Archive for the 'Religion' Category

Catholics and Beauty

Last Thursday at the beach The Climber and I took a walk while the rest of the crew went to a museum.  Here we are at the end of the walk:

Me and The Climber

Me and The Climber

There’s a church down the road from our condo, and we headed over there to walk through and see what we could see.  It’s a Catholic church (Holy Family Catholic) that sits between an Episcopal church and a Methodist church.  It was a great visit.

I never noticed it before, but when I want to be in a beautiful worship space, it’s Catholic churches that draw me.  The Catholics may have some things wrong and sideways, but they get the beauty thing better than anyone else.  They sure can make a place feel set apart and holy.  I was surprised at how it moved me.

Why is that?  What happened when Protestants walked away from Catholicism that left us with a stunted appreciation for and commitment to beauty and art?  Is it our love of text, of letters and words?  Is it simply that we needed to differentiate ourselves from them?

It occurred to me that I might eventually end up–get ready–catholic.  I don’t agree with all the stuff Catholics believe, but that’s becoming more and more true about my current church, too.  And if you follow my taking-the-upstream-path-through-history logic in Staying Put to its ultimate conclusion, it makes sense…

Funny note–the Catholics also have a sense of humor.  Here’s what the sign by the sanctuary door said:

Please do not leave until the end of the Mass.  –God.

I can so work with that!


Mad Church Disease and Why I’m Not Necessarily Mad

Anne Jackson‘s getting a lot of blog press these days with her request for stories and data to support a book she’s writing titled Mad Church Disease.  But more importantly, she’s a regular commenter on themattchews’ blog, and Mr. Mattchews is one of my best buddies.  He knows my story, and has been oh so gently twisting my arm to get me to participate in the surveys Anne’s conducting as part of her research.

Well, last night I gave up and just did it.  I’m writing this article to explain why I didn’t want to.

My initial response to the Mattchews was “I fear my present perspective would skew the sample too much,” and I really mean it.  My experiences as a church staff member have left me fairly jaded and cynical about the church, and though I know I’ll recover, I also know that now is not a good time for me to be talking church stuff with anyone.

To which the Mattchews replied, “That’s why you need to take the survey.  Your story needs to be told.”

My second reason goes a little deeper:  I don’t want to pile on and give undue weight and credence to the “poor pastor who gets abused and screwed up by his congregation” mythology.  I don’t know what direction Anne Jackson will take in her tome, but I hope it won’t go that way because I don’t buy it anymore.  It feels good every October during Pastor Appreciation month to hear the stats about pastors leaving “the ministry” and be petted and pitied and given an encouraging gift certificate because “church work is such hard work and our pastors are all depressed because we’re so hard on them,” but something tells me that the whole story isn’t being told.

Yes, churches are hard on their leaders.  Yes, pastors do flame out, often spectacularly.  Yes, church people can be unbelievably cruel to pastors and their families.  I have earned all those merit badges and I get it.

But what I’m not buying anymore is the idea that it’s the church’s fault that church work eats pastors alive.  Pastors are not passive agents in the formation of their congregations.  When a churchy person bites the arm off a pastor or refuses to serve in children’s church or clucks her tongue when the pastor’s kids aren’t exactly perfect, there’s something going on beyond a simple victim/perp story.  Congregations take on the characteristics of their leadership, and they learn how to express disagreements with their leadership from how their leadership expresses disagreements with those outside the church.

Really, it reminds me of those stories that pop up on the news every now and again about the guy who breeds pit bulls and is shocked when one of them mauls his visiting Aunt Margaret.  The breeder is always surprised when pit bulls do what they’ve been bred to do.

Ever heard the “I’m a (insert denominational label here) because we’re more biblical than everyone else” sermon?  Trust me, Baptists aren’t the only ones doing this–it’s pandemic in the church.  These sermons teach congregations that people who disagree with us aren’t just mistaken, they’re less committed to truth than we are.  It shouldn’t surprise us, then, when people in these congregations are unable to disagree with a pastor in a loving, accepting way without presupposing malicious motives or deficient morals.  All of a sudden, the inclusion of an electric guitar on the worship stage isn’t a stylistic issue, it’s a moral issue because I disagree with the decision and don’t know how else to handle it.

The same dynamic occurs with the “10 Reasons Why Dan Brown (of DaVinci Code fame) is Wrong and Going to Hell” sermon and the “Why the Homosexuals are Coming for Your Children” sermon and the “People Who Have Faith Give Extra Money to Missions” sermon.

Until the gospel becomes less about the preaching and defense of certain propositions (biblical inerrancy, original sin, substitutionary atonement, etc.) and more about how Jesus enables us to actually love each other and get along with each other (Jesus is in the business of reconciling all things together again in himself), church is going to continue to be a dangerous place to be and a suicidal place to presume to lead. 

The Whatever God

Sunday, _______s Senior Pastor started a 4-part series on the book of Ruth, challenging us to read through the book several times over the course of the series.  As I read through the 1st chapter, I caught for the 1st time a new facet of the story in verse 16:

But Ruth replied, “Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the LORD deal with me, be it ever so severely, if anything but death separates you and me.”

