Archive for March, 2012

Forward: Bono once wrote a song called The Wanderer. He didn’t sing it on the record because he thought it would sound pretentious if he did. Instead, he had Johnny Cash sing it. No pretense there. I don’t have Johnny Cash to write this post and remove all the pretense. Forgive me, please, in advance, if this sounds pretentious.

I do not know Rachel Held Evans except that some of the other writers here frequent her blog. I don’t know how involved they are except that every now and again we will talk privately about one of her posts. I do want you understand, however, that I am not writing this as a personal attack on Ms. Evans. Maybe it is unsolicited advice. Maybe it’s a parable. Maybe I’m just thinking aloud. That said, I am going to write.

I am sure that Ms Evans has had a difficult experience in the church (with a little ‘c’). I can tell after reading her post 15 Reasons I Left the Church. She cites a few others who have also written about their own reasons for leaving the church including someone who wrote an entire book about why people 18-29 have left the church. 18-29 is a tough age for anyone, but I suppose it is especially so for church folk who are looking for just the right place to call church-home. (It seriously does not require a book to expound the reasons why.)

I do not for a minute doubt the sincerity of Ms Evans’ post, but I confess it is a terribly depressing lot of reasons she gives for rejecting the local body of believers. She wrote, with what I presume to be as much angst as a 30-something can muster up, the following:

I left the church when I was twenty-seven. I am now thirty, and after trying unsuccessfully to start a house church, my husband and I are struggling to find a faith community in which we feel we belong.

There’s a lot of first person pronouns in that explanation.

As I am now 41, not so far removed from 30-something angst, allow me to say: Good luck!

I’d like to tell a story. Nearly 3 solid years ago, I was unceremoniously removed from the congregation I had loved and served for nearly 10 years. I was finishing a week of church camp with my beloved Junior High students from several area churches. It was Friday night, parents were picking up children, I was waiting on everyone to leave so that I, too, could go home and prepare for the sermon I was to preach two days later. It was in the midst of all this that I received a call from, not one of the elders nor one of the deacons, but from one of the church trustees–a man whom I baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He informed me that I needed to be at a meeting the following day.

At the meeting the next day, I was given an ultimatum: stay and we will fire you, give you two weeks’ salary; leave and we will give you six weeks’ salary. Ah, congregations know the way to a preacher’s heart. Of course I took the money. I have regretted it every day since July 12, 2009.

After the meeting, that same trustee informed me: “It’s nothing personal.” Seriously.

Making the matter more compelling is that less than a year before all this happened in July 2009, my wife and I, after 17.5 years of marriage, and 10 years with the same congregation, bought our first house. That six week’s worth of salary was not going to go far. Ah, churches, blessing upon blessing. (I will spare the details of what this episode did for the faith of my sons and my wife.)

Don’t get me wrong. Of the 15 reasons that Ms Evans gives in her post, I actually believe that six of them are solid complaints–serious problems that need to be addressed in the american version of the church, complaints that I, too, would have no problem echoing. Not least among them is her complaint about churches being involved in the politics of the world. I cannot tell you how sick to death I am of hearing preachers and christians staking the course of the christian faith upon the outcome of some god forsaken election. It makes me think that most christians put more faith in the election of conservative politicians than they do in the Lord Jesus. We christians place so much faith in the democratic way of electing leaders that Jesus could no longer say to Pilate, “You would have no power if not given to you from above.”

Pshaw!

OK, I’m off track…my point is that churches, in general, are full of nasty people. I have met them up close and personal–I can give you names, addresses, birthdays–the church is full of ugly things, ugly thoughts, ugly words, and ugly sinners. It’s a nightmare and when a preacher calls them on the fact that it has been so for the better part of their 40 year existence, he is summarily dismissed without so much as a farewell tea or carry-in dinner.

That is, churches are full of people like me. I know that.

For all the bitterness I have masticated the past three years, I also know that for the better part of 10 years I loved and was loved (at least by most). I don’t think we should fly by Ms Evans reason #10 too quickly.

Oh, there was this one time, when I was still in college, that I was filling the pulpit in a church somewhere in the Northwestern part of the state of Ohio. It took probably 4 hours to get there from Lansing, MI, and when I was done preaching, I was given a whopping $30 honorarium. Another time while doing pulpit supply in a church near Detroit, my wife accidentally sat in some old woman’s pew seat. You would have thought we killed her kittens and burned them before her eyes while feeding live bunnies to wolves. I’m serious. In my first church after college, I served for about a year and a half before the church decided that the money given to them by the atheist next door neighbor was more important than hearing the truth on Sundays.

