Many Messages (or, Lessons from a New Pastor)

Our church’s new pastor was inducted last Sunday.

In introducing himself, he brought a sermon that “laid his cards on the table” (so to speak). I mentioned to my mate, Kym, how I thought the message was great. “What message? There were many messages,” he replied.

Certainly there were. Here are a few of them:

  • It is OK–even recommended–to have doubts, to be skeptical, to ask questions.
  • Church ought to be a place where it is safe for anyone to ask their questions and be heard and understood.
  • ‘Because my church says so,’ or ‘Because my parents taught me that way’ is not a good enough reason to believe something.
  • We need to use our intellect to make sense of our Christianity. Our ability to reason is a gift.
  • It’s good to read books written by people outside of our frame of reference or subculture.
  • ‘Christian’ is not an adjective.
  • In following people and their teachings, it is important that we realise that anyone and anything can present or reflect God’s truth.
  • Therefore, it’s OK to use a Bob Dylan song in church. Even Bob Dylan can speak God’s truth.
  • It’s OK to have tattoos.
  • Tattoos are a great entry into hearing someone’s story and relating to them on some level.
  • Everyone has a story. If you don’t have one, watch out because God might give you one.
  • Saying ‘Amen’ in a sermon if you agree with something the pastor said is fine.

Mike spoke for around half an hour and gave us a good sense of who he was and where he was on his own adventure called life. Personally, I was so grateful that the long process of calling a pastor was finally complete–and we have found someone who seems to have a good theology, common sense, and a genuineness about him (who gets embarrassed at all the attention drawn to him and his family at his induction service.)

The cynic in me says ‘Time will tell whether this was a good choice.’ But the optimist in me is simply overwhelmed that we now have someone who has joined us on our journey who is not so concerned about telling us where to go as much as walking the road with us.

Champions of the Abstract

There is safety in the abstract.

Much as we celebrate community, relationship, and inter-connectedness in our faith communities, we often find ourselves drawn back to the abstract. We talk about God, seek to understand all the intricacies of theology and religiosity, study the Bible and learn the nuances of its original languages, write beautifully-crafted liturgies and prayers, and compose great hymns and songs.

In all this, I sense we are afraid: afraid of being seen for who we are, afraid of being “found out,” afraid of our reputation or our character being tainted by what others may perceive to be shallowness, “worldliness,” or immaturity.

I am somehow fascinated by the stories of those who have been brought up in a fundamentalist environment only to find freedom from this way of living in their adult years. What I have seen as a common thread throughout the vast majority of these accounts is the fear of being found to be a “compromiser” or a “traitor” by family, friends, and fellow church members. What happens, more often than not, is that, once they start asking questions or doing things that are outside of the list of permitted activities, they are shunned by their community. I have heard recently the sad story of a man whose parents told him “We cannot speak to you until you repent”—effectively severing their ties with him as long as he continued to behave in what their church considered to be an “immoral activity.”

So we talk in abstracts, saying things in such a way that we cannot be nailed down on a specific meaning. Our pastors preach sermons in the third person, lest their own experience weaken their reputation and cause the congregation to question their suitability for employment. We speak of our own lives in general terms, unwilling to give voice to our own struggles, questions, or understandings.

We are afraid of being misunderstood, rejected, disconnected from our community, or condemned for going against the tide of our subculture’s opinion.

We settle for the abstraction of an academic understanding of God and God’s revelation, and bottle up our own stories, feelings, beliefs, and our own real selves. As Parker J. Palmer writes:

“Instead of telling our vulnerable stories, we seek safety in abstractions, speaking to each other about our opinions, ideas and beliefs rather than about our lives.

“Academic culture blesses this practice by insisting that the more abstract our speech, the more likely we are to touch the universal truths that unite us. But what happens is exactly the reverse: as our discourse becomes more abstract, the less connected we feel. There is less sense of community among  intellectuals than in the most “primitive” society of storytellers.” (From A Hidden Wholeness as quoted in MINEmergent)

And so we have people living within a community feeling a sense of “detachment” or “unconnectedness” with people in that same community. The same is heard from those in many different communities of faith: “I can’t be myself.” It’s a perception that, while many freedoms are afforded, that of being able to freely tell your story is one that is too dangerous and, possibly, detrimental to maintaining unity within that organisation. Therefore, we sacrifice reality and connectedness for the safety of what is more acceptable and palatable to those who share our own cultural context. We become champions of the abstract, keeping our own subjective feelings, interpretations and experiences within.

When we dig deeper, we realise that this way of living is dangerous—it is detrimental to our wellbeing in so many ways, leading to resentment and bitterness which can then lead to all kinds of mental and physical disorders.

How can we rise above our fears and open up to the freedom of being who we are? I’ve got to do a lot more thinking about this because, I presume, there is no easy answer. However, I strongly suspect whatever resolution we find to this problem will be found within the framework of Jesus’ commands to “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind’; and, ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’” (Luke 10:27)

Is this possible, given the context of our human tendency to judge and condemn, putting down others and refusing love when another does not meet our standards?

With God, I believe, it is.

*  *  *  *  *  *  *

I’ve just finished reading an insightful book by Andrew Himes called The Sword of the Lord: The Roots of Fundamentalism in an American Family. He traces his own family tree in light of his grandfather’s high popularity in 20th Century American Fundamentalism. It is an enlightening book full of history lessons as well as a deep understanding of context and culture that birthed what is so widely known as “The Religious Right” in America. Yet, as one who was in the centre of this cult-like phenomenon, who turned to atheism and Marxism in his College years, and who came out the other side to witness his own redemption and understanding of the other, Andrew shares his story to show how understanding and grace trumps judgement and bitterness.

I’ll write more about this in a future post.

The Gospel According to Aaron

Aaron WeissAaron Weiss is the frontman in the band mewithoutYou. His take on Christian culture is radical and confronting–and insightful. I found this article and thought I had to share it because it challenges me on on lot of levels about how I live my life.

Here’s a snippet:

“… I’d say Christian pop culture errs on that side of Jesus is my best friend. It’s almost become a joke, Christianity’s attempt to make Jesus so palatable or attractive. Whatever you want, Jesus will do for you. The problem is that when Jesus demands that we sell our possessions and give to the poor—Well, if that were your best friend, I’m guessing you’d say, ‘Nah, that’s probably bad advice.’ If that’s the person of God, the spirit of God incarnate telling you to sell your possessions and give to the poor, I think we would take that more seriously.” Then he added quickly, “But I’m a hypocrite. ‘Quit using your thousand-dollar guitars to play songs about how you don’t need material possessions.’ Believe me, I think about quitting so often.”

This is actually an excerpt from the book by Daniel Radosh, Rapture Ready: Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian pop Culture.

Read the whole excerpt here…