11.02.2011

A Little Conformity Might Do Us Good

These days, and among younger generations, one of the worst insults you could heap upon someone is to call them a "conformist."  This is the age of individuality, being your own person, and not caring what other people think of you.  Becoming one's own unique person is the goal, and any hint that you are borrowing identity or beliefs is an insult.

Perhaps the most obvious manifestation of the non-conformist culture is in the realm of religion.  For more and more people, it is a sign of weakness and conformity to be involved in organized religion or to claim a traditional, already established religion as one's own.  Instead, in order to be a unique individual, people create a hodge-podge of beliefs, coming up with a new name for what they believe, or they may even start their own religion.

There's one big problem with the idea that we choose our own path, think for ourselves, and find our own beliefs: It's not true.

The fact of the matter is that our context, relationships, and experiences have a huge influence on us, almost to the point of being determinative.  Sociologists have known this for a while; the rest of us have missed it. Sociologist Inagrace Dietterich once wrote,
"The modern emphasis on the autonomous self too often ignores, or even denies, the formative power of the various communities in which we participate.  We assume that our "habits of the heart" - the notions, opinions, commitments, and desires that motivate, order and guide our lives - are chosen and formed in isolation from other human beings and social realities....[But] the question is not whether we will be socialized, but what kind of society will have its way with us."  
As the old (and biblical) saying goes, "There is nothing new under the sun." (Ecclesiastes 1:9).  Any time we "think for ourselves," we are merely processing knowledge, data and thoughts that have been passed onto us by someone else.  (It's kind of like making a recipe: the result might look unique and impressive, but it's really just age old ingredients prepared in a certain way). As we age and "become our own person," we are often merely becoming an adult version of our younger self and we still live and repeat the same patterns we learned there. Couples who do counseling with me are often shocked by the connections I'm able to make between their behavior patterns in their family of origin and the current relationship.

Similarly, any time we become our own "spiritual individual," we are merely rearranging what's been passed down to us and what we've been exposed to.  Everything is borrowed.  If we come up with something that's new to us, it is just that: new to us, but trust me, it has been thought of before, and we were only able to think it because of what we have gleaned from others.  I would argue that "free thinking," as the term is used in our culture, is not possible.  We all operate within what Peter Berger called "plausibility structures."

In a Christian Century article dated Sept 1, 2011, Lillian Daniel wrote a masterful piece about this phenomenon of people saying they're "spiritual, but not religious" and rejecting anything that seems to be "organized religion."  He talks about a man who came into his office to announce his departure from the church and that he had come up with his own beliefs:  Daniel writes, "He dumped this news in my lap as if it were a controversial hot potato, something shocking to a minister who had never been exposed to ideas so brave.  Of course, this well-meaning Sunday jogger fits right in to mainstream American culture. He is perhaps by now a part of the majority."

Daniel goes on to say something that rings very true with my own experience:
"If we made a church for all these spiritual-but-not-religious people, if we got them all together to talk about their beliefs and their incredibly unique personal religions, they might find out that most of America agrees with them. But they'll never find that out, because getting them all together would be way too much like church. And they are far too busy being original to discover that they are not."
There is truth to the tongue-in-cheek quip that non-conformists are all alike. Sure, they might have a few personal tweaks here and there and motives that are genuine, but it's all taken from the same ingredients, and if you have your "own religion" or you have rejected religion all together, you are no less influenced by your context than I am. Your influences have just been different. I remember as a teenager getting a kick out of the so-called "goth" dress that some of my fellow students were donning. When asked, most of them would tell you that they are dressing that way in order to assert their individuality. I'm not ridiculing them, but it was always amazing how similar they all looked.

There's an important distinction to be made between "default" and "choice" when it comes to people's beliefs.  For example, there's a big difference between an atheist by default and an atheist by choice.  A default atheist is someone who was perhaps raised in a non-religious home where God was never discussed, so even though they might often hear people speak of God and faith, it's just not part of their contextual framework.  An atheist by choice, on the other hand, is someone who - regardless of their background - has critically engaged the question of religion and belief and made a decision to be an atheist (though often in opposition to a default religious context).  But due to our culture of individuality and non-conformity, people often end up rejecting their default belief system simply because it's the default, not out of careful consideration. It's important to own our beliefs. Contrary to the attitude of Christian apologists who try to beef up our young people with ready answers to the intellectual challenges they'll face in college, it is quite healthy and necessary for people to go through a period of disillusionment and questioning with respect to their default belief system. This can and should happen. But there seems to be this idea today that we're supposed to leave our default belief system behind, whatever it happens to be.  If we don't, we're being submissive conformists.  I've seen people leave Christianity simply because it was their "default"--what they were raised in--and they don't see a way to move from default to choice without also moving to another religion (or none at all).  Like many young adults, I've also made the journey from default to choice. It involved much questioning, doubt and anxiety. But for me, it did not involve leaving the faith I was raised in altogether, nor did it have to.

I applaud the way today's cultural trends have heightened our awareness of a bad type of conformity; that is, mindless submission. But I think we've lost the value of another kind of "conformity."  The good kind.  I think the valuable truth we're missing in this hyper-individualistic culture is that we were made for community, and that our faith journey finds fulfillment and meaningful expression in the context of community.

This false idea of the autonomous individual can be found just as strongly present in the church as outside it. You hear it in Christian theology through phrases like "personal relationship with Jesus Christ" (a phrase found nowhere in the Bible). We see it in the way the church is treated like a dispenser of religious goods and services rather than a collaborative effort in faith formation. We've totally lost the communal aspect of faith development and even salvation. That's why Christians today are confused when we read verses like Acts 11:14 or Acts 16:31 that talk about whole households being collectively saved.  In fact, the Bible is chock-full of examples of God relating to, teaching, and shaping people in the context of a community or people group. Whenever God did relate specially to an individual, it was for an eventual communal purpose. Churches have strayed a very far distance from the early church as described in Acts 2:42-47 and Acts 4:32-35, so much so that groups of Christians who do operate as the early church is described are often not referred to or thought of as a church.

When we see ourselves as totally autonomous individuals and act as competing, individual kingdoms, nothing gets done. This is why ministry (and other things that involve working with volunteers) feels so much like herding cats these days. We need to experience conformity again, in its good sense.  Modernity and the focus on the individual were not a completely bad thing; to be sure. It heightened our awareness of personal rights and freedoms and that we should never force people to do something. However, it has gone way too far, and it's time to reclaim and live in awareness of our mutual dependency.  It requires putting some personal preferences aside and holding our beliefs tentatively, and many are not willing to do that.  But it's community where we "spur each other on toward love and good deeds" (Heb 10:24-25). It's where we learn the value of mutual submission (Eph 5:21). It's where we seek and find truth.  It's where we bring together our gifts and talents to accomplish more than we ever could on our own (Romans 12:4-5). Jesus prayed that all believers would be "one" (John 17:20-21).

In short, I think a little more "conformity" might do us some good.

10.22.2011

Reality - Escape or Transform?

Have you ever thought about how many of our activities ultimately amount to an escape of reality?

I did it a lot as a kid.  Most days, after school, I would make a retreat into my room where I would immerse myself in video games or my world of pretend aided by my tape player.  If I wasn't beating up the bad guys on my Nintendo, I was a super-hero, a pop-singer, etc.  Anything other than what I was would do.  A half-invisible, nerdy kid who couldn't swim or ride a bike was the self-image I had, and I had little interest in that person.  Like every kid and teenager, I experimented with several identities.  The one that has worked for me since I was 16 is "the confident, able leader."  To this day I get uneasy when I don't feel like I'm fulfilling that role.

There's something about escaping reality that's very healthy.  They actually say that children need to do it occasionally in order to develop properly...but only to a point.  Children who do nothing but live in the fantasy world are often socially inept.  Adults need to do it too.  Reality can suck.  Kids and bosses drive you crazy, families are messed up, suffering is all around us, and the realization of how much we have no control over can be paralyzing.  We cope with this by retreating into constructed realities with clear parameters.  Novels, games, movies, etc.  Sometimes these things are a healthy tool for our psychological survival.  But do we sometimes go beyond their occasional, healthy function?

Take a quick self-assessment of your free time (yes, we all have some, we just like to say we don't).  How much of it amounts to an escape from reality?  Take a quick self-assessment of the rest of your time - when you're at work, school, with family and friends.  How much of your thought processes and/or conversations amount to an escape from reality?

What some of us might find is that we spend an inordinate amount of time in some sort of escape from reality, or at least that our lives feature little if any contact with the lives of people outside our close circles.  But as a Christian, how am I called to relate to the real world?  Escape it, or transform it?

