And to think it all began with The Church Without Pants

Monday, September 26, 2011

If only more people were like me ...

Of all the famous people who've ever lived, I've met about three (not counting the real-life Bozo, Pinky Lee and Red Buttons*). Sadly, Diana Butler Bass is not among those three. But that doesn't get in the way of my enjoying her books and articles. Somehow she is able to sift through the holy sh#t piles we've collected and stored in our churches and somehow finds good things hidden there. She finds people who live, what she describes as, a "generous and open faith" and looks ahead to a time of reformation when the "sort of Christianity that loves God and neighbor" will flourish and again be a transforming influence on this earth.

But make no mistake - that hope implies that not all is well. Butler Bass seems to be admitting that the branch of Christianity that "loves God and neighbor" has gone AWOL. It's missing. Maybe hijacked or trapped somehow in suspended animation.

So, who in the world does she think is going to bring about this reformation? Me? I can't change anyone's mind about anything. I can't even change my own bad habits, let alone the Church and the Christian faith!

So, if it's not me then, who's running the show? Who's pulling the strings in the church these days? Is it those who (whether they are in the majority or the minority) preach hate and fear and who take solace in their own salvation while condemning everyone else for all of eternity? Or is it some other group?

Maybe it is these extremists. Their message is certainly as well known as it is ubiquitous. It almost seems to drown almost everything else out.

I might wish that the those who embrace that generous faith that "loves God and neighbor" would be the ones who really influence the church. But I suspect that they find themselves too busy feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, and working to correct injustice to argue or fight with churches and churchgoers they can't change anyway. Besides, it would, in a sense, be hypocritical for a loving and forgiving (religiously tolerant?) person to not tolerate religious intolerance. They will find more important things to do than fight and argue. It is almost always a waste of time to argue with someone (especially an institution) who has already made up their mind. And I think even a generous and loving person can admit that and remain generous and loving.

But then I also do not believe that it is a majority of Christians who advocate hate and discrimination. I think, like in other faiths where we find extremists, while they are fodder for a sensation craving public, they are still a vast minority.

I do happen to believe there is a majority in the church and it is neither a majority of hateful, mindless, intolerant people, nor is it a majority made up of generous loving people. I think the majority are people a lot like me.

And deep down, I suspect it is this majority who really run the church.

My life looks something like this: I help distribute free baked good and fresh vegetables to people on a weekly basis. I also own more cars than I can drive, 3 DVD players and 2 computers. My internet is too slow and it really pisses me off. I have friends who are missionaries. I am always hospitable to those I like and who like me. I can remember only one time in my whole life that I've invited a homeless person into my home for shelter. I read my Bible. In my many iterations of attempting to live like Christ, I can't remember the last time I fasted. I'm not sure what Jesus would think of what I call prayer and I do not say the "shema" on a daily basis. I have never given sacrificially let alone sold anything in order to follow Jesus more faithfully or to help someone else. While I decry intolerance my response to it is usually limited to sarcasm. I live with my wife in a 5 bedroom air-conditioned house. While we both have jobs, we are totally dependent on either the charity or the brokenness of others for our income. I have in my garage a classic car, two tandem bicycles, two vintage racing bicycles, an unused pool table, half a ping-pong table, two powered lawn mowers and an antique radial arm saw that doesn't work. We have a water softener and I can tell when it needs salt when my dishwasher leaves embarrassing spots on our glasses. Most of my neighbors have never been in my home. My front lawn is a disgrace and I'm sure it brings down property values in the neighborhood. I am in debt. I have enough free time to do facebook, pursue hobbies, read and go for runs or a bike ride every day. Some days I take two showers - both with hot water. I can drink fresh water from my faucet. I can even drink safely from my hose outside if I'm dying of thirst. I have two refrigerators. I have food rotting in both of them. My medical insurance has nearly a 5-digit yearly deductible. And we could meet that if we had to. I attend worship regularly and the church and its institutions and its hypocrisies piss me off almost as much, and sometimes even more, than my really slow internet.

Yeah, I think the majority is like me.

It's not the extremists. They're just louder than the rest of us. And it's not those with the open generous faith who run the church. They're too busy changing the world to worry about running the church.

I think it's people like me. People who are fat and happy and perfectly content to do just enough so that nothing changes.

We're the ones who run the church.

