We Sing This Song EVERY Sunday (and I still can’t sing it.)

My church has a theme song. Now that I think back on it, it’s not the first one. My grandparent’s church would always end each Sunday service by singing the first verse and chorus of “Sweet, Sweet Spirit” it was written by a lady named Doris Akers in 1962. It was inspired by an occasion when she was worship leader at her church and the practice was going so well, she was hesitant to end it so the rest of church could stick to the schedule.

The second one sings the first verse “The Family of God” which is a Gaither hymn that was inspired by a faithful church sticking with one of it’s families through a tough time they were going through. They sing this hymn at the start of every Sunday.

I’m not exactly a fan of songs older than I am, especially ones I’m not able to sing. I know that churches encourage a ‘joyful noise’ but I just can’t. It would be the equivalent of going to a New York Philharmonic Orchestra and volunteering to play as first chair with them with only three months practice and no performance experience whatsoever. I feel that every time the elders pull out their hymnals and sing, they’ve got it down and any contribution from me would detract from their perfection.

Bad Apples

Everybody who knows me knows why I often claim that all forms of dairy are terrible. As a young teenager, I developed lactose intolerance. No longer could I start my day drinking chocolate milk, have cheesy stuffed crust pizza for lunch, enjoy strawberry yogurt for a snack, drink chocolate shakes, and end my day with a big bowl of mint chocolate chip ice cream. My worst nightmare would be a church pizza party or an ice cream social … I’d starve. It really wasn’t fun having people look at me like I was weird for scraping off the cheese from the pizza – but it was better than the alternative … the consequences of actually eating any form of dairy. So yeah, all forms dairy is terrible because they taste so amazing and I can’t eat it ever again.

Which brings me to today’s subject – it’s human for those of us who have had a bad experience with something be resentful with everything associated with that thing for as long as we live. So those of us who have been to a dying or dividing church, had a bad experience with a terrible Christian, were dis-invited or kicked out of the fellowship of believers, were told to shave, dress more formally, were stared at, gossiped about, brought before the pastor, elders, and/or deacons to answer for our beliefs or behaviors … or in other words, were burned by the church are understandably unwilling to trust a church ever again. When we’re singled out and judged by the people that are supposed to love us – we can’t help but wonder if all churches are as terrible as this one. I’ve heard far too many stories – my Grandmother had visited a church that told her to wear more formal clothing when she showed up in sweatpants not long after having a surgery, my cousin visited her friend’s church for the first time as a teenager and was told to wear more modest clothing though her apparel was typical for this region when it’s nearly a hundred degrees out, a lady who was at my last church said that in her search for a church she came across one that clearly did not welcome her biracial daughter. These are the stories from people I know directly … the stories from people I don’t know are usually similar, and sometimes much worse.

If your church experience has been perfect, consider yourself lucky! More and more churches are ending up in the news because of crimes committed by it’s leadership and it’s members, sometimes no amount of money, no number of apologies can heal the wound – as Frodo says, some hurts go too deep. I know what you’d say, Jesus Christ’s love can fix all that! Jesus Christ’s love does fix it – it’s His Christian followers than can cause the wounds. Sometimes it’s unintentional, they might think that if they fix a person’s appearance, they’ll be right by God … but it’s not for them to fix how somebody else dresses, looks, or acts.

So as one who has had (minor) bad experiences with the church, I’ll do my best to try not to paint all Christians with the same brush – but I’ll be 110% understanding of the people who have had extremely bad experiences not being able to trust me or the church I represent ever again. I’ll also do my best to be aware of my church – if it leaves a trail of fiery destruction in the lives of anyone I know … I won’t remain there and support them financially through tithes. I won’t let anybody stand alone up against bad Christians. When bad Christians happen to good people … terrible things result. When good people turn into bad Christians, that’s even worse.

Nostalgic

Recently, I was looking around the internet for some inspiration. One of the posts that I read was called “Stop dressing so tacky for church.” It was an older post, all the points had been pretty thoroughly argued – but I had the sense that the real point of the
article was: “Why can’t things be like they were in the 1950’s?”

