Being Watched at the Altar

“The success of any venture will be helped by prayer, even in the wrong denomination.” Boyle’s Laws, #14

One thing that every single church I’ve ever been to has had in common is the location of the altar – front and center. Worse than that – the whole design of the sanctuary creates lines that leads your eyes directly to the altar. This gives us two possibilities – anyone who wishes to go before the altar will have to do so in front of everyone watching them or they will not go at all. Neither option is a good one.

For one, Jesus repeatedly taught his followers that ideally, their spirituality wouldn’t be on display; in Matthew 6:1-18, he instructed them not to let their left hand know what their right hand was doing by giving in secret; he instructed them to go into an inner room, close the door and pray in secret; and not to make it obvious they were fasting – but to fast in secret.

The altar stands opposed to private prayer and the offering is not the ideal situation for giving in secret. I remember times when people who went to the altar threw wrenches into the worship machine; once a woman was praying at the altar when a man got up, stopped the music, and made a tearful confession – leaving her at the front and center without any idea of what’s appropriate for her to do in this situation; other times when somebody was at the altar, the music would have to stretch for another song or verse until the person was done praying, eating up the time for other parts of the service; and one of the worst altar moments was when the guest pastor ordered that everyone come to the front of the church and kneel for the duration of the prayer which he didn’t begin until everyone was kneeling … then others felt compelled to pray audibly so everyone remained kneeling for their prayers one after the next after the next. Once it was over, it took awhile to help everyone back up to their feet which had fallen asleep and weren’t helped by their sore knees. The whole debacle generated more complaints than anything before it and not once was it repeated in the rest of the time I was there.

Which just leaves altars to stand there, devoid of use and purpose for the vast majority of the time. Most of the ones I’ve seen have the words ‘do this in remembrance of me’ carved on them, they’re covered with colorful cloths that hold up the Communion glasses and wafers and candles and the offering plates. Some pictures I’ve seen show ones that also have flowers and other decorations that are probably supremely important though I know not why. But in general, no regular person prays at the altar on any given Sunday. It is a sacred object that is too far out of reach for ordinary people such as us – like the cross that is usually somewhere near it – one of those ‘look but don’t touch’ or ‘come but not too close’ sort of things. I would guess that other churches might view it a little differently, but I’ve only seen and heard how the Southern Baptists view their altar – with a healthy respect for tradition but a fear of tradition becoming an idol – and the altar symbolizes both quite perfectly. It’s not easy to balance including it with keeping it from taking over. But now I attend a Methodist church and it’s not that much different no one usually prays at the altar.

But altars are important, aren’t they? Wouldn’t they have to be in order to be a common element to so many religions and expressions of belief the world over? Altars were a part of the Temple – specifically ordered by God and approved by Him for worship to Him; so it has to be a good thing in the New Testament churches. Paul was able to witness to the Areopagus in Athens by explaining to them who and what the Unknown God was that they had an altar for. Even in Revelation there are about a half dozen references to an altar. Since we know that earthly things were a copy and a shadow of heavenly ones (Hebrews 8:5) then we know that altars are not without importance or meaning and use even if we can’t bring ourselves before them because they’re badly positioned in the building. One of my churches actually got around this problem by creating a prayer closet – an inner room that the doors could be shut with a cushion for kneeling on and a small altar to center one’s prayer. In my friend’s church, there were areas that were out of sight where people could go to and pray – these stations each were decorated differently with scenes from Jesus’ final days. Off of the main sanctuary there was a place to light candles and pray out of sight from the people sitting in the pews. It’s no wonder why these people had a greater spirituality – they had an outlet for prayer in the sacred spaces of their church that allowed for God to reward them in secret when they prayed in secret.

Which probably explains something of the popularity of War Room – take away from it’s war-based terminology and you have the story of an old woman advising a younger woman to carve out a sacred space to serve as her alter in her closet – it might not look like a table with candles but it serves the same purpose – somewhere to pray to God in secret. It works because it’s one of the oldest methods of worship in all religions – an altar to serve as a spiritual outlet to focus one’s prayers. I think churches would find themselves much better served to create an altar room, to which people can retreat to by themselves for times of prayer and uncertainty – somewhere only God will be watching and waiting to reward them. I think it would go a long way toward fixing what’s been broken about our spirituality for a long time.

