Crafting areas of belonging- What would Jesus truly do?

When looking at how we, as followers of Jesus, ought to behave we have no greater example than the man we follow.  The issue of crafting areas where people can belong is one I’ve addressed here before.  But something I haven’t really talked about is how far from the ideal of Jesus’ behaviors we’ve truly fallen. To demonstrate this point, I’ll talk about a few different groups of people that are close to my heart.

  1. The punks, the goths, the scattered remnants of culture on the edge of society:  I can’t just point to one youth movement and say “that one”, there are too many.  So whether it’s the guy getting high in the alleyway or the tattooed beauty throwing down dance moves in the club- where do they belong in relation to us?  How do we get close enough to share God’s heart with them?  We can’t say, “come to us, all who are thirsty,” and just wait for them to show up on a Sunday morning…   especially since if they showed up looking like they do on Friday night, we’d just throw them out.
  2. The single parents and couples choosing to live together without marrying:  They don’t have relationships like the Good Christian Standard, and they are painfully aware of it.  Talking about their kids or their partners means talking about how very much they’ve fallen short of what is expected, should they become Christian.  They may miss the faith of their youth or just know there is something missing from their life…  but trying to build a relationship with the church is full of discomfort and feeling judged and found wanting.  One might argue that this is part of how God “convicts” them and shows them their need for him…  but do you think God really wants to convict them right out of ever even trying to worship him?  How can we show them his love?
  3. Gay people.  Do I even need to say more?

Jesus ministered to people in three major ways:  He went to where they were (by eating in their homes), he went to places where they had easy access to him (by preaching on hillsides, at the docks, or in the marketplace), and he performed miracles for the desperately needy.  All of these ways of ministering were revolutionary.  A good priest would not eat at a tax collectors home, most certainly not in the company of drunkards and other sinners, as Jesus did  (Matthew 9, Mark 2, Luke 5) as this would make them unclean.  A good priest spoke from a place of authority- such as the temple or the city gates.  Going out into public arenas that were the province of farmers and tradesman would have been an act of lowering onesself- but these were the arenas in which Jesus gained all of his power.  Why?  Because the people flocked to him.  Because they were welcomed by him.  The dichotomy of Jesus versus the religious leaders sees no greater example than this, as women and children were not even allowed into the temple proper, and thus could never be taught in the way men were.  But the Bible shows so often that women and children were also welcomed into Jesus’ world, never more clearly than in Luke 18 when Jesus so famously says, “let the children come to me… The Kingdom of Heaven belongs to such as these.”

Then, of course, there are the miracles.  People like the Man born blind (John 9) whom people saw as recieving his judgment through his blindness, and thus avoided.  Or the woman who was subject to an issue of blood (Matthew 9) who touched Jesus’ cloak- an act which could have been seen as horribly offensive.  A woman who was bleeding was not to leave her home or to touch a man, as this was unclean.  But yet this woman had faith that Jesus would pity her, she thought, “I will only touch his cloak”, and he turns to her and says, “take heart.”

That must have blown her world apart.

So Jesus created three arenas in which the people belonged with him (or he belonged to them, as one might see it)- in their homes, in their public world, and through meeting their immediate needs and taking pity on them.  How can we, as Christians, do the same?  Are we brave enough to dine at the home of a gay couple?  To pass out water at the door of the blue-haired girl’s favorite bar or club?  To give diapers to the teenage mother, or groceries to the couple living “in sin”?

Are we brave enough to take off the WWJD? bumper sticker and really ask ourselves what our Father is doing?

What in the world to do about Sin in the Church?

In yesterday’s post there were a lot of hypothetical questions.  One of the biggest was “when is it okay to kick someone out because of persistent sin?”  This started an interesting comment thread, and I felt the need to research one formula that was mentioned.  The common wisdom in most church circles is that if you have a dispute with a fellow believer, you approach them alone.  If they fail to be convicted by your words, you take an elder and try again.  If this is unsuccessful, they face castigation by the greater body.  If they are belligerent, they are asked to leave.

Why is this a common formula?  It comes from the Bible!

Matthew 18: 15-17 (NIV)

“If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.

