The Narrowing

I wonder if I’ve been out of the loop for so long that I’m starting to loose my grasp of Christian spirituality. Perhaps it’s the nebulous tendency to make a words have several different meanings. One thing I have been concerned about is what people mean when they say they are following “the narrow path”.

“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.” – Matthew 7:13-14

I’m fairly familiar with the old saying “the straight and narrow” as a way of saying that somebody is virtuous and moral and doing everything they ought to be sure they’re going to heaven. But the way that some people talk about this narrow path, it’s almost as if it’s isn’t enough to have been saved; but as if it’s asking much more …

Then Jesus went through the towns and villages, teaching as he made his way to Jerusalem. Someone asked him, “Lord, are only a few people going to be saved?”

He said to them, “Make every effort to enter through the narrow door, because many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able to. Once the owner of the house gets up and closes the door, you will stand outside knocking and pleading, ‘Sir, open the door for us.’

“But he will answer, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from.’

“Then you will say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’

“But he will reply, ‘I don’t know you or where you come from. Away from me, all you evildoers!’

“There will be weeping there, and gnashing of teeth, when you see Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, but you yourselves thrown out. People will come from east and west and north and south, and will take their places at the feast in the kingdom of God. Indeed there are those who are last who will be first, and first who will be last.” – Luke 13:22-30

This narrow path is not an easy one. You have to give up a lot of people and places and things in your life – because the more narrow the path before you, the less you can take with you. So you get rid of all the unnecessary luxuries, the things that you give more time to than God. Then you get rid of all the gatherings that take your time away from God. You end a few friendship here and there in the name of narrowing down your relationships to only the most godly among them. You stop living like a normal person and start living differently.

But such an idea doesn’t have wings to fly in a number of cultures. I know that in some, the idea of spending eternity somewhere separate from the rest of your family is terrifying. Isn’t the joy of heaven just as much as being around all the people you like even if they’re not examples of godly perfection? I wonder if there’s such a thing as the narrow road asking too much. One of my favorite episodes of The Twilight Zone, “The Hunt” features a man who gets upset that what he thinks is heaven won’t let his dog in. If his beloved dog can’t go to heaven, then that’s the last place he’d want to be.

Or is it our human tendency to take things too far? I remember reading about the Ascetic movement in early Christianity. In lieu of persecution, countless Christians chose to leave everything – no exceptions – behind and live in the deserts of Kellia, Nitria, and Scetis to do absolutely nothing other than to think about God. Such a lifestyle was usually demanding one – and while yes some of our great thinkers were Ascetics, so were some the great heresies of our time.

Ultimately pursuing an increasingly narrow way of life stands opposed to the idea that it’s only when we widen our connection to others are we truly a part of the whole. Hiding from the world is a good idea from time to time, but it was never meant a permanent lifestyle. Even Jesus – who would have moments of alone time – would eventually find himself out and about and among the crowds. We were meant to belong and to connect. Narrowing down our lives shouldn’t be our main goal, as if narrowness itself were something we could truly achieve – it is missing the point. Sometimes some doors are so narrow, no human can enter them – and they don’t do anyone any good at all. Let’s try not to live that way – for the sake of narrowness as if it were the goal.

 

An Untrustworthy Compass

Most of us live by a moral compass that tells whether what were doing falls into the “right” or “wrong” category. We know the difference between a guilty conscience and a clear one. We like to punish guilt and praise innocence. That’s just how our society works.

Jesus’ society was that of an an honor/shame dynamic. For them, that which was honorable was right, that which was shameful was wrong. It often also took an outside party to confirm honor or shame as being of good esteem and well-known, or having a bad reputation and being infamous, depending on your perceived character.

Being in an honor/shame society is a tricky proposition for those who are outsiders. After all, whatever restores honor is right, whatever tarnishes honor is wrong. So some actions our society would declare wrong could be viewed as right in that culture. Somehow, our society’s morality was informed by the ideals found in Scripture and it diverged from honor/shame into guilt/innocence. Our moral compass changed.

