Saturday, April 30, 2005

We have taken the world’s criteria
for success and applied it to our faith communities. We will
be held accountable.

Most American faith communities waste time on issues of maintenance. And that’s the paradox of institutional church: organizational constraints make it difficult to be purpose-driven or mission-minded, to do what we were created to do, to be authentic communities. Churches own property, have staff, make commitments. These system parts require a budget. So program maintenance takes over, leaving us little leeway for anything of true depth or importance. Maintenance replaces mission. But maintenance and survival of the institution are not reasons for having church. And when these things co-opt our ability to worship in Spirit and in truth, then we enter into sin by ensuring their continuance. Shouldn’t we sell our property rather than let it steal our attentions from God and each other? If our wealth leads us into sin, wouldn’t we be better to cut it off than to risk judgment? What use is an endowment if it fails to feed the poor or see to the needs of the helpless in our communities: widows, migrant laborers, children, seniors?

We have taken the world’s criteria for success and applied it to our faith communities. We will be held accountable.

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Any Individuals Out There?

Most people dress
like a Gap ad or self-consciously dress anti-Gap.

We live in a society that celebrates the individual. But have you actually met one? David Batstone writes that members of our society all fit into the same pot: “Most of the people I meet dress like a Gap ad — or self-consciously dress anti-Gap — aspire to own an IPod, and have made it a personal goal to travel to Australia in the next five years.”

I think he’s right. People tend to accept the system or fight the system. But what about creating a new system (or throwing out all systems)? Why do we insist on defining ourselves in relation to what exists? Why not dream of something new, something different, something that fits (instead of something that’s accepted or convenient)?

I don’t know about the rest of you, but my plan is to start right here with Dirt Window. A total of six American companies control 90 percent of the country’s newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations, books, records, movies, videos, wire services and photo agencies. But they don’t own this blog, and they can’t mandate how I think. So from here on out, I’m going to live and write like an individual.

I hope you’ll do the same.

Thursday, April 21, 2005

The problem with literal
interpretation of scripture is that it is almost always done for the sake of finding loopholes.

Sola Scriptura. It’s a popular phrase with evangelical Christians, claiming that there’s nothing more important than the Bible. It’s a comforting kind of blasphemy. And that’s the problem: This concept turns our worship into a farce. Can any thinking person justify putting scripture on a pedestal above God and his ability to speak directly to his people? God didn’t write the Bible. People wrote it. People like Moses and David and Peter and Paul. People with problems. And these people had a specific audience in mind. They weren’t writing letters and histories and poetry to us. Some of it was written for the Israelites. Some of it was written as personal reflection or as prayer. Some of it was written to a band of Christians in Corinth or in Rome or in Ephesus. None of those people are us.

I believe that what was written about God was, is and always will be absolutely true. But the truth presented in scripture is limited by the author’s perspective (experience of truth), and it is limited by the intended audience (the particular truth that the author felt that group needed to hear).

Paul told the Corinthians that women shouldn’t speak in church. But he told the Galatians that men and women are equal in the eyes of God (implying that they should also be equal in the eyes of believers). Moses told the Israelites to abstain from pork. But Luke records in Acts that Peter had a dream in which a voice from heaven gave him permission to take and eat the other white meat.

Most Christians take this and say, “Oh, that’s because the new covenant replaces the old covenant.” But Jesus disagreed. He made it clear that not one stroke of the pen would be removed from the Law. He never replaced anything. Instead, Jesus asked us to rethink our concept of what is true and what isn’t. He asked us to consider God’s intent rather than trying to literally follow every regulation. He pointed out that the problem with literal interpretation of scripture is that it is almost always done for the sake of finding loopholes, not because we want to know God.

Sola scriptura is a farce. We would do well to put scripture in its place and get back to worshiping the one true God.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Where Is the Threat?

If we believe that God
gave us minds, then why wouldn’t we expect people to use them?

