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.

Oikos

Elements of an Ancient Greek House (Oikos)

In general, the Romans borrowed and improved upon Greek concepts, so it should come as no surprise that there are similarities between both the Roman Domus and the Greek Oikos. In Greek use, the word “Oikos” could be referring to the house, the family, and/or the family’s property; so they are sometimes confused.

Entrance – outside of the entrance of the house, there was usually a sculpture called a herm. It was a representation of Hermes – while famous for being the god of messengers, he also was a god of good luck and fertility. It leads into the Courtyard.

Courtyard – most rooms lead into the Courtyard. It would often contain an altar dedicated to Hestia, the goddess of the hearth, architecture, and the right ordering of domesticity, the family, the home, and the state. Altars to Hephaestus, the god of blacksmiths, craftsmen, artisans, sculptors, metals, metallurgy, fire, and volcanoes were also quite popular. There was usually a well in the Courtyard. When the weather was nice, women would sometimes do their spinning and weaving in the Courtyard.

Store Room – the equivalent of pantry; there were large jars called amphorae and pithoi in which the goods were stored.

Work Room – this room was dedicated to the production of crafts and goods that the household would sell; slaves did most of the work.

Andron – these rooms were almost exclusively set aside for the use of the men of the family, not unlike our man cave. It would be the most elaborately furnished room in the house.t Men entertained their male guests, friends and business partners alike. Drinking parties called symposia were held here. The only women who were permitted to enter were slaves who were serving the men or specially hired female entertainers.

Gynaikon – these rooms were almost exclusively set aside for the use of the women of the family, here they would spin and weave, entertain their friends and female relatives, as well as look after their children. If a visiting male friend were to force his way into this area of the house, it would be a grave insult that would incur a stiff punishment because it was dishonorable. The Andron and Gynaikon were located as far apart as possible.

Slave’s Rooms – sparsely decorated and with little furniture, these were conveniently located. The rooms of male slaves were near the men’s quarters and the rooms of female slaves were near the women’s quarters.

Kitchen – the kitchens had a central hearth; everyday cooking was done in basic pots. The finest cooking ware and dishes were used when serving special guests.

Bathroom – water was collected from the well and then heated over the fire for typical bathroom usage. They also had clay pots for more typical bathroom usage.

Bedrooms – they were more elaborately furnished than the slave’s rooms; the beds were similar to the couches in the Andron, they also had wooden chests used to store clothing and other personal items.

Cultural Expectations in a Greek House

1.) Gender segregation was a reality of every-day life; there were certain rooms in the house that certain people couldn’t enter because of their gender. In general, women were stashed away in the private rooms that were deepest in the house and furthest away from the more public spaces of the house.

2.) A man was the kyrios (lord, master, “head”) of his household. He was responsible for the well-being of his wife, children, and any unmarried female relatives. It was his duty to arrange marriages for his female relatives, provide for their dowries, and represent them in court as the family lawyer. He was the master of the household slaves. He would also conduct business on behalf of the whole family. Another one of his duties was to be the priest of the family and give offerings on the household altars to the deities.

3.) Women could conduct business within certain limits and hold a limited amount of property. Women rarely left the house (they had to get their husband’s permission first), but were always accompanied by their male slaves when they did. Girls were rarely formally educated, rather they remained at home and learned domestic skills. They were never invited to dinners held by the kyrios; rather they held their own women-only dinners instead.

4.) Region to region, there was some variation, for example, in Sparta the men lived in the barracks, leaving the women at home. When the men went off to war, the women were left to run things, so they had more freedoms than was typical for other regions.

5.) Boys were raised in the Gynaikon until they were about six or seven years old, then they began to receive formal education. When children were considered fully grown, they offered their toys on altars to the gods and goddesses as a thanks offering for having lived long enough to grow up.

(There’s more to be said on cultural elements, and I’ll add them over time as I learn them.)

Domus

Elements of an Ancient Roman House (Domus)

While is is true that Roman houses varied according to type and status, there were important cultural considerations in a typical upper-class Roman house. There were areas that were technically “public”, and areas that were very much “private.” The essence of a Roman house was designed based on social order. While some rooms were common to most houses, there were less important rooms that were included / excluded according to the master’s taste.

