memorial day

better to spend your time at funerals than at parties.
After all, everyone dies – so the living should take this to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
because sadness has a refining influence on us.
A wise person thinks a lot about death,
while a fool thinks only about having a good time.

paulo coelho

Needing something to read yesterday, I picked up Coelho’s new book, which, while interesting enough itself in its own right, had this retort from a woman who was refused communion by the church:

“A curse on this place!” said thoe voice. “A curse on all those who nevere listened to the words of Christ and who have transformed his message into a stone building. For Christ said: ‘Come unto me all ye that labor and hare heavy laden, and I will give you rest.’ Well I’m heavy laden, and they won’t let me come to him. Today I’ve learned that the Church has changed those words to read: ‘Come unto me all ye who follow our rules, and let the heavy laden go hang!”

“I swear that I will never set foot in a church ever again. Once more, I’ve been abandoned by a family, and this time it has nothing to do with financial difficulties or with the immaturity of those who marry too young. A curse upon all those who slam the door in the face of a mother and her child! You’re just like those people who refused to take in the Holy Family, like those who denied Christ when he most needed a friend!”

With that, she turned and left in tears, her baby in her arms.

A Christianity that “works” – response to the “non-response”

I’ve been accused in quarters anonymous of not really responding to Bobbi’s question because I did not directly address her final question – “When asked these questions, what will you say?” There are several reasons I chose not to respond to this particular question, and hopefully I can explain them here briefly.

First, I believe we live in a culture (and especially a Christian culture) that is obsessed with answers. Often we aren’t really interested in understanding the nuances and issues behind someone’s objections and questions, we simply want a talking point, ten word answer to the question so that we can spout it off and move on. When we are faced with charges of being racist, it’s easier to fire back with a quick retort than it is to actually examine and acknowledge the shortcomings of our own positions and actions. Jesus, I think, encountered the same attitude in Scripture, with people wanting checklists of what they needed to do. Jesus responds to a litany of questions regarding specifics of how we should act with two commands: love God with all you have, and love your neighbor as yourself. My hope is not that my answers to the question would become everyone’s answers to the question, but that we would all begin to think about how we will answer the question. Only when we encourage a culture of thinking about questions instead of answering them will we make any progress in finding real answers, as opposed to advertising slogans.

Second, as I mentioned in the first response, I don’t think there are simple or singular answers to any of the questions I posed. In particular, one thing I mean by that is that my response to any of those questions would be heavily influenced by the person asking the question. Are they female? a minority? an atheist? Trying to formulate a response without knowing the audience, especially with questions as richly textured as these is difficult at best, dangerous at worst. If we do not address these questions on a personal level with those who ask them, we are missing the entire point of the issues raised in many of the questions to begin with.

Finally, while the objections I raised are, in some sense, more concrete than the underlying point of my original post, I don’t feel they were really what the first post was about. For many of the questions, the first answer is that we are, at least partially, guilty as charged. I don’t believe it’s fair to say that we are *as* guilty as charged, but there is at least some reality to all of the questions asked. However, the greater issue which I hoped to raise with the original post was not whether we were homophobic and racist or not, but how closely or not our actual practice lines up with our stated theology. Any weak paradigm will manifest itself in dysfunctional practice. I believe that in many ways recent cracks in the “religious right” – excessive Christian divorce rates, highly publicized crises involving influential pastors in large evangelical churches, a perceived lack of compassion related to issues like the death penalty, homosexuality and the war, and a wide variety of other issues point not simply to imperfect individuals within a system, but endemic weakness in the system itself. If Christianity is to contend as a viable paradigm going forward, then we must examine our current system, and reform it into a system that “practices what it preaches”.

A Christianity that “works” – response

Bobbi Keese posted a reply to my previous post on Facebook, and while I started to respond there, it became clear that Facebook’s character limit didn’t allow for a reasonable response. As a result, I thought I would copy her response out and reply to it here.

very good points. what is you [sic] personal plan of action? what can we do to improve? a change of such substantial size is daunting. does it start with us and how we live our christian lives? do we teach by example to others? when asked these questions, what will you say?