A friend of mine is struggling to figure out what is truth and what is trash in popular belief. But his efforts to wrestle with real issues have won him few friends among his Christian peers.

“I guess what bothers me about religion and a lot of people in religions is that they completely block out what I have to say just because I have different views, and they refuse to listen to my logic.”

People simply try to argue him out of his way of thinking rather than seriously considering whether he has anything worthwhile to offer.

That kind of Christianity has always seemed foreign to me (and a little bit hypocritical). After all, if we believe that God gave us minds, then why wouldn’t we expect or allow people to use them? How come that’s such a threat to our faith (unless there isn’t really any substance to the stuff that we claim to believe)?

But while I was thinking about my friend’s struggle, I realized something about my own relationships: People, who aren’t religious, are just as close-minded (set in their beliefs about politics and success and how to act in public). I wonder if that kind of thinking — where every question has a right answer that must be defended — is part of our culture more than it is a religious idea or problem.

If this is a purely cultural phenomenon, then it is possible to be religious or not religious without a defensive mindset. It is possible to go against the grain without losing your religion. In the same sense, it is possible to resist culture without getting converted.

Maybe we need to go back to the basics, question the foundation on which we’ve built belief. The structure might not be as sound as we imagine. And a rigid system will never serve us well for long because it can’t account for future experience. Because our present foundation is built on what we know, it can’t lead us to the places where we haven’t yet been.

So let’s drop our defenses. Let’s open our minds. Let’s watch and listen for the workings of God in this world. Let’s treat our friends and neighbors as equals, created in the image of God. They have much to teach us.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Wednesday, April 13, 2005

When people leave our
community, we can fill their roles,
but we can’t replace them.

I quit my job two weeks ago, determined that I had no passion for the work, that this position didn’t fit within the scope of God’s call on my life. And I felt incredible relief when I resigned.

A week later, however, I received a call from the owner. The company could refill my position. But it couldn’t replace me. He asked what I’d like to do. And how much. And when.

Isn’t this how the Church ought to operate? When people leave our community, we can find new workers to fill their roles (like parts in a well-oiled machine). But we can’t replace them.

Our culture values self-reliance, independence, professional distance within relationship. The Church should be different.

We don’t have everything figured out. We make mistakes. We secretly hurt (and not-so-secretly hurt each other). And this is precisely why we need community. We’d never make it on our own (no matter how self-sufficient we appear). So let’s be honest and admit our need.

The world doesn’t know how to admit its dependence. And it’s dying for lack of a good example.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Hypocrisy or Apathy?

We claim a mandate to change
the world ... but it has proven easier to change ourselves.

The problem is well-documented.

We talk about the importance of giving back to God. But only 3 percent of Christian households tithe. We preach against the evils of the broken home. But divorce rates among “born-again” Christians (33 percent) are almost identical to those among non-Christians (34 percent). We speak of the importance of ministry to the poor. But it seems that they may not be welcome to worship with us. Only 25 percent of churched households earn less than $30,000 each year as compared to 29 percent of the general population.

We claim a mandate to change the world by our example. But it has proven easier to change ourselves, conforming to a commercial culture.

And here is the central issue. People live by what they believe. They can’t help it. If I believe in the power of gravity, I will be cautious of cliffs. If I believe in the irresistibility of mass and momentum, I will refrain from taking walks along the interstate. And I won’t be sticking my head in front of a gun.

So here is my question: do we really believe? Because the only other option is that we have decided not to care.

Statistics are taken from studies performed by The Barna Group.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Monday, April 11, 2005

continued health depends
on our ability to take advice
from subversives and crap-detectors

More and more of my friends have expressed in recent years their disenchantment with the church. They struggle with a deep desire for authentic intimacy within a faith community. They long for simplicity. They literally feel as if life is not worth living without an experience of God’s presence within community. They are willing to sacrifice anything. But instead of these things, they find Christians, who seem to have become wedded to American culture and its promise of riches and relaxation for those who work hard and live well. And relationships, where they exist, seem shallow.