Another way we do this is in our relationships.  Think about it:  how often are your relationships based on intimate knowledge of and conversation about the other?  This is very rare.  Usually, conversations are centered away from the people engaged in them and focus on other things like hobbies, events, or other people.  This triangled focus in relationships is very common:  guys talk about sports, women talk about clothes, families sit with each other while watching the TV, etc.  These triangles create the illusion of closeness in a relationship but actually maintain distance and shield us from the realities of our life and others' lives.  As a Christian, how am I called to relate to the lives of others?

In scripture, Jesus and 3 of his disciples enjoyed a brief escape from reality in the story of the Transfiguration (Matt 17:1-9; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36).  They had what you could call a "mountaintop experience."  Aren't those great?  I remember having them growing up, and some were literally on top of a mountain at camps like Eagle Eyrie and Ridgecrest.  But I remember the let-down when I came back home and was surprised to find that I was my old self and returned to my old habits.  In all 3 synoptic gospels, this "mountaintop story" is followed by Jesus being met at the bottom of the mountain by a man begging for Jesus to free his son of demon possession (the only time a majority of the gospels put two stories in the same sequence).  How do you like that?  A marvelous, heavenly experience, and then WHAM - back to the grind.

Scripture is less "heavenly-minded" than we might think.  It abounds with narratives and images of God transforming reality rather than calling people out of or away from it.  I think of the creation narrative of Genesis 1 in which God takes formless matter and reorders it into something majestic.  I think of Ezekiel's image of dry bones coming to life (Ezek 37:4-6). I think of Isaiah's visions of peace and prosperity even among the animal kingdom (Isa 65:17-25) and Revelation's promise of a "new heaven and a new earth," God making "everything new" and dwelling "among the people" (Rev 21:1-4).  In fact, it seems that whenever God does do something "other-worldly," it always has a very grounded, earthly purpose.  Isaiah had a wild vision that culminated in God "touching his lips" and giving him a message to preach (Isaiah 6:1-8).  The angelic visits to Mary served to prepare her for what was to come; a very real birth in a very real (and dirty) place.  The "tongues of fire" at Pentecost and the coming of the Spirit served to make it possible for everyone to hear the word of God in their own language (Acts 2:1-12).  One of my favorite moments comes a chapter before that, right after Jesus has ascended and disappeared from the disciples' sight.  "Two men" appear and deliver a great line: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand here looking into the sky?" (Acts 1:11)

Indeed.  Why do we stand here looking into the sky?  Why do we always focus on everything but the other person in relationships?  It seems to me that while God has a way of providing those important escapes from reality when we need them, our primary calling is to transform reality.  We are to be in the thick of it all, bringing the hope, love and grace that we have freely received and must now freely give (Matt 10:8).  Outside of our novels, games, movies and puzzles - as good and fun as they are - we can't forget about the much greater, messier, and spectacular narrative unfolding all around us.

I dare say that some versions of Christianity are little more than a different kind of escape from reality, draped in the language of piety and faithfulness.  From the fascination with rapture and end times (including a best-selling 12-book series) to hymns of the "roll being called up yonder," many people seek only to see heaven through human eyes rather than to see earth through God's eyes.  These dreams and escapes are only valuable insofar as they provide us with an encouraging vision of what could be; what God is trying to remake the world into.  We are to be the "salt of the earth" and the "light of the world" (Matt 5:13-16).  This requires a faith that "spurs us on toward love and good deeds" (Heb 10:24), a faith that takes us into the dark corners where light is most needed - realities we would otherwise just seek to escape, left to ourselves.

This post is an entry in the "Missional Church" section of this blog.

9.09.2011

9/11 Pulpits

This Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11/01 attack on our nation.  I'm one of many blogging about it.  Do I have anything unique or original to say?  Probably not, but here's what's on my mind.

Being a pastor myself, I've been wondering and praying about what kind of words will come from all of my other colleagues who have been entrusted with a pulpit and a microphone this weekend.

No doubt, in some churches, the people will hear a message of confusing Christian nationalism; a big jumbled mess of the cross, the flag, and Constitution.  For those preaching this message, they have at their disposal hundreds of slick, well-produced videos displaying Christian scripture and imagery against the backdrop of the stars and stripes.  Some will hear that we need to "take America back" (back to where or when?).  Some will hear vague, implicit suggestions that we brought this on ourselves by kicking God out of American life (although I wasn't aware we had the power or authority to remove God from somewhere He wishes to be).

No doubt, in some churches, the people will hear a message of the evils of other religions, particularly Islam.  We have a ripe opportunity, should we want to take advantage of it, to continue to demonize and lump and segregate.  When a peaceful, progressive group of Sufi Muslims wanted to build a community center (not a mosque) in Manhattan that would be open to everyone, we proved once again that we see the 9/11 attacks as an act of Islam instead of an act of terrorism.

No doubt, in some churches, the people will hear a message of the fantastical illusion that we are really all the same.  They will hear a good and well-intentioned message of reconciliation that also minimizes or denies the deep differences that exist between people and our religious beliefs.  Although there are times that we must get beyond "the things that divide us," it is also sometimes those very particularities that give our lives the meaning and clarity that we crave.

No doubt, in some churches, preachers will declare that "Christ is the hope of the world" but in saying so will actually mean that Christians are the hope of the world, not recognizing the difference.  Religious supremacy, though it is part of the problem, will be touted as the solution.

But it is my hope and prayer that from most pulpits there will be a thundering confidence in the teachings of the man we claim to be our Savior.  No longer can we say "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9) while using rhetoric that divides and angers.  No longer can we say "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21) and continue to repay evil with evil.  No longer can we say that God loves the world (John 3:16) and wants all to be saved (Ezek 18:23) while wishing for and taking pleasure in the destruction of our enemies.  "For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?"  (Luke 6:32).  No longer can we give lip service to things like love and forgiveness but resort to some kind of ethic of necessity and claim that they don't work when the rubber meets the road and we're faced with actual adversity.  As the saying goes, anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

There's no problem with the phrase "never forget."  Indeed, we should remember and honor those who lost their lives and the sacrifice of the brave first responders.  But in context, "never forget" often seems to mean "never let go of anger and vengeance."  As with any other tragic, or untimely death, we cannot bring them back, and it is not more death and destruction that will provide the peace and comfort that we seek.  I believe God wove certain moral precepts into the fabric of creation.  Do we believe in our own convictions, or not?

Those who Jesus called "salt of the earth" are to be the infusion of what's good and right while the rest of the world is trapped in the relentless downward spiral of action/reaction and an eye for an eye.  Those who Jesus called to be the "light of the world" and "a city on a hill" are to take the moral high ground that we claim to have, showing that the way of peace is good and true and right.  May we have the courage to preach and live the teachings of the Jesus in a time and on an anniversary when we need them most.

9.04.2011

Rare Reconciliation

How do you solve interpersonal conflict with others?  Avoid it?  Argue it out?  Post your grievances on Facebook or send a mass email?

A friend of mine is a local Presbyterian minister, and their church began a new Sunday evening service.  She had invited me to it, and since this Sunday evening was the last one I would have free before programming begins at my own church, my family and I went.

Part of the scripture for the evening was Matthew 18:15-17, the somewhat well-known passage from Jesus about how to solve interpersonal conflict.  I was reminded again of the great practicality and wisdom of the passage.  It is great passage; one that is sometimes misunderstood but is remarkably compatible with some of the best teaching out there on how to address interpersonal conflict and achieve reconciliation.

The passage begins, "If a brother or sister sins against you..."

"Against you" is a text variant, found in only some of the ancient manuscripts.  Most likely, a later editor added the words seeing that this was clearly the intent of the passage and wanted to clarify.  There are sins against God, sins against others, and even sins against ourselves.  It is clear as we read on that the passage is concerned with sins that negatively impact another human.  This is an important distinction, because I have personally witnessed people use this verse as an excuse for acting as a "sin monitor" and approaching their relationships as "holier than thou."  The content of the passage and the words "against you" should serve as a reminder that some stuff is none of our business and is best left between the other person and God or whomever they sinned against.

Verse 15 continues, "...go and point out the fault, just between the two of you."  Oh, if only we could do this!  This is the Bible's clearest injunction against triangulation.  We triangulate all the time, sometimes subconsciously.  One of the key concepts of Bowen's Family Systems Theory, this is when person A has a problem with person B, and person A goes to person C hoping he/she will "deliver the message" or take care of the problem in some way.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with A going to C to talk about the conflict, but the problem occurs when A wants C to take action or when C becomes a middle man.  Such situations only make conflict worse and more complicated.  So why do we triangulate?  Quite simply, it's easier.  It takes much more courage and maturity to deal with a problem one-on-one and in private.  You're forced to deal with the issue and the feelings of the other person rather than face-saving or image-building.  But as with most things in life and Jesus' teachings, the harder way is the best way (the "narrow gate" - Matt 7:13-14).  Triangulation calms our immediate anxieties about the situation, but makes the problem worse in the long run.

