Mind Change #1 – Syncretism and American Christianity

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syn·cre·tism
ˈsiNGkrəˌtizəm
noun
  1. the amalgamation or attempted amalgamation of different religions, cultures, or schools of thought.

I first learned the word “syncretism” in my college missions class at Liberty University, some 25+ years ago. In that context, syncretism was discussed as a process that sometimes happens following the introduction of the Gospel to a culture which has its own existing beliefs and practices. In some cases, the message of Jesus and the Bible get added to or merged into the beliefs and/or practices and ideologies of the culture. The depth of the syncretism varies from slight to significant, with the latter resulting in a fundamental change in the message. In extreme cases, the syncretised message becomes what the Gospel is understood to be in that cultural context.

Great. So, whoopee, what does that have to do with anything?

As you may remember, last time, I determined to start unpacking and discussing the things I’ve changed my mind about over the past decade or so, particularly as it relates to my faith, walk with God, my theological perspective, and my attitude toward “church” and man’s religion. During this process, virtually none of those changes have been as significant or taken as long to untangle and make sense of as my concern about the confusion and misrepresentation of Jesus and his message in the context of American “Christian” religion. It took many years of thinking and soul searching to quantify and define the distress I’d been feeling. And then one day, out of the blue, the concept from that college class a quarter century ago drifted out of vague memory to deliver abrupt clarity. Syncretism. THAT was the concept I’d been fighting to describe.

As stated earlier, syncretism in the extreme is when the syncretised message becomes what the Gospel is understood to be in that cultural context. In America in the 21st Century,  history and culture have changed the Gospel message, and THAT message (though it’s actually many messages – we’ll talk more about that later) has so grown in prominence, that for many, it is THE message of the Gospel. And for me, that reality is heartbreaking.

Living in the Southeast, my world is filled with people who have had lifelong experiences with “church.” Church – along with all the attendant images, ideologies, and dynamics inherent therein – is just a part of the cultural fabric. And with the reach of the internet and particularly the dynamics involved in social media, the same can be said of most of our country. People have had contact with the church and religious teaching; I’m just not certain they’ve seen Jesus in most of it. As a result, many sense the odious nature of the disconnect and walk briskly, and often vitriolically, away – making the oft-posted church sign: Life Stink? Well, we’ve got a PEW for you!” particularly ironic.

I ran across an interesting fact while reading an article in Christianity Today about Obscurantism (which is closely related to syncretism.) I’ll use this to begin unwinding the snarl of concerns that have plagued me and to illustrate the overall concept that I think represents the core (or at least one of them) of the issue.

Did you know there is a concept in the Media called the God Gap that’s related to Christianity in America and politics? Here’s a quote from the aforementioned article:

“The fact of the matter is that the more you to go church, the more likely you are to be a Republican. That’s just math. The less you go to church, the more likely you are to be a Democrat. (There are individual and group exceptions, but that is what the media call “The God Gap.” Don’t yell at me about it—I did not create math.)

The issue? The article continues “…if unchurched people note that all their Christian friends are Republicans, they can assume that to be a Christian is to be a Republican.”

Sticking with the math motif, I also know that if, 100 average church-going, Christian friends read the above quote (which isn’t likely, but it’s just an illustration!) easily half or more of them will have a negative, emotionally charged response to it. (Well, of course that’s the case! Democrats are humanistic, liberal, such and such, etc. etc) In fact, I anticipate that, even though I have had virtually no interaction or responses to my blog posts, if I’m going to get a lot of them, I feel confident that it will be in response to this one.

And most of them will be negative. Which will illustrate my concern and where I think our trouble lies within the church in America.

And what is that concern?

That we have a more heartfelt, gut-level allegiance to our country, to its values, to the platforms of conservative politics, to our own comfort, to our own desire for power and control in the political realm than we do to Jesus and the Kingdom of God. A quick 10-minute perusal of the topics that explode into mean-spirited. “Christian” rants on social media bear this out. Nearly all of them will be about something that has nothing to do with Jesus or his central teachings (healthcare, gun control, immigration, etc, etc.) but he’ll be drug into the fray as a condemnatory witness nonetheless.

I believe that we’ve made the colossal misstep of allowing our rights and freedoms as citizens of a democratic nation to blur our vision and co-opt our loyalty. And over time – maybe to lessen the tension and diffuse the cognitive dissonance between the Gospel and conservative American culture – we’ve arrived at the place where we have added to the message to such a degree that it bears almost no resemblance to the Good News Jesus preached. We’re a living example of what syncretism looks like.

I’ve thought a very long time about how to demonstrate what I mean, and to come up with examples that would be powerful and helpful, and some of those follow. I know in doing so, I inevitably run the risk of generating more of the aforementioned mean-spirited rants, but my hope is that in forging ahead, someone – maybe someone who is just starting the journey that I’ve been on for the last decade – will be helped further along in their walk by what’s ahead.

Keep in mind, I used to hold most, if not all, of these perspectives and beliefs. So I use these examples with compassion and identification, as I will with all of the subsequent topics that I cover in this blog.

