Speaking Up

Now about the gifts of the Spirit, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. You know that when you were pagans, somehow or other you were influenced and led astray to mute idols. Therefore I want you to know that no one who is speaking by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit. – 1 Corinthians 12:1-3

This morning we got yet another phone call with this not so subtle reminder to vote: “If God’s children won’t speak up for Him, who will?”

I never really felt that I had to speak up for God. Sure, he had his prophets and prophetesses, burning bushes, and even a donkey spoke on one occasion. It’s even been recorded that he needed no such thing to speak for him, unlike the idols that could not see, speak, or listen and had to be carried and decorated and offered to, He was the God that sees, the God that speaks, the God that hears.

Surely, a God like that couldn’t have been caught off-guard as the Civil Rights movements as all kinds of groups were demanding change. Even in the decades since, it’s doubtful that anything we have done was either a surprise or a wrench thrown into his own plans. He’s already shown skill in manipulating both sides, ‘hardening Pharaoh’s heart’ as it were to challenge all the gods of the Egyptian pantheon. Is he ‘hardening’ our hearts in preparation for some spectacle?

I’d like to think that in recent years, my heart has been softened to the plight of the sorts of people that often get overlooked. The sort of policies in the phone call tend to burden people beyond capacity and deny them assistance to bear the load. I don’t see immoral people who ‘deserve’ such harsh treatment, but people who just want their best chance to enjoy life just as I do. Sometimes Christians harden their hearts to this sort of people because they perceive them to be sinners of the worst sort who have to accept the consequences of their actions. If not in this life, then in the next.

They make the God that sees, speaks, and hears seem weak – like one who needs as many of us as possible to speak up for him because when it comes down to it; they believe that he cannot speak for himself.

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Ignoring Error

When I took a year of computer programming, we were always tasked with trying to figure out all the wrong ways to use a program. For example, let’s say our program was designed to add two whole number between 1 and 99. I might test my program by entering ‘-3’ and ‘.045’ or ‘q’ and ‘z’ or ‘eat’ and ‘bat’ to see what it does. A good programmer will have thought about such things and added a subroutine that tells users to choose another number, between 1 and 99 only before telling the program to actually add the variables. One should never underestimate the human capacity for error. My school used a program that was notoriously badly programmed. If one hit the ‘x’ button on the log-in screen, they could crash the entire server. This usually resulted in this message being aired on the intercom: “Please log out of the system for the server reset… The server has been reset. You may log into the system now.” Some teachers only made that mistake once, others made that mistake once a day.

When it comes to Christianity, I find that there’s an unwillingness to consider the human capacity for error. In a few churches, they’ve begun to switch to plurality of elders as their leadership, but they very rarely put any thought into how that can go wrong. After all, how could three grandpas steer a church wrong? Turns out it’s easier than you think; ask any scammer who specializes in the art. A little bit of misinformation goes a long way and does a lot of damage. One example of that is the danger of the consensus, when all of them agree then none of them have the ability to see if they’ve gone wrong or where they went wrong. Elders who are ‘yes men’ tend to let errant pastors get their way without opposition.

But we also have to think about the individual’s capacity for error, one person who might be especially susceptible to the temptation of power and authority should never make the short list of the best candidates. In one of my churches, the deacon’s pet doctrine was put on the top of the list of teachings to emphasize. Something had to be demoted or denied so that his dream could be realized. It felt less like the House of God and more like the Temple of the Deacon where we were molded into his image and theology.

Sometimes when churches ignore the capacity for human error, it’s because there’s a spectacular amount of human error in progress with the leadership that they would much rather hide than deal with. A video I saw the other day was the story of a deacon who was also abusive to his wife. His church knew about it and instead of recognizing that he was disqualified from the position, they begged him to stay on and let them deal with it. They Biblically counseled his wife to be more submissive, but that only made things worse. It wasn’t until the deacon and his wife began going to another church that they got some real counseling that helped them to restore their relationship. If a church’s leadership protects one of it’s leaders from the consequences of his actions, how might they treat problems that their congregations bring to them? Will they recognize who needs help and know the best way to help them? If the leadership ignores it’s own errors, then it does not bode well for the church – the people who go to them for help might not get any at all.

