Where we go Wrong (Part 2)

in my last post I wrote about kind atheists and mean Christians and how we are wrong in assuming all those who do not embrace our particular form of faith are evil and have an untoward agenda.

I have been reading a few incredible books recently that have been raising all sorts of questions, and I’m grateful to the men and women who are able to frame these in such a thought-provoking manner.

Rachel Held-Evans wrote a particularly poignant book that tells numerous stories of her formative years growing up in Evangelicalism. It’s simply called Faith Unraveled: Gow a Girl Who Knew all the Answers Learned to ask the Questions. Through these stories Rachel shares her struggle with many of the idiosyncrecies often associated with American Evangelicals such as the self-focused “I’m blessed” attitude, for example: thanking God for good weather for your wedding when a hurricane is at that moment wiping out entire towns and leaving people dead, injured, or homeless. Among other things she addresses the idea of living “biblically,” the position of LGBTQ folk in the church, women in ministry and Biblical inerrancy. All together, Held-Evans has painted a stark and realistic view of modern Christianity whilst showing how, within the very institutions that brought this pain, people are rising up and bringing healing and hope, reforming and changing the organisations that tried to destroy them.

Another book I would highly recommend is the new Harper Lee (To Kill a Mickingbird) novel Go Set a Watchman. It took a while for this book to engage me. It wasn’t really until around the eighth chapter that I began to see beyond the words and into the intent of the author. What first appeared to be a rather mediocre narrative about life in the early twentieth century South took on the air of prophetic voice of one caught in the middle of the 1960’s Desegregation Movement, particularly feeling the pull between the paradigm embraced by her father (Atticus Finch) and that of her own deep-rooted convictions. Like Faith Unraveled, Watchman recognises the tension between not only generations but also between worldviews. Rather than resolving that tension, both authors deconstruct the conflict and then reconstruct it in such a way that brings a sense of understanding and peace into the relationships (yet not fully resolving the underlying tension).

How to hold a sense of peace in relationships that appear to be on the two ends of the spectrum has always been of particular difficulty to me. Often I have found the maxim of loving my neighbour truly troublesome at times, especially when my neighbour is actively and vocally propagating what I consider damaging. Yet, in both of these books, the possibility of living at peace with all is something that is not only seen as desirable but genuinely possible.

I have one more book to add to this mix, and it is The Gospel of Inclusion by Carlton Pearson. I will look into the message of this book in a later post, but will touch on the main story here.

Carlton Pearson was an Associate of Oral Roberts, an Evangelist and a megachurch Pastor of a Pentecostal church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That is, until he started seeing hell in a different light than his colleagues. Recounting his experiences in Rob Bell’s Robcast podcast, Bishop Pearson shares a turning point in his life–how he had a long conversation with the ageing Billy Graham shortly after the Oklahoma City bombing, a discussion in which the famous Evangelist questioned the validity of his own 60-year ministry with remorse that he hadn’t left the world a better place, despite the millions “saved” in his numerous campaigns. This led Pearson to ask why this was so and, after much thought, study and prayer, to the conclusion that the gospel as it is traditionally understood (as a guilt- and fear-based message) is not at all how Jesus preached it. His argument through this book is that we must reclaim the good news that God has already redeemed all humanity and our Evangelistic message is truly good news to all: you are delivered, you are free! Live in the light and love of God.

For this. The Council of African-Anerican Bishops excommunicated Pearson, labelling him a heretic. He lost his church, his position on the board of ORU and many, many friends. Yet, in spite of all this, he believes that there is hope for the Church and he is at peace with her. Sure, the Church needs to change. One of his favourite statements is that “[The Church] is not growing; it is getting fat,” meaning that we are comfortable with who we are and what we believe. We have settled for ease in our places of worship rather than the discomfort that comes in asking the tough questions and facing the realities that our world is not a better place despite the centuries of spreading the “good news” to every nation. 

In the end, Pearson states that we are getting it wrong when we fail to question our understanding of the “good news” and settling for what is dictated to us by tradition, politics, church, or family. We are getting fat, not growing. We are caught in our parents’ worldview, our religious dogma, the doctrines of our Church, having never questioned their monopoly of the Divine. It is only when we see our faith unraveled that we can see order amidst the mess and a new and genuine faith arising from the ashes. Nothing is lost. Even uncertainty is a gift. There is hope. All is and will be redeemed.

