Friday, December 30, 2011

Missing Advent - In Defense of the Church Calendar

Just before Christmas I saw a video of a hip hop dance/rap group performing during a church service. Although they were extremely talented, it really bothered me. My first thought was "That's not how you observe Advent." Apart from the major observances such as Easter and Christmas, I found very few Evangebapticostal churches that followed a church calendar. The observance of Advent is one of the major reasons I returned to a more liturgical tradition. Christmas just never seemed the same without that focus, preparation, and contemplation. I genuinely missed Advent.

Perhaps the only thing as enjoyable as pleasant experiences is the anticipation of those experiences. That is what Advent is...a season of anticipation. It is a season of quiet contemplation. It is a time where you not only reflect on the darkness, but hope for the coming of a great light. It is a time of somber preparation. When I was living in the land of Evangelicals, the Christmas season seemed to be a time of constantly singing and proclaiming that a savior has come to Earth. Every week was "Jesus is here. Jesus is here. Jesus is here." In the liturgical Lutheran tradition, each week was "Keep looking. Keep hoping. Don't give up. Your savior will come. Just hold on a little longer." until finally it becomes "God has kept His promise."

Each week for the four weeks leading up to the Christmas celebration a candle is lit as you anticipate the coming of the Savior, each with its own specific meaning.



Week 1:  The Prophecy Candle or The Candle of Hope
This candle symbolizes our belief in a God who will keep His promises.

Week 2: The Bethlehem Candle or The Candle of Preparation
This candle reminds us to prepare ourselves to receive the gift God is about to give.

Week 3: The Shepherd Candle or The Candle of Joy
This candle represents the great joy of the angels who announced the birth of Jesus to the shepherds.

Week 4: The Angel Candle or The Candle of Love
This candle reminds us that God so loved the world that he sent his only son.

The 5th Candle (Christmas): The Christ Candle
The final candle obviously represents the fulfilled promise of the coming of Christ.



But overall, I think these sum up what the entire Christmas season is truly about: 
Hope, Preparation, Joy, Love, Christ.

More than just Advent, I feel the entire church calendar keeps a flow to worship that encourages honesty in our spiritual experiences. Let me try to explain what I mean.

Have you ever known that one person that always smiles and tries to say how great things are even when the strain and near twitching of the muscles in the corners of their mouth and the slight dullness in their eyes betrays them? If you've spent anytime in American Evangelical Culture, I'm willing to bet that you do. Far too many churches within that culture promote this idea of constant happiness, never being lonely, always feeling loved, not being depressed, and never feeling abandoned if you are truly following Christ. They leave very few options for those in their congregation that feel otherwise. If they accept such beliefs, the only conclusions they are left with are: a)  it is a failure of their own faith  b) they should never let on how they feel, but just keep up happy appearances until they are "right with God." or c) they obviously don't belong in the church.

Which if any of these is consistent with biblical teaching? If you said "none of the above," I would have to agree. I have this theory. (If you know me at all, you'll soon realize that my overly analytical way of thinking lends itself to the development of many theories.) What is the mood of nearly any given American Evangelical Culture Church on almost any Sunday of the year? One of constant emotional hype, whether in the form of upbeat overly sugarcoated praise songs, or slower songs that often result in tears of joy thinking of what God has done. The congregation always seems to be either waving their hands in air in exuberance or on their knees thanking God for all He's done.

Let me be absolutely clear that I don't think there is anything wrong with those types of experiences in and of themselves. What I do think is wrong, and where I feel this culture fosters a practice of dishonesty, is that these are virtually the ONLY widely accepted emotional expressions of worship. It becomes a one note song.

What the church calendar does is guide congregations through various seasons. Some are joyful, some are thankful, some are preparatory, some are somber, and some are quiet and reflective. Easter is another great example of this. Does it make a lot of sense to be singing about Jesus conquering death on Good Friday? Or would that time better be spent thinking of the distress and sorrow of his disciples at such a time and confronting the areas in our own lives where we wonder if God will actually keep His promises?

Just as life has a range of emotions an experiences, so does the practice of liturgical worship that follows the church calendar. I don't feel happy and like rejoicing all the time, but the liturgical year doesn't demand that of me. And as I read the Bible, I find many like minded souls writing of ALL their emotional experiences whether grateful, doubtful, joyful, sad, angry, or disappointed with God. So why have we accept worship that doesn't allow   encourage that same level of emotional honesty?

I think there are a lot more people than we may realize that are desperate to hear their church say "Keep looking. Keep hoping. Don't give up. Hold on just a little longer."  and to allow them to meet God not in the confines of the parameters they have set for Him, but in the midst of their raw and sometimes ugly emotions.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Thinking Out Loud, Explaining my Absence, & Loving/Hating Christmas

I haven't posted anything here is months. It's not that I'm giving up on the endeavor. It's just that sometimes I hit this point where I wonder if I'm adding anything beneficial to the conversation. I guess that when I think of the American church culture and the manner in which it functions, it can often seem beyond repair. It is a labyrinth of fun house mirrors in which everything has been distorted for so long that no one seems to notice anymore.

This isn't about my lack of faith in Christianity. It's about my constant contemplation as to whether what has manifested itself as organized religion in the USA actually is Christianity. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that this question is often one that occupies my mind. That very question was a major catalyst for the creation of this blog. I think the entire problem is magnified by the Christmas season.

I'm coming to terms with the fact that I have a love-hate relationship with Christmas. I do certainly love the aesthetic of the season...lights reflecting off of fresh snow, the warm glow of candlelight, lush greenery and ornaments that trace family history. Theologically speaking, the core of this holiday is awe inspiring. I love the concept of reflecting on the idea that divinity can be wrapped within humanity, that out of great darkness a light can come, and that there was a moment when heaven and earth collided. Just stop and think about those things for a minute. Such ideas lead to beautiful quiet and peaceful contemplation indeed. The near futile, but beautiful experience of trying to prepare your heart to hold onto those concepts. It's one of the many reasons that Advent has always been one of my favorite seasons on the church calendar. But I look at everything around me and realize that the manner in which we celebrate does very little to reflect those ideas.

For far too many, this season is one of stress, fatigue, and picking petty fights over minor issues. (I've already told you how I feel about the "War on Christmas.") I hear people around me demanding that we "keep Christ in CHRISTmas," yet I can't help but wonder if he's ever really been part of what we're doing here. Outside of the focus on charity, I see very little of the gospel in the hustle and bustle that is passing me by. I keep searching for that beauty, finding mostly imitation, but I can't stop searching because I know it is here somewhere.

The more I think about what it would truly mean to celebrate the full implications of the Christmas story, the more I realize that we don't. I don't have a way to reconcile this. There is no conclusion to this post. But I would encourage you to withdraw from the chaos, take a moment for quiet contemplation, and consider these awe inspiring theological questions along with me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: Tact Is For Heathens Edition

c28.com

The appropriation of another community's sacred cultural items (or your own interpretation of those items) to promote your own agenda is bad enough. (More on that here.) However, today's edition of Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday also comes with  history lesson, so you can realize just how terrible it actually is.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Why is Everything Ministry?

Sometimes I think American Evangelical Culture tries too hard. Okay, pretty much ALWAYS I think that. Not just in the ways that they try to make worship like a rock concert, follow fashion trends (even if they are a few years behind), or talk in supposedly "relatable" language. I think they try too hard in the manner that they try to make everything into an excessively spiritual endeavor.

