Category Archives: Church
I’m taking what I hope will only be a one-post break from my review of The Bible Tells Me So to share a long summary of an event I attended this weekend. Hopefully sometime soon, I’ll be back with part two of my review series!
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Eight months ago, after a summer away from church and a good deal of soul-searching, I started attending Thoburn UMC. I had only had minimal experiences with United Methodism before, but they had all been more or less positive. And I had heard a lot of great things about Thoburn, so I figured I would give it a shot.
At first, it was all very different to me. It is as if Christianity were like a metal ball within a transparent glass globe, and that globe has many angled flat surfaces, kind of like a disco ball. Depending on what surface you look through, the metal ball might appear large, small, wide, narrow, etc. The ball is the same, but every angle skews it differently.
So the surface through which I saw Christianity had shifted as a result of being immersed in Thoburn culture, and largely in an incredibly positive way. Here was a faith community that challenged me to step outside myself. I have learned so many new things about Christianity since I’ve been going to Thoburn, and that really could be a blog post in and of itself.
Today, though, I want to narrow in on one of the newer things I have learned. This weekend I attended an all-day lecture event titled “Reclaiming Our United Methodist Heritage.” The speaker, who wrote a book of the same name which the small group leaders at my church are currently studying, is Paul Chilcote. The insights he shared were so life-giving, so profound, that I thought I would write a summarization of them here. I apologize in advance for the length, but since I’m already planting this post in the middle of a series, I didn’t want to break it out into separate posts like I probably should have!
Session 1. The Message: A God of Grace and Love
Paul began his first lecture by defining grace as understood by John Wesley, whose theology and work of revival in England formed the foundation of United Methodism. Wesley challenged the Calvinistic view of grace in that day, which claims that God has predestined certain people to accept His saving grace, and others to reject it.
For Wesley, God’s grace is universal; all may receive it, and none are excluded from it. It is an all-encompassing grace (which, by the way, makes perfect sense to me since that is the very definition of grace itself!!). Paul defined this Wesleyan grace as God’s unconditional movement toward all created things in His desire to draw us into his loving embrace.
After giving this broad definition, Paul went on to describe how there are two components to this kind of grace: creation and restoration. It is foundational to the Christian faith that God created the world ex nihilo—out of nothing. Therefore, God’s very first act of grace was creation itself. God is self-sustaining, so giving us life—and such a diverse, enormous, complex life at that!—was an act of grace and not an act of necessity.
The second broad component of grace is restoration. To kick off his exploration of this, Paul began by describing how this theme is woven throughout orthodox theology in a way that is beautifully unique to Christianity. The very concept of a Trinitarian God—three-in-one, father, son, and spirit—is entirely unique to the Christian faith and points to the fact that (this is SO cool!) the very nature of the triune God reveals his desire for reconciliation, for relationship. God himself is a relationship, a nexus, a model for how he desires to interact with his creation. What a powerful concept!
This grace of restoration is not only an individual movement, but as Paul put it, has a “cosmic dimension”. In 2 Corinthians 5:17, Paul the apostle declares “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!”(NIV) This is restoration on a corporate scale, concerned with the redemption of the world as well as the redemption of the individual.
Here, Paul transitions into a description of the Gospel that dovetails perfectly with this two-prong grace, and brings into light the ways many Christians fall short of telling the whole story of the Gospel. In light of Wesleyan grace, the Gospel has four chapters: creation, fall, forgiveness, and restoration. Too often, especially in the evangelical tradition, the gospel is watered down to concepts two and three, and we forget where we came from, and where God is leading us in the broader scheme of things.
Chapters one and especially four are crucial to the Christian life, for restoration is the process of imbuing us with the capacity to love others in the way that God has loved us. It is the beginning of the journey described in 2 Corinthians 5:17. It is the process of sanctification in which followers of Christ are vessels of clay to be shaped into something new, something that has a purpose in the Kingdom of God.
Session 2. The Community: A Family in Which to Grow
The second lecture of the day transitioned into a discussion of the necessity of community in the Christian walk. If our ultimate purpose as Christians is to love, he argues, then we need community to do it well, because loving well is something that cannot be a solitary task. The Church is meant to nurture and deepen our faith, which then manifests itself in a love that is action-oriented. This is key: if there are no such acts of love in our lives, then our faith has no meaning (a concept that is very clear in scripture). And the Christian community is the force responsible for propelling that outward manifestation of love.
Embracing the Four-Chapter Gospel as described in the previous lecture is also key to developing a rich community. To illustrate this, Paul walked us through a history of the Church’s development in the United States. When the Great Awakening swept through the nation in the mid-eighteenth century, Protestant Christianity as a whole became fixated on individual salvation. We began asking ourselves the question “am I saved?” when in reality the more poignant and important question is “what am I saved for?” And the answer to that question, of course, is what the fourth chapter of the Gospel is all about.
