Posts Tagged ‘Church’

The coming evangelical collapse

This article by Michael Spencer in The Christian Science Monitor is a must-read. It is insightful, honest, pragmatic, and prescriptive. It is a prophecy of the kind not seen since the warning of the destruction of Jerusalem in the Old Testament, which by the way was not a supernatural vision but a realistic prediction based on being grounded in reality. Wake up, people!

The highest form of human intelligence is to observe yourself without judgement.
~ J. Krishnamurti

This quote resonated strongly with me when I read it recently. I realize that it is a very Buddhist statement that can apply to ’emptying your mind,’ enlightenment, higher states of consciousness, etc., but it says something more to me. Much of my life has been consumed by judgement from the church, my family, my peers, but mostly myself. I have been my own worst critic without a doubt, and it was only made worse by neurotic guilt over ‘sin’ and the desire to be accepted by God. For a time I found a tremendous source of release in embracing the grace of God, discovering that I was already accepted based upon the sacrificial atoning death of Christ on the cross. While that brought more peace than I had known up to that point, all of my failures and shortcomings continued to plague me because although they were forgiven, they remained a disappointment to God and ultimately myself. I could not live up to the ridiculous standard I set for myself, a standard I never expected of anyone else.

 Only in these later years when I took the blasphemous step of concluding that hell and sin are the constructs of a religious system and not reality, did I begin to find the kind of freedom that the church had been selling for years. (see To Sin or Not to Sin, Is It Even Possible?) Ironically, I was listening to a Michael Tolcher song this morning, “Sooner or Later,” which talks about all of the rules we are given as kids. We grow up only to discover that the grown ups didn’t know what they were talking about anymore than we do now.

Somethings you have to learn them all on your own
You can’t rely on anybody else
Or the point of view of a source unknown
If it feels good and sounds nice
Then it’s your choice don’t doubt yourself
Don’t even think twice

I know that the Christians reading this would say it sounds like hedonism, a “if it feels good, do it” mentality, but I’ve come to believe that each of us have an internal compass pointing us in the direction that we were meant to go. No amount of religious browbeating can deter you from who you are. In the end it is more important to be accepted by yourself than by others. Again, many Christians I know would say that my conscience has been “seared by a hot iron,” that I’ve lost spiritual sensitivity to conviction and to God Himself. Honestly, I disagree. I’ve never felt more connected to the divine source than I do right now.

There is something to be said for clearing your mind, living in the present moment, and just being, especially in this crazy rat race we live in, but there is even more to be said for clearing your soul of a lifetime of religious clutter. While it may be impossible to observe yourself with absolutely no judgement, I know that I have much less of it now. While it may be regarded as the “highest form of human intelligence,” I believe it is the highest form of human freedom to live at peace with yourself and with others.

“When I grow up, I want to sell advertising.” No, not quite. Far from it, but that’s where I find myself today. I don’t remember really what it was that I wanted to be when I grew up. I thought flying planes would be cool. I got my private pilot’s license a few years ago fulfilling that childhood dream, but I’d never want to fly commercially. Advertising? I can’t imagine many kids listing that as their lifelong ambition. My five year old’s career wishes change with the hour most days.

I certainly never hoped to grow up and become a preacher either, but that I did too. A relative I hadn’t seen in years asked me last week at a funeral I preached, “Why of all the things that you could be did you decide to be a preacher?” My immediate, knee-jerk answer was, “I have no clue. I wonder that myself some days.” These days I’m only a moonlighting preacher and sell advertising for a living.

When I was in high school, I settled on the idea of becoming an engineer. In fact I took college prep courses for that purpose. I got full paid scholarships for it. I made the Dean’s list my freshman year majoring in Electrical Engineering. I transferred after that first year to another school and graduated four years later with a Bachelor of Arts in Religion with a minor in History. Eight years of pastoral ministry later, and I’m out.

If you ask me if selling advertising is really what I want to do for a living, I guess my answer is “no,” but I love what I do and wouldn’t want to do anything else. I want to be myself and enjoy life for a living. If selling advertising pays the bills and enables me to pursue my passions, then I’ll gladly sell advertising. I think what most people mean is “Wouldn’t you want to do what you love and get paid for it?” Well, sure. I guess, but I do enjoy what I do.

I would have never in a million years told you I’d end up in sales, because I was so introverted as a kid. I didn’t like meeting new people and making new friends. I was all too content to be alone. Pastoring churches changed a lot of that. This job continaully challenges me. It’s not an intellectual challenge nor a physical one, other than the many miles I put on my vehicle and my body. It is mostly a challenge of will and perseverance. It requires an enormous amount of self-motivation and self-discipline. I’m addicted to the reward also. It pays good. As hard as the challenge can be at times, especially when bills are piling up and money is low, it is a huge high to finish a job and know you did it.

