Awesome Testimony vs Boring Testimony

“You know, I wasn’t always saved. I was rebellious. Got into trouble. Partied. Addictions. Made lots of really stupid mistakes …” Brother J began, referring to his infamous tattoos chronicling a lifetime spent lost in the world, ” … I ain’t gonna lie, jail-time was tough. But when I had everything stripped away, everyone gone, and absolutely nothing – that’s when the visiting pastor told me about God. Turned my life around. Got a reduced sentence. Ever since I’ve been out, I haven’t missed a church service – Wednesdays and Sundays. I work hard and volunteer whenever I can. I study the Bible relentlessly and I’m learning more every day. I work with at-risk kids – trying to keep them from making the same mistakes I did. Through it all, God is there with me – showing me his love, having forgiven me of all the wrong I’ve ever done.” The whole congregation clapped, some even shouted “Praise God!”. The pastor came up to the stage, spoke a quick prayer and then asked for the next volunteer to deliver their testimony. An uncomfortable silence quickly ensued. How could anyone top that?

For many of us who grew up in the church, having such a testimony seems like it’s proof-positive that God’s at work. “I was that way, now I’m this way.” “I used to do that, but now I’m into this.” There’s this clear diving line between the “old man” and the “new man”. But growing up into a Christian family, it’s often difficult to remember what our “old selves” were like as we were so young when we were baptized. Some people celebrate the anniversary of their “birthday” in the kingdom – I can’t tell you when mine was. I don’t have any idea how I’m different than how I used to be because all I can remember is how I am now and I can’t imagine not being the same person that I am now and have always been.

I’m not really sure that I feel like a Christian, like one who has a personal connection with the idea that even though I’m not worthy of salvation having been a sinful sinner and showered with God’s grace and love I’m forgiven. If anything, I’m more like the Pharisee, more apt to list the things that I’ve done right and all the ways that I’m not like those sinners over there. Evangelical Christianity isn’t a place for the fallen to kneel at the altar, it’s where the pure of faith stand tall before it as a living sacrifice – as a spotless lamb who bears no guilt and has committed no crime. But I’m not sure I feel like one of those perfect Christians either. Church isn’t my thing anymore as I no longer feel any sense of belonging. I’ve neglected Bible study as I’ve read it all before. I don’t feel like singing and I don’t like the songs that they would make me sing.

I sometimes wonder just where I stand. Before I had read somewhere that some teachings of Christianity are like getting a fix, you have to keep going to keep it in your system. Now it feels as if the worst of withdrawal is over. I attended a church last week and developed no desire to return to that church or any church like it. Having tried out other churches in this region – it seems like there’s nowhere that would be a good fit for me unless I changed to fit their image.

Perhaps it’s the pressure to have an awesome testimony that’s half the problem. The only people who can really have them are the ones who converted into Christianity as an older youth or adult; little children who grow up into the church never really develop an opportunity to be rebellious as it would reflect badly on the parents they have been taught to honor at all times. A great many millenials stated that one of the reasons they walked away from the church was that they’d seen how that kids who were raised in the church were often dropped like a hot potato when they made just one mistake. They lost their perfect status and could no longer be living sacrifices. They also feel that talking about any doubts they may have would cause them to be seen as unbelievers. There’s no safe conversation a doubter may have in a church that allows them to wrestle with the faith and it’s teachings. So many feel that they aren’t welcome as they are that they have no choice but to leave or to just not go at all. As for me – I still hold out hope that I’m just in a deep valley and it’s a matter of time before I’m back on the mountain. It just saddens me that Christianity isn’t making it any easier to reach toward the heights.

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It’s No Joke

One of the things I’ve been looking for is a really good camera. It has to be just right or it won’t get very much use. I’ve probably seen dozens of them – reviews, zoom tests, ratings … and most of the time I worry about whether or not they’ll work out. One day, I came across a promotion for a brand new camera – one that was designed for left-handers. It sounded too good to be true! And then I looked at the date the promotion was published … April 1st, a few years ago.

