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3 ways I’d fix the Church if I could

We left our church over a year ago, and we have a new church home we love, but I still often find myself heartbroken over the old one. I wanted to fix the church. I loved those people, I think they genuinely loved God and others, but we had to leave because they were missing three things—transparency, freedom, and grace. Without those, you can have a very nice religion, be pious and do good. But you will always have the danger of hypocrisy, legalism, and destruction, and you will never have the gospel of Christ.

Transparency/Hypocrisy

A church has to be honest about who they are. If you’re legalistic, OK: be legalistic. If, bottom line, a church holds that there are a set of inviolable rules, and the ultimate expectation is that you will agree with their definition of the rules and follow all of their rules, then put the rules on your website.

We saw this over and over again when we were church shopping last year, and I think it comes from a sincere place. Everyone knows Christian faith is not supposed to be about introducing division over trivial matters, and so they really want to be their best selves and put the important tenants of the faith out there as who they are. The danger, though, is when it crosses over from “aspiring toward our best nature” into “appearing as something we’re not”, which is very near to the type of hypocrisy that Christ condemned in the most scathing possible terms.

Better to just own our prejudices and be forthcoming about the ways we know we’re missing the mark.

Freedom/Legalism

I’ve written before about Christian freedom, which means freedom from Hebrew law. Not just parts of Hebrew law, scripture doesn’t support that. It’s all or nothing. And yet, our modern American Church often preaches the need for certain people to obey certain parts of the law, while we ourselves enjoy Christian freedom from those other parts of Hebrew law that would have affected us. This, again, Christ unequivocally condemned.

Legalism and freedom are opposites. If we must live under some law, we must live under all of it. I think most of us would prefer freedom. And if we assert that obeying law is essential to pleasing God, then we throw in our lot with the Pharisees rather than with Christ.

Grace/Destruction

And yet in all of this— important though transparency and freedom are— it is the factual absence of grace that is the death knell of a church. Oh, churches know the word “grace”. Thousands of them even name themselves after it. But in today’s Church, many of us have lost the real import of the word.

How often have we heard it preached that grace means second chances? The notion that no one is too far gone? That we always have room for the return of a sinner who repents? Certainly it’s easy to imagine the opposite world, in which a one-time sinner is never welcomed back, however much they amend their ways. So the principle of second chances is real and good and correct.

But it’s not the same as grace.

Because if grace is only second chances, then Christ didn’t accomplish anything and notion of a “Christian grace” is meaningless. See, they had second chances already. Even the Pharisees had them. Christ’s words: “You teachers of the law and Pharisees… you travel over land and sea to win a single convert…” Who were those converts going to be, if not people who weren’t Pharisees already? “Just clean up your act, make some changes, start living like us…” That is the Pharisee notion of second chances: acceptance because you deserve it now. What Christ sacrificed to buy us is something different: acceptance in the knowledge that none of us “deserves it”.

This kind of grace only has one restriction:

  • Shouldn’t you have had mercy on your fellow servant just as I had on you?
  • This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother or sister from your heart.
  • Do not judge, or you too will be judged.
  • With the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

Simple as that. Grace means, a way is open to God in spite of all shortcomings—ours, theirs, anyone’s— if we will only offer that chance to others too, as if our lives depended on it. Cleaning up your act is great, but it has nothing to do with grace. In tying the two together, many of today’s churches set a bushel basket over the true light of God’s transforming redemption, tying up burdens and placing obstacles, in a way that destroys others and themselves.

If I had to choose just one way to fix the Church today, it would be that.

Oakland warehouse fire

What you can do about the Oakland warehouse fire

Looking at the “before” photos, the appeal struck me immediately: full of music and art, a collective explosion of shared creativity. Even when taking refuge in a ramshackle old warehouse with no building materials but old palettes, people are made in God’s image and will strive to create that which is beautiful.

While Jesus was having dinner, many tax collectors and sinners were eating
with him and his disciples, for there were many who followed him.

Reading about the people who lived there, so many were seeking a refuge. From whom? From the righteous of our day. From people who look just like me.

When he saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were
harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. 

In my opinion, it was the kind of place that Jesus would have been drawn to like a magnet.

The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, “Look at him!
A glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

If your heart is broken like mine, there is a lot you can do.

The poor

First, think about the plight of the poor. There are many charitable organizations dedicated to low-income housing that is safe. Especially if you live in an expensive area like California or New York, find one that aligns with your values and support it. Communities need diversity and people of all callings, yet many of those callings are not economically valued enough to pay particularly well.