And it’s still changing. I was reading a conversation where a Christian drew up a scenario where a home was being invaded and it’s owner had two options: kill or be killed. It was obvious the answer the Christian was looking for was that the home owner should kill the invaders. But I began to wonder: Is that the only option? What reasons motivate the invasion in the first place? Can the invaders be reasoned with? Would being disabled or wounded be a better option? I wondered why the thought of hypothetically assisting God render his verdict of eternal condemnation and torture in Hell by speeding criminals to the afterlife didn’t register even the slightest moral concern on their radar. This value happened to be the opposite of the early Christians who were so sure of their eternal salvation, they wouldn’t kill others, giving them as long of a chance as possible to repent and join them in heaven, where they could forgive them for murdering them as they ate together around the Lord’s table. Think about it – Saul persecuted Christians, was on the wrong side of Stephen’s martyrdom, believed and became Paul, and will spend eternity in Heaven with Stephen. Quite a turnaround!

Likewise, I’ve seen Christians get so riled over their side of their favorite cause, they loose sight of the individuals who would be affected by their ideas and the circumstances involved. Sometimes there aren’t easy one-size-fits-all solutions or answers to the toughest questions of all and it’s marginalizing to decide for other people what they get to choose from without any direct interaction with those who are most affected by the decisions being made. Unique individuals become part of some faceless crowd, “the victims” or “the sinners” or whatever label they want to use to describe them this week – and their whole story gets erased alongside with their identity, as well as any desire to be respectful because of the distance involved from the matter because it’s all being argued on some higher hypothetical plain that we forget affects everyday people who sometimes live a lot closer to us than we think.

We have this big cosmic battle of changing morality playing out in this very day and age. Things that were utterly immoral not that long ago have found a measure of acceptance as we question the original assumptions about what’s right and wrong. And we’ll continue to question and change our minds about morality as the years go on. It seems that we’re finally asking the right questions. One of my favorite moral teachers is Martin Luther King, Jr. who had quite a bit to say on the subject said it best during his sermon explaining his opposition to the Vietnam War:

“A genuine revolution of values means in the final analysis that our loyalties must become ecumenical rather than sectional. Every nation must now develop an overriding loyalty to mankind as a whole in order to preserve the best in their individual societies. This call for a worldwide fellowship that lifts neighborly concern beyond one’s tribe, race, class, and nation is in reality a call for an all-embracing, unconditional love for all men. This oft misunderstood and misinterpreted concept, so readily dismissed by the Nietzsches of the world as a weak and cowardly force, has now become an absolute necessity for the survival of mankind. And when I speak of love I’m not speaking of some sentimental and weak response. I am speaking of that force which all of the great religions have seen as the supreme unifying principle of life. Love is somehow the key that unlocks the door which leads to ultimate reality. This Hindu-Muslim-Christian-Jewish-Buddhist belief about ultimate reality is beautifully summed up in the first epistle of John: “Let us love one another, for God is love. And every one that loveth is born of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not knoweth not God, for God is love. If we love one another, God dwelleth in us and his love is perfected in us.” “

I so wish Christians would learn to erase the divisions and shift their loyalties and learn to see the world as an “all of us, together” kind of people. Sadly, I’ve read so many End Times stories where any attempt to unite the world, declare peace, put an end to famine and poverty and feed the hungry is viewed with the utmost suspicion that the Anti-Christ is somewhere active in the world and is just about to take it over. I’ve seen regular Christians talk about the Mark of the Beast as if it’s just a day away from being something real and tangible.

And I wonder what’s become of Christian morality, that broken compass that swings wildly as if it’s confused and lost it’s way. Each believer seems to read it differently and point to a different direction to head in as the true way to salvation; but I’m not so sure that any of us have it right.