Some may call this heresy. I call it evolution: an evolving faith that changes, grows and expands as new light is received. Perhaps it’s time we as a Church start asking the right questions. Perhaps it is time to be courageous and dare to be unsettled. Perhaps it is time to reclaim the “good news” as good news and take the steps necessary to leave this world a better place.

Traditions

It’s ironic, in a nation where Christmas Day is celebrated in the middle of Summer when the weather’s usually hot and humid, that the shopping malls and radio stations still play Christmas music a la Currier & Ives—singing about sleighs, snow and sitting by the fire. The Christmas dinner of choice in most households, even in 40-dgree heat (100+ on the old scale) is still a roast turkey and piping hot vegetables. And the ubiquitous Santa Claus suffers through days in stuffy faux-snow castles wearing a long-sleeved fur-lined coat, long pants and boots.

Australia_SantaWhy is it that, miles away from the northern hemisphere, traditions are carried on through the generations as if one is living in Europe, the U.K. or America?

Apart from the inroads of Americanism into our culture, Australians by-and-large carry in traditions of their ancestors to a fault (even though shrimp and cold meats are slowly usurping prime position on the table (and the turkeys breathe a collective sigh of relief).

Tradition is a powerful motivation. One only needs to visit any family in a growing number of ethnic communities to see that the holiday itself takes on different (or no) meaning, depending on the country of origin.

Christianity, too, has its traditions. And just like traditions differ between Afghans, Chinese and Italian immigrants, so traditions within Christendom vary depending on denomination and, often, nation of origin of that denomination.

Regardless of the origins or the variables evident, traditions—rituals, liturgies, stories, histories—are a grounding force in religion. I believe they are important elements of faith that bring to the table a sense of place, a history. In my opinion, we need history to show us not only where we came from, but also bring perspective into the present and help us in envisioning a trajectory into the future.

Traditions may be rituals such as candle lighting during Advent, special stories read on Christmas Eve, a Christmas Day church service, the pennies baked into plum puddings or great-grandma’s hand-embroidered doilies on the dinner table. They may be the Christmas hymns we sing (a.k.a. carols), the legend of St Nicholas, or the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Traditions are like points on a map that show us where we have been, or like mile markers to show us where we are or how far we have to go.

They give us a sense of belonging.

They ground us in our ever-changing culture.

They give us a sense of stability.

They show us, in symbolic picture, prose or ritual, what is possible.

They give us hope for those who follow, that they too will be able to grasp the meaning and find a way to live in generations to come with purpose and faith.

Traditions may change. Rituals may evolve. But may the myriad of ways they speak into our lives always bring us joy, peace, love and a sense of hope for the future.

God Showed Up?

worship_lightI am concerned about the language we use when we speak of God.

Words are important. They ought not to be thrown about casually as if they were cheap, Reject Shop candy.

Words have power. Used wisely and appropriately, they can change lives, build communities, shape nations. Used foolishly they can bring false understanding, stir hatred, or incite fear.

That’s why I am troubled by the cheap, throwaway lines used by church leaders such as “Let’s make Jesus famous” (like God’s son is a Hollywood A-list celebrity nobody knows). Or the way people speak of our “unworthiness” or “sinfulness” (I was under the impression that God in grace and immense love has made us worthy). Or, directed towards God, “Lord, come down and meet with us here today” (as if God is one who is distant, apart from us, and whose presence depends on our invitation or prayer).

But on the peak of this mountain of bargain-basement language is the phrase used often after an especially moving time of worship (a.k.a. emotionally-charged singing): “And God showed up.”

God showed up? Really?

God chose this moment in time, and this particular location (usually within the confines of a church building) waiting patiently until we were fervently praying and singing and raising our hands to “show up”?

Allow me to turn this one on its head.

God didn’t show up.

God doesn’t show up.

God never needs to show up.

God is always here.

Now.

With us.

Present.

It is we who “show up” when we realise that God has always been here. It is we who “show up” when we become aware that we are always standing on holy ground and everything and everyone around us is engulfed in the presence of the Divine.

It is we who “show up” when we respond to these encounters by acknowledging that is our blindness that kept us from seeing God and our misplaced focus that kept us from entering the divine dance.

“Surely the Lord is in this place,” the Hebrew patriarch Jacob is quoted as saying, “—and I wasn’t even aware of it!” (Genesis 28:16, NLT)

God is not some magical genie whom we can summon any time we need a favour, a fix, or a recharge.

God is not dependent on our prayers, our Facebook “likes,” or certain worship songs sung in a certain sincere and holy manner to visit with us.