Basically anything you could ever possibly volunteer to do in a church will likely be labeled a "ministry." Raking leaves on the property? Lawncare Ministry. Baking bars or cookies for coffee hour? Hospitality Ministry. Helping pick up the bulletins people left in the pews after service?  Pew Cleaning Ministry. Answering phones at the front desk? Welcoming Ministry. Taking photos of kids at VBS for the church newsletter? Photography Ministry. Poking the people around you every time they start to nod off during the service? Alertness Ministry. (Okay, so maybe I made the last one up, but it seriously would not surprise me.)

It's not that any of these are bad things, but should they be labeled a ministry? Is the term used so flippantly that we don't really know what it means anymore?  Technically speaking, the early model of "ministry" in denominations encompassed only the official functions of the church or religion. The services of a religion were ministries. This is the definition that is still used to define the services churches offer; such as soup kitchen ministry, community service ministry, etc. But I  notice that in many instances, it is now used to define the services rendered not through the church to others, but to the church itself.  These are the "ministries" that do not directly benefit anyone but the actual church or organization the person is working/volunteering for. What I mean are things such as cleaning the building, scrapbooking photos from events, mowing the lawn. There is nothing wrong with any of those things, but should they be labeled as a "ministry?"

I've heard the claim that "our entire lives are ministry." In some senses, that is true. If our lives vary greatly from the way we behave at church functions and in our personal live that raises some questions about the authenticity of both. However, does that mean we have give everything the title "ministry?" It would be ridiculous for Christians to walk around saying "I'm just about to leave to meet up with you. I just need to finish my tooth brushing ministry duties." Although I'm sure everyone you meet in a given day is grateful that you brush your teeth every morning, doing so isn't a service to them.

In the worst case scenarios, such overly spiritual titles can come across as a cover to try to manipulate people into doing mundane or difficult jobs with no compensation by making them feel more important for doing so.  I can't even begin to imagine how absurd some of these titles look to people who are unfamiliar with church or religion.

I don't have any answers for this. In fact I think there is a lot of gray area here and no clear way to figure out where to draw these lines. I've been thinking about this a lot, after a conversation with my sister that was sparked after seeing a listing for "pew cleaning ministry." I just worry that it is like all things, the more you use the term, the less meaning it will have to people. When everything is a "ministry," it starts to seem like nothing really is.

In the end, it's easier to call everything a ministry than it is to engage with the struggle to figure out what it actually looks like to live like Jesus. It's easier to keep doing things that require those in need to come to you than to figure out how to break down barriers and actually build authentic relationships with them. It's easier to run things by your business models, requesting "ministry" volunteers than it is to wrestle with Jesus' examples of inclusiveness, simplicity, compassion, self-sacrifice, and humility.

Now if you'll excuse me, it's time for my morning dog walking ministry.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Got a problem? Church will fix it.

After college I spent a few years working at a small business owned and operated by a Christian family. Although this business did not deal with counseling or ministry in any direct way, because there were a lot of repeat customers who were often the first generations of their family to live in the USA it wasn't uncommon for them to ask employees for advice.

One of the owners had this experience rather frequently. George (not his real name) was the type of Christian that argued against the evil influence of Harry Potter, feared the influence of anything that could be labeled "liberal," and insisted on corporate prayer at the beginning of every day. He would come up with interesting theories on how to spiritually interpret occurrences in the natural world.  He (as well as the other family members who worked there) served in some sort of leadership position at his church and would sometimes be known to make phone calls to church members during business hours in order to offer them spiritual guidance and correction. His office was close to mine, so I often overheard conversations with his clients.

One day a middle aged woman came in to talk to him. She had immigrated to the US and had two teenage sons that had grown up here. She was a frequent customer of George's, and when she was finished with business she began to confide in him that she was concerned about her sons. She was especially worried about her oldest son. His grades were slipping, he was being disrespectful to her, he was caught drinking, she thought his friends were a bad influence, and she was worried that he would start doing drugs (if he hadn't been already). Having worked with teenagers in such situations before, the conversation peaked my interest and I waited to hear how George would respond.

"Yeah, hmm...that's tough. Do you think he'd be interested in coming to my church? We've got a good youth group with a lot of nice kids. He could make better friends."

The woman returned a few days later with her sons to have them meet George. I distinctly remember her asking this uncomfortable teenager, "Do you want to go to George's church?"

I remember clenching my fists. I wanted to jump into the conversation, but I wasn't supposed to have heard it at all. I had worked with kids like him before. I knew the the tension in his decisions was far more likely to lie in the difficulty he was having  in trying to live in two worlds. His parents wanted to keep the ways of their native country and he just wanted to fit in with his American friends. Add on top of that all the pressures of simply being a teenager and you've got quite a dilemma on your hands. Being a teenager is hard enough without the extra pressure of trying to juggle the expectations of two distinct cultural identities.  In my opinion, church wasn't a "one size fits all" sort of answer for this.

I recalled this story after seeing this article.  A new law in Bay Minette, Alabama will allow judges a choice in sentencing misdemeanor offenders: jail time and a fine or church attendance every Sunday. Obvious this is being challenged on the grounds of constitutionality. That's something that should be discussed, but I'm not going to address this here. The reason I bring this up is exemplified in pastor's comment in the article:

"You show me somebody who falls in love with Jesus, and I'll show you a person who won't be a problem to society but that will be an influence and a help to those around them."


One thing that I was especially struck by during my time in American Evangelical Culture is this pervasive idea that you can solve anything by bringing someone to church. Drug addiction, rebellion, depression...you name it, and church will fix it. The belief is that if you turn your life over to Christ, you will have no desire to do sinful/detrimental things.

It sounds nice, but I think such reasoning is overly optimistic. I have known of Christians (pastors even) who beat their wives and/or children, stole property, used drugs, drank while underage, raped women, murdered someone, and the list goes on. Believing in Jesus doesn't make you suddenly incapable of such things. These are all fairly extreme examples, but just think of the Christians you know (and I include myself ) who still find themselves lying, gossiping, or being selfish from time to time. Those are all things the gospel also condemns, but belief and regular church attendance doesn't eliminate them from our lives.

Belief alone isn't enough to eliminate such things. It must be paired with a true commitment to change, and a willingness to seek out any psychological, behavioral, emotional, or mental factors that may be a large part of such decisions. Church/belief shouldn't be something people are forced into in an attempt to "fix" them. It should be a choice they make willingly as they try to discover their own spiritual fulfillment. Even more dangerous, it may ultimately have the same affect as failed healings. It shifts the burden onto those who've come to the church for help. If church/belief should be enough to take away their problems, the implication is that a failure to do so is evidence of that person's lack of authentic faith.

Back to my initial story about George's immigrant client. She did start taking her kids to his church and sending them to youth group. I don't know any of the details about their time their or how it affected her son. But I do know that a few months later, he got in trouble again, and she returned to the office to talk to George about his thoughts on her decision to send her son back to their home country away from all the bad influences. I wasn't surprised to hear that simply taking him to church and youth group wasn't enough.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

The Paradox of Dave Ramsey and Christian College Tuition

When I decided to attend a Christian College, unlike most of my peers, my mother was the first to try to discourage me. Not because she isn't a Christian, but because of the sky high tuition rates such institutions charge. Private Christian colleges are expensive. Very expensive.

