Ponder Anew: Dear Church . . .

  Jonathan wrote the following piece–no, not me, but someone around 20 years my junior who is struggling with the same church- and Chrustianity-related issues as I am. As I read this, I heard myself self saying “Yes” and “Amen” so many times (much to the annoyance of the amazing partner-in-crime-and-matrimony sitting across from me at the moment.)

I, like Jonathan, am tired of Jesusy entertainment, bait-and-switch tactics, church cafes, programs, gimmicks and the whole gamut of stuff we can find anywhere. 

I, like Jonathan, want church to be different, compelling, relational, contemplative, full of meaning and symbol, inclusive and embracing of all. As he writes in his blog’s bio, “I believe that as long as we operate the local church with a commercial, consumer, capitalist, seeker-sensitive mentality, it is doomed to be bloated, lukewarm, and largely irrelevant.” Preach it!

I thought of quoting bits from it but couldn’t decide which, so here it is in its entirety. Please do me and yourself a favour and check out the Ponder Anew blog (I LOVE that title, taken from the hymn Praise to the Lord the Almighty. The line says, “Ponder anew what the Almighty can do…” I believe that if we left what only God can do for God to do, we would see a acing things… but that’s another post for another time.)

So here it is.

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A lot’s been made over the millennial generation and their religious life. Why they go to church. Why they don’t go to church. What they want. What they hate.

I’m going to do something different here. I’m not going to cite Barna. I’m not going to quote Rachel Held Evans. I’m not going to link to any articles or blog posts.

I’m just going to tell you what’s true for me, and what I’ve seen to be true of others like me.

I am one of those rascally millennials, by the way. One of those enigmatic, paradoxical, media-dependent, coffee-drinking young people swept together under this millennial umbrella. Except coffee tears up my stomach, so I dropped that stuff.

I was born when a washed-up actor was in the White House. I was crushed the day slap bracelets were banned from my elementary school. I remember hiding in my room with my five-inch TV to watch Friends and Seinfeld and the Simpsons, and all the other shows I wasn’t allowed to see. I don’t remember what it’s like to not have a home computer. I can barely recall a time before cell phones. I’ve never left home without one.

I’ve always been in church. I’ve never left, though I’ve come close several times. I would have left in high school if I’d had the option, but in my house, attendance at my cool, hip, contemporary-worshiping, youth-group-glorifying, moralism-preaching, theology-eschewing McCongregation was a non-negotiable.

So I went. Through every repetition of “Shout to the Lord,” every True Love Waits commitment ceremony, every rapture-ready dispensationalist Bible study, every sermon series on how to make myself into a good, moral, well-behaved person so that I wouldn’t tick off God and bring condemnation to America.

But I was always a misfit. Always a skeptic. Always a doubter. Always an outsider.

Today, you’re my livelihood, and putting food on my table overcomes the gravitational pull of my mattress on a cold, rainy Sunday morning. Or a hot, dry one. Or any other one. But that pull is still there. It’s always been there. It’s never left.

The truth is, my relationship with you is still love-hate.

I love the theology, but I hate the expectations of pseudo piety.

Love the gospel, hate the patriotic moralism.

Love the Bible, hate the way it’s used.

Love Jesus, but hate what we’ve done with him.

Love worship, but hate Jesusy entertainment.

And those other kids I went to church with, I’ve come to find that many of them were misfits, skeptics, and doubters, too. Some of them still go, but more of them have left.

Some of them left because they had no desire to conform to an outdated cultural norm that demanded we keep up appearances by parking our butts in our regular Sunday pew.

They didn’t believe, and didn’t believe they needed to pretend that they did.

Others have left because they grew keen to the bait-and-switch tactics. They’ve left because they didn’t fit in, and couldn’t pretend anymore. They left because the Jesus preached from the pulpit didn’t look much like the Jesus of Nazareth. They left because all the bells and whistles and hooks and marketing rang hollow.

They left because they had been constantly catered to, constantly kept busy, but had never been taught how to be a part of the church.

The programs won’t bring them back.

The coffee won’t bring them back.

The show – the lights, fog machine, the contemporary worship that we think is essential –  nope, that won’t do it, either.

