Previously, on Brokenness... When we last left our hero, Cartoon Chris was having all his rationalizations and beliefs in his own human decency obliterated, one by one, by chapter 5 of the Sermon on the Mount. At last count, he was about here:
Surely, Cartoon Chris believes, the rest of his excuses will stand up under Chapters 6 and 7 of Matthew! Ha ha! Cartoon Chris is naive and foolish.
I'm Good with God Because I Give to the Poor (Matthew 6:1-4)
Isn't giving to the needy one of the things that everyone agrees is nice and good? Shouldn't I get a big, cosmic pat on the back every time I sign a check to a charity (like, oh, say, Teen Challenge New England, or the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation)? Well, Jesus says, not if your heart wasn't in the right place. If you give for selfish reasons, it's not bad exactly, but God isn't gonna throw you a party. It's easy to imagine why when you look at it relationally:
This can go on, ad infinitum. (And does, if YouTube comments are anything to go on - and we know they are.) There's always a way to feel morally superior to someone. One big theme of the Sermon on the Mount is that the trying to justify oneself is offensive in and of itself.
I'm Good with God Because I'm Very Religious (Matthew 6:5-18)
It's probably not news to most of us that religious showboating and legalistic list-checking don't make us righteous before God. But does it help to turn the Sermon on the Mount into another reason to showboat or another list to check off?
The key feature of the famous Lord's Prayer, I think, is not the pattern or its brevity or the specific words that Jesus speaks (although there's lots to learn from these things, of course) -- it's the humility. This is a really humble prayer. Its shortness and its language and its simple choice of requests all point to the heart of a person who knows he's relying entirely on God's mercy - there's no pretense, no bombast, and no willfulness. It is all part of the message of moral humility God is trying to get across, so anyone who thinks:
... has ENTIRELY missed the point. Religious practices don't make you righteous if you do them out of selfish desire to justify yourself or win praise - therefore, wielding the Sermon on the Mount as a tool for belittling others or uplifting yourself is 100% foreign to the spirit God intended. (And I oughta know, having thought similar thoughts quite frequently...)
None of us really thinks of ourselves as greedy. I mean, we never go around introducing ourselves like...
Not that any of the various Bible verses telling us to do so qualify as an unambiguous sign, of course. We're all pretty sure those are intended for someone else. Not that we have a problem with giving anything up. Not that it's an idol or anything. We just really really think God meant the Sultan of Brunei should give up his wealth for the kingdom and not me. Well, we really really hope. Well, I really really hope.
People keep trying to get this part of Matthew 6 to sound comforting, and there is a lot of real comfort there, but I have to be honest: I've always read the "consider the lilies" passage as one of the most cutting and horrifying criticisms in all of Scripture. Why? Well think of it this way:
It's not just working extra hours for a bigger house that God perceives as sinful - even working normal hours to survive, when it excuses a failure to work for the kingdom, is sinful. And that's harsh. That's really harsh.
Except that it's not, of course, when you remember that God promises us he will take care of us if we live the lives he's called us to. He tells us "all these things will be added to you" and we don't believe him. How do I know? Because we don't act like it. The way we spend most of our time is a testament to our total lack of trust. I wonder sometimes if God feels like this:
How is it that I think of myself as a basically good, decent human being again?
And there's a whole 'nother chapter to go! The excitement just never lets up, does it?
So my housemates have been gone on vacation for the last week, leaving me alone in a big house with their various four-legged dependents. Naturally, in such a situation, I follow my standard procedure for ensuring a healthy, pleasant time for myself - I start thinking all the saddest and loneliest thoughts I possibly can. For example, when you're a part of a very small, new church, you're subject to lots of people coming and going. When the goings start to outweigh the comings, your internal soundtrack starts to match "Not in Nottingham" or "Baby Mine" (from the more uplifting Disney movie moments), or maybe "Coldplay as Sung by Eeyore." People move away, they decide to go to a church more in line with the tradition they knew growing up, etc etc. When your church is your family, it tears at you.