* What's with the color-blind guy meeting all these colorful and colorfully named people?

Saturday, September 17, 2011

I'm More Biblical Than You Are

I know Love Wins is old news, but I enjoyed reading Rob Bell's book. I admit that freely even though many Christian scholars and other self-appointed defenders of Hell and the Bible assailed Bell long before the book was published. Well, it's been out for half a year now and more than enough authors have taken it upon themselves to parse Bell's words and proof text him into oblivion. (Isn't that where one would end up if there is no hell?)

I hope everything Rob says in that book is true.

But I doubt it. That would make Rob Bell the final authority on The Final Authority. And that's not really what he seems to be about.

What I get when I read anything from Rob Bell, is a sense of his humility as he wades through issues and questions. I feel welcome to join him on a journey to question and explore. I never get from him that he's set himself up as being the final authority on The Final Authority.

I've also had a chance to read some of what Bell's detractors are writing. There's God Wins, Christ Wins, Hell Wins, Hell Forever, etc. (OK, I made up some of those titles, but there's a bunch of these books out and ... well, you get the point.) Each of them proudly asserts that they (and not Rob Bell) are dispensing the Biblically true Truth. And while each of them will humbly deny this, and they do this in such a way as to say: "I may be wrong, but I'm not," the implication is clear that they have appointed themselves as the final authority on The Final Authority.

One forward says that "[this book] will immerse you in the truth of Scripture." (Since Love Wins doesn't and God hasn't.)

Another reads: "I want to help you understand the Biblical and theological issues ..." (Whereas Rob just wants to confuse you.)

Then there's the "I want to persuade you to side with the Scriptures ..." (While Rob Bell obviously wants you to side with Rob Bell) and one author totally pulls the Sola Scriptura card as he writes: "It is impossible to reassess the subject of hell without also reevaluating our beliefs about Scripture ..." (Impossible? Curious, but I think Rob Bell just showed us that it is possible and he did so long before you even thought of writing your book. Or do you mean that if I don't believe what you say Scripture says then you're going to have to throw out the whole Bible? Don't be silly.)

Again, "The book [Love Wins] is so anxious to show that love wins that it fails to appreciate how important it is that justice also wins." (Because all those questions at the beginning of Love Wins were so confusing I never made it past Chapter 1. Plus, I was looking to see if I could find myself in the picture at the beginning of Chapter 2.)

I really like the paragraph in God Wins (that's really the name of the book) that reads: "What is broken will be made whole again. What was lost in Eden will be regained. Love wins. Justice wins. And the God who is perfectly just and perfectly merciful wins." (And you needed to write a book about this because Rob Bell didn't cover this thoroughly enough for you?)

Finally one of the authors makes the appeal that, "As we dig deeper into God's Word, we discover it is less important that love wins than that God wins." (Because while Rob Bell certainly digs somewhere, it isn't in the Scriptures and Bell really, really doesn't want God to win.)

OK. I get it. You guys are from the truly Biblically-based camp and Rob Bell isn't.

Does that mean he's a heretic?

Can we burn him? Or would it be more Christian of us to wait for God to do that?

Just how long will we need to wait before God finally says, "Now you've gone and done it. You've crossed the line and there's no coming back. Off to Hell with you! Scat! Scoot along!"

Will Rob Bell really go to hell if he's got this one backwards?

Do we know this for sure?

But as always, I digress.

I met with a student a few months ago who switched churches. At first he said it was because his new church, the Church of the Biblically Based Biblicalists (not its real name), is more "Biblically based" (I like how spell check wants to change "Biblically" to "Bucolically") and that the sermons were "convicting." I know about the church he left. It's a big one. The Fellowship of Un-Biblical Bible Believers (not its real name, either) holds four services on Sunday. I also know some of the staff. I never thought of them as being un-biblical and so I asked this guy, "How did you discover that the Fellowship wasn't Biblical?" He was very careful not to say anything bad about the Fellowship or the people there. He just thought the sermons and lessons didn't come straight out of the Bible and that they weren't convicting enough.

I've been hearing about the incredible "convicting" sermons from other students who go to all the hip downtown clone churches and I really wanted to pursue
the whole "convicting" sermon thing with him, too. I apologized ahead of time in case I got too personal but I had to ask, "So, what kind of things are you being convicted of each week? Would you mind sharing with me about the last sermon when you felt convicted and how your life was changed?"

