An increasingly large number of national organizations and spiritual leaders in America today believe that when they speak, they are the voice of Christianity in America. They exert their influence through radio and TV programs and in print. Increasingly they serve as talking heads in national news programs. And many of them endorse political candidates who they say will represent the true faith in their public office.
This trend was illustrated in 2010 when Jennifer Knapp, a popular Christian singer/songwriter re-entered the music business and came out as a lesbian. In the middle of a very successful career, Knapp disappeared from the public in 2004. She resurfaced in 2010 with her new album “Letting Go,” and the announcement that she was in a relationship with a woman. This caused a huge stir in the evangelical world. She was kind enough to give Christianity Today this interview to tell her story. But most significant for me was her interview with Larry King. Following her one-on-one interview with King, Bob Botsford, the self-proclaimed spokesperson for those who believed her relationship was sinful came on camera to discuss the issue. In this video segment, Jennifer fended off Botsford’s claim that as a minister, he was in a position to publicly “pastor” her on this issue.
“I have spiritual leadership in my life… pastoral counsel of those who are dear to me, who understand the scripture as sacred text. You are not that man in my life. You do not know me, and you do not have the right to speak to me in the manner that you have publicly. [You’ve said that you have the role to stand up for the truth, but that is] in your congregation and community. I ask you not to do that with me.. not to say that you are doing that on my behalf.”
I think she is totally right about this. Faith is lived in a specific geography; among communities and neighbors. We live alongside spiritual family and spiritual leaders. The voice of local pastors and spiritual friends is often drowned out by the shouting of people ministering in Nashville, Denver, or Washington DC. If we plug our ears to them and stop and listen, the Spirit may be leading us in directions completely divergent from those who think they speak for us. Focus on the Family can’t clothe and feed the poor down the street. Christianity Today won’t be there when tragedy strikes. And TBN won’t be at the wedding to celebrate the union of a couple in love, or the baptism of our children.
We need to follow Jennifer’s lead and focus our attention on our own spiritual communities. Only secondarily, if at all, as national or international.
While visiting a Bible study, a couple shared how they dealt with conflict in their marriage. “We don’t let the sun go down on our anger.”
When I heard this, my first thought was, “Is that in the bible?” There are many sayings attributed to the Bible that aren’t actually there. For example: “God helps those who help themselves,” isn’t in the Bible. It’s from Ben Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanack.”
A quick search of my Bible revealed that it is actually there. In the apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Ephesus he instructed them:
“Be angry, and do not sin”:
do not let the sun go down on your anger. – Ephesians 4:26
Many a couple has spent a sleepless night trying to work through a fight with each other based on this passage. They’ve been taught that Paul was telling them that they can’t sleep until the problem is reconciled.
But that is not what Paul was saying. The command was for each person to take responsibility for their own anger; not to make sure that there is no anger between them.
This is an excellent example of how the Bible gets distorted, even with good intentions, to mean things it doesn’t say; sometimes causing great harm. And it is an opportunity for us to untrain our eyes in an effort to see more clearly what it is actually saying.
Paul’s audience was not married couples. He was speaking to all relationships. It is so important to learn that we have no control over other people’s actions. If they are angry, there is nothing we can do to control that. We aren’t responsible for their anger. And they aren’t responsible for ours. All we can do is take responsibility for ourselves.
When people insist that a fight be resolved immediately, they are trying to control each other, saying “You need to meet my need to resolve this issue. We can’t leave this conversation until you do.” That is focusing on yourself. Because you have no control over whether or not another person will resolve an issue, you may never sleep.
The better way is to ask yourself “how can I do my best to resolve this?” Your focus is off of yourself and on to the other person. The conflict still might not be resolved, but now you know, it’s not up to you to resolve it. Simply do your best. If you aren’t able to find some resolution, the next step is to follow Paul’s advice to make sure that you are not carrying anger away from the conversation. But remember, you are not in charge of the other person’s anger. If they continue to be angry and push the issue, then politely decline. The sun may go down on their anger, but it doesn’t have to go down on yours.
