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.
Publishing The Art of Being Broken (coming June 15th, 2015) has been a very different experience than publishing Worshipping Through John. It’s not even out yet and I’m seeing a huge difference. One of the biggest is in my level of attachment to it. WTJ is a devotional book. It’s relatively short, very linear, and wrapped around the simple and specific application of scripture. TAOBB took so much more out of me. It’s my experiences, my (hopefully inspired) thoughts, my prose. It’s felt intimidating to start putting out advance copies to reviewers that don’t have any stock in making me feel good about myself and wait for their unbiased reviews.
Each time that one comes in, posted to Goodreads or Amazon or a blog, I’m unhealthily fixated on the resulting opinion. It can be hard to separate criticism of the book from criticism of myself. It’s not that they’ve been bad. In fact, the worst review to come in is 3 stars out of 5. I still took that hard, but I’m also very aware that I’m finding myself looking at the 5 star reviews for personal affirmation, and that’s not healthy either. I think that a piece of it is that I feel like these reviews are saying whether the past year that I’ve put into this book has been worth it or a waste of time. Even though I say (and believe) that the early readers and editors that have benefited from it make it worth it on their own, and the way I’ve grown through the whole process has been worth it on it’s own, there’s still a piece of me that is looking for outside validation.
So there’s that.
Really, though, this has been a long-winded and roundabout way of saying that reviews are starting to come in. Hopefully as the book launches in mid-June, there will be a solid body of positive reviews and people will buy it and read it and grow closer to God and embrace their brokenness and give me money because of them. So far, it seems that if the reviewers are right, that could well happen.
One thing that’s been made clear already is that some people aren’t going to “get it,” and I need to be okay with that. One review called it “rambling” and questioned my application of scripture. Another, more positive, one said that they had a bit of trouble understanding it because it lacks thesis statements and conclusions to each chapter with application points. Both of those things might be true, depending on your perspective. The Art of Being Broken is intentionally written conversationally and anecdotally, partly because I’m a person that doesn’t really like being told what to do, but if you walk me to it, I can appreciate truth and I think other people are often like that, too. It’s not that it doesn’t have purpose or flow, but that it’s slightly non-linear and doesn’t have point by point application. Every person that reads it is going to pull something a little bit different, and hopefully non-heretical, out of it. They already have. I love to hear about that.
Pastor Floyd Johnson posted a review on his book review blog today that I wanted to share, both because he put an exceptional amount of thought into the review and because it makes the book sound exceptionally good. He says things like:
Even as I read, I found myself recommending the book as I borrowed illustrations included therein.
The book should be required collateral reading for the college or seminary course in pastoral counseling.
the book offers valuable insight into the broken souls we all bring to the cross.
So I wanted to give a link to it and say a public “thank you” for the work he put into the review. I appreciated what he shared of himself, and it gave me some good things to consider as I move toward the launch.
Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to mourn the passing of Default Christianity. At least I hope so. It’s been hanging on for so long it’s hard to believe that it can ever die. I want to be at the funeral just so I can take a good, hard look in the casket. Default Christianity showed up at a family reunion one day, ate the food, slept on the couch, and after a while everyone just assumed that it must be someone’s cousin that no one recognized. It showed up year after year until we believed that it was part of the family. It learned the family stories and picked up the family way of talking, but the truth is that it was never part of the family.
Recent news reports have been citing a Pew Research Study that says, among other things, that in America Atheism and Agnosticism are on the rise and Christianity is on the downturn to the tune of 8% over the past seven years. The percentage of people surveyed that identify themselves as Christian has fallen from ~79% to ~71%. “Christianity is in sharp decline,” they say. Christians see this and are running around with their hands in the air—here’s proof positive that the world is going to hell in a handbasket. Atheists are rejoicing—people are coming to their senses. Christianity in the West is dying. They’re putting religion to death!
Is it, though? Those numbers are saying something very different to me.