And since I am on the preacher side of things, I could tell you about the ministries of several other preacher friends who have suffered the same or worse at the hands of power hungry elders (or their wives), tool-like trustees, or unhappy people who simply enjoyed eating preachers and their families for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and second dinner.You think it’s tough being a parishioner? Trying being a preacher. Try listening to the reasons why church members leave churches.

Yet I still belong to the church (with a little c). The church we worship with is anything but perfect. The people are sometimes as unfriendly to me as I am to them. Sometimes there is an air of conservative politics pervading the worship and overwhelming the presence of the Spirit. And worst of all, the pastor is a man! (Gasp!) I hold fast to the thought that american christians really have no clue how to define suffering. But, for all my complaints, I believe Jesus is among those people. I can tell because while they were losing their building to the Episcopal church, they were giving themselves away in ministry to local people. They could have took; instead they gave.

What I have learned is that no church is perfect and that, really, it takes faith to belong to the church with a little ‘c.’ It takes a lot of humility–something I confess I lack. It takes a lot of courage–especially when that church doesn’t always line up with your theological or political or biological expectations. It takes a lot of love–especially for gossipy old ladies whose favorite pastime is running down the preacher while getting their hair done and gossipy old men who do the same at McDonalds over coffee. It takes a lot of grace–after all, Jesus showed us that same grace when he welcomed us into his church, the church of which he is the charter member and the head. It’s not just that Jesus has something to do with the church, it’s that Jesus has never left the church. All these years. All that sin. All this ugliness. All the politics and compromise with the culture. Jesus is still here. With us. With the church.

Sometimes I think God allows the church to be as imperfect as it is precisely because there are people like me who have so many problems with the church, who have been mercilessly crushed time and time again by the church, who have been spoon fed to the devils and sifted in the wind, people like me who need to be humbled, and taught what grace really is. In other words, old ladies will always be old ladies, and never mothers, until I humble myself, forgive them, and love them as Jesus has loved me.

I’m not saying church is perfect.* I’m not saying there are never reasons to leave the church. I’m not saying I have it all figured out all the time. I’m not saying I haven’t been the reason other people have left the church. I’m certainly not saying that I am any better than Ms Evans; our lists are just different. I’m just saying that I am still there and that is so for one reason: Jesus is still there.

And when I turned I saw seven golden lampstands, and among the lampstands was someone ‘like a son of man…’ (Revelation 1:12-13a).

*Thanks to JM and BWW for crushing me one day with the problem I wasn’t seeing: I.

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[Note: I originally published this at my personal blog. I'm reposting here because I'm vain like that.]

I can still remember the day, back in 1988, when I was encouraged–along with my entire Senior government class–to register for the vote. There was an election that year. It was George H. W. Bush (R) versus Michael Dukakis (D). Our government teacher, Miss Lynch (and I have great respect for her, so this is not to disparage her in any way), helped us to get registered so we could vote in the primary. I was certain I would be voting Democrat. If I recall correctly, Jesse Jackson was also a Democrat primary candidate. I was loud enough in class to assure our teacher that I would vote for Jackson in the primary. I don’t remember if I voted in that primary or not (I graduated when I was 17 and I just do not remember.)

Several months later, there would be a presidential election. I was at Parris Island South Carolina, completing my training as a recruit in the USMC. I was one of two recruits during basic training who received absentee ballots. I recall very the very distinct and piercing voice of SSgt Aronhalt telling us, “If you still want to be allowed to carry a gun, you better vote for Bush.” I voted for Dukakis. Probably just to spite SSgt.

Here I am now, twenty some years later, and it is time for another presidential election. This past Sunday I was at worship. We were invited, as we are every Sunday, and as we are commanded in Scripture, to pray for our nation’s leaders. Someone prayed something to the effect of, “Lord, please send us the right candidates.” It struck a raw nerve with me. It’s one thing to pray for leaders, generically; it is quite something else to pray for the ‘right candidates.’ I gnashed my teeth. I have no right to feel that way about someone else’s prayer to God. But I did, and I do. Four days later, that prayer is still bothering me.

