Friday, July 25, 2014

A Christianity to Believe In

…Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy,  cleansing  her by the washing  with water through the word, and to present her to himself  as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless. 
-Ephesians 5:25-27 (NIV)

Several months ago, a friend of mine wrote this blog post titled Why I No Longer Believe in Christianity. The fact that he’s a minister, and a friend, made me fairly interested in his apparent lapse from the faith. Was he announcing an imminent shift to Buddhism, or atheism, or, I don’t know, had he become a Jedi
     You only have to glance at the post, though, to see that my friend hasn’t lost his faith, not really. It’s actually a very faithful and thoughtful attempt to point out that “most Christians tend to take their identity in Christ from their religious tradition.” He points out that “Salvation comes through belief in Jesus, not belief in Christianity.” And then this little gem of a sentence that I wish I’d written:

“So, I am a Jesus follower who currently hangs around with a little band of broken followers in a broken movement known as Churches of Christ who seek in broken ways to serve a broken world. No wonder we need a Savior and Lord beyond ourselves.”    

To which I can only say that I think my friend still believes in Christianity. It may be a matter of semantics, but to be a Christian is not to believe in the church. It’s to believe in Jesus.
     And Jesus pretty much disrupts whatever kind of church you let him into.
     Most of us believers in Jesus see him through the lenses of our particular expressions of faith. To a Catholic, Jesus looks very Catholic, to a Lutheran, very Lutheran, to a Presbyterian, very Presbyterian. Even those of us who are a part of religious traditions that challenge established denominations understand Jesus in ways colored by those traditions. If your history is with the Restoration Movement, or if it’s with megachurches, or even if it’s with newer movements like the Emerging church or a house church, you will tend to relate to Jesus through the doctrines or values or emphases of those movements. 
     By that I mean that you may find yourself, unconsciously, even, tailoring Jesus to fit those traditions. You’ll emphasize words and actions of his that legitimize and validate your tradition, and de-emphasize those words and actions that aren’t as friendly to your history. It’s not intentional, of course. You’re probably not even aware of it, and have in fact probably inherited a lot of it — after all, most denominations and religious traditions came about originally to fix a perceived fault in the existing church. But its being largely unconscious makes it that much harder to see in ourselves, sort of like a fish would have a hard time describing water. It’s just where we live, and what we breathe, and it’s hard to imagine life without it.
     Again, let me emphasize that this happens even among those of us who claim to reject tradition. Our iconoclasm easily becomes a tradition of its own that leads us to value an iconoclastic Jesus who strips faith of tradition and leaves it with the “essentials” — coincidentally, the very “essentials” that we’re so sure about!
     What you’re left with is a Jesus who never surprises you, once you learn the doctrines and traditions of your particular denomination, movement, or fellowship. You’ll simply hear him saying and see him doing what your religious tradition says Jesus should be saying and doing, and tune out whatever doesn’t fit with what you’ve learned. And you’ll think that’s just because your group has Jesus right, when all along it’s because you have an edited version of Jesus appropriate for your group’s beliefs, doctrines, practices, and values. A Jesus remade in the image of denomination X or fellowship Y.
     The problem, as you well know, is that an edited Jesus isn’t Jesus at all.
     The fact that this kind of thing happens in every denomination, or fellowship, or movement, or sect should be no surprise. The church, as my friend points out, is made up of “little band[s] of broken followers.” Our best intentions fall woefully short of the glory of God. Our grandest efforts often fail to accomplish even the limited dreams we dare to dream. Our highest aspirations can’t compare to the vision God has for who we are to be. And, let’s face it, we’re rarely at our best, our grandest, or our highest. We are broken, after all, and full of sin, pettiness, fear, faithlessness, sadness, anger, and hurt. 
     The thing to remember is that the church came after Jesus, and does not mediate our relationship to him. The Holy Spirit is not given to locations, but to people, not to denominations, but to believers. The Bible is to be read with the church, it’s true, but no one person or group in the church is to be its sole interpreter. And through his Spirit, and through the Scriptures, and in the experience of the whole church, Jesus can still be heard.  
     So let Jesus speak to what you believe, and even against what you believe — especially if you believe it largely because you’ve been told to. Look on the church with love, but recognize that the groups within her are perhaps as interested in self-preservation and guarding their own interests than they are in letting the voice of Jesus be heard. Jesus died for his church, all of it, and is cleansing and making her holy, ready for presentation to him. But the church isn’t quite there yet. We need his grace to cover our stains and wrinkles and blemishes until they are finally and completely removed and we are finally and completely what he died to make us. 
     May we let Jesus speak. May we not silence those who dissent from “orthodoxy,” but welcome prophetic voices that speak Jesus words’ in resistance to our traditions. May we let him speak in voices from traditions different from our own, so that our horizons are broadened and we learn to listen in a different key than we’re used to. 
     This is the church I want to bequeath my son, a church that drinks from many streams of faith and listens to a fully fleshed-out Jesus, one that can hear his gospel and walk bravely where it leads them. I want to leave him a church less sure of doctrine and more sure of Jesus, less certain in our readings of the Bible and more certain of Jesus, less reliant on our own constructs and more reliant on Jesus and the Spirit which he’s poured out. 