I don’t believe that 8% drop represents the loss of a single point of Christianity. In fact, I think that the 71% is still an incredibly soft number. Look at it this way: If we’re walking around town, and seven out of ten people are actually committed Christians, our world looks pretty good. If seven out of ten people were Christian, I’d be incredibly excited. I’d also wonder what I was doing here as a pastor. Everything I preached would be preaching to the choir.
Honestly, though, I think it’s obvious to everyone that seven years ago, eight out of ten Americans were not Christian. Today, I think it’s pretty clear that seven out of ten Americans aren’t followers of Jesus Christ. In fact, I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our churches are Christian. Christianity isn’t dying. If there’s a decline, it’s not anything new. What’s happening is that the number of people who say they’re Christians is declining, and that’s a very different thing. I’d even go so far as to say it’s a good thing.
I’d be pretty surprised if seven out of ten people in our CHURCHES are Christian.
So what’s going on? Shocked, SHOCKED we are to find that gambling is going on here. The dirty little secret of American Christianity is being revealed: Many Christians aren’t Christian. The big numbers were great for making ourselves feel better, or giving weight to our political arguments, or the vague prestige of being the “dominant” religion, but deep down, I think we all knew they weren’t real. At least everyone that didn’t think that coming to church on Christmas Eve and—if pressed—saying that Christmas is about Jesus, and having neither of those things make a tangible impact on your life made you a Christian knew.
The truth is that much of that 79% were Christian by default. They weren’t anything else and they didn’t feel like they weren’t Christian, so they checked the box. It was like a more-true-than-not-true answer that cost them nothing. Their parents said they were Christian. Their neighbors said that they were Christian. Their politicians said they were Christian. They didn’t look any different, so they must be Christian.
They aren’t checking the box anymore, and that scares us.
Where some people once saw prestige and membership in a dominant club, they now see more prestige in being areligious. There’s not the same social pressure to be a “believer”. These are people that are going to jump on the popularity train whichever way it’s going. They’re not “Christian” anymore, but nothing has really changed. I don’t think they’re really atheist, either, just popularist.
Other people are just becoming more and more willing to actually define what they believe. They were default Christians because that was all there was for them. They either weren’t able because they didn’t see a viable alternative, or they hadn’t really thought through what they said they believed. When they dug in, they found that what they said they believed didn’t line up with what they lived out, or what they wanted to believe, and they said so.
I really believe that those are the 8% that have dropped. I also think we need to see at least another 20% go.
We shouldn’t be afraid when we see these numbers drop; we should be rejoicing. There’s three big reasons for this. The first is that, if we’re people of truth, we want to see the numbers reflect reality. Artificially inflated numbers should bother us. In fact, WE should be the first ones calling them out. The second is that, if the numbers keep going the direction they are, it means that the Church might soon be free to be the Church. Without being weighed down by vague cultural expectations, or people that want to be along for the ride without any of the cost, we can follow Christ. Cultural Christianity—Christianity by default—has been an anchor that keeps the church stagnant and uncommitted, even irrelevant.
The transforming power and presence of Jesus Christ isn’t going anywhere, nor are the people who have experienced that transformation. The third reason is wrapped up in that. When the numbers line up with reality, we can see clearly the multitudes who really need to know Christ. There are so many people—Default Christians—that we pass by on the streets and church picnics and ignore. We think they’re “saved” or whatever, in the group. We lament that they aren’t doing their part or that they aren’t living up to our expectations, but we never stop to consider that even though they check the box, they still have yet to know Jesus. These are the unreached people in our pews.
Maybe if they’re out of our pews we might be moved to reach them.
So let’s let Default Christianity die. It was nice while it lasted, and definitely convenient, but its time has passed. Over and over again, the Church has found that convenient Christianity has been cancerous. Maybe we should be looking at those numbers not as a sign of overall health and strength of our faith, but more like BMI. There is a point where the higher number is just showing fat.
It’s been a long time coming, but The Art of Being Broken will be available for purchase June 15, 2015.
Four years ago when I started writing it, this was a different book. I was a different person. In a way, I’m grateful for the 3 year hiatus my writing took while I was at Cornerstone Wesleyan. During that time, I published a book of devotionals for worship teams, which led praise teams together through the Gospel of John, prompting them to take a deeper look at their ministry together. That process gave me confidence in my writing, and helped me learn a lot about putting a book together for publishing. The experience was invaluable as I prepared The Art of Being Broken for print.