Many who are concerned with such costs dismiss those concerns by telling themselves that God will surely make a way for them to attend since they are stepping out in faith and demonstrating their devotion to learn more about his word. (Count the Christian culture cliches in that sentence. ) Many Christian colleges also market to prospective students with such concerns or potential alumni donors by filling their marketing materials with similar phrases.

This isn't very surprising. But I do find it confusing in light of another Evangelical trend.

Dave Ramsey
I struggle to reconcile such fervent marketing of costly education coming from the same people who adore Dave Ramsey and all of his financial teachings.

For those who are unfamiliar, Dave Ramsey is American Evangelical Culture's most beloved financial guru. Most AEC churches regularly offer his "Financial Peace University" class. They learn about "debt snowballs," cutting spending, and buying big bargains - all dressed up in shiny biblical language.

Although I respect the idea of helping people get out of debt and don't necessarily diagree with all of Ramsey's teachings, there is a lot of legitimate concern over whether such classes (and their encouragement to save wealth to "live like no one else") should be presented as Christianity. That's a fair and productive debate to have. But I'm not here to present such a debate. (If you want to discuss that issue more, SCCL brought up the topic recently.)

I want to present a different question that confuses me. How can the same culture that embraces Dave Ramsey's teachings on avoiding and getting out of debt continue to encourage their kids to take on tens of thousands of dollars of debt that will take years to pay off all in the name of "Christ-centered education?" What sort of cognitive dissonance allows them to embrace both ideas?  Am I the only one confused by this?



Disclaimer: I obviously have a horse in this race, since I really regret the amount of debt I incurred from attending such a college and don't think that it was worth it at all. If I had to do it all over again, I would choose a much cheaper public university. But that's a topic for another post...

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

When the Word Becomes a Weapon

Upon my exit from the land of Evangelical Culture, there was one thing that surprised me most. After all that time amid small groups, Bible studies, Bible classes in college, chapel, etc., the pages of my Bible were well worn and I enjoyed digging into the text. But after my departure, things changed. The words themselves were the same, but reading them left me numb. I did not respond to them as I once had. They seemed foreign to me. I struggled to separate the text itself from the hurtful manner in which it had been distorted - distortions that resulted in abuse, control, and oppression. Those distortions now clouded out the true meaning of the texts.

I had never heard anyone talk about this. I wondered if something was wrong with me or if anyone else had experienced this. I do still read my Bible, but it took a new approach to get me there.

Yesterday I can across an article documenting an experience very similar to my own. If you've ever been in that situation, are currently in that situation, or are simply curious, I would encourage you to read it. The article is a bit long, but worth it. Below is the link along with a few excepts I especially enjoyed.


How Do You Study the Bible After Someone Has Bludgeoned You With It? 
(Quick side note: The title totally reminds me of this clip from the movie "Saved!")

"I want the reader to read, hear, and know well that I would have done anything to be able to read and study like I had before the crushing blow of realization of spiritual abuse knocked me flat. I had to develop an entirely new relationship with the Word and Bible Study (based upon purer motives), and this did not come easily or quickly for me."




"I knew that I’d been shaken, but I had no idea how deeply all of this would affect me. I felt like an empty shell of a hypocrite who had started out to worship and serve and know God. My motives and my efforts were good, yet I’d been mixed up in horrible things and with some flawed and dangerous people, serving the church instead of God."



"For all of my diligent study and seeking God, neither my knowledge of the Bible nor the Holy Spirit in me protected me from this terrible harm! It seemed and felt like my whole religious experience had been flawed from the beginning, and I THOUGHT that I WAS standing “in His strength alone!” I’d done everything I knew to do to be wise and true, yet I’d believed a lie. Did I even have any radar? What good had it done me? I’d stumbled, fell, and I’d been hurt. In my black and white thought, it felt like the whole of the journey had been wrong, and it was the foundation for MY EVERYTHING.

The next morning, I picked up my Bible and *BAM*! For the first time in my life, those well-worn pages felt foreign and strange. I knew that book and could quote it and find in it what I could not quote by memory. I’d taken what was given to me and made it my own. Or had I?... At the time, the trauma was too intense for me to think clearly through the self-doubt. I went into an existential panic, unable to figure out what was really real. I knew those verses and I’d known what they meant."


"All I knew was that this Bible felt unsafe because I couldn’t trust myself at all. How did I know anything? I broke out into a cold sweat and wanted to vomit. I knew that Word was my best medicine, but if I couldn’t be sure about what it meant, the meaning I ascribed to the words could potentially be as bad as the poison I’d been ladling down my throat for four years in Mumford and Gothard Land. I’d taken it and had no clue that I’d been drinking something tainted. And then I felt anger that was so intense, I did not even understand it as anger."


"I don’t know how to communicate to you how deeply devastated I was. As I think back on it and having moved through this old pain, I cannot even really connect with the terrible pain anymore myself, a good thing. I mourned as if someone had died, but I wasn’t sure who had died. I think that a huge chunk of my carnal nature died, but a fantasy died too – one I’d lived in for most of my life."


I could go on, but I'll leave some of the article for you to read for yourself.  She goes on to explain what helped her work through it. The idea of this process being one of loss and mourning is one that resonates with me. Although I can't relate to every aspect of what she's saying, it's always comforting to know that this struggle isn't uncommon for those who have left unhealthy religious situations. If this is the journey that you are currently on, I hope you find help or comfort in this and I wish you all the best.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Us vs. Them

I'm not going to lie. I have a bit of church melancholy this week. As I reflect on what I've been through, where I am, and where I hope to be, there is one thing that becomes shockingly clear. The current state of American Christianity frames life fully within a paradigm of Us vs. Them.

I see the posts from old Christian college classmates on Facebook. I hear claims made my prominent Christian leaders. The majority of them all share the underlying current of that paradigm. It's not enough to disagree with homosexuality. They must claim that the "gay agenda" is trying to corrupt our children. It's not enough to share their belief in the importance of parenthood. They must claim that the secular world hates children. It's not enough to simply accept that they disagree with others on some theological viewpoints. They must declare that the other is backsliding from God and turning away from the truth. The religion that follows the Prince of Peace is continually trying to wage a cultural war with anyone whose opinion differs. How did it come to this?

Most of all, where does this leave people like myself? Those of us who still seek to explore the mysteries of God, but have left American Evangelical Culture behind are displaced. We still embrace Christianity, but not the culture that continues to distort it. That culture views us with pity, suspicion, and disdain, seeing us as nothing more in their eyes than a sad example of how the world leads people astray. Yet, we aren't ready to abandon theological endeavors altogether. As Evangelical Culture becomes more and more pervasive, what place of refuge is left for us?

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Reason Enough for Dismissal?

Throughout the ages, the church has never ceased to have theological debates. There is no time in history where any group has been able to agree on every issue. That's nothing new. But what I'm amazed at lately as I read articles from various Christian groups/churches and hear things that Christians say is that in this day and age there seems to be this widespread acceptance that there are some issues that warrant completely cutting ties with others.

Don't get me wrong. That in and of itself isn't new. Many Christian denominations have engaged in such practices of shunning or excommunicating throughout the years. I guess I've just been trying to understand such a practice more in light of the Gospel of Christ. And the more I try, the less sense it makes to me.

