. The last chapter is a good, brief starting point for those questions.
One part I really liked was John's riff on Jesus's first miracle, turning water into wine. To get a flavor for the book, I am going to simply give an extended quote from this section:
What Jesus did that afternoon at that wedding was, to my mind, as powerful a testament to how much he loves people as was his very sacrifice on the cross. I believe that his choosing to make his first miracle turning all that good water into all that good wine says everything any of us will ever need to know about what Jesus wants our attitude to be toward not just fellow believers, but toward virtually everyone.If I have one fault with the book, it is that sometimes Shore pushes the humor angle a bit too hard. John's a funny guy, and there were times where I laughed out loud at some of the scenes in his book. But there were also times where the puns were a bit too much - it wasn't that they weren't funny, just that the message he was getting across was so good, so right on the money, that the jokes would get in the way. There were times when I wanted to say, "OK, I get it, I get it - now get on with the story". If you have a friend who always kids about everything, no matter how serious, then you'll know what I am talking about. But this is a small criticism, really, and don't let it deter you from the book. All in all, I think it is well worth the read.
He didn't lecture the people at that wedding. He didn't frighten them. He didn't try to convince them of the error of their ways. He didn't start dividing them into groups of good and bad. He didn't in any way interfere with what they were doing. He quietly and without fanfare enhanced what they were doing - and that was all.
And what were they doing? Dancing, singing, hugging, whooping it up, crying, and in every way acting like people usually do at wedding receptions: Like they're celebrating all the things about being human that deserve to be celebrated.
In a real way that we all understand, there's nothing more gloriously human than a wedding reception.
And that's where Jesus decided to launch his ministry.
And that's how: By doing nothing more dramatic than making sure the lovely couple and all their lovely guests didn't run out of wine.
And not that cheap, comes-in-a-gallon-jug wine, either. He gave them good wine. He gave them great wine.
Because he wanted them to just keep doing what they were doing when he got there.
I continue to follow and enjoy the husband and wife blogs of Heidi (a.k.a. Boudicca) and Copernicus. I find their spiritual journeys and self analyses fascinating and thought provoking. In the last 24 hours both posted something that ended up triggering the following comments. First was Copernicus's latest post on his path away from organized church, with his take on the problems with modern church hierarchy and structure. Second was Heidi's post about traveling to see friends and family, but also with a link to Tina Gasperson's blog. Thank you, Heidi! I spent an hour this morning devouring Tina's blog, and her latest entry, Church Marketing 2007, contributed to the following. Thanks to all three of you for your blogs and wonderful insights!
"If (de)nominated, I will not accept."I have purposefully kept the denomination of the church I go to out of this blog. That has caused for some awkward postings, but I do it to not cause controversy for the church I attend (which is full of people I love and respect), since some of my ramblings here fall far outside their denomination's positions. Note that I do not do it to protect the denomination. Not because I have a problem with that particular denomination, per se (although I do have some issues), but more because I have a problem with all denominations.
(with apologies to William Tecumseh Sherman)
Denominations are unbiblical. Try as I might, I can find no reference to Baptists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Catholics or Episcopalians in the Bible. In the Bible I read of the church as the bride of Christ and as the body of Christ. One bride. One body. Singular. We are so far from that now. Denominations are not about Jesus, who was so good at loving us all and teaching us to love each other. Denominations are a human institution; they are all about "us vs. them". Denominations are about exclusion, not inclusion. I have mentioned in a few other places that I have heard "good Christians" mention other denomination's names in a way that is hateful and prejudiced, showing a real divisive and superior attitude. "By their fruits ye shall know them." In some very real sense I believe denominations are Satan's work - divide and conquer is almost always a sign of his spiritual warfare.
I believe that Jesus is my direct intercessor to God, and that I can call on Him directly. That in the Biblical view, God's entire organizational structure is "flat", i.e., there's God the Father, Son and Spirit, and then there's all of us, each with a direct communication and communion with the very top. I am God's "direct report". His child. Yet denominations are all about hierarchy, usurping authority that is God's and God's alone. Denominations rule, they do not lead. Forget about all the strife caused by inter-denominational sniping and just look at the heartache happening within denominations today. Look at the conflicts in the Southern Baptists and the Anglican Communion as two examples (I do not pick on them here or want to dive into their issues - there are many other examples I could have chosen). When denominations have member churches with stances they don't like, they discipline or even disown those congregations, which presumably are made up of groups of thinking, praying adults with their own relationships with Christ and yet are treated as petulant children. In all this disharmony denominations are suing local churches and vice versa, which in my opinion one of the most shameful things going on in the church today, especially since it is all about the Bride's property (the church buildings and such), and not about the Bride.
Denominations are about numbers. Tina rightly points out that many churches are about getting people inside the walls of their specific church building as a zero-sum game with all the other churches in town. But it doesn't stop there, because those churches are typically part of a denomination, and those denominations are driving the member churches to grow because the big hierarchical money machine needs fuel. Worse than just church growth for growth's sake, the denominations are then taking a cut based on the count of members ("butts in the pews"), that money lost then restricting what that local church could have done with it. And denominations keep taking their per-member cut from a church even after a person has left that church until their membership is "officially" transferred elsewhere, which is one reason some churches pursue keeping members so doggedly. It isn't about their soul - it's about revenue streams.