The outcasts

The term “safe space” is much maligned nowadays, but the bottom line is we all crave acceptance and belonging, yet some of us are outcasts. People like that were drawn to Jesus, and I have a sneaking suspicion it’s not because he dropped the hammer on them, called them sinners, and condemned them to hell. They had plenty of that available to them already from the righteous and the pharisees; they can only have gone to Jesus for something else. Scripture bears this out, as all of his recorded encounters with such people are suffused with gentleness, blessing and grace.

One really good barometer of whether we are anything like Jesus is whether society’s lost and broken are equally drawn to us. Too often nowadays, the answer to that question is no. So if you lament that people are so far gone that they are willing to accept the many unsavory aspects of living in a dangerous old warehouse, instead of mocking their desire for a “safe place” they can feel accepted, why not become such a place yourself?

Come, you who are blessed by my Father… for I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Thanksgiving stress

Going full Martha: some Thanksgiving advice

Later today, we are going over to my cousin’s house for Thanksgiving. We’re bringing some food. See, we are inconvenient guests— my wife is gluten-free, and my daughter and I are both vegetarian— so it’s easy to feel like we need to go the absolute limit to keep our hosts from feeling imposed upon.

Thanksgiving as a holiday is complicated, and I don’t have space here to go into all the reasons why. (For example, my church this week hosted a 3-hour support group session for those facing difficult family situations at the holidays.) However, there is one source of stress that, in my experience, is often self-inflicted. More than any other holiday, I think, Thanksgiving tends to bring out the raging inner Martha.

A quick recap for those who don’t know the story: Jesus was coming over; there was a ton of work to do. Martha was running around the house completely frantic to get it all done; Mary blew it off and just hung out with him in the living room. Jesus said, “Mary’s got it right.”

For those of us celebrating with family and friends today, don’t forget that the main point is to celebrate with family and friends. If the turkey gets dry or the wine runs out or the napkins are paper, it couldn’t possibly matter less. In a real sense, it couldn’t possibly matter less.

So, as for our Thanksgiving: last night we could have driven ourselves late into the night, cooking & cleaning in a never-ending loop to manufacture all our own specialty food. But we didn’t. It’ll be OK; Thanksgivings have plenty to eat.

Instead we got to a point where it was close enough. Then we went to bed early, read a story with the kids, watched part of our favorite Christmas movie, and fell asleep in each others’ arms. In that moment, I truly knew what it was to be thankful.

 

P.S. Apologies to those who thought this was going to be a post about Martha Stewart.

rainbow after the storm

“Nothing to shout about”, or, my four-month break

It was July 4th. That was when I decided I needed a break. Four months. Important things have happened in that time. Much of it never made the news.

  • We found a new church home. My daughter was hugely relieved as she gets attached easily and “church dating” has been really hard on her.
  • I returned to Yosemite for the first time since my childhood best friend was killed there in a rock climbing accident in 2005. It was even more beautiful than I remembered.
  • In Monterey, my wife and I spent 10 hours battling seasickness in a tiny boat to see an actual, live albatross in flight overhead, something I had wanted to do since I read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner at age 12.
  • Within three days in late September, two of my favorite bloggers each posted that they are hanging it up, one for a break, and the other, for good.
  • My family witnessed, together, an outcome in the World Series unprecedented since before my daughter’s great-grandparents were born.
  • And yes, our country chose a new president, and I have sat with various friends through all their different reactions: some elated, some terrified.

I have posted before about sabbath: how important, and yet how little valued it is in our day. Especially for those who believe in their work, it is easy to justify the never-ending, bit-by-bit deplenishment of spirit that comes from doing just one more small thing.

Important things have been happening in our society. I know what I’m supposed to do if I want to be a successful writer: I need to write about what’s hot. I need to tap into the zeitgeist. I can only be relevant by connecting with an audience, and if this is a hard, cynical age, marked by division and mistrust, then I need to toss a coin, choose my side, and start shouting.

That is what I could not bring myself to do. As I stood on the sidelines these past four months, witness to all the sound and fury, I could not help remembering the words from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “What shall Cordelia speak? Love, and be silent.”

I care passionately about what is happening in our society. I believe this is a historic moment. And I believe, at a time like this, that some things— like how we treat those who disagree— are more important than which side wins.

Some hear me calling for reconciliation and mutual respect, and they hear only the voice of white privilege, brimming with complaisance and naïveté. Some hear the voice of betrayal. Some hear nice words but with no real power. But I do not believe that Christ was complacent or naïve, or that bipartisanship equals betrayal, and as for those “nice words”: history has shown they are the only words with any real power to heal.