More than that, though, I grew as a person and a pastor. When I started writing this book four years ago, it had a very different focus. Really, it boiled down almost entirely to “Don’t be fake. If you’re messed up, be authentically messed up so that people can know the real you.” There is definitely still an element of that, but it evolved so much. Part of that was becoming convinced that God wants more for us than authentic brokenness. He wants to take our brokenness and turn it into holiness. He wants to take our wounds and mess and broken pieces and turn it into art that shows his grace and love to the world in a real, authentic way.
I’m not great at self-promotion. Most of the time, I have trouble seeing what I do as really good or valuable. This book though, I believe is excellent. That feels really weird to say, but I think that if you sit down to read it, you’ll find that it speaks to your heart. Maybe you’ll find God speaking to your heart through it.
What if everything isn’t fine?
What if there is life outside of our shells?
What if there is beauty under our masks?
What if there is healing beyond brokenness?
What if we could see the image of God in ourselves?
What if God’s art is made from our broken pieces?
In The Art of Being Broken, Aaron Mark Reimer opens up an authentic, sometimes awkward, occasionally hilarious, one-way conversation about our brokenness, the things we use to cover it, and the healing that can come through exposing it.
Continuing my Amplified Hymns (amplified as in expanded and made bigger, not as in plugged in and made louder), I’m digging in to an 18th century exploration of the awe that we hold for the process of God’s work for our redemption. If you missed the first one, it’s here.
1. Is it possible that I can have a part in blood payment my Saviour made?
Did he really chase after me, the one who caused his suffering, to the point of death?
What incredible love! How does it make sense that my God would give his life for me?
2. The greatest mystery of all is how someone immortal can die.
Can anyone fathom how God’s plan works?
Even the oldest of angels try and fail to understand how deep God’s divine love goes.
We’ve just got to accept that it’s pure mercy, everyone, adore him for it!
The angels will just have to watch how it unfolds.
3. Jesus walked away from power in heaven, freely and uncoerced.
His grace knows no limits.
He gave everything, retaining only his great divine love,
And let his blood flow out for a race of people that could never help themselves.
This ultimate mercy is both mind-blowingly huge, and available to all of us…
It must be, because, my God, it was offered to me.
4. It seemed like my soul was stuck in a prison,
It couldn’t get free of the darkness of all the things that break my relationship with You.
Then, a ray of light came from Your own eye and it was like I woke up,
the dungeon I was in lit blazingly bright!
All that held me down fell away, and my heart rejoiced,
I got up, came out, and followed You.
5. Even now, I have a small voice inside of me,
That whispers that my sins are truly taken away;
Even now, that blood price is still effective,
That took away the anger of a God who hates sin.
I feel the life that Jesus’ wounds give to me;
I feel him alive inside me.
6. Now I don’t have to fear being punished for my sin;
Everything that Jesus is has become my nature;
I live in Him, and he is my living guide,
Clothing me in his divine righteousness.
So, I approach the throne of God without hesitation,
And claim an eternal reward, through my Christ.
This one might be harder… I’m not sure. Can you name that tune?
As a pastor, I sometimes have trouble in “the ministry” because I don’t look like a pastor. There’s something in my demeanour that doesn’t scream “pastoral”. Despite being 32, people often place me at 24 and treat me younger. I blame my complete inability to grow decent facial hair. Also, my hair is kind of green right now, but that doesn’t count because it was dyed for a youth retreat last weekend. I lack a certain gravitas and probably always will. Such is my lot in life. I get some cred as a youth pastor though, and have been told that I’d fit in well leading one of those young churches… maybe a university church. I might be able to play it off in a specialized role at a mega-church. Young people would like me.
