On Pollution and Grace

There was once a vibrant oasis in the Western United States. Over time, with the introduction of harmful human activity, the oasis became polluted to the point that flora and fauna struggled to survive.

A local group, concerned about the rapid decline of that ecosystem, began to take steps towards repairing the damage that had been done. They removed large amounts of waste from that environment, quarantined a few areas around the lake, and put forth several measures to prevent further accumulation of harmful substances.

Over a short time, the oasis began to recover. Plant life began to recover, the ph balance of the water was improving, and the soil composition was getting back to what it needed to be. The nearby town began introducing new life into the ecosystem; fish and several plants to further improve the quality of the soil and water. However, there were still noticeable issues with the levels of pollution that were found.

Once again, the people involved in monitoring the situation saw improvements. This time, however, the improvements came slowly. They began doing water treatments to further cleanse the lake, and introduced soil treatments to remove even more pollutants that were found in the ground. Improvements still came, but noticeable differences were difficult to observe.

After some time, the people became frustrated with their progress. At several hundred thousand dollars spent, the nearby town was thoroughly invested in removing all pollutants from the oasis. But, the tests still showed the presence of pollution. Even though the current levels of harmful substances were a tiny fraction of what they once were, further measures were enacted to continue the purification process.

Aquifer rehabilitation, plant scrubbing, animal cleaning, numerous amounts of sprays, and chemical spreads were introduced. At this point, the economic cost was well into the millions of dollars and national finances were being used for the rehabilitation project.

As these methods were taking place, the situation – surprisingly – began to get worse. The levels of cleaning chemicals ended up killing most of the fish in the lake, as well as the plant life surrounding it. The town had to declare bankruptcy because of the inordinate level of costs it had undertaken. And, in a brief span of time, the oasis became a desert.

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I’ve heard this story used as a thought experiment for cost-benefit analysis in economics. I feel it works equally well in a social setting.

There is a nasty habit that has evolved in our midst; the tireless pursuit of perfection. Every possible negative instance is heavily scrutinized and swiftly punished. There can be no imperfection in our society; no room for error. Whenever a comment is made that is racist or sexist (or if it could be taken as such), a cleansing process must take place to eradicate it.

I have been concerned for a while that our culture is committing the same self-destructive process within our own social fabric. With these trends of racial reconciliation, gender equality, mutual tolerance, and open-mindedness becoming increasingly radical, I cannot help but wonder if our Western ideal of perfection is going to kill us.

Now, I am not in favor of racism, sexism, bigotry, or whatever other ideologies exist that elevate one type of person over another. However, I also feel that it is a problem to relentlessly pursue their eradication.

Let’s face the reality: people will be bigoted. Racism, sexism, closed-mindedness, xenophobia, and similar negative traits will exist wherever we go. It is good to recognize these realities and seek reconciliation, but we should also acknowledge that there comes a point where pursuing perfect justice will ultimately lead us to creating an environment in which we, ourselves, cannot even live. We will have cultivated an ecosystem that is so purified that no form of life can survive.

I am still wresting with this line of thinking, and am curious to see where the logical end of it lies. I feel very strongly, though, that instead of asking ourselves, “How can we get rid of these social ills?” we should begin asking, “Can we show grace in the midst of human imperfections?” Following the direction of the general philosophy of our culture, the answer to the latter question is quickly becoming “no.” In such an environment, no one will be able to survive.

Integrating this line of thinking into the Church, we should not be surprised by those who say, “I am not good enough to be a Christian.”  The more we pursue our idea of perfection (whether we are talking about politics, theology, or whatever else), the more it will come at the cost of our own humanity. We won’t be able to live in the world we’ve created. We would do well to walk with humility in these times, especially since we are wading through a growing paradox of increasing legalism and the simultaneous extension of self-sovereignty.

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On the Bible and Tradition

I distinctly remember sitting in my ‘Introduction to the Old Testament’ class one day, during the Fall of 2010. We were discussing ancient creation myths and other Mesopotamian mythologies that seemed eerily similar to the accounts in Genesis 1-4. I don’t recall what exactly we talked about regarding the 1st or 4th chapters of Genesis, but I do remember talking about Genesis 2-3.

