Monday, March 23, 2009

American Christianity

There are all kinds of Christians in America. All with different experiences of God, Christian community and belief systems. I’ve been a member of a charismatic speak-in-tongues kind of church, a Baptist church, a Methodist church and presently I’m serving at a non-denominational church. And yet, with all that church experience, when I visited an Episcopalian church with a college friend, I felt as much a heathen as any visiting atheist might have. The different opportunities to experience God and community vary in this country as much as the cultures and ethnicities it contains.

Jim and Casper Go to Church
is a book entirely dedicated to the criticism of modern American Christianity. In the book, a Christian and an agnostic travel around the country to prominent protestant churches, sit in the back rows with their laptops, and critique. TD Jakes, Rick Warren, Marc Driscoll—they all receive their share of sarcastic analysis. A few churches received a satisfactory review. These had the common denominator of being socially-aware and driven by service to the poor and marginalized. The worst reviews were reserved for the churches with wealthy congregations. So, without confessing it, Jim and Casper’s plumb line for American Christianity was each church’s measure of service to the poor.

For some readers, their book might inspire them to obey Jesus’ commands to serve the poor more literally. And I applaud that reaction. But, for most, I would wager, the reaction would be more like what I experienced.


There is a fine balance between criticizing the local church and distancing oneself from her. Many popular “post-modern” authors try to walk that line, and many don’t. Many well-intentioned writers and speakers sense in their spirits something awry with American Christianity. Instead of wrestling to get to a place where the truth of what’s wrong can coexist with love for the wrong-doers, they create a world-view of “us-versus-them.” The problem is that we, as Christians, belong to each other. The Us and the Them share the same body of Christ.

So, American Christians, let’s get candid about our gripes but bold enough to persevere to a place of love.

I’ll go first and make my confession: I have within me greater empathy for the physically needy than for the spiritually needy. My major was international affairs. My heart beats for Latin America. I feel at home in a Mayan hut in the Yucatan jungle. I fantasize about living in Africa with two outfits to my name. I taught in the inner city to appease my conscious. And I fiercely wrestled with God when he called my husband and I to serve the local church in middle-class white suburbia.

I do believe the American church as a whole is missing out on God’s truth and God’s commission to serve the poor. In the back of my mind and in the back of my soul, I have an abiding fear that we will reach heaven and become utterly undone with grief over the missed opportunities to minister to Jesus through the poor. I cannot shake this nor do I wish to. I hope this fear will continue to motivate me and my family to give financially to make the physical difference that’s desperately needed.

At one time, this “sensitivity” to one aspect missing in American Christianity prevented me from loving the church. Instead of wrestling with this knowledge of truth, I let it sit and fester. Spiritual pride, judgment, bitterness and cold-heartedness all grew from this seed of what was once just a piece of discernment.

I’ve seen this happen to others, too. A few friends of mine in college discerned the pervasive health-and-wealth malarkey being preached in some large churches. Instead of using that awareness to help avoid perpetuating that kind of doctrine, they avoided Christian community overall. They had a preacher that they tracked with via podcasts. One whose sermon’s really convicted you. Made you feel all wretched-sinner-saved-by-grace-ish. And then they had a few select Christian friends. Hopped around different churches and campus ministries, too enlightened to really settle in and expend their energies.

They had discerned something amiss with American Christianity. Something-off base and truly wrong. But their mistake, as was mine, was to let that discernment distance them from their brothers and sisters. Without service, without investing their lives into a local church, they involuntarily joined the ranks of the Pharisees. Persons of knowledge and discernment, but without love and self-sacrifice. Paul said it best, confessing that knowledge, discernment, spiritual gifts, service to the poor and martyrdom without love all mean absolutely nothing.

It takes nothing to be a prophet. To read scripture, to look around and then to call out the wrongs of the church. It takes the love of Christ, deeply abiding and transforming, to have that same discernment and then to humble oneself through service.

So, I ask you, Jim (he was the Christian in the book)—are you serving the local church? Have you used your insights into American Christianity’s muddled practices to bring you to your knees in intercession? Are you vested in a local community, laboring for God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven? If not, then I humbly plead with you to stop writing and speaking and leading others. The place you are bringing them to is not solution-oriented. It is doubtful, disillusioned, and isolated.

You see, there are some beautiful Christians I know. They are rich and they are poor. They are educated and they are illiterate. They’re serving in the inner city, and they’re serving the city’s wealthiest. And the one thing they have in common is that they’re in the trenches. They’re building relationships with non-believers and they’re meeting to worship and learn together. They’ve settled somewhere, in a city in America, and they’re making it their life’s calling to see God establish his kingdom in that place.

You should meet these people sometime. But you won’t do it from the back pew with a laptop. You won’t get there by writing off “large churches.” You won’t do it by judging a church’s spirituality on her ministry to the physically poor.

You’ll meet these beautiful American Christians when you pause from the prophecies and you start serving.

My Bible says that God will make his church spotless and pure. And, as long as we’re living here, that church includes America’s Christians.

May Your Kingdom come, Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven…

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Why I'm not a Presbyterian

I’m going to offend some of you. And it won’t be because you’ll learn about my friend, Anna, a Penthouse model who helped shaped my theology. I’ll offend you because I’ll take hundreds of year’s worth of revered debates and boil them down to simple, generalized arguments. I will not do John Calvin justice. So, forgive me and read on or don’t.