"Well," he said, "it's not really about convicting me as much as it is about convicting the world..." which is pretty much the same thing everyone else has said. So either they're too embarrassed to let on about what they're being convicted of or this is really what convicting is all about.

"Ahh ... So," I went on, "it's not so much about God speaking to you about your life through these Biblically based sermons or even conforming your own life to the Scriptures as it is about distinguishing the 'Us' gang from the 'Thems' isn't it?"

Which was a perfect segue into the Biblically based teaching issue.

When I asked him why being Biblically based was so important to him he explained that since the Bible is only way we can really know God it just stands to reason that you'd want to be around Biblical teachers who really teach the Bible.

"So," I asked, "getting back to the Fellowship where you used to be, if their teachings aren't from the Bible, where are they from? And if they're not from the Bible, are they unbiblical? Did you go home and look in the Bible and find that the Fellowship was teaching false, unbiblical stuff?"

He didn't and as it turns out, the Fellowship was merely guilty of not "backing up" everything they said with Scripture. In essence, the Fellowship didn't quote Scripture as often or use the Bible the same way Church did, therefore they weren't being as Biblical as Church.

"But," I asked, "at the new place, Church, they do use the Bible?"

"Yup, and they back everything they say with Scripture verses."

"And then you go home after Church and look everything up to double check on them? Or do you just take Church's word for it that they're using the Scriptures correctly?"

Well, he doesn't go home and read the Bible after Church services either, so I'm guessing he must take their word for it or he just hasn't heard anything yet that sounds unbiblical enough to check up on them. Clearly, he has a sense of what is Biblical and what is not ...

"Sounds like you're letting them be the final authority on what the Word of God says. Have you ever heard anything from them that you disagree with?"

"Not yet."

"So," I paused here to think of the correct phrasing, "since you have the ability to agree or disagree with them, doesn't that make you the final authority on what you think is Biblical?"

"Um ..."

"Well, what would happen if sometime you went home and read on your own and found that you disagreed with Church? Could that happen?"

"I guess it could ..."

"And if that happened, who would you say was the final authority on what the Bible was saying? It can't be Church, since you disagreed with them. Isn't it ultimately up to you to decide what you think is Biblical or not?"

"Well, me and the Holy Spirit."

"So," I pressed on, "besides the Bible, another source of knowledge about God would be the Holy Spirit? And when the two of you get together you can go beyond the Bible to either learn something about God or discern whether something is Biblically based? In other words, there's something bigger, more authoritative, and even more important than the Bible?"

This was beginning to irritate him. But I was having fun. A clearly unbiblical moment for both of us ... but ultimately it was a few minutes that helped me to understand that the Fellowship of Un-Biblical Bible Believers could theoretically teach a Biblical lesson but not tell anyone it's from the Bible, while the Church of the Biblically Based Biblicalists might teach the very same lesson, even use the same words and illustrations but then add some proof texts to demonstrate that the teaching is "Biblical."

"It sounds like you're telling me a couple of important truths, let me see if I'm understanding you. First, after all this talk about the Bible and being Biblical, it's not really your church or even the Bible that has the final say. It's you and God, or the Holy Spirit, that are the Final Authorities in your life, right? And God is the The Final Authority on the Bible. And second, the real difference between "Biblical" teaching (I used the quote signs) and "unbiblical" is what we say about what we teach, and not what we actually teach?"

This produced a really long "Hmmmmm ...."

I couldn't help but think about "South Park" and the episodes when Cartman goes to the future looking for a Wii and finds himself in a world where three branches of sentient atheist groundhogs are trying to kill each other over what to call themselves. (If you can get past the potty mouthed children of South Park, the show is an amazingly accurate looking glass through which to view our culture.)

I think all this just frustrated him because he finally admitted that he switched churches because the girl friend goes there. (Amazing what we'll do to get the girl, isn't it? Some of us switch churches and some of us will even play tennis.)

Why is it that when anyone uses the word "Biblical" or "Scriptural" I just know that some kind of literal line is about to be drawn in some metaphorical sand and that they're about to use the Bible as an excuse to do or say whatever it is that they've already decided they want to do or say? (With the Holy Spirit's help, of course.) I don't even think it's about Truth. It's more about someone needing to be righter about everything than the rest of us. And rather than elevating the Scriptures, The Bible is reduced to the role of Justifier of All Things. Maybe that's why, when someone is about to enlighten me with some "Biblical teaching" I get the feeling that the same Bible I read is about to be used as a weapon against me and the only light I'm going to see is because I just got wapped upside the head with a really thick book.