I do not believe there is a simple or singular answer to these challenges, but I do think any substantive change begins on an individual level, and then spreads to groups of individuals.

For many of us, this begins as an open and honest evaluation of our own thoughts, feelings and actions:

  • I may not be a racist, but am I the inheritor of racist attitudes which surface occasionally, even if only for a moment? Why is it that I feel just a little bit of tension when a large semi-threatening looking minority walks toward me? Rationally I know nothing is going to happen, and I’m able to suppress that thought very quickly, but the reality is that it’s there, at least on some level. How does that affect my reactions to minorities and my views about their place in the community of faith in which I reside?
  • How closely do I tie my political agenda to my religious views, and vice versa? Marriage is a good example of where this can become sticky – there are many male/female couples who don’t have any sort of spiritual union at all. Why do we oppose homosexual marriage because marriage is a bond between a man, a woman and God, yet we don’t oppose millions of heterosexual marriages that have nothing to do with God? And after all, if we’re really interested in protecting marriage, shouldn’t we be spending our time, effort and energy outlawing divorce instead? (thought: Is it because divorce, for most Christians, hits a lot closer to home than homosexual marriage?)
  • How consistent am I in the ways I apply scripture in forming my theology? Do I find that I have differing standards for passages of scripture depending on whether they confirm or discourage a particular practice which I support or oppose? If I exclude certain practices due to lack of explicit biblical reference, yet allow others because of “necessity” or “expedience”, am I really being honest and fair in my application of criteria to determine what is “necessary” and what isn’t, and is the practice of deeming certain practices (but not others) “necessary” and thus allowing their continued use really fair and consistent at all?
  • etc…

This parade of questions is likely to lead us to some very uncomfortable places – often uncomfortable because the questions and answers challenge both the views we have about ourselves and our own “righteousness-of-sorts” and the religious structures in which we’ve heavily invested. Change in either of those areas can be profoundly disconcerting. While I do think there *are* answers for the questions I posed in the previous post, I think one of the largest problems facing Christendom today is the complete ignorance among the “average Christian” that a) such questions exist at all and b) they’re fairly convicting. It often does not help that when people become aware of these and other “non-traditional” questions, our clergy frequently tend to react violently to stamp out any further thought and questioning, and people who continue to ask questions are often shunted sideways, quarantined, and never heard from again.

If our generation demands that theology be lived out in our lives consistently, then it is my sincere opinion that parts of our theology are in dire need of reform. We must take a hard look at what our religious traditions actually say, how we enact and apply what is said in the actual practice of our daily lives, and any disconnects between the two. I think this begins on a personal level in evaluating our own beliefs and ideals, but I also believe our churches will have to wrestle with their own discrepancies in doctrine and praxis and restructure one or the other (or likely both) if they are to survive. As we all collectively wrestle with these ideas, we must keep in mind not only the abstract minutiae, but the practical implementation of our ultimate decisions – can we consistently apply whatever doctrinal and theological standards at which we arrive, and more importantly, what are the broader (and sometimes very messy) implications implied by said application. Only when we have communicated our theology authentically with our behavior will we have a credible voice in secular or spiritual discourse.

May you bring together your followers to what?!?

Lord, our Father, may Your everlasting strength and resolve help solidify and bring together Your Nation of devoted followers to work towards uplifting the economy. We pray for You to forgive foreclosures, for the Nation’s dollar to be strong in value once again, and for the government to make wise and Godly decisions with the country’s national resources. Let us pray to You, oh Lord, to provide relief to those impoverished and in dire need; and for those of us with wealth and abundance to increase our charity and support as we were taught through Your divine teachings.

I received an email this evening with this prayer, and couldn’t help but be a bit disturbed regarding the sentiments it expresses.

