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Fragment #6 – Are Our Churches Actually Christian?

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #6.

If you assume that behaviors are our most reliable indicator of people’s beliefs (not what people say they believe, or think that they believe, but which values actually determine the day-to-day choices of their lives), then we should be able to empirically test whether the ecclesial communities who claim to follow Jesus actually do so in a way that is meaningfully different than the rest of the general population.

And, if you are one of those sorts who are skeptical that the most important things in life can be measured, that all the real transformation happens invisibly on the inside, then let me introduce you to a couple people who would strongly disagree with you: Jesus and Paul….And what are the fruits of the spirit, you may ask? Are they, as some church growth models suggest, things like increased budgets, more members, or more butts in the seats for Sunday worship? No, they are “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” In other words, *precisely* the sort of visible, concrete habits that your neighbors and friends will notice. You want to know whether you’re actually engaged in a living relationship with God? See what’s actually coming out of your life to know whether you’re deceiving yourself or not.

In case you’re wondering, a few of these studies have been done (often by religious organizations, such as the Barna Research Group and Willow Creek Church) to evaluate the fruit of churchgoers and do you know what they’ve discovered about whether they show any evidence that would indicate a living, transformational with God?

The very simple answer is that they don’t.

In other words, church, as we commonly call it, makes no more difference in making you more like Jesus than being part of your local Kiwanis, going to a certain local McDonald’s, or occasionally visiting the gym.

No difference at all.

Fragment #5 – Christianity is A Socially Located Religion

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #5.

To put in plainly, it is *harder* to be a Christian when you are white, middle class, American, straight, etc. etc. then it is when you are almost anything else. And, for the very same reason, it is easier to be a respectable member of our society when you are white, middle Class, American, straight, etc. etc. than anything else.

Why is this the case? Because there is almost nothing within a white, middle class, American background that will give you the tools to unlock Jesus’ call. Follow Jesus when you come from privilege means a lot of hard, difficult work; and since most of our white, middle class churches are structured in a way so as to prevent people from having to do the hard, difficult work, it never gets done; and Jesus’ words of life get turned into words of death.

Blog Fragment #4 – Things That Aren’t Good But We’re Good At

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #4.

That’s the thing about Egypt, we know that it’s worse, but we also know it. Sometimes, it seems easier to turn and head back for the way things used to be, then spend another day wandering the trackless arid wastes, waiting for an as-yet hypothetical Promised Land….

The Promised Land is threatening. We often do not want to grow, because growth exposes us. Our old ways may be bad ways, but at least we are competent in them. We always start as toddling beginners when we learn a new way to be human, we always make mistakes, we will always have our fundamental incompetence exposed when we start over, yet again.

So often, we cannot find people who will hold our vulnerability with us, who will honor and cultivate our deepest meant, yet still-uncompleted intentions, and, every time we look to turn back to the Things that Aren’t Good But We’re Good At, to remind us to keep turning, one more step at a time, back into the wilderness.

Blog Fragment #3: Learning the Skill of Suffering

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily, edited very lightly for clarity and grammar. Here’s post #3.

I could go into the list, but I think it might be more important to ask: why, if we have it better than we have at any point we ever have, (at least in this country), do we think the exact opposite?

The answer is really quite simple. For the first time in human history, we are immediately aware of all the suffering of the world in real-time.

At the same time, we have lost the communal and spiritual skills to process it well. We think that suffering (for ourselves or for others) means that something has gone wrong in the Way Life Should Be. A minor tragedy, (say, an appliance that breaks at an inconvenient moment or a latte gone terribly wrong at Starbucks), creates a sense of injustice and general hand-wringing. A major tragedy: the untimely death of a family member, an act of cruel and senseless violence in our community, a horrid natural disaster, goes so far beyond our capacity that we almost always run away, start fighting, or just check out.

When I was working as an on-call chaplain at a funeral home in Haverhill, I met hundreds of people in the aftermath of losing their loved ones. For many, it was clear that they were honestly facing death for the first time and simply had no resources to do so well, beyond a few bromides they had heard on television, and a conviction that they had to keep it all together. I spent most of my time trying to listen them into more honest grieving, but oftentimes, ended up with short, socially awkward times of remembrance, where every person was a saint, heaven always got a new angel, and it was somehow all in God’s plan.

Blog Fragment #2: The Ways Progressive Protestants Keep God at Arm’s Length

 

Nanowrimo is not happening for me this year, but I’m trying to write everyday in November. I’ll be posting fragments of what I write here daily. Here’s post #2

There are a thousand ways that people of my particular religious tribe (progressive mainline Protestants) have found to keep God at safe’s arms distance, especially in worship.

1) The almost exclusive use of communal language when singing or doing liturgy.

Often, communal language experientially includes everyone except the person singing it. In other words, yes, I know that God loves us, but do you that God loves you?