Please don’t get me wrong. These Christian communities are full of men and women, who have spent their lives, serving Christ and growing in Him. Many of them faced similar struggles in their youth. But that was then. Life is much more comfortable now. And safe. Besides, it won’t be very long before most of my critical friends will have found their own places of safety and security within the institution. The rest will simply drift away.

Unless . . . we finally make a change.

We live in a world where change is ubiquitous — an everpresent constant. Because of this, the Church must also change, always adapting to the changing needs by which it is surrounded.

But change is a threat.

For some of us, change might mean the loss of status or power. The Pharisees could not condone Jesus’ claim to divinity because it threatened their very existence as keepers of the law and teachers of truth. Yet Jesus had the gall to mock them as blind men leading the blind.

For others, financial or political interests are intertwined with the way we practice church. The rich young ruler went away sad because he had many possessions. And Jesus shared with his disciples that it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle.

Still others have so identified themselves with certain ideas or the institution itself that any change at all becomes a form of suicide.

Yet we must change.

I pray that God will give us courage.

I pray that God will strip us of unnecessary baggage, so we might freely enter that land he has prepared for us.

I pray that God will teach us to value our critics, help us to recognize that our continued health depends on our willingness to take advice from subversives and crap-detectors.

I pray that we will let God do all these things.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Sunday, April 10, 2005

In Search of Holiness

We strip ourselves of everything that isn’t us.

A friend and I discussed last night the tendency of evangelical Christianity to preach the inherent sinfulness of man, to make the claim that people, who experience grace, will be changed into something new. But the prospective pitfall of such belief is the realization that perfection (a worthy goal) is always just beyond our reach. So we become a people, impatient with seemingly impossible standards, who stop looking forward, start looking back, comparing ourselves to those who lag behind.

We define ourselves by what we’re not. And in the process, we become judgmental, self-satisfied with how much closer we are to perfection than the world’s sinners. We cultivate an attitude of intolerance, which makes us intolerable.

During this talk, there came to light another possible perspective. If we were created in God’s image, doesn’t it make sense that we are, at heart, perfect? That sinful nature — rather than a central problem — is nothing more than a veil we wear? If this is true, there remains no need for comparison to the world’s sinners. Instead of looking out, we must seek within, focus on the perfection with which we have already been gifted, the perfection that is masked (but never diminished) by our sin.

The path to holiness, then, becomes a letting go of petty possessions, dreams and desires. We strip ourselves of everything that isn’t us. And in this, we finally find the fullness of perfection to which we have been called and for which we were created.

This is freedom.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

For this is the path of
innocence. And every other
route results in destruction.

I stumbled across these words awhile ago:

If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we would find, in each person’s life, sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.

And I wonder if Longfellow had it right. Do we dare to tell our stories? Can we be a people, who listen to a neighbor’s tale of fear, hardship and spiritual poverty?

Such a work requires foolish courage. Foolishness, because we must drop our weapons in order to listen. Courage, because it is easier for enemies to exploit than to trust.

But we must trust. We must be defenseless. For this is the path of innocence. And every other route results in destruction.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Seeking the Integrated Life

I see all my faults in the people
around me and choose to judge them rather than admit my own need.

I have often longed for a different kind of life, imagining joy in the simplicity of communal work, worship and service. But is close-knit community the key to an integrated existence? What if my longing for meaningful connection is a symptom of internal rather than external division? If I have learned anything about myself, it is that I too often seek the easy way out of uncomfortable questions.

Sometimes, I choose not to use the gifts God has given because I’m too busy, don’t have the time, don’t need the hassle.

Sometimes, I commit to a cause for which I have no passion or calling.

Sometimes, I sit in silence rather than speak up for what is right. Rocking the boat gets everyone wet, makes the voyage unpleasant.

Sometimes, I ignore my own convictions (especially when they’re inconvenient).