Recognizing the human capacity for error isn’t about making sure sinners don’t have a second chance, it’s understanding the best way to help them overcome sin in their life. There’s a saying about not taking an alcoholic to a bar, this ought to work the same way in theory. Not setting a pot-luck supper before a glutton. Not giving a power-hungry soul the keys to controlling people. Only when you’ve limited all the ways how things can go wrong, can you really make progress in all the ways that things can go right.

Individuals

Does Christianity concern itself with the individual? Sometimes I think it doesn’t. It’s far more concerned with the community in a sense. If you knew that you could preach at a stadium of ten thousand and bring a thousand to Christ all at once, or you could reach a thousand people, one at a time, which would you prefer? Most people would say, “Cast a wide net” catch what you can and don’t worry about the fish that are small enough to swim through the net. They’re probably not as good as the bigger fish are anyway. Quantity is what counts.

Everybody is completely different, but we keep on insisting on a one size fits all salvation plan, sometimes it’s the ABCs (admit, believe and confess) of FAITH (forsaking all, I trust Him), and sometimes It’s the Sinner’s Prayer. We want to take a mass-scale approach to the faith so we make it pretty generalized. But we have to ignore individual quirks along the way.

The last few decades, Christianity has been pushing the theology of marriage without stopping to think whether some people should get married at all. Some people shouldn’t have, but were pressured into it all the same and unsurprisingly things didn’t work out. They’ve been putting some people into positions of leadership without stopping to think whether those people should be leaders at all. They shouldn’t have and things didn’t work out. Same story just in a different area of Christian living. Then they get to condemn these people twice: for their own sins and failing to obey Biblical teaching as everyone else has.

If Christianity concerned itself with the individual, it would recognize when a person is a bad fit or disqualified for something and realize that there are other things that they can do if they opened their mind to the possibilities. It would have to get rid of their preconceived ideas of God-approved ministries and allow the Holy Spirit to work with people in ways that they cannot control and that scares them.

The thing about individuals is that there’s so many of them who break the mold. They break the rules of the expected and are amazingly spiritual people who seem who be on a level above the rest of us – if you let them take the wheel of the church, some of your most beloved rules will have to be re-evaluated. We see them in the Bible as the men and women who shouldn’t have done what they did, but they did it anyway and hundreds of people became better believers because of them.

But if Christianity doesn’t concern itself with the individual, we can focus on creating believers that fit the checklist of acceptable all the while keeping their spiritual growth in check. We can tell certain people that they can’t teach certain people. We can tell certain people that certain ministry ideas are unbiblical. We can try to shape them into our own image of perfection. We can explain away spiritual fervor as a quirk to be corrected. Because all that matters is unity and conformity to the ideas of the community; we can’t have individuals dancing out of step with the rest of us.

Erasing Halloween from Childhood

I do enjoy a good debate. Throughout the month of October, and most especially in it’s last week, the issue is whether or not Christians should do Halloween. I’d like to think that as a person who has done trick-or-treating, Christian Halloween alternatives, haunted house tours, Hell House tours, and alternatives that had nothing to do with Halloween and/or Christianity I can safely say that I’ve done pretty much everything at least once. I did not turn out to be a witch, worshiper of Satan, into demons, obsessed with the occult, or any such thing. I also did not turn out to be a saint, an angel, a shining example of Christian perfection, or any such thing. I did have a lot of great experiences, tons of fun memories, and quite a lot of good laughter over the years. Yep. I did Halloween and I’m completely normal and entirely average. If my experiences are an indicator, no matter what you do or you do not do, Halloween doesn’t corrupt your immortal souls into a downward spiral of evil and sinful behavior. I somehow suspected that buying a $10.00 costume and wandering from house to house demanding candy using the special words: ‘Trick-or-treat!’ was just something done for the fun of it and that adults like to do because few things are nicer than seeing smiles light up the faces of children.

Childhood is changing, things that were normal back in the day have begun to be phased out. We live in a world of constant supervision, if not by our parents, then by the cameras that watch our every move coming and going and our phones with GPS locators that all kids seem to have these days. That way they know who to look out for when they issue things like amber alerts. Halloween stands opposed to giving into fear by turning into something to be afraid of. Children may pretend to be among the living dead, morally-questionable swash-bucklers, unstoppable superheroes and super-heroines, powerful princes and princesses who reign over others for just one night – but it gives them a special memory that cannot be replaced. Sure, we could phase out Halloween, provide alternatives or erase it and do nothing at all. Maybe the Easter Bunny and Tooth Fairy will be next on the list. While we’re at it, let’s erase street fairs and festivals, the fair food is way too unhealthy and the games are all rigged to take their money anyway. Let’s make sure that children can’t have what we had when we were kids. That way they won’t turn out just like us. Too many children don’t get a childhood as it is, and now many of them won’t get to spend a night dressed up as someone else, visiting neighbors, getting candy, and not having to worry about grown-up things because some grown-up out there sees the whole lot of children as spiritually compromised lost souls worshiping evil in some mysterious candy collection ritual. Maybe one reason why children aren’t growing up to be Christians is because Christians won’t let them be children.

