“Take your business elsewhere. I won’t serve you!”

Growing up, there was one small sign on the door of every business that  always read: “No shoes, No shirt, No service.” It seems that in recent  years, Christians have added: “and No sinners!” to that sign.

But they don’t mean ‘No sinners’ in the general context, or they would  have no one to do business with – they mean “no homosexuals.” Which discriminates against one particular kind of sinner and ignores all the rest.

This brings up the question whether or not all sins are equal – after all, if there are worse sins, then it would be wiser to specifically deny that sort of sinner service as well. And if all sins are indeed equal, then it seems wrong to provide services for all the other kinds of
sinners.

That’s when I stumbled across one well-known Christian personality who claimed that all sins were not equal because the Old Testament declared different punishments for different sins. Now we have to categorize these unequal sins by degree of severity – but the problem is that while we might not have a problem with a little white lie, a bold lie would be worse – yet they both fall under the category of lying and you have to choose if that’s worse than theft (in the face of hunger), theft (to support an addiction) or theft (boredom). There is always the danger that whatever system of categorization we use, what sounds reasonable to us might not be right according to God’s definition.

Since ‘sin is lawlessness’, we have to consider what is usually meant by ‘the law’; it’s the Old Testament commandments that were laid down at the time the Israelites wandered through the wilderness and re-established when King Solomon built the first temple. However, Christians are not required to be circumcised, eat kosher food, or wear clothing of only one kind of cloth. During the Council of Jerusalem, christians came together to decide the issues and decided that these laws were the only ones that gentiles should keep: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements: You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things.” – Acts 15:28-29

But the ‘wages of sin is death’, which seems to indicate that ultimately, they all have the same punishment. Sure, we can commit small sins and be punished on earth, but that does not mean that we will get out of the eternal punishment of sins. So perhaps the answer to the question of whether or not all sins are equal is yes and no; no they are not equal in life where it remains possible to be forgiven for them, but they are all equal in death where forgiveness cannot be secured. Even so, there’s no biblical rule that allows for Christians to deny services to people on the basis of one particular sin.

“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

So long as you don’t know whether a person is or isn’t a Christian, you should never deny them the services of their business because there are two possible outcomes; either you refuse to associate with sexually immoral Christians as the Bible says you should, or you refuse to associate with sexually immoral non-Christians as the Bible says you should not judge them. But let’s remember that while ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is used in this passage, it means a believer you are close to. Trying to correct Christians you don’t know is more likely to cause offense than to restore their relationship with God.

It’s a fine line to walk – you can associate with all sorts of sinners as long as they aren’t believers, but once they do become a brother or sister in the faith, you have a problem. Either fold them in gently, over time helping them to overcome sin (which I’m not entirely conviced is something that believers can do for one another, some things are beyond us as humans) or outright refuse to associate with them as it’s clear that they’re still sinning Christians. Just be careful not to sin yourself, and not to sin against your newfound brother or sister in the faith. That’s why we were warned to watch out for legalism. But it’s one thing to talk about sin in general when you don’t know a person who sins in that way. Most people have this attitude of “It’s so easy for me, I don’t get why it’s hard for you.” which persists in church. It seems as if many Christians have forgotten how to extend grace because they try to exist in a way where they don’t need others to be graceful to them. If you walk in love and in grace, then the law becomes a bit of a grey zone.

Besides, sexually immoral is such a general term, it rules out not just one particular type of sinner, but a great many. The difference is that most people don’t have such a visible sort of sexual sin. It’s not as if all people on a list of offenders have to wear something that identifies them as such or all adulturers and divorced individuals have to wear As or Ds. So it just adds to the hypocrisy to single out one sort of sin and one sort of sexual immorality while serving all the rest. It seems to me that the simplest solution is to always serve all customers to the best of your ability without reguard to religious belief or percieved sins. To pick and choose might be making a stand, but it could very well be making the wrong stand and sending the wrong message.

Love Songs to God

Sometimes I wonder if King David had existed in the New Testament time, what would have the Psalms looked like then? I mean, all he had was basically the first few books of the Bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Joshua, Judges and Ruth, as his own story takes place in Samuel, 1 Kings, and 1 Chronicles and he wrote most of the Psalms. There’s a lot in the Bible that hadn’t happened for him to rejoice over, be angry about, or seek after God.

