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Lately, I’ve been reading a book by Steve Brown called “A Scandalous Freedom: The Radical Nature of the Gospel”. In it, Brown says that we are burdened with a standard of behavior forced on us by other Christians that God, himself, doesn’t require. We are free, he says, to screw up massively and God will continue to love us. That there is nothing we can do to lose that love. Steve also tells us that we’ll never get better by trying to be better. That no matter how hard we try, the bar is set impossibly high and there’s no way we can clear on our own. The only way to get better is to give up trying and immerse ourselves in God’s love. I like that and it sounds like a no-brainer, doesn’t it? I mean, isn’t that what we’ve always been told? That we are vile, corrupt sinners and that we can’t even realize that we need grace without God’s help? If that’s true, why do we keep trying to do it on our own? You know what I’m talking about. We, as Christians, are notorious for secretly obsessing over the log in our own eye while pointing out the speck in our neighbor’s. I not even going into the damage we do to unbelievers with this attitude, that’ll be in the next post. But, what do we do to our brothers and sisters in Christ with this?
In any Christian gathering, group, church, etc. certain standards of behavior expected. And, if someone doesn’t meet those standards, sometimes people aren’t so understanding. Think about it for minute. Remember a time when you or someone you know said or did something that went against the prevailing wisdom of your church. What happened? I’m guessing an awkward silence followed by a quick change of subject at the very least. Even that relatively mild reaction would make you question your acceptance within your peer group. And, we all know it doesn’t always go that well. So, what happens then? As Brown says “When the requirement for acceptance in any particular group is to think certain thoughts, to act in certain ways, and to fit certain molds ~ and we don’t think or act that way, or fit the mold ~ we tend to fake it. We put on a mask that says, ‘I’m just like you. Now, will you please love me and accept me?’ I can think of hardly anything that will kill your joy and freedom more than wearing a mask geared to get others to accept you because you’re acting like them.” Ever since I read that, I’ve been thinking about what kind masks I wear, at church, at work and at home.
The character of the church I attend, Knightdale United Methodist, is pretty standard. Many in the congregation are like most Americans, fiscally conservative. Some are more liberal than others, especially when it comes to social issues, but everyone believes in helping those who can’t help themselves. But, there are several things about me that would definitely bring about that awkward silence, if not get me fired as a youth leader. You see, I don’t think homosexuality is a sin. I believe the passages concerning sex have been misunderstood for who knows how long. I also have a secret: I’m an addict. I won’t say what kind, because it doesn’t really matter, an addict is an addict. And, it’s like a pair of ugly sunglasses: no matter what you do, you can’t get rid of it. But, I manage it, with His help. The point of this is that I’m a horrible sinner and, rightly or wrongly, I don’t reveal any of this because I’m afraid of what my church family will think. Which is stupid, really, because if you can’t be honest at church, where can you be honest?
I wear mask at work, too. I’ve been a firefighter for 20 years and I remain deathly afraid that my co-workers will find I’m kind of a geek. The man the fire service draws is an action-oriented sports fan and outdoorsman. A guy that’s really into whatever sport is being played, that likes fishing and hunting, a real guy’s guy. While I like some of those things, they’re not top on my list. Frankly, I’d much rather spend my free time reading, goofing around on the computer or listening to music. But, I don’t say that. I put on the boisterous front and act like I’m into all that stuff, because I don’t want to be the “weird” guy at the station. Truth is, anyone who’s worked a few tours with me knows exactly who I am. I’m the dude who always has a book in his duty bag, the one who knows how to spell the hard words and most spectacularly, the guy that can kick ass when Jeopardy’s on. The only person I’m fooling is myself.
At home, I’m Superdad. Acting like I can fix anything, cook dinner, clean up, help with homework and solve all my children’s problems. In reality, the only thing I do well is cook dinner, I’m smokin’ in the kitchen (hey, I’m cutting myself up pretty good here, I deserve to brag a little). I’m just good enough as a parent to get myself into trouble. Just when I think I’ve got it goin’ on, something yanks the rug out from under me. The worst part of this mask is that my children believe it. They think I know I what I’m doing because I’m Dad. Truth is, I’m making it up as I go along. A lot of the time, I have no idea what to do. I make mistakes and, from now on, I’m not hiding them from my children. They need to know it’s okay to screw up now and then.
