For most of us, the Christmas season is marked by more chaos than peace. No matter how old we are, there’s this time leading up to the “big day” that’s marked by increasing expectation. For some, it’s a happy time, for others it can be closer to panic. It seems like it starts earlier every year. We plan, we travel, we decorate, we bake, we shop, we eat, we worry about how much we spent while shopping and how much holiday-weight we’re gaining while we’re eating. Sometimes it seems like we’re bouncing around like a ping-pong ball in a clothes dryer until we’re flung out into the new year wondering where the holiday went!
I’m not railing against busyness or complaining about losing the spirit of Christmas, I’m saying that no matter what we believe, Christmas is more of a season than an event. In the Christian church, we have a word that encompasses that: “Advent.” For us, Christmas doesn’t come suddenly. Each year, there’s a four week lead-up that reminds us, in the midst of the busyness, of the hope, peace, joy, and love that come with Jesus Christ’s coming into our world. It’s a wonderful time of anticipation and celebration of the beautiful mystery that Christ has come, Christ is here, and Christ is coming again.
I’m a bit of a word nerd, so I like to sink into the meaning of things when I talk about them. “Advent” is the same concept that we get the word “Adventure” from. It’s something new coming. Something expected, but somehow unexpected at the same time. It’s a time of profound change where the old passes away and something different takes its place and nothing can ever be the same afterward. Advent is a time that we eagerly anticipate the coming not of presents and turkey, or even the end of insane busyness, but of Jesus Christ.
Once upon a time, the world was Christless, and it waited with baited breath for the one who would make all things new. Then, like a silent ray of starshine, He was here.
That’s what we celebrate. That’s what we still wait for. The old made new. The broken made whole. The greatest gift the world has been given. He was given when He was least deserved and most needed, and that pattern has been followed in countless lives in the centuries since.
This Christmas season, take some time to ponder what the advent of Jesus Christ means, or could mean, in your own life. Look at the world around you. Look up to the stars. Jesus is coming.
I had another tough question come in from a friend and spent some time turning it over this morning. I figure if he’s asking, the answer might be useful to someone else too, so to you, dear reader, I offer my response as well:
Your question was, “Can you explain ‘He gives and takes away?’ Since God doesn’t punish, what might he take away?”
That’s a heavy question. It hits a lot of people on a very personal level. It’s also not one that I can give a short, pithy answer to. Although I’m not sure I’ve ever given a short, pithy answer to a theological question. They’re usually wrong.
So, rather than give an answer, I’ll share a bit of thought process.
First, there’s an assumption in the question that God doesn’t punish. There are definitely times in the Bible that God does actively punish, although it’s usually on a national level rather than an individual level. There are some times that God does actively give or bless people in scripture. Let’s hold that in an open hand for a minute.
Second, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” is from Job 1:21. The context of Job is a drama that teaches Jewish people how to respond to struggle and pain. As Job says this, he’s just had three servants come and tell him that he’s lost everything he owns and his family is dead. Job’s response is to acknowledge that he didn’t come into the world with anything, he won’t leave with anything, and God is sovereign over all. He’s saying, “It wasn’t really mine anyway.” This is true. When he says that God took it away, though, he’s wrong. According to the narrative he’s not aware of (irony), Satan took it away with God’s permission as a test – some sort of celestial bet, although God gives permission. So within the immediate context, the statement, “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away,” was wrong, and basing theology off of it is dangerous – as dangerous as basing theology off his friends’ statements that what was happening was his fault and God was punishing him (which was still a very common belief in Jesus’ time).
Third, people want to reduce theology to the simplest possible, most easily digestible form. They want black and white; always and never. What we see in the whole of scripture, though, is “sometimes.” For those who want consistency and certainty, it’s easiest to say “consistently, certainly sometimes.” God is God, and he’s allowed that. What we see is that sometimes God does give. Sometimes God does take away. Most of the time, he lets stuff happen and leaves his justice for later.
So the statement he gives and takes away is accurate. Sort of. Sometimes.
The greater truth is in the heart attitude behind it, though. We remember that God is sovereign. Everything that we have, whether given actively or inherently is from him. I tremendously enjoy the air he gave me to breathe this morning. Someday I’m going to stop breathing it. I go. Everything I have goes. God remains. God is greater than me. God is greater than my stuff. The mini-lesson found in the following verse, what the audience is supposed to get, is that even though Job thinks God is actively responsible (he’s not) is: “In all this, Job did not sin by charging God with wrongdoing.”