What if, he had witnessed the events of the New Testament? The miracles, the martyrs, the mission, and the rest of it? How would he celebrate that?

Those who are familiar with the Worship Wars often see two sides to the problem:

“The way it’s always been done is the way it’s always worked. God inspired these hymn-writers mostly in the 1800s (some before, some after) and the popular works were bound in book-form for congregations to sing.”

“This new stuff is great – I can understand the words, it’s really singable which is good because I never learned how. It’s the sort of sing I’d sing walking down the street, something really connects with me.”

And there are the countless complaints about the other side:

“It’s love songs! It’s entirely inappropriate and I feel embarrassed singing those words to almighty God!”

“Those songs are old and boring and difficult to sing and they make me want to cry. I don’t get what’s so great about them.”

Let’s straighten something out now:

The oldest Christian hymn ever discovered dates back to the end of the 3rd Century A.D. – the Oxyrhynchus hymn. It was not drawn on Bible passages or the Bible for that matter, these are it’s surviving lyrics translated into English:

together all the eminent ones of God / night nor day let them be silent let the luminus stars not / let the rushing of winds, the sources of all surging waters cease while we hymn / Father and Son and Holy Spirit let all the powers answer “amen amen strength praise / and glory forever to God the sole giver of all good things amen amen

The other oldest hymn is called the Phos Hilaron – you might know it as O Gladsome Light as it remains in use in some churches and it’s nearly as old:

O Light gladsome of the holy glory of the Immortal Father / the Heavenly, the Holy, the Blessed, O Jesus Christ / having come upon the setting of the sun, having seen the light of the evening / we praise the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit: God. / Worthy it is at all times to praise Thee in joyful voices / O Son of God, Giver of Life, for which the world glorifies Thee.

All of the older original hymns are lost to time. But God seems to consistently inspire each new generation to create their own music – so it seems logical that He would continue to do so until people ran out of new songs to sing. King David use the words “new song” in his Psalms six times – so clearly he wasn’t one to repeat his praises to God indefinitely in the oldest most traditional format he had ever learned.

So I would think that if King David had lived in the New Testament era, he would write 150 new Psalms celebrating Jesus. Which is why I think that God didn’t just quit inspiring praises in the 1800s. I don’t think He’s anywhere near being done. So why do Christians like to put a stumbling block before others? Sure, hymns are great for their place and time, and so was the Oxyrynchus hymn, but God replace that with the hymns that were sung in the 600s, the 800s, and the 1000s, each older batch eventually being forgotten. Thanks to our ability to write down the vast majority of our songs, they will endure in one form or another, but let us not forget new songs – they honor God just as much as the old ones and do deserve to be sung because of that.

One other great thing is that there are many new songs that based in the Bible; Chris Tomlin’s ‘Forever’ outright quotes Psalm 136. But he also has quite a few less well-known works that are equally as Biblical, such as “Psalm 100”. I can see where one would get the conclusion that they are love songs – King David loved God, it’s written all over the Psalms; and it’s in these songs.

But what they mean is that, it puts us in a “love” love relationship – that’s why there’s been such emphasis on fearing God – because its the other kind of love – the good kind. But the “love” kind is bad. If King David thought so, it’s not in his songs of praise:

“Your great love” / “Your unfailing love” / “I love you, Lord, my strength” / “He shows unfailing love” / “the unfailing love of the Most High” / “surely Your goodness and love …” / “Your great mercy and love” / “according to Your love, remember me” / “I will be glad and rejoice in your love” / “the wonders of His love” / “the Lord’s unfailing love” / “his unfailing love” / “Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens” / “for great is Your love” / “I will sing of your love” / “his love endures forever” / etc.

King David seemed to be consumed with love for God, he poured out his love in his psalms and danced exuberantly in public and he was known as a man after God’s own heart. I wonder, are we more like the people that God warned us about?

“3 But mark this: There will be terrible times in the last days. 2 People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, 3 without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, 4 treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God— 5 having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people.” – 2 Timothy 3: 3-5

Perhaps what we really need is to sing and pray the Psalms to become people after God’s own heart. The good news is that many new songs are really old songs – and they’re lovely.

My Church of Me for Me

I love my church. Every week the pastor calls me to ask my advice as to the topic of the sermon. Even the music director values my input as to which songs ought to be sung. The teachers e-mail me to approve the subject and to get the answers to the questions people will ask. The servers ask me what sort of foods I’d like to be available. The bulletin people always ask me to choose the main photograph before they are printed out.

