If Church Websites Could Talk

Hi. Welcome to our siindexte. Do you like my stock photos of people who don’t go here representing a diversity that isn’t actually present?

Hi. Welcome to our site. Check out the “Our Beliefs” section where, when you scroll to the bottom, you’ll see that we think people who don’t agree with the tenets above end up in an eternal hell.  It’s at the bottom of the section…because we’re hoping you won’t get there.

Hi. Did you check out the “Our Beliefs” section yet?  Because it gives you the impression that you should believe those things, too.  And if you don’t, we’re going to ask that you start believing them, especially if you want to hold any sort of position in church leadership.

Hi! Did you notice how many exclamation points we use in our text?!  That’s because it’s exciting to be here!  Much like the YMCA!  Or any summer camp!

Hi. Welcome to our website.  It’s true that over half of the buttons on the site are “under construction.”  We just kind of figured that having a site up would be enough.

Hi. Welcome to our church website.  Does it look like we’re selling something?  It’s because we’ve commodified Jesus as something you lack and need, and something we sell.

Hi. Welcome to our website. Did you notice that there are no women in leadership?  Please ignore that…we think women are important, just not authoritative.

Hi. Welcome to our website. You won’t find it said on this page, but if you’re gay we’re not OK with that.

Hi. Welcome to our website.  Do you like the pic of the silhouetted person looking up over the body of water with arms outstretched as if they’re having a spiritual experience at the edge of the ocean?  It’s neat, right?  That’s what every service is like.  Promise.  It’s like standing at the edge of the world reaching up toward God.  Promise.

Hi. Welcome to our website. We’ve decided to use background music on every page.  It’s digitized hymns and not annoying.

Hi. Welcome to our website. We haven’t really updated the announcements since Christmas.  Yes, we know it’s July.  Just think of it as Christmas in July!

Hi. Welcome to our website.  We’ve listed the heads of all the different committees on the “About Us” page.  Because we want to show you all the things we’re going to lobby you to join and/or head up when the person listed there gets burned out.  It’s not confusing or overwhelming, is it?  Don’t you know what the Evangelism Committee does?  They partly designed this website…

Hi. Welcome to our website. We’re going to say that you can believe whatever you want to come here, but really we’re going to insist that we and we alone hold the truths of the world.  And we have answers.  Lots and lots of answers.  In fact, we’ve got it all figured out!  And most of the answers to your problems include the words “Jesus” and the phrase “Have more faith.”

Hi. Welcome to our website.  What makes us different from the other church meeting in that other gym down the street?  What makes us different from that other big-box church the next suburb over?  What makes us different from the other church who uses these same stock images?

Good question.

 

The Bible summary you may have wanted but never took the time to compile…or maybe you didn’t want it. Regardless, here it is.

This past Sunday at my church we started a new adult education series called, “The Bible: What is it?”images

I wanted to name it, “The Bible: What the Hell?” but my editors decided against that.

Overall, the first day of the class went OK.  I say just “OK” because, well, we talked about some boring stuff on Sunday like how the Bible came about. Basically some Bishops of the ancient church started proposing that there should be a particular “plumb-line” for what is acceptable to use as scripture…mostly in reaction to some interesting suggestions (they called them “heresies” but, whatev) from some other Bishops like Marcion.

So in the year 331 they arrived at what we commonly call our Biblical canon (“canon” is a fancy word for “ruler”…as in, what something is measured by).

So the Christian Bible (of the Protestant flavor) contains 66 books with histories, myths, poetry, wisdom writing, prose, letters, and little snippets of other stuff here and there (like apocalyptic writing).  How did they decide on the books they would allow?  Well, for the Older Testament they took books being used in Jewish circles already.  They were a little bit easier to agree on.

The books that ended up in the Newer Testament were not so easy to agree on.  And, here’s something to chew on, the early church didn’t ask if God had “divinely inspired” each book before they put it in the canon.  They wouldn’t have been considered “Bible believing” by modern evangelical standards.

Instead they asked questions like, “Who wrote it?”  Because books that were written by people who may have had access to the Christ…or people who had access to the people who knew the Christ…got first dibs.

But they didn’t stop there, they then asked, “Is it any good?”  In essence, were people reading it widely in communities of faith?  And if so, were they gaining some spiritual food from it?

They also asked, “Is it weird?” *  Or, better put, “is it consistent with other things we’ve heard about Jesus.”  This is why the Gospel of Thomas and the Gospel of Mary and the Gospel of Judas aren’t included in the common canon.  I know, you’ve heard the rumors that they were excluded because they lifted up women too much (although, in the Gospel of Mary she turns into a dude at the end…so…yeah), or because they were suppressing gnostic voices or, what have you.

And, sure, some of those theories might have some credence. After all, when you get a bunch of men used to systems of patriarchy in one place, you’re going to get something that fits well within that system.

But I don’t buy the vast conspiracy theories about the formation of the Bible.

And finally, as a person of faith, I believe that God’s breath (the feminine ruach in the Old Testament) moved through this whole thing, as incomplete and laden with patriarchy as it is.  Because God always works with broken things.  And there are certainly parts of this process, and parts of the scriptures and the way they’re interpreted, that are very broken.

I’m not one who worships the Bible.  I worship the one the Bible points to.  I don’t think that’s true for all of Christianity out there.  And if the ancient church didn’t worship the Bible (heck, it didn’t even have a Bible for 200 years after Jesus died), why would we assume that to be Christian you have to believe the Bible is “inerrant” or “infallible”?

But, for those of you wonder just what is in the Bible, here’s a rundown of it’s books with approximate dates of authorship according to scholars, much of which is taken from the Lutheran Study Bible (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2009), as well as a brief description of the book/context/author.

This is just an overview…people study this stuff for years, remember.

OLD TESTAMENT

The Pentateuch (first 5 books authored by at least three different traditions, probably 4…and with edits, maybe more)

Genesis: written by a number of authors and compiled over more than five centuries, completed while Israel was taken over by Babylon (587-538 B.C.E.) Talks about the common connections of the people who would be known as Israel. Note: Not written by Moses.

Exodus: Meaning “exit,” this book tells the story of Israel leaving Egyptian slavery (perhaps around 1250 B.C.E.?). We find Israel mentioned in a stele erected by Pharaoh Merneptah, the son of Ramses II. Note: Not written by Moses, either.

Leviticus: About offerings, rituals, and some other rites partly compiled during Israel’s monarchy period (1000-600 B.C.E.), but also containing some concerns of the community post being taken over by Babylon.  Written and redacted over centuries. Note: Moses probably couldn’t write if historical accounts are true.

Numbers: Probably to account for people who could serve in the armies.  Continues with the stories and themes begun in Exodus…with a whole lot of counting and “so and so begat so and so” in there. Note: Moses?  Nope.

Deuteronomy: Written around 700-640 B.C.E., this book is another one about rules and relationships, like Leviticus, but with some significant prose and changes to previous laws/understandings.  It was hoped that, if Israel followed the rites and laws of Deuteronomy, they wouldn’t be overtaken by foreign armies because God would protect them.  Let’s just say, that didn’t happen.  Note: Still not Moses.

Historical Books

Joshua: This tells the story of Israel settling down again in the promised land of Canaan after the Exodus.  It’s written about the history of the 13th Century, BCE, but was actually written and completed sometime in the 7th Century BCE.  Not exactly eye-witness accounts, here. The battle of Jericho is one famous story in Joshua…although in an archeological dig we didn’t really find any walls around Jericho.  Just sayin’.

Judges: Written about the time between 1200 and 1020 BCE, this book records the people who watched over Israel (the “Judges”) before there was a king/queen.  This book was put together when Israel was conquered by Babylon, between 587-539 BCE.  Coolest judge? Deborah.  Want to know why?  Read the book.

Ruth: A book of inspiration taking place between the period of the judges and the kings/queens of Israel.  May have been written by a woman after Israel returned from Babylonian capture!

1 & 2 Samuel: Written by many people collected and edited over time, mostly after 721 BCE.  These two books were only one book originally, and speak of the beginning of the monarchy period for Israel.  King David is the major character here.  And Bathsheba.  And David’s harp.