I was thinking these thoughts on the way home from the grocery store tonight, and as I was carrying the bags in from the car, I observed some interesting behavior from Morgan, my housemate's puggle (a cross between a pug and a beagle, similar to a Shnocker Spaniel or a Pugweiler):
Man, I thought, what a dumb dog. Didn't she know I was only going outside for ten seconds to get more bags? Didn't she pick up on the pattern here? At this point, it occurred to me rather forcefully: Why am I mocking Morgan? I am Morgan. When good things happen, I become deeply convinced that life is going to be awesome forever. When bad things happen, I become similarly convinced that life is going to be horrible forever. I might as well be whimpering at the empty driveway.
She doesn't understand things from a people-eye view - that her owners didn't abandon her to my general indifference for the rest of her days, that they're coming back tomorrow, etc etc. Similarly, I don't understand things from a God's-eye view, even though God has told me that he loves me, that he's going to take care of me, that the story has a happy ending if I turn to him. So I'm even worse than Morgan - I have no excuse. She's a puggle. I'm a people. And I'm far more valuable to God than Morgan is to her owners.
Oh me of little faith.
In spite of the fact that I consider myself a laid-back, easy-going sort of person (in fact, I'm often overheard announcing "I'm a laid-back, easy-going sort of person" to perfect strangers on the T), I've started realizing that I handle adversity pretty poorly. I suspect that the only reason I've seemed laid-back to myself is that I haven't generally experienced much adversity.
It occurs to me that in the back of my mind I've been defining patience wrongly - as though the secret to contentment is to "turn off" one's desires as soon as they become even a little frustrated. As in, "Oh, I can't have an ice cream come now? Well, I guess I didn't really want ice cream that bad anyway." This works fine for silly, little things. It works terribly for big, horrible things. Or even moderately horrible things. As in, "Oh, I have to endure excruciating pain in my left kidney for four more hours? Well, I guess didn't want to have the slightest will to live for that period of time anyway."
What if patience isn't the dehumanizing and absurd elimination of one's desires, but the holding to one's desires in eager expectation of their fulfillment in spite of pain and suffering they cause in the here and now? ("Yeah, Chris, we already knew that. That's kind of the definition of patience," you are all probably thinking. Well, y'all are such jerks!)
Well, if that's what patience is, I think I'm mostly awful at it. But given the state of traffic around North Quincy at 7 am, can you blame me?
I think I understand why they do this, though, even though as best as I can tell, every animated heroine since 1988 has been feisty, strong-willed, and independent. The stories of the old-school princesses still loom large in the societal imagination - Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, and Cinderella. So understandably, folks are loathe to perpetuate the absurd gender discrepancies in the stories we tell our kids:
The boys got stories about heroes and warriors who saved the day with pure awesome. The girls got stories about demure and virtuous women who waited to be rescued by men. Society has tried since then to rectify the situation. If the boys get Achilles and the girls get Cinderella, maybe the answer is to give the girls some Achilles-figures to look up to! The men didn't always seem to mind for some reason.
From a Christian standpoint, however, I wonder whether this is actually the right solution. It's American to praise "standing up for yourself" as a virtue - but is it necessarily the Christ-like way? What if the right answer to gender discrepancy is not more female Achilles's, but more male Cinderellas? Why must patience, self-control, and remaining faithful in the face of injustice be strictly female virtues (or, nowadays, not virtues at all)?
Given how important the male power fantasy is to storytelling, it seems absurd that anyone would ever write a male Cinderella story, but in point of fact, we have a very rich source of them - the Bible. (Ta-da!)
Consider the following stories from the Old and New Testaments:
- Joseph - horribly mistreated by his brothers and sold into slavery, he remains virtuous and learns humility, ultimately being rewarded by God with the means to escape his imprisonment (interpretations of visions)
- Joshua and Gideon - win tremendous battles by means of absurdly non-violent approaches mandated by God - patience and trust prove more powerful than human arms and armor (don't worry - the stories end plenty violently)
- Christ and the NT Martyrs - remaining innocent and holding true to God even to the point of torturous, horribly unfair death - Christ is the ultimate exemplar of humility, patience, self-control, and faith
You could include Noah, Daniel, and a host of other characters in the list as well. You can see God at work in all of them, subverting the traditional male metanarrative - "You don't get to fight and win - you get to be still and I will win." It seems to me that our society would do better to celebrate the Cinderella figures - male and female alike!
