Unbelievably Complicated

Looking through my papers awhile back, I discovered a small file folder. It was from my Pastor’s Class. It was when I was just a kid, everyone in my grade spent a few weeks in a class where the pastor explained our denomination, our beliefs, and best of all – we got to eat Mazzio’s pizza once a week for the month the class lasted.

One of the things she explained to me was the concept of a creed, a written belief system. We were given a blank page and encouraged to read the bible and write down what we believed. She told me that the best creeds were always something very personal.

Later, I had fall into another denomination. This one had it’s creed already written – a “message” where it explained a concept and backed it up with Bible verses. There was this unspoken rule: “if you want to be one of us, you must believe as we believe.” So I tried my best to follow the message. After all, people older and wiser than me obeyed it unquestionably, how could they be wrong? In all my time in that denomination – I knew that the message existed, but it was never explained to me. It was never personal to me.

As it turns out, parts of the message seemed to be all wrong. We had questions that the message couldn’t answer. So we quit denominations altogether. It was a breath of fresh air to be the one who got to decide what I wanted to believe and who knew why I happened to believe it. I now know that not everything biblical is good, and not everything good is in the Bible. I think I can say that after seeing what sort of damage had done being required to believe something that I didn’t believe in and quite possibly wasn’t meant to believe at all.

So a few weeks ago, a customer was telling me about her church and she invited me to attend. I told her that I had issues with most churches in the area and that I wasn’t quite ready to give it a try, but thanks for the offer. It was when she said the denomination of her church that my heart sank. It was the one that obeyed the message. Not only that, but the internet indicated that they had been preaching a sermon series on the contents of the message. They were preaching what they believed about the Bible based on what they say the Bible says.

Now I don’t know what my original creed would have said, but I think as I’ve matured, my beliefs have changed. Some of it from seeing how people act based on their beliefs can make them unreasonable, judgmental, and unforgiving to those who aren’t like them and don’t believe as they do. I don’t want to be like that. We rarely think about it the other way around: about what sort of person we want to be and what we will need to believe in order to become that sort of person.

I know that I can’t obey the message because it isn’t a personal belief system to me – it’s not something that speaks who what I believe – and to be honest, much of it doesn’t seem to apply at the moment. What I do believe is just so different from the message that I find myself asking if it’s even worth trying churches because so few tolerate differences. You don’t really see Sunday School classes where a Unitarian and trinitarian can engage in a discussion without calling each other a heretic. Where arminians and Calvinists sit at the table with people who have no clue what that means and not try to convert everyone else to their own way of thinking. Unity becomes about being the same, not about accepting diversity. It can take a lot out of you to hold to different ideas in a church where everyone else is on the same page and constantly trying to turn you from the error of your ways.

So here I am looking at a blank piece of paper, thinking about my personal creed and I have no idea where to begin. I’ve seen many of the ancient ones – the Apostles and the Nicene and the Athanasian Creed – I’ve seen some of the new ones, the message, various belief statements or visions … but none of them speak to me. The truth is, after so many mixed messages, I’m not sure what to believe anymore. I can’t help but think how complicated we’ve made it all.

Paul once wrote to a struggling church – this is what he said:
“For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve. After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.
For I am the least of the apostles and do not even deserve to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God. But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them—yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me. Whether, then, it is I or they, this is what we preach, and this is what you believed.” – 1 Cor. 15:3-11

It would seem then, that which is most central to Christianity is Christ, his life, his teachings, and his death and Resurrection. But when it comes to the -isms and -tions of Christianity … it’s a lot of difficult concepts. Far much more confusing that it needs to be or was for the early church. It’s the secondary teachings that seem to be most problematic; particularly when what you consider to be less important that Christ is, to another, equally important as Christ. When something is equally important as Christ, questioning how important it is means you’re also questioning the importance of Christ; and quite possibly denying the importance of Christ when you deny the importance of the thing that is equally as important as Christ. That’s where I feel trapped by these non-personal creeds and why I think churches often fail to accept differences. By believing something different, we are in essence denying a founding principle of their common beliefs. We can go to those other churches that believe (wrongly) as we do because we have no place among them unless we believe (rightly) as they do. I don’t know what I do believe, but beliefs shouldn’t be so complicated. They should help you to become a better person, challenge you to stop a few bad habits, help you help others and not harm others in the process.


Encourage One Another

To edify is to teach someone in a way that improve their mind or character.

To encourage is to make someone more determined, more hopeful more confident, more likely to do something, to tell or advise someone to do something, and to make something more appealing or more likely to happen.

To console is to try to make someone feel less sadness or disappointment and to alleviate the grief, sense of loss, or trouble of another. It means to comfort in a time of grief or distress.

To edify, encourage, and console is to prophesy. Prophecy is a task that both men and women are expected to fulfil in the church. Paul said that it was the most important gift; that it was even better than the gift of speaking in tongues.