God is here.

Not just in a church building or in a Christian gathering, but…

…in every place (home, garden, mosque, desert, public square)…

…at any gathering (class, football game, bat mitzvah, parliament)…

…at any given moment in time (now, tomorrow, when you turn 80 years old, forever).

Sacred Presence. Now. Always.

It’s us who need to show up.

It’s our eyes that need to be opened.

It’s we who need to wake up and be aware of the great dance going on around us all the time.

And in waking from our sleep, we rise to join in and celebrate the God who is always with us.

*  *  *  *  *

My thinking about the concept of God has been challenged and strengthened by the framework Rob Bell has proposed in both his books and his podcast. I highly recommend his most recent episodes on God Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3, as well has his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God. I also recommend Pete Rollins’s similarly-titled book, How (Not) to Speak of God. Both are available on Amazon Kindle.

My understanding is evolving and is, as I noticed when I looked back at a few of my older posts, changing. I want to keep on this trajectory since I feel this area is, in fact, inexhaustible and my present understanding, relatively speaking, has quite a long way to grow.

Blame God

So I’m talking with a friend of mine and he says something like, “God has a good thing going for him.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“Well,” he replies, “Who else do you know that gets thanks and praise for all the good things he supposedly does, but cops none of the blame or criticism for the bad things which, surprisingly, also happen on his watch?”

My brain seems to draw from somewhere deep in my subconscious, Evangelical past and (embarrassingly) comes out with something along the lines of, “You can’t blame God for what humanity has brought upon itself by its continued rejection of God. After all, God has given us freewill and, if we choose to go against his laws, there will be consequences.”

(I cringe now to think there could have ever been a day when I said such things; after all, this is exactly how loonies such as Pat Robertson and Jim Bakker portray their God and his interaction with ‘dirty rotten sinners’.)

My friend (let’s call him Bob) continues.

“Yeah, but you believe God is all-knowing, all-powerful, and present everywhere, right?”

I nod my head in agreement.

“And yet, in spite of the fact that God could stop the tsunami, cripple the 9/11 hijackers, bring the Pakistani earthquake below 1 on the scale, heal my mum of cancer and turn back that massive hurricane, he didn’t.”

I respond: “God can’t just arbitrarily interfere with the course of nature and, in the case of the hijackers, he won’t overrule the free will of human beings to decide to do evil.” (My response is a little weak, given that I catch myself partway trying to justify God’s actions, or kinda trying to place limits on The Almighty–and feel somewhat guilty for doing this.)

Bob isn’t satisfied with this canned, classic textbook answer.

“If you were able,” he says, lifting a semi-accusing finger to my face, “to save your child from certain death by running out in the street and grabbing him, pulling him to safety before the truck roared past, you would, wouldn’t you?”

The way he asked this question made me wonder if Bob thought I was some sort of monster.

“Of course I would; he’s my kid. I would never allow him to be harmed.”

I noticed that smug, “gotcha” look come across Bob’s face. I instantly knew where this conversation was headed.

“Yet, God—whom you say loves all of us as a father loves his children—will allow his children to go through hell, to lose family members, their health, their homes, their livelihood, and even their own lives in disasters that he himself could have stopped.”

“Yeah, but . . .” (I sensed I was starting to sound like a whining 3rd-grader) “. . . but God can’t change the natural course of things. He’s put laws in place that govern the weather, the earth and human beings. He can’t just override these laws.”

Bob laughed. “Seriously, you should listen to yourself! You sound like you’re trying to convince yourself that your God isn’t as big or powerful or loving as you’ve been led to believe. So would you say to your son when he gets hit by that truck, ‘That’s the consequence of not obeying my rule of staying in our yard’?”

He had a point. I was beginning to realise that I had created a wonderful, rather small box to contain my God. I had assumed that those who were supposed to know all about God (theologians, pastors, Sunday School teachers) were right when they taught me this catechistic auto-response, that God allowed such happenings because he couldn’t go against his natural laws and couldn’t and wouldn’t interfere with humanity’s free will.

But this put God in a predicament because throughout the Bible (it is said) he did intervene, did interfere and did overrule. If the Bible is fact, then God could choose to step down out of heaven and come to our aid (Isn’t it funny how we placed him “up there” when we say that he is everywhere? But then, it’s also humorous when we anthropomorphise God to be a male when ‘he’ is not even human. But I digress.) God could choose to stop the winds and the waves, the wars, befuddle hijackers and terrorists, or heal the young mother of her cancer.