To close, I leave you with one thought, in the form of one of those obnoxious internet memes:
The idea that God is both completely just and completely merciful is hard to fathom. But yet God is both, and both abundantly - after all, mercy without justice is meaningless, and justice without mercy is intolerable. I've got plenty of ideas on how to live at peace with these two ideas at the same time (I don't think you can ever fully "reconcile" them without losing the truth in the tension between the two!), but unfortunately, I think a lot of us tend to reconcile them like this:
Is there anything more powerful than a meta-narrative? To quote Oscar Wilde, "no." By meta-narrative, of course, I mean the big story that we all tell to explain our place in the universe - usually making sure to cast ourselves as the good guys, and people who use the other brand of smart phone as the bad guys. We need narratives to make sense of the world around us - it's why so much of the Bible is written in narrative. But that's not important right now. What is important is that a lot of video game developers seem to be REALLY bad at narrative lately. They don't know how to keep the stakes high and increasing, to illicit sympathy for characters, to keep the pacing brisk, or to keep players' brains from spilling onto the carpet in a puddle of boredom.
Imagine if modern game developers had written the script to the first Star Wars movie ("Episode 4: The One With the Sand People"), instead of George Lucas's ghostwriters. Instead of an exciting laser battle in space and a mysterious girl putting a mysterious device into R2-D2, this is how the first two hours of the movie would have gone:
I'm a huge* fan of Jesus's "Sermon on the Mount," and not necessarily because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside, as though I had swallowed a live beaver -- in fact, rather the opposite. I like this passage because it can be seen as an (almost) systematic demolition of all the excuses and rationalizations we use to convince ourselves that we're perfectly fine, decent people (and also God likes us better than people who vote for the other political party). The uncomfortable fact is, I do, deep down, believe myself to be a perfectly nice and good human being, and to that end I present to you a list of excuses (one litany):
This is a huge problem, as I have tried to outline in my previous posts on Brokenness (Part 1, Part 2, Part 2.5). So now I take you through the Sermon on the Mount, step by step, excuse by excuse, as they all fizzle away in the acid bath of Jesus's teaching.
1. I'm Good with God Because my Life is Going Pretty Well (Matthew 5:1-12)
Jesus starts off the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes - a passage intimately familiar to most folks who grew up in the church. And yet, I think a lot of us (meaning me + some unspecified number of the rest of you) seem to believe Jesus said this:
Instead of what he actually said:
"Blessed are those who mourn" "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness" "Blessed are those who are persecuted"
And in a similar passage in the book of Luke:
"Blessed are the poor" "Woe to the rich"
Jesus handily undoes a central (often unspoken) tenet of our self-justification - that our ability to manage our lives well means that God is totally fine with where we are. We avoid certain big sins, handle things with common sense, and believe that the resulting nice life is a sign from God that everything is hunky dory. Jesus would not seem to agree.
Instead, he presents us with what I believe to be the thesis statement of the whole Sermon on the Mount:
"Blessed are the humble, for they shall inherit the earth."
2. I'm Good with God Because I'm a Member of the Right Group (Matthew 5:13-16)
Jesus's teachings about salt and light are often taught like this to kids at church camp, shortly before they are summarily wedgied by the older boys:
This is a good message, but to Jesus's audience, I think it was not news. The Jewish people already believed deep down that they were the salt and light of the earth.
We all have our tribe - maybe our race or ethnicity, our education level, our denomination, our political affiliation, whatever. We want credit for having the right membership card in our wallet. No dice, says Jesus. He wants your heart, and he wants it humble.