It’s said that a picture is worth a thousand words. I think that’s understated.

Guns_God_Glory_US_Flag

There really could be no more succinct, poignant illustration of the dynamic I’m describing than this photo.

Now, keep in mind:

  • I love our country and deeply appreciate everything that being born here has made possible for me and my family. I’ve traveled the world and have seen other places, and I’m still here and happily choose to call America home.
  • I like guns. I have several.
  • I love the Bible and the God of it.

But the message presented in this photo is a grave misrepresentation of Jesus and the Gospel. It says that the first two things are on the same level as, and as important as the third. But maybe more subtlely and dastardly is the message that the Bible (and by extension everything in it including the Gospel) endorses and is compatible with the first two.

The syncretism occurs when the message of the first two, get attached to – and become associated with – the third. Myriad examples like this exist in the relationship between the Gospel and American culture. Things like:

  • Capitalism (“God helps those who help themselves!” That’s Bible, right?)
  • Healthcare and Welfare (“Why should the government take my money to help those lazy people?)
  • Conservative Political Ideology (“Build the wall, outlaw gay marriage, who cares about the planet, God’s going to make a new one”, etc.)
  • Democracy and Freedom of Speech (“Keep Christ in Christmas!” “This is country was founded on the Bible and we need to keep it that way.”)
  • Military Fervor (“We’re the greatest country in the world!” “We need to just bomb all the ragheads and be done with it.” “Our country was founded on the Bible, and that’s how it needs to stay!)

What we sometimes don’t recognize is that there is a monumental gulf between the rights we have as citizens of our great nation and our responsibility as children of God and followers of Jesus. Sadly, commitment to the former seems to typically outstrip loyalty to the latter.

But, wait. Aren’t they the same thing?

The result of syncretism is that we now believe that commitment to the former IS demonstrating loyalty to the latter. Hence, why you so often hear the admonition during election time to get out and vote and “stand for God in the midst of a sinful culture.” Our opportunity to participate in our government is held up as the primary means of obeying Jesus’ command in Matt. 5:13-16 to be salt and light.

What I don’t think we recognize is that a huge gulf exists between a human-based, earth-bound government and the Kingdom of God. In John 18:36, Jesus made it painfully clear, “My Kingdom is not an earthly kingdom. If it were, my followers would fight to keep me from being handed over to the Jewish leaders. But my Kingdom is not of this world.” That means that the ways and means of both living in and expanding the Kingdom of God do not reside in the structures or systems of human government or any other thing made by the hand of man.

When we try to use human-based systems of power and authority to do the work of the Kingdom of God, all manner of wrong-headedness esues.  We espouse all kinds of things and use all kinds of words through all kinds of mediums to “stand for God”, because, by God, it’s my First Amendment right. And we are clueless that in so doing, we are damaging the Kingdom and erecting insurrmountable barriers against those who might otherwise respond to God’s grace. Jesus said, “if mine were an earthly kingdom, my followers would fight.” As it turns out, we’ve adopted an earthly kingdom, slapped a fish bumper sticker and called it good. And fight we do!; with each other and with the “lost” (those gays, those Democrats, those illegals, those fill-in-the-blank) while with a straight face, saying we’re following Jesus who said, “Love your enemies” and “by this all men will know that you are my disciples because we love one another.”

Over the span of 32+ years of being a Christian, at times I’ve been as guilty as anyone of the same type of blindness. But, little by little, I believe I’m learning to see more clearly. I love my country, but my first loyalty lies with the Gospel and the Kingdom of God. If it doesn’t, then what exactly does “following Jesus” even mean?

At this stage of my life, I want to hold the great blessings and freedoms that come from being a citizen of our great land with a light touch, realizing that it’s not how I vote, or what I fight against, or who I “set straight” on social media that marks me out as a follower of Jesus and advance the Kingdom of God. On the contrary, though it might be a perfectly logical thing to do from an earth-bound, human-made kingdom’s perspective, it’s probably the very worst thing I can do for those who do not yet know Christ. Especially when I conscript him to help wound them.

So I’ve changed my mind about a great many things when it comes to how my faith intersects with my citizenship. I’ll vote when I think it will make a difference for good. I’ll publically espouse things that I think are in line with the heart of God. But in both cases, I’m not likely to ever point to him as the reason, just in case I got it wrong. Rather, what I want to do is love like this:

I Corinthians 13

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

8 Love never fails.

And live like this:

Galatians 5

22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Matthew 22

“ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’c 38This is the first and greatest commandment. 39And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’d 40All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

in the hope that, as imperfect an attempt as it may be, those things might speak life to those around me and point them to Jesus’ Gospel, which is really, really good news!

Until next time, may God’s richest blessing and knowledge of his love for your flood your life. Thanks for joining me on this journey.

