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.

Rest in Pieces: The Obituary of a Church

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Not long after we moved down south, we stumbled across a church that made us moderately happy – for a time. The sermons were decent and best of all, they had contemporary music. We had hoped that it was similar to the non-denominational church that had breathed life into us after a bad church experience up north.

It was a church in the middle of a vast field; but the church itself wasn’t particularly old. Inside, the sanctuary was large and open – it had rows of chairs that could be stacked against the wall to make room for fold-able tables for potlucks and other get-togethers. They also had all the typical offerings – men’s groups, women’s groups, youth groups. For a time, it was a nice church home and a good church family.

But behind the scenes, things were a little different. The men in charge were the pastor, the elder, and the deacon. The pastor liked making everyone happy, so more often than not he’d end up siding with the elder unless the deacon could persuade him otherwise. The deacon was the only one who’d offer an alternative opinion to the elder; but he was often away on business, so the elder could get just about anything he wanted done when the deacon wasn’t around to challenge his opinions.

the elder laid the groundwork, slowly he introduced his favorite teachings. Then when the pastor left, the elder carefully chose a replacement, a younger guy, freshly graduated from a seminary, whose theology more closely resembled his own to frame up the structure as they remodeled the spiritual life of the church. He chose well. The new pastor has been preaching on Biblical manhood and Biblical church membership via resources from groups like The Gospel Coalition and 9 Marks among others; something the old pastor never did.

All that change has come at a cost; the church I knew is no longer the same. The people are mostly the same, but the teaching is so different. I guess we left because we saw it coming; an environment with a “it’s my completely Biblical way or the highway” mentality. We knew that we would always be the project, the heretics in the bunch who just refuse to listen to God’s word as interpreted by God’s shepherds overseeing the stubborn and dumb sheep who just won’t listen. We knew that we didn’t really belong in that kind of a church.

Still, it’s sad to watch a church fall for another gospel, choosing legalism over the legacy that was handed down to them, becoming something else entirely. I know it’s probably advertised as being more biblically-minded, more true to the gospel message, more faithful and winsome to the sound biblical teaching of the gospel known as the doctrines of grace. It’s the same pain every Arminianian has felt when their southern baptist church choose to go whole hog into that new kind of Calvinism because the church that used to accept you and worship side-by-side with you now rejects everything you believe – and by extension – you and how your beliefs make you who you are. Now that the church is being spiritually remodeled; it’s out with the old and in with the new; the building itself will always look the same, but it’ll never feel like home again.

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.

 

Do We Wish to Continue?

I’m not sure that I really want to go back to church. What is there for me there? I know – you read those words and think: “That’s a millennial for you, all worried about me, me, me, I, I, I … why when I was their age, it wasn’t all about me!”

Perhaps you fit with your church so much like a hand in a glove that you no longer think of yourself and how much you belong and what it’s like to feel united as one, like-minded, and as having a common purpose; but were your situation like that of a mismatched glove, too small and tight or too large and loose – you just might feel differently. Were you to find yourself in a church whose ministries are geared to people whose life stations are the opposite of your own and you were the odd man (or one) out you might wonder if you belong there at all.

I really wanted to be optimistic about finding the right church this year, but knowing that religious institutions are among the most slowly moving organizations of all and least likely to accept any degree of change, the reality is this year will be almost exactly like the last one – the biggest difference is that every bulletin will no longer be dated 2016, but 2017.

That degree of consistency might be comforting to anyone opposed to change. Change is always scary, after all. You can’t control it and you never know what might result. The same cannot be said if you don’t change – you have thorough control and always know what results before you do something because it’s the same the last time you did it and will be the same the next time you do it.

The fact that so many things haven’t changed is what bothers me. Too many churches still don’t see me for who I am, but for what I’m not – not yet married, not yet a parent, not yet mature, not yet selfless, not yet etc. I know, you’re thinking that not all churches are like that – it’s just not possible. If you hold to the idea that anything’s possible, then it most certainly is possible to find yourself in a region where pretty much all the churches that are within driving distance are like that to some degree – some worse than others.