3. I'm Good with God Because I Follow the Rules (Excepts For the Ones That Don't Matter Anyway) (Matthew 5:17-20)
In one fell swoop, Jesus demolishes both the idea that my rules-following makes me righteous and that I don't have to follow the rules. I couldn't think of a funny way to illustrate this one, though, so here's a picture of a hippopotamus juggling penguins:
4. I'm Good with God Because I Don't Do Anything Really Bad (Matthew 5:21-28)
I think sometimes we want moral credit for going our whole lives without stabbing an RMV employee with a barbecue fork, despite the temptation:
But in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus reveals that God is not fooled - he knows the murder and adultery in our hearts. We want credit for being smart enough not to plunge a knife into someone's chest or run away with the mail carrier (and hence reap the repercussions), but we do exactly as much as we think we can get away with. And we want moral credit for that? Imagine telling your spouse:
Have you tried on the words "murderer" or "adulterer" for size? They don't have quite the same ring as "decent human being," I've discovered. But make no mistake, in God's eyes, as well as the eyes of anyone who knew what we were really thinking deep down, those are our titles to own.
5. I'm Good with God Because I Try My Hardest (Matthew 5:29-30)
We really want God to believe that we're "doing our best." Maybe our actions are beyond our control - maybe it can't be helped!
I WOULD be good, God, but the internet is full of smut, and I have to have the internet to do my job. I WOULD be good, God, but my hand just goes places and I can't help it. Of course, if my hand really WERE doing evil things against my will, shouldn't I chop it off just like that guy from that execrable horror movie, Idle Hands? The fact is, my hand has nothing to do with it. I do evil because I want to. God knows it, and I know it. I'm not trying my hardest. I'm not removing myself from situations that I know tempt me. I'm not fleeing temptation - I'm trying to toe the line so I can innocently fall over it from time to time. That's not trying my best. Not even close.
6. I'm Good with God Because I've Been Treated Unfairly (Matthew 5:38-48)
I think Americans have a REALLY hard time with the last part of chapter 5. We can't believe Jesus is actually saying what his words seem to be saying. This is because, to an American, "standing up for yourself" is a cardinal virtue, regardless of your side of the political aisle:
America is all about fighting bad guys. Whether it's British tyranny, Southern slavery, Nazis, Commies, carbon emissions, or the lack of global access to Coca-Cola products, Americans believe in standing up to evil, wherever it lurks (even if -- sometimes especially if -- it's other Americans!). That's how we know we're the good guys, dang it. And there's nothing quite as satisfying as mulling over just how rotten those other people are.
And then here's Jesus - "Do not resist an evil man." Our enemies become excuses to strut around self-righteously - whether in deed or even merely in thought. We are to be completely, utterly innocent, even if that means letting honest-to-goodness jerks walk all over us. That's really hard for me. If I'm in the right, why should I suffer? Isn't being right what matters?
Well (I try to remind myself), how do I know I'm right? And on the off-chance I am right, it didn't matter for Jesus on the cross, did it?
And we're just getting warmed up! Chapters 6 and 7 are even worse... I mean better!
Happy holidays, everybody!
As the church struggles to figure out what to do with young males, sometimes it's helpful to plumb the depths of the male psyche in an effort to understand just what the heck is going on in there, because it's seldom apparent. I believe that a substantial chunk of the male existence is dedicated to recreating the happiest moment in all of boyhood:
I call this "the Memorial Day Feeling," and it was one of the best feelings in the world - no responsibilities for a full three months, which, in elementary-school-kid terms, is approximately 485 years. Male humans spend an extraordinary amount of time doing whatever they can to recreate that feeling on a permanent basis. This sometimes confuses female humans, who imagine that males work largely because of ambition or pride.
In the past, males HAD to reach for the stars because that's the only way they could afford the "Memorial Day Feeling." Now that technology has improved and society has become obscenely affluent, males can achieve that feeling in the here and now with little to no effort.
So how do we go about fixing the problem? Well, I'm sure the Holy Spirit will have to be involved somehow, because I can't see much of anything else (short of an EMP shockwave taking out all the electronics in the US) solving this problem. Now, if you excuse me, I have to go play Halo until my burrito is warmed up.