That Time When She Prayed

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Mum’s the Word – or is it?

I almost didn’t hear the pastor calling my name, but it finally registered. Since the hall was a little loud, he directed me to follow him into the back of the sanctuary where the noise of the crowd was less distracting. He showed me a piece of paper with the parts that were to be read to the audience during the lighting of the advent candle – he asked for me to read the last part – the prayer: “Let us pray: Thank you God for the love you give us. We ask that as we wait for all your promises to come true, and for Christ to come again, that you would remain present with us. Help us today and everyday to worship you, to hear your word, and to do your will by sharing your love with each other. We ask it in the name of the one who was born in Bethlehem. Amen.

Such a thing would be considered unbiblical at my old church; these sorts of things were usually done by families – only under the headship (a.k.a. authority) of a father or husband would a daughter or wife be allowed to read from the pulpit and he had to be physically present and visible for it to count. I remember that even in youth group the youth pastor would always tell us girls that God really wanted to hear from the boys, which was his way of saying “No, girls can’t lead prayer when there are boys in the room, too.” It sort of gave me the impression that talking to God was a solemn matter that women just weren’t made for. Which was why men were the ones who prayed and taught out of the Bible, telling us what the Bible says that women and men can and cannot do. For the most part, they were right that the Bible said what they said it said, but it seemed as if they were teaching it in ways to say things that the Bible doesn’t say. Which is why we couldn’t stay under that teaching and eventually left the denomination.

So it was a big thing to me to be asked to read a part and even bigger for it to be the prayer. I read it swimmingly and nothing terrible happened – I wasn’t turned into a pillar of salt, smote by lightening, or afflicted by a disease. It makes me wonder, just what was my old church afraid of? That I would get a taste, decide it was good, and sign up for a seminary to become a preacher? That I might be really good at it? That my ministry would draw people to hear the Word the God and through hearing, have faith in Him? Or do they fear the worst case scenario: a woman preacher who misinterprets scripture and deceives the droves of people with itching ears? (As if men hadn’t been doing that from the very start!) Is the Word of God so fragile, so ineffective that the same sentence that a man says has less power, less truth, less effect when spoken from the lips of a woman?

My old church’s denomination is big on inerrancy, it’s part of the foundation they used to pull the rug out from under moderate and liberal Christians who taught in their seminaries, they used it to vote in like-minded leaders to control and shape the teachings coming from the seminaries, and they used it to dis-fellowship churches that defied their interpretation – particularly, they would kick out all churches who called upon women to serve as pastors out of their denomination. This was the last straw that caused a few hundred churches to voluntarily leave the denomination and form their own where they could and would be allowed to hire women as pastors.

I always thought that it was in-congruent to say that the Bible was infallible and inerrant as if it were indestructible and also suggest that women who read it aloud in public are violating it’s commandments and women who preach it from a pulpit are destroying the very fabric of space-time which will result in an implosion or an extinction level event. I know that it’s a serious thing because I’ve read story after story – how some women who step up to the pulpit watch the men get up, turn their chairs around, and sit back down with their backs facing her so they don’t have to look at her talk. Some women watch the men just get up and leave the room. Sometimes women are allowed to speak (not preach) from the front (not on the stage) or on the stage from a music stand (not a pulpit). I saw one woman speak about an upcoming adoption while her husband stood beside her on the stage, giving an occasional “that’s right” to the points that his wife was giving letting her do 95% of the talking. Of course, this tends to lead to a bias. If men are better at preaching and teaching then women, then women’s ministries taught by other women must be inferior by comparison to mixed gender ministries taught by men. Which really doesn’t explain the popularity of many women’s ministries from which both men and women learn from and teach from. I wonder what impression this gives little girls? Does it show them that they might correctly understand the Bible at home but incorrectly understand it in public? Does it tell them that they can only go so far and do so much as other women do? Will they come to believe that on their own they cannot get the most out of scripture, but under the authority of a man, a teacher, they will learn more than they possibly could otherwise?