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Growth and Change

Fountain Pen

“If you understood him, it would not be God.”
― Augustine of Hippo

In my prior post, I talked about my journey of faith over the past decade or so, and the travail of asking hard questions and trying to sift truth from the piles of chaff and man’s religion that have been piled around the person of Jesus and his Body, the church. I put it this way:

“My Journey over the past 10 years has been one of trying to sift through and jettison all the baggage and falsehoods that 20 years of immersion in an acceptance-by-performance religious culture wrought in me. The process has required me to question everything, a process that has been excruciating…”

Indeed it has been excruciating, and not the least because certainty was central to the school of thought where I received my instruction and formal, scriptural education. In the religious culture and spiritual tradition where I grew in my faith, we knew what God meant in the Bible, and we were certain we were right, as a matter of course. In fact, we actually spent a considerable amount of time and effort demonstrating how and why we were right, and how and why everyone else was wrong. Sad to say, for many years I could be a cocky know-it-all with the best of them. It’s taken me a long time and a long journey to recognize what a prideful, arrogant, and well…obnoxious perspective that is, and how telling it is regarding our view of God.

Simply stated, if God is God – and I mean the kind of God the Bible describes and the kind of God who could set in motion and sustain the mind-bendingly vast and complex universe in which we exist – then thinking that I, as a mere mortal, made of dust, could truly comprehend him in his fullness, and say with absolute certainty that we “know” is simply laughable. And it’s embarrassingly prideful.

Now understand, I’m not saying we can’t know anything for sure. That would be absurd, since not only would that statement negate itself, (i.e.”How can I know that I don’t know, if I can’t know that I don’t know? Hmmmm?”) more importantly however, God has revealed himself and told us things, both through his creation (Psalm 19, Rom 1, etc.) and through the Bible. That he is, that he created all that is, that he loves us, that he has a plan, that Jesus is central to that plan, and he has a future in store for us are all things that he’s made clear (among many others). These we can both celebrate and be confident in.

What leads us off into the dingweeds is not certainty about what God has made clear, it’s in transferring our certainty about explicit things God has made clear onto those things which he hasn’t. This is where man’s religion wrests the steering wheel from God’s hands and drives its own road, inevitably ending in error and bondage. Anytime we transfer the same weight of certainty from God’s clear statement onto man-made theological structures regarding the “hows and whens and therefores” of something God has made clear, we’ve gone astray. We love the “therefores”, and it’s been the “therefores” that have especially been the focus of my soul-searching and questioning, because within them lurk the Most Dangerous Ideas that we’ve been discussing; ideas that pass for unquestioned truth simply because they are so prevalent.

I feel confident that the questions I’ve wrestled with, and the journey that I’ve been on is shared by others. And I think that probably the most valuable use of this space and the time I have to write is to discuss the specific things I no longer believe are true, and to discuss why and how I arrived at a place where I was able to change my mind. I recognize how much potential there is for making folks uncomfortable, and maybe even angry and scandalized by taking this journey. I mean, one of the knowns is that if you’re truly a believer, you don’t question or doubt the party line and what you’ve been taught, right?

I truly believe that anything that grows, changes. The very nature of growth demands it. Development of the soul and the growth of a living relationship with God will be no different, due in no small part to God always seeking to call forward to know him more deeply. As we know him more, we will inevitably see ourselves more clearly, which will mean having to come to terms with our own bias, blindness, and weakness.

So, on the road ahead, we’ll be looking at specific ideas, practices, assumptions, theological positions, etc. that I’ve changed my mind about as I’ve deconstructed all I’ve been taught about God and what it means to know and walk with him. It is my sincere hope that in doing so, I might in some small way be a helpful traveling companion for those who are on this journey with me.

Until then, my God’ richest blessing and peace rest upon you.

Honesty and Freedom

woman-girl-freedom-happy-39853“One hears many things, My Lord. Whether the truth is among them is not clear.”
Pius Thicknesse – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows

In a post several years ago, I made the point that some of the most dangerous ideas and the most damaging of thoughts and expressions are ones that are so prolific and so accepted, as to never be questioned. This powerful force of perception, supported by the assumption of truth is how things like slavery in Europe and the Americas and the Third Reich managed to endure as long as they did. This idea is one of the centering themes of this blog that we return to continually as we try to tackle the challenge of understanding and expressing what it might look like to be a disciple of Jesus in 21st Century America, which couldn’t be more different than 1st Century Palestine where this all began.

And yet…for many the idea that there is any question or debate about what it means to be a “Christian” in America generates blank stares. I’m sure others have had church cultures that were different than I had, but unfortunately, I can only speak from the context of mine, which was extremely rigid, conservative, and mostly Baptist. My degree in Youth Ministry came from Liberty University (i.e. Jerry Falwell), if that provides some context. In that religious culture, there is a very long list of “givens” about what it means to be a “Christian” or a “disciple”, and they are treated as simple known quantities that everyone just accepts as a matter of course. For 20 of my 30+ years as one who believes and tries to follow Jesus, I did as well, because they were taught as self-evident truth and supported with verses pried from the pages of the Bible, sometimes in context, sometimes not. And as the saying goes “the Bible says it, so that settles it” right?