I most certainly do not want to go back to that church – the ones that haven’t changed, that still play favorites, the ones that slam doors shut and lock the wrong people out. Knowing the glacially slow pace that churches tend to adopt and finally accept change, it makes me wonder if there will be a day in my lifetime when I can once again go to church and find somewhere I belong.

Perhaps we just don’t see that changes need to be made. As it turns out, one reason why some people are prone to skipping out on chores is because they don’t see that they are are a problem that needs to be done – they have to get noticeably worse before action is taken. What did it take for our society to take pollution seriously? The Cuyahoga River catching fire! Actually, the river caught fire several times, the first one wasn’t enough to spark lasting change, neither was the second, third, fourth … and so on – it was the last fire that enough damage had been done that people decided to take action and make lasting change for the better. Think about it – there wasn’t a problem with the pollution five minutes before that last fire even with all the previous fires on record.

Thing is – there is a lot of spiritual pollution in Christianity, our pure spring water has become mixed with a lot of toxic teachings, derogatory language, disastrous theology, and no shortage of scandals that for some reason or another should have been the last nail in the coffin – but for some unknown reason wasn’t. It seems that we’re not on that brink of disaster where we ask ourselves: “What have we been doing? We have got to stop!” The one where we repent, make a one hundred eighty degree turn and make lasting changes. We haven’t had that last fire yet. That’s what scares me – because it would have to be pretty bad in order to get us to change our ways and I don’t want people to get hurt.

The thing is – it would hurt even more to not change, but the church can’t see it either. Not changing doesn’t solve existing problems. Not changing got us to where we are now, looking around wondering where everyone went. Not changing is not what we’re here for or meant to do. Some degree of change is necessary – vital to continue living. Change then, is a tricky balance, unavoidable and indispensable if we are to continue, then we must change. So I can only conclude that the question is: “Do we wish to continue?”

My Worst Post, Ever.

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The worst post I have ever written is something nobody has ever called me out on. It’s the sort of thing that still gets something of a free pass in the circles I used to haunt. I could easily leave it alone, forget about it, and know that nobody really cares. It’s as easy as saying: “You can’t hold that against me, it’s not like I’ve done anything —ist recently.” But I think that an outstanding track record that says I’ve been on my best behavior never excuses the worst behavior I’ve ever had even if it was from years ago.

The thinking that underlies the post is that of someone who was raised in Christianity to believe certain things were unquestionably true – among them, the interpretation of Scripture as elaborated upon by the pastor of my church. That’s not to say that my pastor was the sort to say racist or sexist or whatever comments from the pulpit; but he wasn’t the sort of person to stress that one shouldn’t say such things either. I was taught that I was a righteous believer who would go to heaven when I die and anyone who wasn’t a believer would be eternally tormented in heaven. In order to save unbelievers from their fate, they would have confront the fact that they were sinners in need of salvation – anyone who doesn’t see themselves as a sinner will never understand the depth of their need for salvation.

This story was always punctuated by the story of the guy on the boat. You’ve probably heard it, but here it goes anyway: There’s this guy and his house is flooding. So his neighbor floats on by in his canoe and says, “Hey buddy, I’ve got a way out, come with me.” and the guy with the flooding house says: “No man, I’ve got this guy coming for me. You go on alone.” So the flood gets bad and the guy moves on up to the second story of his house. He’s sitting on his window ledge and this guy on a raft happens to float on by and says: “Dude, I’ve got plenty of room on this raft, hop on board and we’ll head for dry land.” The guy on the window shakes his head and says: “Thanks, but no thanks. My friend is coming for me and he promised that he won’t fail. Go help other people who really need it. I’ll be fine.” Things go downhill fast – and soon the guy is sitting on his roof, watching the water slowly rise. Finally, a boat comes by: “I’m your last chance, get on board if you want to live.” But the guy on his roof was adamant that he had help on the way. The guy on the boat didn’t stick around to see if he would change his mind. That night, the water rose and swept him away. As he approached the gates of heaven, he asked God: “Why didn’t you send me help?” To which God said: “I sent you the canoe, the raft, and the boat – it was you who refused to be saved and perished.