In all this, there’s remarkably little opportunity for single women to serve the church in these capacities; since a husband is required to speak from the music stand on the stage, I know that the things I have to say will probably go unsaid. At least for the people who aren’t ready for change will get to have their way awhile longer, but it won’t always be this way; and I look forward to seeing what the future holds when there are no limits on what anyone can do. At least there’s something for me in this other church and that’s what gives me hope that Christianity will one day look back at our rules and realize that we used to love them a lot more than we loved people, but that’s not so anymore.

By the way, If you’re from a church that’s not like my old one, please don’t take it for granted; also feel free to speak up and suggest that you have more women speaking if it’s been awhile since the last one did – in the whole year I’ve attended my new church, we’ve only had one woman preach the message, and she did it twice. That’s just not often enough to make it normal and when it’s not normal then it’s not normally done.

Make the Effort to Listen

There’s an elderly woman (mid to upper 70s, I think) that usually sits on the far side of the same pew that I do. One Sunday, she just wanted to talk. I wondered if loneliness played a role in that – she’s always been by herself. I listened to what she had to say. It wasn’t long before the Sanctuary began to fill with other families who were all having other conversations – soon this woman’s voice was indistinguishable from the rest. No matter how much I tried, she was just speaking too quietly for me to understand the last words she was saying.

Sometimes I think Christianity loses so many voices because there’s an emphasis on not listening to people. We’re supposed to listen to music and the sermon but we get only a few minutes to carry on a conversation during the meet-and-greet which is constantly interrupted and then there’s prayer requests, but you can really talk to people before the service or after and there’s so many overlapping conversations that one quiet voice doesn’t stand a chance. Many people who have left the church often felt that they weren’t being listened to. Their concerns weren’t being heard. Their doubts weren’t being taken seriously.

I remember quite a few times where I knew that I wasn’t being listened to. The first time was when I was doing a study on Proverbs. I was the youngest in attendance, I had only just graduated high school. The oldest in attendance was a man in his upper eighties. Whenever there was a discussion time, he was allowed to monopolize the conversation – in his slow, mumbled, and occasionally incomprehensible manner he would deliver his time-worn wisdom with anecdotes that seemed to go on and on. By the time everyone else was allowed to make their comment, there was hardly any time left for me; and on occasion I wasn’t allowed to complete a thought because everybody had somewhere else to be and something else to do. I got tired of it and quit the study part way through. I guess it was silly of me to think that I could have wisdom at that young of an age – but I remember Paul telling Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young. I don’t think Paul meant to create a church that revered the elderly so much so that it frightened off the youth, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Later, at another church I was volunteered to lead the youth group and presented a book to study. The next week I gave her my honest assessment – this bible study is nothing but the autobiography of it’s author describing God with really weak ocean metaphors like “God is like a starfish, as long as it stays in the water it has an amazing ability to heal. As long as we stay in God we will be able to heal.” But I had just read that the starfish population has been weakened severely because a devastating disease has shut off their healing ability in the news and I knew that diseased starfish aren’t a great metaphor for God particularly when we live in land-locked state. It’s also not a good idea to be handing out starfish, shells, charms, as tokens of participation because it’s more like buying the participants off than actually teaching them things like salvation, sanctification, or justification. I asked to see the other book so that I might read it and compare the two. She said “No, it’s just too deep for them.” She wouldn’t listen to my concerns that teaching teenagers shallow theology wouldn’t inspire them to learn more.

