On Christianity, North Korea, and Propaganda (Part 2)

Some of you probably noticed a few writing errors on my last post shortly after it was published (I know I did!). As I was going through and making some minor edits on misspelled words, I began to sift through it and add hyperlinks to various parts that I thought were relevant – parts where I thought, “you know, maybe someone wants to know more about what I just said. I’ll include hyperlinks to show where I’m getting my information.”

But then I encountered a problem… About 2/3rds the way through my last post, I began saying things like, “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.” Here’s the problem I encountered: I couldn’t find a demonstration of this. Sure, as I looked through YouTube videos discussion religion/faith there were a few spots where things got a bit heated in the comments section. But, for every post I found that belittled Christianity I found another that belittled non-Christians. Overall, for all the vitriol that YouTube comments hold (“cesspools,” as some people describe them), there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong leaning one way or the other. In fact, there are some good conversations that take place, albeit rarely.

As I scoured the videos I watched in days-gone-by where I thought I was getting a hint of anti-Christianity, I soon began to question myself… Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda?

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I began to search the internet even more, looking beyond YouTube into Reddit, Facebook, and even 4Chan to see what kinds of anti-Christianity existed. What I found was that there certainly is an anti-Christian presence on these sites, but there is also a pro-Christian presence. In fact, most of the views held by both sides of the conversation tend to stay within their own circles, like different cliques of people sitting together in their own section of the bleachers during a school event; having their own in-house meeting while occasionally slinging mud at one another, but having no real engagement between the two.

Then, I began to think through my personal interactions with those I’ve met who are atheists and agnostics. Interestingly enough, I cannot recall one hostile conversation I’ve had with such people throughout my life. Maybe one or two heated discussions during my Middle and High School days between classmates, but even then it was more a conversation of exploration and testing than persecution-levels of animosity. And, in my adult years, I have actually been frustrated more by Christians than non-Christians (but this is probably due to my high exposure to Christians compared to the latter).

In fact, I recently attended my 10-year High School reunion. I admit I was a bit nervous about the fact that I am now a pastor, and wasn’t sure what to expect from my classmates if/when they discovered that fact. To my surprise, they were perfectly fine with it and a couple of them even opened up to me about their lives and some of what they are going through (this happens even with strangers – more often than you’d think). My being a Christian, and a pastor, actually allowed for genuine conversations rather than creating a hostile environment between people of different religious perspectives.

As I thought through this, I juxtaposed my personal experiences and ‘research’ with what I have been presented by Christian media. I grew up inundated with Left Behind ideas of a stark contrast between peace loving Christians and war mongering atheists who love to trip-up believers and knock them down as the inferior species. As I entered college, Christian media started to actually gain some real production value (they actually felt like movies instead of made-for-T.V. specials). Yet, for all the developments in technology, the underlying themes remained the same: Christians = good, atheists = bad; Christians = smart, unbelievers = stupid; Christians = victims, non-Christians = persecutors. You can imagine how such consistent messages can influence one’s perception of reality. And, that is exactly what propaganda is designed to do – influence one’s perception of reality.

I asked myself again: Have I fallen victim to North American Christian propaganda? By assuming, without solid references to back it up, that Christians and Christianity are attacked and belittled, I was promoting these notions that Christians are a discriminated group worthy of pity and able to claim victimhood of near 1st century levels of persecution.

But is this true? Are Christians in America really being lambasted for their beliefs? Are we being persecuted for wanting to worship in relative safety or being open about our faith? I submit that we are not. Perhaps we can claim particular instances where it seems we have been mistreated for our faith, but a look beneath the surface of what is going on will show that most (if not all) of these instances rely almost entirely on our subjective interpretation of what is going on instead of what is actually going on. “SayGoodnightKevin” does a good job of going through some of these particular instances at the end of his review of ‘God’s Not Dead.’

We have been groomed to think we are the persecuted minority. We have been taught to see strangers as Christian haters, worthy of neither our engagement nor our love (though we may throw them a tract or two, because – you know – John 3:16). But what ultimately happens is we end up sitting in our own circle of friends, the “Christian Club,” in our own section of the bleachers. We become hopelessly unaware of what life is like outside of our own bubble and construct faulty understandings of reality, but do not challenge them because they empower us. Victim mentality does that.

Once that happens – once a victim mentality is established – then engagement ceases to matter. “They” hate us because of what we believe, and so there is no reason to mingle with the likes of them. “They” become the enemy, and should be proven they are in the wrong. “They” should be attacked in order to preserve our way of life and to protect our rights. Our way of life is, after all, the superior one.