Much of the pressure for tithing comes from feeding this beast as well. Some of us may be disturbed by our churches concentrating on church buildings instead of building the Church, but how much worse is it to have that money siphoned off to the denomination to build their buildings and staff their empires? In my volunteering at the local food bank I get an earful about the local members of that denomination being hit up with over-and-above-tithe requests (shakedowns is what it sounds like - really high-pressure tactics are used) for a new local rectory plus help for a new high school in another city nearby plus a diocese-wide drive. This does not sound like the Kingdom of God but the kingdom of man. We are always building our little empires.
Denominations are pure overhead. Almost all their resources - offices, directors of this-or-that, colleges, schools, seminars, programs - go to growing the denomination, the money machine, not to growing Christ's body at large. Even their mission efforts are about making sure that the new believers are brought not just into the fold, but into the "correct" denomination. Increasing the number of Christ-followers takes a far back seat to increasing the number of Christians of that denominational stripe. In fact, some denominations claim a soteriological monopoly that if the people gained aren't in their denomination, well, then they aren't really saved Christians at all. As if somehow that denomination has become the sole judge of God's will and are seated on the right hand of the Father to make those decisions! Harrumph!
I find it ironic and telling that the word "denomination" is used to describe both money and the church. Consider the following definition:
- a group of religious congregations having its own organization and a distinctive faith
- a class of one kind of unit in a system of numbers or measures or weights or money; "he flashed a fistful of bills of large denominations"
- appellation: identifying word or words by which someone or something is called and classified or distinguished from others
Denominations are brands, and as such they dilute the main brand, which is Jesus Christ. The root word in denomination goes back to "nomen" (name), and the only name any of us should accept being called by is Christ's, because we belong to Him. He owns us, not the denomination. Perhaps the next time someone asks which church we go to or which denomination we belong to, we should all just commit to answer, "Christ's".
Here's to seeing each and every one of you in heaven, where we will all be singing praise in one choir.
Thursday, April 26, 2007
Brother Maynard puts a fitting "capstone" on the "TPFKA" meme with "The Dream of the Former". A really powerful message, wonderfully done. Thanks to him and (I believe) the Spirit who moved him for writing it.
The question I have now is "How, with the Spirit's help, do I change from 'Prodigal Quest' to 'At Home'"? How do we all do something to make those red X's become crosses?
Tuesday, April 24, 2007
The following struck me this morning, and I am sure it is not original but thought I would throw it out there anyway.
One of the biggest arguments that seems to be used against Christianity, or more specifically how it manifests itself in the lives of Christians, is that it can't be true because we Christians are hypocrites. This argument is raised whenever a public church figure is caught in some sort of scandal (typically sexual). It is also a charge often (rightly) leveled at some Christian or other in a personal circle of acquaintances. In both cases the argument comes down to "So-and-so says such-and-such is a sin, and then goes and does that very thing. See? Christianity is hogwash, because they're all hypocrites." The problem of course being that that argument is a non sequiter. Just because a Christian conducts himself or herself in a "shameful" manner doesn't mean that there is anything wrong with Christianity. And most Christians will be the first to admit there is something wrong with them (it's called original sin, or what a friend of mine and I refer to as our "monkey nature"). As the old joke goes, "Just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you", well, "Just because you're a hypocrite doesn't mean what you believe isn't true."
I see hypocrisy as a fundamental human trait, something we all just do without thinking - like eating, breathing and liking TV that isn't good for us. We are all hypocrites. If someone says, "I can't believe in Christianity because all Christians are hypocrites", I feel it is fair game to say, "I can't believe in atheism because all atheists are hypocrites". For that matter, I can't believe in Islam, Buddhism, Rastafarianism, Wicca or Cthulhu for the same reason. Nor can I become a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, Communist, Socialist or an anarcho-syndicalist. I don't want to listen to scientists, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, weather forecasters, antique dealers, auto mechanics or trash collectors. Hypocrites! They're all hypocrites!
We are all hypocrites. If that's your main reasoning against Christianity, you'd better find another arrow for your quiver, because that one's likely to fly around and hit you in the back.
And for all that I like Martin Luther's "Sin boldly", this isn't giving Christians a pass, either. We must all try and live as Christ-followers. However, we also know that we can only do so through grace, not our own efforts, and even so we are going to slip and fall - sometimes over and over again. Instead, the lesson I think Christians should take from these experiences is always "Judge not". Because the worst hypocrisy we are convicted of in the wide world is for judging others for something we then do ourselves. It is that hypocrisy that brings the most disgrace upon our message.
I also like the following passage from Neal Stephenson's "The Diamond Age":
"No one ever said that it was easy to hew to a strict code of conduct. Really, the difficulties involved - the missteps we make along the way - are what make it interesting. The internal, and eternal, struggle, between our base impulses and the rigorous demands of our own moral system is quintessentially human. It is how we conduct ourselves in that struggle that determines how we may in time be judged by a higher power."Of course, we do not conduct our struggle alone. God's Spirit is here to help us, and Christ forgives us when we come to Him with our failings. But the struggle, which is "internal, and eternal", can also be "interesting", a challenge. Not to make it into a contest that we can "win" - we can't, except that Christ already won it for us. But we can use it in our personal relationship with God as a way not to cower before Him trembling with some sin caused by a quirk in our nature, but instead, to ask Him, "Lord, this part of me is interesting - can you help me to understand it? Can you help me to figure out how to turn it around? Can you help me to make the impulses buried within it turn toward Your love and Your will?" And as your loving Father and friend, I think if you ask Him that, He just might answer.