More and more I look into various topics, I’m seeing that the church has major nostalgia issues with the 1950’s or the 1960’s or the 1970’s or the 1980’s – oftentimes older members will say something like: “You should have seen the revival we had going on back in (insert random date from before you were born) … the pews were full of people!” It’s as if they got the formula right back then and haven’t changed since then, hoping that it’s just a matter of time and the people will be back … again, eventually. (This strategy might work if there was a time machine involved and they could live over the last two or three decades in a row. There has been a lot of change from the ’50s to the ’60s to the ’70s to the ’80s to the ’90s to the right now – people might not respond the same way to what worked back then – we might be just too different.)

To a degree, nostalgia makes sense. If you grew up watching Leave it to Beaver and Father Knows Best, wouldn’t you crave the simplicity of life those shows represented, even if you know they weren’t really true-to-life? Likewise, I’m from the generation that grew up watching Family Matters and Full House and sometimes even I miss that
simplicity … especially in this chaotic world. But, as much as I miss the shows I grew up watching, I would not want to re-live any particular decade to see them. (Perhaps I just know too much history for my own good.)

The problem with nostalgia is that it always emphasizes the positive experiences over the negative ones. There was plenty of things about the past that were wrong – that resulted in social change, the ingredients were all there, even if you were too young to understand what was going on around you. Nostalgia will remember churches full of people, but forget the tragedy that drove them there.

Nostalgia will make you spend so much time missing everything that’s gone about the past that you loved and forgetting everything about the past that you hated, that you miss out on everything there is to love about the present.

Questions

When reading through the gospels, one can’t help but notice how many times people stop Jesus to ask him a question or Jesus stopped to ask a question. People asked Him questions all the time. He always gave them an answer, but it usually wasn’t the sort of answer they were looking for.Jesus sometimes asked questions test whether or not people understood what he was saying, and sometimes it was to challenge what they had already believed. 

Sadly, asking too many or the wrong kinds of questions at  church can get you into trouble – especially if you catch people off-guard. Bible Studies are now designed so that only the ‘right’ questions get asked, and teachers are taught how to silence wrong ones:

> by suggesting that the discussion has gone off-topic, is unimportant, and frivolous. 

> by questioning the motivation behind the question.

> by suggesting that you are not apart of them and shouldn’t be taken seriously.

> by assuming that if you did understand the topic then you would agree with them – so you must not understand the topic.

> by making you doubt you’re right or making you doubt you understand the topic.

> by telling you to let it go.

> by telling you to ignore anything problematic.

> by telling you that your creating division and suggesting it’s more important to not cause division than to hear what you have to say.

> by telling you that you talk too much about the issue and should focus on other things.

 

> by trying to get back to the main topic, even if that means interrupting what you’re saying.

> by telling you not to question the facts (as is, the Bible clearly states …)

> by telling you not to question the interpretation of the facts (as in, the Bible clearly states …)

> by telling you not to question the person interpreting the Bible (as in, my degree on the wall there proves I know what I’m talking about …)

> by telling you not to question the translators that interpreted the Bible (because apparently the original language of scripture was the King James Version and it was never in Greek, Aramaic, or Latin.)

> by telling you that everybody else unanimously agrees on an interpretation and you’re wrong for having one of your own. (How dare you think for yourself? You might have your own opinion and become a heretic!)

> one last sign that the other person has lost the debate is when they stop arguing the topic and start attacking you personally. 

While Bible Studies are now a mostly quiet teaching from one person to a group, it hasn’t always been that way. There are some parts of the world where a religious text is loudly debated, each and every point is questioned, not only for it’s intended meaning, but it’s relevance today. Walking by such buildings, it’s likely easy to hear verses of scripture being read aloud and people talking about them. The students there would have to figure out what they believed and why they believed it to be true … as a result, they were filled with more conviction to actually follow the commands of scripture and make a change in their lives. 

Jesus never felt the need to prevent people from asking question, he never told them what they had to say was unimportant, He told them exactly what they needed to hear, even knowing they would get angry about the answers. A church that doesn’t allow questions, won’t have any answers.

