a couple of thoughts that jumped out at me this weekend, from “A New Kind of Christian”
At the time, I could see only two alternatives: 1) continue preaching and promoting a version of Christianity that I had deepening reservations about or 2) leave Christian ministry and perhaps the Christian path altogether. There was a third alternative that I hadn’t yet considered: Learn to be a Christian in a new way.
- I drive my car and listen to the Christian radio station, something my wife always tells me I should stop doing (“because it only gets you upset”). There I hear preacher after preacher be so absolutely sure of his bombproof answers and his foolproof biblical interpretations (in spite of the fact that Preacher A at 9:30 usually contradicts Preacher B at 10:00, and so on throughout the day), his five easy steps (alliterated around the letter P), his crisis of the month (toward which you should give a “love gift … if the Lord so leads”). And the more sure he seems, the less I find myself wanting to be a Christian, because on this side of the microphone, antennas, and speaker, life isn’t that simple, answers aren’t that clear, and nothing is that sure. (Paradoxically, at that moment I might consider sending him some money, hoping that by investing in his simpler vision of the world, I myself will be able to buy into it more. But eventually I will stop throwing good money after bad.)
- I preach sermons that earn the approving nods of the lifelong churchgoers, because they repeat the expected vocabulary and formulations, words that generally convey little actual meaning after hearing them fifty-two times a year, year after year, but work like fingers, massaging the weary souls of earnest people. Meanwhile, as the initiated relax under this massage of familiar words, as they emit an almost audible “ahh” to hear their cherished vocabulary again, these very massaging messages leave the uninitiated furrowing their brows, shaking their heads, and shifting in their seats. They do this sometimes because they don’t understand but even more when they do understand – because the very formulations that sound so good and familiar to the “saved” sound downright weird or even wicked to the “seekers” and the skeptics. These people come to me and ask questions, and I give my best answers, my best defenses, and by the time they leave my office, I have convinced myself that their questions are better than my answers.
- I do the reverse: I preach sermons that turn the lights on for spiritual seekers, but earn me critical letters and phone calls from the “veterans” of the church often because the expected fingers didn’t reach through my message to massage them as expected.
- I have counseling sessions in my office, year after year, during which many wonderful people, people whom I love, people who have a lot of Bible knowledge, Christan background, theological astuteness, and “pew time,” prove to have the same problems, make the same mistakes, harbor the same doubts (though more often unexpressed), indulge in the same vices, and lack the same “spark” that unchurched people often do, the only major differences being that a) the church people tend to use more religious language to define their problems, b) their problems are further complicated by guilt for having these problems in the first place, and c) these religious people nevertheless consider themselves superior to their non-religious counterparts. (I read recently that divorce rates among evangelical Christians – supposed guardians of traditional family values – are actually higher than those in culture at large. What?) After these counseling sessions, I am left troubled, wondering, “Shouldn’t the Gospel of Jesus make a bigger impact than this? And does pew time have to result in spiritual pride and inauthenticity?”
- I realize that as people come into our church, everybody needs conversion. The not yet committed Christians need to be converted to a vibrant twenty-first century faith, and the already committed twentieth-century (and nineteenth-century) Christians need the same, myself included.
- I realize, as I read and reread the Bible, that many passages don’t fit any of the theological systems I have inherited or adapted. Sure, they can be squeezed in, but after a while my theology looks like a high school class trip’s luggage – shoestrings hanging out here, zippers splitting apart there, latches snapping, clothes pouring out on the floor like a thrift store horn of plenty. My old systems – whether the Dispensationalism of my childhood, the Calvinism of my adolescence, the “charasmaticism” of my early adulthood, or even my more mature, mainstream “evangelicalism” – cant seem to hold all the data in the Bible, not to mention the data of my own experience, at least not gracefully.
- I read what other people who are having similar experiences are saying, including people writing outside the religious context – like this from Peter Senge – “In any case, our Industrial Age management, our Industrial Age organization, our Industrial Age way of living will not continue. The Industrial Age is not sustainable. It’s not sustainable in ecological terms, and it’s not sustainable in human terms. It will change. The only question is how. Once we get out of our machine mind-set, we may discover new aptitudes for growth and change. Until then, change won’t come easily.” As I read, I feel that “industrial age faith” faces the same fate.
- I pick up most religious books, like the one you’re holding, and know from somewhere midway through page one what the entire book will say, and I read on anyway to find out that I was right. I wonder: Doesn’t the religious community see that the world is changing? Doesn’t it have anything fresh and incisive to say? Isn’t it even asking any new questions? Has it nothing to offer other than the stock formulas that it has been offering? Is there no Saint Francis or Soren Kierkegaard or C.S. Lewis in the house with some fresh ideas and energy? Has the “good news” been reduced to “good same-old same-old”?
- I meet people along the way who model for me, each in a different way, what a new kind of Christian might look like. They differ in many ways, but they generally agree that the old show is over, the modern jig is up, and it’s time for something radically new.
Of course, my data isn’t numbers. My data is experience – my experience as a committed Christian and my specific experiences as a pastor. Experiences like these:
You see, if we have a new world, we will need a new church. We won’t need a new religion per-se, but a new framework for our theology. Not a new Spirit, but a new spirituality. Not a new Christ, but a new Christian. Not a new denomination, but a new kind of church in every denomination.
I’d have to become a Christian in a new way…
a trip this weekend to see bekah up in dc. she’s doing well, for those of you who are going to ask, and we had a great time hanging out with her. we did the general “try to see all of dc in one day” thing, which kinda makes your legs fall off. my d200 gets back from the shop today, so i didn’t have it this weekend. a tripod would have been extremely nice, but i left that at home too. at any rate, you can find the gallery here.