Advertising is a means to an end for me. I don’t consider myself to be contributing to the betterment of mankind from what I do for a living. I really see myself more as a “grease man” in a big corporate machine. I’m definately expendable, but I don’t care. I don’t allow people or the business to use me. Subversively, I’m the one exploiting the machine. I don’t live for work. I work so I can live. If this thing ever comes to a close, which isn’t likely in the healthcare industry, I’ll find another nitch to slide into, but what I do for a living will never change. I choose to live for a living. I never want to become my job or my title. It’s a matter of priorities.

One day when the kids are grown, I plan to use my job travels to see the country and be a vagabond for a while. I’d love to save up enough cash on the side to open a little coffee shop one day, if all it ever does is break even and be a cool place for people to hang out. Maybe a few rental properties would be a good steady income too. In the end it doesn’t really make a difference to me. It won’t change who I am. I refuse to let it.

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Luke 14:1-14

I doubt that Jesus ever turned down an invitation to dinner. While reading through the Gospels, you’re as likely to find Him at a table as you are on a dusty road, and He didn’t appear to be all that concerned with who the host might be. On any given day you might see Jesus eating on paper plates with the riff-raff of society or on the fine china of the well-to-do. By His own account His freedom of association apparently fostered an ugly smear campaign, “Look, a glutton and a winebibber, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!” Luke 7:34 NKJV.

Meal sharing was an important social event of the day that reminded everyone just where they were in the pecking order of the community. To be invited was a great honor, and to sit at the head of the table was a double honor. This is the sixth time that Luke records Jesus being the special guest of religous leaders. You have to wonder why He kept accepting the invitations after being repeatedly set up and exploited. Then again, why did they keep inviting Him? Jesus had a knack for working His way through their philosophical mine fields and often left them choking on their own hypocrisy, but the establishment was determined to undermine His ministry and disgrace Him publicly.

On this day Jesus was not the only invited guest for dinner. Another guest who showed up was a man suffering from a medical condition, known as “dropsy,” which caused fluid to accumulate in his body and swell his legs, most likely the result of a heart or kidney problem but often regarded as a curse for sin. The trap was sprung pubicly for all to witness. Do you heal him or not? If you don’t heal him, you’re cold-hearted and have no compassion, but if you heal him, you’re disregarding the Sabbath and have no morals.

It’s a techincal gray area for what’s permissible behavior on the Sabbath. So in His wisdom and wit Jesus deferred to the ruling of the experts, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath or not?” They would not answer, so Jesus healed the man and sent him away. Then he asked them “If one of you has a son or an ox that falls into a well on the Sabbath day, will you not immediately pull him out?” The different sects actually had writings that set precedent for just such a scenario. One group believed it was ok. The other said they should stay in the well till tomorrow. Now, they could not answer without exposing their own hypocrisy.

If people were superstitious enough to believe that dropsy was caused by sin, in their minds Jesus didn’t just heal him physically. He was actually removing the consequence of sinfulness… guilt and shame. Neither was Jesus satisfied with just silencing His hosts. He went on to tell a parable that revealed that they suffered from an accumulation of self-righteousness that was no doubt caused by a spiritual issue of the heart.

As you read the rest of the passage, it appears to be a simple lesson in social etiquette and graces, but it actually threatens to undermine a religious system that endures to this day. Luke makes a special point to say that this is a parable, which implies that there is subtext and meaning of spiritual signifigance.

When I was young we had a family tradition on Sundays that we would all go to my grandparents’ house for lunch after church where my aunts, uncles, and cousins would all get together. My grandparents had a really big dinner table where all the food was spread out like a feast, but it was still only large enough to seat the grown-ups. So there was a smaller table in the kitchen for the big kids and lap trays on the floor for the little ones. I’ll never forget when I was older in high school that one day I was promoted to sit at the big table. I thought that I had made it, but it would be several more years before I had fully arrived and was allowed to join the adults at the table for coffee in the afternoon.

The seat you sit in often says a lot about your place in the world. Just last week it was reported that an assitant high school principal in our area sent out an email to her faculty requiring teachers to sit the black boys in the front row of the class to keep a closer eye on them. While African-Americans have struggled for fifty years to move to the front row, I doubt this is why they wanted to be sitting there. Although the principal quickly recended the order and reprimanded the assistant, it’s shameful and painful to see discrimination and prejudice limping along in our day.