In one day, enough information is consumed by internet traffic to fill 168 million DVD’s.
But that doesn’t mean we know anything…
Frank Zappa said:
“Information is not knowledge. Knowledge is not wisdom. Wisdom is not truth. Truth is not beauty. Beauty is not love. Love is not music. Music is the best.”
A friend might recommend the perfect sunflower for my garden. If I share the link on Facebook, everyone will see the picture. But no one will see the flower. Hands need to turn soil, and seeds need to be planted, watered and tended for the beauty of a living flower to be experienced.
I frequently teach in elementary music classrooms. This experience differs from being in a regular classroom because I get 30 minutes alone with many grades instead of spending an entire day with 5th graders or High School math students.
One of my favorite songs to teach Kindergarteners is “Eight Clay pigeons.” The kids line up single file on one side of the room and we sing together:
Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons
Eight Clay pigeons, sittin’ on a wall.
When we sing the last line, I announce with a surprised voice: “There goes another one, flying away!” and the first child flaps her arms and flies to the other side of the room. Then each takes their turn, “Seven clay pigeons… ” “Six clay pigeons…” etc. until everyone has had a chance to soar from one side of the room to the other.
I love watching their innocent play. They swoop, and swirl from one side to the other, devoid of self-consciousness. They proclaim with pride that there are only seven clay pigeons left when one of the original eight flies away.
I’d love to hold on to the child-ness of children. When I look at pictures of my young sons and daughters, I miss those little toddlers. But when I sit across the living room with them today as adults, I get to talk with them as equals, and revel in the young men and women they’ve become. If they stayed forever five, I wouldn’t get that experience.
One stage children go through as they grow is comparing themselves to each other. They begin placing each other in a pecking order of popularity and abilities. Some children are chosen first for the playground teams, while others are left to watch from the sidelines.
Jesus’ followers had the same problem. They believed Jesus was going to overthrow their Roman occupiers and take the throne of a new Israelite kingdom. As members of his inner circle, they assumed he would appoint them to high ranking positions in the court of his new kingdom. So they quarreled amongst themselves over who would get the highest positions in his new kingdom.
One day, after a long journey, Jesus and his disciples arrived at a house in Capernaum. As they were traveling Jesus overheard them talking about these things. Once they settled in he asked: “What were you talking about on the road?” They kept quiet, because they didn’t want to admit they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest.
Jesus called over a child from the home and stood him in the middle of the room and said to them:
“…unless you change and become like little children, you won’t even get into the kingdom of heaven. People who humble themselves like this child are the greatest in my kingdom.”
This sounded just as absurd to the disciples as it does to us. A government doesn’t just run itself. There is work to be done if you are going to rule people. It would be a place of honor, and responsibility to be on Jesus’ left or right making important decisions. They had their resumes prepared. Letters of recommendation. They had the qualifications.
Jesus took the wind out of their sails when he told them their posturing was useless. Childlikeness was the qualification he was looking for. The real action, he told them, was with Kindergartners flapping their arms across the room.
This makes no sense. Worldly affairs are not the place for children. They are kept safely on the sidelines. They can handle play money, but they don’t get to run our banks. They get toy guns to shoot pretend bears, but civilized people don’t give them assault rifles to kill their enemies. Children aren’t in-the-game. It’s the grown-ups’ job to strategize, scheme and fight.
Rest assured, Jesus isn’t handing the reins of this world over to the elementary school. He knew that children aren’t a perpetual class of human beings. The stork doesn’t bring a population of 5 year olds to this earth who stay eternally 5 year olds. Children grow, and mature until they become adults. They become you and me.
We are grown-up versions of the children we once were. My father-in-law has a sign in his living room that reads “Inside of every old person is a young person wondering what the hell happened.” Jesus’ message to his disciples was “When you grow up, you need to be like the child you once were. You have to remember that child inside you.”
Notice that Jesus did not give his followers instructions about how to be child-like. Children don’t have a job description. You don’t teach a child how to be a child. Imagine Jesus giving them this list.