But here are a few things that might just work with some of us. They may seem crazy. They may contradict everything you’ve heard. But, as one of these millennials, this is what would work for me, and for a lot of the people I know who have left.

Don’t expect a “worship style” to do your dirty work. Contemporary worship hasn’t worked. The longer we extend the life of this failed experiment, the more we see the results.

In my experience, contemporary worship brings in three groups. Baby boomers who are still stuck in their rebellion against the establishment, parents who mistakenly think that contemporary worship is the only way for their kids to connect to the church, and small percentage of young adults who haven’t left the church and haven’t known anything besides contemporary worship.

In modeling worship after commercial entertainment, you’ve compromised your identity, and we’re still not coming back.

And even if we did, would there be any church left? Would there be anything beyond the frills, the lights, the performance, the affected vocals? Would we still see a cross? Would we still find our place among the saints who have come before? Would we find reminders of our life-long need of grace?

Or would we have been hooked by something altogether different? Would we merely find your answer key for the great mystery of faith?

Don’t give us entertainment, give us liturgy. We don’t want to be entertained in church, and frankly, the church’s attempt at entertainment is pathetic. Enough with the theatrics. Enough with the lights, the visuals, the booming audio, the fog machine, the giveaway gimmicks, the whole production. Follow that simple yet profound formula that’s worked for the entire history of the church. Entrance, proclamation, thanksgiving, sending out. Gathering, preaching, breaking bread, going forth in service. Give us a script to follow, give us songs to sing, give us the tradition of the church, give us Holy Scripture to read. Give us sacraments, not life groups, to grow and strengthen us.

Week after week, season after season, year after year, let us participate in the drama of the gospel. It’s not supposed to be fun. It’s not supposed to produce intense emotional response. It’s a microcosmic, disciplined, anticipatory remembrance of who we were, who we are, and who we are to be. We need this. We need these heartfelt rituals in our lives to keep us returning to the fount of grace, to mark our way back home.

Be yourself, and you just might shake us out of our technology-induced, entertainment-craving slumber. Keep giving us Jesusy versions of mainstream entertainment, and there’s no hope. You can’t compete. You’ll lose every time.

Don’t target us. In doing so, the church has marketed and advertised itself into oblivion. We’re left with homogeneous congregations of approximately the same ages and backgrounds who are just there for what they can get out of the church. No wonder we’ve left. Just be the church. Use your regular old liturgy. Offer your regular old sacraments. Sing your regular old songs. Cast a wide net, and let whosoever will come. Trust me, we’re more likely to show up when we don’t feel like fish snapping up the bait.

Be inclusive. Tear down silos. Save us from ourselves. We don’t need more youth group lock-ins, more Sunday School options for each age group, more senior adult outings on beekeeping and genealogy. We need more of each other. We need to look into the faces of old and young, rich and poor, of different colors, races, and ethnic backgrounds, so we can learn to see Jesus in faces that don’t look like us. So we can remember that the kingdom is bigger than our safe, suburban bubble. That’s right, we need community, not based on age or economic status or skin color, but wrought with the hammering of nails on a wooden cross.

Our internet connectivity is just fine. The rest of our lives is a different story. We are hopelessly disconnected. Church, you can be a powerful remedy if you stop posing as a Fortune 500 company scheming to sell a product.

Welcome the toughest, deepest, grittiest, most desperate, most shocking questions.  We have lots of questions. More and more, what we see in the world doesn’t jive with what we grew up hearing from the pulpit. You have done more damage by requiring politeness, by refusing to engage, by brusquely rebuking honesty and vulnerability. You’re better than that, church. At least you should be. You should be a safe place for struggling, grappling, doubting.

Allow us to be real with each other, to avoid the temptation to gloss over the crap going on in the world with easy, tidy, Jesusy clichés‘. You’ve always taught us how the world is black and white, just like The Andy Griffith Show and I Love Lucy. But, and excuse us for noticing, the world is mostly gray, gray like Ricky Ricardo’s dinner jacket and Barney Fife’s nightstick. Let’s embrace that grayness together.