     That’s a Christianity I can believe in. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

Carrying Your Grievances

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.
-Colossians 3:13 (NIV)

This guy in my neighborhood drives a van that’s obviously been in an accident. It has a crumpled front bumper and dented fender, but that’s not what you notice when you first look at it. What you notice is the message painted on the side: the name of a well-known insurance company, the word “Hate”, and the words, “I don’t love this insurance company.” The message also appears to be written in Korean characters as well.
     It takes some commitment to do that, doesn’t it? It looks professional — I guess he paid someone to paint the words, so it had to cost something. And then there’s the commitment of driving around in, let’s face it, a pretty unsightly vehicle. I’ve never actually met the guy, and so I don’t know the story, but I bet he’d tell me if I asked. I bet he’s passionate in his outrage, certain he was wronged, and anxious for justice. 
     Thing is, I’ve seen this van in my neighborhood for at least 10 years, maybe longer. Ten years. Seems a long time to advertise your grievances on the side of your van.
     And yet my neighbor’s hardly the first to advertise his grievances for what seems like an awfully long time.
     There’s the guy I know who has never gotten over the slights he received from his brother. He’ll tell anyone who’ll sit still long enough all about them. It’s been decades since they talked, and though he needs some family around him right now, he prefers to be alone in his bitterness. 
     There’s the woman I know who, after more than a decade, still carries around her anger toward her ex-husband. It’s poisoned every other relationship in her life, it seems, because she demands that those she keeps around her share and reflect her anger back to her. Anyone who won’t is cut off.
     There’s the gentleman disappointed by the church so many years ago, who refuses to consider the idea that maybe it’s time to let those hurts go and reconnect. All he has to say about the church, based on that one disappointment, is bitter and angry. The grievances he bears have made it impossible for him to see with any kind of clarity the other churches that didn’t hurt him, churches where he’d be welcomed and encouraged and made strong again. 
     But that’s what carrying grievances around for so long does. It makes you blind. It becomes so all-consuming that it destroys healthy relationships. Though we carry them, in part, because we’re looking for sympathy, carrying them is ironically isolating. There’s a commitment required in carrying our grievances, a cost paid in love and friendship and relationships. 
     Carrying grievances around keeps us locked into the past. It makes us unable to live in the present or look forward to the future with any hope or anticipation.
     Worse, carrying grievances around affects our spirits.
     A person with grievances prays almost entirely about those grievances. When she reads the Bible, all she sees is condemnation for the person who hurt her. A person with grievances can’t live in relationship with the church. He can’t thank God for what he has, can’t praise him joyfully. Nursing grievances is the end to spirituality. That’s why Paul calls hatred, discord, jealousy, and fits of rage “acts of the flesh” and contrasts them with the “fruit of the Spirit.” If a person is clinging to their grievances, it’s not the work of the Holy Spirit in his life. 
     But that’s not even the worst of it. When we carry grievances around, we fail to glorify God.
     Remember Israel in the desert? Their besetting sin out there wasn’t idolatry — that was just a symptom. Their problem, articulated over and over again, was “grumbling.” The last straw seems to have been their refusal to believe that they could take possession of the land God had promised them. And in that story you see why holding to your grievances is ultimately so destructive.
     God’s anger against the people comes from the fact that they treated him with contempt. “How long will they refuse to believe in me, in spite of all the signs I have performed among them?” he asks Moses. That’s the real problem with holding on to our grievances, carrying them around with us for everyone to see. It’s faithless. It obscures the message of the glory of God that our lives are supposed to communicate, and replaces it with another message: a message about the hurts and slights we’ve received. 
     That’s why the message of Jesus regarding grievances is consistently one word: “Forgive” — not just generously, but extravagantly. Holding tightly to our grievances gives them power. It witnesses to the truth that those grievances are the strongest power in our lives. It lets the world see their power as they strangle our relationships and rot us spiritually.
     But to forgive is to show the power of God to redeem and renew even the worst of circumstances. It shows that where there is death, God can create new life. It shows that the evils of the world to do not disrupt God’s plans, even in our minds. It witnesses to the forgiveness we have received in Jesus, and the hope that we have for others — even those who have hurt us — because of him.
     That’s why Jesus forgave those who crucified him, even while they were doing it. That’s why he asked God to forgive them. It wasn’t because the nails and the lash and the thorns didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that the crucifixion was a show for our benefit. It wasn’t because he was somehow immune to agony and anger and humiliation. He “learned obedience by what he suffered,” said one New Testament writer. Part of that obedience was the requirement to forgive.
     I don’t know what your grievances are. I don’t want to pretend they’re trivial. I know that they aren’t. But I also know that they will poison your life if you carry them around with you. I know that they will kill you spiritually. And I know that they will compromise the message of the glory of God that your life is intended to embody.