While we seem to have acquired the view in our country that it’s God’s will for all poor people to become middle class, I think the very first line in this prayer strikes me as a symptom of one of our main problems in America today – the focus on increasing our personal wealth and well being, and promoting said within a Christian framework. The author of the prayer hopes that we will all come together “to work toward the uplifting of the economy…” The working of the Kingdom of God, the deep despair of souls wrecked by greed and pride, and the global mission of the Church seem to take second priority to having a strong, vibrant national economy. Additionally, the author doesn’t *actually* pray for relief to those who are impoverished and in need, or for charity on the part of believers, but asks that God would “let us pray” for such things.

I’m not certain, but I have to think that God’s Kingdom exists on a level that’s a bit different from interest rates and sub-prime mortgages. Somehow we’ve taken the idea that God has always wanted us to have a booming capitalist economy and that if He *really* loves us, he’ll keep the money flowing.

Two things humble me about this assumption.

The first and most scary is that it is often in the times of greatest blessing we find it most difficult to rely on God. When Jesus speaks in the Sermon on the Mount, at least in Luke, he does not say “blessed are the poor in Spirit”, but rather “blessed are the poor.” I think Jesus knew that the poor are desperately aware of their need of a helper, a savior. As one of the richest and most blessed nations on earth, I think we confuse our wealth as a great blessing, when in reality I think it often makes it much harder for us to see God, and to live the lives we’re called to. It’s much more difficult for those of us who have a vested interest in preserving the status quo to be about transforming the structures of this world to allow the lowest and the least among us to be elevated to a position of significance.

Second, do we feel we can honestly ask God to bless us further so we can be charitable when we have been such poor stewards of God’s wealth in the service of other people up to this point? As a nation, we may give more than any other country on earth toward charitable causes, but we still give a tiny fraction of what we have to helping others and solving global problems. How hypocritical can we be to ask God to grant us more money, saying that “then we’ll be able to give more?” Do we not have charity backwards? Can we not let go of what we have first and foremost, allowing God to bless us with more once we have first selflessly given what we have away?

At the end of the day, my hope and prayer is that God is doing a lot more right now than worrying about the valuation of the American Dollar, and that each of us would realize that our 401k’s have very little to do with either our eternal destination, or our present contentment and satisfaction in life.

a doctor, on death and dying

I don’t usually post a lot of articles, but I found this one fairly compelling as well. It’s written by a doctor and discusses death and dying.

“What I have learned from my patients since that day is that we give death power (as if it needs it) — power not to kill us but to rivet us, to silence us, to drive us from our humanity while we still live. We give death power precisely to the extent that we work to ignore it, to blind ourselves to its closeness, to imagine we have the power to stave it off forever. If we go through life imagining that, then the moment when we are forced to look at death can only rupture everything we know and paralyze us, still alive. That’s not a good way to die.”

the violin no one heard

Kelly sent me an incredible article this morning in the Washington Post. It’s extremely long, but extremely good.

The Post arranged for a world renowned classical violinist, Joshua Bell, playing on a 3.5 million dollar violin, to give a 40 minute performance at a Metro station in Washington DC during rush hour. Over 1,000 people passed him by, but only a handful noticed the music. It’s interesting the things we pass by and never notice. One of the most interesting quotes to me in the article is from a lady who shines shoes. “Couple of years ago, a homeless guy died right there. He just lay down there and died. The police came, an ambulance came, and no one even stopped to see or slowed down to look.”

reframing the “progressive” divide in a new dimension

The recent discussion of ten “progressive” questions has me finally wanting to write something regarding the ways in which we use the word progressive, especially in our fellowship, and the general confusion it often causes.

Generally, we think of people’s viewpoints in linear terms. We might say someone is a “lefty”, or “right-wing”, implying that they are either “liberal” or “conservative” respectively. This view generally places “conservative” or “traditional” viewpoints on the right side of the line, and “liberal” or “progressive” viewpoints on the left. It also implies that there is some gradient on the scale. A typical understanding of this idea is shown in this picture:


This view leads to certain problems, both politically and religiously, however. Because the recent discussion was religious, I’ll try to stick to those terms. Much as the person who wrote the original ten questions that sparked this discussion, many people tend to see “progressive” as an attitude that centers largely on worship. However many people who have extremely forward views on worship also have extremely traditionalist and even reactionary views on social agendas. How would a person be classified, for instance, who promoted an extremely forward and contemporary worship style, but felt it wrong to read Harry Potter, feeling that it promotes witchcraft? What about a person who feels it is wrong to have a female minister, but who feels equally strongly about actively ministering to homosexuals and inviting them into our churches? Clearly, a single line cannot adequately represent the viewpoints these people have, yet we try to force them onto the line anyway.