I grew up idolizing my grandfather. He had strong political ideas that mostly revolved around Democrat politics. He was a politician and perhaps could have done more with his political ambitions had he not also had ideas that mostly revolved around Miller beer. I knew, from a very early age, that Democrat was the only way that I would ever vote. Die-Hard Democrat: “Democrats stand for the working people; Republicans for the Rich” was the story he told me. With wide, saucer-like eyes, I listened in awe. Of course I voted for Dukakis–as much out of respect for my grandfather as to spite Ssgt Senior Drill Instructor Aronhalt.

I never missed an election cycle–local, state, federal for twenty years. Ever since Miss Lynch encouraged us to register. Voting was my right, responsibility, and privilege. People had ‘died so that I could vote’ or ‘voting freely is what makes America great and unique’ are the mantras I grew up listening to in classrooms and around cans of beer.

Here I am twenty years later and I just do not care any more. My conviction is born out of a heart that has come to the conclusion that it simply does not matter what I do inside that small curtained room. It’s like there’s a giant floating head hovering above us, clothed with smoke and fire, shouting to the candidates, “Don’t pay any attention to that man behind the curtain.” Word. That’s how I feel every time I go to the church building where the polling stations are set up. Ironic, I know, but true nonetheless.

Frankly, I think my conviction is born mostly out of my faith. On the one hand, I have no faith in the ’system’ (I wish I never had any to begin with, but that’s another story) any longer–I’m not so young and naive any longer; my grandfather is dead; I haven’t seen SSgt Aronhalt since November 9, 1988; and Miss Lynch can no longer issue me a detention slip. On the other hand, my faith compels me to neglect the handing of power to the power brokers, power mongers, power feeders, power graspers, power (insert favorite verb)  of this world. Since voting no longer matters, and since I no longer care, I’m not doing it again this year. Not one of those people running for office speaks for me, represents my view, or hopes to accomplish things in the way they should be accomplished. All they can do is throw more money at problems. They do not have in mind the Kingdom of God; they have in mind power: “The rulers of the Gentiles lord it over their subjects.” Indeed.

In every way imaginable, in every conceivable way, government is the antithesis of the Kingdom of God whose King Jesus is.

My conviction is that I will live with those who are chosen to lead, but I will have no part whatsoever in pushing them into power. I will not live in fear of those whose political opinions are diametrically opposed to mine and I will not worship at the throne of those who happen to share similar views. This is faith: that politics carries as much weight as we give them and I refuse to give politics any credibility at all. I refuse to invest my time in their power–it’s bad enough they get my money. I will endeavor to do my best to ignore them, their promises, their threats, their speeches about hope and unity and a ‘better America,’ or, worse, ‘a better tomorrow.’ Frankly, I do not want the sort of hope that is provided by politicians and government. Their hope is no hope at all. They can keep it, and I’ll keep my vote, my money, and myself.

But the worst part of all this? I know when I go to worship on Sunday I will hear something about this insipid political game we play every couple of years–does anyone ever even consider how much damage politics have done, how it destroys the unity of the body of Christ–and precisely because we are invited to pray for our leaders? (Prayers are never so unbiased as to avoid a short sermon or two in between thanking God for our daily bread and delivering us from evil.) I’m waiting for that one sermon that reminds me of what politicians are really like, what they are really about, and what they really hope to accomplish with their power: “But when John rebuked Herod the tetrarch because of Herodias, his brother’s wife, and all the other evil things he had done, Herod added this to them all: He locked John up in prison” (Luke 3:19-20).

Politicians do not have the best interests of anyone in mind but themselves. Their life and their work is to preserve the continuity of power in the hands of a few. I will no longer play a nice part in the perpetuation and consolidation of power. The Scripture says, “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). So if Jesus disarmed the powers and authorities, what on earth could compel me to pick up those arms and willingly hand them back to the power-hungry leaders of this world?

I think the most Christian thing I can do in America right now is NOT vote in the upcoming presidential election.

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Shawn & BrendtMeet Shawn. Shawn was my best friend in high school.  (That’s him on the left at his graduation, and me still looking 12 after my first year of college.) When we were in our fundy Christian high school together, Shawn was planning on being a pastor. He even preached a few times in our weekly chapel service. We lost touch a couple years after this picture, but I caught up with him on the phone about 5 years after college. When I asked what he was doing (work-wise), he hemmed and hawed a bit before finally “admitting” that he was a social worker in the county where he lived. He was happily surprised that I wasn’t disappointed (in him) that he wasn’t a pastor.