When I walk into the building, everyone greets me with a smile, but only the people I like actually shake my hand, the rest just wave friendly. Even visitors are made aware of my importance. The decorations are appropriate and pleasing – only my favorite flowers are placed at the altar. If there is anything I don’t like, it is removed and apologies are made, which I graciously accept because I’m just that humble.

I get to do everything important, everything visible, and I get credit for everything unimportant and invisible, too. If I don’t want to do something, I don’t have to – everybody understands when I suddenly change my mind, or I stop the music, or I interrupt the sermon to give a witness because my church is all about me. My church is my building where my needs are met.

It doesn’t really bother me that other people have stopped coming to my church, I didn’t like them anyway. Really – if they didn’t worship my God in my way, then they aren’t really like me and they shouldn’t be allowed to come to my church. If you get on my good side, I might allow you to serve on my fan club committee, my food server committee, or my music committee – so don’t say that there’s nothing to do. You can do anything so long as you don’t mind me getting the credit for it and ultimately it is all about me.

The worst church I’ve ever been to was all about some guy named Jesus Christ. People went on and on about his sacrifice, his love, his sermons, and they sang about him all the time. He was all they ever talked about. The people there only wanted to be like Him – something called Christlikeness. They would go and do weird things like feed hungry people (they should work!), give jackets to kids (they should work!), give free medical care (free is a four letter f-word!), build free homes (it’s just so wrong!), and who knows what else – they were all over the place doing good for other people – but not once was it ever about me!

So really, if you want to meet the world’s most humble, fantastic, amazing, skilled, talented, helpful, wise, and gracious believer (me!) come to My Church of Me for Me! Just stay away from those Jesus churches – they’re weird.

What is Lent?

I keep on looking at the blog entries about the subject and I realized that I’ve never celebrated a traditional Lent season. I remember the Ash Wednesday Evening service that my church had, some discussion on giving something up for fourty days – but ever since the move to the new state, Lent has just never worked out.

To be fair, the entire state has been closed for half of the week – way too much snow, way too many dangerous back roads that haven’t seen a plow. Even if we could have gotten out, all the churches would have been closed anyway.

Denominationally speaking, my former church didn’t officially practice anything during Lent. We ate whatever sort of meat we liked any day of the week and there wasn’t anything special about the forty days before Easter that I can recall. My new church has a spectacular website that says: Lent is a time of repentance, fasting and preparation for the coming of Easter. It is a time of self-examination and reflection. In the early church, Lent was a time to prepare new converts for baptism. Today, Christians focus on their relationship with God, often choosing to give up something or to volunteer and give of themselves for others…Sundays in Lent are not counted in the forty days because each Sunday represents a “mini-Easter” and the reverent spirit of Lent is tempered with joyful anticipation of the Resurrection.

Now I understand why my former denomination didn’t officially practice it, they were famous for food-oriented fellowship. They’d do just about anything to get out of fasting, so they basically give a nod to Lent and go about their day. My new church might celebrate it more formally, but it’s safe to say that we’ve missed the start of it. It’s been my policy to sit out pretty much all new things the first time around, just to see how they work, so perhaps next year we’ll see how they go all-out or to what degree it is celebrated.

Of course, I said all that to say that it remains to be said that some element of ritual and tradition are more common in liturgy-oriented churches than those outside of it. I always admired the spiritual rituals of other faiths and yet I’ve never gotten to know all the ones that exist within my own faith.

Honestly though, I’ve been having trouble connecting to God. It’s been a tough spiritual season. I have had to come to terms that there are no churches in this area that check every single box off of the list. I have also had to come to terms that the Bible isn’t as clear cut as I was taught. Perhaps that’s the draw of Lent for me right now, as a way to refocus my attention away from the obstacles that have kept me from moving forward.

Ritual, I think, does that. I remember visiting a church very south of the border where it was a ritual to light a candle and pray. There were so many people there that we were constantly bumping into each other on the way to the candle-burning area. It didn’t seem peaceful or relaxing or particularly spiritual to me at the time, but it was something that my church would have never done so I found it fascinating.

I think the trick is not to focus on the thing you’re doing, but the one you’re doing the thing for. And that, to me, is Lent.