The Answers

Catechesis. It’s one of many spiritual terms that aren’t exactly in my vocabulary and with which I lack experience. When I was growing up, any Evangelical worth their salt would have said something like: “Oh, that’s what Catholics do.” And went about their merry way thinking themselves superior to have moved beyond such traditions. But like all fashions, things that go out eventually come back again. (And as it is with all fashions, once they’re in, eventually they go back out again.)

The Gospel Coalition partnered with a church in order to create The New City Catechism. Admittedly, I’ll have to mention that I’m slightly biased against anything and everything associated with the Gospel Coalition; I suspect that in some way, shape, or form, their material reflects their pre-existing beliefs even though others might have completely valid differing opinions.

At any rate, it asks questions like:

What is our only hope in life and death?

And it tells you the answers for you:

That we are not our own but belong, body and soul, both in life and death, to God and to our Savior Jesus Christ.

Fifty-two questions. Fifty-two answers. A basic overview of the faith designed to be easily memorable call-and-response type teaching as an instruction for little children just learning the gospel and adults discovering it for the first time.

But what really bothers me is that I can’t come up with my own answers; that any answer other than the one they’ve chosen for me is – for lack of a better word – heresy.
For me, faith has been just as much about the journey as it is the destination; I like to continually learn things and to keep on searching. I don’t want my answers given to me on a silver platter and be told that’s that. It’s probably why I’m not keen on membership covenants – just being told to accept these things, sign here and you’re golden? I don’t think it’s supposed to be that easy.

That’s why I’ve come to appreciate the wisdom in the Fourth Principle of Unitarian Universalism: “A free and responsible search for truth and meaning;” or more accurately,

“As responsible religious seekers, we recognize that we are privileged to be free, to have resources to pursue life beyond mere survival, to continually search for truth and meaning, to exist beyond bonds of dogma and oppression, and to wrestle freely with truth and meaning as they evolve.

“This privilege calls us not to be isolated and self-centered, believing that our single perspective trumps all others, but rather to be humble, to be open to the great mysteries of truth and meaning that life offers. And those mysteries may speak to us through our own intuition and experience—but also through tradition, community, conflict, nature, and relationships.

“As a faith tradition, Unitarian Universalism makes sacred the right and responsibility to engage in this free and responsible quest as an act of religious devotion. Institutionally, we have left open the questions of what truth and meaning are, acknowledging that mindful people will, in every age, discover new insights.”
Rev. Paige Getty, UU Congregation of Columbia, Maryland (read more from Paige in The Seven Principles in Word and Worship, ed. Ellen Brandenburg)”

I think God would be more pleased if when we’re asked to talk about our faith, our answers are organic and unique rather than formulaic and memorized. Besides – what about questions that the book doesn’t even think to ask? Fifty-two can’t possibly cover everything that somebody might want to know and it most certainly isn’t all there is to know about the faith; or rather, a faith as defined by a particular denomination in a specific branch of Christianity. It doesn’t give all the answers for all of Christianity’s other denominations whose teachings differ.

Seek and you shall find … I think I’ll just keep on looking to see what else is worth finding.

Living Another Life

The other night, I overheard an older man giving some advice to a young couple who were about to be married. Basically, it was to start having children right away because if they wait until they’re older, they won’t have as much energy or the ability to bounce back as quickly when they get older. Some of the other people around nodded, saying things like the fact that they had regretted waiting too long. But this is a different world from the way that things used to be, and so it doesn’t follow that their advice applies as the best advice. No two couples are the same and they shouldn’t be made to live one way as if it were a cure-all to prevent any ills or woes happening in the course of everyday life.

I was thinking about that – how it’s true that most people will prefer to have the best of both worlds, there are usually some instances where they wouldn’t want to give up some of the good things about the path that they travelled. The more experiences you’re willing to erase from your life, the more aspects of who you are you are willing to let go. Then you end up becoming somebody else with some other life altogether.

What makes each of us who we are is the sum of everything that we’ve gone through and everyone who has impacted our lives. So much of our identity comes from where we’re from, who are friends are, who we work with, who we call family, where we live, what things we like. And sure, we’ll always make mistakes or decisions that we might wish to do-over; but odds are we wouldn’t want to give up whole sectors of our lives.