And for many, it does settle it, whatever that “it” may be, because in that religious context, to question one of the many “givens” marks one out as spiritually immature or backslidden at best or blasphemous at worst. For evidence, all one needs do is watch what happens when someone dares discuss one of the many hot-button religious topics on social media. All manner of Hell and Condemnation breaks forth as folks-of-the-party-line seek to set the person straight and correct their erring ways. The pressure to conform and not question is extremely powerful and subtle.

But ironically, over time, it can have the exact opposite of the intended effect of creating and protecting “good Christians.” Instead, it often stifles personal growth and understanding and replaces it with a culture of simply parroting what we’ve been taught and dismissing anything that doesn’t line up with the party platform. This, in turn, creates a disconnect between who we actually are as mortal, human beings and what we are supposed to believe. When this occurs, spiritual, mental, and emotional bondage, false guilt, and pretending can take up residence in the soul. Ask me how I know.

This is all bitterly ironic of course, because the Gospel, the true Gospel, is an announcement of freedom, not bondage. It’s the entrance of a truth that says, “God knows exactly who I am, loves me anyway, and desires a relationship with me enough that he made a way for me to know and experience him when I could not make that way for myself.” Almost everyone I know who calls themselves a Christian would soundly resonate with that statement. And yet…..somehow, somewhere AFTER accepting the life-giving truth of the Gospel and God’s love for us, we find ourselves drawn into a religious culture where acceptance becomes dependant on performance and abiding by the established “givens.” This culture of acceptance-by-performance is insidious because it’s so outwardly similar to pursuing a living relationship with God. And it’s so universal, because – and don’t miss this crucial point – the fallen nature within us LOVES to be religious and perform religious acts because those things garner us attention and praise, which it craves. So in a perverted plot twist, what started as the freedom of boundless grace, becomes the endless treadmill of trying to live up to all the “givens” as outward acts of our own effort, which can be done very easily without any help from the Spirit of God whatsoever. When we peel back the layers, Pride and Self are at the center of it all. We don’t have it all together, so we pretend and hide the real us, and try to project an image of being the model Christian, maybe even because that’s all we know to do. But the most insidious and toxic point in the process is when we begin to actually believe our pretending and truly think we actually have it together or figured out, especially when we feel that qualifies us to condemn others. This is “Christianity” at its ugliest, and sadly, it’s so often the MO of the conservative church in America.

Now, I hasten to add that even in the midst of the religious culture that I was educated and immersed in, there were many, many wonderful people who loved God and loved me. The beauty and wonder of God’s wisdom are illustrated by the fact that no matter how broken something is, he can somehow orchestrate a way to use it for his ends and agenda. However, I do not believe that absolves us of our responsibility to try and change those things that are wrong and to clear away the obstacles that stand in the way of knowing and experiencing the reality of the Kingdom of God among us.

My Journey over the past 10 years has been one of trying to sift through and jettison all the baggage and falsehoods that 20 years of immersion in an acceptance-by-performance religious culture wrought in me. The process has required me to question everything, a process that has been excruciating, and which has caused many in my life much consternation, thinking that I had somehow “compromised” or “backslid” or “walked away from God.” And I can’t condemn them for that, given their context and belief structure. 20 years ago I would likely have had the same thoughts about someone who had taken my path.

But out of that long struggle, my faith has emerged as a battle-hardened soldier. Leaner, simpler and a little wiser maybe, but far more importantly, immensely more thankful and humble. I’m completely abandoned to God’s grace. I know – at a soul-fabric level – that I don’t have anything together or really figured out when it comes to my relationship with God. I strive to trust him and know him as best I can in this mortal frame, but more importantly, I’m convinced that he knows me fully and completely, and yet somehow, he still loves me and sticks with me. I think I’ve finally come to experience the beauty, freedom, and wonder of what it means to not only be “…saved by grace”, but to truly live by it. It’s an incredible place that I wish everyone could experience. And Jesus’ invitation still stands for all who would accept it:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Until next time, may God’ grace and blessing rest on each and every one of you. : )

Walk On

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Life changes have a way of jolting us into awareness. Sometimes those changes come abruptly, like the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, or the heartbreaking departure of a spouse. At other times the change comes slowly, and somewhere along the way, moves from a conceptual construct to staggering reality, like when we objectively recognize that our youngest child is nearing graduation, and then suddenly wake up one morning to feel at some visceral, soul level, that life is forever changed, and that all the points of reference have moved.

Changes wrought by time are like that. In just a few days I will be celebrating (??) my 50th birthday. The past 30+ years of my life have been lived at such a crazy pace that age has been little more than an abstraction as my 20’s, 30’s, and 40’s have quietly and quickly zipped past. I’ve had moments of recognition over the years that have come like gentle whispers, warning me that change was coming, like my inability to work 90 hours a week anymore, or my perfect vision abandoning me and consigning me to the slavery to reading glasses.