Esteemed theologian Stanley "H-Dawg" Hauerwas is known to have blamed a great deal of society and the church's problems on "sentimentality." (I'd provide a link, but that seemed like work.) Well, I couldn't agree more, especially when it comes to the critical social issue of the portrayal of prehistoric fauna in modern children's programming. Too many cartoons and plastic toys favor the following depiction:
A truly considerate and accurate depiction that gets at the nub of what makes these creatures so appealing to children might appear more as follows:
The same applies likewise to dragons, fighter jets, and also penguins.
Sometimes faith is a matter of saying "pish-tosh" to different things, like the internet. The internet gets a really big kick out of ramping up folks with medical anxiety, such as me. First, there's the symptom - new and just a little weird...
Of course, the internet is full of two kinds of people - (1) professionals trying to prevent a lawsuit by making sure they've warned you of every possible thing that could go wrong (except needless anxiety, of course), and (2) cranks and scaremongers taking time from commenting on YouTube videos to post on medical forums.
I should say that while the opinions of these people are entirely valid (which means "wrong" in postmodern-ese), the best answer to such blatant scaremongering is...
Life whispers all sorts of lies to us - the trick is remembering what's true and deflating the rest, not that I'm terribly good at it (although I'd like to think I've been getting better). Having faith in God also means saying pish-tosh to a lot of things we very dearly believe - that we can only rely on ourselves (not God), that the suffering of following God won't be worth the reward, etc etc etc. I sometimes find comfort in Scripture, in times when I feel afraid of worldly things. Here's a particularly relevant quote from Jesus:
"Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell." - Matthew 10:28
Oh wait, did I say "comfort?" I meant "perspective." Not every verse can be Chicken Soup for the Soul (although the next couple of verses are pretty comforting). And if you disagree, well, your opinion is very valid.
Ok, so I'm not quite ready yet to go into the Sermon on the Mount, like I said I was in the last installment... there's a metaphor I wanted to talk about first (and nothing sells a post like knowing there's a metaphor coming!). It's something I like to call the "moral plateau," and it's how I viewed the world for most of my spiritually immature years (1982-present). Basically, a lot of Christians (and non-Christians for that matter) see the world kind of like this:
We divide the world into two general groups of people - those on the moral plateau (which always includes the person doing the division, naturally), and those off of it. The nature of the wall varies from person to person - it might involve membership in a church or other tribe, acceptance of a particular lifestyle, belief in some set of propositions, the purchase of one or more trendy brands of organic coffee, etc. But whatever it is, it invariably divides the world neatly between me and my tribe, and "the other" - the bad people!
Evangelical Christians like to put that wall somewhere around baptism + church membership + living a basically moral middle class lifestyle. Some problems can arise, however.
I remember growing up in a church youth group that put a lot of emphasis on getting baptized and committing yourself to church - but I never really knew what was supposed to happen AFTER that. Nor, for that matter, did anyone else. Nor did it seem to bother anyone. After all, we're on the moral plateau, where else could we go?
This worldview also leads to a certain lack of mercy towards those not on the plateau...
And then, of course, there's the endless arguing about where the wall is and how big the plateau is. Is the wall baptism? Saying a certain prayer? Some quantity of good works? Or, if you're especially sentimental, maybe just not being a genocidal maniac? That is, some of us would like to keep the walls low enough so that EVERYBODY can get in...
That is, what if the "moral plateau" is so high, that nobody ever has any real justification in feeling complacent with where they are morally? What if the only thing that saves us is God's mercy, and the only thing left for us to do is keep climbing?
That is, what if we have no cause for looking down on anyone, since on the grand scale of things, we're all towards the bottom of the cliff? What if we have no cause for complacency because we have so far to go? What if we have no cause for despair because God has offered extravagant mercy for those humble enough to recognize where they are on the wall? Consider this parable from Jesus:
To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” - Luke 18:9-14
The trick is understanding and actually believing - internalizing - how sinful we actually are - that we are nowhere near any "moral plateau," if such a thing even exists. And for that (hopefully) we turn to the Sermon on the Mount...