Eat graham crackers at 11am.
Share your toys
Don’t take other kids’ toys.
Color inside the lines.
Being like a child simply means paying attention to children and then imitating them.
One way we to be child-like is to play. The last time my grandchildren visited I took them to McDonald’s to play on the plastic playground. As I watched them careen down the slides, I imagined adults would have fun on a grown-up version. McDonalds once constructed an adult play-land in Syndey Australia. But they only used it for a commercial, and only the extras were allowed to play in it. How unfortunate that grown-ups were never allowed to play on something constructed as a symbol of their child-likeness.
Being told to be more like a child is unsettling. Some childhood memories are unpleasant. Imitating children means opening ourselves up to the same vulnerabilities we had as children. Sometimes those vulnerabilities come from religious people. Parents would bring their children to Jesus so he could bless them. Jesus’ disciples once rebuked them for doing this. When he found out, he got angry and told them, “Don’t push these children away. Don’t ever get between them and me. These children are at the very center of life in the kingdom. Mark this: Unless you accept God’s kingdom in the simplicity of a child, you’ll never get in.” Then, gathering the children up in his arms, he laid his hands on them and blessed them.
Jesus is on the side of children. And if he is on the side of children, he is also on the side of child-like people. What can you do today to be more like a child? What risks might you be taking? How can knowing Jesus is on your side give you the courage to take those risks? I’d love to hear from you in the comments.
I once had a discussion with a pastor regarding the question “How are you?” This informal greeting is friendly, but no one expects an honest answer. So we respond.. “Fine, thanks. How are you?” No one is asking for a rehearsal of our woes..
There are, however, places where I will actually share an honest answer. One is Starbucks. I have enough camaraderie with the baristas there that in those brief moments while making my drink, we will strike up a conversation and share little bits about our day. I won’t go into my financial problems, but I might say “I feel bleh.. it’s been a long day.”
The pastor I was talking with said that two types of people we feel safe making confession to about our lives are bartenders and hair stylists. These people work in what sociologists call a “Third place,” distinct from our work and homes. Who can forget the hearty “Norm!” in the TV show “Cheers” that epitomized the bar as a third place where “everybody knows your name.” When you walk in, all the stresses of life are put aside and replaced by friendships.
But then my pastor friend added an insight that is beyond the sociologists’ theories.
A “third place” can become a place for the giving and receiving of absolution.
Absolution is a word we don’t hear much, if at all. The definition is: “a formal release from guilt, obligation, or punishment.”
We are more familiar with the act that comes before it: Confession. We have commonly witnessed the confessional, either in a church, or on a TV show. There, the penitent sinner sits and confesses his sins to a priest. But what we don’t usually see is the absolution given at the end. Having confessed their sins to the priest, on behalf of God, they are proclaimed forgiven of their sins.
The pastor with whom I was having this conversation proclaims this absolution, or forgiveness of sins, over the members of their church every Sunday.
Almighty God in His infinite mercy, has given His Son to die for us and, for his sake forgives all our sins. As a servant of his Church, a fellow member of the priesthood we share by baptism into Christ, and by his authority, I therefore declare to you the entire forgiveness of all your sons, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN
It moves me every time. Sometimes my eyes get moist. Because even though I was raised in the church, and know that God has forgiven my sins, I forget. And as my sins pile up I begin to feel that I have gone beyond the point of grace. I’m not alone. Paul, a leader in the early church, wrote a letter to the church in Rome, confessing his own sins.
“For I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. a For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!” (7:18)
But we are not left there. A disciple of Jesus named John wrote in a letter:
“But if we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous, forgiving us our sins and cleansing us from all unrighteousness.” (1John 1:9)
When a pastor proclaims absolution for our sins, he is not making it up. When we confess our sins, God will forgive us. So hearing it is a reminder of what John has already taught us. But I forget. And I need to be reminded. Every week. And I am in awe that looking at my life, a god would forgive me, and eternally grateful that God has.