1 & 2 Kings: The author of this book loved the book of Deuteronomy, and records the Kings of Israel (much like 1 & 2 Samuel) in an effort to say that Israel kept being conquered by people because they didn’t follow the rules of God.

1 & 2 Chronicles: Originally one book, Chronicles was written by an author in Jerusalem sometime after Israel had returned from Babylon (539-532 BCE).  It’s main thrust is to give a people who had been without a home (in exile in Babylon) a connection back to Jerusalem.

Ezra: May have been written by the same author as Chronicles (or maybe not), it was completed somewhere around 400 BCE scholars think, and it tries to assign meaning to the events that had happened the previous 300 years.  Much like Chronicles, as the people return from exile in Babylon, they try to distinguish themselves from the surrounding people (Samaritans), while re-claiming a connection to Jerusalem.

Nehemiah: See above…Ezra-Nehemiah were one book until the 15th Century.

Esther: A book with Persian influence! Esther is a fun book about idiotic leadership, there is no direct mention of God, but it speaks of Persia’s power of the Jewish people after they left Babylon (Persia conquered Babylon and let the Jewish people resettle where they wished…and many went back to Jerusalem).  Grab some stuffed grape-leaves and read this book.

Wisdom Writings and Poetry and Songs

Job: A story whose date of composition is unclear.  Maybe the 6th Century BCE.  A meditation on the problem of suffering, it is a difficult book and not a history, but rather a story that raises good questions about the human condition.

Psalms: The ancient songbook of the church 150 units long.  It was composed by many different authors.  There are Psalms for help, comfort, thanksgiving…you name it, it’s here.

Proverbs: Connected with King Solomon, it was finished somewhere around the 4th C BCE and is largely intended to provide practical advice and wise saying.

Ecclesiastes: One of the youngest books of the Old Testament (maybe just 3oo years before Jesus was born), it is narrated by an aged person called “The Teacher” and is a personal memoir to share thoughts that he has learned about the difference between what is fleeting and what is fulfilling.  It was once said of Ecclesiastes that, if you ever needed a reason to hate yourself, read this book.  I don’t see it that way, but I get the sentiment.

Song of Solomon (Song of Songs): Written in the 4th or 3rd Centuries, we don’t know the author…but it wasn’t Solomon.  It has a strong female voice, and may have been written by a woman.  It’s a series of scandalous love poems…and should be read immediately.  Because we all need some scandal in our lives.

Prophetic Books both Major and Minor (“big deals” and “littler deals”)

Isaiah: Big deal.  You know much of what’s in here if you’ve been around the Bible at all.  It tells of the promise of a “Messiah” (anointed one) and was compiled by several prophets and editors over many many years, from around the 740’s BCE to 538 BCE…basically much of Israel’s monarchy to when they were taken over by Babylon, to when they started to return to Jerusalem.  Lots here (not the person, “Lot,” he’s back in Genesis).

Jeremiah: Another big deal. Jeremiah lived from 626 BCE-586, and many of his sermons are in writing in this book.  His secretary, Baruch, wrote some of the end of Jeremiah, and we don’t know who wrote the last chapter but it certainly wasn’t either of those two…

Lamentations: If you need a reason to be sad, read this book.  It’s 5 poems about Babylon destroying Jerusalem’s much beloved temple in 586 BCE.  We don’t know who wrote it, but they sure were sad.

Ezekiel: Ezekiel was a priest during the time when Israel was taken over by Babylon, and had some prophesies for his fellow exiles.  It started around 593 and extended to 571 BCE.  It’s obviously edited by someone, but we think most of the writing comes from the priest himself.

Daniel: A book of stories and visions, Daniel contains some of the oldest material we have as far as the Old Testament goes (including some cool apocalyptic writing).  Written in Hebrew and Aramaic (in different parts), main characters are Daniel (of lion den fame) as well as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  And a furnace.  This book covers a long period of time, from the Babylonian captivity all the way to Alexander the Great (320’s BCE)!

Hosea: A prophet from 769-697, Hosea prophesied during 5 of Israel’s kings in the northern half of the kingdom.  His words were shared through oral communities, scholars think.

Joel: Written after the Babylonian exile, scholars think Joel was composed sometime before 348 BCE and is focused at an Israel trying to rebuild itself.

Amos: He’s a pissed off prophet who said his share around the first half of the 8th C BCE.  See how these prophets aren’t chronological order?  It’s confusing, right?  Mostly just to us…

Obadiah: Written (most likely) after the destruction of Jerusalem by Babylon, Obadiah’s vision is of an Israel sad over the loss of their kingdom and longing for good news from God.

Jonah: A short story, probably what we moderns would call a “myth,” it’s set in the time when the Assyrians had taken over Israel (720’s BCE) and is a tale about what you should not do if you’re a prophet. Main characters: Jonah and a big fish.  Oh, and God.

Micah: Micah foretells doom for an Israel (split into a northern and southern kingdom) who is living a little too comfortably in the shadow of Assyria.  It appears to have been written in the mid 8th C BCE.

Nahum: A group of oracles from around 612 BCE, his sayings celebrated the fall of the Assyrian capital city of Nineveh.  It’s supposed to be a story of good news.  The bad news is that, after Assyria fell Babylon took over…and things got bad again.

Habakkuk: A prophet around 600 BCE, this book is a book where a prophet pleads on behalf of God’s people not to be squashed between Egypt and Babylon.

Zephaniah: Probably written in the second half of the 7th C BCE, Zephaniah begins mad but ends peacefully assured that God will prevail over the threatening power of Babylon.

Haggai: Written after people had returned from exile in Babylon (in 520 BCE), the community of Israel begins to feel some difficulties in rebuilding both community and the temple.  Haggai provides encouragement for a community in depression.

Zechariah: A contemporary of Haggai, this author (and book) offers a vision of an Israel beautifully reformed and reconstructed.

Malachi: Not the scary dude from Children of the Corn, this book asks the people returning from exile in Babylon to become re-devoted to God and use the priests to aid them in leadership.  Probably written after the temple had been rebuilt (515 BCE).

NEW TESTAMENT

The New Testament does not “pick right up” where the Older Testament left off.  There’s a number of gap years.  Rome is now the major imperial power (after Egypt, Assyria, Babylon, and Persia all had taken turns).  And then Jesus shows up in an Israel controlled by Rome.  The New Testament starts off with stories about Jesus.

The Gospels

Matthew: Probably written in the 80’s by someone who had read the gospel of Mark.  We call it “Matthew” because that name became associated with the book somewhere in the early 100’s.  Did “Matthew” the apostle write it?  Very doubtful.  It appears that the author of Matthew also uses a source that scholars call “Q” (short for quelle or “pen”) to provide some Jesus stories.  The magi are in Matthew at Jesus’ birth, but no angels or shepherds.

Mark: Oldest gospel book, written in the 60’s or very early 70’s.  Probably was written by the same “Mark” talked about in the book of Acts, and may have had some eye-witness accounts of Jesus.  Jesus is the most human in this Gospel.  In Mark there is no birth in Bethlehem.  Jesus just walks out of Galilee.

Luke: Probably written between 80-90 CE, this writer also had read Mark (because he, like Matthew, copies parts of Mark word-for-word), and also had access to this other document we’ve called “Q”.  Did someone named Luke write it?  We think it may have been.  It is clear from it’s style that this gospel was recited and performed orally, and is the first half of a longer story (the second half is the book of Acts).  Here we have angels and shepherds in the birth story of Jesus…but no Magi.

John: The gospel of John doesn’t fit well with the first three.  It’s thought to be the one written the latest (90’s), and Jesus dies on a Thursday in John…which doesn’t line up with the other three.  Jesus is also most fully seen as divine in John, as he knows what’s coming next.  That being said, it is included because a large number of people were using this gospel book when the Bible was compiled, and although it contains some unique material, it is not out of character for Jesus drastically.

Books about the Church

Acts: The second part of the Gospel of Luke, Acts picks up where Luke lets off and describes the formulation of the early church.  Probably written in the 80’s CE.  Main characters: Paul, Silas, the early church, the Holy Spirit.  You know, the usual.