(This post was edited June 26, 2011) It has been my observation that, deep down, a lot of American Christians - regardless of the language we use or the bumper stickers we affix to our vehicle's rear ends - believe ourselves to be perfectly decent, reasonably moral human beings. I say this with some authority because I, deep down, believe myself to be a perfectly decent, reasonably moral human being, so I figure everyone else must be just like me - always an awesomely valid assumption.
This is a problem because it leads to complacent, unchanged lives, arrogant judgmentalism, and tepid, purposeless evangelism, as I explain in minimal detail in my previous installment. These problems persist in spite of the language favored by us conservative evangelicals, which I would like to rip open and dissect for you now, because I just love you that much.
A lot of us Christians are perfectly happy to admit we're sinners. After all, we say, "Nobody's perfect!" We hope people will think we mean it like this:
When we actually mean it like this:
Us evangelicals are perfectly good at confessing that we're sinners in some broad, abstract, metaphysical sense. Sure, we're generally good people, but we've had some understandable slight foul-ups and maybe had a few technical difficulties along the way. The upshot is, among other things, that this makes the gospel narrative we claim to prize so highly seem faintly ridiculous:
Secular-type people have been quick to pick up on this. There's a certain hostile question I get from non-believers on a fairly regular basis:
It's an irritating question, and in the past, I would have just said, "Look. You have to accept that God is God and you're not," and that's true enough. But their question hits at a real problem - the nonsense at the core of a faith that's based on "saving us" from being slightly-less-than-perfect human beings.
So I'd like to argue that Christianity makes little sense unless we understand the following 2 major points:
(1) My behavior is extraordinarily, awesomely immoral - I chase after what God hates, and want what God wants very little, if at all. (2) God values me, loves me and forgives me in spite of Point 1 - even to the point of dying for me.
Accepting Point 1 forces me to admit my life has to change. Accepting Point 2 prevents me from peeling my face off with a fork in despair at Point 1. Not only is it hard to change my life when I think I'm fine the way I am, but Point 2 is really only meaningful if I understand Point 1 (otherwise God's love is a nice thing that I'm entitled to). Point 2 is easy for many of us (not all), but plenty of folks have trouble understanding Point 1, in spite of the fact that the Bible - especially the New Testament - is full of extremely horrifying passages vaporizing the foundations of our pride and self-justification.
One of the most horrifying is Jesus's famous Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. Growing up, teachers often focused on the peace-and-love aspects of the Sermon on the Mount to the exclusion of everything else. The resulting image in my head was not unlike this:
Later, when I read the Sermon on the Mount for myself, I had a rather different reaction:
My next installment will go into excruciating detail on how the Sermon on the Mount accomplishes this flesh-eradicating feat. In the midst of the mercy, there's some scary, scary stuff. To actually take Jesus at his word requires looking at your own real guilt square in the face and owning up to it. I can tell you're already excited!
Like the question of the rich, young ruler to Jesus - like so many of our questions to God - the answer seems frequently to be "Wrong question!"
Back in October, the Broadway-blogging community was peeing on itself with laughter over a Frequently Asked Questions page from the play Lombardi. Evidently, the producers felt that they would be attracting a different sort of patron to the theater - one who didn't know the basics of theater behavior - and so included helpful tidbits of advice such as:
What is expected of me once the curtain goes up? Please don’t talk! The actors will be performing live for you. It’s important that you listen very well so that you don’t miss anything and so that you don’t disturb others around you. Let the actors know that you appreciate the show: Laugh at the funny parts, applaud when you like something, but remember to respond respectfully and appropriately. The actors are right in front of you and their performance will be affected by your reactions.
People particularly latched on to the quote "laugh at the funny parts," as though this were something that people would not do unless so instructed. Well, as bizarre and kindergarten-teacher-like as this is, I can pretty much understand where the FAQ authors are coming from. Sometimes I want to be told that I can "laugh at the funny parts." You see, I have a severe case of protocolphobia, defined as the paralyzing fear of being in a situation in which I don't know how to behave, where there is a high chance of someone thinking poorly of me or, even, (heaven forfend) looking sternly at me. I imagine I'm not the only one.