And then Christianity becomes a hermit kingdom, with the Great Commission being reduced to a bumper sticker on the back of a rusted out Hummer in an abandoned lot somewhere in Scottsdale, Arizona.

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.

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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..

On Ministers and F.O.M.O. (Part 5)

I was watching a movie review of Woodlawn, a movie that came out not too long ago. In the review, they cut to a clip of the director discussing how they wanted to instill a sense of F.O.M.O. among the non-churched group. It was then that I learned what F.O.M.O. actually means: Fear Of Missing Out.

A couple months ago I was driving to Ohio and began to listen to Catholic Radio (or All-Catholic Radio… I don’t remember what it was called). The hosts were discussing how our culture is built off of two primary emotional reactions: fear, and hype. Fear comes into play a lot in consumerism. We are fed ideas that we need to have something, or need to live a certain way, and this incites a sense of fear that drives us to make really ridiculous and illogical decisions sometimes simply because we have been taught to fear certain things. Credit Card companies are great with this, by the way.

The other reaction is Hype, and it plays out in a similar way to fear. It causes a drastic level of excitement out of acquiring or the possibility to acquire something new, revolutionary, or unique. It could be an idea, a product, or an experience. Hype works pretty well. This is a big reason why a lot of people spend upwards of $600-$700 a year on a phone they’ll use mostly for calling, texting, and a couple apps until the next model comes out.

The hosts went on to explain that these two emotional reactions are what many American’s go through every week (if not every day). We have a fear of missing out on the next big thing, or we are overly excited about participating in it.

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Unfortunately, this bleeds over into ministry as well. I have seen pastors guide churches on this principle of F.O.M.O. They develop programs, copy mega-church paradigms, and go to drastic measures out of a sense that they would otherwise have their church miss out on some new church fad that God is using to change people’s lives (or increase buildings and budgets… it’s hard to discern the two sometimes). Sometimes, I have even seen churches run themselves into the ground because they were changing so drastically and so often that they became victims of an ultra-consumeristic approach to ministry and they simply couldn’t sustain it.

Although many of those who are entering into the ministry may not have an opportunity to fall victim to the”Fear Of Missing Out” on that scale, it is still a great temptation that ministers face. A new church opportunity in a growing city. A possible promotion in a bi-vocational position. A much better paying full-time job. Or even just the opportunity to pastor in a church at all.

I lament the fact that no one really prepared me for the temptation that comes with this “Fear Of Missing Out”. It was expected that once I graduated from college I would be the pastor of a church that God clearly called me to within a month or two. After all, this is pretty typical if our attitudes about entering into ministry are accurate.

But for me, and for many others, this isn’t the case. We wait, and we wait. And at some point we would be happy to be a janitor in a church or at least have a paying job. So, out of fear, we jump at the first opportunity that comes our way without a second thought.

Or, and what is probably more accurate, we see our friends taking on churches of their own and doing well. We see them living their lives, getting married, having children, and then we look at our own lives and realize that our situation hasn’t changed in years. In fact, for some, it has even gotten worse. We are less sure of our calling, less stable in our life situation, less confident of our abilities, and less in love with the Church than when we started this journey. Add to that a ticking clock as we need to fill our “years in pastoral ministry” requirements for ordination within a certain amount of time, and you have a recipe for a “take whatever you can get” attitude that can lead to a lot of pain, and a lot of burnout.

Waiting for God to do his work in his time isn’t easy. Believe me, it’s not even close to easy. I can’t tell you how many times I have tried to jump-start something or open a door myself only to have it beat me down and leave me worse than how I was. However, and I know this is similar to the previous post about patience (but I felt it was needed to look at it from a different angle), but sometimes the best thing you can do for your ministry and for the future God has called you to is to wait.

On Ministers and Patience (Part 4)

I was in the sanctuary not long ago reading the Scripture passages for this coming Sunday. I use the Lectionary, so those of you who are more liturgical will know what I was reading.

The Old Testament passage was from Genesis 15, where God is speaking to Abraham, and Abraham is aggravated with his being told promises that he has yet to see fulfilled.  The Gospel passage was from Luke 13 detailing a conversation between Jesus and some Pharisees who wanted him to leave Jerusalem. Instead, Jesus told them that he would stay and goes on to lament Jerusalem’s continued actions against prophets and expresses his desire to “gather [their] children together,” and ends with him telling Jerusalem that he will return again and they will say, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.”