I was absolutely awestruck. Dumbfounded, even.

We were exploring the views of ancient Egyptian stories, Canaanite religion, Babylonian myths, and Sumerian epics. It was incredible the amount of similarities between these narratives and the Scriptural accounts. What struck me, however, was that all of these stories predated the Hebrew texts. Some by several thousand years.

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Marduk vs. Tiamat in the Enuma Elish – just before Marduk creates the expanse called “Sky” to separate the waters, and creates dry ground

I simply didn’t know how to handle what I was studying. Surely if the ancient accounts of Scripture were to be historically true, as I had assumed, then the earliest chapters of Genesis should predate every other telling of the stories.  However, if traditional interpretations are to be correct, then Moses wrote down the texts. But, therein lies a problem… Moses didn’t exist until around 1450 BCE, with the oldest surviving copies dating to around 400 BCE. These other ancient accounts existed well before 1500 BCE, with the earliest surviving physical copy of a creation myth dating to 1600 BCE (The Eridu Genesis of Sumerian origin). So, either Moses didn’t write parts of Genesis, or oral traditions survived hundreds (if not thousands) of years without change, or there’s something else going on here…

I want to pause for a moment, because I don’t want to get into interpretive methods of Genesis 1-4. That’s not the point of this post. The point of this post is that I struggled, for years, on how to reconcile the authority of the Scriptures with the fact that the Scriptures mirror ancient mythologies.

That was a serious crisis point in my life. My faith was built upon the notion that the Scriptures are wholly unique, and stand unopposed by any other religion or anti-religious movement. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what I have come to see as a very weak foundation for my faith.

It’s a funny irony, I’ve noticed, that Protestant traditions tend to look down on catholic practices. We – speaking as a generic protestant of the American variety – say, “Look at those catholics and their traditions! They worship ancient practices that serve… what purpose? Don’t they know that traditional practices for the sake of traditional practices is pointless? Our faith isn’t built upon the Church! They need to stop worshipping tradition!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about church practices, we tend to embrace them.

At the same time, we stick to our own traditions. Mainly, traditional interpretations of Scripture. We can apply the same criticisms to our hermeneutical methods: “Look at those protestants and their traditional interpretations! They worship the church fathers, and even figures of the Bible, and what they said about Scripture! Don’t they know that clinging to traditional views of Scripture for the sake of those traditional views is pointless? Our faith isn’t built on the Scriptures! They need to stop worshipping traditional interpretations!” And so, when we explore new thoughts about Biblical interpretations, we feel threatened by them. Oh, wait…

And here I want to make my first point: If the Bible is what we believe it is – the inspired word of God – then we shouldn’t feel threatened by scientific, anthropological, or archeological findings. Could these discoveries have an impact on our Scriptural interpretations? Absolutely! Would studies in language, ancient cultures, and biblical criticisms challenge our traditionally-held beliefs about Scripture? Quite possibly, yes. But why should we be afraid of that? Just like we shouldn’t be afraid to switch-up the practices of church, or explore alternate structures to a worship service, we can apply the same logic to our treatment of the Bible. After all, our church services and Scripture fulfill the same role: to be a vehicle for communicating the Gospel.

Now I want to awkwardly shift to my second point.

About a year ago, I was asked if I believe the Bible to be true. My response needed clarification, so this was how I answered: “Do I believe that the Bible is true in that it points to Jesus Christ, and accurately portrays his character, and accurately tells of the necessity of being in right relationship with our Creator and how we do that? Yes! Absolutely!  But, do I believe that the Bible is true in that every claim it makes about every subject is 100% scientifically, historically, and philosophically accurate? No.”  (I’m paraphrasing, but that was essentially my answer. And I stand by it).