As a youth pastor, I’ve been concerned with young people. I work with them, I love them, and to some extent, I love their culture. I spend time focusing on how to relate to them, how to relate God to them, and how to get them to relate to God. As someone who’s still pretty young myself, I also have my own young person preferences and desires for worship. Sometimes that means I look at the way things are being done on Sunday morning and say “that’s not cool,” with the assumption that we need to make things cool, so that young people will come. Maybe that’s the music. Maybe it’s the volume. Maybe it’s the appearance of the stage (sorry, “platform,” I was recently crapped on by a church member for calling it a “stage.” [Also, I just said “crapped on,” which isn’t very pastoral]). Maybe it’s how the message is communicated. It’s been drilled into me, and into most of the evangelical church world, that “young people are the future of the church,” and if we don’t get them, the church is going to die. So now, many churches are doing their best to make our sanctuaries look like this:
I like that. It’s cool. It inspires me. I want to be on that stage. I want to be in that crowd. I can also pretty much guarantee that there is more green hair in that crowd than grey. This is what church looks like to this generation, and you’d better get on board, because this generation has to be reached for the Lord. We look at most of the “big” churches that show up in church media circles, and we see this as a functional model, because they’re growing. Younger people are flooding through the front doors and experiencing God in new and fresh ways.
Unfortunately, it seems that older people are quietly finding the back door.
There are times when I love watching YouTube videos of Hillsong live recordings, or Elevation Worship, or a giant event that Chris Tomlin is leading. But once I get past how awesome it looks to have so many hands raised to the sky, and so many people moved to tears by God’s grace and glory, it starts to bother me that the camera tends to linger on the same few middle aged people. Maybe it keeps returning to the one grandparent in the crowd. It pans over a thousand 20-somethings and rests on the exception to give the impression that this is for everyone – or at least everyone who can “get with what God is doing now.”
I’ve heard people (to be honest, I’ve been people) who have almost rejoiced at older people leaving the church, because it gave more freedom to do something new. We’ve embraced the immortal words of Barney Stinson: “New is ALWAYS better.” We feel the need to leave behind the old so that we can reach out to the new. It’s more important for us to reach the new than minister to the old because… because. Because new is always better. Maybe because the old are “already saved” and getting people “saved” is the end all and be all of our purpose, so once they’re “saved” we can forget about them and go save someone else. Why aren’t we worried about “saving” anyone over 50? And is anyone other than me concerned that in 20 years, we’ll be the ones shown the back door?
Yeah, I’m a young looking 32, but I’m ageing. The things that I like and the things that I liked when growing up aren’t the things that capture the imagination of the newest breed. My pop-culture references are taking work to stay relevant. Quoting Friends is met with blank stares. Some of the kids I work with have never even heard of Friends! So observe, and tremble. We have our vision of what church should look like, and in the future we cool ones are going to be fighting just as hard for our archaic modes of worship as those we mock today. Culture is changing so fast that we can’t even conceive of what that’s going to look like.
In the mean-time, we’re losing the idea that church is for everyone. We’re losing the idea that the family of God and the Body of Christ includes people that don’t like what we like. Maybe we’ve already lost it… hey, I’ve been on the other side of the equation (and reacted against it) at a church that refused to make any accommodation at all for the preferences of a new generation. It’s like churches are being forced to make a decision about which generation they are going to minister to (or to be so bland and middle-of-the-road that people will just head off to one of their preference-specific congregations anyway), and so one church loses the vigour, passion, and energy of the young, and another misses out on the wisdom and experience of the old.
I’ve become more and more convinced that the root of this evil is the idea that Sunday morning is for saving people, and that the attraction of the church should be the attraction of worshipping God. We’ve come to expect Sunday morning to be the primary point of contact between people and God. We want a place that people will be drawn to with excitement. We want a place where people will want to be because what is offered there is what they want to see. We want it to say “see, God is for you.”
And God is for you. But God’s also for him. And her. And the crying infant in the back. And the toddler rolling out into the aisle to chase their Hot Wheels car. And the embarrassed mother reigning them in, who should’t be embarrassed because God loves the fact that her kid is growing up in church surrounded by people that he is for. Like the 40-something woman in the other row that’s having trouble worshipping because she secretly envies the embarrassed mother because she can have children. Or the guy in his 50s that is completely tone-deaf and can’t keep rhythm to save his life. And his mother and father who taught him to love God with his whole mind and not his voice. And the elder with the walker that can’t decide whether to turn up his hearing aid to hear the music or turn it off so he can’t.