Entrance Hall (Vestibulum) – a combination between a porch and a waiting room which blocks the rest of the house from view, it reduces heat loss and is a good spot to leave one’s outer wear. It also represents an element of security for the rest of the house. It is a part of the Ostium and it leads to the atrium.

Tabernae (Shop Fronts) – These were shop fronts that lined the street, they were let out to tenants.

Ostium (Janua / Fores) – refers to the entrance of the house, it sometimes held a small room (cella) for the porter / janitor / ostiarius as well as the dog that guarded the house.

Atrium – the most important part of the house; it is the open, central court from which the other enclosed rooms lead off. There was usually a drain pool in the middle of the room that would will up a cistern below it (an impluvium that caught rainwater that fell through the compluvium – a hole in the roof). Guests and dependents (clients) were usually met here; for this reason it was usually the most lavishly furnished room in the house. It provided both light and ventiliation. It also contained the little chapel to the ancestral spirits (lararium), the household safe (arca) and sometimes a bust of the master of the house.The atrium was the public part of the house.

Fauces – hallways.

Tablinum – between the Atrium and the Peristyle/Peristylium was the office where the dominus (master of the house) would receive his clients for the morning salutatio. Roughly in the center of the house, it served as a command station as the head of the social authority as the paterfamilias (father of the family.) It contained the family records and archives.

Peristylium – an open courtyard within the house, it was similar to the Atrium but was larger and contained a piscina (pool). It might contain flowers, shrubs, flowers, benches, sculptures, and even fish ponds. There were usually columns supporting the porches. The Peristyle was the private portion of the house and was off-limits to business guests.

Triclinium – the Roman dining room. It featured a low square table with three couches on the sides (klinai). A slave known as a tricliniarcha was responsible for overseeing slaves of inferior ranks to keep the room clean, keep it in order, and attend to the guests dining needs. This room was off of the Peristyle.

Alae – Open rooms on each side of the atrium, ancestral death masks (imagines) were among the things displayed here.

Cubiculum – Bedrooms. A mosaic on the floor often indicated where the bed should be placed. There were separate rooms used for daytime and others for nighttime. These were off of the Atrium.

Balineum – a bathing chamber which contains the bath.

Bibliotheca – a personal library, it eventually became fashionable for even unlearned men to have large libraries just so they seemed to be more intelligent.

Coenacula – the rooms in the upper story of a multi-level house.

Solaria – A terrace on the top of the house where Romans would bask in the sunlight. Some of them featured artificial gardens with fruit trees and fish ponds.

Pinacotheca – An art gallery that was also used to display statues.

Culina – Kitchen. Slaves prepared food for their masters and guests in this dark and smoke-filled room (it didn’t have a chimney.) It was off of the Peristyle.

Posticum – The back door used for discrete exits, as well as the servants entrance.

Exedra – Normally a public feature, a place to gather for debates, it’s a semi-circular area in a room for the purpose of holding a conversation, it was usually outdoors in the Peristyle.

Cultural Expectations in a Roman House

1.) It was considered improper to enter a house without giving notice to anyone already inside. Spartans would shout, Athenians and other nations would use the knocker, others would rap the door with the knuckles or with a stick.

2.) Every morning the Salutatio was expected: clients would wait even before daybreak in the vestibule until the doors of the atrium were opened. He remained there until the patron appeared and the nomenclator announced the name of the dependent who brought his morning greeting. The callers were divided into various groups, according to their rank and intimacy; even men of good position were not exempt on account of status, but could be found among the callers. Some clients would be invited to accompany the patron wherever he might be going that day. Others would receive their dole (a wicker basket with a portion of food in lieu of being invited to attend the meal with their patron.) Then they would hurry off to another house to be similarly rewarded.

3.) Guests dining in the triclinium leaned on their left elbows, leaving their right arms free. Usually three, sometimes four guests shared the same couch. The head of man would be near the best of the man who lay behind him, so he would be said to lie on the bosom of the other. Because of this, each person was considered as below (status-wise) him to whose breast his own head approached. So when facing the triclinium and standing on the empty side, the head of the table and the seat of honor would be the one nearest you on your right hand side (as there’s no one to lean on); whereas the places of least honor would be the one nearest you on your left hand side (as there is someone to lean on). While Greek and Jewish cultures also adapted to the use of tricliniums, their configurations of honorable seats also differed.