Sunday, April 22, 2007
So, since I've been writing about being more mission-oriented, sometime in the next week I will be talking with another in my church about how we can get something kick started. Stay tuned, you'll hear about it all here as it unfolds because you actually have a role in all this, gentle reader. As I confess my thoughts, efforts and fears to you, I then expect you to hold me accountable to follow through on what I say.
As I prepare to expand my volunteer efforts, I have been trying to define what I mean by "mission" and "mission-oriented" (I should probably just cave and use the word "missional", a fine word, but one which for some reason grates on my ear - hopefully I will get over it). Here are some of my thoughts and where I think they will lead in terms of action. These are not meant to be overall definitions of mission, but instead are my thinking as I prepare to become "missional". If these don't hold for you, fine.
1) Mission shouldn't be about the church, the church should be about mission.
When I first went and talked with my pastor about volunteering, I already had in mind helping at the local food bank, and he thought that was a good idea. However, when we talked about what I could do as part of our church, all of his suggestions were "inward focused", meaning that they were all aimed at the church and church members. One such that I took on was being the church webmaster, because at least there I could hope that by keeping the web site current and informative I would help people who were seeking to find our church (and we've had some inquiries through the site, for which I thank God for leading them to us). Another idea he had was training for the Stephen Ministries "the next time training comes around", which seems like it only occurs every few years, if that.
I left feeling good I could help the church by taking on and updating the static, out-of-date web site, but I was still lacking something. And that something was mission. Perhaps I should have been more explicit in what I was asking, and after I've talked with the other person in our church I plan on going back and discussing all of this with our pastor again, hopefully at that point as a pair with some ideas and the willingness to commit time to make them happen.
2) Mission for people in far away lands is good, mission for people next door is better.
I am not saying we should turn our backs on the wide world, not at all. I think there is a need for that, and one we must fill at Christ's orders. However, I think in many cases this allows us to shove some money in an envelope and send it off somewhere else and declare "Mission accomplished!" (pun intended). I think our Lord wants more from us than that.
I think He also wants more of us than having charity events, bake sales and the like, where the money is collected and then given to some good cause. Again, all those are good things (especially bake sales - yum! :-), all are serving a good purpose, and I am not denigrating those who do such things. However, I believe Jesus wants us out there getting our hands dirty, working directly with those that need help. And there's where I want to place my focus.
I have a friend that takes his family on vacation to Mexico each year through a program at his church to help families build their own houses, which is admirable and I applaud him for it, especially for going over multiple years as opposed to a one time "Well, that was an interesting experience" checkmark on his Good Works bragging list. But I want to focus on people here around me, because those are the ones I can meet, build relationships with, love as Christ commanded, and help more than just once a year. That's why I think local Habitat for Humanity programs are such a good idea, because they are helping families in the local community.
It's a cliché, but I do believe "Think globally, act locally" is a valid stance for church mission.
3) Mission is for now, not when I am retired.
Lots of people volunteering at the local food bank and the Habitat here are retired or semi-retired. Good for them! They are interesting, fun, vibrant people, and I believe a lot of that is because they're not just sitting home wallowing in themselves, but instead are out helping others and being engaged with the community. But why should we wait until we retire before we get to have all that fun of helping others?
Some will argue that for them, "There's not enough time, what with my work and our kids and their school and all their other activities." Well, maybe. Perhaps what they mean to say is "There's not enough time without making a sacrifice." BINGO. Jesus calls on us to follow Him, and He does not say it is going to be easy. In fact, we are going to have to take up the cross. In superficial America, that could mean having to give up a favorite TV night (I am so glad we don't watch TV in our house - I can't imagine how our family would ever get anything done if we had an antenna hooked up to the TV, let alone cable - of course, we're a house with five people and eight computers, so don't think time isn't wasted in front of a screen here :-).
And as for quality family time, why not volunteer as a family? Get the kids involved. Don't tell them, "You should feel lucky", but instead involve them with helping others, so they do feel lucky and more importantly, helpful. I plan on getting our children involved, not as forced labor (that's teaching the wrong thing), but because they have already asked to help.
4) Mission is mission, not evangelizing. It is helping, not converting.
When Jesus said, "If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.", He wasn't saying, "Give all your possessions to the poor so they will become Christians because of it". I believe He was telling us that we need to help the poor no matter what, because that is good in and of itself.
I have finished reading I'm OK - You're Not: The Message We Are Sending Unbelievers and Why We Should Stop, and I agree with the John Shore's (hi, John!) premise that in America at least, we should stop focusing so much on the Great Commission and focus much more on the Great Commandment. To me, the Great Commandment is mission.
5) Mission is about needs, not niceties.
The local food bank here is currently giving out food to over 1,400 families a month. This in a small-to-mid-sized city of 40,000; with the food bank serving parts of a six county area that probably brings up the population to around 75,000. And again, that's 1,400 families - men, women and most importantly children. If averaged out to about four people per family (which "feels" right from my experience there), that's 5,600 people getting food assistance from this one place every month. That means that somewhere between 7.5% and 14% of the local area's population are in desperate enough circumstances that they must reach out for help of the most basic kind - food and clothing.
So while I am not going to put down any volunteering or missions that don't deal directly with survival needs, I must say I personally am more focused on helping people who really need the help just to survive. Whose lives are so dire that they know not where their next meal may come from, or where they will be living next month, or even tomorrow. Who are forced to live as Jesus says we should all live, day by day.
If the local food bank had more hours during which I could volunteer (they are only open Monday through Thursday mornings, and Thursday evenings, which is when I go there), I would simply volunteer there more and I wouldn't be feeling such a drive to help in other ways.