Direct, one-on-one communication very often results in reconciliation or a resolution, or at least minimizes the conflict's urgency and impact.  If no one ever triangulated, we wouldn't often need steps 2 and 3.  But alas...

Verse 16 says, "If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses'" (referencing an ancient precept from Deuteronomy 19:15).  This is where we start to squirm a little.  Doesn't this sound like ganging up on the person?  It's actually nothing of the sort; it's really a reference to mediation.  It's still A and B talking to each other, with the difference that this time they are accompanied by some "objective bystanders" who can offer guidance and perspective.  It's also a way, in a conflict severe enough that one-on-one doesn't do it, to ensure that things are not misinterpreted or that lies aren't told about what happened in the conversation.  This is not behind-the-back gossip where the person can't defend himself or herself, nor is it a "gang-up."  It's the next step in reconciliation (not winning).

Verse 17 goes on to offer step 3, which should rarely if ever be required.  Step 3 really makes us uncomfortable, and doesn't sound right.  But we have to keep in mind that most people skip step 1, and sometimes step 2.  Consequently, the few instances some of us have seen of step 3 being used have been destructive, public situations when the appropriate private steps have not been taken.  Verse 17 says, "If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church."   Two important points here:  1) This is all for the goal of reconciliation, not vindication.  2) The "church," properly defined, is a group of close-knit, family like individuals who love and support one another.  These steps don't work without the proper goals and relationships in place.  Stone-faced church business meetings calling for the ouster of someone is nothing of what Jesus speaks here.  It's also important to note that the offender is still supposed to be present, able to defend or speak for him/herself.

The conclusion of the passage sounds the most harsh of all:  "If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."  But the important point here is in a good question that was asked by the minister delivering the message Sunday night:  "How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?"  Just when we think we finally have the right to shun and feel self-vindicated, we are actually being asked to look at this person with compassion as a "lost sheep" (Luke 15:1-7) and go out of our way to offer grace to them and work for their restoration back to the family.

This is hard.  But it works.  I pray that you and I would have the wisdom and courage to deal with one another in this way.

8.27.2011

The Untitled Rant, Part 2: A Gutted Fortress

In Part 1, I explored who "the poor" really are and how they are grossly misunderstood and misrepresented.  I now turn to the current political climate and issues of public policy that can not only keep people in poverty, but can actually make the problem worse.

We're hearing people talk of reducing government spending, as if it is inherently bad or counterproductive every time the feds write a check. "Stop spending!" they cry. But the question is, "spending on what?" "Government spending" can help educate our citizens. "Government spending" helps keep our water, food, roads, cars, airplanes, and buildings safe. "Government spending" helps keep the unemployed off the streets when they are laid off by a company that would rather bonus its top executives than keep jobs at the bottom. "Government spending" pays the salaries of those who keep things working that you and I never see and take for granted. "Government spending" finds, prosecutes, and houses criminals (and some non-criminals). "Government spending" helps ensure that you don't become poor and homeless just because you age and retire. Insofar as government does these things poorly, the private, business sector is no alternative as their goal is profit and they cannot be voted out of office. Do I object to some things government spends money on? Absolutely (see below). But that's what we need: specificity. This non-specific rhetoric about "reducing government spending" is not helpful.

We're seeing people get elected to positions of power who want to go in and just slash everything. Some of the stuff they're trying to cut (like funding for public broadcasting or the National Endowment for the Arts) are tiny, inconsequential portions of the federal budget.  Many states are cutting education, yet today's professional work force requires more education, experience, and creativity as ever. An acquaintance of mine who has worked around the State House for more than 50 years sent me a summary of the most recent legislative session.  Here is an excerpt:
"Without a doubt this was the most difficult and meanest of any of the previous legislative sessions. The majority thought focused on how do we cut. There was very little discussion as to the needs of the citizens of [the state]...Per pupil aid to students K-12 [was] $4433 in Fiscal Year 2008. For Fiscal Year 2012 the per pupil aid will be $3780...Temporary Assistance for Families has not been increased since 1993...The Governor proposed the elimination of Early Head Start...The General Assistance cash program for adults without children and under the age of 65 is totally eliminated for Fiscal Year 2012."  
The effort to cut government and privatize is essentially a move towards "Darwinian economics;" that is, the survival of the fittest. A local pastor put it this way:
"What we are doing whether we know it or not is appealing to the meanest aspects of human nature. We are saying that there is scarcity, and because there is scarcity everyone must fight among themselves for a piece of the pie...and to cover [these ideas] with the mantle of Christian piety is an outrage."
Federal tax receipts as a proportion of GDP are at their lowest level since 1950. Yet, we're told that the problem is out-of-control spending on domestic projects. How about two wars, bank bailouts, and massive tax cuts for the wealthy?  Plug those in and crunch the numbers. There is plenty of money in America to pay our bills; we're just not collecting it, and we're pumping what we do have into guerrilla warfare and wasteful projects in the Middle East. Here's a proposal:  let's put all tax cuts and exemptions on the expenditure side of the balance sheet, and then we can talk about "government spending."  If tax cuts are not an expenditure, how is it they create deficits? In fact, the United States had to borrow money to pay for the new tax cuts of the last decade.

'dscf0254' photo (c) 2006, Andrew Wilkinson - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/I would love to have a real conversation on government spending; particularly, the fact that defense/military accounts for the largest chunk and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have cost us $1.24 trillion at this writing; while things like education, which are already skin and bones, are being cut even more. The image in my head of what America will be if we continue down this track is that of a gutted fortress. High, thick, strong walls around the outside but desolate on the inside. We can't continue to cut funding to things like education, health, safety, rehabilitation, etc.  Some people may be poor because of their sins, but woe to us if they are poor because of our sins. We want people to be independent, right? Let's start with some things on the government level:  stop cutting education, raise the minimum wage, and keep the meat of the health care law in tact (like making sure insurance companies can't drop people when they get sick or deny coverage because of a pre-existing condition). Such things are not handouts, they are investments. Investments make the world go round and are really the only way to have a chance at upward mobility.  You spend money early, and if you spend it on the right things, you'll earn it back and then some.  On the level of government, that's what can happen when you spend on things like health care and education. They are investments that can yield a return greater than the original dollar amount.

Life is not a vending machine.  I don't get to put my money in, pick what I want, and shake the machine if it doesn't deliver. We all have to share this space. Perhaps most of all, we've lost the concept of citizenship.  I choose to be a citizen.  How about you?  I choose to be a citizen of the United States, a country whose founders believed that every person had a God-given right to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."  These are empty words if we're not willing to provide the things necessary to sustain those rights or if we only afford them to a certain class of people.  And I choose to be a citizen of the Kingdom of God, where "the last shall be first, and the first shall be last" and where we all come before our Maker as equals.

The Untitled Rant, Part 1: Who Are the Poor?

"If man you be in heart, not adamant, forbear that wicked cant until you have discovered what the surplus is, and where it is. Will you decide what men shall live, what men shall die? It may be, that in the sight of heaven, you are more worthless and less fit to live than millions like this poor man's child."   - The Ghost of Christmas Present in Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol"

The other day, an acquaintance from college posted a YouTube video from the show Judge Judy in which a litigant reveals ways that he has been taking advantage of government services and tax payer money.  The video was titled: "Here's who we support with taxes."  The comments started from other like-minded individuals who would like nothing more than to rid society of such human beings.

On October 10, 2010, John Stossel (who once touted that he "built his career on unpaid interns") talked on Fox News about "the makers versus the takers." On August 15, Ann Coulter said that welfare is creating "generations of utterly irresponsible animals." On August 18, Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning compared the poor to raccoons.  On June 22, Neal Boortz called the poor "parasites."  On July 6, he said there is an all-out war between the productive class and the moocher class.

These only scratch the surface of the kind of talk you hear out there; all examples that seem to confirm suspicions of mine about widespread disdain for the poor, a dualistic view of society, and misguided ideas about what tax dollars do. The implicit assumption is clear:  whenever government services help people, they are helping lazy people who don't deserve it and they're using your money to do it. One person actually told a friend of mine who ministers with impoverished communities that the best way to take care of those communities is to bomb them out of existence.