Sunday morning is about coming together as the family of God and the body of Christ, and joining together to worship and grow. And that’s hard. It’s so much harder than breaking off into little (or large) homogeneous groups worshipping in our own superior ways. And we panic, because coming together as the whole messy old and young body probably isn’t overly attractive to the world.
Man, I’ve gone on for a while here… I’m going to wrap it up soon, I promise. I don’t want to end it on this complaint, though, I want to talk about the solution. If you’ve read this far, you’re probably wanting to hear it. By now you’ve forgotten that I’ve got weird hair, and my baby-face doesn’t matter on the other side of a wall of text. TL;DR has no meaning for you. Well done.
So here’s my solution: Forget about saving people. Churches should not be in the business of saving people. I’m not saying that people shouldn’t be saved at church. I’m not saying that the Gospel shouldn’t be preached. I’m saying that that’s not the primary purpose of Sunday morning. The primary purpose of Sunday morning should be to equip us to be like Jesus. You know why people flocked to Jesus? Because he was like Jesus. You know who else can be like Jesus? Us. The Bible says so. Do you think a church with a congregation full of people like Jesus would do anything but grow? Who cares what the stage looks like. Who cares what the music is or what volume it’s played at. People would come.
People would come because we would be living lives of love that reached out to the people around us rather than insulating ourselves from them. People would come because we’re living holy lives – a holiness not focused merely on preserving ourselves from corruption but instead focused on setting ourselves apart for God – living as the people God made us to be, for the purpose he made us to have. People would come because they’d want what we have. People would come because they want to be like Jesus too.
We wouldn’t have to worry about front doors or back doors on our churches, because doors wouldn’t hold us.
I know… easier said than done. I know I’m not nearly as good at doing it as I am writing it.
What do you think?
I work at a church. This means that I know a lot of Christians. In fact, despite my best intentions, it seems that most of the people I’m facebook friends with profess the Christian faith. Some of them are youth that I’ve worked with. Some of them are people I’ve gone to church with. Some of them are friends/acquaintances from school. You get the idea. The upshot is this: I get more trite, Christiany pictures and statuses popping up in my feed before 9 am than most people get in a week. Honestly, some of them I appreciate. Some are inspiring. Some are insipid. Some are just wrong, and make us all look really, really dumb. If that offends my Christian friends, I’ll borrow a page from a mom that I know and say this, just as she does when talking to all her kids at the same time: I’m telling this to all of you. If you feel that it applies to you, then take it to heart. If you feel that it doesn’t, then assume that I’m not talking to you.
Just so we’re perfectly clear, this is not on the good side of Christiany posts.
I’m going to come at this from a couple of angles: First, why you really shouldn’t ever say this or post it. Second, how it came to be, and why it’s less stupid than I make it out to be in the first part. Confused yet? Read on.
Jesus is not the reason for the season. He’s not. Take a deep breath. The athiests are right. The festive season around this time of year was around long before Jesus. It spans cultures, not in terms of people trying to steal the Christ from your Christmas, but in terms of completely unrelated religious beliefs. Why would all these other religions–the pagans, the mystics, the tribal spiritists, whatever–want to celebrate Jesus’ birthday, you ask? Because it’s not. And most of you know that. It’s one of the worst kept secrets in Christendom, and one of the dumbest myths that we perpetuate to our children. Best guess, Jesus was born in September. Beyond that, even if he was born on December 25th, why would people have been celebrating that before the nativity came to pass?
I know people that have had a “house of cards” faith (refer to the earlier “mom phrase”). They’re not Christians any more. What I mean by “house of cards,” is that as they came up in the church, people fed them certainties. They were taught things, perpetuated in the church, that sounded good but had little theological or historical basis. Like Jesus’ birthday. They then went out into the “real world,” and cards started getting flicked. Things like the Christmas story were called into question as people said to them, “did you know that Christmas is actually the pagan festival of Saturnalia?” and they responded “NO! JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON!”