My biggest sticking point it this: How does one determine exactly what issue is enough to completely cut someone off from your church and possibly turn them away from God all together? What issue is enough? Sexual immorality? Homosexuality? Liberalism?

For the record, those specific issues are all ones that I know of being used as a reason for kicking someone out of a Christian school or church. Does this make sense? Can we sustain the teaching of a gospel of grace when we fall so heavily on the call to repent and so lightly on the concept of forgiveness?

Yet, even if you believe that these are enough to exclude someone, why these issues? Why not issues of pride, greed, lying, or desires for fame and power? All those are issues that can (and have) greatly corrupt(ed) the church.

In end, in a world that is so divisive, judgemental, and exclusive, I would hope that the church could find a way to establish itself as a place of unity, acceptance, and inclusiveness. Yet that is far from our reputation. There's something wrong with that.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Futile Search for Relevance

Relevant. It seems to be the buzz word of the last decade for many churches. They are always wrestling with what it means to be relevant in this day and age. Just what will it take to reach the current generation? In an attempt to answer that question there are churches in bars, churches in coffee shops, churches in movie theaters, pastors in designer jeans, worship leaders as rock stars and fashion plates, couches replacing pews, door prizes at holiday services, organs being replaced with electric guitars, and  sermons packed with as many pop culture references as they can hold. Yet in spite of all that, no one really seems to be any more relevant than when this all began.

I've been to multiple churches that have introduced new services with a more modern format in an attempt to get a younger generation into the pews. A large part of the reason that I'm so sick of it is that I fall within their target demographic. I'm one of those twenty-somethings that they are striving so hard to show that this "isn't your parents church." I'm sick of being told what it is that I want and what it is that I will relate to based purely on my age. Truth be told, I like liturgy. I like learning from traditions that have occurred for years, decades, or even centuries. I like choirs. I like moments for quiet contemplation. I don't like raising my hands or clapping in church. I don't like feeling like I've ridden an emotional roller coaster upon leaving church. I don't like most pop influenced worship music. Yet, in spite of that, no one ever asks what I like. They simply assume that it must be the more modern option.

I don't think I'm alone in this. I know of many others my age who have left Evangelical, Pentecostal, Non-denominational, or Assemblies of God Churches for the calming traditions of Orthodox, Catholic, or liturgical Lutheran churches. Knowing that, I feel there is one major false assumption that is being made about our generation. Everything the church seems to be doing to reach us seems to rest on the assumption that when given the option we will always choose style over substance. It assumes that we will only be comfortable with "seeker friendly" vague Christian niceties. It assumes that we will easily swallow shallow repetitive praise choruses, but any deep hymn will be lost on us. It makes us into one big stereotype rather than looking at any deeper issue. And to be fair, I'm sure it's much easier to figure out how to make your church's music sound more like what's on the radio than to figure out how to make meaningful human connections in an age where everyone hides behind the veil of electronics.

The whole basis of the core of Christian theology lies in the fact that the truths it contains will never cease to be relevant. The is no expiration date for love, compassion, care for others, forgiveness, and humility. You can repackage it all you want, but if you're focusing primarily on that package, I think you're missing the point.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Vanity, Vanity, All is Vanity

"Hey...hey...."
"Oh, hey," I replied as I rubbed my eyes and wondered why she was in my dorm room so early.
"Okay, so I really think that God wants you to lend me your car so that I can get to church this morning."
"Um....oh. I'm sorry, but I can't. It's not my car. It's my mom's and she doesn't want anyone else to drive it. I'm really sorry."

In hindsight, I guess I could have gotten up and given her a ride. At the time, I was simply exhausted and wanted to go back to sleep. But that's really not the point.  This memory recently resurfaced due to something my sister said the other day. My sister didn't stumble into the world of American Evangelical Culture like I did. She was also raised Lutheran, went to a public liberal arts college after high school, traveled the world exploring both personal and geographical horizons, and is still a Lutheran today. I don't remember exactly why it came up, but we were driving in the car discussing how people give direct credit to God for various happy or sad events saying "The Lord did this" or "The Lord caused that." And she turned to me and said, "I think that's taking the Lord's name in vain too." I had never thought of it that way, but I really think she has a point.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

WWJB Saturday: All Dogs Are Left Behind Edition

You may have heard the phrase "All Dogs Go to Heaven," but don't be fooled. The Bible says nothing about your beloved kitten or pup being whisked away into eternal glory alongside you.



So what is a pet owning born again believer to do? That's where Eternal Earth-Bound Pets steps in. For only $135 (an additional $20 for each additional pet) their team of certified atheists will pick up your pet post-rapture to love and care for it as their own.  So take a load off you mind and step into glory. Fido is going to be just fine.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: Confirming Their Suspicions Edition


Found here

This probably isn't the best way to convince people that you're NOT part of a crazy cult. 


Bitterness?

I am a follower and a fan of Stuff Christian Culture Likes. Stephanie, the blog's author, often shares excerpts from emails she receives on the blog's facebook page. Sometimes they are complimentary. Sometimes they remind me why her blog exists in the first place. This week she shared one in which the writer said "The best general message of your blog: you can heal." Needless to say, a lot of the regular readers heartily agreed. But in the midst of the affirmation, there was a lone dissenting voice who claimed that such as statement has an "echo of bitterness and resentment."

If you have left a church or Christian group or ever questioned one in any way, I'd be willing to bet that you have been told "You're just bitter." I think that the thing that breaks my heart even more than the number of people who have been hurt by the church is how callously the perpetrators of such pain respond when the victims have the courage to call them on it. SCCL previously addressed the matter here.

The irony is that when you live in Christian Culture, they tell you constantly about the need to be honest, confess your sin, and to seek forgiveness and the resolution your problems with others. I guess they just don't think that applies to themselves. I was at a church service a few years ago where the pastor asked people to form small groups with those around them and discuss the question "Why do you think some people feel so hurt by the church?" It was one of the first times I had visited this particular church. It was during the time that I was debating my decision to move on from American Evangelical Culture and hearing that gave me hope that there were churches out there that got it. They understood. My hope was quickly crushed as those around me gave their answers to the question. A women boldly proclaimed "Nobody is perfect except Jesus. I think too many people expect us to be perfect and that's just unrealistic." The rest of the people nodded in agreement and provided answers that were essentially only rephrasing hers. I don't remember what I said. I think it had something to do with the fact that it's so difficult for churches and Christians to admit their mistakes. Honestly, I think I don't remember because my mind was racing. It was yet another moment where my anxiety rose as my own experiences where unknowingly invalidated yet again. It was the same response I'd heard so many times before. The response Christians give so often in Evangelical settings because they seem to have this assumption that it's only atheists and skeptics who've claimed to be hurt by believers. They loudly proclaim that people expect too much from them while the spiritually wounded that surround them die a little more inside and continue to reconsider their place in the body of Christ.

When you are hurt, you need to heal. It's not a complicated concept. To refer to that as bitter or resentful is naive, misguided, and extremely short-sighted. Even worse, as Stephanie and many others have pointed out, it's a silencing tactic. It's a tactic that proclaims "We don't know what to deal with your pain and frankly it makes us uncomfortable. So rather than wrestle with what the Christian response should be, we are going to try to shame you into dropping the issue. It's just easier that way. To achieve that, we will use a lot of spiritual words and quote a few Bible verses out of context to try to convince you that we are right."