But as 50 has approached, especially following the loss of my dad and the emotional trauma and upheaval of the last five years in business, the changes that time has wrought have settled into my soul. More and more these days, I find myself stepping back and taking the time to look around and evaluate the true value of everything and whether it’s worth the investment of any more of my quickly passing life. I’ve always tried to do this, to live my life with an eternal purpose and make choices that I would be proud of, but at 20 or 30 it’s still so very abstract. There’s just so much time ahead.

These are called the “middle years”, but unless I live to be 100, they aren’t the middle. They really ought to be called the “2/3 years” or the “middle-years-if-you’re-lucky.” Simple math and the law of averages mean that I probably have somewhere between 25 and 35 years left to do and to be whatever I’m going to do and be. When every year passes more quickly than the last, all of a sudden that seems like a shockingly short amount of time. These are thoughts and realizations that cause many – both men and women – to attempt to flee back to a younger time to recapture what time as taken, or to finally have what has always eluded them, including the quintessential mid-life crisis cliches of buying a Porche or finding a boy-toy.

But these thoughts and realizations do carry a tremendous amount of weight, and it’s not for nothing that they are associated with the term “crisis.” It’s a sobering and potentially devastating thing to realize that there is considerably more time behind you than lies ahead and that those things you have striven for, or maybe worse, those things you didn’t prioritize and strive for, will now never be.

By this point, I’m sure you’re wondering, “what does this have to do with the overall theme of this blog? How does this address the topic of “life in the Kingdom of God” or “what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus in 21st century America?” Great question! It’s really addressing another long-held, but very toxic belief, that somehow knowing God and “trusting Jesus” eliminates the need to experience or process the realities of living life truthfully and realistically in this human frame, complete with all its beauty and brokenness. In the end, it’s about honesty, which ironically enough, is often lacking in the context and normal MO of the church.

As a human being with an unavoidable mortal connection to this planet and what happens here, I’m struggling with age and the implications. I’m in a maddening dichotomy because, on the one hand, I’m grieving a bit that I don’t have more time – or even another lifetime to focus on writing, or music – while at the same time I’m kinda looking forward to being done with the whole earthly mess so I can move on to what God has for me further on. The difference that faith makes is not an avoidance of the realities of my human feelings and emotions, but the ability to put them in context. I don’t seek to avoid the blood and guts of it all, I just want the reality of the Kingdom of God to speak into that space to provide a solid point of reference and orienting perspective.

The honest truth is, I’m struggling a bit. I’m not handling it well some days, but my determination is to navigate this period of life, new though it may be with all its terrors and edges, in the same way that I’ve tried to navigate the heady days of naive, and sometimes arrogant youth. I just want to use the time that I have left to walk further down the path while making wiser and more definitive decisions about what I carry with me on this Journey.

As part of that process, I’ve determined to set my Sunday afternoons aside to write. I’ve felt for a very long time that part of God’s gifting and “call” on my life was to communicate his truth in a way that is unique to me, in the hope that there might be others who could relate and resonate with the crazy musings that run through my soul.

I think this makes time number three that I’ve restarted this blog, but my sincere hope and determination at this stage of life is to make it a priority. If this is your first time with me, I would recommend going back a few posts and reading from the beginning because those entries really do provide a context for pretty much everything I present. I hope you’ll continue to join me on this Journey, and that in some small way, the ground we cover here might both energize and encourage you to Walk On.

 

 

Relationship

Relationships with other human beings can be both the most beautiful and the most damaging of things that we experience in our journey through this life. Both the beauty and the damage impact us and leave their mark, for good or ill. It’s not for nothing that Jesus spent a disproportionate amount of time talking about how humans should treat one another. But despite our best efforts, and sometimes due to the profound lack of effort, we both wound and are wounded in the fray that is human relationships.

At times in an effort to follow Jesus, when we are wronged or wounded by someone, we jump directly into an attempt to forgive without dealing honestly with the hurt done to us. (Of course, there is also the very prevalent, opposite issue of never getting around to forgiving because we’re too consumed with examining our hurts. But that’s a different subject for another time).

But, when we don’t deal honestly with the hurt and hold others accountable for their words and actions that wound, the path to forgiveness is a difficult one indeed. After all, there’s no need for forgiveness when there is no transgression. One very damaging (mis)interpretation of Jesus’ admonition to forgive others, to do so “70×7”, and “to turn the other cheek” demands that we must allow others, and often the same “other” to continually wound us, and it’s our duty to simply endure it and continually forgive. I have come to believe that, not only is that interpretation wrong, it’s actually septic and not at all consistent with the dignity that God bestowed on human beings when he breathed the spirit into them.

Sometimes, despite the best of intentions and despite huge efforts at bridge building and attempts at communication, a relationship just doesn’t work. Sometimes we or the other person – and sometimes both – are broken in ways that make mutual understanding impossible, and to continue in the relationship is to simply invite more of the same damaging dynamics. Deeply held contempt, opinions, and prejudices are exceedingly difficult to overcome. And often our attempts to help another understand us or our perspective just reinforces their pre-conceived notions. In those situations, we are often the catalyst that brings out the worst in that person, and to remain in the relationship is to not only be our own worst enemy but probably theirs as well.