One possible way to reform this divide is to add a second dimension. When we start thinking in terms of planes instead of lines, the picture becomes more clear. Consider the following picture:


In this conception, the person who promoted a contemporary worship style (progressive worship) and opposed Harry Potter (socially conservative) would be on the bottom left. We need not stop at two dimensions, however. Consider the following graphic:


Imagining the third axis heading back into the page, we now can place people in three dimensional space, giving us another point of information. Certainly this can be carried on ad nauseam, but as we talk about “progressive” and “traditional”, we need to take care to make sure we’re not discussing different things while using the same word.

ten questions of a “progressive” discontent – final thoughts

I wanted to spend a short amount of time in conclusion discussing some generic thoughts about the ten questions that weren’t presented in my reply to the sender for various reasons.

There are three main points in tone the questions that bother me.

The first assumption I disagree with profoundly is that if certain actions are not present in a person’s worship, they are somehow uncomfortable or oppressed in their worship to God. In many ways, the tone of the questions seems to indicate that if a person doesn’t raise their hands or clap, they aren’t worshiping God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength, and that the reason they hold themselves back is tradition, culture, or fear. I personally don’t believe there is anything wrong with clapping, raising hands, instruments, or incorporating mixed-media presentations into corporate worship times. I don’t personally clap or raise my hands during these times – but not because of tradition, culture, or fear, but rather because it is not the way my soul responds in praise to God. There seems to be an attitude of “Well why wouldn’t you want to do these things?” in the questions, and a slight hint that if you don’t do those things, you’re somehow not as spiritual as those who do. Simply because I’m free in this country to go eat a pint of ice cream doesn’t mean that I have to, or that I should, or even that I should want to. People who are “free in Christ” have the freedom to worship God in the ways they choose, but that does not mean they are forced to worship in those ways, or that they must worship God in a prescribed way. The questions also seem to assume that if there were no external barriers to how we worship God, each of us would worship God in an identical fashion, which seems to me in direct opposition to what I would say is a plain fact that each of us is different, and we all conceive and interact with God in different ways. Furthermore, this viewpoint assumes that the important part of “worship” is the action itself, not the heart behind the action. In truth, there are many places where people raise hands, clap, kneel, and use instruments which are absolutely devoid of God. Our external actions in corporate worship do not necessarily correlate to the internal condition of our hearts.

The second assumption with the questions seems to me to be that what is really important in Christianity is what happens on Sunday morning. I discussed this in the email response, but I think it bears mention again here. The majority of our disagreements in churches often come on issues which are related to corporate assembly times. Of the ten questions, the only ones that can be debated as having no clear tie with “Sunday morning issues” are Questions 7 and 10, one of which I will discuss at length in a moment. I cannot believe 80% of the major issues with Churches today are related to the technicalities of how we praise God on Sunday mornings. I cannot believe there are no bigger problems out there. The original author, I think, is quite right when he asks “Is it worth spending time arguing over something like this when we could be _____”? While I appreciate the burden and sincerity of his heart, I am disturbed by the ease with which he seems to have missed one of his major points, and the ease with which many of miss the same point. Do we really believe that these issues aren’t worth arguing about, or when we say it’s not worth arguing about it, do we simply mean that people who disagree with us should stop arguing and start thinking the way we do?