They had two choices: bury their head in the sand or find out the truth – that people celebrated this time of year because in agrarian cultures, this was downtime. We approach the winter solstice. The shortest day of the year. December 21st. Lacking a good and accurate calendar, the way people knew it had come and gone was that the day started to get longer. YAY!! THE RETURN OF THE SUN! We’ve turned the corner! Spring is coming! And how easy it is to ascribe religious significance to it when you believe the seasons and all aspects of nature are governed by gods. The god of warmth and sun has triumphed again over the god of cold and night!
And what happens to those rational Christians when that card gets removed from the house? What else might be wrong? … How can I give the benefit of the doubt to the unproven, when the things I was taught were certain are OBVIOUSLY wrong? … How can a rational faith teach this?? … We would have been celebrating this season if Jesus had never been born.
And they walk away.
And I have a hard time blaming them.
I blame the sand-head-repeaters, because there is a good reason for it. Just because a teaching has gotten twisted, doesn’t mean that it didn’t start as rational.
You see, the early Christians didn’t have any illusions about this season being their idea. If they were Jewish, they grew up with Hanukkah (what Jesus would have celebrated, by the way); if they were Hellenistic gentiles, they would most likely have been lighting up bonfires against the dark, bringing in evergreen boughs against the winter, giving each other gifts (yeah. Long before St. Nick. Once again, get over it), upsetting social norms, having all sorts of sex, and watching for the victory of the Sun.
Then they decided not to celebrate those things. They thought, hey, what a perfect metaphor for the the coming of the messiah! They figured that the coming of the small new light when everything seemed the darkest was a brilliant parallel for the Light of the World coming as a baby into a spiritually dark world. They said that the rest of the world could celebrate what they wanted to, but they were going to take that time and remember that when all seems the darkest and the quietest, and it seems like the winter will never end, God is moving and is coming to save.
The season was the reason that they celebrated Jesus.
I feel that I need to be clear again: I believe that the nativity is a historical event, just not as it tends to be portrayed by Christians today. We ignore the Bible for a more picturesque, easy to tell story. Sometimes I’m kind of okay with that… there are Wise Men in our nativity creche at the same time as the shepherds*. But let’s talk about it.
Let’s talk about why the story of Jesus’ birth and the events of the years surrounding it are celebrated at the Christ Mass just past winter solstice–the way the story comes together is too powerful to ignore. Let’s talk about what an awesome point of dialogue this metaphor is for relating our faith to the world! Let’s not dumb stuff down for our kids in such a way that, when they become old enough to process the metaphor, it sounds like a lie. Let’s not attack the people around us, directly or with passive-aggressive Facebook posts, for celebrating a season that we’ve co-opted for our own. They can take the Christ out of Christmas… we put it in. Without Christ, it’s just a “mass” – a feast, and they were doing that long before us.
Above all, let’s not let the trite overcome the profound. Let’s not build straw men that make our faith look ridiculous. As the world looks toward the hope of the new year, let’s be able to offer the reason for the hope we have in Christ Jesus.
*They weren’t. GASP! *house of cards falling*
Sometimes I like to think of myself as “mechanically inclined”. I love to take things apart. When I was a kid, if it had screws and I had a screwdriver, it had a good chance of being disassembled as far as I could make it go. Sometimes if it didn’t have screws, but looked like it should come apart, I’d make a yeoman’s effort at it anyway. I always wanted to get down to the nuts and bolts of things. Knowing that something worked, what it was for, how to make it work, those things weren’t enough. I wanted to know why it worked.
Of course, most of the time when I opened things up, the workings were more electronic than mechanical. I’d get as far as “the buttons push this lever, which presses on a doohicky, and that awakens the magical microscopic leprechauns.” The same leprechauns that keep airplanes aloft [You may think that you know why airplanes can fly, but look it up… the truth is that the physics don’t actually add up. Weird, eh?]. Unfortunately, I found that once it was apart, getting things back together in working condition proved much more challenging. I called it “learning”. Other people called it “breaking”. Whatever. In case you were wondering, that’s why I didn’t become a doctor.