Seven FSU football seasons ago, a friend and I were eating lunch at the mall. We ate our grilled chicken salads at the bar to get a better view of the game we felt obligated to watch. Into the first quarter, I noticed, well, everyone noticed a beautiful woman with fake blond tresses and other fake features. She was visibly upset and kept trying to get through to someone on the pay phone. When she came back to the bar, she rummaged through her purse for another quarter. I offered her some coin change and we began to talk.

Anna, I learned, was a Penthouse model. Anna’s drunk boyfriend was angry with her at the time and would not return her calls. Anna once dated the drummer of some band I’d never heard of. “Have you seen their music videos? Check out his right arm—there’s my tattoo” Anna shared with me questions of her soul—questions about God, what’s right and what’s wrong (not joking—she asked me some crazy questions), and why she couldn’t seem to leave her boyfriend.

I mostly listened. I spoke truth—Jesus loves you and has more for your life than this. I listened some more. An hour later, she told me I was her angel (a very illogical cliché) and I prayed with her right there, on the bar stools.

Anna is why I’m not a Presbyterian. Or a Calvinist. Or a believer in God pre-determining the choices people will make regarding Him.

That Christmas I went home and I spent the entire three weeks of winter break researching and studying this favorite debate of the saints. Does God choose for us? How much “free will” do we have? I read compelling arguments, citing passages from the Bible that seem to support the argument that God does choose our destinies. I read biographies of theologians, each deeply persuaded and convicted of his stance. I felt the emotions articulated by the debaters. On one side, God’s sovereignty was at stake. On the other side, God’s mercy and fairness were in play.

Towards the end of my research, I paused from the arguments, the articles and the interpretations. I decided to look at the pattern of my life. By that point in my life, I had already noticed that my belief system was more than just a list of credos and mantras. I was well aware of the fact that whatever I believed, I acted upon. My actions were the fruit of my beliefs—the honorable and truthful and the selfish and corrupt. I fearfully accepted that whatever the outcome of my choosing was would significantly impact my life.

So, I thought about my faith—not in God, but in the idea that people can change. I thought about my capacity to hope for the unseen, to act upon what could be. I thought about Jesus’ command to go and make disciples.

I thought about Anna.

If I adopted a belief system that provided the slightest doubt that Anna might not be one of the chosen, I know what my heart would do. My heart would pre-judge and would subconsciously categorize her as someone outside God’s reach.

For Anna’s sake, and the sake of all other persons who seem “far” from God, I chose to believe that the Spirit is actively pursuing all men. That God desires for all to be saved. That his death covered every man’s offense.

This side of the fence is the only place from which I can honestly spend my life in pursuit of others.

Neal and I have a friend who landed on the other side because it released him from believing that he was responsible for his family’s salvation. He felt tremendous peace and security with God as a result. He’s now employed by a campus ministry and he is spending his life in pursuit of others. I have the utmost respect for him and I rejoice with his life’s work.

In the quietness of my heart, I believe that God is beyond the debates and the man-made sides of the fence. He is outside of our finite understanding and petty arguments. He is God. And He can do whatever He wants.

But for now, on this side of eternity, with my limited understanding, this is where I land. It’s a place where my faith is increased. It’s a place where even Penthouse models can find Jesus.

Monday, March 2, 2009

shoes and water

A long time ago a woman had a conversation with Jesus. She had been going to the same place, week after week, year after year, for a drink of water. Jesus met her there and offered her something different. His water, he said, would quench her thirst. It would satisfy. She didn’t need anything more.
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I am an over analyzer. That’s why I have this blog. I need time and I need words to process this world and the beliefs to which I hold fast. Most days, the situations I encounter are easily sorted into the constructs of my mind. Like a coin sorter, life enters my minds-eye and directs itself through the appropriate processes. Free will, God’s love, the promise of redemption, and heaven eagerly capture stray thoughts and pair them with Sunday school answers. Make no mistake, I have painstakingly forged these answers over the years. Each strain of my theology has been labored over. Now, though, I let those beliefs earn their keep as they work to make sense of the chaos we call Life.

There are a few questions I have, a few issues that are unresolved. I mean, I know the “answers”—what the theologians and spiritual leaders would say. But those answers have yet to become a conduit, a process for my own thoughts. Those answers haven’t yet settled in my soul.

Every now and then something will happen that exposes those naked parts of my theology. When that happens, when I can’t wrap my mind around something, I have two choices. I can let my mind descend into the land of no-return, or I can think about shoes.

So, I think about shoes. Some count sheep; I have shoe-thoughts. It doesn’t help when Dillard’s has ridiculous sales. It doesn’t help when I have a couple gift cards left over from Christmas. It doesn’t help when my husband doesn’t even balk at the sight of (4) new shoe boxes hiding at the back of our closet.*

Like the woman at the well, I am literally buying a temporary respite from the unresolved issues of my soul. It really does work. I can go to sleep, I can maintain family responsibilities, I can keep the unanswerable at bay. It doesn’t require a purchase—all I have to do is think of shoes.

A recent tragedy has churned the waters of doubt and insecurity again. I came crying to Neal and we talked through our perspectives. He issued the answers I typically defend. I indulged my weakness and pushed back. The talk was cathartic so I shouldn’t have a hard time sleeping tonight. Even without the aid of shoe-thoughts. Neal, however, jokingly suggested I check out the latest sale tomorrow. I do need gold shoes for a wedding in May.

I also know better. I know that the shoe-thoughts won’t last, that the relief will wane just as surely as one drink of water does. I might consider asking Jesus for something more permanent. Something of Himself that won’t leave me wanting more.

*I’m so afraid of you judging me I have to write that those four boxes were all purchased through gift cards! Okay, I feel absolved.