Paul then went on to share a brief illustration about Billy Graham, and how conversion is never enough to sustain growth in Christ. As an incredibly successful evangelist, Graham spent many years converting many people to Christianity. What he found later in his life, however, was that many of his converts were not remaining within the faith. Much like the seeds that fell on rocky ground in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13, they had an incredible conversion experience but did not grow roots in the Christian life. As a result, they gradually fell away.
Graham came to realize what Wesley had already encouraged centuries before; Christian community creates retention, it creates Christians who develop and grow roots in a way that a single recitation of the sinner’s prayer can’t. In essence, small groups (which I should point out are quite different from institutionalized Church!) are vital to spiritual development.
Paul concluded his lecture with a fresh interpretation of the story of Mary and Martha in Luke 10:38-42. Typically, when we read this story we see Mary as someone to be admired; she knew learning from Jesus was more important than carrying on with the house work, and her sister Martha would do well to worry less about hosting Jesus. Paul, however, used this story to illustrate the duality of the Christian life; we can’t always be like Mary, sitting and listening and learning and doing nothing. We must also be like Martha, who took on acts of service in a practical way. We as individuals and as a corporate body need both: Mary’s heart and Martha’s hands.
Session 3. The Discipline: A Pilgrimage of Accountable Discipleship
This lecture focused on different practices of the church and individual Christians as we grow in Christ. Paul began by introducing several helpful concepts that we must understand in order to carry out these practices, which he defined as “the things we do to address fundamental needs in response to God’s active presence in the light of the world.”
We then broke down these practices into smaller sets. Works of piety encapsulate the broad categories of worship and devotion, while works of mercy involve acts of compassion and justice. There are both corporate and personal dimensions to each of these practices, and the two must be balanced in sync if healthy growth is to occur within the life of the Church.
Another aspect of Methodist practices that I found to be particularly interesting was the emphasis on song. Indeed, Song is so central the United Methodism that in England it is known as “the singing church.” John Wesley’s brother, Charles Wesley, composed many great hymns during his lifetime. Often throughout the lecture, Paul would read through a few stanzas of one of Charles’ hymns and then draw out theological insights from them that meshed beautifully with the Methodist ideas he was sharing.
We spent a great deal of time on the final practices that Paul explores in this lecture: that of the Word and the Table; i.e., scripture and communion. Paul framed his discussion of the Table within the concept of time: we can see it in the dimension of the past, in which the focus is the Lord’s Supper and its significance in preceding Jesus’ crucifixion. For us it is an act of “anamnesis”, of reenacting the past to bring its reality into the present moment. It is a commemoration of the most significant story in all of history: story of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
The present dimension is most easily defined in the word the Eucharist. Growing up, I had never referred to the Lord’s Supper as such, so I looked up the word to see what distinguishes it. Far more than a commemoration, when we refer to sharing the bread and the wine as the Eucharist, we are adding a dimension of gratitude. Paul took this even further, and described the Eucharist as a practice of joy and celebration. I loved this concept, especially since it was so new to me.
Finally, the future dimension of the Lord’s Supper focuses on the hope we have in God for the restoration of the world. The ultimate purpose of the table, in the grand scheme of things, is press us outward, to move us into a world in need of the hope we have.
Session 4. The Servanthood: A Mission in God’s World
The final lecture of the day was largely about our relationship with our mission field: the world. Paul prefaced his introductory statement with the warning that it would be controversial, and indeed it was: we are part of the Christian faith not for our own salvation but to be God’s ambassadors for love and service. The entirety of our life is meant to be an offering to God: a very high calling indeed!
This concept has ultimate clarity in the story of the gospel and what Paul calls “kinosis theology.” This is the idea that it is the nature of God to empty himself. For example, when Jesus came to the world as a human being, he emptied himself of all Godly qualities save one: Love. And since Love is the essence of God, Jesus remained wholly human and wholly divine.
Of course, we as a church are called to live in a similar manner. Paul used the metaphor of a hurricane to illustrate what this would look like in the life of the church. The strongest hurricanes are the ones with a powerful centrifugal force: that is, an outward force that spirals wider and wider. If a hurricane shifted to focus inwardly—centripetal force—it would die quickly.
The Church must always be that centrifugal force. We cannot be an introspective people, concerned with preserving our own traditions and maintaining our own small way of life. If we do, we would be as dead as the eye of a hurricane. The Kingdom would move forward, because God is at its head, but it would move forward without us.
Instead we must be concerned with the world around us, and attuned to its needs. Paul talked about two dimensions to these acts of service. The first is what we most often think of: acts of compassion. This type is generally something personal, and it involves being present in the midst of those who are suffering.
The second type is justice, which is of course generally a more corporate approach. This type recognizes the mistreatment of others, and translates empathy for them into an effort to improve their circumstances. As Paul described this form of service to others, I couldn’t help but remember a quote that I had read once. Tony Campolo, an influential and very wise minister, declared that “justice is nothing more than love translated into social policy.” And likewise, Paul made it clear to us that justice always has a political dimension. It is about doing God’s work in the world by changing the systems in place that oppress.
