Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Formulaic Christianity Doesn’t Work

It isn’t Jesus’ death
that concerns us. It is our own.

Every evangelical Christian knows the salvation formula, preached each year at Easter. All have sinned. Sin results in death. Jesus died to save us from our sin.

One plus one equals two. Can the definition really be so simple? Or is this just the result of simplistic thinking?

The problem with this formula may be its insistence that a transaction has occurred. There’s no such thing as a free lunch, after all. But if this is true, then whom did Jesus pay?

Did God pay God in order to capitalize on a loophole in the Law? This fits with our idea of a merciful God. It also claims, however, that God is inconsistent and unjust. And it suggests that God is shortsighted, having failed to foresee just such a situation that would force his hand. Besides, if God paid himself, is the payment valid? In such a case, God loses nothing.

If God didn’t pay himself, then did he pay Satan in order to set us free from the Devil’s power? It is blasphemous to suggest that God might somehow be indebted to his own creation. This question also points out God’s lack of power, suggesting as it does that God had no other way out, that he was trapped into choosing to sacrifice his son or do nothing at all.

But the real problem with this formula is its focus on the death of Jesus. His power is made manifest in life, not death. And it isn’t Jesus’ death that concerns us. It is our own.

What if Jesus’ death — as his life — is an example rather than a transaction? Jesus did not die to make us comfortable. Instead, his death and resurrection point to the path that we, too, must take. If we are willing to let go of what we have, obedient even to death, we will finally discover true life.

This is no simple addition problem: one plus one equals two. Jesus didn’t do that kind of math. He revealed a truth that the language of numbers is ill-equipped to express: that by letting go — by subtracting from what we have — we discover the only path to meaningful increase.

Jesus’ sacrifice makes a mockery of our systems and solutions. But we have succeeded in killing this miracle. We have hidden its shocking power inside the most meaningless of formulas.

Clearing the conscience has never been easier.

Monday, March 28, 2005

We’re governed by public relations. Very little information gets to the people.

Gore Vidal was never one of my favorite novelists. But I respect his ability to see to the heart of a problem and to tell the truth about what he sees. So I’m disturbed by the results of a recent exchange he had with journalist Steve Perry:

“The institutions that we thought were eternal proved not to be. And that goes for the three departments of government, and it also goes for the Bill of Rights. So we’re in uncharted territory. We’re governed by public relations. Very little information gets to the people, thanks to the corruption and/or ineptitude of the media. Just look at this bankruptcy thing that went through--everybody in debt to credit cards, which is apparently 90 percent of the country, is in deep trouble. So the people are uninformed about what’s being done in their name.

And that’s really why we are in Iraq. Iraq is a symptom, not a cause. It’s a symptom of the passion we have for oil, which is a declining resource in the world. Alternatives can be found, but they will not be found as long as there’s one drop of oil or natural gas to be extracted from other nations, preferably by force by the current junta in charge of our affairs. Iraq will end with our defeat.”

Read the full interview, and then answer me this: What is the measure of our own guilt in this? Can we fix it?

Friday, March 25, 2005

Evangelical Image Problem

Do Christians really care
about Terri or is this just a maneuvering of public sympathy?

Thousands have reached out in support of Terri Schindler-Schiavo’s parents. They’re fighting to save a woman, who can’t speak for herself: the perfect corollary (it seems) to anti-abortion arguments. And the vast majority of Terri’s supporters appear to be evangelical Christian, pro-life advocates. But American evangelicals have an image problem. Terri’s case can only make it worse.

Don’t get me wrong. When Terri’s feeding tube was removed, she began a slow, terrible path to death by dehydration and starvation. And in spite of medical opinion, we have no way of really knowing what Terri is going through. But the Religious Right comes across as self-serving on this issue. Do Christians really care about Terri as a person, or is the groundswell of support for this Florida woman just another maneuvering of public sympathy, meant to give momentum to America’s sanctity-of-life movement?

If not, then why is Terri so important in a world where more than 35,000 people starve to death every single day? Is it because she has money (more than $1.2 million from an out-of-court malpractice settlement)? Is it because she is white and American? Is it because she entertains us with the spectacle sideshow of parents and husband battling it out in the courts?