2) Fixation on always using theologically correct terms for God.

Yes, it is important for us to de-centralize exclusively masculine language for God. However, this over-fixation leads us to treating God as a term to be correctly defined, rather than a being to have a relationship with . (That first line in the Lord’s Prayer? It’s not really “Our Father”, it’s our “Abba” or our “Daddy”. All relational language is particularized.)

3) Publicly Praying for Everyone But Oneself

Prayer begins with our personal encounter, face to face with God, one that we are frequently afraid of naming publicly (or privately.) Prayer times can devolve into a laundry list of prayers for others or places in the world that need God’s help; because asking God for strength to personally get through a week, or to help us forgive someone we don’t like, or to help us overcome a particular personal failing requires far more vulnerability that we’re comfortable with.

4) A maniacal focus on theological and thematical correctness over embodied experience in worship.

Which hymn do you pick? The one with a slightly clunky text or not-so-great melody that connects better with that *one* line from the scripture you’re reading or the one that engages people’s bodies and emotions ? The former wins out almost every time. In seminary, I remembered noting that while we often sung songs *about* God, we really sang songs to God; each hymn a theological creed rather than a love song.

Blog Fragment #1 from “A Roll of Pictures”

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For most of us idealistic dreamers, there simply will not be enough energy to carry a beautiful, God-given dream into reality, unless we can look at the people we are learning to love and  affirm their goodness completely aside from any professional ambitions that we have for them. God will not let us love our wish-dreams projected onto other people, but only the people themselves. If we use those people as a tool to further our own schemes of spiritual and professional self-making, God will burn our dreams down again and again, until we have no choice but to quit or to love.

Transformational Engagement is Hard Work

None of us have an infinite capacity to absorb the suffering of the world (and each other.) The process of transformationally engaging with the people around us is exhausting, inch-by-inch work, and unless we carefully tend our own well-being, we *will* burn out before we manage to make much of a difference.

With that in mind, take care of yourself people. (And if in your hearts of hearts, you know you’ve really been putting your best energy into Netflix and hanging out with people of your own ethnic/ideological enclave, then for heaven’s sake, come out and join us in the work.)

Need a place to start? Here’s what I (and a few of my wise friends) suggested as starting points:

1) Pray. I’m pretty sure I’d be twice the asshole I am currently without the Spirit’s help.
2) Get off social media, at least for a few hours, at regular intervals.
3) Intentionally enjoy being a dad. (It’s easy when you have a son like mine.)
4) Un-selfconsciously embrace stupid things. I have a 3DS that I play constantly, delicious epic fantasy books I can sink hours into, an increasingly fanatic attachment to basketball (I literally listen to more basketball podcasts than any other form of audio media), and a large liquor cabinet.”

Listen to novels. This helps me both during the day to disengage mentally from the work of always processing (even when I’m not engaging) AND also to distract me from my own thoughts when I am trying to fall asleep at bedtime or when I am awake in the middle of the night.”

“For myself, I try to balance the talking with the listening. Really listening, and if I can’t hear it anymore to say our loud, “This is important and I want to keep going, but I might need a break to process more.” Since the election, with difficult topics, I try to give myself and the other person that time to “digest” what we’ve been learning. I try to read as much as I can stomach to really know what I’m talking about (or hearing about) to reinforce anything I need to know. And then I play. Games, movies, songs. I try to get out of “headspace” and just be.”

Read
Say thank you a lot
Take a walk in nature
Get some exercise
Laugh”

“Yogalates, walks in the woods, Netflix, essential oils, drinking water.”

“Sleep!! Even a nap midday if you can manage it (not everyone naps well or has time). A couple of hours, or a good night’s sleep always resets my stress levels. Even if stress or anxiety returns as it is bound to do, the rest can adjust your perspective.”

“Time in nature is my balm, I find it very easy to stay present during my time there. The ritual of making a pot of tea and hunkering down with a great book is so comforting.”

 

How Do You Stay in the Game?

I’m discovering that the work of genuine encounter and authentic dialogue is really exhausting.

If you’re actively engaged with that work, either on social media or in-person, please make sure you’re being kind to yourself. (I’ve added a few things I do below and would love to hear what you do as well.)

And, if you’re not actively engaged with that work, and have a little extra energy, would you please share the load with us?

Here are a few things I do:

1) Pray. I’m pretty sure I’d be twice the asshole I am currently without the Spirit’s help.

2) Get off social media, at least for a few hours, at regular intervals.
3) Intentionally enjoy being a dad. (It’s easy when you have a son like mine.)

4) Un-selfconsciously embrace stupid things. I have a 3DS that I play constantly, delicious epic fantasy books I can sink hours into, an increasingly fanatic attachment to basketball (I literally listen to more basketball podcasts than any other form of audio media), and a large liquor cabinet.