Where does it end?

Where does it end?

It is the day after the election, 2016. As predicted, one of the candidates won.

There is no redemption, no repentance, no rejection of the nastiness with which this campaign has been conducted on both sides. Nobody made up their mind to do better or differently next time. If anything, we will see everyone trying to do even more and out-nasty each other even worse the next time.

It is a sad day for those of us who value civility, decorum, peace. Regardless of the outcome, it was always going to be. This is a time for those who want war. Where will it lead?

How horrible to each other can we consistently be before we reach the breaking point? At what point does it become meaningless to say which of the two roosters “won” the cockfight? At what point have we sunk so low that the ugliness and the nastiness consume us? If the only way to defeat nastiness is by being even nastier, then where does it end?

“There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.”
Proverbs 14:12

The love and offensiveness in freedom

The love and offensiveness in freedom

Today, America celebrates our freedom, and rightly so: it’s worth celebrating. Yet on this day, we would do well to remember that freedom is more than speaking, assembling, worshiping, and bearing arms. It has a cost. It’s not a license. It’s offensive.

Freedom has a cost

Freedom is never free. When we think of the cost of our freedom, many of us think of those who have fought for it. My family lives in a community with a strong military presence, so the everyday price paid by those who defend our country is never far from our minds: families separated by thousands of miles; spouses and parents and siblings for whom gnawing dread is a permanent companion, scars both mental and physical that never fully heal.

Yet even so, many of us aren’t actually free, for there are other kinds of bondage than political. We are bound to past mistakes, to toxic relationships, to self-destructive behaviors, to addictions of every kind.

From these demons, too, there is a way to be free; there is also one who has paid the cost of that freedom:

Freedom isn’t license

True freedom is limited in all kinds of ways, from preventing infringement on the freedoms of others to the Janis Joplin lament that “freedom’s just another word for nothin’ left to lose“. Those who make the daily sacrifices of marriage and parenthood know only too well how freedom, voluntarily surrendered in love, can be to our good. The self-sacrifice of our freedoms in love is very near to the heart of the Christian message:

Freedom is offensive

People like to mind the way that other people live. Always have. We want other people to act and think as we do; disagreement can cause interpersonal friction, so in one sense, it can seem easier if everyone is the same. Yet if we do not want to be told how to live and what to think, we must grant others that same grace. Scripture bears it out:

As Christians, we must not be offended when others exercise the same freedoms we enjoy. We must not confuse our national freedoms in the Constitution with our God-given freedoms in love. 

When we say destructive words that damage others, we must not take refuge in “freedom of speech”.

When we advocate violence against our enemies in defiance of scripture, we must not take refuge in “the right to bear arms”.

When we become the oppressors who would deny the freedoms of others, we must not take refuge in “freedom of religion”.

In all things, we must be more like Christ. We are not acting in his name when we insist on our own rights. We would do much better to seek ways we can sacrifice for the good of others, and especially those who offend us most.

look of anger and fear

A humble alternative to anger and fear

It’s been a rough month. A friend recently reflected on it all by observing that she’s never had to rely so heavily on the “angry” and “sad” Facebook reactions. I haven’t been blogging much, because it’s been hard to know what to do with that anger and fear, other than talking about it all amongst ourselves on Facebook.

Let’s take Brock Turner. I’ve got nothing to add to that conversation. The stories that need to be told now are going to come from those whose voices have previously been silenced. I believe that the gospel message can have life-saving relevance to sexual victims. But I am not the one to offer it to them.

Or Pulse Nightclub. That was a hate crime against the marginalized… the very situation in which Christ’s words should be most relevant. But so many others have used my sacred texts to beat up those same people for so long, how can I now use them in the ways they were intended, for comfort and compassion and healing? It’s like the Billy Joel lyric, “If I only had the words to tell you, if you only knew how hard it is to say, when the simple lines have all been spoken, and the radio repeats them every day.”

I haven’t wanted to speak recently, because, if I’m being honest, it’s just easier not to. So many see the calm, gentle messages of the gospel as clueless: out-of-touch when confronted with actual pain or suffering (that, for example, is the entire plot of the hit musical “Book of Mormon“) as if Christ’s death and resurrection had included no taint of pain or suffering.

Loud voices today are shouting that given our reality, other than total disengagement, fear/anger is the only possible response. But that is a lie. Other engaged responses exist. Better ones. Ones that have power for good instead of evil.

Christ on trial was not afraid or angry, but silent. That doesn’t mean he didn’t understand what was happening.