It’s a statement of peace. It means that whatever our circumstances are, God remains, and we find our worth and being in him. Growing resentful or angry at him for our circumstances is sinful. Worshiping him in the midst of pain is glorifying.
What we should be saying as we echo that statement is that it doesn’t matter who’s fault it is. God is God and God is Good. He doesn’t stop being God in hard times. It’s what Paul echoes in Phillipians 4:11-13 – “Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
So maybe it’s God’s fault and maybe it isn’t. Maybe stuff just happened and he didn’t stop it. We still worship, though, because worship isn’t about us and what we have. It’s not transactional. It’s conversational. It’s relational. It’s about who he is and who we are in him.
I hope that answers your question. If not, bug me more. I’m cool with that.
I haven’t been feeling particularly moved to “blog” lately, but if anyone has any honest questions – not “heh-heh what about this” questions with the intent of trying to trip me up, but honest questions seeking answers, head over to the contact page. I’ll be happy to make posts from them and leave your name out of it.
I haven’t written for a while. Excuse me while I ramble for a bit.
Each morning (well, most mornings… sometimes afternoons… sometimes I skip it because I’m busy or lazy or in a mood or whatever), I dig into JD Walt’s Seedbed Daily Text. I highly recommend it as a Biblically rich devotional written by a servant of God with a broad intellectual skillset and the heart of a poet.
We’re in the Gospel of Matthew right now, as John the Baptist cries out, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is near!” As I process some of my thoughts on his thoughts on God’s thoughts, I’m going to piggyback on some of what he said this morning. I’m just saying that this is mostly me, but he deserves credit (or blame, if you disagree) for the direction and it’s only fair that he get it. If you want to catch up, this particular devo is permalinked here.
Way back in the day (colloquially speaking – it was actually an evening), my youth pastor taught one of many lessons on repentance. This one stuck with me for a number of reasons. First, because it was a time in my life that I was in a weird tension that a lot of Christian teens go through… I had “given my life to Christ,” but had developed excellent compartmentalization skills. I’d given the part of my life that went to church and youth group to Christ, but the part of my life that smoked pot and was committed enough to take the time to download porn on a 28.8k modem and other bad stuff remained firmly separate. The tug of war that ebbs and flows and never seems to quite stop completely was at a high point, and I knew that I needed to “repent.”
I mean, I’d pented at least a few times before, and it obviously hadn’t stuck, so I apparently had to do it again.
Repent is a powerful word. It’s explosive, just in terms of its sound. It gains momentum coming off the lips, pulsing out in a way that leaves an impact. It hangs in the air waiting for a response. Even if you’ve heard it a million times, it sits there, slapping at your conscience, demanding acknowledgement, even it it’s just to turn it away again.
It’s also foreign to our modern language. It’s become the exclusive domain of religiousity, and so, while demanding, its also somewhat amorphous and confusing.
The second reason that his lesson sticks in my memory is that he gave a pithy, one sentence definition of repentance that was easy to grasp. He said that, “Repentance is a 180 degree turn from where you’ve been going,” and had kids demonstrate in an object lesson by walking in a straight line across the room and when he yelled, “Repent!” they’d have to turn around and go back in the other direction. It was a good lesson. It was simple and to the point and something a teenager could understand. And so I repented.
And no matter how many times I did that about-face and turned 180 degrees from where I was going, my course would slowly wander and I’d find myself heading back exactly the way I had been.
Because he was wrong.
And I was wrong when I taught the same thing.
The problem with viewing repentance as a 180 degree turn from the way you were going is that it still focuses on you and the way you were going. It’s like trying to drive by looking in the rearview mirror. It’s appealing to a self-absorbed, self-addicted people because it maintains our self direction – even if we’re directing ourselves by not going somewhere. It’s our direction – anchored by our former direction – dependent on our vision and our conscience and our experience. Our new direction is entirely dependent on our old direction. That doesn’t work well.
The whole idea of trying to navigate by going away from something is just profoundly stupid. And that’s kind of what John is saying.
The good news is that the true point of navigation is near. It’s not ephemeral. It’s not abstract. It’s among us now.