     I also know this: if you’re in Christ, you have experienced forgiveness. And the Holy Spirit lives in you, and will give you the strength to let those grievances go. The marks carrying them has left on your life might not go away overnight. But, by forgiving, you can begin the journey of getting rid of them and embracing the new life God has for you.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Every Believer Needs the Church

“I believe in God, but not the church.”
     It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a sentiment like that. I’ve been a minister for over 20 years — I’ve heard them all, believe me: spiritual, but not religious, Jesus, but not Christians, and that old favorite about how the church is responsible for most of the violence and bloodshed in history. (As Jonathan Storment puts it: “You have one Crusade, and suddenly that’s all everyone wants to talk about.”) I’m fairly well-versed in the historical wrongs of the church, both because I’ve read the history and also because folks who want nothing to do with the church have kept me well informed. So it wasn’t the first time I’d heard someone say that the church was something they wanted no part of.
     This time, though, the words came from someone whose faith I knew about, someone I knew loved the Lord and wanted to be a part of his mission in the world. And I felt far away from him at that moment, because I don't know how a person separates concern for the mission of God in the world from being a part of the community of faith.
     The difference may be generational. Believers younger than me tend to think of the community of faith, if they think of it at all, in less rigid terms. Being a community of faith, they reason, has little to do with where you spend your Sunday mornings. They reason that it has more to do with feeding the hungry than with sharing communion, more to do with helping the sick than praying for them from a comfortable distance, more to do with conversing over coffee with someone who’s lonely than with sitting in a big room listening to a sermon. The “community of faith,” younger Christians sometimes argue, is wherever people of faith are doing works of faith. The community of faith, to them, isn’t found at a church of any denomination as much as it’s found with those who join them in handing out sandwiches to the homeless under an overpass, or who move with them into an economically depressed neighborhood and plant gardens, or who march with them for justice for immigrants, or who dig wells with them in Africa.
     In fairness, the church hasn’t been good about recognizing those communities of faith. Concerned sometimes with safeguarding the gospel, or biblical inerrancy, or moral purity, or our own interests, we have sometimes looked with suspicion on anything outside our walls or budget that some might call the work of God. We’ve groused that we shouldn’t feed the hungry or help the homeless in just any old way, that it isn’t a work of faith if it doesn’t happen in a church building or the name of Jesus isn’t pronounced. And then somewhere we started handing off kingdom work to government, to the health care industry, to social service and para-church organizations. 
     Church, in the meantime, became the place where we went to learn the self-help secrets of the Bible, to improve our marriages, make us better parents, and learn to be more successful in our careers. Church has become all about us. Stripped of their reason for being, local churches have become obsessed with creating an experience that will win members from an increasingly shallow pool. While some of these churches grow explosively, the communities around them remain largely untouched by the gospel of Jesus.