The truth is this: The Bible contains contradictions. It even points some of them out (see Daniel’s conversation with Gabriel in chapter 9, where Daniel asks, ‘Hey, you told Jeremiah “70 years until Judah’s restoration.” It’s been 69, so what’s going on?’ and Gabriel says, ‘um… that was a mistake. It wasn’t 70 years. It’s actually 70 times 7 years.’  Jeremiah’s scroll autocorrected, I guess.).

In all honesty, I’m not concerned about how anyone interprets the Bible for themselves. If you want to read everything literally, and treat it all as historical, political, scientific fact – go right ahead! If you want to believe that the Bible has no contradiction and interpret your way around ‘supposed contradictions,’ be my guest. I won’t question your faith, nor would I want to. What I struggle with, however, is the historic failure on the part of clergy and church leader to help us develop solid views of Scripture that do not devolve into worship of the 66 books.

I know this, because I experienced it. I experienced having a relationship with God that was based on words instead of the Word (and I don’t mean the Bible with that, I mean Jesus Christ).  I experienced having a crisis of faith because of challenges that were posed to a book – not challenges that were posed to my Creator himself. Yet, I had intricately woven the two together. I had confused the medium with the message; the Scriptures with the point of the Scriptures; the Bible with the Lord. Our faith isn’t built on the Bible. Our faith is built on Jesus Christ, whom the Scriptures point to. But the Bible is not Jesus Christ.

It was a long road to unravel and differentiate the two, but it was a road well worth embarking upon.

 

End note:

This is something I’ve been meaning to write on for a while, but unfortunately this type of conversation is one that can quickly get a minister ‘black-listed,’ either by members of a local church community or  other clergy.

Some may wonder, then, why I chose to write on this when it poses some risk. My answer is simple: I have always seen it as a responsibility of the minister to not simply maintain a status-quo of beliefs. If we are to grow in our faith, we need to face challenges and experience dissonance. What I try to do, then, is help people encounter those dissonances and process their way through them. What they conclude is up to them. This is one of the functions of my blog, after all.

On Christmas and Church

Maybe Trump’s election caused more of a mental disturbance than I thought. The “Safe Spaces,” therapy dogs, free counseling sessions, and petitions to have the Electorate change their votes were certainly not what I was expecting following November 8. (Just to be clear, I am not endorsing nor condemning the President Elect). But now, we are having to have discussions around whether or not to gather for worship on a major Church holiday?

For those who may not have heard the buzz flying around the interwebs this season, there is a conversation/debate going around Christian circles over whether or not to have an organized gathering on Christmas. Christmas falls on a Sunday this year, and thus many churches are deciding not to have a service.

I simply don’t get it. Why is this even a conversation? Have we run out of things to discuss?

In all seriousness, let’s have a chat about this. Christmas is less than 2 weeks away, and although this post is, no doubt, late to the party, I still think there is a lot we need to talk about when it comes to this particular topic.

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I will be blunt: I think it’s a poor choice to cancel church on Christmas. I will try to be brief, so here is my reasoning:

1. Most Americans are closet Gnostics, already. American Christianity struggles with understanding the value of creation and the material world (Thank you, Plato). The Incarnation is an incredible opportunity to teach this – and a necessary one. God becoming flesh – literally occupying physical space – carries profound density that could take a lifetime to explore, but how often do we wrestle with this idea? I cannot think of the last time I was at a Christmas service where the Crucifixion/Resurrection was not the climax of the Christmas Story. If we cannot appreciate the significance of the Incarnation without burying it under the Cross, then we have a problem.

By cancelling church on Christmas, we communicate a theological message about the value of the Incarnation whether we mean to or not.

2. It’s not just another Sunday. I don’t know why many pastor’s I’ve heard from use this as a justification for cancelling services: it’s just another Sunday. Truth is, it’s a major Christian holiday. What better place to celebrate a Church holiday than on a Sunday? We should be excited that Christmas falls on a Sunday this year – the day that the Lord meets with his Holy Church Universal! Think of what it would be like to cancel church during Easter because it falls on a Sunday.