Yes, repentance is a firm re-orientation, but it’s not reorienting away from something, it’s changing direction to move towards something. As long as we’re moving towards it, it doesn’t matter what we’re moving away from. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done. It doesn’t matter what we’re inclined to drift towards. It doesn’t matter what we… what we… what we… what I.
It matters what God.
Repentance isn’t about us. It’s about him. It’s about Emmanuel. It’s about God With Us. JD says it better than I can:
To be clear, behaviors will change but that change will come from a far deeper place than mere compliance with the rules. It will come from the deep wells of our transformed dispositions, affections, desires and from the Holy Spirit inspired dreams of the beautiful, good and powerfully loving lives we were created to live. To repent means to realign our entire lives to become the remarkable kind of people Jesus would be if he were you and me. Repentance does not start with a stinging self examination of our shame-filled selves. No, it begins by beholding the face of God in Jesus Christ, inhaling the Holy Spirit breathed Word of our own beloved-ness and exhaling the breathtaking beauty of the now-appearing-all-things-are-possible Kingdom of Heaven.
That’s probably enough for today. I’m not done thinking about it. It feels important.
Because there’s something in me that needs to be pent. It needs to be contained and constrained and confined because it has its way with me in a way I don’t like and I don’t like myself when it does. I’ve pent it. I’ve repented it. I’ve repented it again. The only way it’s going to stay pent-up is if God does it. To stop moving away and move towards. To stop being defined by it and get a new definition.
So that’s my prayer for me this morning. It’s my prayer for you. That we be defined not by our failing, but by our calling – by the one who succeeded on our behalf. That we be defined not by what we don’t want to be, but by what we were made to be, and the one who made us. That we be moving towards the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.
Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.
“Mercy triumphs over judgement,” says James. This is not to say that mercy eliminates judgement, or that which is to be judged is no longer worthy of judgement, but that after judgement comes mercy.
Judge. Judge rightly, and with justice. Know the difference between right and wrong — righteousness and disregard. Dig a deep hole, and pour that judgement into it. Dig it deep enough to fill it to the brim! Once you’ve poured it all out, look at that pool of judgement and admire the rightness of it. Feel confident in it.
Then cover it with mercy.
Spread the mercy on thick. If you don’t have any of your own to put on there, pray for it. It should come from the same place your judgement does, or else your judgement isn’t righteous; it’s self-righteous. Keep adding mercy until the judgement stops seeping through. Keep tending it until something new starts to grow from its fertile soil.
In the end, the judgement is still there, but all anyone should see is mercy.
Put in another way, “Love covers over a multitude of sins.”
In recent breaking news, Starbucks has given in! Christians have won! Christ is back in Coffee Christmas! The infamous coffee chain has acknowledged their nefarious plot, bowing to the righteous indignation of Red Hat Guy and his friend Donald. CEO Joe Starbuck was quoted as saying:
Yeah, they caught us. You can’t hide anything from the internet. The recent influx of angry patrons named Merry Christmas has forced us to give up on the Red Solo plan and come forward with an offering filled with real Christmas spirit.
Despite a 23% spike in sales due to outraged Dunkin’ Donuts regulars switching to Starbucks to stick it to the man in the name of Jesus, the coffee giant has hired famed guerilla artist Akiro Arukiddingme to bring together an amalgamation of the designs that captured Christmas past for coffee loving evangelicals. In his first media appearance in years, he told reporters:
I believe that Starbucks needed to make a true, meaningful apology in this cup. White on red graphics have come to mean so much to so many people at this time of year, so I have reached into their hearts to give them the vision they have craved. I may be punished for saying so, but Starbucks was ill-advised in using so much red. Red is the colour of anger. White has brought peace, so I combined the white designs of past years. I overlaid them on this year’s red cup to bring a vision of the peace of Christ, because what is in the hearts of Evangelical Christians passes all understanding.
Hailed as the most Christmassy cup ever, Arukiddingme’s design incorporates every Christmas image used before, and should satisfy even the most demanding Evangelical:
In other news, come on, people.
I know there’s not a ton of people eagerly anticipating posts. On the other hand, there is a person or two that runs across this blog every day. In either case, there hasn’t been anything posted recently and likely won’t for at least another month. It’s not because I have nothing I want to write about, I just don’t have time. I started work at a new church, and when I’m not focusing there, I’m working on renovating a house in that community so that we can move there at the end of August. It’s a lot of hours, and hasn’t left any room for writing. It’s not really in the “scope” of this blog, but I’m lousy at keeping on topic, so I’ll post some pictures and a “renovation story” when we’re done. Then lots of people will find it on Google or Hometalk or whatever and be surprised by a completely irrelevant back catalog of posts! HA!