6) Mission is a commitment to help, not a contest.
I have written elsewhere that when churches do try and do mission, they seem to always try to do it on their own, or at best, with the other churches in their area that are in their denomination. Even our church's work with the local Habitat is coordinated around a "[denomination elided] Habitat Day". What a mistake, because it implies, "God forbid we actually pound nails and saw wood next to someone whose doctine doesn't match ours!" and "Look at our church! Aren't we special?" What I really think it comes from is pride - the desire for the church or the denomination to show that it is doing something and to have it known throughout the community.
Pride is a sin. It is the sin. I have it as bad or worse than anyone I know. Therefore, I can diagnose it when I see it in others, and I see the above as symptoms of institutional pride. The desire to show that "our church is helping" in a way that makes sure the focus is on "our" and not "helping". There is little or no sense of doing something anonymously, for Jesus's sake alone.
That's it! Maybe we need to start "Volunteers Anonymous"! Not an organization for people who are addicted to volunteering (we need more of those :-), but instead, one where everyone that shows up is called by first name only (so there can be no newspaper articles touting, "Joe Smith, shown here volunteering at the local children's workshop"), nor any indication of what church they belong to, either. My attitude when giving and volunteering is to try and not let my left hand know what my right hand is doing. Maybe instead of "Volunteers Anonymous" the name should be "Matthew 6 Ministries" or something like that, because when I think of everything I am trying to say and do here, I am almost always thinking of that chapter.
So, how to work all the above into something I can do, and hopefully persuade others in my church to help as well? One of my thoughts is along the lines of trying to shamelessly copy, er, plagiarize, um, I mean honor by emulating Hope For New York and start a local clearinghouse of volunteer activities that are focused on mission - feeding, clothing and housing the poor (so certainly aimed at continuing to help the food bank, Habitat and any other such programs). It would not compete for attention (we could call it "Matthew 6 Ministries" perhaps?), money or volunteers, but instead it would help bring people together to events and activities already planned, to actually do things, to meet and help others.
I would want churches that are having mission-oriented volunteer days be able to post/advertise/coordinate to help get the word out so that more people than just their own church members show up to their activities to help the poor. It would hopefully be reciprocal - a bunch of Baptists and Lutherans showing up to help one day at the (Catholic) food bank, a bunch of Catholics appearing at the next "Baptist" Habitat day, and so on. And with no banner waving, no "We're Episcopalians and we're here to help!", but just "Hi! I'm Susan - what do you need me to do?"
1) Churches would not want to participate, because they want to continue to go their own way and have their own "branded" mission and the publicity that comes with that.
2) It ends up being a flop, and nobody comes.
3) It ends up being a success, and entails a bunch of coordination work (some of which I am willing to take on as part of the effort) that then leaves me with little time to actually volunteer in face-to-face settings. I don't want to become just the webmaster again. Even as an introvert, I want to get out and follow Christ by directly loving and helping others, not just toiling away at a keyboard.
Ideas? Comments? Suggestions? Criticisms? Fire away!
Friday, April 20, 2007
A modest polemic in the continuing spirit of the "People formerly known as" thread by Bill Kinnon, John Frye, Jamie Arpin-Ricci, Grace, Boudicca, Lyn Hallewell and others.
This is going to come across strong. It is meant to stir discussion and debate, and is not meant to be hateful or mean. Many people I have found on my journey back to faith have turned out to be Christ Himself waiting on me hand and foot. But many have not. And those latter have caused me to worry whether I am at the right place and even caused me to back away from the church again for a while, wondering if it was even worth trying. But I will not be kept away! I am back home, and I plan to stay. So, with that said...
Hello, we are the prodigals.
We come in from long years in the wilderness, brought back to Christ's bride by whatever paths the Spirit chose for us, which are as individual as each of us. Our journeys were hard, and we are so glad they are over. Our pasts are shameful, and we are so glad they are gone. We are so happy to be back home, so brimming with Good News, so ready to serve. We have a joy that sometimes leads to happy tears streaming down our face, only to have to worry about being looked down upon by you more staid members of the church, who look on that sort of emotion as unseemly, as if saying, "The church is solemn business! No heartfelt tears or joyous laughter allowed!" Your joy is but a distant memory, while ours is still fresh.
We don't have your long background in the traditions of the church, so we are more likely to question, "Why?", and more likely to not understand your tried-and-true answers. We search through your responses for the biblical and sometimes come up wanting, yet we dare not ask again because we were given "the" answer. Because we were graciously led to faith instead of growing up feeling as if it is a birthright, we think everything is new! Wonderful! Exciting! Interesting! We don't want our boundless enthusiasm, hope, joy and love shoved into nice pat one-size-fits-all answers that have kept you in your box you call "church" all these years.
We are the prodigals.
We've come home to find the Bride's house in disarray. Full of infighting and politics. Worldliness and competitiveness. Taking up what is Caesar's at the expense of what is God's. You are dabbling in politics. You are suing each other over bitter schisms and who will get the Bride's belongings in the ensuing divorce settlements. You put down other denominations with a venom that drips from your lips as foul as any prejudiced slur. We shrink from all that and wonder where is our Lord in His house?
We are depressed and disheartened to find the people inside the church to be just like the people on the outside. We are hurt and angered to hear gossip, backbiting, prejudice and unbridled hatred from the mouths of long-time members, especially those of you who feel you are "in charge", that you own the church, when according to our readings, we are foolish enough to believe Christ owns it. Sure, we are all sinners, but that doesn't give us the excuse to not even try to live our Lord's teachings.
