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.

 

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Love is Obedience

Sometimes it’s so strange to listen to my co-workers freely talk about drinking alcoholic beverages. Half of our conversations seem to be which drinks I’ve never drunk or the fact that I’ve never been drunk. At most, I’ve been able to have a sip or two of various kids of drinks – but I could never bring myself to drink more than that. Even when an opportunity presented itself to go out drinking; I passed it up. I always do.

I remember listening to a young believer talk about the Bible’s prohibition against the evils of drinking; she could quote any negative verse on the subject. But she wasn’t quite sure what to make of the verses that were neutral or mentioned that people should drink under specific circumstances; it was almost as if she didn’t even know that they were there. Indeed; in the era of the Bible, not drinking was not an option – the water wasn’t always the safest thing to drink and that’s why Paul advised Timothy drink a little wine to help him feel better. Drinking was okay and even necessary; drinking to excess and drunkenness was to be avoided.

Even though that I know that much of the rules against alcohol is a result of a human tendency to make rules out of everything; I still find it a hard one to break. For many, drinking is just a good time – letting loose and hanging out with trusted friends. But I don’t know what sort of drunk I’d be and truthfully, I don’t have people I’d trust when I’m in a drunken state and lack self-control or any sense of inhibition. So for me, I’m afraid that I’d say or do something that would ruin a perfectly decent relationship or at the very least be awkward.

Jesus had this reputation of being a drunken party-goer yet he has this entire denomination of followers that’s anything but. That same young believer who was against drinking talked about how she couldn’t stand parties as they were too loud and the music was so unchristian. She was so uncomfortable – as if she knew that if God caught her there, he might send her to Hell for being somewhere sin was so prevalent. Being raised in that mindset is extremely hard to overcome.

These rules may not be in God’s word, but they are made from God’s word. Disobeying God’s word is a sure-fire ticket to an eternity in an extremely hot environment. Your salvation is at stake. What did Pastor Sproul say? “Sometimes, after we have studied the background of a text thoroughly, we are still not sure whether it is giving us a principle or a custom. But it is better to treat a custom as a principle than a principle as a custom. If we think a custom is a principle, we are only guilty of being overtly scrupulous. However, in disregarding what is really a principle because we say it is a custom, we disobey God. When faced with unclarity, treat the biblical teaching as if it is a principle. “ Erring on the side of caution in an attempt to be better safe than sorry seems to have made rules that go beyond what is written; adding to the word extra commandments.

It’s something we have done of old, it’s something we still do even now, and will continue to do as the future stretches before us – until the very end of the last second of all the time that there will ever be. A concept like modesty is a prime example: we have varying and conflicting rules about what is modest and what isn’t. Now the Bible doesn’t say in so many words that a particular item is immodest; but so long as something causes a weaker brother to stumble by inciting lust – that breaks the rule and is added to the list of forbidden items and by now we have a pretty big list.

Those are just those “thou shalt not” rules – don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t chew, don’t curse, don’t dance, don’t be immodest; but there are also “thou shalt” rules as well; ways of living that are according to a biblically-informed way of life. It’s that erring on the side of caution thing I mentioned; because if it’s bad to do something the Bible says not to do; it’s even worse not doing something the Bible says ought to be done. But I can’t help but wonder, is it really the Bible that says this is how I ought to live; or some interpretation or teaching based on the word of a person who is fearful and overly scrupulous who has made commandments where none are to be found and who is trying to bind my conscious to something that was never meant to be? Does God only want me to pass the test of being obedient to unwritten rules?

Everyone talks about how if God really wanted obedience, he could have made Adam and Eve as robots and hard-wired them to obey him. But that’s not what he was after. He gave them free will – a choice. Does he want us to choose to obey? Is having free will a means to an end? Why bother giving people free will if the test of Christianity is to give it up and just obey? And yet – how is it today that obedience and submission seem to be the end-all and be-all of Christianity? Are we misreading God’s Word?

It seems to be a darned if you don’t and a darned if you do situation; somebody reads the Bible and makes a teaching that’s accepted enough to become a custom or at least a principle. At which point it must be obeyed because it’s from God’s Word. It gets added to as people flesh it out in the day-to-day living. If you don’t, then you’re being disobedient and that proves you don’t believe in God and aren’t saved. If you do, then at worst you might be overly scrupulous, but you’re certain to go to heaven – and you must obey everything without exception or question because it’s in the Bible somehow or other. Because that’s how you prove you love God and are saved.

Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. Anyone who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. – Jesus, John 14:23-24

Places of Honor

When he (Jesus) noticed how the guests picked the places of honor at the table, he told them this parable: “When someone invites you to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, for a person more distinguished than you may have been invited. If so, the host who invited both of you will come and say to you, ‘Give this person your seat.’ Then, humiliated, you will have to take the least important place. But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all the other guests. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. – Luke 14:7-11

Recently, I was invited to a rather special dinner for a select group of people. It didn’t occur to me until halfway through my meal that I had chosen the foot of the table, the seat furthest from the action. Thinking back on the evening, this verse stands out. My hosts weren’t the sort to play favorites and don’t exist in the context of an honor/shame society. So for that reason, the scenario Jesus said would play out didn’t, they didn’t say “you, move on up” or “you, go sit down there.”

It makes me wonder what else we’re clinging to literally even though the rules have changed. What else we say is exactly the same as in Jesus’ day, but obviously isn’t for the same reasons: we’re not an honor/shame society, we’re not an unequal society that places higher value on people of a certain class or race or gender than others, we’re not predisposed to place higher value on certain friends over others based on how long we’ve known them or how beneficial it is to be connected to them.

Ultimately, we have to pick and choose what to take literally. Some things are bound to cultural elements that no longer fly, like some seats being more honorable than others; but this isn’t the only example of something cultural. The thing is – a culture is defined by it’s customs and practices – quite a few of those are outlined in scripture, some customs we obviously just never picked up: like washing feet, some customs are part of other cultures: like greeting with a kiss. Even relationship patterns, such as how the Bible describes between two people are heavily dependent on their cultural norms as a basis upon what is expected of each role. But just what exactly isn’t cultural?

I think it’s the unseen things – the things that involve treating others with respect, being humble and kind, being patient, living out a life of love. It’s far better to carry out the spirit of the text even if it doesn’t look like literally obeying the letter of the New Testament Law.

Biblical Qualifier

Recently, I read a blogger lamenting the loss of biblical songs being written these days. For him, the golden age of Christian music could be found in just about any hymnal. Biblical seems to be a qualifier for just about everything lately – biblical teaching from a biblical church. Meeting biblical qualifications for biblical leadership. It strikes me as a terrible idea to focus on biblical songs and biblical worship.

Not all hymns really are biblical. Take ‘In the Garden’ – it doesn’t really match with the Garden of Eden or the Garden of Gethsemane. Or ‘It is Well’ – it doesn’t really match up with Jesus’ teaching in general. They don’t quote or expand upon Bible verses.

Let’s say in twenty or forty years time, a song using metaphors like: “upload our praises to God … download in us the Holy Spirit … let love hyperlink us together … in the name of our father’s domain …” becomes wildly popular. Would it pass the Biblical test? I doubt it.

When we limit ourselves to the ‘Biblical’ qualifier – then we decide that anything that isn’t Biblical isn’t worthy of Him. All praises, hymns, songs, stories, prayers, poems, paintings, sculptures, digital art, etc. aren’t just unworthy, but unholy as well.

Must everything be biblical in order to be approved by God? Obviously not – after all, God likes us and were not biblical. We’re not from ancient Israel or Rome. We’re not speaking Aramaic or Greek. Were not reading Latin. Men don’t wear robes and women don’t really wear what women used to wear over there either. We don’t sing their songs or tell their stories. We’re a whole seperate culture that’s as unbiblical as can be.

We might use biblical as a qualifier, but we don’t always mean the same thing every time we use the word. It’s flexible enough for us to give a sense of authority to our ideas without really defining how to limit them according to the Bible’s instructions.

You see, two authors have written books about trying to live biblically – ‘The Year of Living Biblically’ by A.J. Jacobs and ‘A Year of Biblical Womanhood’ by Rachel Held Evans – they discovered that the qualifier ‘biblical’ never really meant: “in accordance with a literal reading of Scripture.” By refusing to pick and choose what everybody else does, they showed that nobody lives biblically these days. We all compromise somewhere.