I think there are many times these verses are abused in the name of doing right.  Firstly, I’d like to point out the stipulation that this formula is for when a brother sins against you.  If I, in the quiet of my own home, watch an inappropriate movie or choose to drink, I am not sinning against you, I’m sinning against myself.  If I were to have an attraction to people of my own gender, that is between me and myself, not the larger church  body.  If I tend to hold grudges, or wallow in depression, or over eat- these are all sins which carry an internal consequence.  I harm myself. No truly quantifiable harm is happening to anyone else.  Were I to tbe cast from my local church body for these personal foibles, then, more harm would be done than good.  The larger church body would not benefit from my being gone (in any sense other than feeling more holy for lack of me) and I myself would be deprived of the very people that could be my salvation.  Note that I  say all of this in a purely hypothetical sense- I make every attempt to cast out pervasive sins God reveals to me, and I’ve never been deliberately kicked out of a church body.  I do not make this argument to defend myself or as a rebuttal to a wrong the church has committed against me.

I just think Christians ought to seriously consider the long term affects of rebuking a fellow believer out of self-righteousness.

Not that there isn’t any use for those verses or for practicing them.  If a fellow believer does sin in a way that wrongs his body, action should be taken.  If a believer is a bullier, a gossip, flirts with another believer’s spouse and does not desist when asked to, is caught in adultery, shows up on at church functions drunk and disorderly, seeds fear or discontent knowingly and creates a bitter spirit… such a person should be approached in exactly the manner proscribed by the Bible, to it’s fullest extent if necessary.

My biggest problem with these verses and this formula is that I’ve more often seen them used against people guilty of sinning against themselves (despite their attempt to change, or their need for compassion) or as a justification for bigotry, but I’ve not often seen them used against the people who most need to be confronted with the malicious nature of their sin.

The teenager who falls and finds herself pregnant needs compassion and a strong arm to lean on.  The Elder who uses the prayer tree as a way to gossip and cause division needs to be confronted.  The wife who leaves an emotionally manipulative and cruel husband needs someone to help her heal, not force her back into the arms of her abuser-  the man who constantly seeds discontent and division in the church needs to be rebuked.  The teenager who questions their sexuality needs a hand to hold and a sympathetic ear- The man who persists in misogynistic behavior and becomes a stumbling block for the women in his church needs to be reigned in.

And I could keep going.

I guess what I am ultimately saying is that when judgments must be made about sin, they need to be made with forethought as to their consequences, through compassion and intercession and discernment- not based off of a formula.  The thought must not be for the eradication of sin, but for the health of the body as well as the individual.  It must come not from a place of discomfort or disgust but from a place of love for all people, not just one’s self and one’s own opinion.

Count the cost, every day.

Count the souls lost to a system that values the appearance of purity more than the pursuit of salvation.

My Crisis of Christianity

I spent a long time angry at God because I was angry with other Christians.  I couldn’t understand how, if they spoke to God as they seemed to, and heard from God as they claimed to, they couldn’t understand God’s heart for other people.  How could God let Christians get away with the kind of cruelty they espoused towards others?  Towards me, my friends, strangers whose stories I’d heard?  Christianity seemed, to me, to be a big farce.  A way of slapping an “I’m okay” sticker on people’s most virulent behaviors.  It was okay to gossip in the name of God, judge in the name of God, castigate in the name of God.  It was okay to torment people as long as you were doing it to save them!

There had been a time that I had embraced the Evangelical lifestyle.  Handing out “Jesus Pamphlets” at the park, demanding that my friends recognize and leave their sins, burning all my non-Christian music and trying to read the right things.  The thing was, it made me miserable.  I had gone from a suicidal depression into a grudging last-resort relationship from God.  And that depression had deeply colored the way I viewed God.  I had seen God as wanting my life, but wanting it because he was the possessive Jealous God of the Old Testament.  I didn’t truly understand God’s love for me.  And the Christian lifestyle I’d adopted seemed to reinforce the idea that God didn’t particularly care for me.  Living without all of the things I loved- my fantasy novels, my music, my pride, my inert sense of what was and wasn’t appropriate behavior at the park…  These things all were impossible for me to deal with.

