Heresy Monday

Why I Love the Church

This was supposed to be a super long post in response to a tricky question. A few weeks ago, I made a comment that even though I sometimes get frustrated with what I see as misaligned priorities among believers (particularly in this country), I still love the church.

One of my friends, who’s recently had some disillusioning experiences with people claiming to be Christians asked me to explain what I meant by that.

So I sat down at my laptop and started to write about the importance of corporate worship and the deep love that Jesus has for the church. I talked about the staggering number of times the New Testament talks about our faith in terms of community—the “one anothers” of the Bible (but really—check out the list). I even mentioned how living alongside other sinners is necessary and helpful, and why service—basically anytime we allow another Christian to inconvenience us—is important for our spiritual growth.

There were lots of bullet points and references and assorted true things…but something was missing. Sure, I appreciate all of those things, but it wasn’t a good answer to the actual question.

It’s kind of like if someone asked me why I love my twin sister. I could tell you all kinds of wonderful things about her—she’s strong and kind and dependable and deeply loyal in her love for God and others. I could name the things I enjoy doing with her—going on hikes or picking blueberries or playing board games. I could even describe what she’s done for me—intervening with superhuman common sense to keep me alive through childhood and adolescence, reminding me of the importance of budgeting and sending my parents birthday cards, challenging me to grow in my faith.

All of those things are true. None of them actually answer the question.

You see, I love my sister because she’s mine.

She’s family. There is nothing she could ever do to lose my love (or earn it, for that matter). I will always love her, no matter what, and it’s not because of all the—admittedly cool—things about her. I’d say the same for my parents and close friends and the jr. highers I mentor. It’s not about what they do for me, it’s about who they are.

Aren’t we a good-looking bunch?

Same with the church. It’s good to know some of the benefits of being part of a local church, or to understand why the global church matters, but that’s not why I love it.

I love the church because she’s mine. She’s family. I’ll never walk away from her, even when she’s frustrating. I’ll never give up on her, even if she breaks my heart. (more…)

When You’ve Almost Lost Hope

I’ve mentioned on the blog how I conned my way into our school’s Select Chorale my senior year of high school without being able to read music, but I don’t know that I’ve given you the insider secret of how I did it.

There were two key strategies to my deception: I had to work really hard to keep up in class…and I cheated at sight-singing.

Sight-signing basically involves getting a completely new piece of music to sing on “la” in four part harmony. Our director played the accompaniment and listened to make sure we were accurately reading our parts the first time through instead of just relying on our memory.

This should have been mildly terrifying to someone who didn’t read music. Except, guess what we used for sight-singing?

A hymnal.

Can all the old-school church kids give an “Amen, Hallelujah”? Sure, my church sang some modern choruses (we even got—gasp—a drum set when I was in middle school) but we still had pew hymnals and used ‘em, including some Sunday night services (which we also still had) consisting of two straight hours of people requesting their favorites from Phyllis Kantenwein, who I’m convinced had the most perfect-for-an-organist name in the history of Christianity.

High School Amy before a Chorale concert.

During class, our choir director avoided common standbys like “Amazing Grace” or pretty much any Christmas carol, but he assumed no self-respecting teenager would know the harmonies to forgotten gems like “He Hideth My Soul” or “In the Garden.”

Heh, heh. Oh, it was great. I was so proud of my cleverness, blithely belting out harmonies while my classmates who actually knew how to read music hesitated as their head knowledge worked to catch up with their voices. (more…)

The Church’s Biggest Problem

If you’re ever bored with small talk and have a group of Christian friends around, try asking what they think the major issue in the American church is. You will almost always start a colorful discussion where everyone throws around serious issues like cynical confetti.

When it’s my turn, I’ve never been able to summarize the area I’m most worried about. That is, until I finished my latest read, which is actually not an examination of the church, but instead something much more personal: a memoir called Single, Gay, Christian by Greg Coles.

What I love about this book, the need I think it fills in the church, is that it isn’t a practical theology book (although there is a chapter that explains why Greg couldn’t interpret the Bible to allow same-sex unions even when he wanted to). It’s a story.