There is one last thing to notice about this prayer: the pastor is proclaiming absolution as “a fellow member of the priesthood we share by baptism in Christ.” In some churches, you can only receive absolution from the priest. But, Peter another disciple of Jesus proclaimed that Christians are “being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood.” We are priests. And so, when we are talking to a barista, a bartender or a barber, it may be that they are also Christians. This becomes not simply an opportunity for confession. It can be a time of absolution as well. We need to be in the habit of reminding each other that our sins have been forgiven. Because we forget. We think our sins are too great for God’s grace. But they aren’t. We just need to be reminded.
A few weeks ago my wife and I drove our sons to my parents so they could stay a few days while we attended a foster parent training. On the way, I decided to swing through my hometown and show the kids where we used to live, work, and play. We drove through the backroads where “The slow guy” would drive 15 mph, in his little Toyota pickup, often without a shirt, accompanied by his big black dog riding shotgun. We pointed out landmarks of our lives during their childhood, like Pheasant’s Orchard, and the field where we fed llamas.
No one knew it, but this was a big step for me. I was dipping my toes in healing waters. More than a few events took place there that haunt me today. I try to put them behind me, but my mind won’t let me. Each event is stored as a memory that can be recalled at the slightest trigger.
We had a wood stove in our basement meant to be used for heat. We never figured out how to use it without smoking the house out. But one year, in preparation for winter, we drove to our church camp to retrieve firewood. The campground had cut many trees to thin the forest and reduce the risk of fire.
One thing you notice when you look at the stump of a tree is rings that spread from the center to the edge. “How did they get there?” children ask when they first see them.
Tree rings are a record of events that take place in a year. One year might have excessive rain-fall while the next has a drought. Fire might ravage a forest this year and a plague of insects the next. Each event leaves a mark on the tree; a darker circle one year, and a lighter one the next. As long as the tree still lives, it will keeps growing, forming new rings recording the events of the new year.
Memories are a lot like tree rings. They mark in our mind events that happen from one season to the next. Some years are full of love and growth. Others include stagnation, trials, pain or heartbreak.
When I become fixated on troubling memories, I am learning to tell myself that they are only rings on a tree. Those events are part of me, just as rings are part of a tree. But if I fixate on them I am staring at a stump. That is not where life occurs. Like that tree, I am still growing, meeting new challenges. Life is to be lived now.
Recently a pillar from my childhood church committed suicide. This tragedy was one more in a series of flame-outs by members of the Charismatic church I grew up in. As a pre-teen I was drawn to their fervent expression of following Jesus. As the years have passed, I’ve grown more and more disillusioned by the disparity between their youthful zeal, and eventual decline. It’s not just moral failures either. There is a general lack of enthusiasm among some who didn’t flame out. And many of them espouse conservative politics as much or more than Jesus.
A young participant on a forum made similar observations about the adult Christians of his childhood. Here is his question and my answer.
I’ve been raised in a Christian home. My parents are Christians. The people I’ve hung out with my whole life are Christians. As I get older, (I’m currently 18) I’ve noticed that many of the Christians I grew up with don’t seem too concerned with following Jesus in their lifestyle. While they arrive at Church every Sunday, and talk about being Christians, in an ultimate sense, it doesn’t seem to me that their motivation for anything really comes from love of Christ. I won’t judge about whether these people are saved or not. I’m content to leave that part up to God. My question is: how might I spur these people on to the point where love of Christ <em>is</em> their ultimate motivation for whatever they do? How can I somehow help these people to value Christ as they should? Is it enough just to “set the example” by my own lifestyle? Or is there an active way I can go about this?
When I was your age, I was passionate about the problem of lukewarm Christianity. I was especially frustrated that reaching out to nonreligious people wasn’t a priority. The churches in my small town sponsored a community “Singsperation” whenever there was a 5th Sunday in the month. People from all the churches gathered to share songs. I was totally into Keith Green at the time. As a piano player I loved his style. And was challenged by his message. So, I learned the song “Asleep in the light” and sang it there. Some lyrical highlights:
“Jesus came to your door, you’ve left him out on the streets.”