There are lots of situations where a FAQ could come in handy. I often feel like I would appreciate having a big sign explaining exactly what it is I'm supposed to be doing. Like rotaries, for example, which are somewhat terrifying to those of us who grew up in places where roads go in straight lines:
ROTARY FAQ: Welcome to a New England-style rotary! You poor fool!
How do I enter the rotary? It's customary to wait for a gap vaguely large enough to contain your vehicle, but it is not mandatory. When entering, it is considered best practice to floor your accelerator while screaming like one or more samurais charging into battle.
How many lanes are there in the rotary? As many as you need there to be!
How do I get out of the rotary? Technically you have the right of way when you are on the rotary, but no one else knows or cares. So trust me, your life will go much more smoothly if you just accept that you will not be getting out of the rotary for some time. Why don't you listen to some nice Enya while you wait for the traffic to move?
Where does this rotary take me? All exits lead to Route 3 south.
What if I don't want to get on Route 3 south? Tough noogies.
I imagine that folks checking around a church website (like this one) might want to know what to expect, in case they, too, suffer from protocolphobia. But would you want to be told to "laugh at the funny parts?"* What do you think?
* Me singing "May the Lord Bless You and Keep You"
I've noticed the church in America has a great many problems. I've noticed this sometimes while I was personally contributing to them. In the process, however, I think I may have realized a central root cause of these problems. With any luck, you'll agree with me wholeheartedly and then we can all go out to Gennaro's for fettuccine alfredo. (If you don't agree, well, maybe we can still eat alfredo.) Consider the problem of legalism - defined (by me) as the self-righteous clinging to doctrines and practices that flagrantly don't matter to God, with all the useless arguing, divisiveness, and toxic pride that goes with it:
For a lot of us in the evangelical world, this starts to look like something called "Game of Life" Christianity. A lot of us tend to perceive life as a generally linear pathway - a few deviations here and there but largely taking us past the same milestones, towards the same end goal - fulfillment, comfort, success, lots of little pink and blue pegs in the back of our plastic minivans.
We're all perfectly willing for someone ELSE to draw that card - "spend themselves" on the poor, the hungry, and the lost - but not us. We're content to lead lives of utter self-serving mediocrity, as though we can take the spiritual equivalent of "the gentleman's C" and still get to retire to Millionaire Estates.
Or consider the state of evangelism. Our strategies generally take one of two styles, and while they can sometimes work out fine, the results are frequently tepid.
Deep down, regardless of the language we use, a lot of Christians believe ourselves to be perfectly good, decent people.
And it's a huge problem. I'll go into more details in later posts, but I believe we won't get our lives or our communities straight until we allow ourselves to be entirely broken and defeated at the feet of God. Until then, we'll keep singing choruses to our favorite hymn:
I remember a time a while back when my counselor rated me as a high "people-pleaser." He informed me that this was something I need to work on, in the same excessively ginger tone you might use when telling a criminally insane friend that maybe hitting folks with tire irons is not the best way to win friends and influence people. My natural reaction to this was, of course, immediately to become extremely defensive. Sure, I'm a people pleaser, I thought. And good for me! And good for people, too! (Not that I actually said any of this out loud to him - wouldn't want to upset him by disagreeing!) People are pleased, and the people pleasers are pleased as a result - everybody's freakin' pleased! I thought that it would maybe be a good idea to launch a nation-wide organization of people pleasers and take our complaints to Washington!
Or perhaps not. At any rate, I understand perfectly well how people-pleasing can be bad - when it becomes turning the opinions of others into an idol. (See John 12:43) But on the other hand, this whole idea of "assertiveness" as healthy seems to run afoul of Jesus's admonition to turn the other cheek - to "not resist an evil person" (Matthew 5). Maybe the problem with people pleasers isn't that we let people walk all over us, it's that we whine so much afterward. I don't know. What do you think?