In case anyone is interested, TAOBB continues to be the best book that no one is buying. I’m discouraged. Life goes on. I’m going to go make stuff different by hitting stuff with other stuff in a house.
The Art of Being Broken has now been available to the public for two weeks! (get your copy here). It was a ton of work getting to the point of releasing it, with a variety of promotional avenues used. I spent a lot of time on other people’s blogs—authors, publishers, editors, etc.—reading tips and tricks and advice. A lot of it was helpful. I thought I’d share my experiences following that advice so that my journey can be helpful to someone else. The following is the good, the bad, and the ugly from five marketing streams I used.
The Art of Being Broken’s Facebook page went up several months before launch. On it, I shared a number of quote pics, progress updates, early reviews, and general thoughts about the book. I had almost 140 “Likes” on the page leading up to launch, about half of them personal contacts and half people I don’t know. I also distributed early e-copies to interested pastors in a group I belong to, and got some good feedback.
The Good: I had some enthusiastic supporters that shared a lot of things (as well as the page itself). The reach on the quote pics ranged between 250 and 900 people depending on how it was shared. Adding popular hashtags helped a bit.
The Bad: After initial enthusiasm wore off, there wasn’t as much interaction on the page. Despite the number of likes and shares, not a lot of people engaged in the comments.
The Ugly: When I tried “boosted posts” from Facebook, I’d invariably get shut down for having too much text in the image. Facebook’s policies made using it for advertising very difficult.
Thunderclap is a platform that links with people’s social media accounts to release a timed message. In this case, it was a launch announcement for the book. I’d heard good and bad things about Thunderclap, the bulk of the bad being that it could be really hard to meet their release goals (you need at least 100 people to sign up to use the free service, otherwise they want money). I managed to run a successful campaign, but it was very difficult. Most of it came down to personal requests… leaving public posts on Facebook or requests on TAOBB page got very little action. In order to get 100 supporters, I used my author mailing list from Noisetrade (400 people, more on Noisetrade later), my personal email list (600 people), and my personal facebook friend list (250 people), sending direct messages to everyone. Then I did it again with anyone who I thought a “likely supporter”. Then, as time counted down, I begged my most faithful supporters to beg their friends. With 30 days of daily effort, I got 103 supporters. (Link to campaign)
The Good: The Thunderclap came together with a theoretical social reach of over 182,000 people. That means that if everyone who Twitter follows or Facebook friends my supporters sees the message that means that the announcement goes in front of A LOT of people. The push for the Thunderclap announcement also gave me something to do for the month leading up to launch that felt useful and momentum building.
The Bad: No one knows what Thunderclap is. It was hard work to convince people it was safe and get them to follow the instructions to sign up. Also, the reach is theoretical. I don’t know how many people actually saw it, but of my 250ish Facebook friends, I only actively follow about 25. I assume that most other people are the same. To add on to that, a number of people who signed up for it had the Thunderclap fizzle… it was a dud… it never went off. They checked their pages, and the announcement just never appeared. It seems to be an issue with Thunderclap.
The Ugly: Despite it’s theoretical reach of over 182,000, the campaign generated somewhere in the neighbourhood of 20 click-throughs to the sale page, 4 clicks-through to Amazon, and no sales. It was much ado about nothing.
I set up The Art of Being Broken with a page on Goodreads—a large social site for people to discover and review books. For pre-launch marketing purposes, I signed up for a Christian Authors review exchange (no quid-pro-quo, but a group of people exchanging books to review without directly reviewing someone reviewing your own. That’s a long way of saying there was no conflict of interest), and a “Goodreads giveaway,” wherein an author offers a number of pre-release print copies in the hopes that the winners will review the book an tell their friends. I listed 6 books, and Goodreads put up the giveaway. There were somewhere in the neighbourhood of 700 entries.
The Good: The review group generated some very positive reviews, although conflicting theology tempered one of them.
The Bad: None of the giveaway books produced reviews, despite Goodreads estimate that over 60% of the time they do. I spent about $60 printing and mailing the books.