Being a left-handed person, finding tools and equipment that work for me and not against me isn’t always easy. I had to have gone through over a dozen can-openers until I found the perfect one. Good scissors are worth their weight in gold. To me, it shouldn’t be a joke that an expensive piece of equipment was made just for left-handed people. Could you imagine it the other way round? If the whole world was designed for left-handed people and as a right-handed person, you were “backwards.” When you go to write on a desk, the arm-rest is on the other side. When you go to take a picture, your stronger hand is just holding the empty side of the camera and your weaker hand has to be the one to steady the shot, operate the controls, and hit the button at the right time. Oh sure, you could operate it upside down, but that’s just as awkward. One day, you come across and right-handed camera … only to discover that it’s a joke and doesn’t work.

Some things just shouldn’t be a joke or made fun of. Like certain rights or beliefs. Can you imagine what it would have been to live in a segregated world and the April Fools Day Prank someone opted to play on you was to convince you that segregation was over? That you could sit at the front counter and anywhere on the bus? Only to be made a fool of and made fun of for believing that segregation ought not be the norm? That’s what I was thinking when I read one of the blogs mentioning that on April 1st many complementarian pastors had voted to permit women to teach and preach. But it was just a joke. After a laugh, nothing really changes for anyone.

One of the pranks I saw made a subversive point – something that we laugh at today is really no laughing matter, many men, women, and children are without basic access to necessities, food, water, shelter, clothing, sanitation, access to medicine, and so they die too young – far too many of them live shorter lives because they don’t have what we have. We often take what we have for granted.

I still don’t know why somebody thought it would be a good joke to announce a left-handed camera. There is a world of left-handed photographers out there who would probably appreciate a camera designed to work for them and not against them. It’s not as if a market for the product doesn’t exist – it does. But the joke is on us that somebody would think about us. I wonder if that’s how many people feel when people make a joke of what they believe to be true.

The A

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I don’t read as much as I should. I don’t know why that is. Which makes it all the more remarkable that I happened to have started on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter not long ago. It baffles me how a story about an adulterous woman managed to become a best seller back in the day when the heroes of books were usually gallant knights or stalwart soldiers or rich men that ought to be viewed as heroic examples overcoming difficult circumstances to prove themselves worthy. One might expect the story of that day and age to be written the other way around, how a righteous community dealt with sin in it’s midst, turned over the sinners so that they could be punish for a time in the hopes it would lead them to repentance and restoration.

I’ve seen similar attitudes in authoritarian churches that believe in having a plurality of elders in charge and discipline ought to be carried out for the same reason. Perhaps the similarity is more than coincidence, some call themselves Neo-Calvinist and others Neo-Puritan. I just wish all who would identify by that name would read the Scarlet Letter and put themselves in the story.

Would they be one of the righteous townspeople who segregate themselves from the sinners as much as possible to avoid being corrupted by the contagion? Would they be one of the gossips whose imagination would implicate the sinner in new and more creative sins? Would they be like one of the children calling the sinners terrible names, teasing and taunting them? Would they be the righteous pastors, condemning sinners and carrying out judgement and discipline as needed in order to save them? How would their perspective change if they were Hester or Arthur or Roger or Pearl?

The Puritans were people just like we are. They have the same faults we do. They had the advantage of making their mistakes in a time when they could get away with it. Nobody dared question them because that was like questioning God. Today, those who follow in their footsteps aren’t so lucky. They can and will be and are being questioned because we know that they don’t speak for God.

We might not force sinners to wear A’s or H’s or T’s or L’s or letters for anyone else to see as a mark of our shame, but even without them, Christians can be just as cruel and unforgiving as others and sometimes we’re more-so because we act on behalf of God and we know what stance He takes about sin. Which we mean other’s sin, not ours. He always forgives us. Which is why we have to learn to forgive others. We have to learn not be gossips who teach the next generation to hate or be unkind to anyone who has had a moral failure. We need to learn not to put pastors on a pedestal that’s so high above us or believe that they can do no wrong. We’re all human; we’re all capable of anything – good or bad.

Fortunately for us, we can look at an account of a community that dealt with sin the wrong way and ask ourselves how best to minister to everyone the right way were we a part of the story. Can you imagine how much differently the story would have turned out if instead of shaming Hester and treating her as a marriage-breaking family-destroying enemy of God one of the wise women of the church had reached out to her and helped her to raise Pearl? What if someone came to her defense in a scene like this one –

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them.  As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery.  The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said,“All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman. Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman,“Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

“No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” ?