I know the reasoning behind this, which brings me to the third point:

3. Family is not more important than Church. The number 1 reason I have heard for cancelling church revolves around: “This is time I can spend with my family. I’m not going to neglect my family for the sake of a service.” Here’s the problem I have with this thinking: it assumes a false dichotomy. Family is not at odds with Church. Family time and Church time are not mutually exclusive. See one of my latest posts for more on this subject.

I understand that family is important, but we are treading dangerously close to making family an idol by assuming that families are somehow being damaged by worshipping together. If we can’t worship with our families for an hour on a Sunday morning without suffering damage, then I suggest counseling rather than sleeping-in and opening presents. Are we such bad family members that we can’t take advantage of the other 364 days in the year and spend adequate time with our family? We only have this one day to show our families what they mean to us?

Now, I get the pressures of being a pastor, and that it isn’t “just an hour” you have to put into a Sunday morning service. But here’s the awesome thing: You’re the pastor! You don’t have to plan an hour-long service. Personally, I’m planning a simple Christmas morning service that, at most, will go for about 45 minutes with Scripture readings and no worship team. Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean we have to go full-throttle on the choirs, songs, videos, and all that jazz. But, gathering as the community of faith is an important thing to do.

4. It’s one Sunday out of the year. I understand we want to spend time with our families. Again, I am not against family time because I don’t believe the lie that Church time and Family time can’t go together. But, if we truly need that time together as a family on a Sunday morning and can’t survive without it, then why not take off the following Sunday? Or the Sunday before? Christmas is not just “another Sunday.” Have we truly forgotten what a holiday is? What’s more – it’s one of the most significant holidays of the year! (and I’m counting the Church calendar, not just the Hallmark calendar)

Another major argument I’ve heard for churches closing is that “it’s only one Sunday out of the year. No big deal!” My point exactly: it’s only one Sunday out of the year. Why not make a small sacrifice and worship?

5. Mixed messages. I will never be able to count how many times I’ve heard the phrase, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season.” If that is true, then why can’t we acknowledge that on Christmas, of all days, by actually observing that message?

By preaching, “Jesus is the Reason for the Season,” and turning around and saying, “No church on Christmas,” we mark ourselves as hypocrites and preach a different message. More often than not, as far as I’ve heard/read, the message is: “Family is the Reason for the Season.” As Christians, we are called to be set apart; to follow a different way of living. Where Secular Culture decides to treat Christmas as a time to worship family, we should be setting an example by taking that time to worship Christ.

I have heard it argued that canceling church is not a problem because church is not the same as Jesus. I get it. But we have to be careful in that thinking because Christ himself saw the regular gathering of the community as important. And, he also established the Church and set her up to be his bride. Perhaps this is over-spiritualizing things a tad, but I would argue that by gathering consistently, especially on holidays, we honor Christ’s bride and thereby Christ himself.

6. Christmas without a cost. I don’t know, maybe this is a cheap shot, but I have a sneaking suspicion that one major reason for our lackluster approach to Christmas this year is that we want to treat ourselves. We don’t want to have to work. We want some time off. We want a holiday that doesn’t cost us anything (well, anything beyond the $500 we spent on Christmas presents). Our time spent shopping was enough time away from home.

But Christmas is about giving, not getting. Am I seriously having to say this to a mostly adult audience? So why not give some ti—…….       you know what… I think I’ve made my point by now.

 

There are other reasons for why I will have church on Christmas morning, but these are the highlights. And, honestly, I still can’t believe we have to have this conversation. It’s not like this is the first time Christmas fell on a Sunday. It happened 5 years ago, and I’m pretty sure we were all good with it back then. So what happened?

And, frankly, if we can’t take an hour or two out of one day of the year to worship as a family because “that’s the only time we have together,” then maybe we’re too busy with filling our lives with things that don’t matter.

On Family and Church (Part 1)

The greatest thing my parents ever did for my sister and me was this: they never claimed ownership over us.

This revelation came about some years ago, when I was 21 years old. I don’t recall the context, exactly. It was either when I talked with them about feeling called to pastoral ministry, or when I shared with them that I felt I needed to go on a mission trip to Kenya. Either way, it doesn’t matter how it happened. It only matters that it happened.