“Jesus rose from the dead, and you can’t get out of your bed.” etc. etc.
Needless to say, it wasn’t well-received. “Who does he think he is? He’s 16. He can’t judge us.”
The bottom line, though, was that I was also singing to myself. The Church as a whole, including me, is often apathetic. Her individual members get complacent in the comfort of their soft chairs, and polite sermons. We are kept passive by a form of Christianity that isn’t expressed by radical imitation of Jesus. And a lack of intention leaves our faith susceptible to slide off into irrelevance.
The only way people stop being comfortable is when they become uncomfortable. If you want to make a difference in people’s lives, it’s OK to make them uncomfortable. That doesn’t mean being a jerk, or condemning. But it is OK if the things you say, and how you live your life draw attention to Christianity being more than an intellectual assent to dogma, commitment to a holy book, membership in the correct religious club, and obeying the right rules. Christianity is about laying down your fishing nets, and following Jesus with your whole life. That will be attractive to some, and push others away. But people will be challenged to make their life more like imitation of Jesus.
On your drive to work this morning, look closely and you might spot an Easter Egg hidden in plain sight. It won’t be a hard-boiled egg splashed with food coloring. Or a candy-filled plastic egg. These easter eggs are deep-fried breaded fish between two hamburger buns slathered with tartar sauce.
Every year towards the end of February, I point out to my family that Lent must be near because the fast food chains began displaying fish sandwiches on their reader boards.
Most people don’t know about Lent. It originates from the 2nd century practice of baptizing new members on Easter Sunday. In preparation, novices spent 40 days receiving instruction in the Bible, and a week of praying, fasting, and study culminating at Easter. Over time this practice extended to family, friends and the entire church community. It became traditional to fast during this time. It usually wasn’t a complete fast, often involving only meat.
Lent is a season the church pretty much has to itself. Christmas is shared with Santa Claus. Easter is paired with a bunny. But on Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, Christians have black crosses on their foreheads. Comedian Mike Birbigula posted on Facebook: “Either it’s Ash Wednesday or a lot of people have been experimenting with calligraphy.” During the Lenten season, many Christians imitate the early church and fast. Some cut out meat. Others give up coffee, or TV.
Here’s where the fish sandwich comes in. In 1962, Lou Groen, a McDonald’s franchisee realized he was losing a lot of business during Lent. So he invented the Filet-O-Fish, knowing that his largely Catholic customer base was allowed to eat fish during Lent. It was a hit, and is now on menus all year. Ever since, the fish sandwich heralds the coming of Easter just as the pumpkin spice latte is the culinary signal that autumn has begun. It is the “Shamrock Shake” of Lent. Fast food became “fast” food.
It would have been unimaginable to the first Christians that people would profit from this season of spiritual devotion. They were imitating Jesus’ fast in the wilderness. When the devil tempted Jesus to break his fast with bread, he didn’t ask if it came with a side of fries and a cola. He declared to his tempter that life is more than food.
“We rely on words spoken by God Himself,” he said. “God humbled the Israelites, allowing them to go hungry, so He could feed them with a food they had never seen before.”
Jesus’ point was that our lives have meaning beyond food. Our lives have meaning when we come to Him in poverty and humility, relying on hearing God’s voice, in whatever form that takes.
When Jesus came out of the desert, he taught his disciples to fast like he did. Some people intentionally looked gloomy, and disfigured their faces when they fasted, so that everyone around them would know they were fasting.
“These hypocrites have their reward,” Jesus said. “But that’s not what you want. When you fast, shampoo your hair and wash your face so that the people around you don’t know you are fasting. Your Father will. And he’ll give you a reward far greater than those hypocrites’.”
McDonalds won’t instruct it’s employees to wear sackcloth and ashes for Lent. But they will certainly have their reward when they sell an estimated 25 million fish sandwiches. That’s not what we want. God’s reward for people who don’t draw attention to themselves when they fast will be far greater than a sesame seed bun. We will hear God’s word and be all the more alive. And be given riches that money can’t buy.