Whether we know it, we are a part of someone else’s story. We aren’t like the characters in a book who can’t change and are condemned to let things play out according to the author’s vision. We can choose to reach out to someone who’s hurting. We can choose to listen. We can choose to speak up for someone the church refuses to listen to. We can choose to drop our righteous stones and stop branding sinners as souls forever lost. So what part will you play?

Of Freedom and France

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One morning I had forgotten to eat breakfast before heading off to school, fortunately I knew that the cafeteria would always have something delicious available for breakfast.
“I’d like to have some french toast, sausages, and orange juice, please.” I requested.
The cafeteria lady, who was known for being kind, was a woman in her mid-sixties with grey hair in a short perm under a black hairnet, wearing glasses with a thick black rim and also a striped sweater in the school’s colors of red, black, and white, and some black slacks shook her head. “I’m sorry, we’re all out of french toast; but we do have freedom toast. Same thing.”
“What gives?” I asked.
“Some politician was upset that French government decided not to stick with us in the war that he changed all the menus so now we have freedom toast, freedom fries, and freedom mustard.” She answered.
“What do the French have to say all about this?” I asked.
“That they have more important things to worry about than what we call our potatoes. That’s the thing about freedom, if we truly value it, then we have to accept it when others use their freedom to do whats right for their people even if it’s not what we want them to do. Otherwise it wouldn’t really be freedom if we could just tell them what to do and how to live.” She replied.
“In that case, may I have some French-Freedom Toast so that I may have the best of both worlds?” I asked.
“Certainly.” She said, taking a red tray and putting a serving of french toast, sausage, and a container of orange juice in it’s compartments and handed it to me.
“Thanks! Have a nice day!” I said and then headed for my usual table to enjoy my meal. I had never before considered that freedom doesn’t always mean that we’re always on the same boat going in the same  direction. Sometimes you have to go in another direction and it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re abandoning your friends. Eventually the whole thing blew over and everyone forgot that they were supposed to replace French with Freedom.

There is, I think, a link between freedom and France that’s easy to over-look for those of us on the other side of the world. It’s part of our history that the French gave us the Liberty statue and with it – this poem has reminded us of one of our chief virtues:

Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.

“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

We are a land of freedom because the French people helped us in the Revolutionary War, they recognized us as a sovereign nation and provided us with arms and were our first ally. Benjamin Franklin himself served as our ambassador to France. In short, without the French, we wouldn’t have had the freedom that we know and love today. We’re like two old friends who constantly get each other into trouble just to rescue each other out of it again. I hope that remains to be the case, come what may.

I’d like to think that we’re worthy students of France’s benevolence, and can do something remarkable; keep our doors open to those who are tempest-tost out of the Middle East and giving them the freedom and security that we have so thoroughly enjoyed. Let’s not give into fear, hatred, and mistrust. We can do so much better than that – and if we value what liberty truly means, then we must give everyone a chance to do what they will with it. I have a feeling that there are remarkable people who need only the chance to prove that they’re good people like we are – but we have to give them that chance for a better life, like France did for us a long time ago.

Table Manners

Towards the end of a Lent season my church did a little something special for the middle school students – they organized a recreation of the Last Supper. At first were a little uncertain about the whole thing. The U-shaped table (a triclinium – a Roman table setting adopted by the first century Judeans) was barely knee-high and there were cushions lined up all along the outside of the table. None were on the inside of the table which allowed for servers (either servants and/or ladies in the role of hostess) to move freely taking away empty bowls of food, filling up glasses with drinks, and serving the guests – this is what Peter’s mother-in-law would have done when she was cured and got up to wait on the disciples . The table was set plainly enough, no spoons or forks, but bowls of warm broth in each setting and there was a loaf of bread or two in the center of the table.

Before we were seated, they opened up the Bible to Luke 14 and asked us to stand where we might think that the position of honor was. They stated to the person at the far-left corner, “Friend, you are in the position of honor, but I had saved it for another guest …” They said to the person in the far right-hand side: “Friend, what are you doing down there? Move on up! Take their place!” Everyone else watched as the person who had guessed correctly was rewarded with being relocated to a less honorable seat the one on the far right-hand side. That parable took on new meaning.