4.) Houses were built on the social order, rules about being the head the household (dominus / paterfamilias / oikodespotes) were by design and Roman Tradition as well as part of Roman Law. With it came certain expectations and roles for various members of the family. The head of the household was the priest of the family cult and therefore lead the spiritual lives of the family, he was the C.E.O. of the family business and therefore controlled all business aspects, he was the lawyer of the family and represented them in all legal matters, he was the political representative of the family and therefore spoke on their behalf concerning politics, he was the master of the family and controlled all the slaves, he was the patriarch of the family and made decisions over his extended relatives, and he was the patron who had clients who depended upon him as their benefactor.

(There’s more to be said on cultural elements, and I’ll add them over time as I learn them.)

A Strange Thing Happened On the Way Home

It was just before midnight and after a busy shift at work. I was tired and more than ready to go home. After passing by the Christmas lights display in town, I realized that the car behind me was acting erratically. I continued to drive the speed limit, following the laws. The car behind me opted to illegally pass me on the bridge (without a passing zone). Just on the other side of the bridge, it slowed down in front of me, signaled to turn right, but didn’t. It pulled into the gas station up ahead on the left, so I was glad to turn right thinking that it wouldn’t be my problem. I then heard it’s tires squealing as it turned around – out of the gas station and onto the road I had just turned onto. It began flashing it’s lights furiously. Again, the car sped up, passed me illegally, slowed down to a stop, forcing me to slow down and drive around him as he was hanging out of his window yelling something. Up ahead, I turned left – he followed, and again, flashed his lights, he sped up, passed me illegally (there aren’t any passing zones on this particular street), slowed down to a stop, and forced me to go around slowly. I began to wonder: “Is this guy trying to cause a collision?” “Is he on something?” It wasn’t long before he did it again – once or twice more (same street, still no passing zones). Once he got wise to the fact that I’d just go around – he angled his car in such a way that nobody could go around in the other lane. By this time, I could feel how afraid I was – my pulse was racing and my breathing had quickened. A maniac in a car had followed me out into the middle of nowhere section of the countryside, miles and miles away from anyone, anywhere. I could see him getting out of his car and walking my way and all I could think was that this was like something out of a movie that didn’t have a happy ending. My passenger helped me keep my cool, “Throw on the brights.” He suggested, knowing that it would daze the guy. My passenger used the distraction to great effect, throwing open the door and surprising the crazy driver – confronting him. The crazy driver claimed that our tire was about to fall off. Something about him seemed off – it’s a thing that you know it when you see it, but you can’t really describe why; a gut instinct, perhaps. It wasn’t a believable story – after all, our car was driving normally, there wasn’t any wobble or any indication of tire trouble. Not only that, my passenger is a car guy and wouldn’t let an unsafe car on the road. Whenever there’s the slightest indication of trouble, he has me take one of the other vehicles and checks it out. The crazy driver gets back into his car and drives forward on down the road. When he’s out of sight, my passenger checks our tires and sees that they’re perfectly normal. A few minutes later, a SUV pulls up behind us – it’s a co-worker who lives in the same area I do. We told her what was up and let her know that we were just fine. My passenger opts to take over driving, I didn’t object – I had had enough for one night. So we headed down the road, and my co-worker followed along behind. Up ahead, the crazy guy was stopped on the road. He let us pass and we went up ahead. When we lost sight of my co-worker’s lights, we turned around and went back. She had parked a safe distance away from the crazy driver right where it turns off to another road. We parked alongside her and asked her what was going on. She said that he had flagged her down with some story about being broken down and he had asked her to help him push his car off to the side of the road. She declined and said that she would pull off the road up ahead and call the police to come and give him some help. Given his erratic behavior, we opted to stay with her. At some point, the crazy driver turned off his lights, he coaxed his supposedly broken-down car back to life and started to turn around. And that point, we agreed with my co-worker that it was the opportune moment to drive away in the other direction. The rest of the drive was understandably tense – but we finally made it home safe and sound. Perhaps the scariest thing about what happened are the unknowns: “Is this guy trying to be a good Samaritan or does he have a nefarious plan?” “Is he on meth or something that makes him a dangerous person?” “If we really did have a bad tire, how would have continually forcing me to avoid hitting him have helped the tire?” “Wouldn’t it have just made things worse?” “Did he think I was alone and therefore an easy target?” “Why the different story with my co-worker?” Perhaps we’ll never know all the reasons, but if anything, my story shows that making all the right decisions can make the biggest difference in whether or not everything has a moderately happy ending. So this holiday season, beware of really bad good Samaritans who supposedly break down after following you into the middle of nowhere and happen to pose a significant danger. Being safe is more important than putting yourself in danger to do what might seem like a good deed.

