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.

 

Rest in Pieces: The Obituary of a Church

Stormcard

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.

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

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.

A Deep Betrayal

Just the other day I was eavesdropping (I’m really good at that) and heard the story of a young man who found himself in a rather desperate situation. A close relative of his had suffered an injury and her medical care was beyond his means. So he went to the man he worked for to ask for some more money; he was making minimum wage and he needed just a little bit more. He knew his boss was a good Christian man, one who had gotten him saved and going to church. So he explained the whole situation to him and expected his boss to do the Christian thing. His boss refused and ordered him out of his sight. His faith was shattered – in God, in Christians, and in everything he had come believe in. I could hear the sting of that betrayal in his voice as he shared his story.

The thing is – I couldn’t disagree with him or his sentiments. Just being a Christian doesn’t make a person a shining example of morality or a selfless charitable soul. When I think of all the verses of Scripture, I think Jesus’ warning that it would be better for someone to be drowned with a millstone around their neck than to cause someone to stumble in their faith applies here most of all; Christians need to be aware that the more they profess the name of Christ the higher the standard they are to be held up to at all times. I do not doubt that one day that man might be asked why he didn’t help the poor man and he will have to explain himself to that higher authority he professes to believe in. I wish I knew what to tell the betrayed man; but I couldn’t invalidate his experience by telling him that he was mistaken. He wasn’t. A representative of Jesus Christ who acted in Jesus’ name refused to give when he was asked, refused to help the ill, refused to help the poor, and destroyed the faith of a brother in the process. Where I live, I see such folks all the time; praise  God this, thanks be to God for that … and whenever they fail, they take others down with them. I’m not sure that’s what Jesus meant of us as believers; he often asked for people to live quiet, humble lives whose actions backed up our words; filled with good deeds. He would have wanted us to be true to each other even when the cost is great.

Save a Life

Just the other day, I was handed a dollar bill with this message stamped in red on it: “Don’t vaccinate! Save a life!” People certainly do write the strangest things on money these days, don’t they?

One of the books I had read as a kid was The Velveteen Rabbit. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to get so sick my parents would have to remove all my clothes, toys, books – everything I own and burn them. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

Then I remember accounts of old men and women whose childhood was plaged by a very real and dangerous threat – Polio. It left in it’s wake death and paralysis. One of our former president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, had contracted it and it left him paralyzed; not that he ever let him stop him from achieving great success or let on in the public consciousness. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

History also records of the Spanish Flu, a deadly epidemic that killed more people in twenty-four weeks than AIDS killed in twenty-four years and more in a year than the Black Death killed in a century. It was a different world, and it wasn’t that long ago.

Scarlet Fever, Polio, and a great many other diseases have been known to mankind for thousands of years; history tells us that they’re very good at wrecking and destroying the human body and our natural immunity isn’t nearly strong enough on it’s own to win. We live in a world that has found a way to fight back and prevent epidemics before they even begin; but it’s an all-or-nothing solution. Anyone who doesn’t get a vaccine undoes the efforts of those who take them. That’s why diseases that were thought to be gone had a resurgence in recent years. The point is – not having vaccines didn’t save lives; it just made it that much easier for lives to be lost – and greater numbers of them to be affected by the after-effects of surviving a terrible disease.

I’m told that when an apartment in New York City is fumigated, the cockroaches simply up and relocate themselves to another apartment in the same building that isn’t being fumigated. The only way to eradicate the creatures from the whole building is to see to it that there’s nowhere else for them to go; and similarly, that there’s no one else for these diseases to find safe harbor inside. I don’t know who stamped that message on the dollar bill; but saving lives starts with taking vaccinations; if anyone doubts that, there are a great many third world countries where there’s little to no access to vaccines that are the front lines where all kinds of diseases still takes a heavy toll every single day.