I don’t think that we ought to test everything we create to see if it passes the ‘biblical’ approval test or for that matter, we ought to root or source everything we do in the Bible as a sure foundation for praising God. For one, the stories don’t always resonate with us. Most of us don’t know where the valley of Elah is and what it meant for David to have fought Goliath there. Sure, we’ve read the story over and over again – but it’s not ours. It’s not ours in the same way that Pearl Harbor means something to my grandparents or 9/11 means something to us.

By limiting us to whatever is biblical, then we can’t look to God as a source of comfort when the next disaster or tradgedy strikes. We can’t use our own metaphors or history to try to relate to or search for God in our own context. We can’t relate to God outside of the Bible when we’re only permitted to look for him in the pages of the good book. Such a limited God. Hardly worthy of the title omnipresent if we can’t praise him with the language of the present. But that’s what you get when you’re only interested in a biblical God who insists on being praised biblically from the biblical Bible.

The State of Belonging

Church membership is probably one of the oddest innovations in Scripture. I just saw some blogger talking about how he spent a year at a church waiting to be moved from the regular list to the member list. In that time, he felt isolated, unprotected, vulnerable, like an outsider or an outcast – and that’s all the while he was attending church, small group meetings, conferences, prayer breakfasts, and who knows what else. I was thinking what a terrible church that must be – to create this rift where regulars just aren’t part of the family. Regulars just don’t get a say. Regulars just are excluded. Until they qualify for their sainted membership and the floodgates of perks, rewards, and acceptance are showered upon them like the grace of God itself.

It’s been years since I was member of a church. It was the church that I was baptized into and baptism is automatic membership for that denomination. I remember that towards the end, we had a theological disagreement and I realized that the church had disqualified itself from being my church family. So I consider my membership invalid and they considered me a heretic. It also didn’t hurt that we moved to another state. Getting away from it all helped me to heal and begin to get ready to find myself a new church family.

In all the time since, I’ve always been a regular but never a member. Sometimes it comes up: “Hey, when are you going to formally join the choice?” and I answer: “It’s scheduled for the 3rd of Never.” Usually I don’t feel like I need membership because most churches are decent enough to treat regulars with the same courtesy and respect as members; especially regulars who have attended so long that the church can’t remember whether or not they’re members in the first place.

Which is why it worries me that some churches are what the other guy described – they teach some strange idea that without their covering and protection, even regulars will find themselves getting wet when members stay nice and dry when the showers of spiritual adversity strike suddenly. They’ve got this whole vocabulary and theology to it that is probably as Biblical as anything out there, but not everything in the Bible ought to be taken literally as a prescription for what ails you. Just because Paul told Timothy to drink a little wine, it doesn’t mean it’s good medicine for what health concerns we have today.

It’s not as if the idea of membership is clearly laid down in 3rd Corinthians 4:1-28 – that describes what it is, what it ought to be like, how to qualify for it, how to be disqualified, how to discern whether a member is in good standing or not when it’s not obvious or easy to tell the difference, how to discipline him back into his senses, and finally restore him into the truth as they know it. If there ever was a church where such a text would have been needed, I bet it would have been for the Corinthians if God ever felt the need to zap it into existence, but He didn’t. No, like most teachings these days, it’s patch-work quilt sewn from various passages and proof-texted into some semi-comprehensible ideology.

I guess I can kind of see their point. Back in the day, roughly two thousand years ago – being the right kind of member opened up doors. Cults and temples were a dime a dozen. In some, it would have been somewhat easy to join, rise up the ranks, become a high priest or a high priestess. And if it no longer suited people to believe in a particular god or goddess, they could tear up their membership card and try their luck at some other cult or temple. Each one represented a new batch of friends, you could worship at the same place as the captain of the guard, or a state official, or some wealthy merchant – make the right friends, marry off your daughters to their sons and strengthen your family through religious membership as well as familial membership. Yep, if it works for ancient pagan societies, then it has to be the Biblical ideal for all of humanity in all the churches, cathedrals, chapels, temples, and worship centers until the end of time. If your membership no longer suits, why there are plenty of other churches out there to try your luck. Same deal, make new friends, marry off your daughters to their sons, and the cycle continues.