What I noticed for the first time is Ruth’s embracing of a foreign God, a foreign people, and a foreign culture sight unseen.  She’d never attended synagogue or celebrated any of the feasts or experienced tabernacle worship.  She didn’t do a side-by-side comparison of Yaweh and Chemosh and come to the conclusion that Yaweh was true and Chemosh false.  No one gave her a Chick tract about how imminent divine judgement was.

I don’t get the idea that Ruth really cared about which god was the right one.  She cared about which god was Naomi’s.  The sense I get when I read this is that Ruth would happily worship Baal, Chemosh, Yaweh, Buddah, or whatever, just so long as she could be with Naomi. 

Ruth chose the Whatever God, the Wherever Place, and the However Plan.  Yaweh, Israel, and Judaism didn’t impress her nearly so much as Naomi.  And I think more people are like Ruth than we want to believe.

The contrast to how we operate today is striking.  When we talk with people who don’t worship our God, we are too often reduced to trying to convince people of the abstract, absolute truth of our God and our way in spite of the way God’s followers behave.  The argument runs like this:  “Choose God because God is truth and that truth is more real than your experiences of Christians.”

It’s time we got real about why our neighbors don’t go to church or read their bibles or vote Republican.  It’s not that they have an argument with the truth of God and Christ.  It’s that they don’t particularly want to be like or with Christians.  Us.  The overriding question they are asking is not “Is this true?”  They’re asking, “Do I want to be like them?”

Naomi was the kind of person that Ruth wanted to be with, even if it meant worshiping a strange God in a strange land.  What if being a disciple meant becoming a Naomi?  What if being a disciple meant becoming someone people would want to be around, even if it meant worshiping a new God? 

Continue reading ‘The Whatever God’

This message brought to you by…

Last night I took my 3-year old son Jackson to the annual Christmas parade that goes through downtown Knoxville every year (my wife Amy couldn’t go–see our dropshots site for a picture of her broken left foot).  It’s fun to brave the cold and bundle up and see blue-lipped high school marching bands attempt the impossible task of keeping their intonation reasonable in freezing weather.  Boy, do I not miss that.  The parade always features floats of caroling cheerleaders and baton twirlers-in-training, local equestrian and kennel clubs, massive fire engines, and various local businesses and celebrities looking for free face-time. 

You get to sit next to total strangers and whine about the cold and clap and cheer with them for other total strangers who dare walk down the street to be gawked at for the benefit of the community.  It’s good fun, it creates a sense of communal belonging, and delivers loads of warm fuzzies to boot.

And then there are always the churches who put in a float.

I know the intentions are good, but I’ve never really gotten used to the juxtaposition of Bessie the Mayfield cow followed by a live nativity scene on a float pulled by a diesel dualie pickup.  I just hate seeing Jesus compete for attention in that context.  It feels, well, cheap.  Worse, it comes across as preachy:  here come the religious people to remind us that we’re not supposed to enjoy all this other stuff that much. 

What if a church marched in the parade handing out candy, simply blessing the crowd in the name of Jesus rather than in the name of their congregation?  Or better yet, what if they marched behind the crowd handing out free (and high quality) hot cocoa or Starbucks?

Maybe it’s less a sign of the secularization of the holiday than the secularization of Byron, but that’s another post altogether.

What I really wanted to post about was the start of the parade.  First up was Knoxville’s finest on motorcycles with flashing lights and even two mounted policemen (did anyone know Knoxville has mounties?), followed by Mayor Haslam.  So far, so good. 

But then comes the lead float in the parade, and it’s put together by a local Baptist church.  I couldn’t take the picture with my camera (because my mouth was gaping open and my chin was in the way), but luckily my buddy Michael Patrick with the News-Sentinel caught the moment (you’ll want to click on the thumbnail and look at the full-size version):


You’ve got your bald eagle leading the float followed by 3 military guys surrounding an artillery piece.  Overlooking the float is…

Jesus Christ.  The Prince of Peace.  Let it sink in.

And not the baby-in-the-manger version, but the risen victor-King Jesus with crown and purple robe and the U.S. military as his vanguard.  Suddenly, I have new respect and understanding for Muslims who forbid the depiction of the Prophet.  Suddenly, I wish I had a rotten vegetable to throw at the driver of the dualie.

I appreciate and presume that the intent of the float is to 1) honor those serving in our nation’s military and 2) honor Christ.  Regardless of how anyone feels about this or any war, these are both worthy endeavors.  But you can’t do both on the same platform without delivering a more powerful third message, e.g., "Jesus endorses the U.S. military," or "the U.S. military serves the Kingdom of Christ, or worse, "we’ve come to take over your country and kill your men and yes, Jesus is on our side."

You’d like to think that churches would be more sophisticated communicators, especially those churches (like Baptists) that see their mission as primarily being the spreading of a message.  Did nobody step back and say, "Whoa!  Look at what we’re saying here!  Is this how we want to present Christ to our neighbors?"

Churches and organizations need to get this message loud and clear:  what you intend to communicate doesn’t matter.  What matters is what you actually communicate.  You don’t get points for good intentions.  Think twice before you let other issues or symbols share the stage with the gospel. 

Continue reading ‘This message brought to you by…’

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