We are the prodigals.
We don't think pastors are the problem, or at least all of the problem. On our way back home to God, many pastors have helped and guided us, acting as teacher/rabbi/sensei/guide, supplying just the right lesson at just the right time. Yes, some pastors are egotistical. But many are Godly men doing the best they can. We do think elders and others in the congregation may be part of the problem. In many elder-led churches things are the way they are because the elders and the those others "condemned for life" there want it that way. They chastise their pastors for letting the service run too long. They resist new worship formats (or even, gasp! new hymnals!). And God forbid the pastor allowing a moment of silence in a service that might lapse into whole minutes - you act as if we're burning daylight and your day off and you have other more important places to go. As if you don't have enough sin on your ledger to have to spend more than a few seconds throwing it all down at the foot of the Cross.
We sorrow at congregations that fight pastors who want to lead the church into outward-focused mission only to be told to keep the programs turned inward, to only worry about the church-as-club programs and "church growth". Anyone or anything else in the community that needs help can take care of themselves. We are filled with disbelief over a church whose entire "mission" and "outreach" is aimed at sending envelopes of money to people in other countries around the world, but who do little or nothing for the local community's needs. Just as there are "C&E" Christians who only show up at Christmas and Easter, there are "C&E" churches that only do something for local needs around Christmas with an Angel Tree program. And no matter what, you want to make sure you never let "those people" into your church! It might spoil your smug complacency that all is well with the world and make you feel uncomfortable. Because after all, your Christianity is all about comfort, whereas ours is all about struggling to meet God.
When we read of the Pharisees, we think of you.
We are the prodigals.
We want it to be our church, too, and don't want to be told that our ideas don't count, that we must follow tradition, that "it's always been that way", that the only outlet for our thoughts and plans is in yearly member's meeting votes or by succumbing to playing the game and being sidelined into this committee or that program. We don't want to be shut up. We don't want to be crowded into the same chutes as everyone else. For many of us, it was those chutes we escaped from in the first place to begin our wandering. In outrage, we want to storm through the Temple, turning over your money changing tables.
We are self-educated, and look for our answers in a variety of sources. We consume books from ancient church figures as well as the latest contemporary writers. We are ecumenical. And we have the temerity to believe that our years of wandering towards God had a purpose, His purpose, and that those experiences and ideas we gained have value and are worthy of consideration because, after all, they brought us back to Christ Jesus. Your catechisms and other pat answers don't silence our questions, even though we may not ask them aloud again once we're given your standard answer, because we know it's a hopeless cause. Our silence is not consent.
We are the prodigals.
We want COMMUNITY. We want to make a difference. We want to show Christ's love for others because He has so blessed us with His. We want to serve. We want a mission. We come to services eager to make friends and share, only to find we're outsiders still and always will be, because we're not part of your clique that has always gone to your church, grew up together, went to parochial school together, were confirmed together and can reminisce about dear old Pastor So-and-So from back in the day together. While those conversations are going on, all we can feel is ALONE. ALIENATED. MINIMIZED. DISCOUNTED.
We are not just new numbers to add to your "church growth" statistics. In fact, we did not come because of anything you did. We came because the Spirit led us to you. We are a gift to you as much as you are to us, and yet you leave us unopened, unwrapped, unloved.
We are the prodigals.
We may be sitting in a pew next to you this Sunday. Maybe you'll notice us. Maybe you won't. Maybe we'll keep coming back. Maybe we'll move on where the Spirit leads us. We want to be there, we actually want to fall on our knees in front of you and tell you "I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men." To be rejected at that moment will send us away again. You can help make sure we stay. When next you see us, won't you please gladly welcome us back home?
We are the prodigals. We are your prodigals. Where's the prodigal's welcome?
In a recent post I noted that I was going through a hard time with prayer. It has gotten a bit better, funnily enough, over praying about it. There is still effort involved, but it seems the Spirit is there helping. Also, I pulled out and reread The Way of a Pilgrim and got recharged on the Jesus Prayer, which I love to use during walking and other forms of moving meditation, er, strike that, that's the old Buddhist vocabulary breaking through, I mean "contemplative prayer". It is great for that, and I can get lost in its rhythms for an hour, breathing in on "Lord Jesus Christ" and out on "have mercy on me" (I use the shortened form of the prayer from the book for this - there are all sorts of variations on the prayer). I also plan on going to the local "centering prayer" practice starting on Monday, my first step into Lectio Divina.
As the book says, "The holy Fathers say that the Jesus Prayer is the abbreviated version of the entire Bible" (page 22, The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way). It also discusses how each word in it can be used almost as a mental rosary, to be turned over in your mind while praying, to keep the meaning of each word and the prayer entire fresh in your head. I try to do that, even as I pray it in rhythm with my breathing. The following are some thoughts I have about each of the words in "Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me". I am sure none of these are original in any way, but wanted to write them down anyway.
- Lord - Jesus is our king and master, He is our ruler. To follow Him we must submit to Him and serve Him. We must let Him own our lives and we must be slaves of Christ.
- Jesus - Our Saviour is a man. He is God, but He is also a human. He came here to experience life - to be born, grow up, live and die. To feel love and pain and joy and grief. We can take comfort in knowing that our God has felt what it is like to be us. He understands and loves us.
- Christ - Jesus is the Messiah. He is our Saviour. Only through Christ Jesus is God reconciled to us, and us to Him.
- have - We call on Christ to have mercy on us now, in the present tense. We can do this because He is risen, He is alive, He can and does hear our call.