It was in a moment when I had to make a serious decision, and I clearly remember the truth that was shared with me from my parents: “We raised you and Jenn knowing that you do not belong to us – you belong to God.”

Since then, I have seen pieces here and there fall into place. Parts of my life that make more sense as I look into the past through this new lens; a lens that changes the hue of my memories just enough to make things clearer. The times I was frustrated by what was going on. The times when I was confused about certain decisions, or why my parents raised my sister and me the way they did.

Now, I know that my parents are not perfect. They’ll be the first to admit it. They made poor decisions, just like anyone else does. But there remains in my life a kernel of truth that we have begun to forget in the Western church: children do not belong to the parents.

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I am not entirely sure why it is. Perhaps it’s because of our social culture. But family has become defined as the prime community – the ultimate locus of social experience and relational intimacy. We forget, however, that as believers we are called to a family that transcends biological or legal barriers. “Blood may be thicker than water, but the bond of the spirit is greater than both.” (Can’t find who said this, but it was in a book/article I read a while ago)

Why is it, then, that family time has become a rival to church time? How has it become so easy to justify neglecting corporate worship in order to spend time sharing a meal and watching a movie together?

I distinctly remember that for most of my life my parents were exceptionally busy people. But, the one thing that could be counted on is that every week, usually at least twice a week, we would gather together and worship. We would pray, sing praise, and listen to the Word together. We would participate in ground-breaking ceremonies, witness dedications and baptisms, and celebrate in ours and other’s achievements together. We would dream, mourn, laugh, and cry together.

Church was not a mere weekly activity for us. It was a central bonding agent of our lives. It prompted discussions during our car rides. It caused us frustrations and joys. It merged us with other families and developed life-long friendships with people who are more than friends to us. And the stories… so many stories! The stories of our local church became the stories of our family. Even today when we come together we talk about church – it is the one thing to which we can all relate.

It breaks my heart to see what is happening to so many churches today. It also infuriates me. When the local church is no longer a place where the family can spend time together, we have a problem. When the local church is not viewed as that place and time where a family can join with one another in worship, we need to seriously think about what it going on. And when churches distance themselves from being the prime community into which we are called, we have lost a central aspect of our ecclesiology and have forgotten a large part of who we are as Christians.

Let us not fool ourselves, here. When families need to become absent during worship in order to spend time together, we have established the family as an idol. We tell ourselves that our biological family is more important, and so it should not surprise us when our children grow up to be apathetic towards church because we have trained them to see it as an auxiliary part of their lives. The family, then, becomes a church unto itself, with its own modes of worship, sacraments (football games, movie watching, weekly meal sharing), saints (distant relatives, grandparents), and gods (Detroit Tigers, MSU, USA). These things, in and of themselves, are not bad. But when they usurp the primacy of gathered worship of a greater community to our Lord, we throw ourselves into a subtle yet powerful confusion.

A part of this, no doubt, is due to the fact that in many churches the family simply cannot be together. Silo ministry models, where people of different ages are segregated from one another, perpetuates a culture that teaches that church is not a place for families. It is a place for family members, but not a place where families can share memories, celebrate, or worship together. And so, families are justified in their absence from church in order to spend time apart. A justification that is, itself, built on a sandy foundation.

We ought to be ashamed when families must choose between “family time” and church. We belong, ultimately, to God. And yet we are creating and perpetuating a culture that says we ultimate belong to ourselves. Is this not a tragedy? Has church simply become a purveyor of spiritual and religious goods and services; a consumable item families indulge in when convenient? Or something to partake of when, in their ‘good judgment,’ they feel it is necessary to purchase through an investment of time and non-participatory attendance? As easy to attend or abstain from as going shopping at the local mall or eating out? – Just another cog in the machine for us, no more or less significant than everything else we participate in.

My parents have been asked by co-workers and friends over the years an interesting question that comes in many forms: “What did you do to have your children turn out the way they did?”

The answer is simple: my parent’s children didn’t belong to them. They belonged to God.