But.

God.

Doesn’t.

Why not?

I know this has led many people just like my friend Bob to stop believing there is a God, or at least a personal, loving, interacting Deity. I can understand their frustration and the incoherence of much of what religion portrays God to be.

I am also aware of the multitude of books, articles and talks that have been published on this problem of human suffering. Most de-converted Christians would say this is the one big question that caused them to rethink the whole idea of the existence of God.

Personally, I continually try to reconcile this dichotomy in my own mind. While at one time this had caused me great concern and anxiety, I now am now beginning to see how I can live with the tension as many before me have also learned.

 

Despite this, I take a page from the Hebrew prophet Jeremiah, the legend of Job, from David’s psalms of lament, and from Ecclesiastes and don’t feel in the least bit conflicted when I cry out in anger to God, “Why?” when my words sound more accusing than trusting, when I place the blame solely and completely on Him who, tradition tells us, is without blame.

And I believe that God welcomes my dissent. I think it’s this honest, confrontational, letting loose that God expects from his children. As Rob puts it, God wants us to rip open our rib cage and let our heart out. It’s in these moments of openness and vulnerability that we are changed and we begin to see things framed in a new consciousness, a new understanding and a deeper relationship with the Divine.

This is not an easy answer. There is no such thing. As long as we have apparent inconsistencies, we will struggle to understand God or conceptualise Deity. We may change our way of seeing things. Hell, we may even decide it’s easier not to believe.

Regardless of what we choose to do, I’m sure God is more generous, and more loving than we could comprehend anyhow, and would still do all he or she could to get that message across to us, even if it’s in the most unlikely of sources, like Bob.

Where we go Wrong

crochety-old-mr-gruff-tiger-lilly-jan-28“Watch out for them. They will corrupt your mind. They have no sense of morality or accountability. They do whatever they want and most of what they do is evil and an abomination to God.”

This is the message I heard from the authority figures in my life as I was growing up. Being atheist immediately placed a person in the same category as paedophiles, wife-beaters, and mass murderers. They were depicted as angry, mean and downright unfriendly. (The leaflet shown above is just one of the many I have seen that were used to teach us that atheists are evil, mean, uneducated, corrupting and immoral influences and we should avoid them at any cost.)

So imagine my surprise to find out that non-belief doesn’t make you a Grinch, or even put you on the Most Wanted list! The fact that someone such as this could be friendly? Really? But they don’t have Jesus in their heart. They don’t read the Bible. They wouldn’t know how to be nice. Right?

How wrong I was.

Not only do they embrace such mantras as “Live better. Help often. Wonder more,*” but they give blood, volunteer at the soup kitchen, drive for Meals-on-wheels, run charities, volunteer for humanitarian causes and care deeply about many of the same things I care about. Some of them I have the privilege as counting as good friends and valued associates.

That’s probably why I was drawn to The Friendly Atheist website and then podcast by Hemant Mehta. Hemant started this venture after selling his soul on eBay and then writing a blog and a book about it. He has no problem having conversations with Christians and non-believers alike and learning from anyone with something of value to say. I find his method intriguing and insights compelling.

Reading his book I Sold My Soul on eBay, I was struck by someone who was open-minded and willing to admit that he didn’t know it all. He put that which he didn’t believe existed, his soul, up for sale and not only took bids on it, but agreed that, for every $10 raised, he would visit one religious service. The winning bidder, John Henson, compiled a list of all the churches he wanted Hemant to visit and then asked that he write blog posts about these churches and what he learned about Christianity through his interaction with these people of faith.

These blog posts became the book.

He experienced some crazy stuff, was amazed by other committed and caring folk (I guess we aren’t the only ones who pigeonhole whole groups of people), and was able to examine Christian worship from a purely objective point of view.

He admitted that many things the Church in general has gotten right, though he tends to qualify this by emphasising that his sample set was a small proportion of Christianity as a whole, and mostly focused around the Midwest U.S.

He also sees a whole lot that we have gotten wrong, including the idea that all atheists are sad, angry and have experienced a God-centred trauma at some point in their20130221-105105 life (which is essentially the theme of the insensitive, ignorant and grossly inaccurate screenplay of the movie God is Not Dead.)