     The fact is, though, that our kids are starting to notice. They may not be able to articulate it, or even notice it consciously. But they hear us say God is concerned about the poor and the marginalized, and they notice some other folks somewhere doing some good work among the poor and marginalized, and they see us sitting in our worship centers sipping coffee and talking about how much stress our careers are causing us, and they can be forgiven for starting to wonder why they need the church at all. 
     Truthfully, I would have to say they probably don’t. Not that kind of church, anyway.
     But I would also say that the church is not supposed to be that. It isn’t supposed to sanctify our self-centeredness. It isn’t supposed to cater to our every whim like some ecclesiastical Wal-Mart. (“Self-Esteem, Aisle 7. Complaining About How Much Better Things Used to Be, Aisle 4”) Prior to the last century, no Christian ever wondered why the church didn't offer better child care during the Sunday services. (They were too busy caring for orphans, like, all week.) The church isn’t supposed to reflect our prejudices and opinions back to us. It isn’t supposed to be comfortable, or easy, or convenient, and please, God, it isn’t supposed to be some experience created with music and lighting and atmosphere, like a low-budget U2 show. 
     I don’t mean to step on any toes. We’ve come by it honestly. The church has simply absorbed our cultural values, until it’s become just another reflection of a shallow society heavy on instant gratification and excitement and light on allegiance, commitment, and sacrifice.
     So I would remind the church — and those who prefer to turn away rather than do what their spiritual ancestors have done and make the church more what she should be — Jesus calls us salt and light. We’re those who call ourselves “blessed” even when we’re hurting and mourning and penniless and hungry for a taste of justice. We’re those who believe that we’re God’s children and will see him, that there’s a new world coming in Jesus, and that we’re its heralds, its vanguard. 
      Our work is to show what that new world looks like in the way we work, live, parent, and serve. On the one hand, we don’t have the right to define that new world as we want to, by making it all about our personal forgiveness and self-realization. On the other hand, neither do we have the right to serve the fruits of that new world without acknowledging and naming the One through whom it’s coming into being. If the church many younger believers are turning from is empty of the works to which the good news of the kingdom calls us, then what they’re turning to are those works emptied of the presence of the kingdom. The gospel doesn’t proclaim that if we all band together and try really hard, we can end hunger or sex trafficking or gun violence or AIDS. It proclaims a kingdom where those things don’t exist. Our small efforts are just a taste of the grace, love, forgiveness, and peace that God is bringing about in Jesus — but it is essential that we witness to our faith in the coming kingdom through those small efforts.

     That’s why every believer needs the church, even though the church has often been and will often be less than we should. And it’s also why the church needs every believer, especially those who will call us to be more than we are. I believe in God, and I believe in the church. And I believe that God is even now renewing the church.