I understand the importance of forgiveness, but I have trouble accepting that that means you just blindly accept any hurt from others or justify your own mistreatment of people as long as it's done in the name of the Lord. And since when does recognizing that you've been hurt and are in need of healing qualify as bitterness? As long as churches and Christians continue to hide behind declarations of "bitterness" and their own imperfection they will continue to be unable to develop the type of genuine relationships that truly bring healing. Unfortunately, rather than contemplate what that would mean, I'm sure anyone immersed in the world of American Evangelical Culture who is reading this is too preoccupied developing theories as to what could have possibly made me so bitter.

Christian Culture, you need a new argument.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

WWJB Saturday: Mother's Day Edition

Found at Christianbook.com
Ripping off secular logos, gender stereotypes, and a shapeless non-form fitting style...there's a lot for Christian Culture to love about this gift.

Saturday, April 30, 2011

WWJB Saturday: NFL Draft Edition


Photo credit: Christian Throwback Jersey


And since we're speaking of sports evangelism, I think you should really check out this 1987 article about the man who started the whole John 3:16 sign craze at football games. Be sure to click over to the update on the bottom. It's a fascinating, though disturbing, story.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

What is Christian Hospitality?

I have a friend whose mother married a fairly wealthy man and moved into a suburban (not so) mini mansion. The house is far more space than the two of them need. I assumed that the additional rooms would be used as guest rooms for the children and grandchildren. I was told that was a wrong assumption. Instead the rooms were converted for various uses such as office space, workout space, and a walk in closet. (Yes, an entire bedroom converted into a closet.) When family members come to town they get hotel rooms or stay elsewhere. However, she loves to throw lavish dinner parties. As a Christian, she claims that this is because she possesses the spiritual gift of hospitality.

I distinctly remember listening to my friend tell this story and thinking "I don't think that's what that means." How often are we guilty of trying to force terms to mean what we would prefer them to mean rather than confronting the reality of the sacrifice and humility they actually require of us?

On the flip side, I think of my late grandfather. By many modern measurements of Christian Culture, he would not have been viewed as a "good Christian." He was Catholic. (strike one) He didn't speak openly about faith or lead his family in prayer or Bible study. (strike two). He cussed frequently and he hated Republicans. (strike three) But after his death, there was one thing that struck me in some of the stories shared. I heard family members and friends talk about he attitude toward others. My grandparents never had a lot of money they lived in a small house, mostly built by my grandfather, in a tiny town. When I go back and visit, I'm baffled as to how they lived in such a small space with two adults and four children. But when they were reminiscing about my grandfather, they spoke of the fact that even though the house was small and the table was cramped, if someone was in need, there was always room for one more. If anyone needed a ride to church, they would figure it out. He may have had little, but he always had some to share.

Recently I've been reading about the early church (100-499). I'm struck by the core idea that Christianity is a way of life and not an adherence to a specific doctrine. The author speaks of hospitality as being the major practice of Christians at that time.

"We tend to equate hospitality with parties and social gatherings or gracious resorts and expensive restaurants. To us hospitality is an industry, not a practice, one that summons Martha Stewart to mind more quickly than Jesus Christ. But to ancient Christians hospitality was a virtue, part of the love of neighbor and fundamental to being a person of the way. While contemporary Christians tend to equate morality with sexual ethics, our ancestors defined morality as welcoming the stranger.

Unlike almost every other contested idea in early Christianity, including the nature of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity, the unanimous witness of the ancient fathers and mothers was that hospitality was the primary Christian virtue."
(A People's History of Christianity, Diana Butler Bass)

I can't help but think of all the times in the Gospels when Jesus speaks of the importance of loving God and loving your neighbor in the same thought. It's as if the two ideas are irrevocably connected. You can't truly be achieving one without the other. (1 John 3 seems to suggest that this is indeed the case.)

So what is Christian/Biblical hospitality? Is it free gifts for visitors at our church services? Is it cookies and coffee in the lobby? Is it the art of throwing the perfect dinner party and always having your house in perfect shape for one? Or is it this idea that the love of God is deeply intertwined with the love of others? Is it found in the way we think of and treat those our society considers the "least of these"? Is it found when we hold our personal possessions loosely and put the well being of others above our own? Is it when we weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice? Do we find the true meaning of hospitality in the moment when we realize that we are all woven into the same tapestry that tells the story of the love of God?

In all my years at a Christian college, there was a lot of time spent debating theology and the idea that right thinking would lead to Christian living. Although I understand their logic, I'm beginning to question that notion. Have we spent so much time trying to think correctly that we neglect to act in the way we should? Are we more concerned with convincing others that we are right than behaving justly towards them? Have we stressed the importance of telling others about God over treating them as God would have us do so? I think of all the years I wasted worrying about having the right answers for people when I needed to learn how to love them. A lot of modern churches talk about their ties to the early church, but I sincerely hope that we see a trend of more and more churches moving back to the ancient practice of true Christian hospitality. Can you imagine  how beautiful that would be?

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

This is the Church: North Minneapolis Edition

I obviously write a lot here about what I don't like in American Evangelical Culture and what I wish it would be. But I never want to give the impression that I'm only here to complain and that Christians in the US never get it right. Although the loudest and most visible in American Christian Culture often do not seem to reflect much of the beauty and humility of the life of Christ, there are humble servants rarely widely recognized that are striving to be examples of his love. Today I came across an article that told of a touching example of one church doing just that in Minneapolis, MN.

North Minneapolis Congregation Turns Over Church to Victims of Sex Trade

These two quotes in particular really struck me as embodying the heart of Jesus Christ:

"We are trying to be the church, not look like the church...Even if you don't want to hear anything about Jesus, I'm going to love you anyhow."

"What about those colorful glass church windows? For the right price, they could be sold with the proceeds going to Northside Women's Space. As an elderly church leader told her, Galloway says, 'Jesus would rather be walking with those women than in those windows.'"

Saturday, April 23, 2011

WWJB Saturday: And on the Third Day He Served the Ham Edition

Found here

According to the description, this resurrection set would also make a great table decoration. Hmm...let's see...



Happy Easter!!

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Forcing People to Choose Between Trees and the Man Who Died Upon a Tree

Today I was reminded of a major reason why I felt as if I could not be a part of American Evangelical Culture and still seek to follow Jesus: culture wars. Oh how I hate culture wars! Why do we spend so much time obsessing over things that are barely (or not at all) mentioned in the Bible or in Christ's ministry? Why? It makes me completely understand why people don't like Christians.  American Evangelical Culture takes these completely minor issues and declare them at odds with a life of faith.

I was reminded of this today after seeing a number of Facebook posts declaring that tomorrow that person will spend "Earth Day" (quotations theirs) celebrating what Jesus did for us because "without Easter this EARTH has no hope." (emphasis theirs) I sadly predicted would happen earlier this week after noticing that the holidays fall on the same date this year. Really?!?? Really!?? We have to choose? Either you celebrate the sacrificial redemptive work of Jesus on the cross or you care about caring for our planet? You really want to declare that an either/or situation??? You really want to leave people with the impression that one comes at the expense of the other? Does that give us license to just trash this planet because all that matters is that we're going to Heaven? Where does this idea of stewardship and personal responsibility come in? What about the countless studies that show how pollutants and toxins we've put into our environment can negatively health, especially pregnant women and children? Does God not care about any of that? Is that excluded from the list of things we'll be held accountable for? More importantly, do you really want someone to feel unwelcome in your church over this??