So no more three points and a take home. No more self-help. No more marriage and parenting advice. No more anger management pointers. We don’t need you to be our therapist, we need you to be our church. We need you to show us how to be the hands and feet of Christ, to struggle with us in making it more on earth as it is in heaven.

It’s not too late, church, but your tactics aren’t working.

It’s time for a new strategy.

It’s time to be uncool. To be radical. To be different.

It’s time to be yourself.

Your Friend,

Jonathan
 

Your Kids Will Probably Leave the Church

imageWarning: Your kids most likely will leave the church.

Why? Because, in our massive efforts to keep them through indoctrination, programs, entertainment and involvement, they cannot escape the fact that they are swimming n a fear-based system.

Who hasn’t heard a young person growing up in an Evangelical church say at some point, “If I was to ever leave the church, mum and dad would ______________”? It seems like the only two things worse than leaving the Church, in the Evangelical’s mind, are coming out as gay or getting an abortion. Truth is, parents are so afraid their kids will leave their family’s traditional spiritual home that they will do almost anything to prevent that from happening. Guilt. Threats. Investing huge amounts and time and money themselves into the Church. Making sure the Church hires the right and fires the wrong people.

Fear.

What if, after all this investment, they end up leaving anyway?

Then there’s this from the fundamentalist organisation Answers in Genesis:

“In the first scientific study of its kind, the “Beemer Report” reveals startling facts discovered through 20,000 phone calls and detailed surveys of a thousand 20–29 year olds who used to attend evangelical churches on a regular basis, but have since left it behind.
“The results are shocking:
“Those who faithfully attend Sunday School are more likely to leave the church than those who do not. Those who regularly attend Sunday School are more likely to believe that the Bible is less true. Those who regularly attend Sunday School are actually more likely to defend that abortion and gay marriage should be legal. Those who regularly attend Sunday School are actually more likely to defend premarital sex.”

(First reaction: “Hallelujah! These kids are turning away from a close-minded, unChristian dogma and thinking for themselves. They’re probably feeling rather free without all that baggage.” Second reaction: “We need more well-balanced, inclusive and Christ-following churches where the youth are encouraged to question, allowed to doubt and freed to be who they were created to be.”)

The lesson here is that church attendance and force-feeding kids the doctrines and values of an institution on a regular basis has no bearing on their continuance in that tradition. Simply put, It. Doesn’t. Work.

In his book Why Our Children Will be Atheists, Albert Williams shows how the story of the world is evolving and so its understanding of God. He shows how primitive cultures held to many deities which, over time and in one particular people group, became belief in one God above all, and then one and only one God. From this came the scriptures, codes of practice and creeds. The institutional Church then followed, reformed, broke apart, migrated to new areas of influence, and then started on a deconstruction process as people learned more, reasoned more and realised the old traditions and superstitions didn’t hold up to rational thought. Williams’ view is that, within one or two generations, the Church as an institution will be obsolete.

I disagree with his findings in the end because I believe that the Church will always hold some relevance in our world, but only as it seeks to exemplify the love and grace of Christ. Churches that operate out of a place of fear, condemnation and legislated morality will be relegated to history.

With this in mind, perhaps we should be looking at the probability/inevitability of our children leaving the church and, instead of trying frantically to develop a sense of dependence on an institution, we should be instilling in them those values and that strength of character they will need in life–in church or out.

(And don’t trust that the Church will transmit these values because, apart from the few exceptional more progressive examples, churches tend to do what keeps them in business.)

In essence, stop fearing what may happen and plan for what will happen. Your kids will grow up. They will leave home. They will find meaningful work in their community. They will find their own way. They will still be your children but your relationship will change as they become independent and self-reliant individuals.  You will no longer be responsible for their decisions and possibly won’t have much influence in their choice of direction.

They may leave your cherished place of worship and, no matter what you may hear from others, THIS IS NOT YOUR FAULT.

You are not responsible to ensure your church’s doors stay open after you’re gone. Nor are your children.

So step back from manipulating their spirituality, controlling their church involvement, guilting them into showing up and warming a seat on Sunday, and, instead, listen to them. Love them. Speak hope and strength into their life. Encourage their giftedness. Allow them to make independent decisions. Give advice when they ask (and they will ask), but don’t be meddlesome. Let them dream their dreams and let them know it’s OK if these dreams don’t fit into your ideal plan (or your church’s ideal plan) for their life. Pray for them. Stop worrying and trust that God will take care of them.

