A Christianity that works…

One subtle shift that has occurred in the realm of spirituality recently is the transition from religious structures that are “right” to religious structures that “work”. Communities of faith are increasingly encountering people who place their allegiance less in systems that are doctrinally pure and correct and more in systems that are internally and externally consistent in and with their teachings. These people are not chiefly concerned on a basic level with forms of worship and theological correctness taken as inputs to the religious equation, but with communal accountability regarding the output of the system as seen in its praxis.

This group of people poses questions significantly unlike the objections our religious structures have traditionally dealt with. Questions like:

  • How is it that your religious system claims to treat all people with equal respect, yet appears to foster homophobic, misogynistic, racist attitudes in its members? If your only response is, “We’re not homophobic, misogynistic, and racist,” then a quick look at the segregation and roles of members in your church should quickly sober you up to the merit of the complaint.
  • How is it that your religious system claims to be “pro-life”, yet is complicit in the non-survival of millions of born children across the world from malnutrition and disease? Why is it that far more children die of easily preventable diseases and lack of food than abortions every year? Why not take some of the money that goes to funding anti-abortion organizations which seem to make little impact and instead spend it on criminally underfunded organizations making a substantive impact on poverty and hunger?
  • How is it that your religious system claims to be a path of peace and justice, yet its members seem to actively promote a hawkish political agenda and are the chief proponents of the death penalty? Is “vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord” simply a theoretical construct?
  • How is it that your religious system claims that you will “be known by your love”, yet many of its members are angry, bitter, and judgmental, both with insiders and strangers? Is there any reason to be a part of an organization whose members can’t even be nice to each other?
  • How is it that your religious system opposes homosexual marriage on the basis of “preserving the sanctity of marriage”, yet over half of your own marriages end in divorce? How can you claim to have any credibility on “family values” when your families disintegrate at a higher rate than secular society?

Many of these people evaluating modern Christian structures and institutions come to this simple conclusion: the product does not deliver on what it promises.

In the past I have, when in the middle of discussions regarding the level of importance of semi-obscure doctrinal issues, pointed out that until a person answers the question “Is Jesus Christ the Son of God”, all other doctrinal questions are, at best, academic. As we evaluate the issues we choose to spend our resources on, it would behoove us to consider that many people in the world – most notably those we are generally trying to reach – often do not consider disputes about worship styles and other doctrinal issues to be as important as the end product of our faith as demonstrated in our lives. We cannot base our outreach on having the right answers to questions no one is asking – we must change our focus to address the well justified questions which non-churched people demand answers to before considering Christianity as an alternative to their current belief system. In order for Christianity to be viewed as a viable paradigm in the 21st century, we can no longer rely only on our theology being “correct” – we must also make sure that it “works”.

He comes into our world

Look for Christ – he is coming!
Seek his arrival,
search for his presence.
God is entering the world,
entering this world of pain and sorrow,
entering to dwell among us,
alongside us,
as one of us.

He will know our sorrow.
He will see our pain.
He will embrace humanity
while retaining divinity.

But he comes into our world,
his world,
not as an observer,
but as a transformer.

He comes to begin the process of healing old wounds,
reconciling broken relationships,
filling emptiness and quenching the fires of despair.
He comes not to watch us suffer,
but to transform our suffering into Glory.

And so we wait,
we watch,
looking forward with eager anticipation
to the arrival of Christ,
the anointed one,
who brings life and hope,
peace and joy,
a reign and kingdom without end.

if we were to disappear…

“If our church were to disappear tomorrow, who would notice?”

“If I were to disappear tomorrow, who would notice – who would come to my funeral?”

I was having breakfast with Kelly, I think, when he first brought these questions up. The questions weren’t asked out of a prideful sense of “look at how much we’re doing” or “I’ve got a lot of friends who would come”, but rather a reflection on the impact we make in the world. If we were suddenly to disappear, would it make a difference in the world around us? We talked about it for a while, and our conclusion was deeply disturbing.

Certainly for the second question, there are people around me who would notice. My family and friends would be impacted, and perhaps some of the people who meet in my house on Monday nights. There would be people at work who would notice, of course, as their workload picked up a bit. But other than that, who would really care. How many people in the community know my name. I get coffee, fast food, eat out, buy groceries, get gas – a variety of daily or weekly tasks – and I generally see the same people there every day or week. How many of their names do I know? How many of them know or remember me? Am I that bland and nondescript that the people around me don’t take notice of the life and joy I have (or am supposed to have) in Christ? Is my kindness, love and charity so common and unspectacular that nobody around me feels blessed after I’ve left?