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.

Forsaking All

Growing up, I learned the ABCs (Admit, Believe, Confess) of FAITH (Forsaking All, I Trust Him). So long as I admit that Jesus is my savior, believe that Jesus is my savior, confess that Jesus is my savior and forsake all others as I trust Him alone, then my salvation is assured. It’s a pretty individualistic message; usually individualistic given that it’s not uncommon for stories in the Bible to report the conversion of one person to Christianity usually meant the rest of his or her household also converted into Christianity. Faith was a collective experience. Not only you and your family shared the same faith, but with any luck, so did everyone else around you; same faith and same values.

We’re an individualistic society – that’s how we read and apply the Bible. God’s promise to captive Israelites being marched to Babylon is interpreted as God’s promise to each and every one of us to give us a good life, to protect us, to provide for us no matter what happens – he has our backs. So we would view the promise of salvation as saving ourselves – whereas the ancient believers would have turned down any concept of salvation where their entire family couldn’t be saved as well.

This tendency creates a sort of righteous isolation – I’m being saved, I have the truth, I will go to heaven; who cares about the unsaved, who don’t have the truth and who won’t go to heaven? Something of this thinking gives people permission to cut out from their lives anyone that could jeopardize their salvation – an inconvenient relative or friend who just doesn’t share their values or makes them question their own faith or doesn’t get how important faith is. Such thinking would never have been possible in the ancient world – where families were strongly connected, where communities were closely bound, where friends were as family, where clients where as family, where relationships were at the core of everything.

Walking away from those relationships was to lose one’s identity, one’s security, one’s future, one’s past, one’s hope – yet Jesus promised new relationships to replace the ones that had been lost for those who would believe in him; for giving up a flesh-and-blood family, they would be part of a greater spiritual family with one father – God himself. Our culture doesn’t give us many parallels – perhaps during the Civil War when brother fought brother, or during the Civil Rights era when one marched on one side and the other fought to hold down traditions. Perhaps it’s the cutting off of a LGBTQ teenager to show him or her tough love to snap them back to their senses and return home as the prodigal children that they are. For some reason, many Christians feel justified in sacrificing some relationships for the church. Forsaking all others indeed.

I wish that shared faith wasn’t a non-negotiable prerequisite to be associated with them for these people – because it’s so strange to stand across the table from somebody I used to know from church and from somebody who used to know me from church knowing that I haven’t changed and they haven’t changed, but the relationship we had isn’t the same. Trying to talk politely around the church issue without broaching the subject. Perhaps this spiritual family is too much like a flesh-and-blood family and when relatives are on opposite sides – you know the saying, a house divided falls.

That’s Just like a Matriarch

(… or how not to have a conversation on marriage and family.)

For single millenials – catching up with people from a former church (or the church before that) can get a little awkward. I found that one out today. She’s a white-haired little old lady, she married into one of the more well-connected families in an extremely tiny town and her kids are all grown up with kids of their own. She owns the hardware store and has a few rental properties in the area. She’s the eldest at her church – which consists mostly of her relatives. For the year that I attended her church, our weekly interactions were limited to:

“Hi, how are you?”
“Fine, you?”
“I’m alright.”
“Well, I’ll be seeing you.”
“Have a good one.”

Then I pulled a disappearing act and stopped going to her church, wound up at another one and after a year, managed to disappear again. But now I find myself regularly interacting with the crowd from the first church. I had previously caught up with the matriarch either the week or the month before today’s exchange. Today, our conversation was something like this:

“Hi. Are you married yet?”
“Um, no. It just hasn’t quite worked out.”
“Your brother, is he married?”
“No, but he’s pretty busy with his job, he’s been impressing his bosses and about to …”
“It’s just you and him that’s not married?”
“Well, I have a sister … and she’s not married either.”
“None of you are married? At your age? Why I never!”