Enough is enough. I'm tired of the vicious hate and watching the powerful bully the powerless. It wouldn't bother me if it were just a few isolated commentators. This kind of language is everywhere.

First of all, let's be clear:  laziness is a universal problem.  You find laziness among people of any socio-economic level, so you can't say that laziness = poverty.  Before going any further, we've got to pull this discussion of the poor out of the muck.

First, let's economically define poor.  There's much more to it than money, and even then there's a lot of debate surrounding it, but for my purposes here, when I say "poor" I mean individuals or families whose income is less than 125% of the 2011 HHS Poverty Threshold.  So, for example: the poverty threshold (or "line") for a family of 4 is an annual income of $22,350 (aspe.hhs.gov), and I'm defining a family of 4 as "poor" if they make 125% of that: $27,937 or less. This is very conservative, because it is widely known that the federal poverty guidelines are off by a factor of 2. A family of 4 realistically needs to make twice the amount of the threshold (200%) to keep up with today's cost of living.

So, here we go.  Who are "the poor?"

26% of them have a job.  How is it possible to have a job and still be poor? For one, the federal minimum wage is obscenely low and is nowhere close to covering the cost of living. Another reason is that the system ends up penalizing people for working. I was told a story of two different people who were each drawing $8000/year in disability, and after they finally found a job at which they could work, they ended up at a financial disadvantage. Is that their fault?

40% of the poor are single women and/or single moms.  For many of the moms, getting a job would mean having to shell the money right back out in child care costs. 25% are children. 16% are senior citizens (65+).
All in all, roughly 67% of "the poor" either do work, can't work (children), or shouldn't work (elderly).  What about the others?  Some who only work part-time do so because of physical limitations. Among the poorest of the poor and the homeless, there are physical, emotional, and psychological challenges that contribute greatly to their situation and virtually no employer will touch them.

As David K. Shipler points out in his book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, those who work but can't make ends meet are among the most forgotten and most vulnerable people in society. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, in 2008, 8.9 million adults were "working poor" (those who have a job but whose income is insufficient), which was up 1.4 million just from the previous year.  Some have more than one job. 4.5 million family units were living below the poverty level despite having at least one member of the family in the labor force (www.bls.gov).

People just don't seem to understand these realities, especially politicians. On February 25, 2010, during the televised bipartisan summit on the health care bill, Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), a former orthopedic surgeon, was explaining why he thought it would be prudent for people to purchase only catastrophic health insurance and have health savings accounts on the side. President Obama asked him, "Would you feel the same way if you were making $40,000 a year?" Barrasso had a blank stare on his face, and a few minutes later would reiterate his point about the people who could take advantage of a catastrophic health insurance plan, completely ignoring the point about those in lower income brackets.  They either don't get it, or they wish everyone who makes less than 6-digit incomes would just go away and stop bothering them.  They really operate off of this idea that if the government is helping you, you're a moocher. Tell that to military kids getting their college education while in the service or senior citizens on Medicare.

More fair-minded people will say that they just want to improve the system and stop scammers.  Great; that's a good goal, and I agree that the system needs to be reformed.  That's different from cutting all the lifelines and not caring what happens. We also must challenge this idea about rampant drug use among welfare recipients. Data from Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services shows that illegal drug use in households receiving government assistance is only 2 or 3 percentage points higher than self-sufficient households, and alcohol abuse is actually lower.  The state of Florida is starting to find out for themselves that mandatory drug testing laws only cost the state money and families their dignity (2% of all new applicants test positive). You say you don't want your tax dollars to be spent activities to which you object? I don't either. But how often have we worried about that when it comes to our government's activities overseas, and especially in the Middle East?

Are there people who are scamming the system? Yes. Do all of them realize they're scamming the system? I've met people who don't. Are some people irresponsible? Yes. We've all been in the houses of the paycheck-to-paycheck families who have huge, flat-screen TVs and expensive smartphoneswhich, by the way, can be easily obtained by signing up for one of these pyramid schemes that prey on the desperate and uneducated, or by having an absent, drug-selling father who thinks he's done his part by getting the kids a TV.  But let's assume for the sake of argument that the person's gadgets were purchased with money they don't have. Are you assuming that just because your parents taught you money management and how to be responsible that they have the same knowledge? It was eye-opening to me the day a neighbor and mother of 3 came over with all her receipts and bills, asking us to help her learn how to manage her finances. She literally had no idea. No one has taught her. On top of that, I learned in talking to her that she genuinely believes that good parents get their children lots of stuff. When they come home with all the toys, to me, they're being irresponsible. In their minds, they're being loving parents. Are you prepared to help teach them?

We have to understand the difference between an excuse and an explanation, and I'm giving the latter. I once had a conversation with a very poor and struggling single mother. I was visiting her in her home, which one church member described as "a dump." Any and all of the appliances in the house had been donated to her. I asked her, "What are your dreams and hopes for the future?" She said, "I don't know, we're just living." Things like that used to frustrate me, and I would think to myself, "If the poor are going to have that attitude and not plan for the future, then they deserve to be poor."  But then I heard the executive director of a local homeless shelter give a speech, and I'll never forget one thing he said:  "If I don't know what I'm eating today, I can't plan for tomorrow."  In other words, we humans cannot see beyond our unmet needs, and in asking that question, I was asking the single mother to think beyond her unmet needs. Are you prepared to help them? We all want people to be independent. The problem is the myth of equal opportunity. It's just not true that everyone has an equal opportunity to succeed if they just try hard enough (see Compassion International's "Poverty Wheel").

her people I've described above and the children they're trying to raise. What are WE going to do about it? As my friend and minister to the poor Wendy McCaig writes in her book, hopelessness abounds in impoverished communities, but transformation can happen when we personally connect with the poor, learn their stories, and offer them a chance to serve others and feel like a person of worth again. In a recent email conversation, Wendy said:
"Most folks do not want to live off the government. Some simply know no other way or are too disabled, under-educated or face too many barriers to move into competitive employment...The answer is creating jobs that give my friends a chance to be productive citizens. AmeriCorps grants allow us to create jobs for people no one else would hire. The jobs we create are jobs that are designed to change the take, take, take culture of our community and turn it into a giving culture. They are very part-time positions but...they do it because they get so much out of giving to others."
Something changes when you come face to face.  That guy who wanted to just drop a bomb on the impoverished communities?  He wrote a $10,000 check to Wendy's ministry after meeting the people. Jean Vanier once asked, "Is the person standing in front of you precious to God or not?" I'm having trouble finding the parts of the Bible that call the poor moochers, raccoons, or parasites. The Bible has such scathing words for the rich, but not the poor. It does say that when we feed, clothe, and visit, we are doing it to Christ Himself. It does warn many times against oppressing and mistreating the disadvantaged. It does have Jesus standing before an audience announcing that the reign of His kingdom will be characterized by the good news to the poor, and freedom for prisoners and the oppressed. Need I individually mention each of the hundreds of passages that talk about poverty and injustice? The glorification of the rich and the demonization of the poor that we are seeing today and that I've seen many Christians buy into is in direct contradiction of the biblical witness.

I encourage you to read Wendy's book to see how this kind of personal ministry and valuing the other as a person with dreams has transformed people and communities.  However, there are still large-scale, systemic things that need to be done that churches, non-profits, and individuals can't sustain. I fear that the current climate is putting lawmakers and policies in place that are only going to make things worse. I explore this in Part 2.

Many thanks to Wendy McCaig for editing and improving this post.

7.08.2011

Guest Post: "Mostly Somewhere Else"

This guest post comes from Rev. Steve Neal, a fellow American Baptist pastor.

Guest posts are for the purpose of sparking discussion and hearing from diverse viewpoints on topics that interest me, and do not necessarily reflect my own views.

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A disciple asked her teacher, "Where shall I look for enlightenment?"
“Here,” said the teacher. 
"When will it happen?"
“It is happening now,” the teacher said.
"Then why don’t I experience it?"
“Because you do not look,” said the teacher. 
"What should I look for?"
“Nothing,” the teacher said, “Just look.” 
"At what?"
“Anything your eyes light upon,” the teacher said. 
"Must I look in a special kind of way?"
“No,” the teacher said, “The ordinary way will do.”
"But don’t I always look in the ordinary way?"
“No,” said the teacher, “You don’t.” 
“Well, why not,” the disciple asked. 
“Because to look you must be here,” the teacher said. “You’re mostly somewhere else.”