This idea of membership is just the church’s way of excluding perfectly good believers. It requires you to be a theological clone of the church in which you are a member in good standing. If your theology changes or your church changes it’s theology and you no longer match – then you have to be brought in line via discipline or disfellowshipped as the unrepentant theological rebel you are (may the force be with you!). Technically, discipline is supposed to be reserved for the really tough cases – unrepentant and blatant commandment-breaking sin, but that doesn’t stop elders from using it beyond the prescribed limits. After all, if they say that questioning a doctrinal statement is the equivalent of a rebellious attitude, then what they say goes and all those rebellious people who ask too many questions have to be disciplined so that they restore harmony and peace.

It’s a sad testament to misinterpretation and misapplication of Scripture. Making believers feel that they’re outsiders who are not supposed to be embraced by the insiders lest some spiritual contagion eats away at the purity of the insiders’ faith, to be cut off from the protection of spiritual blessings and open to the elements of curses, to be made to feel that any church that would take you as you are isn’t a real, true church, but some evil shadow of one, a deception designed to pull you away from true spirituality.

Reading about the relief that the guy felt after a year was just as saddening. It sounds so much to me like being put through an initiation rite – and once you’re in, you’re on the other side. You get to do to other people what those people did to you. After feeling the sting of exclusion for a year, you get to exclude your fellow outcasts who were there for you when you were one of them. But now you’re not so it’s okay to walk into the inner door while they’re not allowed in. I guess being an insider means you have no guilt about turning your back on those other people.

Let’s not forget this is a high-commitment country club, I mean, one true church. Not only must everything be done one way, you have responsibilities to see to it that everyone you bring in with you falls in line. When they say “show up” you have no excuse for not being there. When they say “pay up” all you have to do is ask “how much?” You now go where they send you and do what they tell you. You’re not really allowed to make mistakes. Yep, that’s the perks of membership.

Take it from this outsider, there’s plenty of great people out here who would be thrilled to get to know you – the thing is, your church would never accept us. Some of us have tried and failed to meet the laundry list of qualifications to join it, some of us know not to bother with the attempt. We even have this really amazing teacher – you might have heard of him – his name is Jesus. He works with us and through us all of the time. He’s there welcoming the unwelcomed, qualifying the unqualified, befriending the friendless, protecting the vulnerable, and so much more. When membership doesn’t satisfy you, you might want to give Him a try, I hear that there’s no membership required.

Membership Isn’t Everything

On Sunday, I overheard that some new people were interested in membership with the church. “Good for them!” I thought; “but I’m pretty sure membership just isn’t for me.” I’ve attended the Methodist church for about a year now and the subject just hasn’t come up nor do I have any idea what I’d tell them. I don’t understand what membership does for me that being a regular attender cannot do. Perhaps I’m less than thrilled with the idea of membership because the church that holds my original membership one day declared that anyone that wasn’t in complete and total agreement with their teachings were heretics in the pastor’s book and I realized that because of a difference of opinion, I wasn’t one of them anymore but something of a heretic.

Now some churches are really into membership and what comes with that is a whole new vocabulary where the words we think might say one thing are meant to indicate something entirely different. It comes with strings attached and protocols to which we must adhere to by going along to get along well with everyone. To them few things are more of a big deal than membership. It’s the equivalent of adoption papers as proof that you are a part of their family. It’s just like a passport issued by their embassy which protects you as a citizen of their country in a foreign land. It’s just like an engagement ring as proof of your upcoming marriage. If you lose it – then you’re a runway from the family of God and an expatriate from the kingdom of God and an ex-fiance who told God ‘no’.

Membership, they say, is being a part of a local church. A local church is a group of baptized believers who meet regularly to study the Bible and take communion under the guidance of appointed leaders – meaning that believers must submit to and honor the elders. This includes being disciplined; A vague concept which means that ‘letting elders tell you what to do, accepting corrective punishment, and repent of whatever wrongdoing they accuse you of’. You’ve giving them permission to kick you out of the club if you fail to meet their expectations. In return for all of this, they tell you that you’ll grow in spiritual maturity and godliness. The idea is that the purpose of membership is to ‘regenerate’ believers into a higher standard of behavior and spirituality. Membership is sometimes a prerequisite to serve the church in a teaching capacity, so it’s a handy way to segregate believers into ‘full’ and ‘limited’ groups.