Do you even miss me?

Dear Southern Baptist Church;

It’s been a full year since the last time I darkened your doors or haunted your hallways as the resident long-term single millennial. Things just weren’t adding up, so I finally began asking questions. My Sunday School class had just finished one of their general studies. The deacon decided that our class was due for something more specific. He looked at the single high school student, the single twenty-something (me), the married twenty-something whose spouse never attended, and the newly-wed couple who had only recently begun attending together and decided that “Covenant Marriage” was exactly what we needed. The other Sunday School class consisted of all the other married couples in the church yet they were learning from David Platt’s Radical. It didn’t make sense to teach a marriage based bible study to a room that had 1.5 couples represented when the other class was easily 15 couples. The deacon was somewhat annoyed when I told him that I would be switching to the other class. He told me, “You’re going to need to know this stuff when you’re married.” I replied, “If and when I get married, I’m sure my husband and I will complete them together, in the mean-time, I’m more interested in Radical than Covenant Marriage.” “Are you sure?” He asked, as if he was giving me a chance to change my mind. Apparently he was unaccustomed to being told ‘no’, but I made it clear that I would stick by my decision. I didn’t realize it then but I was silently asking “Why?”

“Why must I learn these things?”Because you’ll be married someday.” With marriage studies, it seems inevitable that they’re designed for two people to learn from together, to talk about what they plan to do, and to figure out more about each other along the way. I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine half of that conversation to make up for a person who isn’t there to do their half. I don’t see the point in talking about communication, conflict resolution, or anything Biblical with an empty chair; or worse, being paired up with another single person to ‘represent’ on their behalf. I don’t think I’m wrong to want to wait to do those studies.

Why must I learn these things?” “Because you will be married someday.” Have you ever seen those commercials that say things like “Use your smartphone right now to call us at …” or “Like us on Facebook!” Both commercials assume that you have a smartphone with you or a Facebook account. Likewise, churches assume that no matter who you are, you will be married. They know better than God does, apparently. That’s why they don’t even flip to 1 Corinthians 7 where Paul affirms and uplifts singleness as valid. The funny thing about bringing up that verse is that it gets this treatment: “It is good for you to be single, but if you can’t control yourself, you have to marry so that you don’t BURN with passion. Since we all know that nobody can control themselves, what it really means is that you gotta get married so that you don’t begin to BURN with passion and lose your way by committing sexual immorality.” It’s always presented as if it’s obviously impossible for people to successfully maintain singleness so the verse is really about getting people to get married as being the better option than promoting singleness. That’s why the church knows better than God, that human nature makes it impossible to be Biblically single and therefore everyone without exception will marry; which is why there’s no such thing as Biblical Singlehood teachings. The other thing though is that being single not only breaks the rules of ‘you gotta get married’ it breaks the gender roles of who can do what in marriage. A single woman is the head of her household and a single man still has to do his own laundry. That doesn’t exactly square with what certain elements of Christianity likes to teach. After all, gender roles are called that because they’re supposed to apply because your gender is your gender, married or not. That’s why single women are often encouraged to defer to single men in mixed gender Bible studies, to affirm their role by placing themselves in second. (Technically third, as God is always number 1.)

But it’s not just about the ‘why’ of having to learn these things – there are other questions: “Does the church realize that by teaching that the relationship of husbands and wives ought to be that of Christ and the Church pretty much throws everyone who isn’t married under the bus?” “Why does Christianity emphasize marriage when single individual very nearly outnumber married couples worldwide?” “Does God really put us on the clock to marry by 25 and have kids by 30?” “Is being married the highest form of Christianity?”