God can and will take care of them, better than you realise, whether they are in or out of the church.

And they will be OK because they will be secure in themselves and in who you brought them up to be.

Faith

IMG_1448I was asked recently to share what my faith journey looked like.

I’ll admit: it is a journey, and it certainly involves faith. That said, it’s often difficult for me to articulate. Faith is not black and white (or as I heard one say, “It isn’t binary.”) It looks different for you than it may for me.

It may also include uncertainty, doubt, fear, struggle, deconstruction and reconstruction, and many seasons of growth and change.

It may or may not be tied to a church experience. It may or may not have clearly defined boundaries, milestones, turning points, commitments, or life-changing decisions.

Regardless of what it looks like, it involves questions, hope, and trust that what is promised will come to be, both in this life and in the next. I think the writer of the following reflection also understand it this way.

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“I shall not die, but live, and tell of the Lord’s great deeds.” – Psalm 118: 17

When my mother was dying, some of my siblings and in-laws kept whispering to her that Jesus was waiting to welcome her, that people she loved would be there too, that she could let go without fear. At one point in this litany of reassurance, she woke up, looked right at us, and said in a strong voice, clear as a bell, “Are you sure?”

Immediately everybody said, “Yes, we’re sure!” Even I said so—I who have struggled for years with what ‘life after death’ might rationally mean.

“We’re sure,” I said. I’m sure.

Immediately under my breath I threatened God: “Did you hear that? I just told her it’s true. It had better be. It had better be, do you hear me? I gave her my word.”

Some people claim to know. They’ve seen soft lights, green meadows, felt God’s embrace. If you find that comforting, I’m glad. But none of it is certain. We have only promises and poetry, longing and love, need and hope. The rest is silence.

All the same, if my mother had asked me a thousand times whether it was true about Jesus and loved ones and God’s embrace, a thousand times I would have said yes. And after each yes I would have threatened God, “It had better be.” And after each menacing prayer, silence would be the reply.

That’s hard. It just is.

There’s a reason they call it ‘faith.’

— Mary Luti, from StillSpeaking

How can it be?

lauren-how-can-it-beThere’s a song that has been going around Christian circles recently called How Can It Be* sung by (a relatively unknown) Lauren Daigle. You can view the YouTube clip here. This type of song is disturbing because it contains some truth but, apart from what I personally consider to be a harmful theology of penal substitutionary atonement (for further information read the excellent articles found here and here), it also contains a dangerous undercurrent of downright negativity and falsehood about who we are in God’s sight. Here’s the first verse:

I am guilty Ashamed of what I’ve done, what I’ve become These hands are dirty I dare not lift them up to the Holy one

“I am guilty.” “I am ashamed.” “My hands are dirty.” “I dare not lift them to the holy one.” Who told you this? If we read the New Testament, we see that we have been reconciled to God, declared righteous, called “holy” and “beloved of God,” and urged to lift up holy hands in prayer. This is dangerous because it tells us and our families, our children, that they are intrinsically dirty, shameful, not desirable to God, unloved, and that they dare not approach God. Now, obviously, the songwriters continue by showing how Jesus steps into this gulf between who we are and what God demands, and this is the primary message of a penal system where God demands his son die to appease his own wrath against humanity. It also relies heavily on legal language and views human salvation as an transaction between Jesus and God and between God and individual humans.

You plead my cause You right my wrongs You break my chains You overcome You gave Your life To give me mine You say that I am free How can it be How can it be

And then verse two:

I’ve been hiding Afraid I’ve let you down, inside I doubt That You could love me But in Your eyes there’s only grace now

Do we want to feed our souls with such a fear-based, guilt-inducing message? “I’m afraid. I’ve been hiding. I don’t know how you could love such a person as myself. But there’s grace in your eyes now. Earlier? Maybe not so. But now, there’s grace.” The repeating chorus echoes that phrase “How can it be?” Incredulous that such a wretch (or “worm” in the words of another old hymn) as I should be able to lift my head to the Holy God. This is not a song that speaks of love, our endearment to God, a thriving relationship or being the beloved ones of the Divine.