Of course, the next puzzle was how to be seated. It turns out that the customary way to recline at such a table was to lean on one’s left elbow, take food with the right arm, and their feet were behind them – as if they were laying face down on their stomach to get the right picture of how they would have eaten at the table. Being left-handed, I was relieved that my arm would be put to good use so there were no worries about using the wrong hand. It’s recorded quite a few times that they ate while reclining, but sometimes they just reclined there when they weren’t eating both are indicated to be true.

At this point, we began eating while the teachers went from passage to passage explaining a little something about how table manners were different back in the day. Most of the other kids in the group really didn’t like the meal. I was the odd one that was delighted, the broth turned out to be chicken and the unleavened bread was delicious (after all, we were a Christian church and not about to actually have a full Passover meal – which would have included lamb). When everybody else had refused to eat – they brought in another form of unleavened bread … pizza.

Switch to John 13 (and again referred to in 20), there was another element of scripture that would be odd to us – the part where the disciple leans back on Jesus to ask him a question. Such a thing doesn’t tend to happen in an upright table – but when you’re leaning on your left-elbow – you’re facing to the right. To converse with the person on your left – you have to lean backwards on them. Unless, of course, you’re on the far side, then you have to motion to the other side, and ‘telephone’ game your question to the host as mentioned in John 13. Such a detail might be lost on us because of our cultural differences – but it would have been quite normal.

Going back to Luke 7, we see the story of the sinful woman who enters a Pharisee’s house to anoint Jesus’ feet. Here again, our Western ideas about formal dining rooms cause us to lose sight of the real picture. The dining room was actually an open-air courtyard that was considered public space and not an owner’s private property. With Jesus’ feet behind him, he didn’t exactly see the sinful woman approach him and she wasn’t below the table as we might imagine. Which supports what we had heard about the Rich Man and Lazarus – that he longed to eat what fell from the rich man’s table which was also in an open-air courtyard. There were references to it being not uncommon for dogs to eat of the left-overs from the children at the table. A woman used this argument to convince Jesus to help her, that even though she wasn’t an Israelite she was deserving of help all the same.

Back to the Last Supper, this amazing video describes how the seating arrangement adds more depth to the final events of that week. It was a Passover meal, celebrated late in the evening / towards the early night. Jesus first washes the feet of his disciples and seats them in order of the least being the greatest honor, and the greatest sitting at the place of least honor. It’s something that we don’t think about because we don’t know about it – when we picture Da Vinci’s painting, we lose out on how every detail of that meal was important – and as we take communion we don’t always think about what that means.

One other thought – remember how the Apostles said that they didn’t want to wait on tables? They delegated the ministry to people considered to be the first deacons – they were to wait on the widows, providing for them, and in this sense, these women were given great honor to have these young men were chosen to serve them when in the real world it would have been the other way round. This is the leadership of Jesus’ kingdom, these are the table manners we ought to be taught.

Which apocalypse is near?

Having had quite a nasty case of writer’s block, in the last day or so, I watched both Noah and Left Behind – Russell Crowe and Nicholas Cage – deal with the apocalypse. Noah’s apocalypse wasn’t the apocalypse, but it was an apocalypse – an end to a way of life and a beginning of something new. Rayford Steele’s apocalypse was hinted at in the plane and in full view from Chloe’s perspective. Their apocalypse is the one that generations of Christians have been looking forward to because of the something new that happens after it. I guess the difference is that once it takes place, there’s no more of the Bible left to be fulfilled, it will have been finished.

The comfort of apocalypses is that it gets you off of the hook: why bother preaching at all the unrighteous people when you can just not and watch them suffer for seven years? That’s the same attitude that Noah had about the upcoming destruction of Ninevah. He got mad when the people actually repented of their sins. “But God, I wanted you to destroy them the old fashioned way! Fire! Brimstone! Hail! Flesh wounds!” Come to think of it, some of Jesus’ disciples wanted a town to be destroyed for not throwing out the welcome mat for Jesus. I know that they took hospitality seriously – I’m just glad that modern Christians weren’t put to that test, we’re worse at it. But hey, we’re great at loving – or so we think.