The Culture Wars: Stalemate

Hopefully this particular decade in Christianity will be remembered as “The Culture Wars”. Then people will talk about what was taught, what battles were fought, and what the fall-out was. Ultimately, people might come to realize that more harm than good was done in His name and decide not to make the same mistakes. As it is right now, the church can do no wrong, so obviously we’re doing the right thing.

So let’s talk about what culture is first: the arts and other manifestations of human intellectual achievement regarded collectively; the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group; and the attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.

In other words, our culture is made up of the books, magazines, graphic novels, comic books, songs, albums, television shows, movies, youtube clips, clothing styles, elementary schools, middle schools, high schools, colleges, universities, technical schools, politics, brand name products, fast food, and well, everything that makes us who we are – including religion, faith, spirituality and not necessarily limited to Christianity.

So when Christianity takes it upon itself to fight against culture, it is also fighting against itself in some ways. But the solution to that problem is to create two sides. We are the sacred, the holy, the set-apart, we are Christianity. They are the secular, unholy, separate, they are the world-dominated culture. But the problem is that it’s not just us vs them, we are them! We have been on both sides from the beginning and fighting our brothers and sisters from the beginning.

Christianity has two examples when it comes to historically fighting culture. The more recent example set in the middle ages was to align religion with government and declare all heresy to be punishable by death. That’s obviously not an option. As to the other example – Jesus gave these principle in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not resist an evil person, if you’re hit on the cheek, turn the other cheek toward them, if someones sues you for your shirt, give them your coat as well, if you are forced to walk one mile, walk two miles instead, give to the one who asks you and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:39-42) Then he ups the stakes and adds a little later on: “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

I wonder how the Culture Wars would turn out differently if Christians spent more time following Jesus’ words and less time condemning their own culture. What if Christianity accepted it’s role in culture and humbled itself accordingly? You see, if Christianity completely separates from culture, then it has no say in what the world does because they are at odds. They would give up the very thing that permits them to be a good influence by completely removing themselves from the world. And with no good influence, what is the natural result? Things getting worse for lack of good example having been set or held as a standard of culturally-accepted behavior. (That is not to say that I consider all Christian examples set to be the best possible example, there have been occasions when worldly individuals out-gave, out-helped, out-did, and out-Christianed Christians and managed to be pretty humble about it. And there have been just as many examples that Christians set that were really worldly.)

“9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people— 10 not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world.” – 1 Corinthians 5:9-10

That’s why I think we’re doing so much more harm than good. Yes, we can speak out against secular developments that are not a good influence in the sacred halls of Christianity, but we can’t really apply our sacred rule book as the standard of being for the entire world because the secular world never agreed to abide by it. The truth is that nobody has ever won the Culture Wars. Not even the overzealous use of the sword by Christians past won them the Culture Wars that they were fighting in their day, it just made their opponents dead, desperate to flee to the other side of the world, or wise enough to keep their opinions to themselves and to lie about their beliefs when the occasion called upon it for them to do so.

We might not live in the culture that Jesus knew, where various cults excellent in creating diverse methods of sexual sins in the name of worshiping their particular god, where part of being a good citizen was honoring Nero’s image in the temple, where our faith was seen as a small sect broken off of another faith – one of countless philosophies that weren’t worth noticing. Jesus never asked his followers to fight against the culture they lived in, but he asked them to give a reason for their faith, so should we.

Our culture was not developed without Christianity’s influence, it’s part of it’s make-up. It is why the West used to be pretty good about holding itself up to a higher standard; partially because that’s just what Christians did. It seems that we have forgotten that and fallen very far indeed, especially within the Church.

Thoughts On A Church Divided

“Will they?” I asked myself, shaking my head as I read the blog. It was about the looming threat of a schism in my current denomination. Truth be told, I really hadn’t been paying much attention, I’m new to the denomination anyway and I don’t know all of the ins and outs. It seems though, that there are some parallels with my former denomination…

First, progressive thought (and by extension progressives themselves) were seen as “too far to the left” “barely believers” “in error” “dangerous” and no shortage of other descriptors. The welcome mat was pulled from under their feet and they fell; most left the church and the seminaries. Ones that were too stubborn to leave quietly were discredited and forced to resign. This was the example set: “If your belief does not match our belief , the cure is separation. Either repent and accept our belief or leave.”