I’m done with masks, I’m done with rules and I’m done with what others think of me. The only one who matters is God and, strangely enough, he loves me just the way I am.
I want to talk about some words I’ve heard lately. They’re not very nice ones, either. No, not those, most of the common curse words aren’t near the problem some folks think they are. The words I’m talking about sound fine on their face, but when you look a little deeper at what’s really being said, they’re not so fine. These are words that some Christians are throwing around to describe other Christians. Ones that don’t agree with them, and that challenge long-held beliefs. Rather than wax poetic (or not poetic, in my case), let’s get started.
1) Unbiblical_ According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this word means “contrary to or unsanctioned by the Bible”. This one comes up a lot in relation to Emergence theology, liberal Christianity and anything else that doesn’t fit with a strictly fundamental understanding of the Bible and what it says. It sounds very profound, but the problem is that who decides what the Bible is saying on a particular subject? As a Methodist, I read and interpret the Bible using Scripture, Reason, Experience and Tradition (Wesleyan Quadrilateral). Someone else would use another method and come up with something else. Who’s right?
2)Orthodox_ “conforming to established doctrine especially in religion”. This is one that some folks get beat up with because they have the temerity to disagree or ask questions. I’m trying to figure out when doctrine became so important that it’s defense was worth trashing a brother or sister in Christ, to the point of accusing them of:
3)Heresy_ controversial or novel change to a system of beliefs, especially a religion, that conflicts with established dogma. Doesn’t sound all that bad, does it? Yeah, until you realize that all those people tortured and burned during the Inquisition were considered heretics. There’s something else at work in using this word. If someone’s a heretic, you don’t have to refute, or even listen to, what they say. Bad as heresy is, it’s still better than:
4)Apostasy_ is the formal religious disaffiliation or abandonment or renunciation of one’s religion. If a heresy is bad, then this one must be “don’t pass go, don’t collect $200, go straight to hell” bad. I mean, you’re not just changing things, you’ve turned your back on it all! If that’s not bad enough, there’s:
5)Blasphemy_ irreverence toward holy personages, religious artifacts, customs, and beliefs. I don’t know about you, but I think a little irreverence now and then is a good thing. If we’re not careful, it’s easy for Christians to get snotty and arrogant. Nothing lets the air out of your balloon like laughter. It works better if you join in.
That’s a lot of negative stuff. What’s it all about, you ask? Those engaging in this type of speech would tell you that they are fighting for the soul of Christianity. If that’s true, then Christianity has already lost its soul and it’s time to scrap it and start over.
This morning, while taking my daughter Olivia to school, we were listening to the radio as we always do. Fortunately, unlike her big sister, my youngest daughter is a rocker like me and we always listen to the local rock and roll station, WBBB 96 Rock. Today, the morning show guys were talking about Brett Michaels, former Poison front man and reality show attention-whore. I know I shouldn’t speak ill of the injured, but I’m sure you know what I meant by that last comment. If you don’t, find some video of VH-1’s “Rock of Love” which is a reality show where Brett tries to find the love of his life. Yes,it’s just as dreadful as it sounds. If that’s not enough, he was also on NBC’s “Celebrity Apprentice”. I can’t think of any reason other than an unhealthy addiction to being the center of attention that could explain such behavior. But, that’s not what we’re talking about today. No, what today’s blog is about is a statement I made that embarrassed me as soon as I said it.