Christianity, if all the Bible asks of us is to exist in a world make up of 50% men and 50% women who are married to each other, you’ve got a problem. Women have always outnumbered men in Church. Women outnumbered men in the first few hundred years when there weren’t enough men in the same class as women to marry them off to. Women outnumber men in almost every individual church. Single women definitely outnumber single men. According to your own rules, that men must be the initiator of relationships, you’re short-handed. Like it or not, there will be men, who for whatever reason, choose not to marry. They choose not to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage. There will be women who, for whatever reason, choose not to marry. They might never be asked. They might be asked and they might decline knowing it’s a bad match. There are men and women who tried marriage and ended up in divorce. There are men and women who outlived their spouses and just aren’t ready to marry again. You have a lot of people who are wondering why marriage is taught as the end-all-and-be-all of Christianity when the guy it’s named after as well as one of his most ardent teachers were single men. You have to wrap your minds around the idea that you’ve missed the point of the Bible – that it’s not about marriage as the most important thing. That marriage serves as a metaphor for something else and that marriage is not the goal.

I imagine that there are hundreds of thousands of us who heard all the sermons, submit this, headship that, love here, respect there … It’s all completely Biblical. And I’m certain it would be invaluable teaching if I was a First Century believer in Jesus living in Corinth who didn’t really love my spouse but got married anyway because that’s what I was told to do because it strengthened my father’s household and united us with another strong family. But I just can’t imagine that Paul somehow knew that his words would work as a cure-all for our problems some two-thousand years later in a society that’s the complete opposite of the one he knew. It’s no wonder that a whole generation has walked away from the church and that same generation is putting off marriage unlike the generations before them. I wonder if the teachings they were taught had something to do with it.

I could go on, but I was curious – do you miss me? Do you miss those who are like me? The strong minded, the independent, the outliers, the unusual, the eccentric, the whole spectrum of personalities that we represent? I can’t say that I miss you. Do you know how great it is not to be asked about my marital status or interrogated as to whether or not there’s a special someone? I’ve spent a year without your marriage teachings and I’m starting to feel great about who I am as just me for the first time. It’s too bad that you never cared to get to know me because to you, I’ll always be somebody else’s ‘half’. That’s your loss, but I’m just figuring that I’m a great person that you never got a chance to know me at all.

Approving Moral Perfection

Christianity is a pretty big spectrum of beliefs, understandings, and interpretations. Some Christians hold to the idea that ‘As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord’ and in that capacity, they do not tolerate sin. An example might be the tendency to boycott industries that announce that support for things that they consider to be sin. But there are also Christians who are on the opposite end of that who individually emphasize ‘love your neighbor’ and they take that just as seriously. They might be among the first to raise money to help the homeless who for whatever reason, don’t have a home. They don’t stop to ask whether a person is homeless because they were kicked out or walked out. They don’t withhold help if it’s clear that a person is going to choose the bottle over a solid meal. They still have to eat.

I was thinking about a comment that I saw that was something like this: “So-and-so’s music is great, his vibrant faith is so very inspiring; but his friends are known to donate to charities that help runaways who refuse to give up their sinful lifestyle. So he has lost my respect until he takes a bold stand to speak the truth.” It made me wonder, ‘Can a Christian who hates sin support a Christian who supports sinners in any way, shape, or form?’ Perhaps it would be better ask: ‘Must Christians be an example of moral perfection to attain the approval of other Christians?’

King David wrote Psalm 101, which says things like: “I will not look with approval on anything that is vile … I will have nothing to do with what is evil … No one who practices deceit will dwell in my house … ” Yet King David affair with Bathsheba proved that not even he could live up to the standard he set for himself. Why do we think we can live up to the same standard when it is clearly beyond us?

Jesus’ teachings didn’t set conditions. He didn’t say: “Walk two miles if the soldiers aren’t going to use the weapons to kill people.” He didn’t say: “Love your neighbor if they’re as morally righteous as you are.” He didn’t say: “Look after widows and orphans in their distress if they show up to church every Sunday without fail.” Yet all too often we set such conditions. But we tend to pick and choose – to segregate and discriminate. After all, if we were moral guardians, then we would make it our business to know who cheats on their taxes, who steals, who fails to keep their word and having nothing to do with any of them. But most of the time, we only chose to dis-fellowship those who are guilty of a certain kind of sin. Perhaps it’s because we realize that if we set the limit at all sin, we’d have no one to talk to because everyone is guilty of something.