Letters of/attributed to Paul

Romans: Written by Paul to the Christian community in Rome (context clues!), sent in the mid-50’s CE.  Paul had already been a missionary for around 20 years. Paul entreats the Romans to live peacefully between Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians

1 Corinthians: Written in the early 50’s CE, this letter was written to the church in Corinth by Paul to heal a division in the church.

2 Corinthians: OK, we’re pretty sure this is actually like three or four letters all put together by someone other than Paul from letter fragments of Paul’s.  There is no agreement here, though, on the subject.  It was written sometime after 1 Corinthians and pieced together (if that theory is true) much later.

Galatians: Written by the apostle Paul sometime between 50-55 CE, about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, to the church at Galatia.  Again…context clues.  The big fight in this letter that Paul tries to resolve is whether or not Christians had to follow Jewish practices.  Verdict: nope.

Ephesians: One of the coolest letters in the New Testament, it’s almost certainly not Paul who wrote this book (though it claims he did) because the style and verbage is not very Paul-like.  It could be a disciple of Paul’s, though, as the central ideas are echoes of Paul’s other letters.  BTW, it was pretty common for a disciple to write under their teacher’s name…so, who cares if Paul didn’t write it?  It talks about the Cosmic Christ and all of creation being redeemed and is just so freakin’ cool.

Philippians: A letter to the first Christian church in Europe from Paul and Timothy, this is a happy letter and it’s clear that Paul loves this little church.

Colossians: We do not know who wrote this letter. It may be Paul; it may be someone else.  It’s got some not-so-very-Paulish theology in it.  It may have been written in the 50’s or as late as the 70’s.  But it is written to the church of Colossae, and we don’t know much about that church because a big earthquake destroyed much of the area.  Regardless, the author had never been there, but is writing to talk to them about Christian teaching and living.

1 Thessalonians: May be the earliest letter, from the early 40’s CE!  It is Pauline, and is one of the oldest writings that we have of the early church.

2 Thessalonians: Probably not written by Paul, this letter writes again to the church at Thessalonica.  It may have been written by Timothy or Silvanus (Paul’s compatriots), but probably not by Paul.  It’s a letter of encouragement for the church.

1 Timothy: It may have been Paul’s letter…or maybe not, and is relatively late for the letters (80 or 90 CE).  Paul was already dead by then.  It’s obvious the author respected Paul…as he went on to write 2 Timothy and Titus…but it was probably not Paul.  Remember, just because it says it’s from Paul doesn’t mean it actually is.  This didn’t cause the ancient church much trouble, and they knew about it…you don’t need to be troubled by it, either.

2 Timothy: Read above.

Titus: Same dude who wrote the letters to Timothy, this letter goes to Titus (a fun name, right?) on the island of Crete and includes general instructions for the early church.

Philemon: I love this little book!  It’s probably from Paul and written while he was in jail about his friend Onesimus who had a falling out with the church of Colossae that met in this man Philemon’s house.  It’s a book about reconciliation and love.

Other Letters

Hebrews: This book is an odd duck in the New Testament.  It’s written in elegant Greek (much more elegant than even Paul’s writing), and probably is from the 70’s CE.  Hebrews is all about interpreting the Older Testament for the current times, and holds up the cross as central to understanding God’s work in the world.

James: Martin Luther hated this book.  It may have been written as late as 130-140 CE, this letter is dedicated to James the leader of the Jerusalem church, and speaks heavily of right action (rather than right belief…which is why Luther disliked it so much).

1 Peter: Not written by the apostle Peter, but probably dedicated to him.  It was also not written to one specific church, but most likely to any/all churches of the time.  It’s focus is on new life and living hope through Jesus the Christ.

2 Peter: See above.  Same sort of deal except the author now seems to feel his death coming soon.  All sorts of talk about “false prophets” and “false teachers” which has often sent literalists smelling false prophets under every rock…

1, 2, 3 John: We don’t know who wrote these books (may be referred to as “the elder” spoken of in 2 John), but we think that all three of these John books are written from the perspective of a faith community that relied heavily on the Gospel of John.  Time period is unclear, though certainly after the composition of the Gospel of John (90’s)

Jude: We don’t know who wrote this or who they were aiming to write this letter to, but we think it was written in the late first century.  Again, “false teaching” is a major theme in this book (like 2 Peter).  You can imagine that would be a central theme because these Christian communities were so scattered that different traditions and ideas popped up in different places.

Revelation: This book almost didn’t make the canonization cut!  It’s not written by the John who wrote the gospel, nor the John who was the apostle.  It is a type of writing known as “apocalyptic,” which means it uses stark imagery to talk about modern themes.  That’s right, it’s not about the future or the “end times.”  It was about the current times of this John writing at the end of the 1st Century (or maybe even later).  It does not, repeat, does not tell the future.  But it sure does say a lot about Roman imperialism and the Christian call to fight against bowing down to nations rather than to God.

So, there you have it.  For all of you in the Bible course, we’re going to be talking about the history of the Bible this Sunday: how it’s been read over the centuries, by who, and for what.  It’s a much sexier topic than canonization, I think…

Lonely footnote:

*Taken from “Animate: Bible” (Augsburg Fortress Press/Minneapolis, 2013)

Please remember: these dates and much of the descriptions were gleaned from a number of sources over the years (from my brain), but chiefly from The Lutheran Study Bible which is a great resource.

Why I Worry When Other Clergy Say, “I Want to Be A Household Name.”

I’m part of an online clergy chat group.images

I don’t contribute to it much, and I don’t always watch it regularly, but it’s usually pretty interesting.  It’s good to have a community, even a virtual one, to share successes and frustrations with.

And yes, it seems that often the same names pop up on the message roll.  And, yes, I wonder if they have work to do and how they have so much time to spend on there.

But today’s posting by the moderator got me thinking.

He began by lamenting how so many in my faith tradition, Lutheranism, are too humble with their work and their writing and their music and their art.  And how we have to start promoting our work and “getting it out there.”  And how we should be “household names.”

And others responded lamenting how we don’t have any Lutheran “Joyce Meyers Ministries” or the like.

And I was lamenting because, although we don’t have any Lutheran Joyce Meyers Ministries, we don’t need any more of those in this world.

Because you have to give up a lot to be a household name.   And I wonder if it’s worth it.

Fr. Richard Rohr isn’t a household name, but I think he’s done so much more for humanity than any televangelist.

Ken Wilbur isn’t a household name, but I think he’s done more for humanity than any “order today and receive a discount DVD set on how to heal your relationships” offer.

Martin Marty is prolific and inspiring, and he’s not really a household name.  Walt Wangerin is beautifully wonderful, and unless you’re Lutheran or really into children’s books, he’s not a household name.

And Ron Strobel, and Kirsten Fryer, and Manda Truchinski, and Josh Ebener….these aren’t household names, but they are ministers who are authentic and doing good work in this world.  And I hope you can check out some of their work.

But I hope they don’t become “famous”…whatever that means.

Because you give up a lot.

I think you give up some ability to live without the trappings of fame and fortune and name recognition and always being forced to do that next best thing.

I think you give up living without the constant burden of profundity.

I think you give up a little of your soul.

Look, I think there are Lutheran clergy out there doing wonderful work.  And I hope people read them, and listen to them, and buy their work, and pray for their work (Jim Honig would be one to check out right away).

I hope they are able to support their families with their work, as I support mine.  I hope they talk about God and Christ in an authentic way and not fall into the trappings of telling people what they want to hear.

Because that’s what you have to do to become a household name.

I hope they don’t become famous.

I hope they don’t get series of book deals that force them to lie about God or their faith, or begin to take themselves too seriously, or come up with “visiting criteria” that places that want them to speak have to abide by (along with enormous speaking fees).

Because we don’t need another Joyce Meyers Ministries, even if its content is different and something I might agree with.

Because authenticity is lost in that.

We need more good people doing the small work.  And if you want to lift that up, go ahead.

Because good people doing the small work won’t, I hope, take themselves too seriously or struggle with profundity.  And they won’t worry that they’re not a household name beyond their own home.

I’m a reluctant Christian sometimes because it’s so easy to fall into the fame trap, and Christians do it so often “in the name of Jesus,” while using obnoxiously large font to plaster their name on the front of all the posters, and fliers, and mailers.