That said, the real reason this song–and songs like it–arte so dangerous is that music has a way of binding itself into our mind and affecting our soul. It can change the course of a life. It can reinforce good thoughts or drive home a despairing view of life that adds to the already-burdensome load we carry. We don’t need the added weight of shame, guilt, and despair. We need music that will lift our spirits, deliver truth of who we are into our hearts, and declare the universal and eternal love of God. Unfortunately, How Can It Be is not that kind of music. Songs like this really need to be left as (possible) artful expressions, but not repeated and rehearsed and made part of our life.

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* Publishing: © 2014 Sony ATV Timber Publishing (SESAC) / Sony ATV Timber Publishing & Open Hands Music (SESAC) / Ponies Riding Shotgun (ASCAP Writer(s): Words and Music by Paul Mabury, Jason Ingram and Jeff Johnson

Resurrection Happens

IMG_1444Easter is a very conflicted occasion.

  • Pagan festivals and church processions.
  • Eggs and crosses.
  • Bunnies and burials.
  • Lilies and grave clothes.
  • Chocolate and empty tombs.

Then there is the question of reality–did Jesus really rise from the dead? Is there evidence beyond the Bible for this supernatural event? Is Scriptural evidence sufficient?

Regardless of our responses to these questions, there is a broader question that we ought to be asking: Is thee a wider truth that we can draw from the Easter story that speaks to us on a more universal, meaningful level?

Listen to the words of the two disciples on the road to Emmaus: “We had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” 

It doesn’t take that much imagination to put ourselves into the story of these disciples. “We had hoped. Our dreams were in him. Our future was in his hands. Now he’s gone.”

Are you feeling hopeless today? Do you feel that you cannot go on? Is the burden you carry great, and the pain too intense? Is the healing just not happening, the sorrow too much for you?

Here is the truth of Easter: God is in the resurrection business. 

The very first words of Scripture speak of God making new life out of chaos. The creation poem tells us that God spoke there was light.  The waters separated (the ancients believed above the sky was a water-dome called in Genesis ‘the firmament’). The dry land appeared. Fish and animals, human beings, plants and trees all came into being out of the chaos of ‘the deep.’

Some of the last words in Scripture state in simple words God’s grand plan: “Behold I make all things new.” From the chaos this world has become, resurrection will happen and new life–a renewed creation–will spring forth.

Whether or not we believe in a literal resurrection should not prevent us from drawing deeper meaning from this widely-accepted Christian narrative.

Resurrection–new life–is happening around us every day. It’s never too late to begin again. God is even now, in all-embracing love and grace, making all things new.

And this can be true for you too.

There is hope. The power of Christ’s resurrection is at work. The Spirit of God is moving amongst your chaos, speaking light into darkness, strength into weakness and new life into hopelessness.

Resurrection happens! 

And resurrection can happen for you.

Be-ing



So I’m sitting here in the calm of this mild autumn evening while my other half is out catching up with the girls.

I’ve already made (warmed up is a better word) and ate my dinner, watched a few YouTube videos, checked my running sheet for Sunday’s morning service, cleaned out the utensil drawer, downloaded a few more Spotify playlists, read parts of three different books, made some salt and vinegar almonds, drank a beer, checked Facebook, Twitter and Instagram numerous times, and now I’m listening to the Tony Bennet / Lady Gaga album ‘Cheek to Cheek.’

I’ve run out of stuff to do.

Or am I bored?

No, not bored because my mum always said that if you’re bored it’s because you can’t stand your own company. I love my own company. 

I love my own company better if my honey is with me.

(Wow! Lady Gaga’s got a great voice. Did you catch her Sound of Music tribute at the Oscars this year? I never knew she could actually sing like real songs, classic stuff.)

Now I’m reminding myself of that dog with the dog-to-human translator in the movie ‘Up’ who gets distracted by a squirrel in the middle of a conversation. (Vicki and I have made the word ‘squirrelling’ synonymous with getting sidetracked in the middle of a task … which is kind of what I’m doing right now. “Look! Squirrel!”)

Back to being on my own.