I took to forcing myself to live with Christianity with the same kind of zeal I attacked everything in my life.  I viewed my distaste for the lifestyle I was living as a challenge, a test of faith.  Sarcastically saying “Jesus is my boyfriend” as a way to justify my inability to have a relationship with the opposite sex was supposed to fulfil me.  I didn’t confront the fact that I ran away from relationships because I was terrified- I justified it with my faith.  Burning all of my old music and devoting myself to only pursuing what was “good and holy” was supposed to reinforce my devotion to God.  So burn the fact that it was leaving me bored, that all I had to listen to was what I saw as falsely cheerful tripe.  It was supposed to fulfill me, so it would.  I would “fake it till I made it” if it killed me.

And by the time I hit my late teens, it was certainly killing me.  I was back to listening to the music I liked.  So DMX and Staind and Nirvana weren’t on the approved list?  Oh well.  I was back to wearing the clothes I liked.  So tight tops and black lace skirts and leather knee high boots and pink hair weren’t a good Christian look?  (Not to mention the huge tattoo on my lower back…)  Oh well.  So being depressed and angry at God and thinking “Jesus will never fill this emotional hole in my gut” wasn’t the right attitude towards God?  Screw it.  So refusing to Evangelize and telling the people I was hanging out with that I didn’t care how they felt about Jesus, that was their business, is shirking my Christian duty?  By the time I started wrestling with that one, my attitude was to reply, “F***  IT.  I want to be able to be friends with my friends, get out of my faith.  I don’t want to talk about it!”

And for several years, I confused the above with having a crisis of Faith.  But, in the end, it wasn’t really a crisis of faith I was having.  It was a crisis of Christianity.  There is a famous Buddha quote that reads:  “Believe nothing merely because you have been told it.  Do not believe what your teacher tells you merely out of respect for the teacher. But whatsoever, after due examination and analysis, you find to be kind, conducive to the good, the benefit, the welfare of all beings — that doctrine believe and cling to, and take it as your guide.”  That quote affected me profoundly.  So many of the tenats of faith I’d been raised with simply went contrary to my internal compass.  And who gave me that compass?  Who gave me my conscience?  Would God have created me to react so adversely to Christianity if he wanted me to be a Christian?  What in the world was going on here?

Then I realized something else.  The Bible has this to say:  (Romans 2:14-15)- Indeed, when Gentiles, who do not have the law, do by nature things required by the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law, since they show that the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them. This verse has been used, for some time, to demonstrate that God guides man’s law by guiding his heart.  That written inside of each one of us is a code that can guide us to God’s heart for our lives.  And I, by trying to be what other people percieved as a Good Christian, was denying that code.  I was denying who God made me to be by trying to be who other people wanted me to be.

What I needed to do was seek after God’s heart for me, to leave behind the trappings of the Lindsey of Old and just try to be the best disciple I could.  But not a disciple of the church- a disciple of God himself, of Jesus.

(to be continued…)

Avoiding Hell looks like Hell on Earth.

What is more important: that people experience God’s love, or that they leave behind their old ways?

In my opinion, that’s actually a false question.  I think that people cannot leave behind their old ways without experiencing God’s love, and if they truly experience the love of the Father they will gladly follow him- thus leaving their old ways behind them. I’m deeply disturbed by evangelism that focuses on Hell and punishment as a way to guide people away from sin, and not God’s love.  I’m even more deeply disturbed by the impression that the prevalence of such language gives people who do not truly understand Christianity.

People hear that the point isn’t about living a full and happy life: it’s about avoiding punishment.

People hear that the reason to follow God isn’t because one loves Him, but because one is afraid to do otherwise.

People hear that Christians are afraid- afraid of sin, afraid of the consequences of sin, afraid of people who sin.

People hear that there is a fear of temptation, and thus a need to be cloistered.

People hear all of these things, and what is the logical conclusion?  That faith is a prison.  One lives behind the steel bars of Righteousness, wearing the garish red of Christ’s blood, unable to walk outside the walls of Christian living.  That anything other than the routines of faith, the words of faith, the actions of faith means certain doom.  People see this prison-faith and they think that Christians are the ones who need saving- that fear is used to subjugate and dig in the checkbook, that the pastors of megachurches grow fat and rich off of the fear of their congregants.

No wonder Christianity is “despised” by contemporary media- if one looks at history, fear and mass hysteria has led to some pretty awful things.  But is Christianity really as bad as it may appear?  Certainly in some cases it is- I’ve been to churches that felt like a prison, churches where even talking about the latest book or movie was frowned on as “idle chatter”.  But is that what faith is really meant to be?  What God wishes for us?