- mercy - Our Lord intercedes for us when we come to Him in contrition, begging His forgiveness. His resurrection is the hope to which we greedily cling, His grace our priceless gift.
- on - Jesus bestows His mercy upon us. We don't earn it, nothing we can do can make it happen. Grace is His gift to give, and He showers it on us like blessed rain in a drought. He also sends us the Spirit to guide us and help us fulfill His plan for us.
- me - Each of us needs Christ's mercy, every day. None of us are saved without Him. While we must also pray for others and give thanks to God, we each need to fall to our knees and pray for our own forgiveness. Otherwise we are lost.
I could expand the above to include the thoughts I have around the other words in the longer version, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner", but I will leave that for another time.
Does anyone else practice a form of contemplative prayer? I note there are conservative Christian sites dedicated to stamping it out as being evil and misdirected (which makes me feel like there must be something to it just for that reason - an ad hominem fallacy, I know :-). I certainly don't use it as mindless repetition, but more as a tool to keep my mind centered and focused on God. I think it helps. Comments?
Tuesday, April 17, 2007
apologetics - Argumentative defence. That part of theology which tries to show the reasonableness of Christian faith and to refute objections to it.
apologetics - The branch of theology that is concerned with the defense of Christian doctrines.
I find the first definition of "apologetics" above particularly unbiblical. "Argumentative defense" doesn't sound very loving to me. And the "reasonableness of Christian faith" is an oxymoron. Jesus as God incarnate is not "reasonable" by any stretch of the imagination! Jesus making a scene in the Temple, upsetting traditions and social order is not a "reasonable" act. Jesus teaching us that we should go against our most innate nature is not "reasonable"! God gave his only begotten Son to die for us! That's "reasonable"? Jesus was not a reasonable man. Our God is not a reasonable God. Paul didn't seem to think so, either:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:I think it is time to stop trying to prove God exists, that Jesus was real, that the Bible is factual. It is time to stop using logic to argue with the world and to realize that doing so is to play a game with the world by the world's rules. It sacrifices faith to the mind, to logic, when in fact logic can sacrifice itself just fine. Every time some expedition goes off to try and find Noah's ark or some other archaelogical "proof" of events in the Bible, they are sacrificing faith to proof."I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man's wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man's strength.
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
- 1 Corinthians 1:18-25 (New International Version)
This does not mean that I gave up all logic upon becoming a Christian, or destroyed my mind to become the village idiot, checking my critical faculties at the church door. It does mean, however, that by almost all accounts in the Bible faith is what is important, not the mind. I need logic to figure out how to make work wherever faith leads me, to use my gifts in the most Christ-following manner, to ensure I am tending to what God has allowed me to steward in the best manner possible. I do not, however, need logic to prove to myself God exists, and I therefore should not use it as a tool to try and convert others. As if we could just browbeat them into submission! (Raise your hand if you can think of anyone converted that way that stayed converted...Anybody? Anybody? Bueller?). During my wandering/agnostic phase, the arguments I picked with my Christian friends never had much impact. What did affect me was watching how they, and my mother's parents, went about living out Christ in their lives.
So instead of apologetics, I believe we should be fools for Christ and offer "anti-apologetics". If you will forgive me the word play, we should be "unapologetic". We don't have to prove anything to anyone! But we do have a lot we need to show the world. We need:
To relate, not retort - we need to love all we meet as Christ loves us. Our love for them should be real and without condition. Our duty is to love, not judge. Arguing doesn't make anyone a lover, especially not a Christ-lover.
To show, not say - a picture's worth a thousand words, and a helping action, a loving participation in our community, just listening, is worth more than all the dogma we could spew if we never stopped talking. And that's the key - if we stop talking about Christ and instead just follow Him, perhaps there will be some room where He can talk to those that need Him instead of us filling all the available silence with chattering from our blow holes.
Mystery, not mandate - as someone who at one time dabbled in Buddhism, I find it funny that many raised in Western Christianity will reject their own faith as "illogical" (based on a Sunday school understanding of that religion that then gets mugged in an alley somewhere around their freshman year in college) and then they will go off and try some other religion and rejoice in its mysteries. And even though there is a large cultural "impedance mismatch" between their upbringing and their new religion, they will accept the new religion's mysteries wholeheartedly, while rejecting Christianity as "illogical" (which it is - see above). Why do they reject that? Because modern Western Christianity has tried to play on the world's field using the world's rules - logic, and therefore can't whine when the world's rules seem to turn against it.
What a mistake. Instead, we need to see that mystery as a strength, as a resource, as a key to unlocking a deeper understanding that takes a lot of practice and pursuit. The Trinity, the ever-recurring miracle of the Eucharist, the absolute, incomprehensible mystery of God stuffed into a zygote, are as good meditational koans as "the sound of one hand clapping". Contemplative prayer, a.k.a. meditation, is an ancient Christian tradition, and one we need to get back to:
Abbot Pastor said: Get away from any man who always argues every time he talks.Anyway, the next time someone wants to argue with you about God, just smile, shake your head, and instead of giving them apologetics, give them your apologies.
- "The Wisdom of the Desert", Thomas Merton, ed.
And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
- Philippians 4:7 (New International Version)
Saturday, April 14, 2007
[I'm giving up on trying to make each post title the lyric from some song - that was getting too distracting.]