The point was that as Christians, we were the canoes, rafts, and boats that God was sending to the foolish sinners to tell them what they needed to know in order for them to be saved. Anyone who was so caught up in their own sin that they refused to see the obvious truth before them was deserving of the destruction that God had prepared for them. Now when I had written the worst post ever, it was during the height of the animosity against a group of sinning sinners who stood opposed to the plain truth of the scriptures. We were taught that love wasn’t to accept the sin that a person was up to, but to stage something like an intervention – make it clear that the behavior was unacceptable and harmful; after all, their eternal soul was at stake and a little discomfort here on the earthly plain was far better than eternal torture. In this way, equating the wrong behavior to an actual wrong behavior was much the same thing – we were taught that sin is lawlessness, and breaking the law – by a white lie or by premeditated murder were equal offenses in God’s law-book; and since both the smallest and greatest act of lawbreaking had the same punishment, then so would every sin in-between. So breaking God’s moral law was the same as breaking a regular law – particularly when the regular law was likely based from God’s moral law – so far as I was taught. It seems worth noting that these ideas weren’t elaborated as such, but more or less blanks that each believer was expected to fill on his or her own once they had been trained to think just the right way.
This is the worst post I have ever written.

it shows me how far I’ve come and how much further I have yet to go; but it worries me most knowing that there’s this strain of thinking that goes unchecked in Christianity because it acceptable. It’s not in just one church in just one town in just one state – but it’s like a little yeast that has been worked throughout the whole dough – bloating it. Because we think of sin and wrongness in these certain terms, then being holy and righteous becomes a free pass to take whatever measures are necessary to wipe the slate clean.

Since nobody has called me out on it, I choose to call myself out on it. I was wrong; I’m so very deeply sorry about the lies I used to believe and spread about people I had never met and had no way of knowing how many of them were kind, decent, honest people just like me and in some cases far better and more gracious than me. I was just parroting what I was taught. I wasn’t thinking for myself. A lot has changed in seven years – most notably the passage of the Marriage Equality Act – but long before then my perspective had begun to change. Even as I was being taught about how evil those unrepentant sinners were, I had begun to get to know one. From the first day I walked into school as the new kid, everybody told me that Brock was one of them. His friends were my friends, which sort of made him my friend. He was also very open about it, talking about guys the same way that the girls did. I remember listening as one boy told him: “When you first came out, all I wanted to do was to pound your face in … but now, I don’t feel that way anymore.” Brock would be about my age today – had he not committed suicide. He never saw the Marriage Equality Act passed.

Then, of course, there was that house. The one where the murder had taken place that had something to do with that sin or so the rumor went. Every day to and from school we’d glance over and see the ever-present “For Sale – Reduced Price!” sign. Even nearly two decades after the crime it haunted the community. I had to ask – how was it loving for a Christian’s first reaction to be to beat someone up? How was it loving to ostracize people who didn’t fit in or measure up to our expectations? How was it loving to spread rumors that others were one of them without ever really getting to know them in the first place?

Even as all this played it’s part, there was also the mounting tension in Christianity – watching Westboro Church march around the country using language even I would not use – derogatory words meant to insult and shame people … I couldn’t see that as being loving or working as an effort to scare people to stop sinning and sign up for heaven. The Boy Scouts had changed their policies, which resulted in a great many churches pulling out their support, kicking them out of their building, and creating an alternative that taught only the things that met with Christian approval. As well as the reverse on the military’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy. From what I could tell, the secular world was realizing that to some degree it had been participating in oppressing a group of people and were trying to make amends, the Church, on the other hand, were trying to keep their power intact at the expense of oppressing others.