And I wonder if we take Jesus’ call to be yeast seriously if we’re trying to be the whole loaf.

“Atheist Churches” or “It’s Really Just Church…”

The Huffington Post recently had an article about an “atheist Church” that has begun to meet in the morning on Sundays.601751a-question-mark-on-stained-glass-posters

The 80 or so people that show up come seeking, as the article’s author says, “a sense of community, an uplifting message that will help them tackle the challenges of the upcoming week, and, maybe, the rest of their lives.”  They claim that there is no formal doctrine, dogma, operating theology, formal symbols, or identified sacred texts in this church.

Whether they are called “humanist communities,” “atheist churches,” or “nontheist gatherings,” this is not a new phenomena.  The hype is interesting and growing, for sure, but it is not new.

There have been atheists meeting in church since…churches began.

In fact, the sense of community and uplifting message that these atheists seek is probably, I would guess, what a number of people sitting in the pews seek on a regular Sunday morning.

The difference, of course, is that at this particular gathering in Houston, you don’t actually have to believe anything to show up or belong.

Wait a second…what’s the difference again?

I tell my ministry staff all the time, “People in church pews will put up with a whole bunch of crappy theology for good church programming and entertainment. They will disagree with the pastors and the theology privately as long as the people are nice and the kids programs and small groups are strong.”

I think that’s largely true.  I think at most thriving churches you have about 20% who agree doctrinally with the church, 60% that agree marginally, and 20% that like the music, the lights, the inspirational message, and that their kids feel safe and have a good time.

And I might be being generous toward the marginal percentage there.

I think atheists gather every Sunday at churches around the country, churches known as “Catholic,” “Evangelical,” “Methodist,” “Lutheran,” and even so-called “Bible” churches.  And for much the same reason the people in this article show up: they want inspiration and community.

And this has happened, I think, because churches have largely become another 7-11 for the soul.  It’s a place to get your spiritual Slurpee for the week.

And this is not necessarily bad, mind you.

But if that’s all church is, it’s a waste.

Because a church gathering, and a series of church gatherings over time, shouldn’t only be about you and your spiritual fix.  And it isn’t really only about “us,” either.

It is about a holistic reshaping of the gathered, of humanity, toward the Divine.

I think we’ve taught atheism…and continue to teach atheism…in churches through either tightening the dogma we teach or simply feeding the ego-beast that longs for the spiritual Slurpee.  We haven’t taught it through questioning the virgin birth or the divinity of Christ.  We haven’t taught it through encouraging free thinking or welcoming minority groups.

We’ve taught it by changing the shape of our gatherings to model the ego, rather than allow the shape of our gatherings to mold the ego.

And note: the remedy for this isn’t talking more about Jesus, or asking people to make a commitment to Jesus, or asking people to invite Jesus into their hearts (and really mean it this time).

That last phrase usually sends me into apoplexy.

Because more altar calls don’t mean more Christians.  I think many times it means more people assume that Jesus has become their personal talisman, or that they’re “doing the thing that will work” for their lives.

The remedy, I think, is to embrace the diversity of a gathering, and trust that God and God’s Spirit creates unity even in the midst of diversity.

This is why my faith tradition talks about God as a Trinity.  The diversity of the three-in-one.  The unity of the one-known-as-three.

In short, community is not uniformity. And instead of trying to force uniformity through the tightening of doctrine and dogma, or avoid the whole situation altogether through offering inspirational messages that only feed the ego-beast longing to believe that they and they alone are the most important thing in this world and a blessing is just around the corner, lets go back to that ancient understanding of church as a way to enact a counter-cultural gathering that forms a people into a shape more closely related to the Divine.

A shape of support and sacrifice.  A shape that fits into the pain of this world, and accentuates the beauty of God-given life.  A shape of…well…a cross.

Because I have a feeling that these “atheist churches” will soon be voting to excommunicate members who don’t agree with their proposition that “you don’t have to believe.”  This is what happens when you only gather with those who believe the same things you do.  You go solely to get a fix, and when someone seems to get in the way of that fix, you get them out of the way.

Christians do it. Religious people of all stripes do it. Atheists (also, mind-you, a belief system) do it.

Bowling leagues do it.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because we’ve become either spiritual Slurpee dispensers or a country club for insiders, unremarkable and indistinguishable from other groups who gather around a common mindset or hobby.

And if we continue to do this I think we can clearly see the outcomes: Egoism will become the predominate faith practiced in most churches formerly known as Christian (if it isn’t already), or we’ll just shuffle off into our dwindling camps of uniformity causing the other kids down the block to create their own club house with their own rules, and never the twain shall meet.

All the while the world will continue to turn and it will be worse off  because the churches of consumerism, the cathedrals of militarism, the temple of money, and the gathering of ravenous crowds who believe the new incarnation or product X will save their souls will continue to meet.

And the church, at it’s best, is the counter-cultural movement that can provide a voice against those rising mobs.

See, atheists gathering in churches isn’t really new.  And if that’s surprising to you, then you haven’t had real conversations with your fellow congregation members.

What can be different, though, is how you leave a church.

Do you leave in a different shape?

Yes, you individually.  But more-so you in the plurality.  Because being formed by ancient texts and music and meal and ritual pushes people together so much so that they have to change shape to accommodate the other in their presence, to accommodate the Other in their presence.

And it’s not a uniform shape, and it’s not about getting a spiritual Slurpee that will feed your faith indulgence.

It’s a cruciform shape that changes the way you interact in and with the world.

At least, that’s what it should do.

“Are We A Liberal Church or a Conservative Church?” or “Give Me a Break…”

Radical Axis...for those no good at geometry...

Radical Axis…for those no good at geometry…

So, I have to be honest, I really can’t take churches that identify as “liberal” or “conservative” anymore.

And I know that’s saying a lot since many consider the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, my church body,  to be “liberal, mainline, Protestant.”

If we are that, then we’re in trouble.  We will, as a denomination, die if that is the case.

And we will die because a church cannot be rooted in God but worship a principality like a party platform or a political ideology.

We need to be a radical church.

Radical churches don’t flow with any political ideology, and yet they understand themselves to have a voice in the public square.

Radical churches understand that hunger can be temporarily alleviated through food pantries, but that systemic change only happens through hunger awareness, advocacy, and systemic upheaval.

Radical churches understand that talking about violence has less to do with “rights”, and more to do with how the Prince of Peace might call a Christian to respond.

Radical churches take seriously personal responsibility and communal responsibility.

In short, a radical ethic would be: our responsibility is to our neighbor and our neighbor’s responsibility is to us.  This cyclical nature of Christian ethics should lead not to a party platform but to a subversive way of living in the world.  We do not separate into sheep and goats, but rather once separated, jump over those lines to stand in solidarity with those who have been unjustly labeled.

Labeled either way.

“Wall Street Fat Cats” are just as labeled as “Free-loading Takers.”  Yeah, we hate to acknowledge that, but it’s true.  Us/them dichotomies don’t seem to be in Jesus’ language.

So why has the church so easily adopted us/them stances?

Because we love being correct.  And for us to be correct, someone else has to be mistaken.  We easily adopt imperial language and imperial ideologies for this reason, and then we get sucked into name-calling, trench digging, wall building, and campaigning.

And then we count the votes of who is with us and who is against us.

What if a Christian understood their obligation to communal ethics as challenging both the label makers and those who have been given labels?  What if being the voice of the poor and the marginalized also included an anti-demonization clause?  That is, even those who call names cannot be labeled, lest they then become the marginalized.

Radical Christianity understands that “Those without sin should throw the first stone,” while also reminding everyone to, “go and sin no more…”

What would such a church look like?

I don’t know.  I don’t know that I’ve seen one.

But I do know that radical churches don’t rely on lock-stepping with any party or ideology, and they understand that difficult topics will raise eyebrows and don’t get too anxious about it.  They may disagree internally about specifics, but can agree that Christian responsibility leads us to discuss these things honestly and seek to take action on them.

And they agree that they can’t just pray over issues.

We should not pray any prayer we’re not willing to be the answer for.

And that’s scary to think about.  It’s radical to imagine.

The Christian church needs a break.  We need a break from “liberal” or “conservative” labels, and if you’re proud of that label being associated with your church, I would challenge you to rethink that pride.

