…if I get to the end of one more Bible study lesson and have to answer questions like, “How can you be more [XXX] (loving, joyful, peaceful, gracious, etc.) this week?” “What is one thing you can do to walk more in love this week?” “How can you be a good representative of Christianity?” “Who are you going to reach/pray for/forgive this week?”
…if I hear another pastor talking about how important it is to pass out “application cards” at the end of every single sermon, and require people to “do something.”
…if I read another book talking about how we can call people to ever higher levels of effort, striving, and intensity (modern church code-worded: “passion”).
That’s stuff I obviously feel strongly about. I feel as strongly as I do because this is stuff propagated by those who presume to teach others. I feel a bit less strongly, and a bit more moved with compassion, by the results of this Puritan-work-ethic-do-it-yourself-with-a-bit-of-God-on-the-side Western/evangelical madness in the lives of the people who sit under this teaching every day of their lives. Here’s how this comes out of the average Joe/Josephine in the pews:
- I’m trying to be more…(probably whatever their answer was to the first question at Bible study, above)
- I know I don’t do enough… (witnessing, Bible reading, praying, going to church, etc., etc., etc.)
- I know I don’t know…(the Bible well enough, how to lead a small group well enough, as much about God as my neighbor, etc.)
- I wish I could just…(be like Stan the Man, be a powerful witness, defeat my flaws, etc.)
- God is…(hidden, hard to find, hard to know, cold, etc.)
- Obviously, that person is…(gay, Democrat, crude, slutty, super-conservative) so he/she can’t really be known by God. At least not in the way that I am.
- I love God, but I am…(divorced, gay, a smoker, an alcoholic, a Buddhist, a progressive, sinful, unstable, burdened by guilt, not quite with it yet)
I’ll stop there. These statements above are what we teach to the mostly good-hearted people in our congregations when we take the approaches I’ve listed at the top. Unwittingly we teach, “There is a good side and a bad side. The good side looks like us. If you are not on the good side, God does not love you — at least not in the same way.” Unwittingly we teach, “Being a follower of Christ is about you. It’s about what you do. It is about your efforts, your feelings, your commitments, your striving, your opinions of who is right and who is wrong, etc.” We teach, “Get out your Bibles and hold everything up to “the light” of “the Word,” so I can measure and evaluate you, your thoughts, your feelings, your opinions, and your actions, and I can render a verdict about whether you are right or wrong, and therefore decide whether or not to validate you as someone worthy of the love of God.”
Do I seem angry? I just went back and re-read this post and it feels a little angry to me. It actually even sounds a little self-righteous. That is obviously because I am part of the very system which I critique. But not to be so is to leave it — to stand outside of it and kick dirt at it. I can’t do that, because the truth is that I love it. I do love the church. It is so easy to be critical of what we refuse to invest in. Far harder is to invest, to pour our lives in, and to live with results that are a lot less than the always-hoped-for stellar.
So this is all I have. I do not pretend to have a handle on God, but I think that a good starting point is facing our cluelessness. If I ask where any anger comes from that is in this post, it comes from being a pastor and seeing person after person in whom the fundamental pain in their life is a complete illusion, passed on to them largely by what we have taught them in our churches. The illusion is that they are not good enough, and it is an illusion because the Christian message itself is that you are already good enough — you are already there — you are already in the loving presence of God. Of course we really AREN’T good enough, but God loves us anyway in spite of our brokenness, and through every inch of it, and his love is what makes us good. If Christians got their heads around this, the market for Christian books would drop drastically, as most of them are trying to help you learn about more efforts you can make, more things you can do, to “get closer” to God. You’re already as close to God as you are to your own heartbeat, and the biggest tragedy in life is that you may not know that.
I am in the process at Wildwind of forming (this is not a secret — I’m preaching on this constantly) a community of people who are sick of trying — sick of measuring and evaluating their own spiritual performance and that of others — sick of finding themselves (and therefore — necessarily and always — others as well) lacking in some critical way — sick of feeling that God is out there and I have to find him. Sick of deciding who does and does not get in on the love of Christ, and increasingly grateful to simply realize that we are loved. Sick of putting faith in baptism, the sacraments, “personal confessions of faith in Christ,” “salvation experiences,” “the traditions and teachings of my denomination and religion,” and the ornaments of ritual and religion, instead of where faith alone belongs — in the risen Christ who created all people and all nations and all that there is and ever will be — who loves all, who came for all, and in whom every single one of us on the planet lives and moves and has our being.
Paul said, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” In that he speaks of the entire construct by which we understand ourselves, by which we defend ourselves, justify ourselves, try to appear good and deserving of grace, by which we make judgments (even good judgments) of ourselves and other people and the world around us. The whole body, the entire thing, is corrupt at its core and needs to be put to death.
QUESTION: How does this “putting to death” occur?