Then there were Bible study books that my church elder lead – “Right Thinking in a World Gone Wrong” by John MacArthur’s ministry team and “Tipping the Scales” by Dr. James Kennedy’s ministry team. The former says: “It should be noted that I am using the descriptive term ‘Christian’ with qualification. I fully understand that a person who is homosexual or effeminate is not a true believer no matter how passionate their claim (cf. 1 Corinthians 6:9-11).” – the bulk of the chapter argues that the two are mutually exclusive identities. It advises: “Then bridges need to be burned in that person’s life to make the repetition of the sin difficult (cf. Mark 9:42-50). If the person has friends (even so-called Christians) who encourage this sin, those friendships must end immediately. If the bridge is a co-worker or the work environment, the person needs to change jobs. Any pipeline that fuels the sin of homosexuality must be severed. Of course, the counselee must then focus on friends, activities, and thinking that will facilitate righteousness (cf. Colossians 3:5-11).” Sure, Christianity could be interpreted to say that it applies to all sorts of sinners, liars, tax evaders, people who abuse their authority over others – all it would require is to isolate everyone on an island and cut off all human contact. It rounds out the chapter with the charge that sexual relationships are a matter of worship and not being complementarian is akin to idolatry. The latter features two chapters were former homosexual sinners and now fully heterosexual Christians spoke about their experiences and the efforts of the gay agenda as it relates to their actions in Washington D.C. affecting the laws and policies that were being made at the time the conference was given – when Bill Clinton was president.It’s almost a picture of us vs. them locked in a David vs. Goliath battle of saints trying to lovingly rescue sinners.

It took getting to know a few members of the LGBT community as friends and relatives for me to begin to see that my churches weren’t being entirely honest. They had interpreted scripture by twisting verses out of context and erasing any cultural or historical background from the Bible that allowed for other valid interpretations that they would rather ignore than admit the possibility that they have got it wrong. They made it a point not to say anything overtly racist or sexist or whatever, but they also made it a point not to call out anyone who did – as evidenced by nobody calling me out on my post that I had written years ago. They had so effectively poisoned the well that I almost didn’t give those sinners a chance to be my friend lest they contaminate me and cause me to lose my salvation – it’s a good thing that God foiled the church’s questionable teaching. The church has come a long way, but not long enough to stop itself from doing damage. It’s responsible for every child a parent kicks out of their home in the name of tough love, every time a kid beats up another kid because the saint wants to show his love for the sinner, for every broken relationship in the name of fixing a “counselee” – this and so much more hateful things have been done in the name of a sort of love that isn’t really love at all – because love does no harm and this love is nothing but harm.

There is one thing I did get right in my worst post ever, that there is a greater law that all of us are going to answer to. What I failed to understand back then that there’s no law involved – but grace as a result of true love – this kind of love: ” Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.

A Sense of Belonging

It’s written deeply into us, the need to belong. We’re social creatures. We seek the acceptance and approval of those around us – the elders we trust to show us the ropes, the friends we depend on to navigate the storms of life, the family that we reach out to and hold onto tightest when disaster strikes. It’s part of why we surround ourselves by those who think and feel much as we do. It’s why we often seek out a spiritual family and crave their acceptance even though we know that it shouldn’t matter what others think – it still matters to us on some level.

The problem with Christianity’s family is that it too often fails to accept everyone who seeks to become a part of it. Some are allowed to be on the fringes, but they aren’t really acknowledged until they meet specific criteria. For some churches, membership isn’t just a process – but a contract, a vow, a permit, and it’s semi-legally binding. Being a non-member is failing to commit, it’s mooching, it’s just not how one properly identifies as Christian. Having grown up in Christianity, I see that there’s a whole other set of expectations in order to be accepted – outsiders get this sort of pass, because they weren’t born into the teachings, obviously lived lives of sin, they shouldn’t be expected to be as righteous as those who were always in on it, always on the know.

Growing up into adulthood is fraught with difficulties. Some of our most beloved child stars pull ridiculous stunts in Hollywood and seemingly get away with questionably legal antics as they fill up pages of newspaper with scandal. Growing up in church is a whole lot like that – except everything you do comes with this threat of damnation and shaming the family name. To avoid that fate, the best thing to do is to stick to the plan. Nobody really tells you about it, but it’s rules are something like this: graduate High School, get married ASAP while going to college or securing work, it’s okay if you get married after college or secure work first in order to support your family, but all that really matters is that you get married as young as possible so that you can move onto the next step, have children. Once you are married and have children, you’re a responsible, mature, adult Christian who has put behind them their childish ways and the selfishness that goes with it. You get the approval of pretty much everyone else for having arrived.