I have no doubt that you have also witnessed situations in life, where things just seemed out of balance. Often times, we don’t have a choice in the seats we take. We do what we must and look to a day when the scales will be even again. In Luke’s day there were enormous socio-economic gaps between the wealthy and the poor, between men and women, between the insiders and the outsiders, and those who had power and those who suffered at its hands. By the time this Gospel was written it had been several years since the death and resurrection of Christ, and many people began to question whether or not Jesus would return in their lifetime and exactly what that meant for Him to return. So there was a growing divide between those that believed and those that questioned. It was tempting to believe that injustice would prevail and the score was fixed, but Jesus told this subversive parable that counters the imbalance in the world. See vs. 7-11.

We learn in the parable immediately following this one that the kind of banquet that God plans comes with an open invitation to everyone. In that parable just like in Jesus’ day the religious leaders and the self-righteous scoffed at attending such a banquet where just anybody would be sitting next to them. Instead they scampered to be on the A-list to the members only parties where they would “see and be seen.”

If we understand this idea that God invites everybody, that puts us all on equal footing. No one is better or more deserving in attendance than the next person. A friend of mine who is a Southern Gospel singer/songwriter wrote a song called “The Ground is Level at Calvary.” The same goes for the religous leaders of Jesus’ day as well as our own. Our preachers, deacons, and missionaries must lead through service and humility and not from the power of a position and notoriety. We live in a strange modern era where many Christian leaders are operating and being treated like CEO’s and rock stars, which is just a post-modern upgrade to “touch not the Lord’s annointed.”

I remember attending a Pastor’s school at Beeson Divinity School several years ago, and Alistair Begg was the featured Bible teacher for the daily services that week. I was amazed by the way he handled the Gospel of Luke that week and the personal humilty that came through his message. Immediately after the service we were all gathered in air-conditioned tents on the lawn for lunch. I looked up to see him seated just a few tables over from my wife and I. It was strange because no one was sitting with him at first until the other tables began to fill up. I guess it was kind of like when Moses came down from the mountain and his face was glowing.  His message was just powerful that morning. I was struck that he was eating a sandwich and chips on a styrofoam plate like the rest of us. That may sound silly, but I imagine he could have been smoozing with the other speakers at a nice restaurant. I never saw any of the others in the lunch tent that week. He could have retreated back to his hotel room until the next service, but he didn’t. He ate with us, which I remember today even more than the message that he preached.

“Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross,” Philippians 2:5-8 NKJV.

We all have friends and family members that we love to spend time with and enjoy their company. Jesus set that example for us in his life, so he’s not condemning that kind of fellowship. I think in these last verses he’s condemning exclusive fellowship and challenging us to be intentional about who we include.

I have greatly enjoyed using Celtic Daily Prayer of the Northumbria Community in England as a devotional guide for my prayers and scripture readings. They adapt a form of family prayer for meals based on the Jewish prayers for Shabbat. When giving thanks before sharing a meal they mention the importance of leaving an empty seat at the table with an extra place setting:

“To welcome the Christ who comes in the guise of a stranger or ‘unexpected’ visitor. [To] remind us that we long for the coming of Christ – His returning – and yet honour his presence with us. Also, it teaches us to treat with honour whoever may come and be given the place prepared as His.”

It’s required of us to make outsiders feel like insiders and as insiders to be humble and gracious hosts. Back when I was in college and recently married, I met an older couple through a want ad in the paper who needed some help. I learned that the husband was completely blind and the wife was legally blind. They really wanted to go to church but had no way to attend. Although I was traveling about 30 minutes to serve as worship leader, I offered to bring them with my wife and I. We had seemingly nothing in common and regardless of their disabilities they were just a bit peculiar.

I remember helping them from their house to the car that first Sunday morning. The wife ran back into the house as we were leaving because she had forgotten her tambourine. I was in a panic. I knew they would stick out like tambourine players in a church full of white Southern Baptists, and I knew that my pastor absolutely loathed the tambourine playing in the services we did at the state prison. I sweated the whole way to church not knowing how to handle the situation.

When we arrived at church, I helped them out of the car, and when the wife went to pick up her tambourine I politely told her that I didn’t think she would need it. That didn’t matter, because she “wanted” it. Of course you would know that they wanted to sit on the second row in front of the pulpit. I remember leading worship and those two carrying on up front with their tambourine, while everyone was looking around to see where they came from. I felt like timidly raising my hand with a red face and announcing from the pulpit, “they’re with me,” but I didn’t want to single them out anymore than they were already. They came to church with us for several weeks before they decided to go elsewhere.

I say that to say that the people that we often have an opportunity to include may be very different from us. They may not have good hygiene or proper clothes. They may be uneducated or hungry. They not believe anything remotely close to the way we do, but still when we make room for them, we make room for Christ.