Church is not a family tradition for us. It is who we are. It is greater than our family. My sister and I did not grow up being taught to serve the family. We grew up being taught to serve Christ and his Kingdom. A major facet in that was our consistent involvement in the life of our local church through all seasons of life.

 

 

On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda

I was watching a documentary today on Netflix. Not a particularly unique event. For some odd reason I began finding dramas and action movies wholly dissatisfying a couple years ago and found myself scouring Netflix and Youtube for any historical clips, intellectual debates, and foreign films based on cultural ideologies or philosophical examinations.

It’s no wonder, then, that when I came across an independent film titled, “The Propaganda Game” I almost instantly added it to my list. The cover is a North Korean soldier, and having been to Korea and studied some of its culture over the last couple years – even learning some of the Korean language – I thought this would be an interesting watch.  I wasn’t disappointed.

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The film follows a Spanish filmmaker throughout his exploration of the country and how the North Korean culture perpetuates itself within the system of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK). I recommend everyone to watch it. It is truly fascinating to see the contrast between what we see/hear of North Korea from news sources and what people experience when they actually visit the country.

I admit that I struggled while watching this film. And, as the filmmaker admits at the conclusion of the movie, it is difficult to tell what is true and what is not. Are the lives people live simply a façade, carried out through fake smiles and rehearsed lines in order to appease the powers-that-be? Or is that simply our perception of what is going on, built up by misinformation and speculation, and fueled by anti-communist mentalities? In reality, I think that many who live in North Korea truly believe that they are the greatest country on the face of the earth, that the Juche ideology will carry the Korean people to world dominance and full independence, that it’s leaders are deserving to be worshipped and respected above all others, and that the West (particularly America) is the enemy of freedom and an imperialistic power.

We hear such positions, and we immediately infer that they derive from propaganda. Constructed out of lies, deceit, and subjugation over decades of ideological conditioning and brainwashing. We hear what happens within the country and we cry “foul,” demanding that human rights have been violated and sanctions should set against it for the sake of the DPRK’s citizenry.

However, I found something to be entirely fascinating throughout my viewing of this movie. I was entranced and fixated on this one singular point that served as the undercurrent, and I have been wrestling with it all day. The point is this: Are we not living in the same reality?

As much as we look at a country like North Korea and say how abusive it is that television, news networks, and cinema are manipulated in order to condition the thinking of its people, does our culture not do the same? How the police and military forces are used to enforce strict laws that would punish those who work against the established system, and are used to root out anyone who would disrespect the Great Leaders and their position – do we not do the same?

A rudimentary look through Facebook would reveal how our culture punishes its people for not standing up during the National Anthem. Read Youtube comments, and you’ll see the strong opposition to anyone who would seek to promote Christianity as a respectable religion in our culture’s Scientism-based ideology. Watch the news, and see how it condemns other countries (including North Korea) for not functioning the way a country ought to, even though the standards we use to judge the efficiency and functionality of other cultures is based on Western ideas.  Watch any movie that has come out in the last year, and you will see how our own American culture produces its own propaganda: alternative sexual lifestyles should be celebrated, the sovereignty of the individual is the greatest moral achievement, freedom of choice in every aspect of life is the highest ethic to be pursued, science reveals all truth, and the Western way of life is the ideal way of life.

With only few exceptions, see what happens when anyone counters those ideas. I am willing to bet that many who are reading this have automatically assumed, whether subconsciously or consciously, that most or all of the aforementioned ideals are good, noble, and true. However, could we not conclude that such ideals are the product of decades of our own propaganda?

Taking this one step further, in the direction of how it relates to Christianity, we ought to be aware of how our own cultures have affected our beliefs. I find it fascinating that Christians in the West gravitate towards Biblical themes of liberty, freedom, and autonomy, while Christians in parts of Africa gravitate towards the themes of patriarchal authority, communal living, and piety.