Christ on the cross was certainly alone and in agony, but even then he chooses words— not of fear/anger— but of forgivenessreconciliationredemptiongrace.

If the Bible is wrong, if we were never made for other places than this, if the notion of heaven is mistaken, if the notion of God is mistaken, then by all means: be afraid if you like. It makes sense if this world is all there is.

But for those who agree with me that God is real, we cannot be the leading voices crying out for personal safety. Anyway we have no control over that, and meanwhile we have more important things to do.

However bad the neighborhood may get, however few we may become, however cold the love of most may grow, some of us at least will always be here crying out the gospel message: peace not anger, love not hate, good not evil.

I look around me, and I see the love burning quietly in so many hearts, and believe the promise of scripture: the light will always shine in the darkness, and the darkness will never overcome it.

50 dead

50 dead. Let’s keep being America.

I woke up this morning to the news— 50 dead, worst mass shooting in US history— and in my mind I could already hear the spittle-stained shouting to see who could respond in hate the most.

Gun advocates, gun opponents, the Muslims, the gays: All will be vengefully and vociferously hated by angry voices of popular and social media for days to come.

I wish my own quiet voice of peace could be louder.

There can be no question that this was a hate crime. How, then, can we possibly prevail if our only response is further hate? Martin Luther King Jr put it best: “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.”

Even as Trump’s poll numbers will surge in the coming days, even as millions of peace-loving American Muslims will endure one more round of excoriation as the nation’s whipping boy, what I long for is a warm and gentle voice of reason to lead us through the madness.

That voice exists. But it is not shouting. It is saying, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” It is saying, “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” It is saying, “Fear not.”

For all her faults, America has sometimes heard that voice before: when she wrote guarantees of basic rights unheard of in a day and age of autocratic monarchy, when she became a home for all of us former cast-offs yearning to breathe free, when she struggled to cast off her own inner demons of slavery and oppression.

In this historic moment, let us hear it too.

It has been said that the correct response to terrorism is militarismtorture, extermination. It has been said that we must think only of the extremists, that whether Nazis, Stalinists, Maoists, or 9/11 terrorists, the peaceful majority are irrelevant.

My question, then, is this: when our nation of 300 million lashes out in anger against our enemies, sweeping the innocent into the mix, where will our peaceful majority be? Will we speak or be silent? Will we risk our own lives to stand up for the innocent, or be those left mumbling “orders are orders”?

When our collective wrath takes us down the only path that wrath has ever known, will our peaceful majority pass the test that so many others in history have failed? Or will we, once again, be irrelevant?

Fingers Crossed

Why I am a Christian hypocrite (Part 2)

Last week, I wrote about how I don’t live up to the standards of scripture. There’s a case to be made that this brands me as a Christian hypocrite, but in another sense it is not too surprising. Scripture itself even says, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

But what about the standards I set for myself, aka “my rules“? If I can’t even live up to those, what kind of tension does that create in my life? And how can I focus on helping others if I can’t even help myself?

Rules

My coworker grew up outside the church, but in a community with a heavy, legalistic religious presence. He has a joke about his churchgoing friends from back home: “If I go fishing with them, I have to bring two. If I only bring one, he’ll drink all my beer.”

So many of us “religious” types seem to have rules that we follow when it’s for show but privately ignore, or behavior that openly contradicts our stated values. From Newt Gingrich to Josh Duggar, the revelations have become so unsurprising that, to many hearers, any position on morality sounds like hypocrisy the moment it leaves our mouths.

My life is no different. Those who know me know that I have struggled with unhealthy attitudes towards sex and relationships for much of my life. Yet the  energy (to put it kindly) and obsession (to put it less so) I invested had only led me down a path of grinding loneliness and depression, and so the idea that all of that didn’t have to be my raison d’être was a revelation and a big part of what initially attracted me to Christian faith.

Tension

In some ways, then, my Christian practice outwardly looks a lot like legalism. Take, let’s say, “adult media”. I’ve been damaged by dependence upon it, and one of my first acts as a Christian was to rid myself of it. Since then, you’ve seen me: I’m legalistic, flipping the Victoria’s Secret catalog face-down and closing my eyes during the nude scenes in movies. What you don’t see is: I’m only trying not to put that stuff in my brain any more. I don’t like where it leads me or how quickly it happens.

But it’s way easier to be true to all of that when I’m accountable, that is, when people are watching. Kinda sounds like, “when it’s for show”. Any recovering addict will tell you, it gets exponentially harder when we’re alone. Scripture anticipates this: we can help each other up, one person can sharpen another, we can spur each other on toward love and good deeds.