I have been feeling very moved lately to do something, something more in the way of mission and service other than my weekly volunteering at the local food bank (which is also a medical, dental, legal and tax clinic, among many things - they are phenomenal) and being the webmaster at church. And whatever it is I do, I want it to be (a) outside the walls of our church, aimed at the community, not the church-as-club, and (b) to be a service/servant gig, not an in-your-face conversion effort (I am being affected a lot by my current reading, "I'm OK - You're Not: The Message We're Sending Nonbelievers and Why We Should Stop").
So, that all said, the following is excerpted from an email I sent today to the worship leader of our church's contemporary service, which we attend faithfully (it's actually a very small service at 5:00 p.m. on Sundays - typically 30-50 people show, but that's OK, I'm not into crowds). I like him - he's a young man filled with the Spirit and I think (hope) he'll have some good ideas on what we as a church can do to be more missional.
Note: The various names that are elided below have an artificial feel, I know, but as I have said, I remain anonymous here to not cause controversy or conflict in my church or to be seen representing them (and sometimes because I am criticizing them, and don't want to be hurtful of a wonderful group of people), so suffer through that awkwardness, please (and if you have any ideas on how to handle this in postings in a less stilted way, let me know). Also, I purposefully leave my own and typically other denomination names out of my posts because I hate all the splitting and in-fighting going on in Christianity today (although I left mention of the Catholics in the following for what will become an obvious reason as you read).
Anyway, I don't want to be pushy, but on the other hand I am feeling some sense of urgency over getting together and discussing what we can do to make [our church] less inward-focused (I think it really is, unfortunately) and more "missional" (a word I hate, but it stands for a series of ideas prevalent on the Web and in books, so we're stuck with it). But I don't want to just go out and preach at people (hence the book I gave you) but instead to figure out how to become more outward/community focused and just get out there and help and love people like God commanded.
I already volunteer at the [local food bank], and I think they are actually doing something quite central to what I am talking about. Unfortunately, their hours are such that I am limited to one day a week. I also like Habitat, but I'm just not that handy. :-) So then what? I don't want to duplicate effort - I think that's a real problem that is part of the splintering of Christ's body as it is. All denominations want the soup kitchen or charity event or whatever to be their soup kitchen or charity event or whatever, instead of just working together to make something bigger and get the economics of scale going.
For example, I am one of the few Protestants that show up at the [local food bank], and I suspect a large part of that is because it's (whisper) Catholic, you know. So many Protestants ([our denomination] very much included) seem to be proud of their anti-Catholicism and wear it like a badge. That really bugs me - when people put down Catholics in [our denomination] churches, the way they say "Catholic", they might as well be saying the n-word, because it comes across that hateful, hurtful and prejudiced. Sure, we differ on some very real doctrinal terms, but I believe we are trying to get to the same place and I am willing to assist the Catholics in doing God's work, and I hope they would be willing to help us do the same.
Anyway, I want to figure out something we can do where we aren't just helping out the people at [our church], and where we're out and involved in helping the community. I found Hope For New York from a blog post. It seems to me to be a "clearing house" where churches can get together and post volunteer events and then people from various churches (and even people from no church) can show up and help volunteer. Here's their "About" page:
Hope for New York: our mission - our vision
In response to God's grace, Hope for New York works with churches to provide volunteer and financial support to organizations that serve the poor and marginalized.
Hope for New York's vision is a city in which individuals and communities experience spiritual, personal, social and economic well-being through the demonstration of Christ's love.
In Fiscal Year 2006, Hope for New York connected more than 3,500 individuals who volunteered 25,000 hours and served 13,000 individuals through over 30 organizations located throughout New York City!
That is what I am talking about! Not trying to go our own way and do some small [our church]-sized thing for the community, but to get together with the other churches (including gasp!, the Catholics), and doing some big God-sized things instead. Maybe that's helping the [local food bank] more ([other denomination's church] sent some people this last week while I was there, including, curiously, [our church's] organist, who apparently is [other denomination] - I find that quite funny, actually). Maybe it's helping Habitat more. Maybe it's doing something new that none of the churches in [our town] could do apart.
Just rambling here, but I have been feeling a strong desire to talk with someone about this, and you're the only one at [our church] I feel comfortable with sharing this with, since it is quite "outside the box" (meaning both in traditional church terms and outside the walls of our church itself). But you strike me as an "out the box" kind of guy. :-)
John Mark Macmillan- who I’ve never heard of- is leading worship. He brought a band. It’s pretty obvious to me from the projections I’m seeing that the theme of the conference- “Lament: Passion and Praise In A Minor Key”- is going to be reflected in some of the worship songs. An immediate departure from the usual “happy clappy” start ups. One lyric said “I don’t need a fairy tale god who lives in a book.” Now we’re talking.
What I’ve heard of this guy’s music, I like. Very rootsy. The Springsteen-folk/rock sound. He has a Myspace with some songs, and a web page.
I was intrigued enough to jump to McMillan's Web site, listened to a few of the samples for his latest album, "The Song Inside The Sounds Of Breaking Down", and bought it through CD Baby. Both my wife and I think that was one of the best music purchase decisions I've made lately (along with Anne McCue's "Roll"). According to the review on CD Baby:
The songs came out of the tragic death of McMillan's best friend, just months after John Mark's debut record Hope Anthology Vol. 1 hit stores. The grief that followed, and the subsequent rise from under it, is what bore the fruit for John Mark's newest anthology. "The album is about what happens when you fall apart," McMillan said. "I don't think there is any way of avoiding painful experiences as a human. Those painful experiences can either make us angry and bitter and cynical, or they can break us and change us and we can become more than what we were even before."The opening song, "London Town" is a rocker that will stay in your head for days. "Breaking Down" and "Kiss Your Feet" go right for the heart of lament. Toward the end of the album comes some true redemption and healing songs, like "I Am A Temple" and "How He Loves". Some of the songs rock, some are folk, all are great. A strong album, start to finish! Buy it, you'll like it.