The final session of the day was rounded off with the plea to listen. So often, injustice is something subtle, worked so deeply into the fiber of our culture that it is only by being attentive listeners that we can see the problems that plague others and realize the need for change. And again, this is something we must do on an individual level and as the corporate body of Christ.
In all, the day was full of so much learning, and exposure to new ideas and fresh ways of thinking about the Christian walk. But I really believe that if I remember anything from this event five years down the road, I think I will probably remember the way we participated in communion at the end. We sang a hymn and read some liturgy, as well as reciting the Lord’s Prayer. But what struck me about it most of all was how intimate it all felt. Having grown up in the church, I’ve participated in communion more times than I remember, but always as part of a large congregation and usually by being served in my pew.
Communion that day was a pretty small group, so small that we could have all lined up together at the same time to come to the front and receive the bread and the wine. And in keeping with all the lectures Paul presented over the course of the day, Paul spoke words that reminded us of the future aspect to these elements we were receiving. This was a reminder of God’s love for us, and we must in turn go and extend that love to those around us. It is what we were made for, and it is what God’s purpose is for each of us.
Lately I’ve been writing all kinds of stuff about my new church, Thoburn UMC, because I am so thrilled to have finally found a home there. Tonight in small groups, things were a little bit unconventional because we watched a video on the prophets, so I don’t have much to share about our actual discussion.
Before we hunkered down for the video, though, our group leader and the church’s associate pastor, Pastor Adam, shared an update about the small group that my current group recently split off from. He said that all of them had admitted to never reading scripture cover-to-cover, and how they had all independently made the decision to do so, something they discovered last week at their small group.
And it got me thinking about how much I am growing to treasure this group I have become a part of. See, I also have never read the Bible cover-to-cover, and I had always been ashamed of that. So last year I had committed to doing so, and I got as far as Numbers 16 before I tossed my Bible away in horror and haven’t picked it up since (well, I’ve picked it up of course, but not to read Numbers, that’s for sure!).
But since these people courageously shared that they are in the same boat as me, and will likely have some of the same jarring experiences I did, I have found that I can do this. I can pick up my Bible again and continue what I started last year. And that is a gift that my old church—for all that I appreciate about it—could not give me because I knew I could never just vent my fears to them about what I encounter in scripture without it turning in to a debate.
And that is not all that happened at small groups tonight; I have saved the best for last.
Before the group started, Pastor Adam took me aside and privately asked me a question that left me entirely stunned and at a complete loss for words.
Before I explain what he asked me, let me explain the concept of small groups at Thoburn. Basically, the idea is for the groups to multiply. As a group becomes larger than 12 or so, it is the pastors’ vision that the group would split into two, with two separate leaders. And as those groups become larger, they would also split, and so on. So the groups become more numerous, but remain small and intimate.
So each group needs to have an acting leader, and a potential leader for when the groups split.
Have you guessed what Pastor Adam asked me yet? I’m sure you can, and thus understand why I was so utterly stunned. I’ve only been going to Thoburn for a few months now, and have generally been my normal, quiet, introverted yet rather opinionated self. And yet, he asked me to lead the new group when ours split.
I actually, literally asked him if he was serious, and after small groups when I decided to agree to lead it, I was certain he had asked me as a last resort, because everyone else in the room was married and had a lot of other responsibilities. And yet, he told me I was his first choice, because I seem grounded and steady in my faith, and I demonstrate a desire to grow.
And really…isn’t this what the Church is supposed to be about? Believers edifying one another? Seeing potential in one another that you might not be able to see for yourself? I felt so encouraged after our discussion, and while I am one of the youngest in our group and feel wildly under-qualified for this, I had to ask myself this question. How, after talking about how God uses ordinary people to fulfill his purposes just like he did with the prophets, could I tell my pastor I wasn’t the right person to do this?
So my introverted little self is going to leap outside my comfort zone and do something I am very, very nervous to do: in the future at some point, I will be facilitating a small group at Thoburn.
Cheers to spiritual growth and overcoming your demons of inadequacy!
I know I’ve been quiet on my blog a lot lately, and I’ve been trying to figure out why. After some contemplation, I think I realize that the angst and general confusion about what to believe that drove me to write a lot of these posts has mellowed out a lot over the last few months.
I think a whole lot of that has to do with Thoburn, the church I’ve been going to for about two months now, and the one I now consider my home church. Being with the people there gives me room to breathe, and I’ve understood for the first time that there are Christians out there who are not going to give me pat answers to impossible questions.
In my small groups at Thoburn, we’ve already had discussions about women in church leadership, interpretations of Genesis that aren’t literal, and the fact that the big bang might be a display of the glory of God and not a fact that disproves his existence. We’ve talked about contemporary news stories, and how to approach them as faithful Christians.
And the kicker—the discussion that really made me feel at home like nothing else—we talked about biblical interpretation, and how there is room for more than one way of viewing the scriptures. It’s been so wonderful, I feel as though no one in the group is trying to push their own beliefs as God’s universal and immutable truth. In our small group, we seem to recognize and embrace a diversity of belief, and not claim that you can only believe one thing about a particular passage and still be faithful to the scripture, and take it seriously.