Maybe that last part is a bit of an exaggeration – but I’d bet you dollars to donuts that’s what she was thinking. Because somehow it’s totally logical for just anyone to meet someone, have a proper dating relationship, kick it up to a proper engagement, get married, and start the process of having kids in under a month and live happily ever after. Maybe it does happen for some people – but I’m pretty sure I’m not one of them.

It’s not the first interaction like that – and I doubt it will be the last. But it really bothers me that whether or not I’m married is far more important that how I’m doing and what I’m feeling about where I am at in life. In a Christianity that’s all about that ring on the finger – it’s tough to be singled out. I’m not sure that married people quite get what it’s like because for them the shoe will never be on the other food: “Why aren’t you single?” “Don’t you know it’s far better to be single than married?” “You can’t handle being on your own, can’t you?

Marriage, it seems, has become the default, where singleness is the ‘other’ that’s not as good as marriage, but definitely better than cohabitation or some other sinful state. I saw that when a conversation about gender roles had to be amended to “gender roles in marriage” – though the piece itself remained the same – men are only true men when they’re husbands and women are only true women when they’re wives. Which means that single people, both men and women, are non-persons so long as they remain unmarried. That’s why I left her denomination.

I wish the conversation would have gone differently.
Hi, how are you?
I’m alright. And you?
I’m doing fine. So are you enjoying your work?
Yes, immensely …
or

So, do you have any hobbies you’re pursing?
I’m taking up photography
or

Do you have any pets?
I have a dog – he’s a …
or

So can you believe the news?
Following any sports?
Are you enjoying the weather?
What springs to your mind when I say the word: marshmallow?
Are you reading any interesting books?
Would you like to buy some Girl Scout cookies?

Something … anything. Just talk to me. If it helps, imagine that I’m married and have a proper number of kids who are all doing amazingly well. Imagine that we’ve covered that topic in it’s entirely and you’d like to learn something else about me that’s not about being married or having kids – you’d just ask it, right? If you have to borrow, a stuffed animal, a pile of note-cards and practice coming with questions that don’t amount to an inquisition of a persons’ marital status. The ones I provided earlier can easily be modified:

Are you following any sports?
Are you following any t.v. shows?
Are you following any singers?
Are you following any actors?

People are more than being married – and it’s long past time that you learned to meet them where they’re at and get to know them for who they are. If you don’t – then you deserve every awkward conversation and the occasional fed-up answer. If you don’t – then a whole lot of single people are going to get the message loud and clear that they’re not accepted in your circle, your church, your world so improperly unmarried.

Why There’s No Room at God’s Table For You Or Me

If I had my way, there would always be an extra seat at the table, an extra setting, a space for one more person. Have you ever seen that episode of that t.v. show where the kid goes to sit at the popular table, only to be told that there’s no room or the last seat is being save for someone else? Or perhaps the times that a person is permitted to finally sit at the popular table, only to be made fun of so that they would run away, with tears streaming down their face? To be the person on the receiving end of that feels like being an outcast, a reject, a failure, a loner … take your pick. To be on the receiving end of that from Christianity is even worse because all churches represent God, and if a church is glad to see you go, then God must not be all that interested in loving you.

The Southern Baptist Church has been in a decline for the ninth straight year in a row. Not as many people are signing up for what they’re selling, fewer are being born into it, a great many are fleeing from it – hurt and wounded by what they’ve been through. I’ve mentioned before that one church leader celebrated that the false believers were being separated – like chaff from wheat, like dross being removed from silver. I and people like me represent a ‘lesser’ kind of believer, a ‘failure’ of true faith and brotherly love. The church is better off without the ‘dead-weight’ that we represent. When we leave the denomination, or the faith altogether, Christianity should be celebrating our absence as we are no loss at all – or so I’ve just been told.