Then the moderates were by definition the new progressives. Having seen the example, they realized that they had only one choice: reform. Errant teachings were corrected. Mistaken thoughts were disciplined. Through careful exercise of authority, their theology morphed into that of the conservatives. “Our belief is right. We have only one belief. All other beliefs are wrong.”

But the conservatives were not content with the power they had gained, it was not enough to have taken over and had their way about theology, they wanted more. They mobilized their allies, created celebrities to share their teachings, and printed up countless books that delivered their message to all the churches in their reach. It was a pretty sweet set-up, too: collect tithes from the churches, sell books to the churches, collect money from speaking engagements … which funded their efforts to spread their message. All it cost was the livelihood of thousands of progressives, the freedom of thousands of moderate, and the faith of everyone. “These books define, explain, and defend our belief. Buy them and study them.”

I know I get confused about Calvinism and Systematic Theology and Reformed Theology and all of the related concepts, it’s a lot to try to understand all at once. But it seems to me quite dangerous to hold up one thought, one perspective, and one view of the faith as the most Biblically correct. It seems even more dangerous to use it as a litmus test for being a believer: “If you don’t believe x, then you’re not a true Christian …” This was all done incrementally over a long period of time. Had people known what they were in for over the decades at the start, they might not have gotten so far down a road from which there was no return.

My former denomination didn’t have a schism, but they did change. They put aside freedom of thought and chose purity of theology. They did away with diverse perspectives and chose a singularly biblical perspective. They did away with any softness they had. The fall-out wasn’t pretty. Progressives and moderates went first. Then regular people were wounded, burnt-out by the churches demands or pierced by unyielding difficult theology that didn’t mesh with their experiences. Hundreds, thousands, hundreds of thousands, and even the majority of an entire generation have fled the church. “They left us because they were not one with us. If they were really Christians, they would have been one with us and stayed.”

Which is why I worry so much for the new denomination. Will they give into fighting? Will they give into the temptation to purge disagreement? Will they give into a rigid theology? Will they give into the calls for separation? Will they give into correcting the errant theology of others? Will they give into demanding too much? Will they follow the path set before them of division?

Or will they find a way to agree to disagree? Will they allow each church some autonomy to do what is right for each congregation even if that does not mean a universal standard exists for all congregations? Will they let their love for people shine through? Will they remain open to the possibilities? Will they set the spirit free from the law? Will they blaze a new trail of unity within diversity?

Respectfully

“46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” – Matthew 5:46-47

When I have writer’s block, I tend to be on the look-out for even the tiniest speck of inspiration for my next blog entry. Recently, it arrived in the form of one word: respect.
It was during a conversation about certain Christian circles that resort to vitriol and insults to have the last word whenever they have been challenged on their blogs. “They only respect those who agree with them.” That is a sad statement to make about Christians that operate a Christian blog who claim to share the love of Christ with the world.

Online, they seem to have two sets of words – the ones they say and the ones they put into action. Saying “I love my neighbor” doesn’t mean much one one acts with words to dismiss ideas, shut down dialogue, ignore concerns, and teams up with others for the occasional character attack. Not only that, but they post according to their preconceived idea of the poster: “This person must be a member of the (name of the opposite camp) because they’re pointing out a supposed inconsistency with my perfectly Biblical post. In which case I’m entirely justified in ignoring them, but I’d rather correct them in love …” as if a person in their own camp would never disagree with their interpretation or application of that particular post.

What usually follows is the rebuke. Now in the real world, you don’t usually see Christians rebuke each other, why it would be out of place for a brother or sister in the faith to sit down next to you at the church fellowship meal and scold you for your meal’s poor nutritional content and extremely high calorie count in the name of Jesus. However, the internet allows for a degree of anonymity and when ideas are thrown are out there, it isn’t long before somebody finds an error that needs to be poked at in the name of Jesus. The theory goes, you’ll suddenly be converted to their way of thinking as your eyes are opened to the error and you’ll be saved, or at least, less punished in heaven than you would have been otherwise. As you can see, it’s quite subjective, trying to win people over to another person’s way of thinking doesn’t usually work as most people don’t think exactly the same way which explains why most people don’t believe exactly the same things all the time either.

I wonder how Christianity would be different if the first foundation of all social interaction was love and the second respect. What we do have to go by is the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. I’m pretty sure that one still applies in the virtual world.

“Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” – 1 Peter 2:17