For example, our group leader Adam, who is the associate pastor at Thoburn, made a passing reference to hell. Yet he followed it up by stating that though he believes in hell, it is simply that—his belief. And we are free to disagree. And that disagreement just may be valid.
There have been so many little things like that which have made me realize how desperately I needed a community like this. I am still warming up to everyone, still getting used to the idea of being part of a group that largely consists of middle-aged adults. Up to now, I’ve mostly been with groups of people my own age, and sometimes I feel unwise and like I don’t have a lot to offer the discussion. But I’m slowly learning to share and offer my input anyway.
And I’m also just enjoying listening, because the discussions are always so very welcoming.
And it is such a relief to know that it was largely my church environment that was fueling my anger and frustration and my contentious spirit. I won’t say those things are gone, because I think that tension will always be there as long as I am a part of the body of Christ and I am in community with people whose beliefs differ drastically from mine.
But my motivation is different now, I feel less persistent and more patient, less self-righteous, though no less earnest.
Hey. Perhaps that means my new church is doing what the Church is supposed to do—support me and challenge me and journey alongside me in my walk toward a more Christ-like way of living.
These past two Sundays, I’ve been going to Thoburn United Methodist church. It’s a reasonably large church, and the entire flavor of the church service is pretty different from what I am used to. They light candles before the service (which I was told represents the presence of the Holy Spirit), and sing hymns and use a choir, organ, and piano as accompaniment. The sermon both weeks was also quite short – just about twenty minutes or so.
The focus of the sermons were so different from what I’m used to as well. At my other church, there was a lot of time spent reading long stretches of scripture and talking about spiritual discipline and such like that. And while this was broadly addressed in the two sermons I listened to the past two weeks, I also got the impression that the pastors at Thoburn were very outwardly focused. What I mean by that is they talked a lot about scripture and what it can teach us about relating to others rather than focusing on individualized spiritual growth.
It was pretty refreshing. The first morning I attended, I was introduced to a group of women and one of them invited me to her small group meeting on Sunday evenings. Small groups are, I believe, critically important to the body of Christ. They are where we break through the superficial veneer we always put on display on Sunday mornings, and we have the opportunity to talk through matters of faith on a more vulnerable level. So I was pretty excited.
So I’ve also gone to the small group twice now, and both times I came away with somewhat mixed feelings. Most of the people in the group are married, so the discussions often revolved around parenting and raising their kids to love Jesus and such. These discussions are important, but they don’t really matter much to me as a single person. And what is more, I kind of miss meeting with people my age like I was able to do at my old church, because when I am with people in their late twenties and thirties, I feel much more intimidated and it is harder for me to speak up. So mostly I stayed very quiet and listened. I learned a lot, but found that participating was difficult for me.
The second Sunday I went back to Thoburn and I was pretty excited because they would be kicking off their Sunday school classes for the new school year. Unfortunately, I was pretty disappointed. The last thing I want to do after sitting through a sermon is get together in a small group and…sit through another sermon. I think sermons have a place, and they can teach you, but when you’re in a small group you should be having a discussion, not sitting passively and listening all over again.
That’s what we did though. We listened for about 45 minutes to a Louis Giglio sermon about space and the universe and all these admittedly fantastical facts about how huge the universe is and how terribly tiny we are. And it was pretty cool, I guess, to put things in perspective like that.
But if I wanted to listen to a sermon about space and God’s hugeness, I’d curl up in my home with my laptop and pull up a Google search. That is not what church is for. Church is for collaboration, fellowship, and growing corporately into men and women of God.
The short discussion itself was rather troublesome to me as well. Before he started the video, the group leader talked about how Christians must get the basics of the faith down before moving on to more theologically murky waters. And what was the basic that we covered that day? The existence of God. Yup. The leader talked very carefully about how he thinks it’s an important part of Christianity to believe in God.
I saw no conviction there, no confidence. Instead, it was like the group was doing their best, in a room full of Christians, to speak with tolerance about belief systems other than Christianity. It was kind of unnerving, especially after coming from a church where the sovereignty and holiness of God was brought up on a constant basis.
That Sunday school class was like a wake-up call for me. I realized for the first time that I probably won’t ever find a church that has struck the right balance between celebrating God with confidence and creating room for different theologies and genuinely nurturing each other in our walk with God. Such a church would be perfect, and perfection has never really existed in this world.
So I’m not sure what’s in store for me next week. I think I might go back, and perhaps try a different Sunday school. I don’t know yet if Thoburn is the church for me, but I definitely want to keep going for now and see where things go.