We’re like the one sheep that Jesus let wander away and perish in the wilderness so that he could focus on teaching the ninety-nine faithful sheep who stayed by his side. Oh wait, Jesus wasn’t like that. But there was the anecdote of Jesus being a pruner, cutting off the dead branches so that the living ones could thrive. You’ll notice that no matter which metaphor is used, the ones who are struggling always come out as the ‘worse’ of the two. We’re the pottery designed to be destroyed (Romans 9), the seed thrown on the path (Matthew 13), the weeds sown in the good field of wheat (Matthew 13), the bad fish caught with the good (Matthew 13). We exist to be eaten, gathered and burned, thrown out, so that the good seed can thrive and bear fruit three times over, and the good fish and wheat can be gathered and kept safe.

There was this one guy, the leader of his country. He calculated: “If we were to add up all the landlords, rich peasants, counterrevolutionaries, bad elements and rightists, their number would reach thirty million… Of our total population of six hundred million people, these thirty million are only one out of twenty. So what is there to be afraid of? … We have so many people. We can afford to lose a few. What difference does it make?” – Mao Zedong. His policies lead to the deaths of somewhere between 40-70 million of his own people.

Some Christians seem to share the same attitude – we have so many true believers, what does it matter if we lose a few people here and there? We have 99 committed followers, what difference does it make if we lose one out of a hundred? Jesus was the pruner, what does it it matter if he cuts off five here and ten there if it means strengthening ten there or twenty here? If it all comes down to a numbers game – let’s think it through.

If Jesus died to save the whole world, that includes the weeds, bad fish, and bad pennies. Jesus’ teaching was never for us to be the good wheat that segregates itself from the bad wheat, the good fish that separates itself from the bad fish, the good seed that stays away from the bad seed – that’s not our part of the parables. Jesus said that the farmer threw the seed everywhere – he didn’t put it were it was most likely to thrive only and ignore the places where it was least likely to thrive. Jesus said that the fisherman didn’t cast their nets only where the good fish were and avoided casting the nets on the wrong side of the boat where the bad fish were. It seems to me like Jesus is saying that God isn’t afraid to go to extremes, to be excessive in his efforts to reach people because there really is no way to know where you’ll find the good and where you’ll find the bad. That means that God gets it that he can’t afford to act as if it’s okay to lose even one because that one could very well be a good person. The Southern Baptists have lost hundreds of people every year in a row for nine years – is it possible that each and everyone of them are bad fish, bad seed, weeds – who are destined for destruction? That not even one of them is a good fish or a good seed or wheat? Now who’s playing God here – to be the judge of their hearts?

When the church acts like it’s better off without me, it’s as if my seat at the table doesn’t exist. I don’t belong with them and they don’t want me to be there. If I had my way, there would always be a seat open so I can invite someone to join in, there would always be room at God’s table for one more, to include anyone and everyone who comes to eat and drink.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,
come to the waters;
and you who have no money,
come, buy and eat!
Come, buy wine and milk
without money and without cost.
Why spend money on what is not bread,
and your labor on what does not satisfy?
Listen, listen to me, and eat what is good,
and you will delight in the richest of fare. – Isaiah 55:1-2

Rememberance

I’ve been selling a lot of artificial flowers in Reds, Whites, and Blues lately – they’re for the gravestones of loved ones, they will be cleaned up, left for them, and remembered for their sacrifice. It certainly is a sight to behold.

It reminds me of the Day of the Dead celebration I witnessed when I visited my friend a few years ago. Her culture does much the same thing, clean up the gravestones, leave behind flowers, candles, and they spend the whole day remembering every single relative they lost. Instead of a few gravestones here and there being given special care, each and every one of them would be taken care of. The whole cemetery would fill with colors and flowers and signs and incense and light.

I haven’t lost very many relatives, but the ones I have lost are buried really far away. There are two cemeteries where there are a lot of relatives from generations past – my grandparents, great grandparents, great great grandparents and their children on one side of the family and my great grandparents, great great grandparents going even further back on the other side of the family. I’ve never been there, but I’ve seen pictures of their gravestones on FindAGrave.com I have also seen a few pictures from a civil war group who came to give one of their fallen soldiers a proper burial. After all this time … he was remembered.

I think a ‘Day of the Dead’ is just what we need, a day to remember everyone who ever lived and isn’t with us anymore. I plan to take a look at the cemeteries this weekend and remember our fallen fighters, but also the ones they fought for. I know that it’s our lot to fight wars, but I’ll still long for peace so that no family has to be separated this way again and in the mean-time, I’ll wish that our warriors rest in peace and their families enjoy the hard-won peace that cost them so very much.