As I said, we were listening to the radio on the way to school and they played “Every Rose Has It’s Thorn” in honor of Brett, who had a massive brain hemorrhage last Thursday. Now, neither of us care for 80’s hair band music and this song is the ultimate 80’s power ballad. Olivia and were trading quips about how bad the song is when I told her “You know, Brett wrote this song when he found out his stripper girlfriend was cheating on him”. She responded with a sardonic “That’s nice” and I said (get ready, here it comes) “You’d think that, dating a stripper, cheating would be expected”. As soon as I said it I knew it was wrong. Wrong because I judged an entire group of people based on a prejudice most of us hold. You might think that a person that takes their clothes off for a living wouldn’t stop there. That’s true for some, but not all. The worst part of it is, I’ve known a couple of women who did this and they would never think of being unfaithful. They were young women with debts and obligations who didn’t see a better way off meeting them. One was a mother trying to provide for her children and the other was a recent college graduate with a crushing debt from her education. Now I’m not saying that the way they were handling there lives was the best way. I’m just saying that there’s more to people than meets the eye.
This isn’t the first time I’ve put my foot in my mouth. It’s not even the first time I’ve done it in front of my daughter. I also know I’m not alone in this. How many of us have seen someone panhandling on the side of the road and automatically assumed the worst? I know I have. They’re a drug addict, an alcoholic or worse if that’s possible. Most of us are skeptical of media reports of homeless families trying to get by and don’t really believe that’s the case of the person we see on the street. After twenty years as a firefighter, I’m intimately familiar with the homeless population in Raleigh and, in general, that sentiment is true. There are some homeless families, but the majority are single men and many of them are fighting some demon or demons. Does that really make a difference? Or, are they the very people we should be reaching out to? When confronted by the Pharisees in Mark for associating with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus said (paraphrased here) folks that aren’t sick don’t need a doctor and that “sinners” are who he came to save.
“Sinner”, there’s a loaded word for you. I looked up “sin” on Dictionary.com, Merriam Webster and Wikipedia. Between the two dictionaries, there were 31 different definitions and Wiki had pretty extensive page on the subject. Almost all of them focused on the legalistic side of the equation. Since Christianity is about relationships, I’m more interested in the relational side. The best definition that I’ve heard from that perspective is that sin is anything that separates us from God (thanks, Pastor Jenny). Anything that separates us from God. At first blush, that doesn’t sound like so much. But, think about it. “Anything” takes in a lot of territory. Territory that includes how we practice our faith or see ourselves as Christians. Look back at the story from Mark in the preceding paragraph. Who were the real sinners in there? The people sharing a meal with Jesus and listening to what he had to say? Or the Pharisees, who were so judgmental of them? How often are we like those people so hungry for the love of Jesus they’d do anything for it and how often are we like the Pharisees who were so concerned with doing the right thing? This morning I was a Pharisee and I don’t care for that side of myself. I’m giving up “doing the right thing” and I’m going to work on the love angle. I don’t really deserve it, but maybe He’ll give it to me anyway.
As this is my first blog post here, I want to lay out what I hope to accomplish here. I’m good Methodist boy and have been for a while and I spend a bit of time checking new and different theological ideas. Recently, through a friend, I was exposed to the NOOMA videos from Flannel.org. According to their website “We are a group of people committed to giving everyone a fresh look at the teachings of Jesus”. Interesting, I thought, and began to dig a little more. The fellow doing the videos is Rob Bell, pastor of Mars Hill Bible Church. I started looking into Brother Bell, finding that he was considered a part of the Emergent Church movement. Or, conversation as people involved prefer to call it. Whatever. I’d heard of this bunch, but never thought that much about it. But, in my research, I found that there was more than a bit of controversy about this stuff. Mostly from those of a more fundamentalist bent. Not a being of fan of this viewpoint, I automatically began to like Rob and the NOOMA vids that much more. I also began to look at the emerging church idea more. The more I look, the more I like. Someone once said that a person’s intelligence varied directly with how they agreed with you. If that’s the case, these emerging folks must geniuses, because they hit all the right points with me.
So, I’ve decided to take a theological journey. I have no idea where it’ll end up, outside of following Jesus’ footsteps and trying to live more like Him. Since I think better when I write it down, I’ll posting my ideas, thoughts questions here. Because, I’m just vain enough to think somebody else might care what I think.