Terribly Thirsty, Possibly Parched

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
2 Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare.” – Isaiah 55:1-2 (NIV)

I’d quote that whole passage, it’s probably my favorite among the old testament. (among the Nevi’im, or the Prophets, as I’ve just learned.)

I understand a lot about why God chose to speak through metaphors, things like thirst, work, and hunger are things that we all experience at some point no matter who we are, where we live, or in what stage of life we’re in.

Somewhere along the way, I came to realize I was spiritually thirsty – and that each church responds differently to that. Some churches are the sort that have only a comunion cup’s worth of spiritual water. It’s not a lot to go on, but it’s better than absolutely nothing. Some churches have a fair amount spiritual water – like a broken water fountain, it comes and it goes. Some churches do have an excess of spiritual water, and it’s working wonders for the members and their community. Most churches, I think, are somewhere between a little and a lot, but aren’t always capable of using it effectively.

But now that I’m older, I’ve come to realize that the real danger is people not knowing they’re spiritually thirsty and living a dehydrated life. For me – I came to realize that no matter however much spiritual water the churches offered on Wednesday and Sundays, it wasn’t enough. It resulted in this blog – letting me drink in the Bible, History, and God. I have come to learn and know a lot over the years – partially because I recognized that I couldn’t just leave it to the Church.

If I’m being tasked to teach because I seem to know a lot, I get that. If it’s because I’m the closest age-wise, I can see why my perspective would be useful. But I cannot teach material I do not believe to a group of youth who know precious little theology-wise, especially when the other teacher believes that any theology whatsoever is just too much for them to handle. By the time I was their age, I already knew at least half of what I know now. I was just waking up to that thirst and began asking questions, seeking truth, and knocking on doors to find out what I wanted to know. Hopefully spiritual thirst is contagious, becasue that’s the only thing that will sustain them for years to come.

Jesus said, “Everyone who drinks this water will get thirsty again and again. Anyone who drinks the water I give will never thirst—not ever. The water I give will be an artesian spring within, gushing fountains of endless life.” – John 4:13-14 (MSG)

Let’s Make a Change

I have always wondered what it might have been like to live through the years of the East-West Schism (early 1000s), when the One Church divided into the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church at a glacial pace. Did the people in charge vilify each other? Did the attendees of the church become hostile?

I have always wondered what it might have been like to live through the Protestant Reformation (1500s), when the Catholic Church was challenged on it’s beliefs and new Protestant Churches were started. Would I have been on the ‘right’ side?

I have always wondered what it might have been like to be apart of the Great Awakening (1700s, 1800s), when so much was going on – it was difficult to keep up. People were finding new passion for God, but also finding it necessary to start new denominations. Would I be caught up in the excitement? Would I be accidentally hurt by the overzealous or made to feel obsolete?

I also wonder if I would be among the groups resistant to change, or open to all the possibilities. I wonder what people will say about the church era of the second millennium. Will we be characterized by division? Will we find a way to heal spiritual wounds and unite churches? Will we follow in the footsteps of preceding generations? Will we find a new way to do the same old thing?

Change has never been easy, but there are times when it’s right – hopefully we can find a way to mend that which is broken, restore relationships, rejoice in our commonalities, and accept differences without insisting on separation. 

Let’s Break Some Rules

Sometimes when I think about the Church, Christianity, or Christians, I picture a massive building complex with many white halls and many small white rooms – like a hospital with no patients. All of them are squeaky-clean. The people live and work there together. They wear the right clothing, the speak the right words, they act the right way towards one another and follow all of the rules. They’re a very isolated group, preferring to remain inside and ignoring the fact that there even is an outside. 

Sometimes when I think about The Way or Christ-Followers, I picture a campground by a lake surrounded by a beautiful forest. There are people all over the place helping each other set up tents for the new arrivals, preparing meals, playing games together, singing songs, or exploring the nearby forest. They’re anything but clean, they wear all sorts of the wrong clothes, they don’t talk the right way, but always seem to find the best words to use. They recognize that there is always room for more people, and will often go out of their way to find them and invite them to join them.