Perhaps you’re muddying the waters.

And if you’re proud of the fact that your church doesn’t get involved in ethical arguments, I would challenge you there, too.  If you haven’t been accused of being political, I have to wonder what you’re thinking when you pray for change.  An ideology of non-confrontation is no more helpful than a political monicker being attached to your name.  I think you need a break, too.

Perhaps you’re muddying the waters.

I’m a Reluctant Christian at times because we have become too eager to be powerful in the ways the world tells us we need to be powerful.  We’ve adopted corporate business models and political platforms in the attempt to be relevant.

And we need to be radical.

We need to reclaim a radical Christianity.  And maybe that means that churches don’t get a tax break anymore.  After all, if we’re beholden to Caesar, we’re more likely to play by imperial rules.

And maybe that means that pastors don’t get tax breaks anymore. That’s radical.

And perhaps “faith-based initiatives” refuse government money from now on.

That’s radical to think about when so many people are trying to do so much good with that money…

And yet, we’ve muddied the waters.

Maybe we need a break.

It’d be radical…but I’m pretty sure no one ever accused Jesus of being ordinary.

“The Broken Record,” or “The Trouble with Church…”

“The trouble with church is…” or, “If only we would…”

I hear those phrases a lot when people start talking about church.

It’s like a broken record.  Everyone’s agenda is either blamed as the cause or heralded as the cure for whatever is wrong with “church.”

I’d like to hit the needle on that record player for a second.

It’s not that I think organized religion doesn’t have issues.

Man, does it have issues.

Huge issues.

And in many ways it needs to follow the path of Jesus and die a bit so something new can be raised up.

But I think that many times the reasons we give for churches and communities having “trouble” (however you define that word) are pretty lame.  I think we’re pretty good parents, but pretty lousy doctors, when it comes to church dysfunction: we know something is wrong but can’t diagnose it.

Myself included.

But I think I’ve identified some things that might be food for thought.  There are others, of course.  Other responses, other questions, other diagnoses.

The following are my top five; you probably have your own.  Feel free to share them.

So, here are 5 of my responses to 5 of the reasons I hear most often when it comes to “the trouble with church.”

# 5: “The trouble with church is that we don’t have a ‘contemporary’ service.”

Hey, have whatever style of church service you want.  We have a couple different worship styles where I serve.

But if I were to guess, I’d say that the trouble with your church is not that you don’t have a “contemporary service” (whatever that means).  The trouble is that people aren’t connecting with the service that you do have.

The relevance of religion can’t be assumed in this day and age.  I think the common person walking around today downloads apps on their phone for two main reasons.

1: they feel they need it.

2: they think it’s interesting.

That’s why I download the apps I do (and my wife hates the “flashlight” app…mostly because I use it to find the bed late at night if she’s gone to sleep before me).

So why do you do services at all?  Why do you need them?  Why are they interesting/insightful for you?

Do people even know why you’re doing what you’re doing?  Do they see the deep connections that are present?

Do you know?

People talk about “relevance” when it comes to church all the time, but I think they want to do it abstractly and with the wild assumption that everyone thinks “church” is necessary.

But in the concrete, what does it mean to sing communally?  What does it mean to read ancient texts together and hear someone reflect on them?  What does it mean to join your voices in prayer, refocusing yourself on the needs of the world and those who are ill?  What does it mean to eat a communal meal where everyone is invited forward and no one leaves without something?

Are you talking about these things?

I really don’t think that Christians today can fail to have the conversation on why the worshiping community is important, but so many churches aren’t having that conversation at all.

Not even amongst the people that do show up at church.

Change the style all you want.  Unless the deeper conversation is happening, I don’t think it’ll go anywhere.  And then you’ll just have someone come up to you and say, “You know what the trouble with this church is? We don’t have a “traditional” service…”

#4: “The trouble with this church is that we don’t have any young people.”

Yeah, this is a problem in some ways, just like a church with only young people is also a problem.

But energy isn’t generated by age; it’s generated by mission.

If your church doesn’t see a growing group of disciples, my guess is that the group that is there is unclear about what it’s doing there in the first place.  A church that understands itself (much like a person who understands themselves) works best because it knows where it is going.

Where is your church going?  Have you discussed it?

Many times I’ve heard people lament the absence of “young people,” and I think to myself, “So, you’ve already identified what you don’t have…but what do you have?  Where are you going?  Yes, you’ve talked about what you were, but who are you now?”

Know thyself and you will grow thyself.

Or, if not, if you come to understand yourself as a community best served in joining others in service through disbanding and moving your energies that way, then do so.  If people aren’t coming into your community, go out and join theirs!

#3: “The trouble with church is that this pastor doesn’t work enough.”

I know lazy pastors, just like I know lazy accountants, bankers, plumbers and politicians.

But I find that most pastors that are accused of being lazy are actually just burned out.

And they burn out because we’ve stopped hiring pastors to help us be church, and just expect them to do church for us.

Perhaps the trouble is that the pastor doesn’t feel supported.  I have colleagues who don’t even feel liked!  They are simply another reminder to the congregation that they are not who they once were in the roaring 50’s when the beloved pastor reigned over an era of pew-packing popularity, mostly due to the fact that American culture and the church had aligned themselves in an unholy union that we’ve only just recently been able to divorce ourselves from.

It’s unpopular to say out loud, but I feel much of the exodus of this generation from the pews of their parents can be traced back to those boom days when this hemisphere thought that Jesus was waving an American flag…

If you think your pastor is lazy, ask yourself if you’ve taken them out for coffee to chat about what’s going on in their life.  If you do, I’d bet that you’d find a calendar so packed that they’re demoralized before they rise out of bed in the morning because there is absolutely no way they can turn the ship around by themselves with so many issues to attend to…and that they’ve been trying to for far too long.

#2: “The trouble with church is that I could use my time better doing something different on a Sunday morning.”

I hear this one most often from people who aren’t in a faith community.  I can understand their point.

Sunday morning seems, by and large, to still be a time of relative inactivity in this hemisphere.

For right now.

Youth soccer and dance is starting to invade into the Sunday morning schedule, though…and they’re just the first in what, I imagine, will be non-stop programming.

I think this is a cultural problem, by and large, although there are some steps that churches can take to change this.

We, as a culture, or over scheduled.  And we’re teaching our children to be over scheduled, too.

In polling the people of my church community on why they attend, what feeds them, a large percentage mentioned the peace and quiet that Sunday morning hour offers them.

Which means that they’re sleeping through the sermon…

But, I find myself seeking the same thing: an escape from the over scheduled, hectic pace.

That, in and of itself, has a positive psychological impact.

As a person of faith, I happen to believe there are other positives too: a connection with the Divine, connection with intentional community, re-connection with a self that is lost within a sea of calendar appointments.

But if we find that Sunday morning is the only time that we have to ourselves, I don’t think church is the trouble.

To borrow an old cliche: are we living to work or working to live?  Are we taking time to examine our lives, or just gasping for breath between sprints?

I think there is a deep spiritual problem with a life that is so over-crowded that intentional community feels like another thing on the “to-do” list.

When done well, I think, intentional community gathered around the things of the Divine can be the generator that helps us tackle our to-do lists.

#1: “The trouble with church is that it just brainwashes you.  God isn’t real, anyway.”

Again, I usually hear this from people outside of a faith community.

Although, I do have to say that there are plenty of brainwashed people within the church who behave as if God isn’t real…

I think a typical reaction to a statement like this is one of defense.  I’ve heard many people, who truly care about another person who has this opinion, go into a litany of “proofs for God”, eventually collapsing in a fit of tears.

Because proofs for God are dead-ends, and nothing brings a person to tears with such intensity as the realization that your worldview isn’t shared by everyone…and that they may have some pretty good reasons for thinking the way they do, too.

Churches have a history of being, and many still are, places where brainwashing happens.  But so are movie theaters, concert arenas, political conventions, book clubs…the list is extensive.  Group think can happen anywhere if two or three are gathered, I guess.

Because of this, I think that this reason deserves some careful consideration by those Christians whose knee-jerk reaction would be to challenge it out of hand.

We don’t want to be places of brainwashing, do we?