The last passage, the New Testament passage, is from Philippians 3. Here, Paul is telling the church in Philippi to remain diligent in their focus, and tells them that “our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ.”

I couldn’t help but notice the common theme of “waiting” in these passages. Abraham had to wait on the promise God had given him, Jerusalem had to wait for Christ to fulfill his purpose, and Paul was telling the church that, as Christians, it is in our nature to be waiting in anticipation for Christ’s return.

What was also surprising to me was the Lectionary passage from last Sunday… The Gospel reading (and the focus of many a sermon) was on Jesus’ temptation in the dessert after his baptism. Here, and I am sure many of us are familiar with the story, Jesus is tempted by the Devil with three things: Food for his stomach, the authority to rule over all kingdoms, and the chance to showcase his power and authority as God’s Son. Now, none of these things are all that bad. In fact, they all satisfy a need for Jesus. He was fasting for 40 days, so he needed to eat (no harm in that – his time of fasting had ended anyway!). He came to proclaim His kingdom and his reclamation of all peoples from Sin, so taking ownership would have immediately accomplished that goal. And he struggled to show some people that he was, in fact, the son of God, so throwing himself from the top of the Temple to be rescued by angels would have proven once and for all who he truly is.

However, he did not give in to any of those temptations. Instead, he resisted. And, he waited.  In fact, you could argue that because he did not give in to two of those temptations we are still waiting for him to accomplish the tasks that could have been accomplished 2,000 years ago!

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As I was meditating on these passages, I couldn’t help but think back on my time spent in the ‘waiting room.’  In some respects, I am still there. I am currently an associate pastor, but I am also still searching for work because I am a pastor on a volunteer basis. So I’ve been transferred to the ’employment waiting room.’

It is so incredibly easy to lose patience while waiting for a ministry position to open up. You spend years of your life dedicated to the study of God’s word, the practice of ministry, and have invested so much of your time and resources to the Call that it feels almost criminal to not be serving in the capacity of a pastor immediately following graduation. And, unless you have developed other vocational skills, you would be hard-pressed to find a job doing anything else.

And yet, the Christian life is not spent running from one idea to the next. Yes, other people may seem so fortunate. They got the ideal internship that developed into the ideal placement, making the ideal amount of money, and met the ideal spouse, and are raising the ideal family. Those things happen, but I am encouraged by the fact that God does not allow us to sit any longer than what we can bear (and if my history has taught me anything, my behind is 100% grade A sit-able!).

Similar to Jesus’ temptation, rather than to become impatient and jump at the first open opportunity that comes our way, we would do well to wait patiently on the Lord for him to guide us to the right opportunity. In a world so full of “make yourself” career paths, it is increasingly difficult for young ministers to rely on a power they cannot control or even predict. As such, we need to be reminding ourselves frequently that our task is not to open doors, but to wait patiently for God to do his work.  For myself, I have to continually remind myself of this truth daily. I am not sure if that will ever change.

The one who has called you is faithful, and he will do it.

On Disconnect and Player 1

I was working on a long blog post, but my thoughts got all jumbled and I had to start over. This happens from time to time.

Anyways, I had an interesting interaction earlier this week between a couple students and myself after one of my Formation groups got out. After group was dismissed, two of my students came up to me and we talked for a good hour or so. We talked about some interesting stuff; the practice of prophecy in the Old Testament, the nature of God throughout the Bible, different genres of music, and one thing that really caught me off-guard. One of my students is an avid Zelda fan! I was pretty psyched to share my favorite childhood experience with a like-minded individual. It was a unique experience that made my week. It also led to a conversation with a good friend of mine this morning.

We were having our weekly breakfast time, and the topic of expectations came up. To be honest, I am not sure what exactly we were saying, but the conversation got to the point where I expressed my frustration with how I am viewed when I bring up my affinity for gaming. It has seemed, throughout my life, that when I bring up my hobby of gaming that I am viewed as immature, or at least childish in some way. It’s as if gaming is something you eventually grow out of. I believed this idea for a long time. Before I came to Olivet I sold all of my gaming devices and games except my Gameboy and N64 (you can’t toss the classics), because I believed that I was not a grown-up and would develop a more sophisticated hobby. What I have found, however, is that I had to eventually come to a defining decision, and it happened last year: I admitted that I am a gamer.