I asked if he was doing what he believed God wanted him to do and he affirmed excitedly that he was and gave me a couple of recent examples in which he had seen God working through him at his job. Then I noted to him that being a pastor was a logical choice back when we were kids, given the environment that we were in. Back then, it was made clear to us (caught, if not necessarily taught) that a man who wished to truly follow God’s will for his life — and Shawn did want that — would be in “full-time Christian service”. This pretty much limited the options to (1) preacher, (2) missionary, or (3) Christian school teacher. A woman had the options of #2 or #3 or (better yet) the spouse of any of those options. There was lip-service paid to the legitimacy of the “Christian businessman”, but the overall influence showed that it was merely lip-service to the guy who actually paid the bills, er um, tithes.

In short, if you weren’t one of the big three, you were a second-class Christian.

Fast-forward to today. I saw a video whose overall theme still has me a bit puzzled, but it had a particular thought in it that conjured up the same tired old images of second-class Christianity. In addressing the Christian viewer about having heard and believed the gospel, the speaker threw a frickin’ bone to those who may have heard it differently than he did:

even if it’s a gospel that a guy like Barnabas would preach, as opposed to an apostle like Paul

Say what? When did Barnabas get ranked below Paul in anything?

If anything, in those days, Barnabas had a better grasp on grace than Paul did (Acts 15:36-39), something of which Paul apparently later repented (2 Timothy 4:11). But I digress.

I was so confused that I felt like I had to keep listening, in the desperate hope that he’d explain that gem.

The speaker’s text was Acts 11:19-26. I’m going to divide the passage into a few pieces so as to comment on the story as it progresses.

Now those who were scattered after the persecution that arose over Stephen traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus, and Antioch, preaching the word to no one but the Jews only. But some of them were men from Cyprus and Cyrene, who, when they had come to Antioch, spoke to the Hellenists, preaching the Lord Jesus. And the hand of the Lord was with them, and a great number believed and turned to the Lord.

OK, so we’ve got unnamed guys (”from Cyprus and Cyrene”) who were preaching Jesus and leading people to the Lord.

Then news of these things came to the ears of the church in Jerusalem, and they sent out Barnabas to go as far as Antioch.

Hey, this sounds pretty cool. Go check it out, Barney.

When he came and had seen the grace of God, he was glad, and encouraged them all that with purpose of heart they should continue with the Lord. For he was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. And a great many people were added to the Lord.

Barney confirms that it is way cool. And he encourages them in their faith.  A few good things are recorded about him, and apparently his influence led to others finding Jesus, too.

Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch.

Hey, Paul, you gotta see this! And so Paul comes and the two of them stay there for a whole year, teaching.

So, we’ve got a movement of the Spirit that starts with guys that the Bible doesn’t even bother to name, then Barnabas gets to throw in, and then Paul does too. It definitely seems that this whole thing is all about God, both from just the general gist of the story and that whole “the hand of the Lord was with them” thing in verse 21.

BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ !!!! Wrong !!! Thanks for playing.

This isn’t about God. This is about Paul. You see, according to the speaker, the reason that Barnabas went for Paul was because the people at Antioch wanted to know more than Barnabas could teach them. And Paul knew the Scripture better than Barnabas and had actually had a (brief) physical encounter with Jesus.

Yeah, I’m not sure what bodily orifice the speaker got that one out of, either. Is it possible that there was such a need/desire and that Paul could better fulfill it? Sure. But nowhere near with the factual certainty that the speaker classified it.

Oh, and the disciples in Antioch being called “Christians” — that was a direct result of Paul teaching them.  (See previous bodily orifice reference.)

When it comes to doctrine, Paul could kick anyone’s asterisk-dollarsign-dollarsign. So it’s really a toss-up as to whether this junk is Paul-olatry or doctrine-olatry. Either way, though, it ain’t good.

In short, Barnabas was (in the speaker’s mind) a second-class Christian. I guess the unnamed guys were third-class. So brush up on your doctrine, boys and girls. Otherwise, you’re disappointing God.

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