For the record, I think it's a terrible reason to exclude people from your congregations or to question their faith. I think caring for the Earth is a completely Biblical concept and one that should be even more important to us as Christians. I have great respect for the Christian organizations that have taken up the mantle of encouraging people to actively engage in that work. Just because God created a world that would provide for life doesn't mean that he'll save us from the consequences of taking it for granted and indulging overconsumption with no regard to the consequences. And I seriously doubt he is asking us to choose between the two observances.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Recapturing Wisdom

Recently I started reading "A People's History of Christianity" by Diana Butler Bass. So far I'm really enjoying it. I wanted to share the following quote that really resonated with me.

"It is upon the Great Command that we find common ground with ancient Christians, not because our world is like theirs or because they somehow knew how to be better Christians than we do. Many of them, to be sure, did not follow very well; they, like us, struggled, doubted, and failed to walk the way. Yet even in our shortcomings (or perhaps because of them), we stand with them in the way. Generative Christians, like them, seek a life organized around around love for God and neighbor. We recognize their longing for change. And in many quarters Christian communities are once again embracing the ancient insight that the faith is a spiritual pathway, a life built on transformative practices of love rather than doctrinal belief. We are, beyond mere romanticism, recapturing wisdom from ancient Christianity."

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: Pray the Gay Away Edition

Found here
It's not every day that I find a shirt that leaves me groaning at its message and needing to correct its grammar.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Trying to Scare the Hell Out of Everybody

Have you ever watched someone complete a task purely motivated by fear? There is something so disturbing about it. You see it with small children as they walk on egg shells trying to avoid punishment from their strict parents. You see it happen in movies where one follows the instructions of a bank robber or kidnapper. (In that instance, most viewers usually watch with the understanding that completing the demanded tasks are no guarantee of appeasing the criminal's anger.)

Lately I've been training my dog. I utilize (and am a huge fan of) positive reinforcement training. Rather than holler "NO!" at my pup every time he does something he shouldn't, positive reinforcement training focuses on rewarding him when he does what he should. The two pups in my house are both rescues. They were not treated as beloved pets and family members in the first stages of their lives. They came to us with a bit of baggage.  One in particular was extremely timid and fearful. He spent at least the first week he was with us hiding behind furniture and grumbling at us whenever we got too close. The amazing thing is that positive reinforcement training has helped give him more confidence and decrease his fear. If you catch him doing something wrong, and say "No!" in an angry tone, he will run away from you and hide for at least 10-15 minutes. Contrary to what some may believe, causing your dog to fear you doesn't make him learn to obey any more or more quickly. Time and time again I've seen the opposite. When a dog is encouraged and rewarded, he wants to obey. It is fun for him and helps him bond with his owner. Dogs who are only punished on the other hand, don't necessarily want to be very close to their owners. They tend to hang back in a corner and will often cower when their name is called. Although they may exhibit a level of loyalty towards their owners, the manner in which they regard them could not be described as affectionate.

One of the most disturbing trends I've seen in American Evangelical Culture is trying to scare the Hell out of people, quite literally. They are so focused on getting people "saved" that they seem to think little about what long term effects the manner in which they do so will have.

This whole issue came to mind again today when I saw this video:


WWJB Saturday: Lazy Evangelism Edition

Found here

From the product description (Please note that the choice of font is theirs and not mine):

Leave an impression of the Cross on your journey and you may lead another to Jesus!

Can you imagine how proud our Heavenly Father will be to look down at His beautiful creation and see Cross Impressions scattered on beaches around the world in remebrance of Jesus?

Our Brown Rhinestone - Women's Christian Cross Impression flip flops are much more than just neat flip flops.  They are truly a fashion and faith product that will help you proudly display your love for Jesus and perhaps even lead another to Him!


Yes, I'm sure that when God looks at creation, he doesn't care about our misuse of natural resources or the polluting of our waterways, He really just wants to make sure that there are miniature cross imprints all over the land.

Apart from that, this is a great example of what I refer to as "lazy evangelism." It's a tool that people can use to assure themselves that they are reaching out to others with Christ's love even while they are neglecting to build actual relationships with those people. Because it's a lot easier to dream that your flip flops are saving souls than it is to actually get involved with broken and dying people. Besides, Jesus is always pictured wearing sandals. I'm sure they were just like this. That's how he got so many followers.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The Language Barrier & Shameless Self Promotion

When I arrived at Conservative Christian College my freshman year, one thing was immediately clear. About 40% of the time I had no clue what these people were talking about. It was as if they had their own language. And because they had all been raised using it, they seemed to be oblivious to the fact that the rest of the world did not understand such language. Their conversations were peppered with terms such as "quiet time," "four spiritual laws," "love on," "courtship," "stronghold," "PK," "MK," "slippery slope," "pressing in," etc. The only thing more embarrassing than not being able to understand what they were talking about would have been admitting that to them.

I almost wished that someone had provided me with an Evangelical to English dictionary. That's part of the reason I have a "Helpful Definitions" tab on this blog. I don't take for granted that people will understand these words and phrases. But as I considered all the terms I've heard over the years, I began to realize two things.
1. A single tab cannot contain them.
2. It was really fun to try to define them for people.

For those reasons, I started a second blog that is dedicated solely to the language of American Evangelical Culture. Feel free to check it out here:
Evangelical to English

I hope you have as much fun reading it as I have writing it. Let me know if there are any terms I need to be sure to post.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Blessed or Privileged?

Yesterday I came across an interesting article in the April issue of The Lutheran that raised a question I've been pondering since. It's a question that I believe is important for all of us to consider.

Because the online article is only available to subscribers, below I've included the passages that caught my eye.

__________________________________________________

A distant voice of alarm called out as I read the snazzy postcard I received in the mail from a local church. "Come and See Our Newly Renovated Community Center!" it read. A glamorous picture of the remodeled and expanded building glossed the center of the card. The closing line read: "God has richly blessed us!"


The large congregation was in a middle-class area. Undoubtedly, their economic affluence had helped make the building project a reality during these difficult economic times.

I studied the card for a moment and set it aside, but hours later that voice persisted. "What is it?" I thought.


Another voice came to mind. It was that of my friend, Rubi, a social worker and member of a Lutheran congregation. "We are blessed!" I could hear her say, "We have a strong community, beautiful children and the sun is shining on us today!"


Her church is of modest means. No doubt the congregation that sent the postcard is blessed, but is their new building a sign of God's blessing? What about churches in more modest neighborhoods? Are less wealthy congregations somehow less blessed?


Sometimes we say "we are so blessed" when we mean "we are so privileged." I know, as I sit and type on my fancy computer that this is a tricky ethical conversation. I'm not out to critique the gap between the rich and poor at this moment. I'm not suggesting we hand over all our material possessions. I'm suggesting we think about the difference between the privileges and blessing in our lives. It's a question of not only semantics but theology.


Maybe, in the face of our social addiction to materialism, it's become normal to confuse our blessings with our privileges. The prosperity gospel is all around us. Famous "pop" church leaders preach that material success is an indication of God's favor or blessing. Cultural messages teach us to idolize material things like fancy cars, nice clothes, sexualized bodies, and expensive homes. Suddenly a big, beautiful home or an elaborate vacation becomes a "blessing."