The final, and I think most disturbing assumption in the email is that each of us should do, and I quote, “whatever it takes to love God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” Of all the attitudes expressed in the original questions, this, I believe, is the most dangerous. “Whatever it takes” is the most dangerous religious attitude precisely because it leads people to justify anything in the name of loving God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. “Whatever it takes” is the attitude that leads people to strap bombs on themselves, walk into buildings, and blow themselves up for the promise of Heaven. It is the attitude that leads people to fly airplanes into buildings, to murder doctors who perform abortions, to scream “God hates Fags!” at a homosexual man’s funeral, to declare holy wars, culture wars, and spiritual wars – all because, according to someone else, that’s “what it takes” to love God. There *must be* limits on “whatever it takes” to love God. In some ways it is a semantic discussion, but it is an essential one. If someone tells us that “in order to really love God, you need to ______”, we are not absolved of our responsibility to ask whether _______ is something consistent with the character of the God we are supposed to love.

At the end of World War II, many men were put on trial for their actions during the war. Many of the men replied that they’d only been “following orders.” The response of the jury was clear – soldiers have an obligation to disobey orders if they violate basic human decency. We can perhaps argue that refusing to murder someone in God’s name does not mean we’re unwilling to do “whatever it takes” to love God, but rather disagreeing about “what it takes” – but I personally reject that distinction. People who blindly and willingly obey any order they are convinced is in the line of “loving God” are a danger to themselves and others. While we cannot use this reasoning to get out of things we selfishly want to do but are prohibited from (e.g. I want to have sex with whoever I want), we must rather evaluate all of our actions and examine them in the light of the character of God.

Even with the extended amount of time that I’ve dedicated to the discussion of this situation on my blog, there is so much more that can be said. As I mentioned on Monday, this discussion is fruitful not necessarily because it reveals dissatisfaction with the particulars of worship styles, but because it exposes deep, fundamental, disturbing problems in how we view Christ, our relationship with Him, and the essence of what it means to please God.

My prayer and hope is that we would somehow be able to address the deeper questions raised by this discussion, moving past externals toward a deep transformation of our hearts, formed and reformed into Christ’s body as we journey together.

Christological Controversies – Relational Responses

Friday I posted an email from Jeremy Hegi in response to last week’s original discussion topic of progressive discontent. I’m sure many of you are getting tired of this subject, and I promise to be done with it soon. I think in many ways it is such a fertile ground because it is a symptom of a much deeper problem, as my additional thoughts here to Jeremy reflect.

I agree that one of the primary issues we will deal with in this transitional period is the distinct difference between two groups of people – one group which is comfortable with the dynamic tension you describe, and one that is not. I think there will be some middle ground between the two groups – people perhaps like us who are “bi-lingual” to some extent, but in general I think people gravitate toward the extremes and forget the middles.

The most disturbing thing in all of this, which we’ve talked about before, is that these people who style themselves progressive really aren’t any different in their core theology from those they are fighting against. When the goals of some of the major change agents within our fellowship are geared primarily toward changes which lack real substance, we’re spinning our wheels and wasting time in a day and age where we need desperately to find our way. Altered worship styles have little if anything to do with a community of faith being transformed into a more organic body of Christ, and little if anything to do with effecting substantive change in individual’s transformations into the image of Christ. If we spend the next 30 years fighting about worship styles and baptism, I fear we won’t be around in another 30 years (not that I necessarily think that would be the worst thing).

As I’ve thought more about the entire discussion, there have been a few additional thoughts I’ll bounce off you.

First, it seems to me that such a worship-centric approach to God is dangerous in the same way as a physically-focused dating relationship. When you start dating someone, you may start to show physical affection in small ways at first – holding hands let’s say. Holding hands is fine, but you long for that day when you have your first kiss. One day it happens, and it’s wonderful – everything you thought it would be. All is good for a couple of weeks, until you become desensitized to that level in some ways, and you want to do more, go farther. In some ways this discussion sounds reminiscent of teenagers talking about their desires for extended sexual exploits – “How far do you want to go”, “No, we shouldn’t go there”, “I think it’s fine to go this far”, “You shouldn’t kiss before you’re married”, etc. I titled my blog post yesterday “ten questions of a ‘progressive’ discontent”, and I think in many ways it’s not the “progressive” (even in quotes) that is the eventual problem as much as the discontent. Do we have any reason to believe that once we attain this ephemeral change that we’ll be happy with it? In this regard I think the “traditionalists” are very correct – praise teams lead to praise bands, praise bands lead to something else, and pretty soon we’re on the slippery slope to who knows where. Where I disagree is that praise teams are a coordinated effort to get us to praise bands. I think it’s just a simple part of the human equation.