If there were no eternal consciousness in a man,
if at the bottom of everything there were only a wild ferment,
a power that twisting in dark passions produced everything great or inconsequential;
if an unfathomable, insatiable emptiness lay hid beneath everything,
what would life be but despair?
What is our perspective of Scripture?
Do we see it as a legal document – framed in such a way as to spell out reward and punishment – a sort of code, explaining how to escape eternal judgment?
Do we see it as a plan of salvation – a step by step process that gives us eternal life but immediate oppression?
Do we see it as a fable – an outdated fairy tale written by superstitious people oh so long ago who understood so little and made up stories to fill in the gaps?
Or do we see it as a story –
a story about God,
I believe the words of God are living,
that this story which began as God spoke a world into existence continues today,
I believe God’s words aren’t
a list of rules
or a contract
or an irrelevant tale,
but a story of love –
a story about a relationship
between a creative God
and his creation,
a story that is
In the conclusion of the account of his story of Jesus, John writes: “Jesus did many other things. If they were all written down, I suppose the whole world could not contain the books that would be written.”
John knew, I think , that each of us has a story, and that every believer in Christ could write their story about God’s impact in their lives. John essentially says, “This is my story, but everyone of us who knew Christ has a story,” and I believe that continues until today – enough so that John’s prophecy is true – the whole world could not contain the books that would be written about the unfinished story of God.
The narrative of the Bible is one which tells part of the story of God, working in the lives of plain, ordinary people who were called to do extraordinary things. But the real beauty of the story of God is that it continues to be written. While its final chapter is known and its outcome certain, each day we all participate in the story of God. We choose, in some sense, what role we will play in that story – whether a humble servant who God works through, or a proud rebel who God humbles – but each of us is a character.
I believe that God still writes stories, and that the stories he writes today are no less spectacular than the ones he wrote two thousand years ago. I believe he will continue to write, from beginning to end.
My hope and prayer is that these thoughts over the past week and a half or so have challenged you to think about your beliefs and your picture of God, and perhaps to set down some thoughts about why you believe what you do. Ultimately my prayer is that God’s story in your life is a constant work, that the image of God as author would be real and powerful, and that your story would be intertwined with the work of His hand.
Our picture of God and preaching about God often has a lot to do with rules and regulations. “You can’t do this.” “That is wrong.” “Don’t do this.” Much of this is well intentioned, but I think sometimes misguided. Why? I believe that God is primarily relational.
When a child first starts to be able to make its own decisions, we give it rules. “Don’t touch the stove.” “Don’t go out into the street.” When the child grows up a bit, the rules change – “Don’t touch the stove if it’s on.” “Don’t go out in the street without looking both ways.” As the child grows and its understanding of the world expands, we are able to drop rules and instead communicate principles – “I don’t want you to hurt yourself.” Eventually, our interactions with our children are not founded on rules at all, but on relationships, and I have a feeling God works in exactly the same way.
The main picture we see of our relationship with God in the Bible – the most often used portrait – is that of a father caring for his children. God could have chosen any picture, I suppose. He could have chosen a King, making wise decisions ruling over his people. He could send down a revelation today comparing us to workers, working for an employer. He could have often compared us to slaves, serving a master – and each of these pictures are indeed used in the Bible to describe our relationship with God. But over and over again, the picture that dominates is that of Father and son.
“See how very much our Father loves us, for he calls us his children, and that is what we are!” John writes. Paul says we “groan inwardly as we await eagerly for our adoptions as sons.”
As we listen to God, we see his character, and understand more and more what he wants us to be, and how he wants us to act. Eventually, we don’t do things or not do things because they’re “right” or “wrong” – but because we know they’re consistent or inconsistent with the character of God. We base our actions not on a set of rules made by men, but on a relationship with the eternal creator of the universe, who treats us as his children.
I believe in a God who calls me his son, and treats me like his child. I believe he has shown me, both through his life and his words, what is good. And what does the Lord require of me, but to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly with Him?
next: I believe in a God whose story is unfinished
We usually think of God as a being who exists somewhere other than *here*. It’s hard for us to picture the idea of God living among humanity, taking human flesh and form. Theologically, we use terms like transcendent and imminent – the idea that God could be wholly both is difficult for anyone to grasp.
John writes that Jesus “became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.”
God made his home among us. The hidden word picture is that Jesus came and pitched his tent along side ours, both of us temporary inhabitants of the world. Paul writes, “In Christ lives all the fullness of God in a human body.” The author of Hebrews says, “This High Priest [Jesus] of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.”
The idea that God would be content to simply deliver his message through prophets as he sat in the comfort of heaven is not consistent with the character painted in the Bible. Instead, God wanted – needed even – to experience his creation first hand and speak with them face to face, as one of us.
Paul, perhaps, puts it best: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.”
As shocking as the incarnation of Christ is, God goes even one step farther – sending the final part of the Trinity – His Spirit – not just to live among us, but to live in us. This Spirit of God is described as “one who walks alongside.” Paul describes it as our “deposit” or “guarantee” of an inheritance as his children.
I believe in a God who does not remain in a comfortable position in heaven, but who lives among and empathizes with his people. I believe that in the incarnation of Christ, God sets aside all privilege and becomes human in every way, so no creature could accuse God saying, “You don’t truly understand what I’m going through.” I believe God knows what it is to live a human life, not simply as a theoretical exercise, but because he did it.
next: I believe in a God who is relational