I sat at the big table as a pastor for several years. These days I feel like I’m back in the kitchen again on the floor with my Snoopy lap tray. I seem to make a mess of things often enough. From time to time I even flick a macaroni at my cousin and spill my juice, but for the first time in a long time I feel like Jesus is sitting on the floor with me, and it’s ok to be me. From Celtic Daily Prayer:

Bless, O Lord,
this food we are about to eat;
and we pray you, O God,
that it may be good
for our body and soul;
and, if there is any poor creature
hungry or thirsty walking the road,
may God send them in to us
so that we can share the food with them,
just as Christ share His gifts
with all of us.
Amen.

I’m in love with words and dusty books,
the taste of deep red wine and salty ocean air,
drunk on a lonely tune and a sunset sky.

You might say that I am a romantic, in the classical sense. I go weak in the knees for ideas. I love nuance, symbolism, and possibilities. This makes me especially vulnerable to the seductive language of scripture.

Perhaps you’ve heard the expression “in love with the idea of being in love.” Dorothy Boyd’s description of her feelings for Jerry McGuire describe my affair with Christianity well, “I love him! I love him for the man he wants to be. And I love him for the man he almost is.” One of my favorite bloggers Real Live Preacher expressed this idea succinctly in a recent post:

Christianity has already shrunk in my lifetime from being the shining center of all truth and purpose to something less than that. Even looking at things from the inside, even willing to give the benefit of every doubt, Christianity seems like a bumbling, prosaic movement which is, as often as not, violent, anti-intellectual, and xenophobic.

But I love Christianity so much. Or at least I love what it could be. I want to hug it. I want to throw my arms around the beautiful language of salvation and redemption. I want to curl up in the warmth of my faith community, the people I love so deeply in this world. Truly they are like family to me. I feel I could get drunk on our ancient symbols, myths and stories, the ones that speak in luscious tones vibrating through a million voices across the centuries.

With time and disappointment love can change and devotion can wane, but for all that I have learned and all that I question about my faith I just cannot bring myself to walk away completely. In The Painted Veil Mother Superior said:

“I fell in love when I was 17… with God. A foolish girl with romantic notions about the life of a religious, but my love was passionate. Over the years my feelings have changed. He’s disappointed me. Ignored me. We’ve settled into a life of peaceful indifference. The old husband and wife who sit side by side on the sofa, but rarely speak. He knows I’ll never leave Him. This is my duty. But when love and duty are one, then grace is within you.”

I don’t stay from a sense of obligation or from fear of divine retribution. I think I stay because it’s familiar. These words I’ve heard so many times bring comfort when few others have. For all that I know there is more that I don’t know. I no longer look at the Bible as a rubik’s cube waiting to be solved. It has become more like a painting to me. One that requires long gazes from an open mind to appreciate. Every time I return I see something new in something old. Faith is not having all the right answers to spiritual questions. Faith is loving the idea of what could be, and the test of faith is in making small choices that bring those possibilities to life.

LarkNews.comI was introduced to LarkNews.com by reading a blog post The Virtual Pastor and Satire that Makes Me Laugh and Cry, which described the site as “one of the best satirical web sites in all things related to contemporary American church life.” This stuff is beyond hilarious. These guys are geniuses and most likely going to hell.

A few of the funniest things that caught my eye immediately:

A Hobbit's TaleTrying to describe the personal journey that I’ve been on for the last four years is like trying to nail jello to the wall.  I’ve gone through a thorough detox from vocational and institutional Christianity, plunged headlong into the “dark night of the soul,” and am slowly emerging with my head above unchartered waters. Bilbo’s story could well be my own, “There and Back Again: A Hobbit’s Tale,” yet the place to which I’ve returned is different and familiar all the same.

For those of you that don’t know I spent roughly 10 years in pastoral ministry, or I could say that I spent 10 years in pastoral ministry roughly. I broke from full-time ministry to become self-employed in healthcare marketing, a job I still have five years later. For 18 months I tried to be bi-vocational while building this new business, but aside from preaching on Sundays, my job didn’t lend itself to be compatible with pastoral ministry.

My departure from full-time ministry was against the grain of the church-growth mentality. I was capable and expected to move on to bigger churches to continue my “ministry.” Not only did I demote myself to a smaller pastorate, but I also went “secular.” There was a lapse of 9 months before I began the bi-vocational pastorate, leaving many to circulate rumors that my last church drove me from the ministry. Beginning with leaving full-time ministry I began to contemplate ways to reinvent the wheel. I had a deep gnawing awareness that something was wrong with the way we did church. I slowly began to peel back the layers of tradition trying to find something of an authentic spirituality worth practicing.