One morning, as I headed for the church building, I was mostly somewhere else. You know what I’m talking about; my mind was racing through all the stuff I needed to do that day. I was rehearsing the day’s schedule in my mind. I had my morning all planned out because my afternoon was already full. I was ready to get busy and get my list of things done. As I made my way across the yard to the church building, I noticed a blanket-covered lump lying on the front steps of the church. My first thought was, "I don’t have time for this, not this morning." I was tempted to back away - slip into the back door of the church - and hope the lump disappeared.  But, my second thought was, "You can’t do that! This is what you do! This is what you’re about!" So I stepped in closer and said, “Hello?” And the lump moved. And a muffled voice answered. And the adventure began....

In the 33rd chapter of Exodus, Moses asks God a most audacious thing. He says, "Show me Your glory, I pray." In this passage, Moses prays for three different things:  he prays to be shown God’s ways, he prays to experience God’s presence, and he prays to see God’s glory - God’s very essence! And after each request, God answers, “I will...” Moses’ desire was to be shown God’s way. It was his desire to experience God’s presence. It was his desire to see God’s glory. What's your desire? Are you here, or are you mostly somewhere else?

...a muffled voice answered and a scraggly-bearded, wild-haired man emerged from the blankets. He said, “Are you the pastor here?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Someone told me you were friendly.” I said, “Well, I try to be....” I asked if he’d like some coffee and we went into the building and the coffee began to brew as I scrounged up something for breakfast. As we sat there, he began to tell me about his relationship with Jesus Christ. He expressed his desire for revival. He expressed his concern for our neighborhood. He said, “If I was here, I would see every house as a soul in need of Jesus Christ!" He reminded me that we aren’t battling against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers of darkness. He said, “You've got pray a hedge of protection around this place and you’ve got to tell Satan, ‘No! You can’t have these souls!’” Now, not all his talk was that clear. At times I thought to myself, "This guy is pretty strange." And a still small voice would say, "Yeah, a lot of people thought John the Baptist was strange." I thought, "I don’t understand half of what this guy is saying." And that still small voice would say, "Well, a lot of people didn’t understand half of what Jesus was saying."

His name was Duffy - Brother Duffy. He was trying to get to Denver. He’d been all over the country in the last 20 years - living on the streets, passing out tracts, and telling people about Jesus. He asked if I could take him to the edge of town where it would be a little easier to catch a ride.  So we piled into my truck and started out. Along the way we continued to talk. When we were almost there he reached out and placed his hand on my shoulder, and he began to pray. When he began to pray, I could feel the power of the Holy Spirit fill the cab of that pickup. He prayed for my protection. He prayed that people in the area could be released from the bonds of Satan. He prayed and prayed and prayed! He prayed like Jesus was right there with him. I pulled in and parked and he continued you pray. When he finished, I placed my hand on his head and blessed him. I prayed for his protection. I finished praying and we reached out to one another and hugged one another. As he got out of the truck he turned and said, “I love you.” I said, “I love you too,” and he walked away. My morning was gone, but you know what?  I had been shown God’s way. I had experienced God’s presence. I had seen God’s glory!

A Pastor friend from the Ukraine gave me a little card, with a picture of a fishbowl, and a gold fish jumping out of the water. I translated the Russian caption. It said, "If you want to see something you’ve never seen, you’ve got to do something you’ve never done!" Let me ask you: Do you want to be shown God’s way? Do you want to experience God’s power? Do you want to see God’s glory? Then do something you may have never done...just look! The ordinary way will do! Be here, in the moment, instead of mostly somewhere else.

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If you are interested in submitting a piece, please visit the Guest Posts section.

6.23.2011

Healing (a parable)

Leah was getting burned out. She didn't know if she could continue at this pace. The solutions were more draining than the problem.

Leah had a troubled past. Having been abused by her father, rejected and used by other men, and lost a child during pregnancy,  Leah hated what she saw in the mirror. She was caught in a spiral of self-hate and destructive behavior.

At first, Leah thought her friend Tom had some good ideas. She was trying it all:  praying and meditating, journaling, reading self-help books, going out with friends to have fun, even taking a vacation. But she quickly found all of these things draining and it seemed like doing them took more effort than just wallowing in her depression. So to that she returned.

Tom tried to persuade her back into the therapeutic activities, but to no avail. On days she worked, she was like a zombie. On the other days, she never even got out of bed.

One day, while watching TV, Leah saw a story about a local shelter that was for women and children, many of whom were escaping the kind of hurt and pain that had been real in her life. She heard stories of abuse that were worse than her own. Her eyes welled up with tears and her heart with anger. 'No one should have to go through what I have.' But she quickly felt her rage morph into something else, something she couldn't explain at the time...

Leah called Tom and told him that she was going to go volunteer at this shelter. Tom became indignant and expressed his concern.  'There's no way she can go there,' Tom thought. 'It will hit too close to home. The abused women; the children she wasn't able to have. It will only reopen old wounds.' But try as he might, Tom couldn't dissuade her.

After not hearing from Leah for weeks, Tom was beyond worried.  He called and stopped by, but she was never home. Finally, Tom saw Leah at a local coffee shop. He didn't recognize her at first. She was sitting, talking to a younger woman. Leah's face had a vitality to it that Tom had not seen for some time. Her eyes were bright. Her frown and lackadaisical demeanor had turned into an attentive posture, focused intently on this young woman.

Finally, they made eye contact. "Tom!" Leah exclaimed. "Excuse me a second," she said to the other woman as she got up and ran to hug him.

"Leah, I've been so worried about you," Tom said in a hushed voice. "I haven't been able to contact you. I was concerned about what you were getting into. You need to be focusing on yourself right now."

Leah straightened and looked at him, not quite smiling. "But I was, Tom," she said. "I was deep within that dark place. I'm not going back."

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"For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it." 
- Matthew 16:25

6.22.2011

Guest Post: "Please Stop Serving!"

For my first guest post, I'm pleased to share a piece from Wendy McCaig, founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond, whose mission is "to strengthen under-resourced communities by empowering community-based leaders and engaging people of faith in works of service."

Guest posts are for the purpose of sparking discussion and hearing from diverse viewpoints on topics that interest me, and do not necessarily reflect my own views.


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Today we participated in a wonderful community day event that was hosted by Richmond City Police Chief Norwood’s Faith Leaders Roundtable. Congregations, faith based groups and non-profits banded together to bring resources, food and fellowship into the Hillside Court community. I love seeing the body of Christ working together!

This morning I asked my daughter to bring her camera and take pictures at the event. When we arrived, there was a long line of little children wanting to get their faces painted. Since Caitlin is a far better face painter than I am, I offered to do the pictures. Caitlin has a very nice, sophisticated camera. I took the camera and I got some great shots. I got kids hula hooping, blowing bubbles, and playing basketball. I even got 65 year old Lois playing soccer with 64 year old Mildred, who by the way was wearing cowboy boots and a cowboy hat. It was a great photo opportunity and I was so glad I had the camera so I could capture that moment!

I got home and could not wait to see all my pictures. I asked Caitlin to pull the pictures up and my stomach fell to the floor when she said, “Mom, you had the camera on “manual” setting and you should have had it set for the sunshine.” Needless to say, all my pictures were completely washed out. My daughter then asked me, “Why didn’t you ask me to show you how to use it?” The answer was of course that, “I thought I knew how to do it.” I take great pictures, like the one above, with my iPhone and I thought it was the same thing. I was very wrong.

All across this country, the church is emerging from its walls and is becoming a force for change. This week I read an article in Leadership Network’s newsletter about a movement in Denver that has mobilized dozens of congregations and is transforming lives and communities. The brilliance of this movement in Denver was its simplicity. Mayor Bob Frie sparked this movement when he shared with a group of faith leaders that the social issues facing their community would be drastically reduced if we could just learn how to become a community of great neighbors.

According to the Leadership Network article,
“After hearing from Frie, the pastors realized that their mayor had just invited them to get their people to actually live out the second half of the Great Commandment. Fueled by Frie’s comment, the pastors launched the “Building Blocks” initiative. Their goal is to challenge and equip the people in their churches to be intentional about building relationships with their neighbors. The goal is to see people move from strangers to friends. To accomplish this they have asked people to commit to two things: first, learning the names in eight households closest to theirs and second, partnering to throw a great block party.”

Today, the faith leaders in Richmond threw a great block party for the residents of Hillside Court! However, for this effort to grow into a community of great neighbors, we have some work to do. First, we are going to have to live out the second half of the Denver challenge and learn the names of our neighbors.

I will confess, I am really bad with names. I met dozens of new people today but can only remember Lenny the construction guy, Jay the basketball player and Diante the facepainter. I would give myself a D- in the “great neighboring” challenge.