I was listening to the ‘Wilosophy’ podcast on the way to work, the episode where Will Anderson spends over an hour bantering with Dr Karl. They discuss everything from what is taught in High School to politics, unemployment, the economy science (of course! For those non-Aussies, he’s the Australian Bill Nye). Dr Karl spent some time explaining how the mainstream media works and how we have defaulted to allowing Big Business to dictate what we hear, see and how we live. Because of the way our ‘toys’ have been marketed to us and made more and more affordable–not to mention ‘necessary’– our attention span (and our contentment span) is getting shorter and shorter.

One day we’ll all think only in 90-second blocks and have sub-100 IQs.

At least that what’s Dr Karl thinks.

I believe he’s on to something.

He also says that we tend to feel guilty if we’re not productive. We seem to judge down-days where we just sleep, eat and relax as ‘wasted.’ He sees these times as necessary for wellbeing and won’t consider any downtime as non-productive.

But we’ve been conditioned to believe we need to ‘do’ stuff, ‘achieve’ status, and ‘earn’ accolades and respect. 

That’s too much of a burden for every day.

I’m warming to the idea of Sabbath. The ancients would set aside one day when no work would be done, nothing would be cooked, and people would travel nowhere. Millennia later, we have lost this concept in our desire to feel like we accomplished something worthwhile . . . every day . . . every minute of every day.

We need Sabbath. Downtime. ‘Do nothing’ time.

Instead of doing, we simply need to be. Be present. Be with ourselves. Be at peace. Be content. 

Take time. Steal it, if we must, from our ‘busy’ lives.

Just to be . . . . 

Just. Simply. Only be-ing, not do-ing. 

Which brings me back to tonight.

I’m not that good at be-ing.Especially be-ing alone.

I would rather be do-ing (as you can tell by my long list of ‘squirrel’ moments at the top of this page.)

But, for the rest of my alone-time tonight, I’m going to attempt quietly sitting here with a glass of something or another and entering into a place of be-ing. Listening to some chilled tunes. And just being. Resting. Relax . . . Look! Squirrel!

(This isn’t gonna be easy.)

God Creates Things That Create

earthIn Romans 8:22, Paul says, “From the beginning until now, the entire creation as we know it has been groaning in one great act of giving birth.” That is a very feminine notion of creation, giving birth slowly through labour pains. It complements Genesis’ masculine statement: “Let there be light!” (1:3). Just this one line from Paul should be enough to justify a Christian belief in evolution. Yet to this day, the issue of evolution still divides some Christians, questioning what is rather obvious: that God creates things that create themselves. Wouldn’t this be the greatest way that God could create–to give autonomy, freedom, and grace to things to keep self-creating even further? (Non-creative minds tend to not see or allow creativity anywhere else. In fact, that is what makes them so uncreative!)

Healthy parents love their children so much that they want them to keep growing, producing, and performing to their highest potential. Good parents are even excited when their children surpass them, as my uneducated farmer parents were when I went off to higher studies. Mature parents are generative about their children and say, in my paraphrase of Jesus’ words: “Don’t get too excited about the things that we did. You’re going to do even greater things!” (John 14:12). Immature parents only see their children as images and extensions of themselves. True love empowers and delights in the even larger and independent successes of those they love. (It is often would-be successful sons who are most resented and abused by jealous and weak fathers.)

For a long time most people were satisfied with a very static universe. Yet Jesus understands reality as dynamic and evolutionary. Clearly there is an unfolding to the universe (we are literally still expanding!). Reality is going somewhere. It’s moving, until “In the end there will only be Christ. He is everything and he is in everything” (Colossians 3:11). The One > Multiplicity > Conscious Unity seems to be the underlying pattern. Paul sees history as an ongoing process of ever greater inclusion of every lesser force until in the end, “God will be all in all” (1 Corinthians 15:28). The notion of the Cosmic Christ is precisely “the One” reality that includes everything and excludes nothing. As St. Bonaventure put it, “God is the One whose centre is everywhere and whose circumference is nowhere.”

Richard Rohr, from Daily Meditation (26 January, 2015), adapted from Christ, Cosmology, and Consciousness and A New Cosmology: Nature as the First Bible