Make the Effort to Listen

There’s an elderly woman (mid to upper 70s, I think) that usually sits on the far side of the same pew that I do. One Sunday, she just wanted to talk. I wondered if loneliness played a role in that – she’s always been by herself. I listened to what she had to say. It wasn’t long before the Sanctuary began to fill with other families who were all having other conversations – soon this woman’s voice was indistinguishable from the rest. No matter how much I tried, she was just speaking too quietly for me to understand the last words she was saying.

Sometimes I think Christianity loses so many voices because there’s an emphasis on not listening to people. We’re supposed to listen to music and the sermon but we get only a few minutes to carry on a conversation during the meet-and-greet which is constantly interrupted and then there’s prayer requests, but you can really talk to people before the service or after and there’s so many overlapping conversations that one quiet voice doesn’t stand a chance. Many people who have left the church often felt that they weren’t being listened to. Their concerns weren’t being heard. Their doubts weren’t being taken seriously.

I remember quite a few times where I knew that I wasn’t being listened to. The first time was when I was doing a study on Proverbs. I was the youngest in attendance, I had only just graduated high school. The oldest in attendance was a man in his upper eighties. Whenever there was a discussion time, he was allowed to monopolize the conversation – in his slow, mumbled, and occasionally incomprehensible manner he would deliver his time-worn wisdom with anecdotes that seemed to go on and on. By the time everyone else was allowed to make their comment, there was hardly any time left for me; and on occasion I wasn’t allowed to complete a thought because everybody had somewhere else to be and something else to do. I got tired of it and quit the study part way through. I guess it was silly of me to think that I could have wisdom at that young of an age – but I remember Paul telling Timothy not to let anyone look down on him because he was young. I don’t think Paul meant to create a church that revered the elderly so much so that it frightened off the youth, but that’s what seems to have happened.

Later, at another church I was volunteered to lead the youth group and presented a book to study. The next week I gave her my honest assessment – this bible study is nothing but the autobiography of it’s author describing God with really weak ocean metaphors like “God is like a starfish, as long as it stays in the water it has an amazing ability to heal. As long as we stay in God we will be able to heal.” But I had just read that the starfish population has been weakened severely because a devastating disease has shut off their healing ability in the news and I knew that diseased starfish aren’t a great metaphor for God particularly when we live in land-locked state. It’s also not a good idea to be handing out starfish, shells, charms, as tokens of participation because it’s more like buying the participants off than actually teaching them things like salvation, sanctification, or justification. I asked to see the other book so that I might read it and compare the two. She said “No, it’s just too deep for them.” She wouldn’t listen to my concerns that teaching teenagers shallow theology wouldn’t inspire them to learn more.

She was a lot like Hyacinth Bucket of Keeping of Appearances, no matter what you tell her – she wouldn’t listen. If she had a vision, she knew exactly how she wanted you to make it happen. There was no telling her “no” and there was no way to make a suggestion that she didn’t already think of – in her world, if she didn’t think of it, then it wasn’t a good idea. I’m afraid that there a lot of people with a similar outlook – people who have a vacant spot in an existing ministry that’s perfect for you if you do the tasks you’re given exactly like they tell you to. But it’s hard to feel like there’s room to be listened to when the age-based ministries at your church look like this: “newborns to pre-kindergarten” “kindergarten to third grade” “fourth through sixth grades” seventh and eighth grades” “ninth through twelfth grades” “college and career (up to 25)” “adult (35-49)” “elders (50+)” When you’re in that missing 26-34 year old age range, it’s hard to imagine that anyone’s listening to you – you don’t have a representative to voice your concerns. You don’t have enough of you to form a class and the ones that are there are from all walks of life, some married, some not, some parents, and some not – it’s incredibly difficult to present materials that are useful to everyone without excluding someone.

That elderly woman probably felt the same way. I hope that being listened to brightened that day up for her; I hope that Christianity begins to find and value lost voices and perspectives such as hers. I hope we find a way to make people feel that they matter – because we certainly won’t go on if we keep on doing and keep on losing generations of people because we don’t listen to them.