Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket. You show up the next day – there’s another drop. Eventually, you have a spoonful. Then enough to fill up a shot glass. you keep at it – day after day. It’s enough to fill up a cup. Then the cup starts running over. Slowly and surely, that bucket starts to get fuller and fuller – a quarter of the way, a third, half-way, two-thirds, three quarters. Eventually you find that you filled up that bucket, a drop at a time. Hard work and persistence won’t always earn an award, you won’t always get a trophy or ribbon. But you do get a sense of personal satisfaction that you did your best. You didn’t quit when others would have thrown in the towel. You made a difference for the better. Maybe it’ll also inspire others to match your effort and contribute to filling up that bucket faster. The problem gets smaller and things get easier on everyone. Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket – and that’s a challenge worth tackling head-on.
Sometimes I like to imagine what it might have been like for Jesus’ disciples as they were travelling with him from one place to the next. It’s in the cool of the evening. They have set up camp. They’re sitting down, giving their tired, dirty feet a rest. The disciples – all of them, both “the twelve” and “the women”; the ones who had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs, cook the meals, provide financial support with their own money, were also in close range so that they could hear his instruction.
They’d simply talk. Jesus was training these to be his insiders, so he explained things clearly and simply. The intimate conversations are the sorts of things that the Bible doesn’t clue us in on, but it does indicate they happened. I think about Jesus’ character, the salt-of-the-earth person that he was. He wasn’t a rabbi who was big on the prestige and title. He was just a guy who had a way of speaking the truth and reading people’s thoughts and emotions.
Anyway, I think he had a particular ethic. He was a pacifist in a society where violence was ordinary and commonplace. He was merciful and compassionate; when a sea of people searched him out to be cured of their illnesses, He healed them. Whenever there was a circumstance when the proper thing to do was to shun somebody – Jesus would do the opposite. It wasn’t in his nature to be an enemy of any living soul.
That’s how I’d like to be. I know this world doesn’t make it easy. Some Christians make it harder than it needs to be by insisting that their version is the only way, the only truth, and the only life and only through them and their teachings can true salvation be secured. Jesus had to deal with people like that, people who were technically right if the letter of the law were the most important thing – but they were actually wrong because the missed the spirit.
I’ve been walked through the plan of salvation over and over again by Christians such as these, so determined to win me over to their version that they cannot see the flaws in their foundation. I don’t want a technically correct Jesus that lacks the empathetic spirit of Jesus. What good does it do to have a form of godliness through following these rules, but to deny the freedom-giving power of rule-breaking godliness in the process?
Some days, I wish I were on that road, speaking with Jesus about today. Asking him: how I can make room around our campfire for anyone regardless of who they are or what they’ve done? How can I bring healing balm to those as wounded as I am from extensive fighting on this invisible front? How can we declare a truce and begin talks in order to restore true, lasting peace?
Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.
Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realization.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.
— The Gateless Gate
Christians have parables, Buddhists have zen koans. This one is the most famous – used from time to time in Stargate SG-1.
I’ve been feeling like I’ve walked into an empty room where the candle-light is out and the partially-eaten meal has long gone cold. There is a thick book on the table and I eye it suspiciously. I try to imagine what might have happened. Could they have started the meal, only to be interrupted and called away to an emergency? Could they have waited and waited – only to grow impatient and decided to eat anyway? Should I relight the fire and prepare myself a plate?
I think – no matter who we are and what we believe, we all seek something more. Different parts of the world have different teachings about what that more is. It’s not wrong to seek – because so very often those who seek eventually find what it is they are looking for – even if they don’t realize it at the time.
We were a bunch of unruly high school students – he was a high school teacher when he wasn’t our youth group leader. Having worked with us the last few years, he’d won our respect and we’d come to a reasonable understanding and generally got along well enough.
One day, he gave each of us a notebook. He told us how keeping a spiritual journal had really changed how he understood the Bible and he challenged us to keep one, too.
He taught us how to use this journal – it was simple:
- Write down the reference – the whole verse or series of verses as the case may be.
- List everything that stands out – explain to yourself why it sticks out to you.
- Summarize it and think about it’s application.