So how do we “fix” this? If we look back to the relationship example, I think one of the key parts to checking the physical relationship is balancing it with the emotional, spiritual, and mental side. If the foundation of your relationship/marriage is based on sex, there will be clear problems there. Physical intimacy is a wonderful thing, but it’s not enough to sustain a meaningful relationship. In a similar vein, corporate worship is a wonderful thing, but it is not enough to sustain a meaningful relationship with God. If we encounter God only during emotional worship highs and other “orgasmic” experiences, we are ill equipped to deal with the rest of our lives, and our spiritual journey becomes a quick dash from false summit to false summit, seeking the thrill of our last mountaintop.

Staying with a dating theme, it’s also interesting to look at what our outward appearance (and our attention to it) implies about our true worth. We tell our daughters not to dress like a hooker, because when they do they attract sleazy guys who are only interested in their bodies. Something I typically want to tell girls I overhear lamenting how guys just want them for their bodies, “If you don’t want to be treated like an object, don’t dress like one.” I feel in many ways like our attempt to alter our worship style is analogous to putting on a low cut shirt and showing a bit of cleavage in the hope of getting more guys to look at us.

Two things come out of this line of thought for me – first, are we really interested in the people who are going to look at us because of our “boobs”, as it were? Certainly we are interested in the world coming into relationship with Christ and experiencing his transforming power, just as a girl is interested in finding a man who will enter into a relationship with her, love and cherish her. Certainly that noble man might come along because he’s attracted to her body, but the majority of men are attracted to her body *and nothing else*. No matter how much time she spends or how much love she lavishes on them, most of them will never want her or see her as anything else, and when there’s a newer, more attractive girl available, they’ll jump ship and flatter her instead. The transient nature of people who are attracted to the next “new idea”, or “cool worship style”, or even “cool theology” is the same – while we hope to be a part of the transformation of the transient, we are both foolish and naïve if we believe men will be consistently transformed in meaningful and positive ways, or that true love will enter their hearts by looking at a woman’s body.

Second, what does it imply about our own perception of the spiritual worth of our community if we feel like we need to present a sexy image in order to attract someone? Like I’ve said before, there are multiple reasons why people will buy a product. People may buy iPods because they’re cool, but they certainly don’t buy motor oil for the same reason. No, rather they buy motor oil because it’s useful – they don’t want their engine to blow up. Most kind, sincere, intelligent, fun, caring girls have no problems finding guys who want to date and marry them, even if they don’t dress provocatively – precisely because there’s something more substantive than just the way they look. In fact, most girls who fit the above description don’t dress provocatively and draw attention to themselves because they recognize that the guys they’re interested in aren’t looking at their physical appearance. I’m reminded of what you mentioned a few weeks ago – that the early church made converts wait for potentially years before they were baptized. For anyone to join such a group – indeed for anyone to join a group where the likelihood of death came with the territory – there would have to be something there deeper and more attractive than the songs they sang while they were in the stinky catacombs.

My fear is that the main reason we feel the need to “sex up” our external image is because there is little to attract people on the inside. If we preach a gospel of morality, or of self-help, or of political action, do we really have anything to offer people other than a pep-rally? If not, then the questions we’re discussing here become exceedingly important – maybe the only important ones. If we have not been transformed inside, our only recourse is to make the outside more attractive. If over 50% of our marriages end in divorce, if Sunday morning is universally regarded in the restaurant industry as the worst time to work, if 91% of people surveyed say that they think of Christians as primarily anti-homosexual and judgmental, if the only picture of Jesus people have is Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell and Fred Phelps, are we really surprised that nobody wants to come in?

The problem is not with our external appearances but with our internal transformation, or lack thereof. The unfortunate thing is that discussions like this one about primarily external matters serve as little more than criminal distractions in the pursuit of real change.