The Ugly: On the day the book was launched, one of the books from the giveaway showed up on Amazon, undercutting my price. This was the first print copy “sold.” Since then, ALL of the giveaway copies I sent out have appeared in Amazon stores listed in “new” condition. It appears that it’s a cottage industry to enter ALL the giveaways, even ones you’re not remotely interested in, in the hopes of taking advantage of the authors/publishers and making some free money. I can’t stress enough how broken the Goodreads giveaway system is and would encourage authors to avoid it completely.
I’ve got a friend who runs a Christian radio station. He hooked me up with an interview and a list of names to contact at other stations, which produced another. I also did an interview for a podcast with a pastor I met online. I had a good time for all of them, and learned a bit about how to present myself and the book.
The Good: It was great “multimedia” to post, and I felt like it gave some legitimacy to the book for people that might have otherwise written it off as a flight of fancy. It obviously must have reached a fair number of people, as well.
The Bad: I had trouble coordinating the air times of the interviews, and two of them aired before launch. We thought it might help build momentum, but I think that it just meant that any impulse buys that could have come out of it were stymied.
The Ugly: Man, I can be longwinded. I needed better, more concise answers to punch up the interviews. Beyond that, I haven’t heard anything from anyone about them.
Noisetrade is another avenue that many people haven’t heard of. It started as a music-for-tips service, where people could download for the cost of their email address, with an optional “tip” of either a social media share or paypal donation to the artist. It’s since developed an ebook side, with full or excerpted copies available. I had already had a PDF of Worshipping Through John available there for quite a while, and released the first 3 chapters of TAOBB for free there, in the hopes of generating some interest.
The Good: TAOBB was tapped as “New and Notable,” and got a large number (200ish) of downloads through that. Between that and WTJ, I wound up with a mailing list of about 400 people to bug about the Thunderclap and the book launch. I received one enthusiastic email back from a reader, which was cool.
The Bad: The mailing list got an “open rate” of about 40%, which means that most people didn’t even open the emails I sent them. Beyond that, the click-through rate was pretty low. I’m not convinced that I actually saw any sales through this, although there might have been one.
The Ugly: Being featured as “New and Notable” isn’t free. Although it’s only available to works of a certain quality, by invitation, it still cost me $80. Overall, it was probably worth a try, but when you’re out of work and strapped for cash, $80 can be a sizable investment.
Reaching out to “influencers,” (bigger names who’s opinions would carry weight with my target demo) was a bust. Most were simply non-responsive, and the ones that accepted a copy for endorsement became unavailable after a few weeks of back and forth.
The upshot of all this, is that despite fantastic early reviews and enthusiastic responses from just about everyone who’s read it, my first two week’s online sales, in both print and ebook, amount to about 4 copies. As of yet, the only “real” success has come from personal marketing—friends, family, and church members who either attended the launch party or have since picked up physical copies from tables at a couple of churches. A part of me is afraid that, despite rave reviews, this will be one of the “typical,” “average,” self-published books that sells between 100 and 200 copies in its lifespan. I think I can be okay with that… my prayer in this all is that God will use the book as he wants. And as much as I want him to want me to be a best-selling author, what he wants to do with it is more important.
One cool thing to come out of this process is being tapped to do copy-editing and formatting for a self-published memoir from a friend’s father, detailing his service in the Pacific fleet of the US Navy in WW2 and how he dealt with post-war life. It’s really good, and I had fun with the project. It’s coming out in a couple of weeks, and if you’re at all interested in the period or genre, it’s worth checking out. Maybe I’ll find that what I’ve learned through this all will let me help some other people get their vision to print. That could be cool.
Also, buy my book.
I’ve been frustrated at people on the Internet lately. I know, that’s shocking and new, but try to contain your surprise and stay with me. Some of them are friends. Some of them are colleagues. Some of them are random strangers that I theoretically share a belief system with. This post
may will probably offend them. They may even call it persecution from within. That would certainly fit with the rhetoric that I see floating around.
There was a great post on cracked.com (home of tremendously well-written and researched articles that people are tricked into reading by dick jokes and cussing) recently about 5 Ways Powerful People Trick You Into Hating Protesters (or Underdogs if you visited before the title was changed). There’s some really interesting stuff about how the majority is made to feel like a threatened and oppressed minority. It really resonated with me because that’s the way a lot of North American Christians are feeling. The rhetoric floating around the Christian Right is calling it persecution.