Last weekend Jay Van Groningen, from Communities First, taught us that a “good neighbor” takes care of their own property and looks out for the neighbors immediately around them. However, a “great neighbor” is someone who cares for the condition of the entire community – someone who knows everyone’s name and brings them together to address the issues facing the community. When I think of “great neighbors,” I think of Mrs. Mildred, Patrice, Mrs. Debra and Windell who are all residents of Hillside Court who make a point of getting to know their neighbors and who are working toward making Hillside a better place.

Being a great neighbor sounds like an easy thing. Just like taking a few photos sounded like an easy task this morning. Taking pictures would have been a very easy task for my daughter, because she knows her equipment. I realized after listening to Jay and watching my Hillside friends that in order to be a truly great neighbor, you have to actually know your neighbors. To truly know your neighbor you have to actually live in the neighborhood.

No matter how hard I try, I will never be a “great neighbor” to my friends in Hillside because I do not live there. The best I can hope for is to be a “good friend” who empowers them to be “great neighbors.” Jay taught us all that our role as outsiders is to lead by stepping back. Our job is to harvest and harness the gifts, talents, hopes and dreams of a community and empower community leaders to do all they can with what they have. In other words, we can help the neighbors become great, but we cannot do it for them.

I love Leadership Network’s emphasis on “externally focused churches.” I am excited about the missional church movement’s emphasis on being the body of Christ in the world and I agree with Eric Swanson who sees these trends as a movement of God. However, I am not sure that everyone who is embracing missional church language or who sees their church as “externally focused” really understands that this movement is a movement toward becoming a community of great neighbors.

The goal of the Denver movement was not to “build church membership.” They did not go into the community and “extract” people out of the community to attend church meetings or programs. The congregants left the church to offer themselves to the community as “great neighbors.” There was a releasing that took place. For me the missional church movement is not about “growing the church,” it is about loving our neighbors. In order for that to happen we have to take the focus off the “church” and put it on the “community.”

It is equally important to distinguish between “neighboring” and “serving.” In the side bar of the Leadership Network newsletter there was an article promoting the missional church momement that read, “More churches are pioneering a shift toward community service”. Is community service really the goal here? Is it the same thing as developing a community of great neighbors?

Many of the church groups that came out to Hillside today were there because their pastor encouraged them to come today and “serve the community.” My daughter and her friends were there to do “community service.” Community Service is a good thing but I think we are missing something if we see it as the same thing as “neighboring.”

I watched some of these “service” groups. They tended to stick together, they did their part and they all worked hard. Some cooked, some shared information about their church, some danced and others shared spiritual messages. However, I am not sure they could tell you the names of eight people who live in Hillside court, their gifts or their dreams.

I do not fault people for seeing the goal of today as “community service” or “church recruitment.” We have all heard countless sermons on the importance of “serving” but how many sermons have we heard about “neighboring?” We have all heard hundreds of sermons instructing us to invite people to church, but how many sermons have you heard encouraging us to stay home and hang out with our neighbors?

When my daughter handed me that camera this morning, we both assumed I knew what I was doing. Similarly, I think many church leaders who hear “missional church” language, think they know how to engage in under-resourced communities. I see many well-meaning churches take to the streets to “serve” with the goal of being more missional and often with a hidden agenda to “recruit” church members.

They have overlaid onto community development efforts older paradigms of evangelization and mission. Just like I thought I could operate my daughters camera with the same expertise it takes to operate my iPhone camera, many churches think they can do community development in the same way they have always operated as a church. However, neighboring is a complete paradigm shift for most “service” oriented church groups and most churches offer little or no training to their church members.

Many churches have adopted “missional” language but I wonder how many see the goal as shaping their congregants into a community of great neighbors. I am very thankful that last week Jay Van Groningen was able to come to Richmond and provide us with this type of training. As the Richmond affiliate of Community First Association, Embrace Richmond will begin providing this training to local congregations and faith based groups who are interested in doing more than “serve” the community but who have the desire to shape a community of great neighbors.

So, stop serving and start neighboring!

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Wendy McCaig is the founder and executive director of Embrace Richmond.  Wendy blogs at wendymccaig.com.

This guest post in its original location:  http://wendymccaig.com/2011/06/19/please-stop-serving/

If you are interested in submitting a piece, please visit the Guest Posts section.

6.19.2011

Don't Say That in Church, Johnny

Like perhaps some of you, I grew up learning that church was "God's house."

Some of us kids could be found laughing or running, maybe someone had just flung a booger, or maybe my friend David had just gotten put in the closet by our Royal Ambassadors leader for talking (yeah, he actually put people in the closet).  Whenever an adult reminded us that we were in God's house, many of us would get this pitiful, momentary look of guilt on our face as if to say, "Oh yeah, that big guy in the sky is watching."

But this isn't just something you hear in the children's wing.  I occasionally hear it said between two adults:  "Don't say/do that; you're in church!"

I'm going to let you in on a little secret:  it irks pastors when people say that.  Of course, I do appreciate the sentiment, and you can't knock the effort to be respectful in church.  But it bothers me every time I hear it, and there are two reasons:

First, it often represents a reduction of Christian morality to the trivial.  You may have heard the old, humorous summary of Southern Baptist morality:  "Don't smoke, drink or chew, and don't go with girls who do."  I'll be in social situations where people will use profanity or crude humor, and upon realizing that I'm present or that I'm a minister, they apologize.  I don't care!  OK, I'd prefer my kids don't learn it, but I could care less about trivial morality and silly vices.  Cuss all you want to.  I occasionally use it in private myself.  The writers of the Bible were interested in a much higher, more consequential view of morality.  These concerns about language, movie ratings, gambling, etc. are more a product of modern sensibilities than a serious discussion of biblical morality.  When looking at the Bible as a whole, its two greatest concerns - by far - are idolatry (Exodus 20:22-23; Deuteronomy 4:15-19; 2 Kings 21:1-16, Romans 1:21-22; etc.) and injustice (Exodus 23:1-9; Leviticus 19:15-18; Isaiah 1:16-23, 10:1-2; Amos 5:21-24; Matthew 23:23; James 1:27; etc.).  Much of the Bible would suggest that it's more of a sin to be a pew-warmer than it is not to know the rules of etiquette of your local congregation.

But the second reason that cleaning up ones act for church bothers me is because it implies that faith only claims a small corner of our lives.  I often want to say, "Does God only watch when you're in church?" God's claim on our lives is all-encompassing (Deut 11:18-20; Luke 9:23-26).  Part of me would rather have it the opposite way:  I'd rather people show their bad side in church and lead by example in the rest of their lives.  God has called us to be the salt of the earth and the light of the world (Matt 5:13-16).  As in some of the examples above, scripture says repeatedly that God has no interest in our ceremonial religion if it doesn't manifest itself in transformed living every day.

And this is part of what it means to be "missional."  We must see God and faith not as one item on a list of things we do but as the center and driving force of everything we do.  "Church" is the people (Greek: ekklesia, "the ones called out").  As such, "church" may or may not happen on Sunday morning, and it's not a place you go.  It's who you are, and why you are.  "For where two or three come together in my name, there am I with them" (Matt 18:20).  How we behave "in church" is of little consequence other than perhaps social standing or avoiding being grounded for the week.  The question is, what does it mean for you and I to be the people of God at our jobs?  With our family?  As we raise our children?  As we schedule and prioritize and budget?  As we go through the check-out line?  As we go to the voting booth?  Does my faith inhabit an isolated corner or does it inform each aspect of my life?

The God who watches and smites whenever a careless word is spoken in "His house" ... that God is too small.  God's claim on our lives is all-encompassing.  Remember that song, "He's got the whole world in His hands."  God wants to use you and I to redeem that whole world, displaying God's love and grace wherever we are.

Where do you see God in your daily life?  Is there a part of your life that's hard to connect with your faith?  In what way?

6.15.2011

Read the Book, People: My commentary on Rob Bell

From 2007 to 2010, LifeWay Christian Stores (the bookstore of the Southern Baptist Convention) put warning labels on books written by authors like Rob Bell.  The labels said that these books should be "read with discernment" (because, obviously, other books can be read with blind acceptance).  The reason given on these warnings labels was that the author "may have espoused thoughts, ideas, or concepts that could be considered inconsistent with historical evangelical theology."

Rob Bell just published a controversial new book called Love Wins.

Here's the big question:  Does the book represent views that are inconsistent with historical evangelical theology?

Yes.

Does the book represent views that are inconsistent with the Bible?

No.

Key difference.