But the opportunity to own material things like a brand-new car, a gym membership, or an expensive suit is ours as a result of our economic privilege.


In the U.S., whites have been historically privileged over people of other ethnicities. All over the world, corporations are privileged over individual farmers or factory workers. Throughout the centuries, society has privileged certain characteristics over others. Privilege is a result of social construction. It's born of systems such as slavery, colonization, and patriarchal societies that honor certain kinds of work. Privilege is not divine providence.


...When we equate God's blessing with material things, it can give rise to an attitude that we are an "exceptional" country that is somehow more blessed and "better" than the rest of the world because we are materially privileged. We may think our technology is the best, our ideas are the best, our views about religion, our way of life...you get the idea. But perhaps we aren't necessarily exceptional-just privileged.


Jesus reminds us in John 10:10 that he came so we might have "abundant life." What does that mean to us? Do our material goods compose "abundant life?" What blessings make your life abundant?


The line between a privilege and a blessing isn't always clear. Sometimes there is tension. For example, is a glass of clean drinking water a blessing or a privilege? Is the peaceful neighborhood where I live a blessing or a privilege? Is my first-rate education a blessing or a privilege? Is my local, excellent hospital emergency room a blessing or a privilege?

*Credit: Lindsay Mack, former ELCA missionary; The Lutheran April 2011 - emphasis mine

_____________________________________________________________


Are will guilty of speaking of our privileges as "blessings?" Does it matter what term we use? (I think it does.) Are we really correctly representing to the world what it is to be blessed when we put vanity plates reading "HISWILL" on our Lexus or tell them that God "gave us"  our new laptop/iphone/car/big house/etc?

I wish more Christians would seriously consider this question.

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: Wait, What? Edition

Found here

Sometimes I see "evangelism tools" that are destined to be completely ineffective, not because their message isn't true, but rather because it's presented in such a confusing manner that it would take longer to explain it to people than they probably care to listen. I think this is one of those cases.


Saturday, April 2, 2011

WWJB Saturday: Hey Mr. Tambourine Man Edition


Found here
Because when it comes to proving your enthusiasm for your faith, merely bringing your own tambourine to church isn't enough.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Drive By Evangelism...Literally

Today as I was driving home, I was stopped at a stoplight behind a truck with vanity plates that read "GODRULZ." Although I found the owner's public display of faith far more classy than the approach many others have taken with their vehicles, it brought one major question to my mind.

"Why?"

I mean, besides the owner's obvious enthusiasm for his/her faith, what do they think this will accomplish? Do they think some lost soul will be stopped behind them at a stoplight and suddenly think "Huh. You know, maybe God does rule."? Is it some needed reminder of God's sovereignty as they head out for their morning commute? How many people just look at it bewildered thinking "Go drools?"

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Just Be Honest

I've had a melancholy sort of week. It was a state of mind that led to a lot of reflection and looking back over the years. I was thinking of my time in American Evangelical Culture, the people I met there, the ones I'm still in contact with, the bridges I burned with others, those who burned the bridges in my direction, churches I visited, churches I attended, churches I left, etc. I have two bad habits when I spend a lot of time in thought. I overanalyze simple things and simplify complex ones. As I continued to reflect, I tried to think of the one piece of advice I would give to people/churches/organizations that exist within that culture. Could I boil it down to one thing?

At first I assumed that it would be something about treating others with love and compassion. But there are plenty of people in that culture who do behave with love. And when it comes to those who don't, they usually claim that they are. So that wouldn't really work. I let all the faces, places, and experiences I had in that world flip through my mind's eye one by one. As I did, the emotions of those experiences, good and bad, rushed back. It became a more personal challenge now. It wasn't just about the advice that I would give to the culture in general. What advice would I give if I had the chance to give it to those I had personally encountered?

Just be honest.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: Misconstruing Art Edition

Found here   For even more fun, read the customer reviews

How is this awkward? Let me count the ways.

1. Having an old man's face directly on your left boob. It's like one of those paintings where the eyes seem to follow you around the room. I don't want my boob doing that. Awkward.

2. An old man leering at a younger woman while holding a pitchfork. It's like the beginning of a low budget horror movie. Awkward.

3. The fact that the top of the porch behind them reads "Still Legal in Most States" Um...in what state is marriage not legal? Unless your gay or polygamous, I don't think that's an issue. I know of no one state that is seeking to outlaw heterosexual marriage. Misleading and confusing claim. Awkward.

4. Unintentionally endorsing incest. Whoever thought that Grant Wood's "American Gothic" was the perfect picture of traditional marriage, obviously hasn't studied much art. A quick study (or half assed google search for that matter) would have quickly informed them that "American Gothic" is a painting of a farmer and his unmarried daughter. The real life individuals who posed for the painting were the artist's dentist and his sister. Making these two an example of marriage would be incest, something that in fact is not still legal in most states. Awkward.

5. Taking something completely out of context to try to push your own agenda. Extremely awkward.


Friday, March 25, 2011

The Emotional Appeal

Did he really just say what I thought he said? I couldn't believe my ears. Here I was sitting in chapel at my Conservative Christian College. It was a Friday "praise chapel" which was all praise and worship rather than a speaker. The student who was leading the worship that day was talking about how easy it can be to go through the motions. He said "I'm sure we all know of the worship format of 2:3:2. Two slow songs to draw everyone in, three upbeat songs to pump them up, and two slower emotional songs to prepare them for the message." My ears perked up immediately. No, I didn't know that. I had no clue that there was a recognized formula for achieving the proper emotional response to your message. As much as I understand the need for leaders to be intentional about structuring a worship service, I couldn't help but feel a little manipulated. (Joel Wentz wrote a great article for Relevant about this very issue that I would highly recommend you read.)

During my time as an American Evangelical, I spent a few years within the more charismatic circles of the movement. A number of my close friends and roommates were involved with such movements, so it started when I began tagging along with them to various events. But there were two very distinct moments that opened my eyes to the issue of emotional manipulation within the church. I'd like to share those stories with you.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

A Confession

This year, I'm making a point to attend the Wednesday Lenten prayer services. I don't know if prayer service is the right term, but it's probably the closest. These aren't prayer services in the way most Evangelicals would think of the term. They have a format closer to a regular church service and contain a scripture reading, music, and brief sermon. But their overall focus is to drive you towards prayer and contemplation, providing a period of silence for both. Last night's service was a service of darkness and light, with a candle procession. It was beautiful. But what has stuck with me most was the focus of the sermon the pastor gave.

As I've mentioned, Lent is a season that focuses on forgiveness. It is a time when we seek to forgive and learn what it means to be forgiven. During last night's sermon, the pastor (who is the youth pastor) told the story of a youth camping trip in which one young boy fell behind during the canoe portage as he struggled under the weight of the pack he was carrying. The pastor went back to find him and offered help. The stubborn young man gritted his teeth and stated "I can do it." As he slowly walked with the boy, the pastor asked "What will it take for you to let me help you? What do you have to prove?" He said that at that point he realized that this wasn't just about the pack. It was about all the struggles in this boy's life. It was about being the smallest, being bullied, being overlooked, etc. It was about all the burdens that he carried from the difficulties in his life. The pastor used this as a springboard to exhort the congregation to consider what burdens they are refusing to let go of, even when they are too much to bear.