I have trouble with that, because (to me) it belittles a lot of things. Sure if you really want it to, it may be massaged to fit a dictionary definition of persecution in that treatment of Christians in North America can at some points be annoying or cause someone to suffer, but I believe that’s because North American Christians have a VERY low threshold for suffering. That’s what happens when we’ve lived in coddled privilege for generations, holding the stick for so long we’ve come to feel that it’s part of our hands. Persecution, like suffering, is a loaded word. When I think about persecution, I think about people losing jobs or being beaten or being sent to prison or killed because of what they believe or who they are. Historically in North America, that’s been how many “Christians,” or at least our “Christian society,” has treated people like blacks, gays, and women.
That’s a hard thing to hear, because no one likes to think of themselves as persecutors. That was what used to happen. It’s not us. At least, it can’t be us because we’re not that bad anymore, right?In the face of damning evidence, one of the easiest ways to make ourselves feel better is to simply call ourselves the persecuted. After all, Christians are being persecuted around the world, so how are we any different? It must be true, because we see it in the news. We’re “persecuted” when:
1. People Vote With Their Wallets
There are Christian businesses that are losing money because people choose not to frequent those establishments. Those people don’t want to give their commerce to people who they perceive as being bigoted and intolerant. Forget for a second that this happens infrequently enough on a major scale that it’s major news when it happens, it’s REVERSE BIGOTRY!
2. People Are Jerks on the Internet
Nothing makes a person happier than being superior on the Internet. There are whole websites devoted to the “triumph of reason” and articles shared around about how profoundly dumb it is to believe in God like a bunch of sheeple. Blah blah blah flying teapot spaghetti monster. How dare they poke at our insecurity to make themselves feel better! Of course, it’s not actually directed at YOU, but it’s adjacent to you and that sucks. It’s not like you’d ever make blanket statements about a whole group of people.
3. We Lose Privileges
Did you know that churches may lose their tax-exempt charitable status if they preach against homosexuality or refuse to perform gay marriages!?! It’s all over the Internet. How is that possibly fair? We’re entitled to special treatment! We must be—we’ve had it forever. So what if by doing weddings we’re acting as agents of the state? They have no business changing their policy to something we disagree with. And taking away preferential treatment to reduce us to the same status as any other group? Preferential treatment is our right! What a hateful mess.
4. We Get Made Fun Of
It’s often said in youth group circles that the worst that can happen if you share your faith with someone is that they’ll laugh at you. Really, though, that’s bad enough, isn’t it? Who wants to be mocked or made fun of for their beliefs? Christians never do that.
5. Ezra Levant Rants About Something
The “rebel commander” and his offense du jour give wonderful self-pity breaks for Canadian Christians. I’m sure the US has their own equivalent (Fox News?). There’s nothing like taking isolated incidents and painting a broad brush conspiracy to marginalize or attack all Christians, to make us feel appropriately threatened and justified in defending ourselves. We should be grateful to people like him for pointing out how persecuted we are, when we otherwise might not have noticed.
6. We Are Held Accountable For What The Bible Says
The Bible says things that people disagree with. That is because they are sweaty heathen sinners who don’t know better. Sometimes that means that our beliefs require that say things or we have to live in ways that they find offensive. Since our beliefs are the right ones and their beliefs are wrong, if their beliefs require them to say or do things that make us uncomfortable or feel “attacked,” that shouldn’t be allowed. We’re the only ones who can do that.
Yes, there was a sneer on my face as I wrote those things. And yes, I actually feel bad about that. I struggle with posting this, because I feel like anyone who agrees with me already knows, and anyone who doesn’t agree with me isn’t going to be swayed by it. Sometimes the Internet is great for venting though, so at least there’s that.
If you’re still reading this far and haven’t shut the tab or jumped to the comments, the takeaway I want to leave is this: There is a difference between Christians being persecuted and A Christian being persecuted and YOU being persecuted. Beyond that, I want to say there’s a difference between things being mildly inconvenient and uncomfortable for you in a distant way and being persecuted. However you want to work your own definition, I can tell you that it’s wrong.
The reason that I know that is this: The persecuted Church grows. Always. It can’t be stopped, and when we are “persecuted for righteousness sake,” it witnesses to the world in a way that draws them to Christ. If we’re persecuted for being jerks, that’s not the same thing.