So it’s not about being guardians of morality, but discrimination in the name of morality. It makes no never mind to me if you do sins a, b, and c, but if you’re into sins x, y, and z then you’re breaking the rules. If I support you, then I’m just as guilty of sins x, y, and z. A, b, and c, are lesser sins, the ones that carry almost no weight at all, the ones that everyone does. X, y, and z are the greatest sins of all, the ones that must be prosecuted to the fullest extent that morality demands. Somebody, somewhere gets to decide. Somebody teaches that certain sins are worse than others. But that someone is also a sinner.

Remember the Scarlet Letter? I keep on seeing a sort of resurgence of the same spirit of legalism that Hester saw living among the Puritans who had branded her a sinner in the worst possible way – an adulteress. Through her experiences, she develops a different moral standard and set of beliefs by which she lives. I can see why the moral uprightness of the Puritans would seem like a safe anchor in the stormy seas of this chaotic world. It’s not that dissimilar from the Pharisees’ attitude about those who were not like them. But Jesus stood opposed to that sense of moral superiority. He was known to be associated with tax collectors and other sinners. It’s a shame that his followers have not followed in his footsteps, had we done so, we would not have discredited his teachings.

The world watches when Christians chose to de-fund children’s charities because that charity branched out to help sinners. Do you know what message that sends? That they’ll only help feed children if the ministry that serves the food doesn’t serve others. That when it comes down to it, their morality matters more to them than people do.

‘Reduced’ Worship

I value emotions because I believe that they are as much as part of me as adenine, cytosine, guanine and thymine are a part of my DNA. In general, my emotions are under control and balanced, so I want to establish that I don’t let my emotions run my life but my emotions are a part of my life. Everything I do has some emotion connected to it. When I hear a favorite song, watch my favorite movie, read my favorite book – it makes me happier than I would have been had I listened to a song that I hated, watched a movie I couldn’t stand, or read a terrible book.

To me the difference between a great worship experience and a bad worship experience is the emotions it produces in me. The thing is – that’s pretty subjective when you put a crowd of different people together. Liturgy, traditional, contemporary, and bluegrass are a few different styles. The best fit for me is contemporary. Take somebody from a bluegrass church and have them switch places with me and we’re both liable to walk out of services in a terrible mood.

The conversation I got into the other day, I heard others say things like “Don’t trust your emotions.” “Emotions are fickle.” “Emotions don’t save souls from sin.” “Emotions can be manipulated into false worship and idolatry.” “Emotions are worldly.” “Emotions are easy to mistake for spirituality, but true spirituality has nothing to do with emotions.” “Emotions are good but they are not indicative of successful worship.” “Our emotions do not convict us of wrong-doing, the Holy Spirit does that.” “Worship is reduced to an emotional level.”

I always wondered why there was this mistrust of emotions in Christianity when every story in the Bible has this undercurrent of emotion. When we read the black and white words, we might not always connect to what Job might have been feeling when he got one piece of bad news right after the other. We might not always imagine what Peter was feeling when we wept bitterly about having denounced Jesus. We might not care how Esther or Ruth felt about their situations. Yet the message, “Do not be afraid.” Is clearly a strand that ties all these and other stories together. God’s not saying that he hates fear, he made fear for good reason. God’s saying that when we’re surrounded by the enemy, he surrounds the enemy. When we’re lost in a storm that threatens to sink us, he has the power to calm the storm.

One commenters pointed out that it ought to be exciting to know who God is. And that it is right to want to feel something when we remember the sacrifice that Jesus made to save us. That last comment – ‘Worship is reduced to an emotional level’ bothers me because I don’t think that worship ought to be so high and so holy that it is above emotion. The early church was often instructed to be aware of the emotional needs of others – to mourn with those who mourn, to celebrate with those who celebrate. Yet Modern Christianity is running scared from emotion in a big way.

I think about some concerts I discovered a few weeks ago. The music I heard is beautiful enough to transfix me, sometimes it can summon a tear, or fill me up with energy. When I’m angry, there’s a song for that out there somewhere. I’ve never found separating emotion from music to be considered the highest form of appreciating it, but apparently the separation of emotion from worship is the highest form of appreciating God. I think I’d much rather have ‘reduced worship’ and praise him with all my heart (which was the center of emotions in the ancient world), soul, mind, and strength. I can’t help but want to feel something. If that’s somebody’s definition of idolatry then I will happily be an idolater. Because I would rather feel the tiniest something every now and then than a whole lot of nothing at all for all time.