I know I’ve been discouraged lately. A lot of it is because of Christianity, how it’s taught, how limits are placed, how little it speaks into my day-to-day life. Nobody prophecies; too many are out-right forbidden because it involves teaching and instruction and some people don’t want to encourage the wrong sort of people to teach others. We’re also a faith that’s pretty terrible about tolerating grief and distress in others and knowing what to do or say about it. Every morning, we shake each other’s hand, ask: “How are you doing?” If your response isn’t “fine” you have given the wrong answer. I also know that there’s a limited amount of edification going on; the prodigies who show some skill or talent are encouraged; everyone else is left to their own devices.

Now speaking in tongues is all the rage; has been for the longest time – but prophecy-based churches are few and far between. I guess it depends on what your focus is – showing the power of the spirit through amazing displays. Or living out Christ-like love by edifying, encouraging, and consoling one another. One lets you keep all the rules you want, the other asks you to choose which ones are worth the fuss.

Symbols of Heritage

In these parts, it’s not uncommon to see a prominently displayed southern flag just about everywhere – from people’s clothing, to the decals on their trucks. I was thinking about how the Southern Baptists recently took up the question about whether or not to affirm the symbol of Southern pride and heritage or the symbol of slavery and one of the darkest chapters in Southern history.

Now me, I don’t have that strong of an affiliation with it. I grew up in one of those states that was removed from the conflict. I then lived in a northern state and moved to a southern one – if only barely. My family history tells me that on one side of my family – the question divided two brothers, one fought for the north, the other the south. On the other side, they were neutral until some members of the family were imprisoned and upon being traded back he rallied everyone to sign up for the north and fight against the south; or so the story goes – the evidence is a little difficult to come by. We didn’t really have a big plantation or a stake in the economic prosperity that slavery provided it’s masters at the expense of the slaves.

The way I see it, it’s the cross to bear of pro-heritage folk to always have the anti-slavery being the dark side of the same symbol. The south without slavery wouldn’t have gone to war, wouldn’t have tried to separate itself into a whole other country, and wouldn’t have been symbolized by it’s own flag. You can’t have one without the other. So you’ll have little choice but to say: “I’m not racist but I affirm my Southern heritage” every single time you hold up the banner, you bear that cross. If you want to affirm your southern heritage without having a racist dark-side, you’d have to choose another symbol. But what else is there that unites southern heritage?

Notice that Northerners, Midwesterners, and Westerners don’t have such a flag of their heritage to rally behind. There’s nothing symbolic about where they’re from that ties in so many different states over such vast regions. I’ll let proponents of the southern flag explain to me why it’s necessary when none of the other regions seem to need one.

I Wish that I Missed Church

It used to be that I’d know what day of the week it was by how long it had been since I’d last gone to church. These days, I’m a bit better about knowing the time – but not so good about going to church. The interesting thing these days is when I see people from church; “So it’s been awhile since we’ve seen you at church. We missed you.” Is something I hear every now and then. It’s even more awkward when I meet somebody from the church before that …

Thinking back – I’m not sure that there was anything to miss. Making friends in a tight-knit church isn’t easy and I never really fell into any of the groups that were there – I was usually too young (for the elders), too old (for the youth), and too single (for the marrieds). And it wasn’t like the music was all that great – just old-fashioned hymns that didn’t speak to me. I’d rather not sing them at than to have no choice but to sing them and them alone. The preaching wasn’t bad … but I’m not sure if it’s enough to justify putting up with the bad music and being isolated in a crowd. Sunday school … well, they were trying but it wasn’t working either. So it seems, they miss me at church a whole lot more than I miss going to church.

But judging by some of the interactions I have with various kinds of Christians online, it’s probably for the best. The more I’m out of church, the more my beliefs fall away from the pre-approved labels of Calvinism or Arminianism or what have you. There’s a lot of it that – to be honest – I just don’t care about. So much of it doesn’t apply, so I don’t see why I should have to agree that it’s a valid teaching.

I know that if I went to one of the local churches, the more they’d try to supply with a fix of their particular teaching – something that’s out of my system now but they want me to become re-addicted to. They’d want me to turn, to reform into one of their own. It makes me feel that it’s not really about me – but how they can mold me into their image rather than helping me bring out Christs’ image in me. That’s one thing I really don’t miss about church.

Challenging Christian Culture

“Dying,” Morrie suddenly said, “is only one thing to be sad over, Mitch. Living unhappily is something else. So many of the people who come to visit me are unhappy.”
“Well, for one thing, the culture we have does not make people feel good about themselves. We’re teaching the wrong things. And you have to be strong enough to say if the culture doesn’t work, don’t buy it. Create your own. Most people can’t do it. They’re more unhappy than me–even in my current condition.”
“I may be dying, but I am surrounded by loving, caring souls. How many people can say that?” –  from “Tuesdays with Morrie“, by Mitch Albom

Christian culture doesn’t make me happy. To be sure that we’re on the same page – I’m using this definition for culture: “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group”.