Sometimes, I see all my faults in the people around me and choose to judge them rather than admit my own need.

These are real problems, not just symptoms. And they point the way out of my disconnectedness, the way back to who God created me to be. But I’m going to need help. The integrated life isn’t about being perfect. Instead, I have to be honest: about my weakness, about my failings, about my need.

This then is the kind of community I’m searching for: a collection of people, who can love me in spite of my weakness; and people who, because of their problems, need me.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Jesus didn’t harm
anything more than our
sense of decorum.

There are times when I’m struck by what I read in scripture, forced to stop and think about where I’m going, about whether my life is consistent with what I claim to believe. Take this passage, for instance, from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I tell you not to resist an evil person.”

Jesus establishes here the centerpiece of Christian peacemaking. But I’ve taken a different path, standing up for my rights, demanding justice when I know I’ve been wronged. And Christian culture applauds. Why is that?

Maybe it’s because turning the other cheek, walking an extra mile or sacrificing the shirt off our backs is too high a moral demand. These things only make the problem worse. After all, such actions reward evildoers. We must destroy those who are evil before they destroy us.

This is the argument we used for fighting terrorism in Afghanistan, for ousting Saddam Hussein, for looking into Iran’s nuclear power program. We fear death because we do not have faith in Jesus’ promise of eternal life.

What about our neighbors? Even if we can’t defend ourselves, shouldn’t we stand up for the weak and powerless? When Peter answered this question with the slice of an ear, Jesus rebuked him and healed the wound. And Jesus didn’t fight for the sake of his children. What about the woman caught in adultery? Jesus invited the crowd to throw rocks. And that incident in the temple courts? Jesus didn’t harm anything more than our sense of decorum.

In spite of all this, our arguments continue. We delve into semantic issues, claiming that “Thou shalt not kill” really means “Thou shalt not murder.” Everyone knows that military intervention is different from the actions of a serial killer. For one thing, it’s more efficient.

So what do we do when our arguments fail? We ignore the issue and go on with our lives. Let someone else take care of it.

That’s what I’ve done.

I don’t think God is pleased.

Read the full article and others like it at Barclay Press.

Monday, April 04, 2005

The Problem with Our Protest

we have unconsciously revealed where our true faith lies: not in God but in ourselves

I have watched with interest the continuing debate in my community over Ten Commandments displays. The most recent incident involved removal of a yellow placard from public land at a local airport. Angry letters flooded the newspaper opinion pages. And in further protest, a group of pilots ordered 150 copies of the sign for the sides of their privately-owned hangars.

I watch and wonder how much of the shouting and fist-shaking really qualifies as righteous indignation and how much might be chalked up to plain, old fear. After all, we’ve been hearing for years of America’s slow decline into the secular. In just such an environment, a call to arms — over abortion or gay marriage or little yellow signs — only makes sense.

Or does it?

Are we defenders of God’s law? Does divine order need a human defense?

If the answer is yes, we admit God’s weakness. We imply that God’s law can’t stand on its own. We accept that the secular might be more powerful than the divine. And we try to fix the problem by elevating ourselves above God, by trying to do for God what he is unable or unwilling to do for himself.

If this is the case, we have unconsciously revealed where our true faith lies: not in God but in ourselves. We have committed the very sin we fought to fix.

Read the full article and more like it at Barclay Press.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

America is religious, but nearly one-third of U.S. citizens doesn’t
attend religious services.

The results of a recent Barna study show that just about every American is religious. Only about 6 percent of the population identifies itself as atheist. But nearly one-third of U.S. citizens doesn’t attend religious services.

People value their faith, but church attendance is not similarly valued. I know that church attendance can’t take the place of belief, but it has always seemed a natural consequence of a real and vibrant faith. So what’s happening here? What does it mean?

Is there something wrong with the Church or the ways in which we meet together for worship? Has the practice of meeting together somehow become an obstacle to the practice of authentic belief? Are there societal or cultural issues at work?

I’d like to know.