The stories of Jesus’ temptation in the desert and instructions for fasting are taken from the 4th and 6th chapters of Matthew’s account of his life.
As a public school teacher, I spend time with young children who are learning their alphabet, vowels and consonants, and how to pronounce words. Of course, they don’t need to know this to talk. We don’t learn to talk by studying consonants. We learn to talk by being around talking people. But to write and read, children need to learn the grammar of the English language.
But teaching English does not end in the 1st grade. This year, my son Elijah brought home a mural that showed that he had moved to the next step after grammar. He had combined those consonants and vowels into a story. Complete with pictures, it showed that he could do more then string words together into sentences. He could use those letters to create something that had never existed before. A story about himself and me.
At some point, music students must cross this same divide where their piano playing moves from a recitation of notes to the performance of a song.
Music, like English is made up of its own grammar. It is called music notation. In place of consonants, vowels and verbs, notation includes the notes, and rests, sharps and flats to communicate how a song should be played or sung.
The system we have and us for writing music developed over many centuries. But it is the means to an end, and not an end in itself. When a melody gets written down, only the surface elements are transmitted: pitch, and very bald rhythm. And if it is all that is used to communicate music, as a musician you are simply parroting the notation, like a 1st grader reading a sentence.
In her book “Creative Hymn Singing,” Alice Parker uses singing to describe playing the song, rather then reciting the notes. She says
“For millenia, music was transmitted only aurally; that is, from parent to child, from one village to another. A melody transmitted aurally keeps its tempo, pulse, pitches and phrases with all their subtlest inflections, to be modified as desired by the next singer.” – Alice Parker, Creative Hymn Singing, p. 6
In other words, the song is not a stoic representation of notes and rests. It lives and breathes. As players or singers, we must wrestle with the song, tapping into our own creativity to own the song for ourselves.
I participate in an online forum on faith filled with all sorts of crazies (like myself.) Recently, a member turned the tables and wrote from the perspective of someone who chose not to be a Christian. I decided to reply to this fictitious unbeliever and thought it might be useful to someone else.
First, I can’t ((this is a footnote)) believe in Christianity because Christianity doesn’t know what to believe. Jesus supposedly lived, died, and rose again. Jesus himself said that when the Holy Spirit came, He would lead Christians into all truth. But it’s been about 2,000 years now and Christians still don’t really know the truth about anything! They disagree about everything! And it’s not like they only quibble over little things. Ask a Christian to explain the Trinity! Ask them to explain how someone gets saved! They disagree about the very basic components of their faith! And not only do they disagree, they’re NASTY about it. Am I supposed to be impressed by a religion that claims to be based on love and yet has to divide into a handful of churches (at least) in each town?
I think the obstacle you are running up against has its roots in “Christian” being defined as someone who believes certain things, tries to be nice, and gets together once a week in a building to sing songs and listen to a sermon. I don’t think you are at fault for defining it that way. The majority of Christians define it that way. But going to church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than going to McDonald’s makes you a hamburger, Christian musician Keith Green once said.
Keith went on to describe a Christian as someone who is “bananas for Jesus. Someone who loves God with all their heart, soul and mind, and loves his neighbor as himself.” It means getting to the core of who Jesus was. Learn what he taught about true living. How do you see yourself? How do you see others? What did he do for us. For you? And then put your stake in the ground and identify yourself with Him.
When people’s disagreements lead to divisiveness and a lack of love, rather than disqualify Christianity, I think it disqualifies those people as Christians.
So how do you become one of these kinds of Christians. My suggestion is to read the stories and teachings of Jesus by those who were closest to him. In the Christian Bible these are called gospels. I recommend Mark first.
Then, be on the lookout for people who are imitating Jesus’ vision. People who are devoted to God. Who are humble. Who are loving and accepting. Who aren’t living a sloppy life. That’s Christianity. When you see it, I’m not sure you’ll be so quick to reject it as the fake imitation you’ve seen.
Feel free to post questions either in this thread, or personally message me. I’d be happy to discuss it further and answer questions you have.