We are called to love and forgive our enemies and those who hurt us. Sometimes, the very kindest and most Christlike way to love that other person is to bring the relationship to a close, even if that closure comes at significant personal cost to us.

Certainly, there are many edges to individual circumstances that help determine the right path. But I have come to believe, that sometimes the very best of paths for all involved is to simply say, “I forgive you. Goodbye.”

Getting It Wrong

Sometimes things coalesce in ways that really are a bit, well, supernatural. It’s been a couple months since my last post, and in that time I’ve pretty much known what direction I felt I was supposed to go, but I’ve been thinking – and praying – as I always do about how to mesh the streams of my thoughts and ideas together. I’m also on a personal journey to transform how I communicate. I want my words to be ones that bring life and hope. Even when I feel it’s important to address things that I feel are wrong and need correcting, I want to communicate in a way that makes people lift up their eyes and dream of what could be, and what they might change or do to make those dreams possible. It’s very, very easy for me to look around and see what’s wrong. It’s a much harder thing to put those things in eternal perspective and address them honestly, while also looking forward in hope.

So, over the past 7-8 weeks, I’ve watched and listened, prayed and thought. And interestingly, a number of things have happened that dovetailed into my subject. I’d like to say that the incidents were uplifting, positive things, but that would be a lie. In truth, they were enraging and heart-breaking, but they did underscore the importance of our theme, which as you might remember, is ideas that are so universal that no one questions their truth or validity, especially as that relates to Christ, the Kingdom of God, Church, and the religious culture we find ourselves in here in America in the 21st Century.

I want to start with a few stories and then think through them together. I’d like to warn my readers who are easily offended that there are a few direct quotes to follow and I have not altered the language, and I have not done so intentionally. I think it’s important that we feel the weight of reality and not dodge hard issues due to tender sensibilities, so here we go.

Nearly five years ago I was introduced to a guy who since has become a really great friend and all around great human being. I love him and have no doubt in my mind that all I would need to do is pick up the phone and tell him I was in need and he would drop everything and do everything in his power to help me, even at great cost to himself. In short, he’s one of the kindest and most self-sacrificing guys I personally know. And he’s intentionally, and determinably NOT a “Christian.” While scanning my Facebook newsfeed some weeks back I was heart-broken to see this status posted on his page.

“When I die if I go to hell it will be because of Christians… there isn’t a more rude self entitled group of people in the world. Love? I think not… Caring? No damn way… christ like?… funny!!!

As one might imagine, his words prompted a range of responses from people. Some sounded off in agreement, heaping their own shovelful of contempt on “Christians” and “religious people.” Some –  presumably “Christians” showed compassion – offering apologies and admonishments to look to God instead of people, etc. A smaller percentage felt the proper response was to “preach” and point out that if my friend “went to hell”, it would be because he chose to, and in so doing, really just underscored the entire point of his post. You see, my friend is a Church of God preacher’s kid and probably knows the content of the Bible and what passes as “the gospel story” better than most church goers. Yet there were the minority who just HAD to set him straight.

The second incident happened at our adventure park at Fall Creek Falls a couple weeks ago. As anyone who has dealt with the general public has experienced, no matter what lengths you to go to inform patrons of the rules and systems that govern a particular activity, there are always the few who don’t read anything and come into the situation with unrealistic or sometimes ludicrous expectations.  And when their expectations are not met, they proceed to lash out in anger and contempt at anyone who stands in the way of them getting what they want. Then, after spraying their verbal venom on all within earshot they take to the internet and make sure the Travelocity, Facebook, and Twitter-sphere know all the details of their “horrible experience.”

In early October we had just such a group led by these sorts of people. They showed up 45 minutes late, had read none of the preregistration information, didn’t bring release forms, etc. etc. When the man was on the phone with one of our staff, he told her “you’re a f*cking freak and your systems suck.” In the midst of the chaos of trying to get their group situated, this man’s wife started giving Kim a hard time wanting to circumvent our procedures, etc. When Kim wouldn’t allow that she said, “well that’s not very Christlike!”

Huh? I’d like to say that these kinds of incidents are rare, but unfortunately they are common enough that when we have what our staff have come to call a “PITA” group, the immediate assumption is “I bet they are a church group.”

Over the past ten years Kim and I have become surrounded by people who have been burned, marginalized, ridiculed, alienated, and put completely off to church – but far worse, to Christ and the gospel – due to the actions of those who self identify as “Christians.” It’s a universal problem, but it’s much, much worse in the southeast, and particularly in the Bible Belt.  Just yesterday, Kim picked a friend up  from the airport in Atlanta and brought him to Chattanooga for a family event. In the midst of the 2 hr. drive the topic of faith / church / Jesus came up. Kim invited this friend to join us at Journey on Sunday. He kindly declined and responded that he is an Atheist, but that he grew up in Southern Baptist churches. The final straw for him seems to have been a situation as a young adult when he brought a black friend to church and was told by a parishioner “never bring a nigger in this church ever again.”