Do we?

I hope and think the point of an intentionally community gathered around God would be to ask better questions: about life, existence, how scripture informs our days and weeks, about justice and the path of the Christ.

And I think that intentional communities like a church can be places that de-program cultural brainwashing when it challenges you not to live for greed, but to give of yourself for the life of others.  Or when it challenges a community to not seek glory, but rather stand with the oppressed.  I think our culture tries to brainwash us all the time with mixed signals that only confuse us: buy this, reject that; eat here, follow this diet plan; give money here, divest there.

In fact, I think that our culture tries to convince us that God is real, and that God is us.

But there is another way to live.  A way around shared experience, intentional Divine connection.  A way of song, prayer, meal.  A way where the reality of God isn’t always assumed, but arrived at through communal interaction where we find God most present.

After all, I can’t force somebody to see the reality of God anymore than I can force somebody to see that I love them.  It takes relationship to come to that realization…and relationships that are coerced, hampered by knee-jerk reactions or blind allegiance don’t often go very well.

The Church has a lot of trouble; that can’t be denied.  But I’m not sure it has to do with service style, age demographics, pastor efficiency, timing, or group think.

Those excuses play like a broken record.  I think that any church who listens to those excuses will never be able to move the needle and get on their way with mission.

I think most of the time the trouble with church starts with the individual who finds the problem.

Myself included.

And I know I need a community with an eye toward the sacred to help me dig that out.

5 Phrases I Think Christians Should Say More Often

My most recent blog post made some waves, and I certainly didn’t expect it.  When I wrote down “5 Phrases I Think Christians Shouldn’t Say,” I never imagined that it would be sent far and wide for consideration and comment.

I’ll no doubt offer some more thoughts on those phrases.  As with all public statements, there are other thoughts to give and more clarification needed.

I’ll also probably add to that list, too.  Christians say a lot of unhelpful things in the attempt to explain everything in the world.  I find that fact interesting, actually.  In my ordination I was entrusted to be a “steward of the mysteries” for the community…and yet so much of the community of faith just seems to want to explain away mysteries with vacuous, pat answers that end up being about as useful as a boat in the desert.

But, I’ve been pondering my previous list, and I’d like to offer up some phrases that I think should be said as well.  So, here are 5 phrases that I think Christians should say more often.  And, of course, there are undoubtedly more…

5) “Let’s read a book together; your choice.”

This might seem like a dumb request, or some awkward way to try to curry favor with someone, but I’m absolutely serious.  So many times I find people of faith utterly petrified by engaging in serious conversation over a text that might challenge their faith because they feel they might not have “the right answer.”

And the problem there, of course, is that someone along the line explained faith to them as some sort of equation, a specific formula where certain values must be plugged in for the desired outcome.  In short: we’ve made faith into a system instead of a conversation.

So, here’s an experiment: go to a person of a different faith: Buddhist, Sikh, Atheist, etc.  Or maybe they’re a different denomination of your own faith…whatever.  Engage with someone different than you and invite them to read a book with you, but let them choose.

And go with whatever they choose.

So, let’s say they pick Christopher Hitchens and “god Is Not Great” is what they’re asking to read. Read it.  Let it come into conversation with your faith. And then talk about it.

Or, let’s say they pick a translation of the Qur’an (or if you can read Arabic, read the actual Qur’an).

Read it. It’s not a sin.

Read it and let it come into conversation with your faith.  We need to be a society where people are reading together.  Right now I’m reading The Kingdom of God is Within You  by Tolstoy with a congregation member who identifies as “questioning.”  His idea; his invitation.  Tolstoy is fascinating.  And not only are we having a great discussion about faith and values, we’re getting to know why we think the way we do while also learning more about how the other person thinks.

But for this to work, you have to let them choose the text.  So often people of faith think they only have something to impart on people with other worldviews and nothing to learn.  God save us from such blind certainty.

4) “That’s interesting!  Tell me more…”

Too often people of faith only utter this phrase if they’re talking about gossip.  That’s a topic for a different post, I think…

But what if we said the above phrase when people came to us with a different perspective on God, being, the meaning of life, or the authority of scripture?  What if our first reaction to hearing something that may not line up with what we’ve been taught/have come to believe isn’t a rebuttal or an argument, but an invitation to hear more?

And what if you seriously meant it?

So many times people have said, “that’s a slippery slope…” when it comes to questioning tenets of faith and critically listening to other perspectives.  But just as often I’ve met people who have said, “(that particular tenet of faith) didn’t prove true…so I abandoned faith altogether.”  To both statements I just have to sigh.

When we have been taught that questioning is bad or that all statements rest on one singular foundation, we invite unthinking automatons whose sole purpose in life is to defend their own thoughts, or people primed for disbelief because some premises (like the inerrancy of scripture, for example) just can’t stand up to experience.

Instead, we should invite people to tell us more about their thoughts and beliefs.  And, yes, share our own.  But too often we’re all to eager to do the latter and not interested in the former because…gasp…we might actually be changed in the process.

3) “I can’t buy that…it doesn’t square with my faith…”

This one might rattle some nerves.  Hear me out.

It’s amazing to me that people of faith can shun pornography but buy 7000 square foot homes for a family of four.  It’s amazing to me that people of faith can censor Showtime on their cable TV’s so that their kids won’t see a sex scene, but they’ll spend thousands of dollars on a birthday party for a two year old.

It’s amazing to me that people of faith can see money as “theirs” because they earned it, but can look at another person’s sexual orientation and see it as a “choice.”

Now, I’m not saying that you can’t have a 7000 square foot home.  I just want you to think and ask if your faith has anything to say about it.  And if so, what?  I’m not saying there’s a right or wrong answer here; I just want to see that conversation happen!

And the point of me bringing this up isn’t to cause someone to feel guilty, it’s actually to ask the question: Does your faith have anything to say about what/how you consume?

And if so, does your checkbook reflect it?  Money is just as powerful as sex, and yet somehow it seems that Christians only want to talk about sex and not about money (probably, in my view, to distract from their use of money…but that’s also a different post).

2) “You’re right, I struggle with what is written in the Bible there, too…”

I’m a pastor who wrestles with the Bible.  I think every person of faith (and arguably, everyone) should wrestle with the Bible..and any text.  Converse with it. Engage it.

Don’t look at scripture like an encyclopedia that just gives “answers;” view it as a conversation partner!  Professor David Lose at Luther Seminary in Minnesota writes eloquently on this in his book Making Sense of Scripture. (The title is misleading in that he doesn’t actually offer a way to “make sense” of scripture, but a way to view scripture)

His point, though, is that when we look at the Bible as simply a reference book, we don’t engage it.

But if we engage it, then when someone with a different worldview brings up the fact that it’s hard to accept that God really sent “she-bears” to devour children who were mocking Elisha’s bald head (2 Kings 2:23-24), we can admit it!  It’s ludicrous to believe that that actually happened. Plus, I’m balding, and I sometimes get mocked.  Please, Lord, send the she-bears!

And it doesn’t hurt my faith, or my witness, to say that it doesn’t make sense because I don’t believe that the authority of the Bible is dependent upon the absolute inerrency of every little verse.

One of refrains that I heard over and over again from atheist/agnostic readers of the previous blog post was that it was refreshing to see/hear a person of faith who actually thought.  That fact made me sad because it means, by and large, that unthinking morons are the poster-children for faith in the eyes of many skeptics.

And, yes, I know that is not a charitable description…but I’m not sure how to soften that phrase and still make the despair it causes me hit home.  And part of that perception problem, I think, comes from the fact that people of faith refuse to admit that some of the Bible is weird and doesn’t seem to square with experience.

And my mention of 2 Kings, by the way, doesn’t mean that I write off the book or even that I want to exclude from the canon.  It’s there; it’s not my place to exclude it.  But I converse with it.  I make a distinction between story and history.  I make a distinction between fable, myth, and fact.  And I admit that scripture can hold all three…and that that doesn’t have to impede it’s ability to have Truth.

1) “That’s not OK…”

As evidenced by some of the responses I received over the weekend, some Christians are all too ready to say that it is not OK for me to suggest that we dump “Love the sinner; hate the sin” as a phrase.