From the first lines of the book’s prologue, you get the sense of an invitation to empathy: “Let’s make a deal, you and me. Let’s make promises to each other….If you’ll listen, I promise I’ll tell you everything, and you can decide for yourself what you want to believe about me. Wait until you’ve heard everything. Wait until you know me.”

Greg

Seriously, read this book. It’s amazing.

As I read, the story became less a justification of Greg’s stance—why he uses the term “gay” to describe himself even though he’s committed to celibacy or what he thinks about the insistence that prayer can “fix” sexual brokenness—and more a challenge for me and the church in general. (Have you noticed that we’re much more open to being confronted about something when we feel like we know and trust the person saying it? That’s the effect this book had on me.)

When Greg said, “Obedience is supposed to be costly,” sure, I heard it as a reason why he felt he shouldn’t act on his attractions. But I also thought of something larger when he went on to explain, “In the Western world, lulled by freedom of religion and unprecedented opulence, we so easily lose sight of what words like suffering really mean. We begin to believe that ease and safety are the baseline experiences of humanity.”

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Confessions of a Former Church Camp Cynic

I’ll admit it: I don’t like altar calls or tearjerker Christian songs or rhetoric meant to scare people about hell. I’d prefer not to be prompted in the pews with a particular response—even a pastor encouraging me to repeat a phrase will find me with arms folded and lips tightly closed.

I’ve been to emotional spiritual experiences what Ebenzeer Scrooge was to Christmas: a cynical curmudgeon who takes pride in being that way.

Which means the last night of church camp has always been a struggle for me.

Back in sixth grade, I remember informing my friend about one of her favorite songs: “No one is actually thinking about the words—they just like dancing around.” In high school, I was the stoic silent one at the bonfire where all the other girls were weeping and dramatically confessing sins. And every time people went forward or raised their hands or spoke into a microphone about rededicating their life or laying down their burdens or accepting Christ (again), I thought in some small corner of myself that I wouldn’t admit to anyone else, “I wonder how long that will last.”

At this point, you’re probably either disgusted with me or you are me. Either way, keep reading. I’ve learned a few things since then, and it started with the prophet Jonah.

We tend to talk about Jonah’s disobedience in a matter-of-fact way: God told Jonah to preach a message of repentance to the corrupt city of Nineveh. Instead, he got into a ship headed the other way. That reaction makes sense when we’re telling the story to children, because what five-year-old hasn’t thought about running away when faced with a rule they didn’t like?

But Jonah wasn’t a five-year-old. He was a prophet, one of the few people consistently following God at the time, who must’ve known the psalm that said, “Where shall I go from your Spirit? Or where shall I flee from your presence?” and then answered that question with five verses that added up to a loud “nowhere.” For Jonah to think running away would fool God doesn’t actually make sense.

I’m guessing Jonah knew it probably wouldn’t work…and he didn’t care. Pride is the biggest blinder of common sense, and we can be pretty sure that was at work all along because of how the story ends.

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Don’t Be Samson and Other Life Lessons

Samson (the one in the Bible) is not a nice guy. But it took me at least until high school to realize this.

Some of you who know the story are rolling your eyes. “What was your first clue? The way he broke basically all of the Ten Commandments? That little incident with the prostitute? Maybe the time he dealt with a breakup by lighting hundreds of foxes on fire to burn down his enemies’ fields?”

In my defense, Samson’s story is so action-packed that it’s often told in Sunday School, and the kiddie version (understandably) sanitizes some of the violence and edits out all the hanky-panky. For a while, without context, Samson seemed like the perfect biblical superhero: strong, brave, and used by God to defeat Israel’s enemies.

Usually accompanied by pictures like this.

Then one day it dawned on me that Samson is a classic antihero, one whose story should come with a content warning label and an announcement that this is a cautionary tale, not a role model profile. Surprise!

The thing is, we like strong characters. People who get things done. Heroes who take action instead of letting life just kinda happen to them. And Samson is that, for sure. Told that way, with that particular slant, he makes a great and uncomplicated story.

But if we don’t watch out, that natural love of an active protagonist can turn into a tricky little lie that I see in the church from time to time: Competence excuses bad judgment. The results matter more than the way you get there. Or, to go from general to specific…

“Fine, maybe I shouldn’t have phrased it like that, but I have a forceful personality. Everything I said was true. Isn’t that enough?”