"As we dig deeper into God's Word, we discover it is less important that love wins than that God wins."

And all this time I thought "God is ______."

God is ___________.

God is ___________.

God is ___________.

(I John 4:8 - 4:16)

Excuse me, but I'm expecting to get wapped upside the head any moment by some Biblical Bluto who'll explain to me how I've totally missed John's point and that _________ has nothing to do with being Biblical.

Thanks, Rob, for taking some hits for the rest of us. I love your work.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Stand Ups, Stand Ups for Jesus

I remember when preaching the gospel used to be as simple as shouting to everyone, "Have you heard the word of the Lord?" as we drove up and down the main drag in our part of the city.

Part of the fun was that we'd found one of those huge orange traffic cones abandoned down the hill from where our stretch of freeway was being extended. They obviously didn't need it anymore. We weren't exactly sure what we needed it for either, so we began modifying it. We began by cutting the heavy rubber anchor off the bottom. Then, just in case they changed their minds and decided they really did need it we further modified it by curling the cone in on itself so the orange was on the inside and the clean white innards were on the outside.

Little did we know when we discovered this new toy that it would become an instrument of God and eventually become known as the "Cone of Evangemism."

With our new prize we'd take turns doing the Lord's work by riding shot-gun in Kenny's Plymouth shouting the good news through our Cal Trans bullhorn to everyone on the streets. People at bus stops, drive throughs and in movie theater lines were our favorite evangemizing targets.

"Have you heard the word of the Lord? Sinners can be saved ... "

[wait for it]

"... or redeemed for valuable coupons!"

Can you hear us laughing? BWAH HA HA HAHA

We also liked following behind people who plastered "Honk if you love Jesus" bumper stickers on their cars. Because, who doesn't love Jesus?






And my Uncle Les' little Renault had an amazingly loud horn. Even Jesus lovers who were busy minding their own business would get into it. They'd suddenly jump up from their yard work and ecstatically wave their arms and shout at us while we were sharing the love with our bumper stickered buddies. So, realizing how much they must love Jesus we blasted the Renault's horns repeatedly for them, too.


God, we were so clever.

Some nights we got ourselves laughing so hard we didn't need anything else to get high. It was a vicious cycle. And very inexpensive. We'd be laughing at something someone said, then we'd do something, like fart, and it would be funny, so we'd laugh ... With each cycle it got louder and easier. When it took hold of us there was no way we could ever "maintain." As soon as anyone made a sound of any kind it would start all over. It was amazing and it was totally contagious. Even our dour friend "Grim Jim" (a relative of Eor) would be in tears. It was the Laughing Buzz.

One night when we were majorly afflicted with the Laughing Buzz we pulled up to one of our drive throughs backward and ordered a pizza. "Heavy on the Secret Sauce!" we added. BWAHAHA HA AH HA HA ... HA!

I'm pretty sure they called the police.

No problem, though. We'd outsmart them all by switching cars and piling the four of us into my two seater Fiat. Our escape route usually took us up the hill toward the freeway. There, some of the residential streets would peter out into narrow dirt trails that were blocked from automobile access by cables strung between concrete posts.

Again, no problem. No cables or narrow trails could stop us! Just lift the cable, scoot the Fiat underneath and we'd enter that remote world between the city lights and a wilderness infested with snakes, skunks and a few coyotes.

Some of the trails ran underneath the freeway into little canyons in the hills where we could access secret tunnels carved deep into the hillside. We had no idea who made them, or the whens or the whys, but we had plenty of time to create our own versions of the living histories surrounding their origins. But that's another story ...

Other trails ran right up to the freeway. There was nothing quite like the freeway sights while on a Laughing Buzz after a night of evangemizing the theater crowd and ordering pizzas at the drive through. The lights of speeding traffic flickering through the railings were hypnotic. The combination of hypnotic lighting together with a full on Laughing Buzz meant only thing ... It's time for Stand Ups.

That's what we called 'em. It was our own "12 Steps to God" program.