It’s also comforting to know that as bad as things get here and now, the apocalypse will be so much worse for the people who are left behind. You won’t be among them, (hopefully.) You can look forward to the big feast. Then again, if we truly consider ourselves to be an enlightened civilization, would we want to cease suffering, not perpetuate it? I guess that points to us not being that enlightened. We’re okay with others suffering on the other side of the world so long as we ourselves do not suffer any pain or loss. We admire pacifists for their principles, but endorse violence even from a young age. I just don’t think I could hurt anyone, and I know I certainly don’t want to hurt anyone. So why should I be okay with it if my inaction leads to lots of suffering?

Perhaps Christianity is a cycle of apocalypses – it’s creation the apocalypse of the end of the system of temple worship. It’s acceptance the apocalypse of the Roman Empire and the start of the Holy Roman Empire. The apocalypse of the one church that began a pattern of division and schism. The Reformation – another apocalypse. Even now, we’re seeing a lot of destruction in the lives of believers – quite apocalyptic in a sense – as we deal with questions about sin and acceptance.

I know, when we picture the apocalypse we picture unprecedented death, destruction, and suffering. But there’s another meaning to the word – uncovering. What if we started to do more than wait for the end? What if we uncovered compassion and tried to end suffering here and now? What if we did more than get the word out that the end is near, but that the kingdom of God is at hand? What if we realized that our righteousness was nothing – that we were Ninevites who needed to pray for mercy? What if we extended that mercy to everyone? Now that is an uncovering I would look forward to.

Sincerity and Humility as a Solution

I think the first thing that a sincere Christianity has to do is to humbly declare: “We messed up.”

Pretending that we have it all down is a big mistake. In case nobody is keeping score this is what people see and hear about when the conversation turns to Christianity: decades of abuse coming to light in Roman Catholicism, televangelists extorting money from believers by playing on their fears, any and every scandal that was big enough to make headlines in the last twenty or so years, Christianity isn’t so much known for the love that we sing about, but the causes we champion; supporting Republican ideology, support gun rights, supporting biblical marriage, as well as supporting pro-life campaigns.

The loudest Christian voices out there are not representative of the majority, but we do a terrible job getting the word out that we disagree with them. So that’s the image of Christianity: an angry middle-aged white man with a bible in one hand and pointing at us with the other. We don’t show the reality that Christians are from every walk of life.

We have a hard time acting as the ‘check and balance’ to famous televangelists and popular authors. So it is not surprising when a popular teachings gets out of hand. Like our ancient ancestors who said: “I follow Apollos” or “I follow Paul” we have our favorite teachers that we follow. Not all agree on a particular interpretation, but each may hold to his or her own understanding that they pass down to their followers. Which is why we have such contradictory teachings when all things are considered. But we are also leery of declaring “this is right” for we have studied the mistakes of our past – how people would take away the livelihood, the right to attend church, or the lives of those in disagreement with them.

Some Christians think that they have to cut ties with the sinners in their midst. Some kick their children out of their homes in the name of ‘tough love’. To get them to repent of their ways. They drop friendships with the unrepentant. They turn their backs on Christians who have fallen from grace. This is not the kind of love that Jesus wants us to be known for. Some Christians donate useless items like high heel shoes to charities – this junk is called Swedo(w) – Stuff We Don’t Want. This is not the kind of love that Jesus wants us to be known for.

This all contributes to our image problem and public relations issues – what people see and think about Christianity as it presents itself. We already know what people think for they do not hesitate to tell us when asked: Christians are judgmental, bigots, self-righteous, controlling, and any number of synonyms for these words. You know that song: “They will know that we are Christians by our love…”? That’s not how they know that we are Christians. They don’t think of us as gracious, accepting, warm, kind, or helpful and most certainly not loving.

So that’s why we have to be sincere and humble and admit that we messed up. It won’t be easy not to fall upon our old ways, they are deeply ingrained. Odds are we will continue to mess up so long as we follow anything and everything that isn’t Jesus Christ. But if we try following just Jesus, we will be far more like the Christians that He wants us to be and show the real true love that He wants us to be known for. Only then will all the things that have gone wrong be set right.