“I wish people would stop complaining about Leader VonSuperpower—God is in control, and he can use anyone, right? Besides, at least he’s getting things done.”

“She pretends she’s being open-minded, but you know what? I think she’s just too afraid of offending anyone to actually have an opinion on XYZ issue.”

“I love the way Blogger McMegaphone isn’t afraid to say it like it is. Sure, it’s a little cutting sometimes, but the other side is asking for it.”

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Why I Complain About Technology

If you ever wondered how Disney does good ol’ tall tales, there’s an animated collection for you: American Legends, which I watched recently with a room full of antsy kiddos.

Being Minnesotans, we started with Paul Bunyan, whose boot-steps formed the thousand lakes of our proud state. (I asked why he couldn’t have eradicated mosquitoes instead of cutting down trees, and a four-year-old rolled her eyes and informed me they would be way, way too small for him, obviously.)

General overview of the tall tale: Paul the giant goes around causing mayhem and somehow still being useful. He meets a big blue ox and eventually challenges a chainsaw and steam engine to a grand contest to see who can cut and haul the most trees.

And…he loses.

The kids were shocked. I was even kind of shocked. Banished to the wilderness, Paul continues to frolic around with Babe the ox, but it still felt like a bit of a letdown of an ending.

The other stories in this volume had a similar theme. Johnny Appleseed doesn’t travel by rail or even wagon train out West—he sets out on his own, planting trees as he goes and dies in obscurity. John Henry also gets into a duel with a machine to lay tracks and dig through a mountain. He, unlike Paul, wins…and then dies of exhaustion. Even Casey Jones, a railroad engineer, survives by grit and pushcart to deliver the mail on time when his train fails him.

I will be honest and say that only the “John Henry” clip is worth watching.

Rugged independence, strength, and down-home courage, sure, all of that is there. But a deeper value found in these stories was a distrust of technology. Set in the rugged, untamed West, there was a sense of mourning the coming changes. The frontier would be civilized, there was no choice there, but it would lose something, something inherently good and heroic, in the process.

Apparently, the classic American hero is courageous in the face of great odds…and then eventually defeated by so-called “progress.” Change is both inevitable and sad. Whether this reflects on the era in which the legends were first told (the late 1800s) or the one where they were animated by Disney (mostly the 1950s), it said something interesting.

And I wondered, were they right? (more…)

Donald Trump Is Not the Exception

Sometimes, people try to convince me that the human race is slowly progressing. “Think about it,” they’ll say. “At least in our culture, there’s no more human sacrifice or slavery. Women can vote, and minority groups of all kinds are fighting for and receiving equal rights. Repressive and outdated moral codes are fading in influence, and we’re working toward justice and love for all. Also, Wonder Woman finally came out!”

And some days, I can almost believe them. Yes, I think, I’m delighted that I live in a society where, even though someone in my apartment building has a wireless network called “Racist Neighbor,” (yes, really) at least no one I know is heil-ing Hitler or boiling and eating their enemies. Could we be getting better after all?

And then I go on Facebook or Twitter or the comments section of blogs or articles, and I remember: nope, people are not basically good.

Social media might be the most obvious way to see our true selves: unscripted and unfiltered. Most bad behavior trends in and out, making resurgences like fashion fads: are we cynically self-sufficient this decade? Maybe legalistic condemnation is more in vogue. Or is lawless abandon making a comeback?

Our selfishness takes different forms, chants different slogans, and gets a rebranding to change the packaging, but the content is still the same, variations on those ol’ seven from church tradition: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth.

For a specific example, in some ways, I’m encouraged to see outrage every time President Trump is unprofessional or just plain mean on Twitter. It’s good to hold those in public office accountable to be thoughtful and deliberate in their choice of words.

 

That said, Donald Trump isn’t the first person to be rude, gossipy, and narcissistic on social media. There’s a greater shock value for what he says because we expect better of our president, and rightly so. But what we can learn from this is more bigly than just dissatisfaction with our current president’s behavior (sorry, couldn’t resist). It should remind us of something much more fundamental: our unrehearsed selves are not kind.

Not just Trump’s. Ours.

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