On ‘customary beliefs’ – I find myself in a Christianity that’s full of conflicting customary beliefs. I’m not sure what to believe – or why it’s okay to not believe some things and a deal-breaker to not believe other things. It’s not just the main battlefields of the armies of Calvinism vs the militias of Arminianism; but there’s also countless smaller debates – skirmishes on any number of topics that constantly rage on seemingly without end. There’s no peace – and the only unity exists so long as the other people on your side believe exactly as you do – otherwise they’re not worth the time of day. If you associate with them, their ‘bad company’ will corrupt your ‘good character’ or worse, ‘damage your faith’ and turn you away from the truth.

On ‘social forms’ – Christianity has become bound to hierarchies in hierarchies built upon domination and subordination. It’s one of the big debates going on now – but apparently the Father/Son relationship is one of authority and submission, so husband/wife relationships are also built on authority and submission, as well as church leaders / the congregation are to exist in a pattern of authority and submission. Somebody always leads, somebody always follows or else the whole house of cards will come tumbling down. But for those of us who read the Bible understanding mutual respect and love as the nature of all relationships – we can see the tendency to over-promote authority and submission as the human tendency to seek power and control over others. A hierarchical God, seriously? How does that really work? God, Christ, Holy Spirit, various ranks of angels, wasn’t Jesus made a little lower than the angels? Then people – but also in various ranks – in the churches it goes like Pastor, then varying degrees of associate pastors, Elder, Deacon, husbands and men in general, wives and women in general, children. Then as family units, the order goes God, Christ, Man/Husband, Woman/Wife – nobody seems to notice the absence of the Holy Spirit and children, but it’s not like they were that important anyways.

On material traits – We like our stuff. Our t-shirts, our sermons, our books – we’d fill up whole libraries of books and just keep on writing more of them. We’ll sell you any number of Bibles in any color of any translation with any number of special features – maps, timelines, study notes – we’re a stuff-oriented faith these days. We have mountains of it, and faith will move it for a an extra shipping and handling fee. Figure in the seed/faith prosperity gospel and you have a stuff-oriented teaching that pretty much never delivers on it’s promises because it impoverishes vulnerable Christians in order to enrich greedy Christians.

We’re not at all like the original culture Christianity had – they were all brothers and sisters (no hierarchies), they were more concerned with the Holy Spirit’s power than their own (Jesus didn’t send Him to us so that we could ignore him), and we didn’t really care about stuff (we held everything in common and gave to others as they had need.) We didn’t police each other’s theology and were plagued with false teachers – but that’s par for the course in a saturated religious market-place where idols and false gods are so plentiful that new converts are bound to mix-up the details.

But when I’m at church – especially at the SBC churches – I’m in a culture that doesn’t make me happy. I’m in a culture that says that I’m beneath them (hierarchies aren’t so great for those at the bottom, but the ones at the top get the nice view – or so I hear, I wouldn’t really know.) I’m flooded with Bible Studies that don’t really study the Bible itself (I still don’t know why I’d study some woman’s autobiography instead of God’s word – I certainly wouldn’t choose to learn from it or teach it.) I’m in a church with changing theology that crashes in from all sides like a tumultuous sea and I’m drowning in these really complicated theological beliefs -ism and -tion words that seem nothing like what I read in the Bible. It’s certainly not like how Jesus taught on the tough things.

So here’s the deal. Culture is what we make it – we can make it better and/or we can make it worse. It’s up to us to write the books and the songs and the studies, to organize ourselves and to re-write the rules so that nobody is left out or perpetually at the end of the line, to steer us in the right direction as to putting more value in people than in stuff. So I’ll do my best to make up my own culture.
I think I’ll base it off of Jesus’ teachings – he and his upside-down, inside-out family of believers who live out a few basic principles:

  1. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you; do not treat others in ways you would not like to be treated.
  2. Love your neighbor as you love yourself; everyone is your neighbor – even your enemies. Love yourself – take care of yourself so that you can take care of and love others, too.
  3. See a need, fill a need – it’s not enough to throw money at a problem and hope that fixes it; give your time and skills. Educate yourself as to what needs are present in your community and work together to fill them with others.
  4. Friendship, not finances – Christianity should never be a money-making scheme; relationships are more important than excessive wealth. True prosperity is taking care of others.
  5. Level playing field – Christianity isn’t a spectator sport where only a few are authorized to play the game and a great many are only allowed to watch from the bleachers; every player is needed in the game. Nobody rides the bench. There’s only one team captain – J.C.
  6. Same page – there are worse things than not being on the same page; no more policing each other’s beliefs. Learn to embrace diversity of thought and style while maintaining unity of spirit – one Spirit moves through us all – taking us all on our different journeys together.
  7. Empty chair – too many groups get too comfortable with their small circle, there always need to be an empty place at the table, and empty chair reminding us that our group isn’t ‘whole’ or ‘complete’ yet. We should welcome new-comers and embrace the changing group dynamic that they represent.

Does Christian culture make you happy? If not, what principles would you teach in culture 2.0?