I can’t answer these questions and don’t want to consider what they imply about me and about the people I see in church every Sunday. So here’s my confession:

I don’t know Terri. I can’t empathize with her family or her situation. And I haven’t tried to save a single person from starvation today. Or yesterday. Or the day before. I want to do better.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

In our attempts to make worship
holy and inspiring, we have had
to people-proof the thing.

Christians for too long have founded their faith on a belief in sin. We recognize our feeble-minded, weak-willed, fault-filled selves. And we spend too much effort, hiding — from ourselves and from each other. We’ve tried to change. But less sin is still sin. So, having found only failure, we live in fear of God and in loathing of our neighbors. No wonder church is such a lifeless place. In our attempts to make worship holy and inspiring, we have had to people-proof the thing. But God is not looking to join us in a sterile, Sunday laboratory. He wants to indwell our very lives. After all, He made us perfect (even beautiful), and He desires to revel in relationship with His creation.

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Waiting for the Train

messages to a world
that doesn’t notice and might not care if it did

Sitting in front of the tracks, waiting for the train to go by while the cars pile up on Happy Valley Road isn't a bad way to spend part of an afternoon.

There’s the graffiti, rushing from right to left — background a dull Pacific Union gray — like a slow-motion text animation. With pink swirls. And huge, goopy letters. A splash on steel. Love notes. Death threats. Somebody’s name. Anonymous messages to a world that doesn’t notice and might not care if it did.

I push down the parking brake, shift out of gear and don’t read a thing. Just let it all blur together. And I think how lucky I am to have no place to go, no need to rush. Except, I might just come out here tomorrow afternoon to watch another train. And maybe the next day. And the next.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

5 +ways

I always carry a journal to church. It helps me process what I’m thinking about the weird things that happen there. But when I opened it up to this week’s spot, I got distracted.

I thought about chocolate. I considered the message of a chorus everyone was singing. (It seemed to be claiming that my passion for God is up to God, and if He isn’t willing to deliver, He can kiss my passion goodbye.) I didn’t sing that one. I tried explaining what I was thinking to the person on my left without being a distraction. That didn't work. I wrote up a list of all the changes I made to my blogs last night. And then it came to me — something to write about. So I did.

Here’s the thought I had: If the Church is Jesus’ body, and Jesus underwent temptation, doesn’t it make sense that we would be tempted in the same ways?

Turn these stones to bread! We have. By trying to grow the church and make converts, we co-opt God’s working in our midst. We use Natural Church Development and Purpose-Driven tools to turn the heathen into believers. Is this what we were called to be?

Throw yourself down from here! How many times have we tested God’s grace and mercy by acting foolishly or by taking unnecessary risks? We know He will save us. How often has a church building program manipulated people into pledging larger amounts by questioning their faith? Too many times to count.

Bow down, and worship me, and all the kingdoms of the world will be yours! We’ve adopted the corporate model because it works. We’re convinced we can beat the world at it’s own game, but we weren’t called to play games. And numerical growth isn’t how God measures His own success. So why do we?

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Living Like a Celebrity

Getting my picture
in the paper every day does’nt pay the bills.

Every once in awhile, I get an e-mail from a local journalism student, who wants to be a writer — four so far this month.
They want to know what my workday looks like, how I spend my time, what it takes to make money in print.
Sometimes, they ask for an opportunity to do a job shadow.
Here’s the problem: getting my picture in the paper every day doesn’t pay the bills. Not even close. I moonlight as a schoolbus driver, so I can afford little things like rent and groceries and car insurance. But I answer their questions anyway, all the while feeling like a fraud, hoping that, someday, one of these kids will really make it as a writer and fill me in on how it works.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

This project will make
me a full-time writer
for the next nine months.

It’s official. The Quaker Hill Board of Directors approved for me to write a history of the conference center. I’ll edit the existing book and add another 30 years or so, bringing it up to date in time for next spring’s 75th anniversary celebration. It’s due by November. I met last week with the author of the original text. He handed over a box of files and wished me luck. Good news: This project, along with daily column and assorted articles will make me a full-time writer for the next nine months. Bad news: The full-time work will be coming with part-time pay — about two hours’ worth each week. If you read this and want to help, feel free to send a check in the mail. (I have no pride.)