Today I attended a new church: Harbor of Hope. Not only had I never been to this church on a Sunday morning, it was also a totally unfamiliar denomination for me: Assemblies of God, which falls under the Pentecostal umbrella. The atmosphere was unlike any other church I’d been in; it was very casual, and there was this heightened sense of camaraderie that is usually much more mellowed out in church settings. I must have seen about two dozen hugs given, and during a prolonged period of time after the praise and worship was over, the pastor asked that anyone who needed “prayer for a HUGE miracle” to raise their hands, then asked that members of the congregation wind their way towards those with raised hands and pray for them. In some cases, these people kept right on praying and talking after the pastor formally concluded the “prayer time.”
The worship was pretty typical; lots of appeals to the joy of the Lord and happiness and God’s presence in this place, etc., etc. What was unique about it – to me at least – was that the sanctuary was nearly empty when worship began, and people trickled in throughout the worship time. About half the congregation stood in the front of the sanctuary, and a lot of people had their hands raised. Kids were fooling around and enjoying themselves over in one section, and on the stage a very little girl – maybe two years old – was sometimes wandering the stage and sometimes standing and sort of singing.
When I was fishing around online for what kind of church I wanted to go to this morning, I was originally quite hesitant to attend Harbor of Hope, because I had heard that they spoke in tongues there on a regular basis, which is something that makes me uncomfortable. But I thought I’d make a go of it anyway and see what happened. Sure enough, after the worship and prayer time were over, one woman spoke in tongues. It was a bizarre thing to listen to, to be sure, but not the extraordinary experience I’d imagined. Afterward another member of the congregation prayed scripture (adding in something about the imminent end of the ages, but that the church is strong, not weak), and then the floor was passed back to the pastor.
The sermon was also rather a different experience. There was a whole lot of banging the pulpit and loud and confident declarations that Jesus is Lord. A couple times the pastor boldly declared that he didn’t care about offending people or being politically incorrect; he would speak the truth. In large part, the sermon was about baptism because there were to be several baptisms after the service. He dropped a couple subtle references to the belief that baptism is essential to salvation, and talked through all the ways it is extremely important, both literally and symbolically. He also claimed that Jesus commanded it, and used the Great Commission at the end of Matthew as a proof text.
The pastor was loud, and bold, and frequently invoked audience participation in the form of clapping and amens and appeals for agreement. He waxed eloquent about how we must be firm and confident in the gifts God has promised us for a propserous life, we must walk in the truth that God has BIG BIG BIG plans for our lives. We must be constantly filled with the abundant joy that comes only from Jesus.
I’m not sure it was really my cup of tea. The reality is that I’ve never, ever been the kind of person who feels bold and confident and assured about all the things of God. I am more of a cautious person, a doubtful person, a person who prefers to ask a lot of questions rather than boldly shout from the rooftops.
At the end of the service, the pastor led everyone in the typical Sinner’s Prayer. But it had a twist, as if the pastor was unapologetic about who he had to “scope out” as those in need of salvation. He began with asking everyone this question (paraphrased by me since I don’t remember it perfectly): “Who among you, if you were to walk outside right now and be hit with a car, know with firm certainly, with all the assurance you can have, that you will be welcomed in to heaven after you die?”
Though we were instructed to keep our eyes closed and our heads bowed (which I found to be humorously ironic after all that talk about being bold about your faith), I can imagine that almost every hand in the room went up.
I’m not sure of the implications of this belief, but I don’t think it’s up to me to know what will happen in the afterlife—either to me or to anyone else. I think that is God’s choice, and I don’t want to be one to speak for God. Perhaps that doesn’t make me a very good Christian, or a very confident Christian, but at least I am honest, and I am submitting to God’s authority when it comes to salvation.
So anyway. That was my first experience in my search for a new church home. It was definitely different, and I learned a lot about how diverse church experiences can be. But I’m not really sure that church is for me, though I can see both strengths and faults in it. And I suppose I should be careful not to judge a church based on one Sunday morning service. I think, perhaps, in the future I’m going to continue to branch out, and attend churches that are very different from the little conservative one I grew up in. Maybe, sooner or later, I’ll find a community I can call home.
I have made a decision. It is one that I should have made a while ago, but didn’t because I kept talking myself out of it, kept listing reasons for why it was a wrong choice and I shouldn’t do it.
But I can’t deny it anymore, and it is a choice I must make.
I’m leaving my church.
I’ve been going there for two years now, but I have reached a point in my spiritual life where I am yearning for more than the same old recycled talk. After the retreat I went to a month ago, I decided I needed a break, and went on a hiatus of sorts from my home church. I attended another local church a few times, and a few other Sundays just sat on my front porch and soaked in scripture and the morning. Mostly I was just really aimless and ambivalent about it all, and I think on a subconscious level I was already letting go of the community I’ve been a part of for the last few years.
But this past Sunday, I went back to my regular church, and as I sat through a discussion on 2 Kings 17, and as we talked about how God is holy and can’t abide sin and therefore must send ferocious lions into the mist of the Israelites and the Assyrians who conquered them in order to teach them a lesson, I realized I didn’t belong there anymore (seriously, look it up: verse 25).