Could we not conclude, then, that our own faith may be subject to culture’s propaganda? After all, if we take an honest look at American ideologies and Biblical teachings we will find many conflicts. Where American teaches freedom of choice in all areas of life, Christ teaches self-sacrifice and full submission to the will of the Father. Where America teaches the sovereignty of the individual – the power we have to define ourselves – Christianity reveals that the only freedom we have is the freedom to either follow or reject Christ, and if we choose to follow Christ we forego our “rights” or any claim of self-sovereignty. Where America and its culture teaches that we must respect the American flag and pledge our allegiance to it, Scripture teaches that we pledge allegiance to Christ alone and no other.  America teaches that we belong only and exclusively to ourselves, and are held accountable by no one above us, while the Bible teaches that we are but singular parts of a greater whole who are taught to hold one another accountable and to be responsible for one another.

In many ways, it seems that Christianity has more in common with North Korea than with America.  But can we see through the haze that is our own Western propaganda machine – a machine that force-feeds us philosophies, ideas, “truths,” ethics, and morals through television, video games, magazines, movies, newspapers, books, sports, education, and social media?

I am not commending the DPRK as an ideal which we should follow. I am merely pointing out how inconsistent it is that we, as Americans, condemn that which is not like us simply because we have different worldviews. Ironically, we condemn North Korea for doing the same.

Perhaps this can be a step toward liberating our Americanized church from nationalistic tendencies, and perhaps we can begin to see ourselves – the Church – as a nation without borders, whose sole philosophy is “Jesus is Lord.” What if we allowed ourselves to be conditioned in that way of thinking, rather than be conditioned into an American way of thinking?

On Good and Noble

Lately I have been noticing something more and more in my web surfing and Facebook News Feed scrolling.

It is something I have had a sense about for many years now, but only recently began to pay more attention to it as the kernels of truth in the matter rise to the surface. Today, it is much more obvious and ‘out-there’ than it was some 5-10 years ago.

The late Christopher Hitchens, whom I greatly disagree with but deeply respect, articulated one particular frustration I have had for many years. Towards the end of many of his debates with Christians, or more generally ‘theists’ of multiple faiths, he posed a challenge: “Find one good or noble thing which cannot be accomplished without religion.”

Barring that “Because It’s True” developed a fairly good argument for the invalidity of such a challenge, it is a challenge that I have wrestled with for most of my life. After all, it seems that non-Christians are well capable of performing good and noble acts without the need of being “born again” and filled with the Holy Spirit. And, the subsequent thought it what has kept me awake during many night: if that is true, then what practical message is there to be found exclusively in Scripture that doesn’t result in selfish ‘escapism.’ In other words, if faith in Christ has no practical use in this life except in attaining peace for what happens on the other side of the grave, then what use is Holiness to us?

Do a quick scroll through your Facebook, or glance at the headlines on the “News” tab of Google. It won’t take you long at all to see that people of all walks of life are performing good and noble acts. However, there is something altogether different about the acts of a non-believer and the acts of a believer (at least, there should be).

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Now, I cannot account for other faiths such as Islam, Hinduism, or Buddhism. They will have to stand on their own in defense of this topic. However, almost every time I read a story of someone who acted altruistically and gave up something of themselves for the sake of someone else, there is a common theme that lies underneath it all. This undercurrent is what I have been sensing for many years, and unfortunately it seeps into many streams of Christianity. It is this: “I do good things because it makes me feel good.” In other words, most of the stories we hear about are of people who do good and noble things to achieve a therapeutic outcome.

When these stories of do-gooders first started to creep into the mainstream, this message was very subtle and nearly impossible to distinguish. Nowadays, it is overt in almost every story of someone who helps another: “I did this and that, and I learned how great it makes me feel.” Or some variety of that sentiment.

This may not seem that terrible on the surface, but when you really think about it, this perspective is horrendously selfish. It is actually exploitation for the sake of personal fulfillment. I do X so that I can obtain Y. I help Larry so that I can feel good about myself.

We hear this all the time in the stories given by people who go on mission trips. What a great time they have! Doing all these good works, helping out these poor and destitute people. And what is the ultimate response to doing such work? “I have learned to appreciate what I have more.” Or, “It really changed the way I live.” These are not bad messages in and of themselves, but it furthers the notion that we do what we do for the sake of ourselves and our own betterment.