AAAAnnnnyyyyway… let’s add that little tidbit in with the well established fact that I have a strong penchant for healthy debate [virulent rhetorical argument], and a basic theological education. The end result is that I wind up having pleasant online chats with other armchair theologians who hold different points of view, that occasionally only stop short of blows because they can’t feel it when I hit my monitor.
A lot of you won’t care about most of this post. It’s not an issue that a lot of people think or care about. Some people will love it. Some people will hate it. Such is life. Just so we’re on the same page, here’s a little Theology (study of God) 101: Outside of the Catholic/Protestant debates, the biggest split in Christian theology is between Calvinists and Arminians. If you’re a Christian, and don’t know which you are, I’ll tell you how to figure it out at the end of this post.
I’m an Arminian. My arguments with Calvinists often end with me repeatedly placing my head against my keyboard violently. I’ve actually (for the most part) stopped engaging in them. Why? I took the argument apart. From an Arminian point of view, an argument looks like a frank exchange of ideas; open and reasoned. I love that. From a Calvinist point of view, an argument looks like this:
And that’s stupid.
Some of you are laughing. Some of you are confused. This may help: The Calvinist world-view revolves around God’s sovereignty (ruling authority) and active, wilful control of everything. When I debate, after we burn through the stock arguments that each side comes equipped with, I try to sit back and process based on the premise their holding – give it a test drive, if you will. This is what I got from putting myself in the place of a Calvinist arguing with me:
God, in his sovereignty, has decided that we will meet this day. Leading up to this day, he has arranged our lives and controlled our beliefs that we might have a different view of him. He has brought us together at this point, so that he might force you to speak words that are untrue about him, and have me speak words that are true about him. He will make me very emphatic about this, and cause me to insinuate that he created you to be less than intelligent, although since the ability to process information is irrelevant when he decides everything we think or say, it has no bearing on the discussion. He will have me point out to you how wrong you are to believe the untrue things that he caused you to believe. Then he’s going to make you disbelieve the things that he’s made me say, and cause you to say things that might make me doubt my position, except that he ordained that I hold to these beliefs, and so I have no choice but to continue to do so. He will keep us arguing for a while, dictating the debate, and compelling us to hold our original positions because it serves his greater glory to be seen making two people contend over the issue before other people that he has willed either to agree, disagree, or not care at all, and as a witness to the people he has caused not to believe in him.
And then my head exploded.
I honestly can’t wrap my head around holding this position. It doesn’t make any sense to me [but that’s okay, because God willed it not to], and seems internally inconsistent [but it’s not. It only seems that way because God decided to make me not understand its consistency]. What gets me is how worked up Calvinists get about it. They’re pulling out scripture, they’re trying to make logical arguments, they’re giving experiential anecdotes. Some of them seem very proud of their ability to work through this all and present it to people. It’s as if they think that their ability is their own, or their effort their own, or even their words their own. Then they get angry if someone continues to disagree with them as if it’s not God causing the people they’re arguing with to say the things they’re saying and their emotions are controlled by something other than the direct will of God. It’s like they believe that either party has a choice in the matter. It’s like they’re Arminian.
So you can argue with me about this, but don’t get mad. God wills everything, ipso facto, It’s God’s will that I post this. In fact, he dictated it, so get mad at him – they’re his words.
I promised at the beginning of this post that I’d help the Christians reading this to figure out if they’re Calvinist Christians or Arminian Christians. Here’s the test: If God brought you to this page and caused you to get angry at the crap he just caused me to write, they’re a Calvinist. If you came to this page and got mad because I wrote stuff that was clearly both wrong and offensive to God and right-thinking Christians, you’re an Arminian that thinks you’re a Calvinist. If you either found this amusing and agreed with it, or thought it was boring and pointless, you’re an Arminian. Hope that helps.
From now on, instead of getting into the debate, I’ll just link them here.