And then we took that same passage, and talked about a modern application of yoga. We talked about how just as when the Israelites so subtly allowed pagan worship into their lives, so we today let the Hindu religion seep into our lives unknowingly when we practice yoga.
And I know my leader was just trying to get us to think. She even said that she and her husband practiced yoga when he had a bad back, and that she wasn’t definitively denouncing it as all evil. She just wondered if we shouldn’t be more careful and thoughtful about practicing it.
But I guess, for me, the straw that broke the camel’s back was that everyone took that passage as an accurate representation of God, and applied that idea of God to our lives today. That passage was violent, and barbaric, and archaic. It reflected an ancient view of the divine that had not yet come to fruition in the person of Jesus Christ.
And I realized I’m tired of trying to work up the courage to say these things in church when we talk about God being so holy he must send lions to attack us when we sin. My mind and my heart have expanded so far beyond this conception of God, and I’ve gotten to the point where walking into Bible study on Sunday mornings feels like re-fastening chains that I have long since shed.
I need an environment where I feel safe to talk about the incredible transformation my faith has gone through over the last year. I need an environment where I can talk about this blog series, which has opened my eyes to this incredible new way of reading scripture.
The church I’ve been attending for the last two years is not that environment.
And right now I’m just trying to come to terms with my decision, because it is so hard to quiet that voice in my head that tells me I’m being selfish, that I’m rejecting my church because I’m too focused on my wants and my desires when I should be focused on the body of Christ around me.
But I just can’t go on anymore. There is something wrong when I feel free and alive and excited to talk about God and Christianity with my friends and even my mom, but I feel stifled and reserved in church, like I must censure my words very carefully for the sake of being respectful of more traditional doctrines and ways of belief in my church.
I crave authentic community. I crave a place where I can lay myself out, with all my demons and all my joys and all my struggles and all my not-so-conservative opinions. And I recognize that this kind of environment is really rare, and that I may spend a long time searching for it. And in some ways, I realize that it is an environment that I must create myself, by being honest about where my spiritual journey has taken me.
I just don’t think I can create it at my current church. And so I am moving on.
So in case you haven’t noticed, I’m continuing to write very sporadically. I think it’s because right now I’m in something of a spiritual wasteland in which God feels quiet and distant and I feel very disconnected from my spiritual life. Several times now, I’ve sat at my computer and started at an empty blog draft screen for minutes before realizing I just don’t care to write about my meager and sputtering faith right now.
This past weekend, I went on a retreat with my young adult group. We spent an evening, a whole day, and a morning at a cabin in the woods, having fun and chatting and kayaking in between listening to a speaker from our church and discussing his sessions.
I felt as though everyone there grew, and learned, and found a gold mine of truth there. I did, too, in a way…a non-spiritual way. I enjoyed laughing and having fun conversations and spending a whole day kayaking on a lake. I learned how much I value relationships.
And if you had been at the retreat, I bet I could have convinced you that I had just as much a good time during the spiritual talks and the discussions we had about them afterward. I offered well-thought out input in the form of carefully worded responses, and I listened attentively during the sessions (though I admit I may have scoffed my displeasure at a few things he said. Real mature, I know.).
But inside, I spent this past weekend coming to a terrible realization: I feel as though I’ve been living out a farce. That whole time we spent talking about the Bible and how to live as Christians, that whole time we spent sharing testimonies and exchanging Bible verses…that whole time, I feel as though so little of what I said was truly the genuine expression of my heart.
I realized for the first time how much of my life I spend in fear of judgment, in fear of how others will perceive me if I’m honest about where I am in my spiritual journey. Behind closed doors, inside the recesses of my heart, I hold all these convictions that I earnestly believe reflect the heart and will of God. Be radically inclusive; don’t alienate people. It’s okay if you don’t have the answers to life’s hardest questions; the Bible teaches us, but it is not the direct Word of God himself, and it is certainly not a simple, cut-and-dry road map. Gay people can love God and have faith that is as genuine as a pastor’s.
These are the things I was thinking, the things I feared to say aloud. And I realized: authenticity is one of the scariest things imaginable. To lay yourself bare, to express the truth as you best understand it, is freaking hard.
So I stayed silent while the speaker spoke. I stayed silent while he talked about Sodom and Gomorrah and how homosexuality is one of the few sins God says he especially hates. I stayed silent while he talked about how the mark of a “solid” Christian is that you read you’ve said the Sinner’s Prayer, you read your Bible daily, and you witness to nonbelievers.
I stayed silent through this, and a lot of other teaching that I have found to be life-draining and oversimplified and alienating of other human beings. And I realized that I don’t want to do this anymore. I don’t want to craft careful answers that I know won’t raise red flags, for the sake of convincing others that I’m right on the same page as everyone else. I don’t want to hide my beliefs about homosexuality, about the Bible, about the way that I often struggle with doubt.
I want to be real. I want to be truthful.
But the next question is: do I have the guts? Because if I don’t, I fear leaving church may be the only way I will ever acquire authenticity in my life. And I know that running is just never the answer.