As a church, the answer to me gets even worse. If all the members of our church were suddenly to not exist, again the people closest to them would no doubt notice and feel loss. But would our community be saddened to see us go? Are there programs we are involved in where we are making enough of an active difference that people would even notice? Is there a neighborhood where we minister, or a group of people we work with? Do we do anything at all for the benefit of people outside of our walls? Some churches, perhaps, would have the community breathe a sigh of relief if they disappeared. Why do we think our condition is much better?

Two things trouble me:

  1. Too many of our church structures are set up like a country club – for the benefit of people who are on the inside.
  2. Too often I can’t be bothered to treat others with the same level of importance as Jesus would.

My vision for our church would be that if we had to close the door, there would be a huge group of non-members and non-believers whose lives would be adversely impacted. My prayer is that we would be so vital and involved in the community that our loss would be lamented by the entire city – young, old, rich, poor. We have so far to go, but so many opportunities.

My hope for my own journey of transformation is that I would take more time – all the time – for those around me. My prayer is that I would do *something* to stand out. My prayer is that my funeral wouldn’t just be filled with people who look a lot like me. My prayer is that I will ultimately be like Jesus, and that I would draw all I encounter to Him.

today i resolve – part seven – to forgive

a long hiatus, but here is seven –

Today I resolve to forgive.

I will remember not only that I have been forgiven,
but that I am in desperate need of forgiveness.

When I am wronged, I will remember that I have wronged other people unintentionally,
and will not assume the intentions of others are malicious.
I will attempt to be understanding.

I will treat those who dislike me with kindness,
those who have hurt me with patience.
I will not demand repayment for past wrongs.
I will not require penitence for my pain.

I will not hold a grudge,
or perpetuate prejudice.

And when it is hard to forgive, I will look to the example of Christ,
who, as he was lifted up, prayed for those who pierced his side.

the mirror of desire

In keeping with Harry Potter, one particular portion of the series that has been on my mind recently has been one of the objects Harry encounters in his first year at Hogwarts – the Mirror of Erised. It is, to me, one of the most interesting and troubling ideas in the entire series, for reasons I think will be clear shortly.

Harry wanders around the school and accidentally discovers an ornate mirror with the inscription “erised stra ehru oyt ube cafru oyt on wohsi” – which when reversed says, “I show not your face but your heart’s desire.” As Harry gazes into the mirror, he is shocked to see himself surrounded by his family – the parents and grandparents he never knew, as they were murdered just after he turned one year old. He brings his friend Ron, who sees himself as the winner of prizes and awards for the school, surpassing all the achievements of his very successful brothers. On a return visit, Harry is confronted by Dumbledore, the wise, old headmaster of the school, who tells Harry, “The happiest man on earth would be able to use the Mirror of Erised like a normal mirror, that is, he would see himself exactly as he is.” The mirror, Dumbledore explains, shows us not what we want it to, but rather the deepest and most desperate desires of our heart. This view into our desires, he cautions, gives us neither knowledge or truth. “It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live”, he finishes. As Dumbledore sends Harry back to bed, Harry asks him what he sees in the mirror. Dumbledore replies that he sees himself holding a pair of thick, woolen socks, which Harry suspects, and later finds out, is not entirely truthful. “But then,” Rowling notes, “it [was] a rather personal question.”

All of this is well and good, but as I interact with the characters and the story, the difficult and frustrating part is that Rowling doesn’t allow me to remain an observer to Harry, Ron and Dumbledore as they look into the mirror – rather she places me in front of that unique and interesting magical object and forces me to imagine what I would see in the Mirror of Desire. As I search my own heart for clues about what I would see (happiness, success, popularity?), I am troubled not only because I’m not certain that I would like what I see, but also because I’m not certain I know what I would see. We guard our own deep desires so tightly that even we have difficulty knowing what they truly are. But I am reminded that in the eyes of Christ, all the walls and defenses we put up are useless – he, just like the mirror, sees directly into the depths of our hearts, a place we so often cannot even glimpse ourselves.

that we become the monster

With the release of the 7th book of the Harry Potter series, Lisa and I have been discussing the interesting and complex question of evil, and whether it is necessary to use evil in order to combat it. This idea is certainly not new – I’ve quoted Nietzsche here before in a different, but related discussion –

Wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft, mag zusehn, dass er nicht dabei zum Ungeheuer wird. Und wenn du lange in einen Abgrund blickst, blickt der Abgrund auch in dich hinein. – “He who fights monsters must take care that he not become a monster himself. For when you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes back into you.”