I don’t understand how Christianity somehow ended up doing the exact same thing as the religion it broke away from, it doesn’t do it the exact same way, but it’s results are the same – follow the rules, live within the limits and you’ll be fine. I can’t picture that as what God had in mind – after all, Jesus was known for breaking every rule that the religious teachers taught were important.

Jesus spoke to people he wasn’t supposed to. (Samaritans, Women, Lepers, etc.) Jesus ate with people he wasn’t supposed to. (Tax collectors, sinners, etc.) Jesus performed the miracles of healing, curing, restoring, etc. on the wrong day of the week. (The Sabbath) Jesus broke the rules written by the religious leaders to show that God’s most important rules are to love God and to love one another.

Of Bible Studies and Studying the Bible

I think I call them Bible Studies out of habit, not because that’s what they are. They’re small books written by people to help small groups of other people relate to the Bible by not studying the Bible itself. They might use a verse here or there, from various Bible versions, but the majority of the text will be anecdotes on how the author felt, experienced, or realized something about the Bible by something that was going on in his or her life without actually quoting Scripture itself. Much of the group activity is discussion about what we think or feel about the anecdote – which isn’t a problem for the natural extroverts, but can be extremely uncomfortable for the introverts among us. Conversations were never really allowed to go off-topic, the studies are pretty regimented about what to allow when.

As I got older, the next sort of Bible Study was based on actual books, the ones off of the Christian best-seller list. We’d read a chapter over the week and discuss it on Sunday. Think Book Club, always on-topic, nothing deep about scripture. These books would quote from scripture slightly more than the small group books did, but few elaborated on scripture, and always found a way to get back to the main theme of the book – how the author realized something about the Bible through their various life experiences that regular people will never get to experience for themselves – like going from country to country to country meeting all sorts of people and having a translator conveniently around to explain things to them about God.

Now that I’m in the adult class, we’re actually stuying a book called the Bible. We only get through two or three verses at a time because we discuss each section of the verse in context. If the discussion ever goes off-topic, we go where it does, learning whatever we can along the way. It’s probably because I learned nothing from the first two sorts of studies that I feel like I’m learning everything actually stuying the Bible.

Which brings me to an actual verse today – Hebrews 6:7, “Land that drinks in the rain often falling on it and that produces a crop useful to those for whom it is farmed receives the blessing of God.”

Now that I’ve tasted the rain, I don’t think I could teach the small book Bible Studies – I just looked through one of the guides and was disappointed by it’s shallowness. The students that the study is marketed to are old enough to handle more than two short verses each week! I want to help the students realize that they can figure out what they believe and why the believe it for themselves, not use a random person’s memoir to learn about God.

Renewal

“It isn’t typical”

“It’s not normal”

“It’s not what I’m used to”

“It doesn’t seem normative to me” 

“It’s not how / what I was brought up to believe was right”

***

Lately, I’ve been running into these statements on and off-line. Usually it’s talking about change (which has been sort of theme of my last few posts.) I get it – normal is a comfort zone, you know entirely what to expect from others and what sort of behavior is expected from you. Normal is easy, it never challenges you, it never scares you, it’s never different.

“12 (1)Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” – Romans 12:1-2

Christianity calls you to be absolutely different than normal. And let’s make a distinction here, I’m not talking about the ‘normal’ routines Christians have turned Sundays into – much of the pattern of the world has slipped into church, corruption, lies, abuse, theft, etc.Wherever you see such things, you know that there’s nothing of Jesus there. Just look at the rest of the verse – ‘Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

I’ve always wondered which meaning of ‘renew’ was most accurate in this case: to replace something that was broken, to give fresh life or strength to someone, or to re-establish a relationship … perhaps it’s all of them. After all, unless you re-establish your relationship with God by replacing that which is broken (sin) with His Son, giving you fresh life and strengthening you, how are you to be able to carry out the other part of the verse? “Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is — his good, pleasing and perfect will.”