I was thinking about how this worked in Its a Wonderful Life; we only got a glimpse of the terrible fate that befell Mary without having fallen in love with George. She would have had to further her education, get a job, establish her own friends, her own place in the community, set her own goals; who knows, perhaps if George never existed she might have fallen in love with somebody else and lived her life differently – no better and no worse, just not the same. Yep, that’s the worst thing that could have happened without George; but it’s not really so bad, is it?

For me and so many others, we’ve been told that good things come to those who wait. As patient and we’ve been, we know that there’s bound to be a whole lot of good things in store – in due time. Perhaps our lives would have been different had we lived them differently, but then we would be different people, too. You know what, I rather like the person that I am and I’m glad that I’m not somebody else. I might not have followed the beaten path, but I’ve enjoyed the scenic route’s charming view.

Quito

Dim Light

“As a scientist,” My friend the German wrote me, “I’m very worried about how far behind America has fallen. What do you think?”

I love questions like this because it really lets me connect the dots. So let’s start with “the beginning”.

As a Christian, I know very few kids who grew up in the church and got involved in the sciences; particularly the branches that do the heavy-lifting in the theoretical realms. I know that the German grew up as a Lutheran and that the Chemistry teacher at my old school was a Southern Baptist as he attended my church. We got to watch Kent Hovind’s Creation Science Evangelism Seminar (popular in the 1990s-2000s) where he explains that there are lies in school textbooks and sometimes the science that they teach is just plain wrong. So while students should do their best; when it comes to science they shouldn’t believe everything they’re taught particularly about the Theory of Evolution. But even though I had a weakness at the math involved, I loved the sciences and took just about every class I could. Always in the back of my mind was the idea that I should learn everything I could, but I didn’t have to believe anything that I didn’t want to believe.

Meanwhile, our politicians were lost in debate. The question was whether or not climate change was a hoax. They used science to support both positions, the facts and figures indicate that yes the climate is change, but no it’s not changing any more or any worse than it always has. This debate dragged on for years – each trying to use their own science to discredit the other sides’ science or call it out as flawed in some way.

Ken Ham  of Answers in Genesis (1990s-now) became the next big Christian name to take up the banner of creationism. He built the Creation Museum and had Bill Nye come and debate him there. After that, Ham built the Ark Encounter. If Christians used to be hostile to science, then this was nothing more than a declaration of war. Museums, after all, are buildings of science – like the Kirpatrick Center I visited as a kid – where you could play and learn about science hands-on. Now that Creationism had it’s own museums, it became harder to know the line where faith and science were drawn; ultimately though, in the way that they were built, science was a after-thought and faith and evangelism was the primary goal of the building.

So Christianity taught me that science is dumb and wrong and faith is smart and right because God, who knows all true science from the false science, tells us everything we need to know in the pages of the Bible. Faith opted me out from any responsibility to science. But how can be otherwise when the institution that speaks on behalf of God has you watch videos telling you from a young age that science is wrong?

In the most recent election, Christians came out in full force behind the Republican candidate who spouted Christian ideals but also had the same animosity to science. Now that Christians are becoming increasingly powerful again, their anti-science stance is also gaining influence. Our politicians are still keen to use science to support their side and attack their opponent’s science. That’s why Christian kids don’t grow up to be scientists.

History tells us of a dark age when faith held back scientific progress with the full authority of God. We’re not that bad, but I’d say we’re in a dim age because we like the science that is the kind that agrees with God: “water will always boil at the boiling point and will always freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit.” But we don’t like the science that tells us that the water came from Hydrogen and Oxygen combining and falling on the molten rocks of our extremely young earth and starting the water cycle.

So think about this, Christian kids in the 90s, 00s, 10s were taught that science and faith are incompatible. The eldest batch of them – if they’ve obeyed their Bible right, are parents who should have begun teaching their kids that science and faith are incompatible. We have yet to see what sort of damage this teaching will do generationally – at least, in this modern age. One thing is for sure, eventually religion will go too far and we will seek brighter lights; but things might have to get much darker.