I don’t believe it for even a second.  I think of God and think of joy and life, happiness, bliss, the reward of leaving sin behind isn’t avoiding hell:  it is felt every day in my life right now.  It is about strength and sureness, it’s about the peace that comes from knowing why you are here and what you are meant to be.  It’s about the security of knowing that you are loved and cherished, that you are wanted.  That you are needed.  It’s about walking side by side with brothers and sisters who care about you, who would sacrifice for your sake and you for theirs.  It’s about living a life of giving, about seeing the world around you become a better place.  Now read this paragraph again, and then picture what people who have never experienced genuine Christianity think of it.

Evangelism:  we’re doing it wrong.

Be More Vulnerable

The second meditation on overcoming obstacles has to do with vulnerability.  This one isn’t based off of a Bible verse, but instead sparked from a recent conversation.  Someone asked me what I thought a local GLBT&Friends group could do to spread equality on their campus.  We talked about a lot of different approaches- but the biggest point, the one that haunted me for the next few days, was that one has to risk being hurt.

You don’t fight a battle, even a spiritual one, without risk of damage.

And the kinds of battles so many of us find ourselves in- battles for hearts and minds- require demonstrations of one’s own heart and faith.  And you can’t lay bare your heart before someone else without risking pain.  If I want to share the depth and wonder of my faith, it means letting people into my past.  It means telling stories that are embarrassing, painful, sometimes nothing short of humiliating.  If I want people to understand why I believe in God, I have to tell them how God has worked in my life.  If I want to tell them how God has worked in my life, it means exposing a point of weakness.  If I have to expose a point of weakness…

True Evangelism does not come from a place of strength, but instead from a place of vulnerability.  It entices people and draws them in.  It is not exhibitionism or flagrancy- it is shy and tender, it is done with love and knowledge of our own fallibility.  One of the greatest impediments to overcoming obstacles is not our weakness- as God makes us sufficient- but misplaced pride.

The need for vulnerability is especially noticeable with Christian homosexuals.  Explaining how they feel their sexuality doesn’t bar them from faith means exposing the wholeness of their being.  This is something that can be incredibly painful to do, as many people attempt this kind of honesty only to be attacked intimately as a result of it.

But yet vulnerability is still required.

Jeremiah 23:9

Concerning the prophets:
My heart is broken within me;
all my bones tremble.
I am like a drunken man,
like a man overcome by wine,
because of the LORD
and his holy words.

Sharing the Faith

John 13:35

By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”

Those are Jesus’s very own words.  And I don’t think that there is any more concise statement of what Christianity should look like to be found anywhere.  How should people know that we are Christians?  By our love, love, love, as the old campfire song says.  My brothers and I used to cough into our hands and say “t-shirts, t-shirts, t-shirts” during the chorus, as at Bible camp it seemed that wearing a loudly “Christian” t-shirt was a requirement if you wanted to be taken seriously.  And now, fifteen years later and a whole lot of life experience later, there are still moments where I see church groups “Evangelizing” out around town, all wearing matching loudly biblical t-shirts, and I catch myself singing that old tune again.

Sometimes I sing it “they shall know we are Christians by our pamphlets, yes, they shall know we are Christians by our pamphlets, pamphlets, pamphlets…”

Then there are the questions, asked by other Christians, meant to hold us accountable to our need to “evangelize”.  Questions like, “when was the last time you shared the gospel?”  or “when was the last time you witnessed for Christ to your neighbors?”  When asked those questions I generally falteringly reply that I don’t really make a point of doing such things.  I try to live my witness and live my gospel daily, in my temperance and temperament and willingness to share and care for others, even if it’s something as simple as letting a little old lady struggling with her groceries to cut in line.  It’s not the moments where we blindside someone with gospel tracts, shouted slogans and pictures of mutilated fetuses that will win hearts and minds to the Lord.

It’s our love, love, love.  We are to be known not for our huge congregations, our bulging coffers, our well-worded slogans, our catchy worship tunes, our contemporary language, our well-reviewed media, our “40 days” of this and “Month-Long Focus” on that and “NEW SERMON SERIES!” whatever and horribly archaic sayings on our letterboards.