On the first page, he had one reference written out – it was the same in all the journals and it happened to be his favorite verse:
“… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-2
From there – we could take it in any direction. We could start with that verse, or choose another. I guess because I was already a blogger, I never really bothered to use that particular notebook as a journal. Not that I didn’t put it to good use from time to time. There’s a handful of verses from the Bible copied from The Message, several of Murphy’s Laws, notes from The Truth Project, sermons, and other Bible Studies, as well as the lyrics to “All You Need Is Love” translated into Spanish, and the quote about our deepest fear from Akeelah and the Bee among other things.
I never really thought myself as much of a writer to be able to keep a journal or a diary anyway. But as I was reading that verse – the part about Jesus being the author and perfecter of our faith stood out to me. Faith – well, it always seemed to be to be something I had because of something I do – like when I pray or when I read the Bible, then I strengthen my faith just as much as anyone who walks or lifts weights strengthens their body by exercising. It always seemed to take some effort on my part. I’d never really though of faith as something that Jesus writes and perfects without any input from me whatsoever.
Coming from a “doing” church – it’s always been important to be “engaged” or “plugged-in”. There’s always the nursery asking for help or something to cook or clean a soundboard or computer to run – it’s never really been about “being” in the faith. Since I’ve been out of the church and not “doing” for a while, it feels like my faith is running on an all time low. I wouldn’t even know how to learn how to “be” if it doesn’t involve some “doing” to get there.
And honestly – I’m more than a little uneasy about actually journaling the Bible, I tend to deconstruct the text and look for meaning in the shades and hues of cultural context and not just take it for face value – which generally is the idea; to just accept God’s word, inerrant, infallible, and profound wisdom, and go from there. A question like: “What kind of racing was Paul using as an example to the Ephesians?” can send me off on a tangent trying to understand the things that went unsaid and unwritten in a culture that understood each other that didn’t translate into English.
I did pick me up a brand new notebook – it’s a blank slate … but I don’t even know where to begin.
Let’s say you had a friend who has been struggling with their faith for the longest time. Let’s say that they grew up in a church and have some Christian background – but are questioning if it was the right one. How would you reintroduce them to the truth of the gospel message? Where would you start?
It’s been awhile since I could remember dreaming – perhaps that’s why I felt this one was disturbing because I wasn’t sure whether or not it was a dream. I think I was going about my every-day sort of tasks – I don’t really remember them very well, which is why I think it really was a dream. But at some point I thought to myself. “I no longer believe in God.” And I caught that thought and was really overwhelmed by it. I felt guilty and wanted to take it back – but a lot like popping a balloon – I was afraid that there wasn’t an undo option. That heaven would be off-limits to me.
This last year has been a big change for me. Compared to the previous ten years – it’s the most successful one I had. But with my schedule being pretty much just working, I’ve found it nearly impossible to to fit church in. Some weeks ago I was invited to attend a church – and the first three weeks after that it was nothing but working on Sunday mornings. This was the first chance i had had to not work on Sunday Morning, but the whole church thing has just fallen out of the routine. I had meant to listen to churches on the radio – but totally lost track of the time and missed them all.
But there’s also the issue of the churches themselves. The ones that there are to belong to are the ones we’re pretty sure we can’t belong to. We don’t see things eye to eye – they’re Calvinist, we’re Arminians (sort-of), They’re complementarians, we’re egalitarians, they’re into hymns, we’re into contemporary music. We’ve tried attending Calvinist churches, complimentarian churches, and hymn singing-churches and they never seem to work out for us.
So without a formal connection to God through the church, my spiritual disciplines have been on the decline. It feels like the’re a lot of pressure that’s just gone. And that’s really great. No more having to tear through Bible Studies that really aren’t about the Bible. No more having to try to remember the difference between the Sacrifice on the Mount and the Sermon on the Mount. And no more food allergy issues with pot-lucks.
I’d still like to believe that what I was taught as a little girl still applies: “once saved, always saved (no matter what).” I’d also like to believe that everybody has been elected to be saved. I hate to see how some Christians spit the words “sinner” out of their mouths as if they’re gleefully anticipating the horrors of Hell for the unsaved and lost souls out there. Jesus never seemed to be like that.
In speaking of the big guy, I find myself more and more wandering around and hoping I’m following in his footsteps than I am walking in the shadow of the established faith. I don’t know if the Bible ever really said that Jesus read the Holy Scriptures into all hours of the night – though it did say that he went to synagogue and prayed a lot. He seemed to advocate for a simple kind of everyday faith – not flashy or showy, not isolated into a sub-culture with it’s own language or media. Maybe I don’t believe the God of the Church that has been transmogrified by Christian culture, but I do believe in Jesus’ God and that’s all that I truly need.