Perhaps it’s how many stories I’ve heard about discipline being misapplied that makes me leery of membership. Some of the more famous ones were instances where 100+ year old grandmothers were forced out of their churches for questioning the changes taking place, punishing a woman for getting an annulment from her husband without consulting the elders of the church, questioning if a book should be sold for the duration that it’s author was on a very public trial, and countless of other examples ranging from bad to worse about how discipline was used the wrong way against the wrong person.

I know enough to know that I don’t want any part in churches like that – the ones that silence victims from speaking out and stand beside the perpetrators. I don’t want to be a part of a church that sees me as ‘less’ than a member because I’m not one. I don’t want to be in a church that plays favorites with some and has no love for others. If that means that I won’t rise to the challenge of being as spiritually mature and godly as they are – then I can live with that. I don’t really believe that following a church’s teaching is a sure recipe for moral superiority – I’ve seen loads of members who aren’t much different from or better than a regular person. Seems to me that membership involves a lot of false advertising.

I guess when it comes right down to it – I just don’t believe in membership because it seems to be more about power and control and less about belonging as a part of a group of people who really care about you. It seems that it’s more about making a vow of commitment to the church or signing an official covenant pledge and less about being believed that you are a committed follower of Jesus alone. It seems that it’s more about securing an inner-circle position and less about being included in everything. Since I don’t know what they mean by ‘membership’ I can only assume it’s more trouble than it’s worth.

I suppose I’d tell my church that membership isn’t everything and that it just isn’t right for me.

 

Help My Unbelief

“I have no choice but to learn this, but I don’t have to believe it.” I thought to myself as I looked over the materials. “Why is it that I’m supposed and learn and believe these things?”

I guess it was because the setting was the church. It’s almost a requirement to believe everything that one learns there. At school, one can learn things but it’s not a given that they are to be believed. In the sciences, there is a process by which a theory is tested, evidence is gathered, data is recorded, and the results either prove or disproves the theory.

I’m used to taking that approach even as I consider religious teachings. To me, all interpretations are theories. The evidence is whether or not the interpretation leads to good or bad changes in the lives of those that obey it. The data is the number of how many seem to be good and how many seem to be bad. The results usually turn out to be one of two things: the interpretation leads to positive change in a person’s life which is improved and treats others well and proves that the interpretation is sound. Or the interpretation leads to negative change in a person’s life which is not improved and treats others worse and proves that the interpretation is likely faulty.

When I look at Jesus’ words and example, he always seemed to be making a positive change – even when he had harsh words for the Pharisees it was because they themselves had lost the ability to see how bad they had become. When Nicodemus came to Jesus, he answered his questions sincerely. It seems to me that Jesus saw the value in treating each person differently depending upon the circumstances.

I’m having a difficult time coming up with an opposite example, clearly the Pharisees are a traditional example, but there’s also the Judaizers, the ones that preached that believers had to be made fully Jewish to be fully Christian. They stirred up conflict in almost every church by adhering to a blended legalism of New and Old Testament laws and commandments.

There is always the possibility of human error, the tendency to hear one thing and understand it to mean something else entirely. “How can I be born again?” Nicodemus asked, not certain that he was understanding the truths Jesus was telling him.

I think that’s why some people are bothered by my inability to just believe some of the most popular interpretations. They think an inability to just believe the Bible is proof of having a weak faith. They think that I must be a heretic if I believe the wrong things. They think that I’m not like them, not one of them, and they don’t know how to treat a brother or sister who disagrees with them. While I envy how easy it is for others to just believe, I have also seen how dangerous that can be.

Asking “why?” isn’t just an impertinent question – it’s an important question. Since we are asked to act upon our beliefs, then knowing what we are expected to do and why we are expected to act that way is important. Some time ago, I learned that in synagogues, there is a debate type method of learning and interpreting the Bible. They desire to learn not only what it is to interpret a teaching, but what the invalid interpretations of it are like.

But I’ve always been a fan of opposites, one cannot know how hot the heat is without comparing it to how cool the cold is. Neither can we know what belief is like until we compare it with unbelief. Then we understand that there is more to these things than yes or no, left or right, up or down, but there is a spectrum of ways to look at things – a spectrum of interpretations which may all be valid to believe if we just learn about them.

My Favorite Country