I’ll just repeat my belief that this phrase, no matter how you want to defend it, is disingenuous.  I’ve filed it under “complete nonsense” in my file cabinet.

But we need to speak out when people who represent the faith say things that are outrageous and downright dangerous.  I know, that’s a statement that involves a lot of subjectivity.

An example?  Where is the public outcry from people of faith against the pastor in Maiden, North Carolina who preached that homosexuals should be corralled and given just enough food to survive in an effort to let them die out?

If you’re wondering what I’m referring to, you can find the video here.

It is graphic.  And despicable.  And disgusting.  And I cannot see how it squares with my faith.  And I will tell anyone and everyone so. (By the way, the American Psychiatric Association removed homosexuality from their list of mental disorders in 1973, no matter what the Focus on the Family might want to tell you.  And I think it is high time that the church remove it from the list of spiritual disorders, too.)

Now, it’s true that this pastor is small-time.  The community he serves is small, and his influence is small (although I see his video is now on CNN).  But if we hear this extremely vehement nonsense and keep quiet, can we be surprised that people think this is what all people of faith believe?

We need to decry Robertson and Graham publicly when they make ridiculous comments.  We need to call Olsteen into question when he says that God wants you to be rich. We need people of faith to say that Mark Driscoll doesn’t speak for me or my faith when he starts spouting off about masculinity or marriage in ways that are derogatory to both men and women.

And we need to do the same with some others in the faith, too. Luther, Wesley, Calvin…not to mention modern day heads of the church, are not infallible.  Some of their writings deserve some denouncing.

And until people are willing to call such things ridiculous loudly, publicly, and without exception, we can’t be surprised if people dismiss Christians as unthinking and hateful.  And we can’t be surprised, either, when people defect from faith in an attempt to distance themselves from this sort of thing.

I’m a reluctant Christian at times because I think that we, too often, only engage the world and those around us with a defensive stance as if we have something to prove.  Engage life in a meaningful way, in a way that calls faith into practice; in a way that invites questions and not just recitation.  Engage this world in a challenging way.

Oh, and while you might have expected the #1 phrase that I wish Christians would say more often to be a cuss or a curse, I just figured that would go without saying…

“Doing Church Differently” or “Spare Me the Hip…”

Spare me the hip.

You do not do church “differently” just because you meet in someone’s home.  Or because you meet at a time other than Sunday morning.  Or because you sing songs that aren’t considered hymns.

You do not do church differently because you wear hipster glasses, or you wear a t-shirt and jeans.

In fact, you do church just as church has always been done.  Churches have always met in people’s homes…and that eventually grew into meeting in cathedrals and large buildings because, well, your living room isn’t super comfortable with more than 9 in it, let alone 25.

Churches have always worshiped on different days: sometimes Saturday evenings, sometimes Wednesday evenings, sometimes three times a day, sometimes nine times a day!  It’s not new; its ancient.

Churches have always sung a variety of songs, some contextual and some more reflective of their ancestors.  Ancient Christians sang new songs, ancient Jewish songs, and then some new Christian songs to ancient Jewish music.  You could say the same of any church you go in today.  Amazing Grace done on electric guitar comes to mind.

I would argue, however, that this trend of church songs having only one theme (some variation of “Jesus loves me personally” or “God is awesome”) is fairly recent (within the last 70 years).  That newness, though, doesn’t make it different…I think it should invite us to evaluative questions like, “Is this really the best we can do in expressing our thoughts about God in song” or “Is God other than awesome?  Is Jesus more than just for me?”.

It’s clear those questions aren’t being asked in many circles.  Please, someone, ask those questions.  Mumford and Sons is writing songs with more theological depth than most anyone in the world of CCM.*

And churches have always sought people “where they are.”  And I’ll admit I’m guilty of using that line, mostly because I think it’s true.

I don’t think it’s different, though.  And it certainly isn’t hip.

It’s just that, well, can you actually be anywhere where you aren’t?  Do you really know of a church that thinks you have to change to walk in the door?  If you do, I wouldn’t argue that they’re doing church “the same old way.”  If you have to change to walk in the door, they’re just doing church badly.

And if you think that just because you don’t wear robes you’re “doing church differently,” I’d ask you to read a Christian liturgy book.  Robes, the clothes of a servant, were meant to give a “replaceable” quality to the leader of worship…much, I think, like the t-shirt and jeans of many of today’s preachers who think they’re doing something different.  The “See, I’m no different than you” of the t-shirt and jeans is not a far cry from the, “See, you too can do this. I’m totally replaceable” of the robe.

Along those same lines, the mass-media approach of projectors, screens, TV’s, and made-for-worship movies are no different than candles and incense.  Engaged senses?  Yes.  Ordinary objects?  I bet you’d find candles in the ancient home just as often as you’d find a TV/computer in the homes of today.

The rock-arena stage setting of many “doing church differently” churches reflects a contemporary concert experience.  Bach composed music that reflected his contemporary concert experience.  JSB and BNL are not so far apart.

So, my question is this: why do you feel the need to say that you “do church differently?”

Spare me the hip.

Do you try to connect people to God?  Do you try to tell the story of a world in desperate need of Divine intervention in the person of Jesus?  Do you try to help people see how God is active in the world?

If you do, then you don’t do church differently; you do it in the way it has always been done.  And there’s nothing wrong with that.  I’m a reluctant Christian at times because, well, church branding has become a business taking its cues from contemporary advertising.  In the need to feel relevant, so many places just end up fading into the same melange of commercials bombarding people daily.

What I think Christians and churches should be asking themselves is: are the symbols and mediums we use deep in meaning?  Do they reflect a fullness that exemplifies the fullness of God?

How about we spend our time on that rather than spend time trying to convince people that we “do church differently.”

Don’t do church differently.  Tell the story.  Invite people into a relationship with the God shown through the Christ.

And turn off the advertising machine.  It’s not different.  And although it tries to be hip, it is not.

*Gungor is creating some good stuff, but they often rely quite heavily on male stereotypes in their depiction of God.

“Baptismal Reflux” or “Stop baptizing your kid to appease Grandma…”

Yeah, this isn’t going to be popular.

I really think the church needs to readdress our baptismal policy.  And by “the church,” I mean the wider church.  As wide as you can paint it.  Biggest brush ever.

There are issues everywhere.  And I don’t claim to have answers for them.  Trust me, if I thought I could address every nuance of the issues Christians have with baptism, I’d patent it and sell it for an unlimited supply Smithwicks.  Or fairly traded shade-grown coffee.

But there are a couple of things that run across my desk every-so-often.  Scenario 1:

“So-and-so would like to have their child baptized on March 23rd.”

First question: who is so-and-so?  I’ve never met them.  I’ve never seen them.

So I call so-and-so.  They found us on the internet.  They liked the look of the church.

“Yes, but are you going to become members?”  No.  They had not thought of that.

“Ok, what church do you currently go to?” None.  Not active in a faith community.

“Ok, so what makes you think it’s time for a baptism?” The child was born.  Grandma is getting antsy.

“Ok, so this is about grandma, right?”  Yes.

Now, I’m all for affirming the fact that baptism, as a ritual act, has an inward affect on a person. Indeed, we are introducing the baptized to a life lived in God’s Spirit.  Yes. Affirmative.

But there’s more, right?  I mean it’s not “one and done,” right?

I’m pretty sure it’s “one and never done…”  Something like that.

And I think that because I read farther in Matthew 28 than just “Go to all nations and baptize…”  It follows with, ” teach them all that I have commanded…” And finishes with “I am with you always…”

What’s the connective tissue there, then?  It seems we baptize, and then teach.  Oh, and the Christ is always with us.  I don’t get the impression that the third is a conditional.  But it seems to me that the first two are pretty connected.

Instruction is important.  Not as a prerequisite.  Not as some sort of belief that makes us “ready” for baptism.  Indeed, I don’t think our beliefs ever make us ready for anything!  After all, I believe I’d be a good sailor.  But if you stick me behind the wheel of a schooner right now and send me off to sea you’d better call the Coast Guard.  And instruct them to bring coffee and Smithwicks.

So how do we ensure that we keep the second part of Matthew 28?  We have parents and/or guardians make the promises for them.  And then as a back-up, we have sponsors (ideally sponsors from the church, who are already practicing) make them.