My earliest attempts at deconstruction focused too much on models and methods. I began to see small-group/cell-driven churches as a panacea. I even started a prototype group of potential leaders with the intention of duplicating into a small network of cells that would eventually begin corporate gatherings. One of the families went back into a traditional ministry role, leaving myself and a good friend of mine to discover that the root of our problems went much deeper than having the wrong model.

The reality we came to face was that we who had spent years in the ministry were completed isolated from normal people on the outside of the four walls of the church. You cannot reach people if you’re not with people. As we began to rethink our approach to reaching people, we became acutely aware of our own hidden agendas to “win friends and influence people.” There’s a powerful quote from the movie Big Kahuna with Kevin Spacey and Danny Devito that describes this well:

It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling Jesus or Buddha or civil rights or ‘How to Make Money in Real Estate With No Money Down.’ That doesn’t make you a human being; it makes you a marketing rep. If you want to talk to somebody honestly, as a human being, ask him about his kids. Find out what his dreams are – just to find out, for no other reason. Because as soon as you lay your hands on a conversation to steer it, it’s not a conversation anymore; it’s a pitch. And you’re not a human being; you’re a marketing rep.

This realization has forever changed the way I interact with people and what I think of evangelism. I want to know people and value them for who they are and what they can teach me through their stories regardless of whether they agree with me or not.

It was about this time that I began trying to focus on being incarnational and became sympathetic to Celtic Christianity, in particular Celtic Daily Prayer of the Northumbria Community. I appreciate their focus on incarnation, prayer, contemplation, and service. It was a different, gentler form of Christianity that touched me deeply and sort of nourished me back to wholeness as a person, leaving one last link in my life to Christianity.

Aside from serving twice as an interim pastor for a few months following my bi-vocational pastorate, my wife and I quit going to church altogether. We felt no guilt whatsoever. We actually felt relieved and much happier. We didn’t disavow church for all time, but we were too well acquainted with the churches, parishoners, and pulpit personalities in our area to want to attend any of them. It was not long before a year had passed without darkening the door of a sanctuary.

In the process of deconstructing tradition and trying to be an honest broker of my motivations and convictions I became obsessed with trying to find answers to questions. Every answer yielded only more questions but better questions. It was not long before every truth I tried to stand on felt like mush beneath my feet. I found the most compelling answers not in theology but in the realm of science and reasoning. In particular my study of astrophysics and eventually quantum mechanics opened my eyes to a whole new way of seeing the world and my place in it. The Matrix is a definitive movie of our time for expressing the dynamic shift in worldviews taking place.

When your eyes are opened to see the world in a new way, there is a mixture of emotions ranging from anger for being hoodwinked to wide-eyed wonder in a new way of engaging life. Perhaps mainly for comfort I continued to come back to Celtic Daily Prayer and continually tried to rethink my way through all that I had been taught about God, the world, and who I am. I sort of came to a place where I was prepared to leave behind everything I had professed to believe in and go my own way. I realized that if I was willing to forsake it all, before I did I might as well try to start with a blank slate trying to reconstruct some semblance of a real world, liveable faith that worked for me. Demythologizing became a pathway out of the dark night of the soul for me. I began to find far more power and truth in looking through the lens of metaphor and symbolism than I ever did through literalism.

I suppose I’ve become theologically liberal. Although I never thought that was possible, I’m completely comfortable in my own skin for the first time in a long time. In no way do I consider to have to come to the end of my journey. I’m not dead yet. I find myself in a familiar place again. We’ve been visiting a few churches and found a church and a pastor with whom I can identify. I don’t have to agree with everything to find value in something. So I find myself retracing old steps but going in a new direction with a new way of seeing the road ahead. So I say with humility that I’ve been “there,” and I’ve come “back again.” There’s nothing to say I won’t end up “there” again before the journey’s over, but I’m sure it would not be the same as last I found it. I’ve discovered that I haven’t been wandering aimlessly in circles after all. I’m winding up A Spiral Staircase and though each turn around feels familiar I hope I’m gaining ground.

I found Larry Vaughan’s blog on RLP this afternoon. This is a great post you have to read:

I was in a pickle. Hell sounded miserable, so I didn’t want to go there. My family and I had gone occasionally to a Methodist church, and THAT was miserable too. I didn’t want to go there either. In fact, on the misery scale in my 10-year-old head, church and hell were a dead heat. Church won because the misery lasted only a half a day, whereas hell was supposedly a lot longer. On the other hand, hell was a long way off and church was coming up in a few days. (read the rest here)