However, this is a point at which Christianity diverges from popular culture. Popular culture teaches, “Give and give so that you may receive.” On the contrary, Christ teaches, “Give and give because you already have.” We give our lives away for the sake of others, not for the sake of ourselves. Actually, let me correct that: We give our lives away for the sake of Christ, not for the sake of ourselves.

Mother Theresa is known for responding, when questioned why she was hugging a leper, with “Because this is my Lord.” When we see people in need we respond not out of a sense to help ‘the lesser person’ but out of a sense to help because in the face of the helpless we see the face of Christ himself. The passage in Matthew 25, around verse 40 should clarify what I mean here.

In a more practical sense, Christians ought not seek to go to other parts of the world (or indeed our own neighbor) out of a sense to feel good about ourselves or somehow attain a sense of inherent value in our personal existence. We should go and help because that is what we do.

And, in this way, I feel I have a response to the challenge: Without religion one can certainly do good and noble things, but they become something entirely different when Christ is at the center of it all.

In Ministers and Trust (Part 6)

I did my March budget today. That may have been a bad idea.

Fortunately, I have a decent sized tax refund coming in either this week or next week. Thank goodness, too, because otherwise the next couple weeks would be pretty difficult to get through.

I won’t lie. Transitioning into a volunteer pastor position has not been an easy one by any stretch of the imagination. Mix together the search for employment, the stress of feeling a need to meet unrealistic expectations, financial difficulties, and all the little stresses that go along with being a leader in a local community you are still trying to becoming a part of, and it’s no wonder to me why so many people leave the ministry.

footprints-with-jesus-cartoon

To be fair, there is always an opportunity in ministry to complain either at the beginning or after multiple decades. But,  I’m not saying all this to promote an attitude of complaint. Instead, I am saying this in an attempt to paint a picture of what serving the Lord can be like for those entering into ministry.

I was in God’s waiting room for a year, and now I’ve been graduated into a “standby” room so to speak. Similar to why I turned down other ministry opportunities, I moved here out of obedience. I moved here because I sensed this is where God wanted me to be. And now, I am still here because this is where I sense God wants me to be. And until I hear from Him that He wants me to move somewhere else, this is where I will be.

But I won’t be surprised if I get my first grey hairs before the end of next month. Obedience to the call is not without its share of difficult times. Doubly so when one has to shoulder those burdens alone. I wake up, and they’re there. I go to bed, and they’re there.  The problems we face in life and ministry will never go away.

In truth, I wish that issues I face were due to my own irresponsibility that I’m in the situation I am. At least in that case I could point to something and say, “Here it is! This is why I can’t buy my own food. If I only fix this issue I will be okay!”  But I can’t say that in honesty. Instead, what I am forced to say is, “I have no idea what I’m going to do. All I can do is trust that God will provide.”

I think of that popular passage in Philippians 4:13. I’m sure most people know it: “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength.” I find it interesting the verses leading up to this are Paul reflecting on his moments of both prosperity and need. But this verse doesn’t speak to a truth of acquiring higher status or achieving great things. Instead, it is about being content in all situations. How? Because through Christ we find the satisfaction of our needs.

I know that probably sounds very churchy and inadequate. However, being someone who is (in my humble opinion) as close to the heart of this passage as I’ve ever been, I have discovered that sometimes in life that is all you can say…

“Ben, how can you remain at a church that can’t pay you? How can you keep living in someone’s basement without a job? How can you…..”  Honestly, I really don’t know. Except to say that I am still here, and I am continuing with this mission, because Christ is strengthening me.

This is one of those posts that doesn’t have a very uplifting message. Young ministers, ministry is really tough sometimes. Especially in the finance department. And it can be very tempting to get up and leave in order to pursue a more fiscally advantageous opportunity. However, if we are obedient to the call God has placed upon our lives, I can promise that He will take care of our needs. And, in the process, we will learn what exactly our needs are because, in most cases, I’m willing to bet that what we think we need is a lot more than what we actually need..