I don’t blame him; I wouldn’t have gone back either.

Somewhere along the way in our religious culture, things have gone terribly wrong. Extreme though they may be, these are but a tremulous sampling of the kinds of unbiblical, un-christlike ideas that have become so commonly held as to be associated with what “church / bible / Jesus / faith” IS . It matters not that they have no scriptural grounding in the slightest; they simply become a priori assumptions that are perpetuated without ever being analyzed. When this happens, they become a toxin that corrupts all that they touch.

One of my favorite devotional writers of all time is AW Tozer. He had an authentic passion for Christ that was second to none and a powerfully unique way of expressing it that blessed millions. In my time of reading this morning, I came across this passage, which so eloquently expresses my point. He said:

“…the error[s] are so widespread that one feels alone when he tries to combat [them]. [They] have acted as a kind of dye to color the thinking of religious persons and [have] colored the eyes as well, so as it is all but impossible to detect [their] fallacy. In the face of every New Testament teaching to the contrary, [they] have been said and sung throughout the centuries and have been accepted as part of the Christian message, which [they] most certainly are not.”

Ironically enough, though I have changed the noun / pronoun tense from singular to plural, Tozer here is referring to one example of these errors, namely the idea that one place is more sacred than another, i.e a church building is more sacred / holy than, say, your backyard. One only needs to ponder how many times they’ve heard someone refer to a church building as “God’s house” to realize just how ubiquitous this error is.

But what we don’t often recognize is just how sinister and damaging seemingly benign errors such as this really is, and how it and many others like it have converged to change the message of the gospel.

This is where we will begin….next time. : )

The Most Dangerous Ideas

As most writers, I often find writing to be a challenge. However, it’s usually not because I don’t feel that there are important things to say. There is that “no-time-too-tired-to-put-forth-the-effort” thing that contributes, but just as often these days I dodge the urge to write because my thoughts often lack a cementing theme or common thread to anchor them together. I find that when that theme is lacking my writing can sound a bit like ranting, which isn’t usually very valuable or helpful. In great measure I think this realization has been a factor in why my “pen” has been mostly idle over the past few years. It’s easy for me to fall into negativity and cynicism, especially as it relates to church and faith topics, and I’ve determined that I just don’t want to be that kind of voice.

However, sometimes thoughts coalesce to bring clarity and provide an anchor – or better – a hub from which the spokes of many connected ideas stem. Over the course of months and years, God has used three separate and seemingly unrelated things to solidify a deep, common idea that, to me, is incredibly poignant.

First, I read a book by David Platt called “Radical.” If I’m honest, it was the tagline “Taking back your faith from the American Dream” that caught my eye. Its premise is that much of what passes for “Christianity” in America bears a much stronger resemblance to a sanctified, religious version of the highly prized American Dream than it does to Jesus’ call to biblical discipleship and to simply follow Him. It would be hard to overstate how much I resonate with this topic, and how deeply I desire to find answers to the problems that exist.

Secondly, some time back, two young women from our Body who had spent a great portion of their summer ministering in China, Nepal, and India, did a report on all that they experienced, and gave some pretty staggering statistics regarding the needs in what is commonly referred to as the 10/40 Window. The report both broke my heart and fed my soul.

And sometime last year, I watched the movie Machine Gun Preacher, with Gerard Butler; a story based on the real life of Sam Childers, a man who followed God’s call into the bloodbath that was Sudan in the late 90’s and early 2000’s to rescue children who were being abducted by the Joseph Kony and the Lord’s Resistance Army. Since then, I’ve spent a few hours watching interviews with the man on whom the movie is based and thinking a great deal about our world, my faith, and the values and priorities of the modern American church.

The recurring and powerful central idea that I keep coming back to is this; the most dangerous and destructive thoughts and ideas are the ones that are so universally assumed and accepted that we never even think to challenge them, so they continue on perpetually, masquerading as truth. Nowhere is that more true than in relation to what it means to be a disciple of Jesus in America in the 21st Century.

Using that centering theme, I hope over the next few weeks and months to explore some of those sacred assumptions about faith, religion, country, discipleship, and see what we find when we strip away the veneer and dig into the heart of things. My hope is that on this Journey we’ll discover truth, find clarity, and maybe a vision and hope for a future that is brighter than our past.

And I promise… I’ll try not to rant. : )Stained Glass Depicting Jesus Christ

A New Beginning….Again.