The discussion isn’t confined to literature and theoretical philosophy – it’s immediately practical to the political and personal situations we find ourselves in daily. Is it acceptable to torture prisoners in order to gain information that could save lives? Are we justified in striking back at “the terrorists” in order to “preserve our way of life”? More importantly, at what point do we corrupt ourselves and become worse than the thing we are fighting? Commander Adama puts it very succinctly – “It isn’t enough to survive – one must be worthy of survival.”

The discussion is complicated by numerous difficult and potentially unanswerable questions – what exactly constitutes evil, and is any conception or definition we come up with able to be complete? Is justice simply another name for justifiable evil, since the intentional miscarriage of justice to an innocent person would often be seen as an “evil” act? And, moving back to Harry Potter briefly, is Dumbledore right – is love truly powerful enough to destroy evil alone?

While Rowling and other authors have the luxury of forging their own universe where their idealism is ultimately realized, it is often much more difficult for us to maintain an idealistic stance in the face of what sometimes seems to be overwhelming evil. My prayer for myself is that I would be more idealistic and less willing to compromise, more willing to be taken advantage of, knowing that in the end, love does triumph.

40% off on the Fourth

I bought a new Bible today. Several years ago I found a Bible that was bound in a soft leather – one of those special edition things that was out a few years before it would be cool. I didn’t get it, but have searched high and low (well… not really that high or low) to find one since.

Little did I know that my opportunity would come today.

Lifeway Christian stores were having a promotion today – 40% off of any one item on the Fourth of July, if you had a coupon. My family and I drove over to see if there was anything we couldn’t live without, and the best thing we could come up with to get was a Bible.

While we took advantage of the promotion, I will admit that the entire idea of the sale struck a bit of a nerve with me. When, outside of a marketing ploy, did a Christian bookstore decide that the nation’s birthday was an event worthy enough of recognition that it merited a sale? Do Christian bookstores in Mexico offer a 16% off sale on the 16th of September?

I don’t necessarily blame Lifeway – I think their marketing campaign was intelligently directed at a group of people who equate patriotism with being “a good Christian”. What I do question, however, is this assertion that somehow says that if we’re not out waving flags on the Fourth, that somehow God loves us less, or that we’re not really as Godly as the people who are, or, really, that we’re somehow less patriotic than the next guy.

What I truly wish is that we as Christians would examine our marriage (on the whole) with a narrow political ideology, and that we would evaluate it in the context of Christ’s teaching and mission, and that, if necessary, we would consider a divorce.

today i resolve – part six – not to make excuses.

Today I resolve not to make excuses.

When I am wrong,
I will admit it as soon as I can.
I will not blame my mistakes on others.
I will not pretend my choices are not my own.

I will recognize that I am not perfect,
and will not pretend to be better than I am.

As far as possible, I will be honest,
not denying what I have done
or imagining what I haven’t,
I will own the consequences of my actions,
instead of justifying them.

today i resolve – part five – to listen better

Today I resolve to listen better.

I will not simply hear the words people speak, but endeavor to bring them into my heart.
I will wait until people finish speaking before I start to talk.
I will not give unwanted advice.

I will do my best to remember
that people feel what they have to say matters,
and they wouldn’t say it otherwise.

As such, I will not discount people’s words as unimportant or trivial.
Rather, I will try to listen not only to what people say,
but also what they mean.

today i resolve – part four – to not take myself too seriously.

Today I resolve to not take myself too seriously.

I will not think of myself as being more important than I am.
I will not think everything I do is imperative.

I will try my best to do something silly.
I will try my best to do something only for the fun of it.
I will try my best to remember that it is as important to play as it is to work.

Today I will,
as much as possible,
remember there is more to life than being serious,
there is more to friendship than deep conversation,
and there is more to a person than how profound they are.