And for the love of all that is holy, we are NOT to be known for our bumper stickers!  (Especially as we are cutting people off in the fast lane.)

What did Jesus say?  Seriously, WHAT DID HE SAY?  There are times that I want to stand on the rooftop and scream it.  What do the gospels REALLY SAY?  I’ve read them so many times, and every time I am struck by how Jesus first demonstrated tolerance and compassion, and then required obedience.  He never said “obey or burn”.  Certainly we must take the parables into account, but in every case where people were left outside in the streets where there is great wailing and gnashing of teeth, it was because they themselves brought their judgment down upon their own heads.

Which is slightly different than a gay couple innocently walking into Wal-Mart, or a teary-eyed desperate teen going to get an abortion because she feels lost.  Imagine, those two examples- imagine how they feel when literature is abruptly thrown in their faces.  Imagine, instead, that someone took the time to introduce themselves, speak compassionately, maybe buy them a soda, maybe take the time to hear what these passing strangers have to say.

Imagine instead of saying, “I have a message for you [FROM GOD]”, if we said, “how can I help you have a better day?”

Because, honestly, when we beat people upside the head with the Bible that’s not “sharing our faith”, that’s emotional assault.  Sharing our faith is what we do, every day, without thinking about it.  And a sad amount of the time it’s not our faith we’re actually sharing- it’s our lack of it.

Reimagining the Harvest

Most people who have sat in an Evangelical church for any amount of time have heard many rousing sermons about “The Harvest”.  Most Christians have heard the call for workers for the harvest.  A large amount of us have heard reports of a “wonderful harvest” from Evangelical plays where “prayer cards” were filled out with people stating they wished for salvation.

But is that the harvest?

We’ve heard stories of Evangelists flying on airplanes and bringing someone “to Christ” before the plane touched back down.

But is that the harvest?

We’ve heard the stories of stadiums full of people crying out in prayer during concerts or revival services.

But is that the harvest?

We’ve heard the stories of short-term missionaries feeding hundreds of hungry in the streets of Mexico, or handing out garbage bags full of clothing.  We’ve heard these missionaries again talking about the shoeboxes full of prayer cards-

But again, I ask, is this the harvest?

What about the stories of friendships that endure through years of distance, alcoholism, questioning, struggles?  The testimonies of those won over by years of friendship and tears?

We so often gravitate towards stories that inspire awe.  Towards numbers we can count.  The hundreds and thousands we can reach in a manner of hours.  We really love those shoeboxes full of prayer cards and the feeling of having “made a difference” we get from hearing about hundreds fed and clothed in one week’s time.  We love these stories- but I have to ask this question.  I have to:

Are these actually stories of changed lives?

Let’s be honest.  Many of these stories are like gleaning the fields just to leave the harvest in the rain.  We make these points of contact and then drift away again.  While one or two of the twenty prayer cards may yeild up a relationship that grows into another church member, the rest are left out in the world to question and doubt and possibly eventually lose any hope they had gained.  Like stars passing in the night, we witness (or witness to) these people without truly coming into contact with them.

We need to rethink the harvest.  When Jesus was speaking to the disciples and telling them that the harvest was ripe, isn’t rational to think that part of that ripe harvest was as a result of Jesus’ own work?  It’s not like Jesus was saying, “hey, the Holy Spirit will do all the work and you guys just reap the reward.”  We need to reimagine the way we think about the harvest.

Farmers have to plow the field, sow the seed, tend to it, watch for weeds, guard against infestation, and after months and months of rain and sun they finally are able to bring in the harvest.

But- even then they go through the process of sorting the harvest, preparing it to be shipped and processed and eventually consumed.  Let’s think about this process as it compares to a spiritual harvest.  We have to create an environment to sow in.  Perhaps that has to do with Sunday mornings, but it probably doesn’t.  After that, we have to gather the seeds.  Then we plant them, water them, wait for them to put on roots and start to grow.  It may be days or months or longer before there is any fruit to judge- but in human terms that could be years of time.  Then there is the time to bring in the harvest, but even THEN there is a long process of preparing the harvest to be consumed (think in terms of service within the church) or resown (as in a person become apostolic).

Challenge yourself.  Think about what this means about our perception of our churches.  What are they there for?  Are they here solely as a fellowship for the believers?  And if that truly is the case, where are the fields for sowing seed?

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