I know I’ve hardly wrtten at all this month, but life has been unusually busy with my new position at work and the added activities I have been doing on the weekends (both of which have been very good for me, but not conducive to blog writing!). So I won’t say I’m back to writing on a regular basis, I’ll just say that I’m writing whenever I have the words and the time. This might be monthly, or weekly, or multiple times a week. It just depends.
Anyway, today what I want to write about is a revelation I had while visiting a very dear friend of mine last weekend. As you may know if you read many of my blog posts about church, I have quite the love-hate relationship with it. In fact, with the exception of last Sunday when I went to church with my friend, I hadn’t attended an actual church service in about a month and a half (I’ve just been going to Sunday school instead). I’ve just been feeling quite disillusioned in general, and I’ve found that going to church often makes me feel frustrated instead of fulfilled, so I just haven’t been going at all.
So that’s my context. Now for my friend’s context. She’d grown up going to a tiny United Methodist church her whole life, and found that it did not meet her needs for spiritual sustenance and sound teaching. She has found all of that at the church she is attending now, and she is even considering becoming a member. She is s grateful to have found the church that she has, and feels blessed to be included there.
The sermon on Sunday was on the passage in 1 John 2 that talks about how the church at that time had “anti-christs” in its midst, and how the believers must be wary of such teachings. The pastor went on to talk about how we today must be wary as well, and to denounce as “anti-christs” anyone who teaches ideas contrary to the gospel.
This is an important message, to be sure. But I started bristling and becoming defensive when the pastor offered an example of an “anti-christ” which I didn’t all think fit the bill, then proceeded to offer other examples of people whose counsel Christians ought to shun, all of which I thought were problematic.
That’s all I’ll say about the sermon, but suffice it to say that I listened to it with a terribly judgmental spirit, resisting the pastor’s words even though the over-arching point—Christians should cling to the truth of the Gospel and be wary of those whose ideas run contrary to it—was a sound one.
Anyway, I voiced all these grievances to my friend on our drive home, and she ended up telling me that she felt hurt that I was so antagonistic toward the pastor’s ideas, because she believed in his message. I apologized, and we were fine after that.
But our discussion—and my reaction to the pastor—got me thinking. I don’t even know what kind of Christian I am any more. I’m the kind of Christian who walks into a sanctuary with my arms folded metaphorically, with a mind that is already filtering the pastor’s words with the lens of my own experience and ideas and my own understanding of God’s Word. I’m the kind of Christian who analyzes the living daylights out of pastors whose beliefs are generally conservative, as this pastor’s was, yet who drinks in the sermons of more progressive pastors (for example, I listened to an Adam Hamilton podcast sermon on the drive up to visit my friend, and his sermon was basically the opposite of the one I heard at my friend’s church, and I really thought it was a good sermon!).
Here’s the truth. In reality, I’m the kind of Christian who hasn’t truly felt at home in an evangelical church for a good long while. I recognize that this is partially because of my own attitude, and my own bitter heart, and my own antagonistic disposition that is wary anytime a pastor uses the phrases “biblical principles” and “God’s truth” and such like that in the same sentence. But I don’t know what to do with that just yet, because I also don’t want to be the sort of Christian who blindly accepts the word of every pastor who tells me this is what it means to be faithful to the Gospel, and this is what it means to be an anti-christ.
So my revelation was two-fold: I realized for the first time that I’ve got an attitude problem that needs to change if I’m ever going to feel comfortable with a body of believers. And I realized I need to remember what my friend and her roommate wisely told me: God doesn’t separate people based on conservative or progressive beliefs. He judges us by our hearts, and while this doesn’t give us carte blanche to accept harmful beliefs, it should give us pause and remind us that in the end God’s judges the hearts of men, not us. If I remember that, I think I might find it a little easier to get along with my brothers and sisters in Christ, and not be so hard on them and their beliefs.
Today, something happened in me that hasn’t really happened before. It wasn’t something big; it was actually small. A little light that flickered into existence, a tiny glow that warmed me through.
I discovered the beauty of ritual for the first time.
I attended a church I visit once in a while, but have never gone to on a regular basis. Their Good Friday service seemed more appealing to me than my home church (which apparently consisted of a musical about Christ’s death and resurrection), so I decided to go.
The guest speaker was a Messianic Jew who walked us through all the different elements of the Jewish Passover meal. She told us about how a Jewish family would purge their household of yeast, which represents sin. She told us about the unleavened bread, which the father of the family would break apart, wrap in a cloth, and hide for the children to search out later.
She told us about the hyssop branch that the Israelites used to spread the blood of a spotless lamb to protect their first born sons from the angel of death. And she told us about the horse radish, the sour food they consume in remembrance of their slaver in Egypt.
Then she told us what it all meant, how every single element of the Passover meal points to Jesus. Through the blood he shed, we too can find purification from sin, just as the Jewish home was purified of yeast. The process by which the father hid the wrapped and broken bread of course signifies the death and resurrection of Jesus, as does the sacrifice of the perfect lamb. Some of this was new to me, and some of it wasn’t; but hearing about it all together, how the Passover is unified in its celebration of the Messiah, was beautiful.