I'm told that some pastors have gotten fired for entering this fray.  One Methodist pastor says he was fired for recommending that people read Bell's book.  So you need know is that I'm supposedly risking my job by reading and responding to a controversial book that few opponents have read and in which Rob Bell says nothing new in terms of the history of theology.  What a farce this whole thing has become.

If you need to catch up, I hesitatingly would point you to the TIME magazine article where Rob's book is featured.  It will explain the controversy, but I hesitate because even the title of the article is a clear attempt to get ratings and already gets it wrong: "What if Hell Doesn't Exist?"  Rob's book is about much more than hell, with only one chapter dedicated to the subject.  Strangely, "hell" has gotten the most press.  Rob raises just as many questions about traditional views of heaven.  But apparently, the most important thing to Rob's opponents is that their understanding of hell stays in tact.

I'm not going to summarize or "give away" this book.  I'm tired of the hot air from people who haven't read it.  Go read the book.  God is a little too much like a power-hungry, low-self esteem bully if He's threatened by your reading different perspectives.  But I will offer some straight answers to some straight questions:

Does Rob Bell say that hell isn't real?  NO.  He challenges the modern notions of hell, and does so using the Bible, but he never says or suggests that it's not a very real thing.

Is Rob Bell a universalist?  NO.  He makes it very clear multiple times in his book that people can choose hell.  As he has rightly pointed out in interviews, universalism takes away human choice.  Or, as I like to say it, universalism is just Calvinism with one less destination.

In fact, before I move on, let me just allow Rob Bell to speak for himself in this awesome 40-second response he gave:



Two full disclosures:  1) I like Rob Bell.  I have read all his books and watched all his videos, and more often than not, I connect with what he says and how he thinks.  2) I'm not his press agent, and I will say that Love Wins is not his best piece of writing and that I did find some things in there to be a stretch.  I did not fully agree with his perspective in the book.  But what I'm more interested in is this fascinating phenomenon of Christian outcry against a book with the title Love Wins and this reaction to a challenge of their thinking.  For Christians to read in their Bible verses like, "God is love," and then become irate with charges of heresy against a book that says "love wins" is comical at best and troubling at worst.  Even a reviewer for Christianity Today, a conservative evangelical publication, applauded Bell for the assertion that "love wins."  And even a professor at Grand Rapids Theological Seminary who wrote Christ Alone: An evangelical response to Rob Bell's Love Wins, says that he likes and respects Rob Bell and thinks he raises very important questions.

Here are the two major things that have gotten Rob Bell in trouble.

1) He asks questions that millions of Christians are thinking but are afraid to ask in public (because they are afraid of how their families, friends and pastors will react...fears that are apparently founded).  In this day and age, we come across people of other religions every day.  They're often average people like us.  They're often  loving, generous and sincere people.  More and more Christians, especially young ones, are becoming less and less able to accept the idea that such people will suffer forever for not believing the right things.  It eats away at any sense of justice we have.  Millions are thinking and asking, and many have been met with a response that more or less says, "You can't question this."  Rob Bell voices this and many other questions that come to mind:  Is there an age of accountability before which no one is consigned to hell?  If so, wouldn't it be more merciful to kill children before they grow up and not take the risk??  What if a "missionary gets a flat tire" (that is, what about people who never hear about Jesus)?  What about people who grew up with a dysfunctional, judgmental view of Christianity and have simply rejected the only version they know?  What about people who act and live the way Jesus told us to but just can't intellectually bring themselves to believe in the supernatural?  In fact, the entire first chapter is almost completely filled with questions....questions millions are asking.

2) He very honestly deals what the Bible actually says - and doesn't say - about heaven and hell.  Even then, he only does a partial job of it, leaving out some important related concepts.  What DOES the Bible say? Answering this question requires some in-depth analysis that not everyone may be interested in, so I have reserved this for a separate blog post.

But I'd like to raise my own third point that Rob doesn't really get to in the book.  Some people say they ardently believe in hell...but do they?

In traditional Christian doctrine, the most prominent version of hell is a place of eternal, conscious torment for those who did not believe in Jesus during their earthly life.  Eternal, conscious torment with no way out.  First of all, we need to stop and realize what a terrifying, awful thing that image is.  People have undergone physical torture and not lasted a full minute.  We're talking about something that's worse than that and lasts forever?

I'm calling foul; I don't think people actually believe this.  Our priorities and behavior reveal what we actually believe, regardless of what we say.  If I say I believe a chair will hold me up but I won't sit in it, that's pretty good evidence that I don't actually believe it.  And people who are the most ardent about their belief in a place of eternal, conscious torment can often be found living their lives much in the same way as everyone else.  They're doing house projects, they're going to baseball games, they're taking vacations.  But if you actually believed in a place of eternal, conscious torment for any non-Christian, you would spend every waking hour - you might even use manipulation - to keep your friends and family out of eternal, conscious torment.  An online reviewer very aptly articulated it this way:
"It is easy to speak of all this theoretically, but our lifestyles give us away. If we really believed in the 'hell of Jonathan Edwards,' how could we live like we do knowing that our neighbors and millions of people we know and don't know will suffer burning napalm for eternity? Wouldn't every waking minute be devoted to 'pulling them back from the brink?' Wouldn't every spare dime above our bare bones needs for simple existence be given for the purpose of "saving the lost" before they are thrown into torment forever? I dare say that a pastor, or seminary professor will not be so quick to comfort a family member, who has lost a rebellious 14 year old daughter before she 'accepted Jesus into her heart,' with the words that a God of unchanging love is demonstrating His goodness to your deceased child right now by allowing her to be tormented in the flames of hell...and this demonstration of love will continue on forever."
So is it just our modern sensibilities that have led some to question traditional doctrines and be O.K. with the kinds of questions that Rob Bell raises?  No, there's another very important thing that raises all kinds of questions about how we think today.

The Bible. 

That's what makes the response to this so amazing.  Pastors have gotten into trouble for wrestling with the text as it is instead of how we've interpreted it?  Pastors have found themselves on the firing line for leaving space for the questions many people are asking?  Pastors have been terminated for merely suggesting that people should read a book before criticizing it?  I actually find it hard to believe.  I've told myself that some of these pastors must have gone about it in the wrong way or caused more controversy than needed.  But maybe not.  Maybe some churches really are that isolated and anti-intellectual.  If any other organziation or group in society behaved that way, they would be closing their doors within the year.  But because it's religion, it gets a pass, and massive amounts of money are pumped into individuals and organizations that are on a mission to squelch anyone who is so much as rumored to have challenged "historical evangelical theology."  Critics charge them with doing so out of a concern for modern sensibilities, but they are actually heavily engaged with the Bible and challenge modern thought on the basis of the Bible.

If you're up for an in-depth Bible study and a look at what the Bible does and does not say about hell, see my corresponding post entitled "Where's the Fire?:  A survey of the concept of hell in the Bible."

Where's The Fire?: A survey of the concept of hell in the Bible

Prompted by Rob Bell's recent book and the controversy around it, this is a study of the concept hell in the Bible.  Prepare for stark contrasts with modern thought.  Interestingly, there's just one chapter on hell in Rob's book, with a few brief mentions elsewhere.  But apparently, this is what got people's attention.  I felt that Rob's treatment of the topic was OK but incomplete.  This post is strictly a study of the biblical text; if you're interested in my commentary on Rob Bell's book, I have written a separate post for that.

In the interest of length and focus, this post is only about the concept of hell.  If readers express enough interest, I will write a separate one on the Bible and heaven (a more complicated topic).

So...hell.  What DOES the Bible say?  Most readers will be surprised.

What does the Old Testament (Hebrew scriptures) say about hell?  Nothing.  Zippo.  The closest you get is the Hebrew word sheol, which in ancient Judaism was the realm of the dead where everyone went.  It is improperly translated "hell" in the King James Version.  There's debate about whether it was considered an actual place, but either way, it was "the destiny of every man" (Ecclesiastes 7:2, 9:10).   There was a place of "fire" and "burning" known as the Valley of Hinnom, but I will get to that in a moment.