It really made me think. As with anyone who has been hurt by the church, there are definitely areas in which I struggle to forgive. It's been beneficial to focus on those this Lenten season. (It's one reason I don't give anything up for Lent. I know that I would use the act of giving up sugar or TV to feel as though I was observing the season while I was actually avoiding the difficult act of forgiving those who've hurt me.) But as I started to think about what the larger burdens I carry from my painful exodus from Evangelicalism, I realized that there was one I haven't been acknowledging.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Terrible T-Shirt Tuesday: In Case They Don't Notice the Ring Edition

Found at Christianbook.com

This shirt completely reminds me of that person who begins every sentence with "My wife..." or "My husband..." If you spend enough time in American Evangelical Culture, you'll soon realize that there's at least one at every house warming party or Bible study you attend. It also reminded me of this post from Stuff Christian Culture Likes. 

Reading Too Much Into The Weather

Many of you may have seen a video of a girl who appears to be praising God's goodness for the devastation in Japan. I'm not going to repost it here for two reasons. 1. It's everywhere online these days. 2. I have good reason to believe that it is simply a melodramatic satire. But I believe we should find the fact that many people believe it to be genuine (I wasn't certain at first myself) to be troubling. Why would people so quickly believe something so absurd and callous?

I would be willing to argue that it is easier for some to believe that Christians might respond in such a manner because they have indeed seen them behave in such a manner in the past, in both minor and major instances.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Ash Wednesday


As I've mentioned before, I like the liturgical calendar and the idea that there are various seasons of the church in which we focus on different areas of our faith life. Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off the liturgical season of Lent. After attending my church's midday Ash Wednesday service today, I realized that the manner in which many observe Lent is extremely disconnected from the purpose of the season.

Although most Evangebapticostal churches do not observe a liturgical calendar, most people I met in American Evangelical Culture do observe Lent. However, they do so in a manner that in my opinion is separate from the liturgical roots of the season. And even though I knew many who observed Lent, I met few that observed Ash Wednesday, which I find to be a essential part of Lent. It's the day that sets the entire tone for the season.

I'm sure we all know of people who give something up for Lent. Or perhaps we give something up ourselves. I've had many Evangelical friends who have given up TV, smoking, coffee, sweets, or (in recent years) Facebook for Lent. This is a practice that many in traditional liturgical traditions observe as well. (As evidenced in the Catholic practice of eating no meat on Fridays, which is the reason so many restaurants are heavily marketing fish sandwiches this time of year.) The difference I find in this practice and the liturgical tradition lies in the reason I hear people give for doing so. In American Evangelical Culture, the most common reasons I've heard given for giving something up are to spend more time with God and in prayer. These are not unworthy goals, but how is this different than any other period of fasting one might partake in?

In my liturgical Lutheran church, the pastor reminded us today that Lent is about humility, reflection, and repentance. The choice to give something up isn't merely about having more time to pray. It is an act of penitence and remorse. It is a time of year in which we remember how fragile and confess how sinful we are. The ashes that are imposed are a symbol of that fragility and a declaration of repentance. (In what I find to be a fitting metaphor, the ashes are made from the palms used in the observance of the Sunday of the Passion-aka Palm Sunday. If you'd like to read more about why ashes are used, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a pretty good explanation of the process here.)  But most importantly, Lent is a season in which we seek to truly learn what it means to forgive and be forgiven. If we give up our morning coffee or other indulgence, but neglect to learn the art of forgiveness, I don't think we can claim that we are truly observing Lent.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Saturday, March 5, 2011

WWJB Saturday: The Lord is My Lighted Keyboard Edition

Found at Just Add Power

For the record, I think that a lighted keyboard for running the worship slides and whatnot when the house lights are off is a great and very useful idea. What I don't understand is the constant need for all of our objects to be overt spiritual reminders. This item is designed to be used in church. Is there really an epidemic of zombie-like Evangelical tech people who find themselves in a dark room watching a praise  band with no idea what's going on or why they are there until they happen to look down and spot a glowing cross?

Friday, March 4, 2011

The Problem of Healing

*Forgive my delay in posting. I've been otherwise occupied with a slew of freelance work and home improvement projects. Although I missed Tuesday, this post uses a terrible t-shirt to illustrate its point. I hope that this hits home with some of you, because it was/is a very defining part of my exodus from Evangelicalism and I can only assume that of many others.*





From C28 Christian Stores

One of the most common sources of emotional pain I hear from people who left American Evangelical Culture centers around failed healings. If you were raised Catholic, Lutheran, or in some other liturgical tradition, you've probably never had someone from your church attempt to heal you. Certainly, illness or injury would have been the focus of prayers, but in many Evangebapticostal arenas, it takes on a much more hands on approach. In those circles it is not uncommon for people to not merely pray for you to be healed, but to attempt to be the instrument through which God divinely delivers such healing.

This is a very popular activity in Pentecostal circles. Since God is sovereign over an injury or illness, they simply lay hands on the afflicted and pray to cast such a problem out. So far, so good, right? But what if this doesn't result in healing? Once the intended effects aren't realized, everyone has to scramble to explain why it didn't work and that's where the real problem begins. Too many people, when there are healings are not realized, are told they must not have had enough faith or that perhaps they haven't properly repented of some sin. In doing so, those who initially sought to heal them have now inflicted emotional/spiritual wounds in addition to the physical/mental ones they were already experiencing.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Theatre Church

As you probably know, I am rather fascinated by both how Christians have adopted their own consumer culture and the various attmepts to ensure that Christianity is "relevant" to the current generations. Lately I've been wondering how long it can possibly be until those two worlds collide and "secular" consumer industries start marketing things to the church in order to help them in their quest to be more relevant. It looks like that day is already here.

Yesterday, in my quest to get one more Oscar nominated film under my belt before Sunday, I went to a matinee at the local AMC theater. I usually frequent independent theaters (we have some amazing ones here in the Twin Cities) so I always forget that the chain theaters mean at least 20 minutes of commercials, previews, and various theater promotions. Due to that forgetfulness, I arrived early and had to sit through all that promotion. But in the midst of all the clips telling me to go get a Coke in the lobby or join the National Guard, there was one that I hadn't seen before. There was a promotion in the middle of all of this encouraging me to "grow [my] church at the movie theater." Apparently AMC theaters now have an established program of recruiting people to host church services in their theaters as a strategic growth strategy for new and multi-site churches.

The other reason this caught my attention is because awhile back there was some media coverage about a new church meeting in a local theater. It received the typical charming oddity human interest story spin of "Who'd have thought?" Now I know who: AMC theaters and Fathom. That's who thought.

I want to make it perfectly clear that I have no problem with the idea of renting a theater for church and am making no statement on the churches that meet there or their beliefs. It may be a very cost effective option for them that fits into the model of what they want their church to be. Although, I personally would have a very had time focusing on the sermon if the smell of popcorn was wafting in the air. But then again, I'm kind of addicted to popcorn and have a bad habit of not eating enough breakfast prior to leaving for church on Sunday morning. :) If this model works for someone, that's great. I just wanted to mention it because I had been wondering how long the church could seek to find it's place in American culture until American culture realized the opportunity that existed in marketing to the church. I thought this was a very interesting example of that. If you are as curious as I was, you can check out more information at http://www.fathomtheatrechurch.com/