Back in 2009 I began this blog as a place to explore the questions and musings  of my heart regarding what it means and what it might look like to be a disciple of Christ in America in the 21st Century, since what has come to be known as “Christian”  seems to have, over the past 2000 odd years, swung fairly wide of the mark. My hope and desire was that it would not only be a place where I could work out my own walk with Christ, but also might also be a place for discussion and encouragement for others who are on this crazy, unruly, unpredictable Journey along with me. Ironically, this new endeavor coincided with the launch of the commercial aerial adventure park arm of our company, which prompted exploded and swept us off into calendar madness. In the whirlwind that has been the last 4 years, the demands on my time and the pressures of expanding business responsibilities have had a voracious appetite, and have consumed many things that I hold dear, and left behind dry bones and very little in the way of spiritual and emotion energy for writing. The  weight of the metaphors and lessons taught by this simple reality have not been lost on me, and in a very real way, only serve to underscore my original intent for this blog. The truth is, we as Americans live in a world that is so very different from the days when Jesus’ original knot of disciples tramped along beside him through the Galilean dirt. Unprecedented wealth, advanced technology, expanding education, advanced science, and the relentless rush of time have mixed a cocktail of physical, mental, emotional and spiritual pressure that great numbers of us have been more than eager to drink. And I’m not sure we or our world are the better for it. For, though times and circumstances have changed, we as human beings have not. We remain broken, weak and prone to wander. Jesus was no niggard when he likened us to sheep, for that metaphor is deep and rich….and very instructive. But as with so many of His words, the separation of time, the pressures of life, our own biases and struggles, and our own inherent limitations and blindness sometimes make it really hard to make sense of it all. We end up dizzy, disoriented, and discouraged, without a really clear picture of what it means to actually follow Him down through the asphalt and concrete of our daily lives. I’ve always had a passion for making disciples.  But so much of what I’ve come to believe about spiritual development is rather divergent from the “normal” way we as American Christians approach the concept of “discipleship”, i.e actively and intentionally following Jesus right here and right now.  So, because these things matter, and because my own heart needs the space and freedom to pursue it’s Great Love, I am starting again; to write, to think, to pray, to explore and to create a space that can serve as an outlet for my perspective on the Way of Jesus and what it may look like to follow Him in the 21st Century. I welcome all who are interested in exploring the reality of life in the Kingdom – aside from man’s religion and all that has clouded its reality over the past 2000 years – to join me.  I cherish the presence of friends and companions on this Journey that is LIFE.   (John 10:10) Continue reading

Uncharted Territory

One of the best things about getting older is the reality birthed through accumulated experience.  If you’re attentive, the more you live through the fewer things there are that truly surprise you or catch you completely off guard.  Living out of accumulated experience allows you to navigate life with fewer and fewer things that blindside you. Because I live in a metaphysical matrix that includes a very real spiritual enemy called the Devil, I often say that the longer I live the harder it is for the Devil to catch me unawares because I’ve become so intimately familiar with his tactics.  Despite the negatives of getting older, the real gem of age is the availability of what is commonly understood as Wisdom, and the peace that comes from having lived long enough and through enough to have a clear perception of what happening as you walk through each new day.

But every once in awhile a new experience does come our way, and often those experiences – like wisdom – are directly related to the relentless, forward march of time.

I’m losing my Dad to pancreatic cancer.

And even as I write that statement, it seems utterly surreal to me despite the 10 months I’ve had to process the reality.  This is one of those experiences that I don’t  have categories for -nor words – and have no life experience at all that has served to prepare me for such a foundation shaking experience.  I don’t know what or how to “feel.”  I don’t really know what to really “do”, save take every opportunity to be with him and do things for him.  But truth be told, often even those times feel very awkward and I just don’t know how to navigate them.  I don’t know how to watch him be in pain, and weak, and confused by the staggering amount of medication he’s being given just to make each day bearable.

My dad loves me, and I him. More than words can express, actually.  Which I think may be part of my struggle.  Dad has always been the most significant man in my world. He’s my hero,plain and simple.

So I find myself in uncharted territory without a shred of experience to support me through it all.  And yet at the same time I’m keenly aware that what’s happening to me in these moments are life altering and are changing me.  I just don’t want to miss them.

I don’t know whether I was born to always press forward toward tomorrow at the expense of today, or whether I learned it through repetition, but I do know it’s an ingrained part of my psyche.  I have a horrible time – despite my deep awareness of how important it is – to live in the moment I’m in.  There is always the “next thing”, with it’s clanging gong of urgency that saps my mental and emotional resources and drags me longingly into tomorrow.

Which, oddly enough, is a poignant, interesting, and disturbing realization for me as I watch my precious dad walk through these dark days.  See, my father and I are hopelessly alike.  Our looks, our mannerisms, our strengths, and our weaknesses all track together.  So when I see Dad in all that he’s dealing with, it feels so very much like looking into the dark eyes of the future. It’s hard to describe and it’s very, very strange.  I’ve never been here, and I don’t know what to do with it.

The great blessing in all of this is anchored in the security of knowing that God rules over all and that none of this has taken Him by surprise.  Dad knows and loves Jesus and is leaning on Him, even through the times of fear, pain, and doubt. I am so thankful for that. And yet, as is so often the case, cliche’s and platitudes seem so inadequate for an experience that is so obviously and utterly life altering. The humanity of it all, the difficulty of it all, rocks me down deep inside, and I return to the place where I have no categories nor words.  Only faith, and trust, and a determination to learn to LIVE and LOVE in the moment and to recognize the weight of these days.