In the New Testament, there are two primary words that translated as "hell."  The first, hades, means "unseen" and is essentially the Greek version of the Hebrew sheol (hades was also a god in mythology).  Hades is the word used in Matthew 11:23, 16:18, Luke 10:15, 16:23; Acts 2:27, 31; and Revelation 1:18, 6:8, 20:13-14.  English translations vary in how they translate the word, and it's not always consistent within one translation.  Sometimes it is left untranslated as "Hades," other times "the realm of the dead," and rarely (inaccurately) "hell."  It is clear in these passages that hades is not hell as we think of it.  For example, Jesus uses hades in a parable in Luke 16:19-31.  Yes, Jesus refers to a rich man who is there being tormented, but Abraham is there too, along with a poor beggar named Lazarus.  It's just that there's a "great chasm" between them.  Jesus refers to the man being in a "fire" and needing a drink of water.  Sounds like how we think of hell, right?  Yes, but look more closely.  First, it's a parable.  Like any other parable, it's meant to be taken figuratively and the lesson of the story is what's important, not the details.  But more importantly, even if one insists that it's about heaven vs. hell, why is the rich man there (or, for that matter, how is he able to talk to Abraham)?  Read the story.  The only reason given for the rich man being "in torment" is that he received "good things" in life and was rich, while Lazarus received "bad things" and was poor.  Jesus paints a picture of reversed circumstances in the next life, the last being first (and had very few favorable words for the rich).  But we see most clearly that hades is something different from hell in Revelation 20:13-14, where hades itself is thrown into the "lake of fire."  Death itself being destroyed.

The other word in the Greek New Testament is gehenna.  Gehenna was an actual, geographical location, a valley south of Jerusalem.  The same location is referred to in the Old Testament as "the Valley of the son of Hinnom" which is supposedly the site where practitioners of pagan religions in the region sacrificed their children by fire.  In fact, it apparently gained quite the bad reputation as a place of destruction and evil (2 Kings 23:10; 2 Chronicles 28:3, 33:6; Jeremiah 7:31-32).  There's a lot of scholarly debate centered around this.  There's no question that Gehenna was the name of a physical location that doubled as a metaphor for destruction and fire, but some think it was the "city dump" where trash and even carcasses were burned (Rob Bell unquestioningly assumes this).  There are passages in Nehemiah that talk about a "dung gate" of the second temple, and Jeremiah 19:2 mentions a "potsherd gate" that faced the valley (pottery was commonly broken and thrown out, and archaeologists have uncovered lots of potsherds in the area).  There's no direct evidence that it was used for this during Jesus' day.  But if it was such a place of burning, it probably would have had an "unquenchable fire" that burned all the time, and if you got far enough outside Jerusalem, one could imagine wild animals fighting for scraps of food and gnashing their teeth together as they did.  Sound familiar?  However, none of the 7 instances in which Jesus uses the phrase "gnashing of teeth" (Matt 8:12, 13:42, 50, 22:13, 24:51, 25:30; and Luke 13:28) is used in conjunction with a reference to gehenna.  At any rate, all instances of the word gehenna, except for one in James, are found in the gospels on the lips of Jesus.  It is the word used in Matt 5:22, 29-30, 10:28, 18:9, 23:15, 33;  Mark 9:43-47;  Luke 12:5; and James 3:6. Jesus was very fond of metaphors and figurative speech:  weeds, sheep, salt, light, harvest, sword.  His teaching was highly image-based.  He used hyperbole and pulled out all the stops to shock his listeners and get his point across.  His Jewish audience knew about Gehenna (and he was not the first to use it in this way).  It was a cursed place.  It had a horrible reputation and history, and was just no place to hang out.  Gehenna.  What a powerful image and metaphor to describe where the destructive forces in our lives belong (Mark 9:43-47) and what it's like to be separated from God.

Funny enough, the closest you can get to the modern notion of hell is the word tartarus which is used once in an obscure verse in 2 Peter 2:4, a verse seldom read or mentioned.  Tartarus comes from Greek mythology and was a dark, gloomy dungeon of punishment and torture below the underworld.  But in this verse from 2 Peter and in the thought of Hellenistic Christians, it was a place where angels were sent for sinning, not humans.  (There's also an apparent reference to this in Jude 1:6 without the use of the actual word).

Paul, the reported author of 13 New Testament books and from whom Christians derive much of their theology, never mentions hell.  He mentions judgment, Christ's return, etc., but never hell.  He mentions salvation, but the only thing in his writings that is given as its alternative is "death."  There is, however, an intriguing idea that appears in his letters:  handing someone over to Satan.  1 Timothy 1:19-20: "holding on to faith and a good conscience, which some have rejected and so have suffered shipwreck with regard to the faith. Among them are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme."  And in 1 Corinthians 5:5:  "hand this man over to Satan for the destruction of the sinful nature so that his spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord."  Clearly, whatever it means to hand someone over to Satan, Paul saw it as a temporary act that would result in correction and restoration.

The gospel of John never mentions hell.  The closest you get is verses like John 3:16 with the word apoletai, which is often translated "perish."  Apoletai was a commonly used word that referred to a finite end or a complete destruction (not the persistence of something in another state or place).

One other word that is never translated "hell" but needs mention is the Greek word abusson.  It's usually translated "abyss" and occurs 9 times in the New Testament:  once in Luke 8:31, once in Romans 10:7, and the other 7 are in Revelation (Rev 9:1-2, 11, 11:7, 17:8, 20:1-3).  The word refers to something "bottomless" and was originally synonymous with the sea/ocean (remember folks: no scuba equipment, no sonars.  As far as they knew, there was no bottom).  But as all concepts do, it developed, and that bottomless pit of the sea came to be known as the abode of Satan and his demons...and no one else.  As with tartarus, there is never a mention of a human going there (other than Jesus in Romans 10:6-7, but Paul seems to be addressing some kind of false thinking, implying that Jesus did not actually go there).

There are other passages in the Bible that seem to refer to "hell" in some way without using any of the above words; I am only going to look at a few.  At the end of Jesus' parable of the sheep and the goats (Matt 25:31-46), he says that the goats will go away to kolasin aionion; literally, "a correction/punishment age" (Matt 25:46.  The sheep go to zoen aionion - "a life age."  Maybe I will have to write that blog about heaven...).  English translations use the word "eternal" for aionion but that can be somewhat misleading.  We think of time in a linear fashion, which means that, for us, "eternity" goes on with no end, is necessarily in the future, and is kind of like "infinity" in mathematics.  But there's a technical difference:  it means "perpetual," and it didn't necessarily refer to the future (e.g., Rom 16:25).  Some Koine Greek scholars say that there was no such concept as "never-ending."  The point is that it's a very nuanced word that's hard for us Westerners to grasp.  The other word, kolasin, is said to have originated as a gardening term, referring to pruning and trimming.  And why do we prune and trim plants?  So that they can grow and flourish (remember Paul giving people over to Satan?).  Why do we punish children?  To correct their behavior.  We find something similar in Jude 1:7, this time with a puros aionion, an age of fire.  In Revelation 20:15, we read about a "lake of fire" where everyone whose name is not written in the book of life is thrown.  But remember, this is also where hades, death, is going to be destroyed.....not tormented.  And this comes after "each person was judged according to what they had done" (Rev 20:13).

...according to what they had done?  This leads me to a final point.  But first, let's summarize:  No mention of hell in the Old Testament, only the realm of all dead, which is also what hades refers to in the New Testament.  Gehenna was an actual place used as a metaphor.  No mention of it in Paul's writings or the gospel of John.  Tartarus and abusson were mysterious, bad places but were not for humans.  The New Testament sparsely mentions an "age of punishment" or an "age of fire."  But now, all these things - along with gehenna - were reserved for.....whom?

So far, we've explored the words and images used that gave rise to modern notions of "hell," and you should have seen by now that things have morphed quite a bit.  But there's something I haven't fully mentioned yet that is possibly the most jolting and shocking of all when compared to traditional, orthodox Christianity.

Gehenna, fire, punishment:  who were these things for?  Who was threatened with these things?  God's judgment is a very prominent theme throughout scripture.  But who is it for?

If you were to go back and read all the aforementioned passages in context to see who was being threatened with "hell" or who was in danger of judgment, here's the list you would come up with:

Pharisees (i.e., religious leaders; the "in" guys), children of the kingdom, hypocrites
Wicked, unrepentant towns (compared to Sodom and Gomorrah)
Rich people who don't share
People who insult others and rage in anger
People whose eyes and hands "cause them to stumble"
"Everything that causes sin and all who do evil"
"Lazy servants"
People who don't tame their tongue
Those who practice sexual immorality and perversion
Those who fail to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, etc.

There are other passages not mentioned yet that list off things or kinds of people who "will not inherit the kingdom."  Paul has lists that include adulterers, the greedy, drunkards, slanderers, swindlers, the arrogant, and the unmerciful.  Jesus said those who "do not become like children" will not "enter the kingdom."

Wait a minute.  Isn't something missing here?  I thought people were eternally punished for not believing the right things; for not being a part of the right religion?  Where is that?

Is Rob Bell a heretic who just wants to smooth over parts of the Bible that people don't like, or does the Bible itself cast more doubt on the issue than even Rob Bell does?

You decide.