One thing that really bothers me, is that many in the church remain in the worldly norms – if the church doesn’t renew its relationship with God, installing Jesus as it’s head (not figuratively, but acting as if that’s what they really believed.) Then it might be able to do lots of good – but it’s up to us as believers to tell others the truth. Hopefully in time churches will remember their first love, Jesus, and not the money that they have gotten carried away with. As we can see, the churches can’t carry out the last part of the verse, but many believers can.

Imperfect Family

Sometimes I wonder if Christianity worships the nuclear family unit. You know, one husband, one wife, and one daughter, and one son. Ideally, they’d all be born-again, bible-believing, perfectly behaved, not in debt, in a big white house with a picket fence, they’d have a cat, and dog, a barbecue grill, and most importantly of all, be happy all the time. The problem is that the ideal and perfect nuclear family doesn’t … and probably never did … exist.

It makes me think of the only episode of Barney and Friends I can remember. It’s family night. All the kids are excitedly talking about their moms, dads, brothers, and sisters. Everybody except the little girl sitting by herself on the swing. She explains to the giant purple and green dinosaur that her family is just her, her mother, and nana, her grandmother. She felt like she had been left out and couldn’t relate to the others because her family was too small.

Christianity is supposed to be a family of believers, made up of all sorts of smaller families. It’s supposed to be equally welcoming to each individual. It’s not supposed to pick and chose favorites. I know that the big excuse for Christianity’s disconnect from reality is the ‘breakdown of traditional family’. I don’t think that’s the case.

Family is a changing concept. Each new century defines it’s own version of a typical family. An ancient Roman family would have consisted of a father who made all legal decisions and many life-or-death decisions for his wife, unmarried daughters, younger children, sons, sons’ wives, sons’ children, and even slaves – a small Roman family could easily be a few dozen people all-together. As there were few ways to prevent having children, most families were quite large. There were also few ways of preventing children from dying, which occurred frequently. Also, aged parents would eventually move in with one of their children’s family to live out their last days. During my study of genealogy, it amazed how generations ago, some of my ancestor’s families consisted of ten to twelve children. I said all that to say that our notion of a traditional nuclear family entirely misses the mark of actual families in historical settings.

When it comes to marriage and divorce – our ancestors had little choice, being married gave you respected status in the community and the security of knowing that you won’t be on your own as you get older. It also gave you more resources when comes to the basics, food, water, clothing, and shelter. Single men and women were under so much pressure to marry and have children that it seemed that being single for any length of time was down-right unacceptable.

However, some of America’s churches are trying to drill into believers the idea that they should strive for the nuclear family without giving a second thought to all the different sorts of families that God put together. They tell these families what’s expected of each and every member. These churches can ignore and exclude individuals and families that don’t match their idea, and as a result do a lot of harm unintentionally. Sometimes I think they just don’t know how to acknowledge and accept such families, be they re-married, single, in the process of divorce, or questionable / undecided. God didn’t make families that were perfect in the Bible. King David’s family fought for centuries for the rule of the Kingdom. Hannah’s family was difficult to get along with (her husband’s other wife, especially.) Hagar was mistreated and fled from her family (ancient households included slaves as family members in some instances,) even in the New Testament, there’s a lot of questions about how a Christian family ought to be. If the families in the Bible weren’t perfect, why would He make the perfect family here and now? Did it take him all this time to get it right?

What we really need to do is to change our perspective. We need to quit trying to make people fit into a perfect family. We should tell the singles that they should enjoy having God all to themselves as long as it lasts. We should rally behind the single moms and dads without making them feel like they must marry or else be shamed or shunned by the Church. We should do what we can to help young married couples work together through the rough early years without being judgmental as to whether or not they’re doing family the right way. We should be supportive when families face difficulties. We shouldn’t treat people like they’re bad Christians if their first marriage didn’t work out. We shouldn’t pretend that abuse doesn’t happen – we must make people aware that abuse is not okay. We shouldn’t tell people that it’s their obligation to have children to turn into Christians, rather they’re free to decide how big or little their family will be.

God does put all sorts of families together – this is most true is the biggest, strangest, least ‘traditional’ family of them all – the family of believers, where there are no favorites, no one is excluded or ignored, and there is enough of everything for everybody. One thing is certain, our family reunion will be anything but dull.