One Narnia book I like above all others is The Silver Chair. In it, Aslan offers a warning: “Here on the mountain I have spoken to you clearly: I will not often do so down in Narnia. Here on the mountain, the air is clear and your mind is clear; as you drop down into Narnia, the air will thicken. Take great care that it does not confuse your mind.” Sometimes I think it applies as much to the Church as it does the World.
I remember when I learned about that cult that beat one of it’s members to death. It was sad and tragic and just plain wrong – but it also just some church over in another state and really had nothing to do with me. So I didn’t devote much thought to it and filed it away. Just the other day, I learned that another cult has been exposed for enslaving foreigners for at least two decades. Perhaps it sticks a little bit more with me because I picked up a little Portuguese just for the fun of it. (É uma linguagem divertida!) But both cults have this in common – the air is thick with confusion. It strikes me that any average church is not immune.
What do I mean? Well, it’s the tendency to shut down diversity of thought and opinion. When everyone is on the same page – there’s no checks and balances. These cults show us that just because everybody believes something to be true – it doesn’t make it right. The only reason why churches get a pass on it is that they’re not known for believing the wrong things. It’s funny – parents are known to criticize their kids for falling for popular trends: “If everyone else jumped off of a bridge, would you?” only to do just that come every Sunday.
We think: “that could never happen to us.” Not realizing that we’re just lucky we haven’t fallen for the sort of leaders who could do that to us. We were warned that the air gets thick with confusion. Teachings about that might not be from the true source – causing us to cling to whatever is popularly accepted – after all, everyone can’t all be wrong, can they? We don’t even realize that we’re beginning to conform when we put aside our favorite Bible translation in favor of the one the pastor uses or the bible study teacher reads out of.
But one cult that we all fall victim to is that of personality. You know that one teacher who you really admire? You have all his books and a number of his sermons recorded to listen to at your leisure? Do you remember the excitement when you heard that he would soon be in your area as you made plans to see him in person? All it takes is teacher that’s that charismatic, who seems to speak to God or have God speak through him or her, in order to separate you from the fallen world and lure you into the chosen few destined for true salvation if only you follow their precepts. Or perhaps, you’re at a regular church and the new pastor has decided to make a lot of wholesale changes. The old teachers are gone, replaced with his chosen servants who teach only his preapproved material. Slowly the liberals and moderates seem to vanish from the congregation. They weren’t true believers – or as true of believers as the rest of the faithful who remain. You might not end up doing bizarre practices like screaming at the top of your lungs or purifying sinners by beating them up – but you might end up losing a lot of spiritual autonomy and not even realize it until it’s too late and somebody happens to report you for having an unchristian book in your library.
I’m reminded of what Martin Niemöller wrote back in his day:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
Having watched the Conservative Resurgence / (Takeover) – I’ve seen how many liberals and moderates were either sent packing or shown the door, many got the hint and just left. Those who remain have nobody left to go after but their fellow conservatives for not being conservative enough or as conservative as they are. The focus on evangelizing others is like a laser – aiming only for those who conform to the conservative worldview.
Jesus – didn’t come just for the conservatives. He came for everyone. He would want a diverse church … sort of like my old one. There was a time when it didn’t matter whether someone was Arminian or Calvinist, how many points they believed in, or if they didn’t really believe it at all – so long as they believed in Jesus, their foremost identity was as brothers and sisters in Christ. They were a good family to be around, sure, they’d get in some pretty crazy debates at the dinner table, but that was half the fun. The air was filled with different teachings, but it wasn’t thick with confusion – you could believe whatever and nobody thought you the lesser for it. But that’s not our church anymore.
More and more it feels like Christianity had begun the process of becoming more cult-like, isolating itself around charismatic leaders that answer to no one, celebrating conformity and erasing diversity, authoritarian leadership structures are common to both, isolation from the world, friends, and family members can result as easily in churches as it happens in cults. There seems to be a fine line that separates the two and fine lines are often the easiest of all to cross. Maybe that’s why I have such a hard time finding a church – I want one that’s okay with me unleashing my inner devil’s advocate and fostering diverse perspectives … and I really don’t think I’ll find one.