When You’re Not Saved

So I laid out the whole story – where I was, what happened, and why I believe what I do now. I had hoped for some acknowledgement that I was even in some small degree right. I wanted some encouragement that things will get better. I would have even settled for some thoughtful push back on the main point of my arguments. But I was disappointed with this thought-stopper of a sentence: “You’re not really saved.”

I get that a lot. All the time. For some odd reason, when I reveal that I’m a theological opposite of the popular school of thought, everyone just outright declares that I’m not saved. It invalidates everything I’ve said because if I’m not saved, then my arguments are worldly and coming from a person / place of sin. If only I were a Christian, their kind of Christian, then my arguments could be trusted on face value alone. But I’m not, so they can’t because I’m not saved. Were I saved, we’d be in total agreement and there’d be no argument on the matter because I’d be wrong, repent, and come around to their way of thinking.

I’m just finding it harder and harder to believe in the popular schools of thought in Christianity; all the more -isms they teach take the focus off of Jesus Christ (the guy the religion is named after.) I have watched as Christians really took to Young Earth Creationism and Intelligent Design in order to combat Evolution rather than talk about the gospel message of how Jesus came to seek and save the lost. I saw them stand up for Biblical Marriage in an attempt to combat Marriage Equality rather than preach on how Jesus loved prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers and all the other outcasts of society meant that we should do the same. My whole life, their pro-life stance against abortion has been the rallying call for the cause of Christ rather than just following Christ himself and it seemed as if the not-yet-living had more importance than the homeless and orphans that were already living in their midst. It often went unsaid that you could only vote Republican because it was the more Christian of the two parties.

Apparently, I’d have to be a Young Earth Creationist, 5-point Calvinist, Anti-Homosexuality Complementarian, Pro-life Republican to be truly saved. Surely, you could probably get the Bible to say that somehow, somewhere; but it doesn’t matter that the Bible doesn’t say as much because far too many believers believe that anything less is proof that someone isn’t truly saved and doesn’t take the bible literally. It’s almost as if the ground the cross is on has many levels and you can only ascend to the foot of the cross if you pass the guardians of theology on each level. If you don’t believe enough of the right things in the right way, you can never reach the foot of the cross and you will never be truly saved. You can only look at the cross from a distance while you live and know that when you die, you’ll be in the chasm looking up at heaven where there is no fire wishing you were over there.

I’d rather be unsaved than that kind of Christian; one whose theology is perfect but practice is lacking. One who is so busy debating Intelligent Design and Day-age believers trying to convert them to the true salvation of Young Earth Creationism, one who is so busy trying to convince Arminians and non-Calvinists of all stripes that they are all heretics without believing in the truth of Calvinism, one who is against just about everything and everyone who isn’t a theological clone of the one, true, right way of thinking – the only way of thinking that assures salvation. You see – I tried to be one of those, but I realized that I was missing a key component of Jesus’ teachings. I hadn’t learned how to love like Jesus loved. I did have a kind of Christian love, I loved those who were like me. I just couldn’t bring myself to see another believer who believed things differently as a true believer who could be saved. Or perhaps, they were saved – just not as fully. When it would come to the banquet table in heaven – having all the right beliefs meant that my chair would be closer to the head of the table – closer to Jesus himself. Having all the wrong beliefs meant that I’d be sitting further and further from him.

So it took me by surprise to actually get to know this Christian – a Catholic, no less – who was more kind, more patient, more loving and better at being these things than my whole group of Evangelical Christians who were just like me. I realized that for all the things that we believed correctly, we hadn’t learned to act on those beliefs with true love in our hearts. It changed everything. If there was any truth to the teaching that you will know them by the fruit they bear – then surely we were bearing rotten fruit even though we had the correct ideology and somehow someone with incorrect ideology was bearing pretty good fruit. Someone was wrong – and it was us. We were saved, and yet we were not really, truly saved.