We can’t get around it: in baptism we make certain promises, at least on this side of the denominational church aisle.  The parents and/or guardians promise to teach the child the creed, the ten commandments, place in their hands the holy scriptures, take them regularly to communion, and raise them in a community of faith where they will learn to lean on the crucified and risen one.

It’s a promise.

And then we, as a community, promise to help the child in their life of faith.

But we can’t do it, see, we can’t keep the promise, if we never see the kid again.  It’s an issue.

Scenario 2:

“Pastor, so-and-so would like to have their great-grandchild baptized here next week.”

Uhuh.

“So, what faith community do the parents of so-and-so’s great-grandchild belong to?” None.

“So, why do they want to have them baptized here?  They live out of state!” Because they were baptized here and great-grandma so-and-so comes here.

Uhuh.

Refer to Argument One to hear the reasons why this is a bad idea.

You see, I think it’s time for faith communities all around the world to have a very difficult conversation about this sacrament.  Can we take the promises lightly, knowing that those who make promises have no intention of keeping them?  I mean, c’mon, it’s no guarantee that they’ll keep the promises if we have them join the faith community or anything, but at least its an attempt at honesty.

And for you, parents, can you honestly have your child baptized simply to appease great-grandma?  Can you not, instead, have a conversation with great-grandma about your faith or issues with organized religion?  Can you not, instead, allow great-grandma to make the promises and then take the child to the faith community?  Even that would be a great turn of events, a great step.

But, instead, we’re living in this middle ground where we don’t expect parents to live up to their promises, and parents don’t expect the church to help them keep them or hold them accountable.

Sigh.

The issues surrounding baptism make me a reluctant Christian.  On the one hand I have my evangelical brothers and sisters wanting to make it about “beliefs” or “understanding.”  In which case you’re actually baptizing yourself…because your beliefs make you worthy.

On the other hand we have these other folks who seem to baptize out of tradition with no intention of practicing.  Indeed, “we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.”

I’m 30.  I’m still learning how to live without seeing myself as the center of the universe…something that baptism helps me do.  I’m still learning how to live, holding the scriptures in tension with what I see around me…something that baptism reminds me to do.  I’m still learning how to live in a community of faith, asking the tough faith questions…something that baptism asks me to do.

It’s not a tradition.  It’s not a belief system.

Can we not take this seriously?  Can’t we help one another keep promises or refrain from making them if we can’t?!

My advice:I

If you are thinking about baptism but you-

a) aren’t interested in making faith a part of your life

b) aren’t interested in joining a faith community and engaging it

c) aren’t interested in seeking after God

d) can’t make the promises required of baptism

e) are doing it to get Grandma off your back

Wait.  Don’t do it now.  Wait until the child is older, then they can then decide if they want to make the promises.  Wait until you can commit to a faith community and engage it.  Wait until you feel the tug of God strongly on your heart.  Wait until Grandma and you can have a conversation about it.

Or

Let.  Let Grandma make the promises.

However, if you-

a) are thinking that it might be time to re-engage your faith life

b) aren’t sure what you think about this whole “Jesus thing,” but are interested in it

c) aren’t sure what you think about this whole “God thing” but think a community can help you figure it out

d) are willing to make the promises and keep them

e) think Grandma might have some wisdom that you can carry yourself.

Do it.  Engage it.  Take the whole plunge.  Put a ring on it.

This a/theist finds baptism, washing, being made clean such a powerful event, such a powerful story.  But if it doesn’t get reinforced, doesn’t get explored, doesn’t get told and retold and retold…well…

I don’t know.  Just thinking about it gives me acid reflux.  I can’t make heads or tails.

All I know is that as a community who takes promises seriously, especially the promises of God, we should probably take our own promises seriously.

On Doctrine: A Re-Traction

Lennie and George speak in broken conversation.  George telling, and retelling Lennie about the farm that they’ll have one day.  Lennie basking in the glow of this beautiful thought: rabbits of his very own.

But George cautions Lennie when it comes to cats.  Afterall, every farm has to have cats to keep rodents away…and to generally complete the requisite animal quotiant  to relegate a dwelling a “farm.”

“We’d have a setter dog and a couple  stripe cats, but you gotta watch out them cats don’t get the rabbits.”

And Lennie really only desires the rabbits.

“Lennie breathed hard. ‘You jus’ let ’em try to get the rabbits.  I’ll break their God damn necks.  I’ll….I’ll smash ’em with a stick.’ He subsided, grumbling to himself, threatening the future cats which might dare disturb the future rabbits.”

Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men is a great study in literature…and a great study in people.  Lennie’s defense of that which he desires most, rabbits (or the feel of rabbit fur, or the idea of keeping fur around without breaking the necks of the furry, or whatever you deem his deepest desire is), is typical of people, I think.  In fact, I would say that this reactionary defense is probably the one lone characteristic in Lennie that is not affected by his cognitive struggles.

We defend most heartily that which we desire most.

I received a communication recently from a good friend and fellow pastor asking about the apparent dichotomy created in my first post between doctrine and dogma on the one hand and the Jesus movement on the other.  This friend was quick to point out that he wasn’t disagreeing, but simply wanted some clarification:

Didn’t the Jesus movement necessarily need doctrine (and the creation thereof) in the face of Donatism, Docetism, Arianism, and other such challenges?

The short answer: yes.  Of course.  In any sort of conception of a theological position there is never an “a-position.”  That is, even if you claim to stand nowhere…that is a stance, a place, a position.  The Jesus movement surely needed to refine, re-think, re-discover it’s position on the role of pastors, on the person of Christ, on the oneness and threeness of God…

Yes, of course.

But they are rabbits, are they not?  Dreams of a possibility that can’t yet be touched.

They’re not imaginary; they’re very real.  But they’re only real in so far as they point to the Real.  If they go further, they become no longer the symbols, the subject, of the desired, but the object of desire.

“I desire Trinity.”  “I desire Orthodoxy.”

Instead of, “I desire the God that the doctrine of the trinity helps me to wrap my mind around, if incompletely.”

Instead of, “I desire the God that orthodoxy (however defined) wants to show.”

We need a re-traction of doctrine.  Doctrine should not give something, but should point to something…point outward, further than itself.

Back to Rollins:

“The job of the church is not to provide an answer-for the answer is not a phrase or doctrine-but rather to help encourage the religious question to arise…the silence that is part of all God-talk is not the silence of banality, indifference or ignorance but one that stands in awe of God.  This does not necessitate an absolute ‘silencing,’ whereby we give up speaking of God, but rather involves a recognition that our language concerning the divine remains silent in its speech.”

We say too much in saying anything, and say too little in saying nothing.

But doctrine, for all its benefit, has become a rabbit.

“Believe this and be saved.  Attack this and I’ll smash you with a stick.”

This past weekend I watched religious TV on Sunday morning…the bed and breakfast had cable.  I flipped through four different religious programs.  Some were complete services, some were snippets of “teachings,” some were call-in shows.  Very different.

Yet very similar.

They each promised to give the viewer something.  One was “The Four Essentials of Faith.”  Another was, “How God can Help your Wealth.”  Fill in the blank here with some other infraction on the Second Commandment, as I am most certain that God does not want to help you, or me, get wealthy in any sort of way that we would identify as wealth…

And they each reminded me of why I’m a reluctant Christian.

These programs are so popular with their lovely memes impregnating the minds of views, both live audience and electronic audience.  And this is the mistaken, idolatrous promise (illusory as it is) of doctrine: it gives you something.

Instead, the real promise of doctrine is that it points to something…points past itself.

Please, Lord, save me from being saved and all the wonky ways we’ve devised to save ourselves from each other, from other doctrines, from, whatever it is we run from.

“The religious individual tears out all the idolatrous ideas that have impregnated the womb of his or her being, becoming like Mary, so that the Christ-event can be conceived within him or her-an event whose transformative power is matched only by its impenetrable mystery.”

Do we need doctrine?  In so far as it points us toward that which is beyond our knowing, yes.

Do we need to be saved from doctrine?  In so far as it has become our rabbits, mice, soft toys to pen, and hold, and pet, and defend with sticks, yes.