She was a lot like Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping of Appearances, no matter what you tell her – she wouldn’t listen. If she had a vision, she knew exactly how she wanted you to make it happen. There was no telling her “no” and there was no way to make a suggestion that she didn’t already think of – in her world, if she didn’t think of it, then it wasn’t a good idea. I’m afraid that there a lot of people with a similar outlook – people who have a vacant spot in an existing ministry that’s perfect for you if you do the tasks you’re given exactly like they tell you to. But it’s hard to feel like there’s room to be listened to when the age-based ministries at your church look like this: “newborns to pre-kindergarten” “kindergarten to third grade” “fourth through sixth grades” seventh and eighth grades” “ninth through twelfth grades” “college and career (up to 25)” “adult (35-49)” “elders (50+)” When you’re in that missing 26-34 year old age range, it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s listening to you – you don’t have a representative to voice your concerns. You don’t have enough of you to form a class and the ones that are there are from all walks of life, some married, some not, some parents, and some not – it’s incredibly difficult to present materials that are useful to everyone without excluding someone.

That elderly woman probably felt the same way. I hope that being listened to brightened that day up for her; I hope that Christianity begins to find and value lost voices and perspectives such as hers. I hope we find a way to make people feel that they matter – because we certainly won’t go on if we keep on doing and keep on losing generations of people because we don’t listen to them.

Doom! Disaster!

My father had been perusing one of the news sites, unaware that they now feature stories that are commercials for products. He found once such story, reading about a man who had successfully predicted calamity. He went to it’s main site and turned on the video. It featured a smooth voice talking in a calm tone. As the voice spoke, captions appeared on the page. There was also the occasional graph to illustrate the numbers. The story was that the man was an average person who had a few contacts in positions of power. He narrowly avoided disaster and then got into the business of scouring the newspaper stories for information. Eventually he was able to discern a pattern and start the largest newspaper you’ve never heard of for reliable proof of treachery, financial doom, and other really bad things you should pay attention to and be prepared to face in the near future. He talked about one such occasion when the government was on the brink of disaster, the politicians all called their wives to tell them to withdraw everything they could from ATMs just in case the banks shut down before their last-minute negotiations failed. Everything turned out just fine in the end though. But a governor from one of the states heard the warning that disaster was about to come. He shared this story with everyone he considered a close friend so all of them decided to go to the bank and withdraw what they could – just in case the banks closed and/or ran out of money.

Last night, ‘A Wonderful Life’ was on, and there’s a similar scene where everyone runs to the bank in a panic to withdraw everything, playing into the hands of the the guy that owns the other bank who is willing to pay ‘fifty cents on the dollar’ to tide people over as long as it takes for everything to return to normal. I couldn’t help but wonder if the guy was doing just that – setting off a panic trying to get people to buy into his product to save them from disaster that others won’t be able to see coming because they don’t read his newspaper, ultimately causing the very panic that he warned others would happen. Bailey had to explain that their money wasn’t actually in the bank, but tied up in building each others’ houses to make things better for everyone.

I always thought that was a better picture of how Christians ought to help each other, not as if we were a bank where we could expect to deposit $30 and later on withdraw $30 exactly, getting out what we get into it, but being investors in each others’ lives. Thing is, we have to avoid the voices that tell us that the best way to avoid disaster is to withdraw from others and put ourselves first. I’m reminded of a rather sad poem where a group of people are stranded together on a freezing winter night and each of them have a stick that could have fueled the fire that would have kept them warm, but because all of them figured that nobody else would use their sticks, they didn’t either and the fire went out and so they all perished.

What really dooms us is when we decide that we can depend upon nobody but ourselves. When we don’t trust people, when we don’t invest in the welfare of others, when we don’t care about the consequences our actions will have on others. When we do that, we will have little choice but to start the very disasters that we see coming down the road. Why, the only way to avert them is to fuel the fire that will save us, putting our resources to help others so that in turn others will be able to help us when we cannot help ourselves. That is how we avert disaster.

Am I needed?