And then of course, we learned about the bread and the wine, the moment where Jesus went off script and built his own words upon the tradition of Passover. When he broke the bread and poured the wine and spoke over them, he did not invoke the past of Judaism, the moments to remember with joy and sorrow.
He invoked the future. He made the Passover come alive. “This isn’t just bread,” he said. “It is my body.” “And this is not wine, but my blood shed for you.” The elements became a beautiful metaphor by which we commemorate the most powerful story that ever existed, the story of God becoming man and paying a price no man would pay.
And when I stepped forward after the service to receive the bread and the wine, I remembered the fullness of this. Jesus, in his Last Supper with his disciples, infused an old tradition with the New Covenant, and it is such a beautiful thing to think that this is what I commemorate when I consume the elements.
So I feel as though I’ve discovered a value in rituals such as communion—and even the whole Passover meal!—that I had never known before. And isn’t that what the Resurrection is all about, God creating good from darkness, beauty from ashes, new life from death?
It’s been weeks since the World Vision scandal happened, but I haven’t been able to work up the heart to write about it until now. It was such a terrible situation that disheartened me like no other culture war scandal has, and I wanted to wait until the visceral reaction had given way to a more studious, thoughtful attitude about everything that happened.
First, let me briefly outline the situation. On March 24, the magazine Christianity Today announced that World Vision USA had decided to amend its employment requirements to allow individuals in same-sex relationships to work for World Vision. They were clear that this was not a theological statement affirming gay marriage, but rather a neutral one that sought to treat married couples consistently. It was a courageous decision, one that the board claimed to have prayed over and considered for years.
And then, of course, the storm erupted. Christians across the nation were outraged at the decision World Vision had made. In the course of two days, the organization received an abundance of hate mail. After all was said and done, approximately 10,000 children lost their sponsorships. Let me say that again. Ten thousand children were dropped from sponsorship so that Christians all over the United States could make a statement about how wrong World Vision’s decision was. This is 10,000 futures altered tragically, 10,000 mouths that will go unfed, 10,000 little boys and girls who will ask why? and have no answer in return.
It fills me with such rage to think about it, to think about how evangelicals have turned children in need into pawns in a culture war, into collateral damage sacrificed on the altar of self-righteous indignation.
The way in which these people rallied to withdraw support from their sponsored children and from World Vision was the worst part of everything that happened, in my opinion. But then, to add insult to injury, World Vision decided to reverse their decision just two days after announcing it! I, along with many others I’m sure, was utterly shocked. Do you remember how I said they had considered their decision prayerfully for years? I don’t care what anyone says, I can’t believe World Vision reversed their decision because they believed it was the right thing to do. Not after they had prayed over their initial decision for so long. No. They had capitulated to the pressures of the conservative right, plain and simple.
Anyway, that is all I’m going to say about that. As I’ve thought about this whole situation over the last several weeks, I’ve realized that dwelling on my disdain for how so many evangelicals reacted won’t make what happened any less painful for everyone involved—for World Vision, for the kids whose needs went unmet, and for the LGBT men and women who undoubtedly felt like pawns themselves.
Instead I want to talk about what happened afterward in the blogosphere. This is where I saw the thread of new beginnings, in places where people understood for the first time just how far evangelicalism has strayed from the Gospel and how deeply immersed in the culture war it has become. Bloggers all over the place, in tones that were (mostly) not aggressive, not antagonistic, but rather heart sore and sad, came to realize that evangelicals no longer represent what they believe to be the Christian faith.
The reactions to World Vision’s announcement and reversal were the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Rachel Held Evans decided that “rather than wearing out my voice in calling for an end to evangelicalism’s culture wars, I think it’s time to focus on finding and creating church among its many refugees.” Micah J. Murray voiced the truth that “a lot of us [are] walking away pretty sure that we’re not evangelicals anymore but not sure what that even means.” Zack Hunt wrote about how the Church is in need of new wineskins: “As the past few years have hinted at, and last week made crystal clear, evangelicalism is an old wineskin that is long past its expiration date.”*
Then, Ben Moberg wrote this piece, which had echoes of a farewell and a new beginning all rolled up in the same blog post. His tone was somber, yet hopeful. Full of expectation for a return to the heart of the Gospel that sheds the legalism and hard lines in the sand that have come to characterize the evangelical world.
So this is the silver lining. This is the redemption that is born out of the awful mess that was the World Vision scandal. It is sad, of course, that it took something like this to spur people of faith everywhere to search out a new way forward, but it is also exciting, in a way. We are on the brink of something new, a reimagining of how we live our lives as disciples of Jesus and followers of the Word, a step away from the constriction of the pharisees and a step toward the Kingdom. For I know that my God is a God of redemption, one who breathes life into the darkest of places, even when those places are of our own making.
* The wineskin is a reference to Matthew 9:16-17.