So I guess when people tell me “you’re not really saved” it shouldn’t irk me so, after all, lots of “not really saved” people are the truest Christians of all. But the problem is that it shifts the burden to the person to prove that they are saved and should be taken seriously and leads to a cycle of self-doubt. It doesn’t help that there’s a verse that says that we shouldn’t doubt because we won’t receive anything from the Lord if we do doubt.

“That Christian says that I’m not saved, what if I’m not really saved?” How can you prove to yourself that you are if nobody else seems to think that you are? It’s not as if there’s some test where you pass a Bible knowledge quiz or perform some heroic feat that proves your salvation. In certain circles of Christianity, you can’t even know if you’re truly saved – you can only hope you are. In that case, you can pray, study, do good works to your heart’s content and if you aren’t saved there’s nothing you can do to assure yourself of salvation. If you’re not supposed to be saved, there’s no way that door will open up to you no matter how much you might want it to.

Fortunately, that’s not the only school of thought on salvation; some believe “once saved always saved” in which case you can’t lose your salvation, assuming that is, you were truly saved in the first place. Then, of course, there was the time where the elder said that God doesn’t let anyone steal his sheep from his hand, but he doesn’t prevent his sheep from jumping out of his hand of their own free will. Whole books have been written on the subject and there still isn’t a definitive answer; just lots of different ideas.

I just don’t know what to make of it all anymore – I just know what I do and what I don’t believe. For the moment, I don’t believe that “You’re not really, truly saved” should be in such common use to shut down conversations and dismiss the thoughts of others. Saved or not – sometimes a person has a great point that deserves consideration. But when Christians say that you’re not saved, they say that your thoughts don’t matter in the least; you sinning sinner you, just can’t grasp the finer points of theology as illuminated by the Holy Spirit into the hearts and minds of believers. What you believe to be true is wrong because you’ve been warped by the world and sin has altered your senses. You can’t be believed because you are a child of the world whose father is the author of lies and that’s you’re native tongue – there’s no truth in you. To me, that’s the most dangerous thing of all. A sinner can call attention to an injustice a Christian commits and be called a liar because his word carries less weight than that of a believer. When a Christians calls a sinner a liar, they are telling the truth – and when an honest sinner reveals a lie a Christian has told – they are being dishonest because all sinners are liars. Let’s put such thinking away and look deeper at the heart of what’s being said, treating one another with the respect we would wish others would treat us with – not dismissing one another because we’re opposites, but valuing who we are and what each of us has to say.

 

Our True Greatness

I’ve been wondering what makes us great. Is it having more riches than others by far? No, riches alone do not prove one’s greatness, for riches can be ill gotten gains. Is it having the mightiest standing army of them all? No, armies cannot fight all battles – not even with all the weapons and technology at their side. Greatness is far more than that.
I’ve also been watching Merlin and every few episodes you see flash of what will be great about King Arthur’s kingdom; it’s not his wealth or his army – but his stand on his principles.
The Round Table, for one, represents equality where no one person had more importance than any of the others around the table. “They believed in equality of all things.”
“When the rules are wrong … you re-write them!” In some episodes, an innocent person loses their life because that is what the rules demanded. When the rules are unjust and unfair, they must be erased.
Arthur’s Kingdom was one of principles – ideals, beliefs – the ancient romances are full of them: courage, faith, trust, hope, goodness, kindness – what made us great was that we were a nation born of these principles.
The principle that everyone could transcend what station they were born as and work to better themselves. The principle that hard work would be rewarded. The principle that we could forge relationships on trust and hope and faith. The principle that a stranger was just a friend you hadn’t met yet. We opened our doors to anyone and everyone – promising them opportunity and prosperity. That is our greatness.
So locking that door shut, building up walls and casting our neighbors out of our land isn’t us becoming great – it’s turning our backs on the greatness that we can’t lose if we remain true to our beliefs.