The truth is, we as professing Christians (at least a fair percentage of us) are also angry, mean-spirited, immoral and hateful people. Our tradition has us believing in a god who throws people who have never been given a chance to repent into a place where they will be roasted forever, who commanded horrific acts of genocide, even presiding over the intentional elimination of every man, woman, child and creature on the planet at one point in what many believe to be ‘history.’ I intentionally use the word ‘god’ because this god is small, tribal, angry, and manipulative. The God I believe that is shown in Jesus is a God of love, peace, joy, inclusion and acceptance. This is a God whose character I cannot reconcile with the god of the Hebrew patriarchs. In this, and many other areas, I must admit that I, too, don’t have all the answers.

So I defer to kindness, peace, hope, love–all traits that good-hearted people of both atheist and theist positions embrace. I choose to live in harmony with my non-believing brothers and sisters. I choose not to have an agenda of persuasion whenever I am with them. I (and I think God is with me on this because, as you know from my previous posts, God thinks like me) would rather see a kind atheist than a mean Christian. 

_________

* The mantra of a growing popular humanist movement, The Sunday Assembly, that replaces the church service with an uplifting secular meeting, held on Sundays.

Repost: “Wannabe Cool” Christianity

I recently came across a piece in The Wall Street Journal’s Opinion Journal by Brett McCracken entitled “The Perils of ‘Wannabe Cool’ Christianity.” It made for interesting reading insomuch as McCracken delved into the current American Evangelical scene which tends to go all out for the latest trends. The reasoning often used is that they need to attract the younger generations to church. But, as McCracken rightly asks, “What sort of Christianity are they being converted to?”

In his book, “The Courage to Be Protestant,” David Wells writes: “The born-again, marketing church has calculated that unless it makes deep, serious cultural adaptations, it will go out of business, especially with the younger generations. What it has not considered carefully enough is that it may well be putting itself out of business with God.

“And the further irony,” he adds, “is that the younger generations who are less impressed by whiz-bang technology, who often see through what is slick and glitzy, and who have been on the receiving end of enough marketing to nauseate them, are as likely to walk away from these oh-so-relevant churches as to walk into them.”

If the evangelical Christian leadership thinks that “cool Christianity” is a sustainable path forward, they are severely mistaken. As a twentysomething, I can say with confidence that when it comes to church, we don’t want cool as much as we want real.

If we are interested in Christianity in any sort of serious way, it is not because it’s easy or trendy or popular. It’s because Jesus himself is appealing, and what he says rings true. It’s because the world we inhabit is utterly phony, ephemeral, narcissistic, image-obsessed and sex-drenched—and we want an alternative. It’s not because we want more of the same. (Read the entire article here.)

I have long been a critic of the attractional model of doing Church [follow the link for an excellent post about the attractional vs missional models]. It seems to me that if our aim is to attract people into a church service [and thus into a relationship with God] by offering targeted programs, contemporary high-tech services, and barista coffee, those people are just as likely to walk out the door when a church down the road offers more ‘relevant’ programs, better worship bands, or better-tasting coffee.

What we need to keep in mind in all our church activities is the power of a real relationship, both with God and with each other. And I’m not just talking about saying that we have a relationship, but living that relationship every day.

And that, in its essence, is love. It’s what St Paul speaks of so highly when he writes a enormously-relevant verse in 1 Corinthians 13:

If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all his mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, “Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love,  I’m nothing.  If I give everything I own to the poor and even go to the stake to be burned as a martyr, but I don’t love, I’ve gotten nowhere. So, no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love. (1 Cor. 13:1-7, The Message)

So much as I’d love the chance to tweet my thoughts about the pastor’s sermon during the service, or hook up on Facebook with the middle-aged adults group, join YouTube’s battle of the church bands, or participate in “iChurch,” nothing–absolutely nothing–substitutes for genuine, loving relationships in the context of Christian community.

I don’t think I’m alone on this one.

The Right Thing To Do

I came across this from Mark Miller this week and know it will inspire you. This is truly evidence that there is a better way.

Mark H. Miller's Blog

One of the most apt questions that should guide and encourage the manner of life we live is this, “How is love best served?”

To that I add another: “What is the right thing to do?”

Believe me. That is not academic. In our new home situation the only water that pooled was in our back yard. We were lucky. Very lucky. Our thanks to the many family and friends who inquired.

But with that the right thing to do is to check with family and friends who may have been in harm’s way. I have learned one family from a former congregation was clobbered by the flooding waters in and through San Marcos. First agenda in the morning—tis pretty late tonight—is to contact them and see what can be done. And honestly. If they need someone to help clean out the muck and pooled water, I know where my…

View original post 109 more words