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It’s true, I love to game! I love talking about game theory (philosophical messages of games, timelines, characterizations, themes, etc.), playing all kinds of games (FPS, RTS, Tabletop, card games, MMO, RPG, and recently I have gotten into MOBA’s), and interacting with other gamers. What I have found, once I owned up to the fact that I am a gamer for life, is that the gaming community is very disrespected by people who are outside of it. For instance, the Olivet newspaper came out with an article that talked about how there is a League of Legends team forming at Olivet and will attempt to compete with other teams in the area. When I mentioned this to my professor, he laughed at the notion that gaming could be a sport (because people who form these teams compete in E-sports tournaments). I looked at him and in all seriousness started talking about how difficult these types of games are; they require strong teamwork, quick reflexes, incredible strategizing, impeccable micromanaging and macromanaging skills, and a lot of dedication. Whenever I bring up stories about my gaming escapades, like how I started pwning the Hearthstone ladder with my constructed Druid and Paladin decks, or played some old school Pharaoh, I am usually met with sideways glances, smiles that say, “you’re kind of pathetic,” or an outright laugh. At best, gaming is seen as an inefficient use of time by most non-gamers.

What many people fail to realize is that the gaming community is an extremely close-knit group, and it is largely non-Christian. Not only is it non-Christian, but it is violently so. Go onto any gaming forum and mention anything about God, the Church, Jesus, the Bible and you will be met with an incredibly aggressive response. In internet terms, such conversations end up being “flame wars;” massive arguments that burn everyone who comes in contact with it. But, contrary to popular belief, gamers are very social… with each other. If you become a part of a gaming community, then you basically become a part of a tribe. It has its own language, social expectations, allies and enemies, and belief system (this is hard to explain if you don’t game). I know this because I grew up in it. Ever since I was a kid I have been connected with this community. It’s because of these reasons that I mentioned to my breakfast buddy that I cannot give up gaming.

I feel called to this largely unchurched community. Does this mean that I will become an internet pastor? No, it just means that my ties to gaming won’t end just because I take on a church. I grew up in this community, I know what these people are like, and I know how they think. How could I reject such a community of people who, in many cases, are socially exclusive to their gaming brothers and sisters? If people can develop sports programs in churches to reach people, then why not gaming teams? Why not start a Pathfinder society in our church, or an ESO guild, or a Final Fantasy Fan club? Granted, not many people in the churches I go to even know what an RTS is. I bring this up because I really want to do this in my church. I want to have my church serve as a place where like-minded people can gather and enjoy something together that we all love. Of all the places to gather, should the church not be the best place? What an incredible opportunity for relationship building and evangelism – you are a gamer, and that is okay. Honestly, most of the classmates I met during my time at ITT-Tech would never step foot in a church or listen to anyone who mentioned “God.” But you bring up the topic of gaming and suddenly they’re hooked in the conversation.

I think we need to stop making gaming out to be a waste of time and something that the church has no place participating in. Gaming is a hobby, like anything else. It’s an incredibly social activity. Plus, it’s freaking fun! I don’t know how many other gamers have wrestled with this idea that they are somehow less of an adult for gaming, or less of a Christian for doing so, but I would imagine that it is a good number. I do know that this is something that took me until I was 25 to accept.

To my fellow Zelda-loving student and all my closet-gamer Christians out there: enjoying video games doesn’t require being sent back to Kokiri Forest, so take the Master Sword out of the pedestal and game on!

On Congestion and Vanilla

This past weekend was very interesting.  I experienced my final Preaching Ambassador trip ( a program at my school where students go out and preach on weekends for ministry experience).  It was such a simple thing, but it represents a major shift in focus for me because now my focus of ministry is changing from ‘travelling preacher’ to ‘pastor’.  It will not be much longer before I take on my first pastoral position.

I’m not sure how I should feel about this, and so many things are going on right now that I do not even know where to begin with a blog post.  I thought that buying myself a couple extra days would help clear my mind, but it looks like I won’t be posting anything super interesting this time.  I’ll try again for my next post on Friday, but this just goes to show that I’m just as limited in my abilities as anyone else.

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I will say this, though.  Every single one of us is constantly being used by God whether we know it or not. What looks like our mundane actions or our uninteresting conversations become tools that are used to build His Kingdom.  It amazes me how the simple things others have done (that many don’t even remember doing) have made such a strong impact on my life.  Rarely have the big events, the influential people, or the emotionally-charged moments been life-changing for me.  No, it is in the ordinary and the everyday that makes the biggest differences in our lives.  After all, Jesus was born to a peasant and placed in a feeding trough. 

Rejoice the typical, and celebrate the ordinary.