Step 1: (You really think I'm going to tell you how to do this?)
Step 2-9: Repeat Step 1
Step 10: Repeat Step 1 while performing a valsalva maneuver.
Step 11: Lose consciousness
Step 12: Wake up hungry and wondering where we were and how we got there.

It was the opposite of a "head rush."

But all that ended when I got "saved."

It wasn't a street preacher with a bullhorn that got me. It was a girl. But that's another story...

Needless to say, my friends were a little put out by this and I'm sure they would've traded me in for a coupon because to them, I just wasn't very fun to have around anymore.

I must admit that at the time I made the decision to join the "saved" crowd I was also worried about not having fun anymore. Although many from among the "saved" at our school went directly from their youth group meetings to hang at the same parties and do the most of the same things my friends and I would be doing, my primitive thought patterns did not make room for the possibility that I could be "saved" and still indulge in Saturday night grope-fests or any of the other many miscreant activities my wastrel friends and I craved. It meant that there would now be a seemingly endless list of self-satisfying, pleasurable and borderline criminal experiences that I would be missing out on. Forever.

And the list of things I could do seemed quite narrow. On the "Safe List" were things like "Little House on the Prairie," tennis, singing sappy songs and reading the Bible.

This was going to be hard. I hated singing sappy songs (still do) and I could never bring myself to watch "Little House" (still won't) so I was confined to tennis and the Bible.

Tennis wasn't a terribly transformative activity but it certainly was safe, though, as I was separated from the girl by 78 feet and a net. I was an embarrassingly bad tennis player back then so when I started playing my Uncle Les (who didn't like to hear that a girl was beating me) would load me up in his Renault with a bunch of tennis balls and take me to the park. Sometimes he'd let me drive and I could honk at Jesus lovers. The lessons were late at night and usually involved me dodging his wicked sliced serve. But the girl never knew I had a coach and she was amazed at my progress. Even from 78 feet I could see her smile and mouth "Wow!" when I made an incredible shot. She had blue eyes, her short tennis skirt magnificantized her long legs, and her long blond hair pulled back in a pony tail would sail luxuriously around the court. (Damn that net!)

But the Bible, that was something else.

I'd read it a little for Saturday School at the Temple, mostly stories from Genesis and about Moses, and then again when I heard scratching in my closet after I saw The Exorcist. At that time I started in Genesis again and I remember being really impressed with how much sleeping around they did. Not only that, but they were rewarded by being immortalized in the Scriptures. But other than that the Bible was not really part of my life. And I'd never even seen a New Testament until the girl came along ...

Just to make it clear, my getting saved wasn't totally about the girl. Reading the stories of the life of Jesus was incredibly compelling. My reaction each time I finished the Book of John was pretty much the same, "What? There's no more? I want to read more! OK, so Jesus said and did so many things that if they were written down the whole world wouldn't be able to contain the book, but you could've written a little more, couldn't you?" Even my primitive mind detected that Jesus was wise, sarcastic, and he lived fearlessly. He also saw more in people than they saw in themselves. I read through the four gospels over and over and over again.

I wanted to be like him and if that made me a Christian, so be it.

Ultimately, the promise of heaven and the threat of hell were not huge factors in my decision. I wasn't totally convinced that I wanted either to exist, at least in the traditional forms of fiery furnace or streets of gold. Not that I'd complain if I made it to heaven but, and I think this has something to do with being Jewish (and a teenager), I just couldn't relate to or comprehend that my death was the only reason I was ever alive. But even in my unsurety, I was confident that if I lived my life as Jesus lived, when everything was said and done, I would have lived a good life. Even if I had "nothing" to look forward to after I died, I would have lived a good life. So I said the prayer (that compulsory prayer that every real born again Christian is required to pray - it's right out of the Bible ... somewhere) and was converted.

As far as following in the way of Jesus I think I have the sarcastic part down and I'm getting better at seeing more in people than they see in themselves. Although I'm sure Jesus is pleased that I don't honk that annoying Renault horn at people with bumper stickers anymore, I'm pretty sure I've let him down a time or two. But even though I often think I would've been more successful at being a self-absorbed pleasure seeker than I have been as a Jesus follower, I guess part of my faith is that I still believe Jesus sees more in me than I see in myself.

And as for that endless list of pleasures I'd given up? I have no regrets. In fact, I've found so many others I have a hard time even remembering what was on that list now.