Remember always that people want to feel needed. They want to help out and be a part of what you are doing. When you satisfy this desire in people, you receive their admiration, loyalty, respect and cooperation.
Other people can be a powerful source of ideas, of motivation, of business contacts – if you encourage their participation. Most people are only too willing to help. Most people are genuinely flattered when you ask for their opinion or their expertise.
On the other hand, you must not take advantage of people. Asking someone for their help out of laziness on your part will not win you any points. People are willing to help you only if they see you are putting forth your own best effort. No one will want to help you if you don’t help yourself. However, if you’re striving toward excellence every day, people will jump all over themselves to be a part of what you are doing.
And always show sincere appreciation. People will want to help you only if they feel you are truly grateful.
It’s very, very difficult to accomplish anything alone. And it is quite unnecessary as well. There are plenty of people willing to help you if you will only ask.
– From: http://leadership.uoregon.edu/resources/exercises_tips/leadership_reflections/making_people_feel_needed

In most of my churches, the services are simple, show up, start with the first item on the list, end with the last item on the list and then you’re free to go. There’s really not a lot of ways that you be helpful because somebody else already has. Somebody else decided what music to use. Somebody else put together the PowerPoint presentation. Somebody else already set up the tables and chairs. Somebody else prepared the coffee and brought in the donuts. There really isn’t a lot to do but to show up, listen, and leave.

But every now then there’s an opportunity, a teacher or facilitator is needed to help guide a class. You’re finally needed – to turn on the DVD player, to read a few paragraphs of the study materials, and to moderate any discussion from the participants. Sometimes that kind of being needed seems more like being needed as a ‘warm body’ to fulfill a specific list of tasks – something anyone can do. Your own ideas and contributions, and by extension, you specifically aren’t needed.

People need to be needed, but people also need the freedom to serve freely, drawing off of their own ideas and contributions and expertise in order to find satisfaction. That’s something that a lot of churches are missing. You see, there are a lot of people out there who are disqualified from serving to fulfill the church’s particular needs. Kitchens and nurseries are their domain, but that’s their limit. What chaos would break in the church if just anyone could do just anything! Why, women might even become preachers in droves! What could be worse than that?

When I look around my church, I see that some of the millennials are teachers, choir members, and sound & computer technicians, and are always on the look-out for something to do. But my church is unusually well-represented with six of us. I think that the rest of us often can’t find anything to do. Either we’re not allowed or somebody else doesn’t need help. We don’t feel needed. Then when Christian leaders say things like “… as dross is being removed from silver, the church is being refined …” millennials get the message that they’re ‘dross’ and there’s no place for the impurity they represent in perfectly pure churches that don’t need them.

Ten years ago, the movie Robots had this slogan: “See a need, fill a need.” There’s a whole generation (or two or three) who are happy to do that – but the church doesn’t need them, so they volunteer everywhere else. Perhaps it’s a good thing, there’s no limits on who can do what in the real world, they need all hands on deck.

With a Grain of Salt

One of the reasons why I don’t fit in with the Southern Baptists anymore is a certain amount of skepticism that I’ve developed over the years under their teachings. Eventually I saw incongruity with their words and actions that looked suspiciously like hypocrisy. Finally I had to cut ties in order to save my sanity and what little faith I had managed to salvage from the wreckage that was the culmination of their teachings. I now attend a Methodist church, but I’ve begun to notice a troubling sign of things to come: many “Bible studies” (Studies written by wealthy men and women who have little or no practical life experience with Bible verses thrown in, but not once are believers asked to study from their own Bibles and draw conclusions, the authors have already done that for us) are from well-known Southern Baptist personalities and they are accepted without question or criticism.

Understand this, Southern Baptists emphasize and value a literal interpretation of Scripture whereas Methodists have this handy little quadrilateral that asks believers to filter their understanding through reason and experience. That’s how Methodists arrived at the conclusion that women can be preachers and teachers who teach men and women together, which is the opposite position of the baptists who believe that the Bible’s instruction is clear that women may only teach other women and children and they cannot be preachers and teachers of men.