Sometimes my life seems like a constant string of reevaluating opinions and attitudes and stupid things I say. Sometimes they’re things that I’ve been taught and never really thought too hard about. Sometimes they’re things that seem obvious on the surface, but there’s a lot going on underneath that I ignore. Sometimes it’s not that I’m wrong, it’s just that I’m just arrogant and graceless and went too far in what I said.
I’m not sure where this falls on the spectrum, but for the past few days, I’ve been thinking more and more about the Pew Research study (supposedly showing the decline of American Christianity) and the spins that various media outlets are giving it. The popular consensus seems to be the one that Ed Stetzer puts forward: that committed, or “convictional” Christians aren’t going anywhere, while “nominal Christians” (Christians in name only), or Default Christians as I put it in a recent post, aren’t checking the box any more. That’s basically what I said, and I likely wouldn’t have bothered saying it if I’d already known the number of much “larger” names saying the same thing.
In a nutshell, I said that it was a good thing. I said that nominal Christians shouldn’t be called Christians anyway. Then I went another step further to say that there are still a lot of nominal or default Christians in our pews that should basically go home and stop pretending. I said that if they did, then our churches would be more free to follow Jesus. I compared them to the fat of the church. Sometimes I’m an ass.
It’s not that I’m entirely wrong in what I said (I don’t think). Having pews full of marginal and uncommitted people who aren’t willing to commit to following Christ—becoming “real” Christians—does “weigh our churches down” and leave a less effective witness. I’ve been convinced, though, that my attitude towards it is unChristlike.
A big part of that was a reevaluation of Jesus’ “outreach” program, particularly as referenced in Matthew 9:11 —
When the Pharisees saw this, they asked his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?”
and, lest there be any confusion about exactly what kind of people these Pharisees meant, Matthew 11:19 —
The Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, ‘Here is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.’
Those passages are nothing new to most Christians. I’ve heard them a million times. I’ve quoted them and taught from them. I think about them as I think about the people that to all of the obvious things that we assume people outside of the Church do… those filthy “non-Christians”… the sweaty unchurched. I think about Jesus going into bars and building relationships and teaching them grace. I think of it as an example or a metaphor for us going out into “the world” to “reach people” for Jesus.
The thing is, that’s not what happened.
By simple arrangement of geography and priorities, Jesus rarely, if ever, hung out with the “unchurched.” If we want to look for examples of outreach to the Gentiles, we need to look at Paul and the post-ascension apostles. Jesus, in his own words, came to seek and save the lost sheep of Israel. The tax-collectors, the drunkards, the whores and the sinners, they were Jews. They were people that knew God, born and raised in the synagogues, but lived contradictory lifestyles. They were backsliders. They were the nominals. They were the default Jews.
I don’t know what went on behind closed doors. I don’t know what Jesus looked like at their feasts and parties, and I’m not going to presume to. I do know that Jesus wasn’t rejoicing over them leaving. He certainly wasn’t coming down on them with God’s own thunder for their “sinfulness”. He loved them. He spent time with them. He was Jesus to them.
So much of the time my grace runs out at the door of the church. When I look at nominals as a pastor, especially long-term nominals, I get frustrated. I have a get-in-or-get-out mentality. I want to pour my effort into the people that seem to be “getting it,” and not waste it on the people that don’t. I want them to drop their crap and commit so that I can lead them. I’ll give all sorts of room for non-Christians to be messy. It’s expected. Sinners gonna sin. When it comes to people that have claimed the Savior, though, I have different expectations, and I don’t know what to do when my expectations aren’t met, so most of the time I ignore them. If I don’t ignore them, I want to preach at them so they’ll stop frustrating and embarrassing me.
Because it’s about me. My frustration. My embarrassment on God’s behalf.
Apparently Jesus has a lot more grace for nominals than most of us do. Maybe instead of wanting to clear them out so that the faithful can move forward to reaching the unchurched, we should be “coming to seek and save the lost sheep of Christianity.” Honestly, I’m not entirely sure what that would look like. I do know that it probably looks like something that could get a “good Christian” a bad name or a pastor a reputation for lackadaisical faith.
I know that there are plenty of times that scripture calls out the “lukewarm,” and Jesus calls for extreme commitment, but there’s something else going on too. It’s something I need to learn and explore. I know I’m going to tend to waffle around between extremes, but a pursuit of Christlikeness means continually adjusting my aim. Right now, I feel like God is reminding me of something important.
Jesus, friend of nominals, loves them. I can’t throw them under the bus.