When asked about the role of faith in his music, McMillan responded, "Christianity has to have a place in my art because it's who I am. If it didn't then I'd come across as pretentious. People can see through facades easily." But he adds, "The gospel has been abused so often that people hear the name of Jesus and they think of a used car salesman. We've got to change that. There are so many completely broken and devasted people in the world. I think we ignore this as artists and as Christians. I didnt want to do that. I wanted to put something out there that people could relate to. That's what the album's all about, the song that comes out of falling apart."
We are all familiar with the passages where we are admonished to have "faith like a child's". That has always struck me as funny because those verses are always interpreted as meaning "simple, trusting, wide-eyed belief". But I don't necessarily think that's what's meant. Anyone who is a parent (I have five children, three still at home) will recognize there are some problems with that interpretation. Children - at least the children I know and raise, and I think most others if their parents will tell the truth - lie, cheat, fight, sneak, steal, plot, argue, question everything and push back against authority. All of that starting around the age of two with the gaining of locomotion and elocution, and stopping, well, sometime after they've left home as far as I can tell. :-) Because children, like their parents, are fallen. They are imperfect, and thus their faith cannot be perfect either.
So what does our Lord's command mean, if "childlike" doesn't exactly mean "innocent" or "perfect"? Good question. I don't know if I quite have an answer, but here's a stab at it. Developmentally, children are vessels that are meant to be filled with learning. Any new parent quickly realizes and marvels at how their child is wired to learn at astounding rates. And when they learn something, children also believe it. Children want to believe, and children believe fiercely. They take their lessons to heart and use them to help make sense of the puzzling world around them. That doesn't mean they stop questioning, but their questioning is to affirm and strengthen what they've learned, what they believe, not to increase their doubt like adults do (and adolescents really do - I am drawing a line here between "child" and "adolescent" - the easiest way to define the latter is that stage in maturation where both the offspring and the parents are counting the days until the kid is out of the house :-).
So, when we are to have faith like a child's, does that mean we are to drop all our critical faculties and simply follow, zombie-like? I doubt that (pun intended). And it certainly doesn't mean we must be "innocent", because children aren't innocent (see above), and we obviously aren't. Instead, I think it means we should constantly learn more about God and His plan for us, with that learning we should believe His word and we should use it to make sense of our place in His plan. We should want to believe, and we should believe fiercely, and not fall into the questioning for questioning's sake that most of us pick up in adolescence and never drop. That doesn't mean we shouldn't question - it simply means we should have faith that our questions are not crises, but simply probings into the mysterious ways of God. He is vast, we are tiny, so there's going to be questions. But He also gives us the answers, and we know where to look for them - in the Bible, in daily prayer and in the community of saints around us - and as we find our answers we should use them to strengthen and affirm our faith.
At least, that's how I see it. I would welcome comments.
Saturday, April 7, 2007
I mentioned earlier that I have a few issues with the denomination to which I belong. Not anything big enough to switch - I believe people do too much church-shopping as it is. None of the issues are what I consider to be core, although to many they would be. They are the things over which people split and create new denominations, of which I think there is altogether too much - we are all far from "one holy catholic and apostolic Church". Somehow we are always waiting for those others to recognize their errors and come crawling back to us - which is good, because we need to sit still while we have this dang beam in our eye.
So, that said, here is a list of three of the doctrinal issues with which I wrestle in my denomination. Note that the pastors I have known and followed in the denomination seem far less concerned about these, but they do toe the party line when asked directly. The funny thing is our denomination has lost 400,000 members since 1970, and I think the following have something to do with it.
I have yet to receive a convincing argument about why infant baptism is Biblical (even my pastor ended up admitting there's no overwhelming argument for it). I have no problem with it as a dedication ceremony, per se, celebrating the entrance of a new child into the congregation and committing the parents, godparents and church community to raising the child according to Christian tenets. I simply have a problem with it counting as true baptism. And I don't believe confirmation takes its place, either.
My denomination preaches close (or closed) communion. The thinking is that the eucharist is the special sacrament (no argument here) and hence should not be shared with those that do not believe as we do. But to me that's hogwash, and most of the pastors I know simply want to talk with someone before the service to make sure they believe in a fairly creedal way, and I've never heard one object when I talk about attending communion outside the denomination when traveling. The church is supposed to be a family, and yet this is the most excluding action I can think of. We are supposed to examine ourselves before communion, not police others from taking the sacrament! Similar thinking was carried to absurd extremes when our denomination chose not to send someone to a national ecumenical prayer event in the wake of 9/11, because they might have to share the stage with apostates. Harrumph!
NO WOMEN PASTORS
Yes, I have read 1 Timothy. And my denomination's reasoning for having no women pastors is based on that (not solely that, but it is always used as a prime exhibit in the reasoning). However, note this - it assumes that pastors - ministers, priests, what have you - have authority over others. I do not look at pastoral ministering in that manner. If you look at ministering as a servant duty, then I see no Biblical reason why women can't fill the pulpit. Besides, the two most Christian people I ever knew were my maternal grandparents, who had 72 years of wedded life together, and they were married by a woman minister. If she was good enough for them, that's good enough for me.
Posted by Jim Lehmer at 2:57 PM