I’m not saying that every single Southern Baptist “Bible study” will take you down that road that’s inherently incongruous with your own teachings, but some of them will made an aside, a subtle nod, or a gentle push that’s more in keeping with a Southern Baptist understanding and less in keeping with a Methodist understand of the same passage. If you don’t question how the authors arrive at the conclusions they do, you might miss out on the implications of what they teach. It makes it easier the next time they build off of that point into a teaching that’s further away from the understandings you hold dear. You’re also directly financing the aims of the Southern Baptists in their interests that you both agree on (like serving Christ) and in their interests where you stand opposed (like everything else.)

Not long after we left the Southern Baptist denomination, we stumbled into a non-denominational church that was a refreshing place to heal from the wounds and hurt and disappointment that was left over from our departure with the Southern Baptists. One day, the pastor delivered a sermon explaining that it’s not the people that are going in the opposite direction you have to worry about, it’s the ones that are very nearly (but not quite) headed in the direction you’re going. The more you adjust your course to match theirs, the more you leave the original path. It’s not long before you’ve stopped going to north and are going north-east and then you’re going east – having complete diverted from the way you were going. Methodists, the more you align yourself with Southern Baptists, the more you lose your way. Then you lose people like me who left the Southern Baptists and aren’t interested in the Southern Baptist-lites you’ve become.

I’m not saying that you should just throw away the materials you’ve already bought from the Southern Baptists nor that you should never, ever buy anything that they produce ever again, but I am saying that you should question every conclusion they draw and ask yourselves: “Would Methodists have reached this conclusion? What other valid interpretations exist for this passage?” Please ‘filter’ the Southern Baptist teachings through reason and experience! Look up culture and history and explain how the original audience understood it. Don’t just accept the author’s brilliant insight as obviously true and move on from there – ask yourselves how she arrived at that conclusion! Ask yourselves what she missed! You’re Methodists and don’t you forget that as you study what Southern Baptists have to say. Don’t let yourselves give up the the things that make you who you are.

Is anti-orc racism okay?

I’ve just finished reading the Hobbit – it was a curiously old-fashioned tale. I guess I’ve gotten used to ambiguity, free will, and the really tough questions. In Middle Earth, the ‘good’ races all hate the ‘evil’ races, and the ‘evil’ races hate the ‘good’ races even more. Both of the races are equally racist, and nobody stops to think about their lot in life. Apparently, members of the ‘good’ races can be turned to evil, but never can an member of any ‘evil’ race turn from their ways and become good. It’s a pretty depressing message, really.

You see, they never see the racism of the ‘good’ races as making them any less good, while by the same token, the racism of the ‘evil’ races is in keeping with their evil nature and it doesn’t make them any better. Why can’t an orc or a goblin be aware of the evil he or she does and decide to worship the deities of the ‘good’ races and become a vegetarian and a pacifist? Will the ‘good’ races accept him or her as a member of the same ideology, or reject him or her because of bad blood between their two societies?

In one of my computer games, they realize that if they’re to exist in a multi-species world, that racism is inevitable. If you have a party of adventurers made up with at least one of every species, then every time you encounter their species, you will benefit. Goods will be cheaper. You’ll be given help when you need it. You’ll get greater rewards for completing their quests. But you could just as easily run into groups of people who don’t like them, who’ll attack you, overcharge you, steal from you, that sort of thing. If your party is just human, then you can expect to encounter anti-human racists, be overcharged, and get lesser rewards. But you’ll also be aided by your own who agree that humans are superior. You get to see how the same groups treat you differently based on who you travel with. Such layers of storytelling make for good surprises and thought-provoking quests (Is the non-human in your party going to be okay with raiding his/her own people?)

When it comes to authors such as J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and their predecessors, they couldn’t have fathomed a world where racism wasn’t an everyday reality. Where racism wasn’t normal and would be challenged. When we read their works, we have to remember that they were from a time that’s different from ours. Books are always harder to date – some of C.S. Lewis’ work is extremely popular and seem like it applies today and some of it is already dated and is out of step with our reality. They serve as an excellent jumping off point when we think about how we treat others who are just like us and others who are different from us. But we have to remember that what makes us good or evil isn’t the species we were born into, but the decisions we make and that we always have a choice to do better, to put the needs of others before our own wants, and to change our lives.