The salient points here are:

  • I’m not doing the “legalistic” things I do for show or to prove I’m “holier than thou”. I’m doing them for the sake of my life and my emotional health.
  • During those times when I have had a relapse, it’s always been “in secret”.  At those times, what I say & believe are diametrically opposite what I do, which is the textbook definition of hypocrisy.
Focus

This kind of hypocrisy is as old as Christianity itself, going back at least to the Apostle Paul:

I don’t understand my own behavior. What I want to do, I don’t do; instead, what I hate is I do… What a wretched man I am! (Romans 7:15-24)

So given all this, it’s a very valid question, again: does Christian faith still have any value? If the point of it all were to have rules and follow them, I might well feel that the answer was “No.” But that is the exact opposite of the point.

Before Christ, they had rules. If the point now was just to still have rules, then the coming of Christ was just a waste of a trip. Rather, says scripture, the point now is to set us free from all of those rules. And yet, Christ himself followed all the rules. What is going on here??

The answer is a matter of focus. Is my focus on me or on “them”?

To me, what keeps my admitted hypocrisy from negating my faith is, I’m not here to lecture you. I’m not here to tell you that God hates you because what you are doing is “sin”. I’m not even here to tell you that what’s destructive in your life is the same as in mine. It’s probably not.

I really don’t know what to tell you about the many folks in our society who want to stand up in the name of Christ and tell you different. The best I can offer you is, I’ll come gently alongside you and help with you burdens. I would love it if you would do the same for me. Let’s treat each other with kindness and help one another in the ordinary sense of the word. In this way, says scripture—hypocrisy or not, criticism or not, legalism or not— we are each doing everything that Christ requires.

Christian hypocrite

Why I am a Christian Hypocrite

My wife and I like to tour open houses. Mostly we come away with a deeper appreciation of our own modest home (there are a lot of weird houses on the market), but there was one a few weeks ago… hoo boy. Three stories. Spectacular panoramic views from every floor. Five bedrooms, a game room,  an office, a gorgeous yard. And the asking price was “only” $2.5 million! I’d be lying if I said I didn’t go home and do the math. (Shocker: we couldn’t afford it.)

But now, in my imagination, it’s 2025. My Christian bestseller is in its third printing, and I’ve got the money for a house like that. I buy it. I move in. I enjoy myself and live in fabulous luxury, leaving undone much good that could, instead, have been done with that money… just one more Christian hypocrite.

Notions of hypocrisy and greed run rife through the modern outsider’s view of Christianity, and not without reason. Our faith calls on us to give, yet only 3% of us tithe and only a quarter give anything. While championing marriage and fidelity, many of us are unfaithful and divorce. We ask for grace when we fall short but give none when others do. I have to stop and ask myself… where have we gone wrong?

I am not going to pretend that I can answer for the misdeeds of all professed Christians, but perhaps there is some insight to be gained simply from examining my own. Do I live up to the teachings of scripture? Do I even practice what I myself preach? And if not, can my faith still have any value?

Not living up to scripture

Jesus requires me to deny myself, take up my cross, and follow him. Scripture assures me that friendship with the world amounts to enmity with God. In the zeal of his faith, John the Baptist moved out to the wilderness and lived on locusts and wild honey.

Obviously, apart from Shane Claiborne, few modern American Christians make such a commitment. Certainly I don’t. My modest house is a fabulous palace by the standards of much of the world. I own enough clothes and shoes to fill a closet. I am never seriously hungry. I have not committed the full weight of my existence my pursuit of Christ’s teachings, and it is reasonable to question whether that proves my faith is hollow.

My only defense is, some is more than none. I am doing my best. We give less than we possibly could, but more than a lot of people, and we do that because we believe the scriptures that urge us to do good in the world. I try to be patient and loving and kind. I’m coming along. I used to be a lot worse at it than I am now, and the Bible gives me a lot of tools I wouldn’t otherwise have.

It is possible to quote passages from the Bible that point to the total commitment it requires, and then to point to the shortfall in my own life as a fatal flaw in my faith. OK. But then what? I am not going to renounce such good as I am doing. I am not going to repent of my efforts to be more Christlike.

Instead, I will live my faith like I live every other area of my life. I believe in Capitalism, and don’t feel I must abandon it because in real life it needs commonsense regulation and a social safety net. I believe in the scientific method even though there are things we still don’t understand. Despite its many flaws, I believe in my country (though this election cycle may not be bringing out our best). There may be many parts of our lives— friendships, family, faith— that, though little and broken, are still good. Yeah. Still good.

To be continued…

Next week: Not practicing what we preach