The price of failure, of not getting married and having children, is to be marginalized. It’s to be less important and less respected than others. It’s like realizing that you could do any feat normally considered impressive be tarnished by the lack of a spouse. “If only he had a spouse, he could have climbed that mountain better/faster” “if only she were married, she would have negotiated the business agreement quicker and not settled less” “if only he/she were married, he/she would be better, more faithful Christians”. The last one is a sentiment that echoes unspoken throughout every church hallway, a specter of another time that just won’t fade away.

I think Paul himself would want to set the record straight, marriage is good, but it isn’t the only way. Singleness is good but it isn’t the only way. Being a Christian isn’t about whether or not you have a ring on your finger, but about the love you carry in your heart. If you can’t love a single Christian as fully as you can a married Christian, then your heart is lacking in the capacity to love others whose situation might not be the same as your own. It should never be on your (blood) brother or sister to earn your love, neither should a (spiritual) brother or sister have to jump through hoops in order to be accepted and acknowledged by you.
You see, when we teach about this family, we often say that all they have to do is to accept Jesus and he will accept them. We say “come as you are”. But spend enough time with the whole family and you’ll see that’s just not the case. So many of us are tired by the mixed messages and disappointed by the false hope. We were looking somewhere we could belong, but we found that we just didn’t fit in and nobody seemed to want us around. So we got the hint and decided not to darken the doorways of those churches or any churches remotely like them. Christianity has declined because it lacks love and isn’t place where people feel like they can belong.

Halloween is Fun

Seriously? I asked myself as I read yet another Christian blogger who was trying to make a long argument that Halloween was a pagan celebration of all things evil and a form of satanic worship. It seems that every year the same old lines get trotted out for the same old song and dance. It seems that some Christians have done nothing but fear-mongering on the one night of year that’s all about being scarier than anything that’s worth being afraid of.

But I’m also thinking of one of my favorite movies – the Labyrinth. Sarah’s triumph is in realizing that the Goblin King has no power over her. I think too many Christians dress up Satan as the Goblin King – some enigmatic all-powerful evil force that’s out to snatch kids and raise them up in all things evil. Their plan to be the hero of the story is not to navigate the maze, but to flee as far from it as they can get. They know that God has and is defeating him – but on this one night of the year he’s more powerful than God because all the children are participating in some bizarre costumed candy-collection ritual that mysteriously fuels Satan with more than enough power to set his throne above the Most High – until midnight and God’s full power is restored. So long as people imagine that Satan has power over them, he becomes this scapegoat for any and every reason that something happens.

Some of the craziest feats of illogical ramblings usually accompany the litany of reasons why Halloween is evil. But the truth is that Halloween is fun. The kid in all of us gets to play dress up, team up with their friends and visit their neighbors, say the magic words and get free stuff. Some of the parties that go on are quite epic, even the simple ones are just as fun as the elaborate ones. In a year of being boring and serious, Halloween celebrates being fun and silly.

If there was something vaguely Satanist about it, one would expect Churches of Satan to arise of out of each neighborhood with a fresh batch of converts each Halloween. For kids to talk about the theology of Satan, to sing songs about Satan’s power, and preach the message of Satan out in public every day of the year. But that has never really been the case as long as Halloween has been celebrated. This imagined threat is nothing but smoke and mirrors; but because of it, too many parents forbid their children from having any fun at all and sentence them to various alternatives just to keep their kids out of Satan’s hands.

Halloween is quickly becoming one of my favorite holidays. I’ve watched children chatter on excitedly about their costumes, their eyes light up as they get to decide which treats ought to be given out, it’s a night of the year where kids who don’t have much don’t have to spend a lot to have some fun and they get some extra meals that the might not have otherwise. Even the parents are in on it, their inner kids aren’t much different than the little ones.

If everything truly comes from God, then Halloween must be God’s gift to us to remind us to have fun.