Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Why some young Christians are uninterested in the church community

I came across this article during my usual online browsing. It was about why kids who were raised in Christian homes hit college and then drop out of church in disappointingly high numbers.

The article gives ten reasons, which include the church trying too hard to be cool, kids not studying enough apologetics or knowing enough about their faith, kids getting tired of pretending to be Christians, kids' faith being based completely on feelings, they don't feel like they need faith, and they can't live by the Bible's moral teachings.

Basically, the article blames a) those lazy kids and b) watered-down theology taught in churches. I've been to dozens of churches, but I was mainly raised Presbyterian. I didn't find that any of them really watered down their theology. In fact, I thought most of the churches I went to had strong opinions and teachings.

I don't think that's the entire problem. Or even the main problem. I was one of those kids and so were many of my friends. I had zero interest in church during my last three years of college (although I made a huge effort to get to church...by bike...my freshman year). There was no animosity, just a feeling that going would be a waste of my time.

I know there are some people who feel like they fit in very well in church. This post is not for you. Know that I have not been to every church, and it's possible there is a good one out there that I should try. If you know one in Southwest Florida, let me know. But I HAVE been to a lot, and not just for visits either. I've been a member of youth groups, churches, and Bible studies, and I've been both staff and camper at a famous religious camp. I've had the exposure to write this.

This isn't about the kids who were just pretending, don't really believe, or aren't Christians. You can't do much about them. Churches don't convert others; the Holy Spirit does. This is about the young people who believe and who do have a relationship with God, but Ronald Reagan it when it comes to church attendance. So, without further ado, here is the (messy) post.

Reasons the church is losing this generation

1) Some churches are country clubs- This isn't a new complaint. Let's face it. Some churches are all about who's in and who's out. It's an exclusive club. If you pass the litmus test, appear clean and sane, don't have any sex outside of marriage (or don't tell if you did), vote for Republicans, and have the social acumen necessary to express a sweet heart, you are golden. Still, even if you fit in, there's an underlying tension that you could always fall out of favor or that you are not safe.

It's about looking perfect and then getting out of there to your "real" life. Even if you have no trouble doing this or even if you don't care what people think about you, it leaves the church feeling dead. When Jesus was on Earth, he talked about how religious people cleaned the inside of the cup and not the outside. They only cared how it looked. Young people see through that.

Also, churches are supposed to be about fellowship, but how can you get to know someone when they are always on their best behavior in the only place you see them? If young people have real friendships in the church, they are more likely to come back.

I think the number one way to get young people in church is to make them feel like church is a place where they can be themselves more than they can in the outside world. If they have to hide most of their personalities in the church, they are going to run out of will to be there.

2) Large groups have no give-and-take- In the early church, Christians met in houses. They knew each other and their community was based on actual relationships and friendships. They didn't sit and listen to one guy, every week, give his take and then leave without saying a word (or even saying hi to the guy). You can go to church, sit among hundreds of people, and leave feeling completely alone.

There is no way to build relationships in the large congregation setting. Churches know this and now they have people greet each other and shake hands during the service. THAT SOLVES EVERYTHING (sarcasm). Now, most churches have Bible studies or groups by age/gender/stage. But some of those are just a smaller version of the Sunday service. For example, all the women sit and listen to one woman teach. And then they leave (after some shallow small talk, of course).

Churches need more small groups and to have meetings at more houses. There should be little meetings going on throughout the week, and everyone should be welcome to most of them. When you split people up by category (single, married, youth group, men, women) ALL THE TIME, there are some people who won't fall into those neat categories. I was looking on the internet for a small, church-affiliated group in my town weeks ago and I came up short.

There was nothing for a single woman who was not a college student. I talked to a guy my age who is in seminary, and even he expressed frustration that you don't feel like there is a place for you in the church unless you are married or a student. Man, no one even invites a standalone person to come sit with them in church anymore! How are people supposed to go all alone? There's nothing more depressing than that.

Also, when you categorize people, they are unable to meet and learn from people who are different than they are or get to know the entire church. We worship according to race in this country. How gross is that? Churches need to make an effort to integrate, as studies show that worshipping with your own race actually makes you more racist. Seriously. Google it. Don't create cliques and ranks by only having small groups arranged by type. Have a variety so people stop comparing themselves to their peers and start getting to know other Christians.

3) Most churches need to be more service-oriented- Young people today are extremely socially conscious. I don't know if older people know that, but we are in the phase of our lives where we are still thinking about changing the world, giving food to the needy, and rescuing those in slavery.

We aren't thinking about what the neighbors think, our retirement plans, or our comfort. We are bored, and we want to be used. We want God and the church to use us for something great. Youth groups need to be less a club where we sing, listen to a guy talk, and then clique up, and more of a group with serious service projects.

Churches need to be so dedicated to making the community a better place that, were it to shut down, the atheists would be upset at the loss. You want young adults at your church? Tell them there is a job for them to do. A place for them.

Some churches have people working in the service and missions areas, but they only have the superstar Christians or paid church members doing it. You know the crotchety old man in the congregation who never talks? Find some way to use him, because I can guarantee you that if he is in church, week after week, he wants God to use him.

Don't screen people for the perfect attitude and hide the less gifted. Figure out everyone's gift and desire. We all have different skills. It's called a body for a reason. Everyone needs to have a place and opportunity to serve significantly in the church. You don't know how God is going to use someone. God used the lousiest people in the Bible. Moses couldn't speak, Elijah was depressed most of the time, etc.

Service is more important than having a building. Christians can meet anywhere. More money goes to the building than to the poor in your community or your church? That's a problem. Young people see it and seethe. It's all talk and strong opinions and polite niceness. No action.

4) You can't be honest- People are too quick to pounce on someone with a differing opinion, shutting them down, rather than respecting their right to think and question. Most people decide it's best to not rock the boat.

Also, am I the only person who thinks that churches equate extroversion, being bubbly, and gender-norm conformity to morality/spiritual maturity? There is a personality you have to have at church to be a leader, to be respected, or to be fully accepted. Especially if you're a woman. If you're a woman, you must appear sweet, humble, feminine, vulnerable, and social at all times.

In the ideal church, someone can disagree with a teaching, then someone else will politely ask him questions about that belief. He will fully air his opinion and someone might even agree. The worst thing someone will say is, "I disagree, but that's interesting. Thanks for bringing it up." And then that pot stirrer is still allowed in the group. No one says, "He's not a real Christian" or "he doesn't take the Bible seriously." They will agree to disagree and realize that we're not saved by the rightness of our doctrine. And then they will move on. They won't exclude them from projects.

5) Yeah, churches are trying too hard to be hip instead of asking why young people object to content- I'm mostly talking about the music. Adding guitars to a repetitive, lame verse doesn't make the song good or cool. Young people aren't morons. They know good music when they hear it. It doesn't matter what genre it is most of the time.

Remember when religious music was the most beautiful music around? Handel's Messiah, anyone? The stuff Bach would play in church? Classical music or deep hymns are better than a rip-off of current popular songs.

Don't believe the kiddies will like it? I was with three college students a few weekends ago and we had the opportunity to go to the same church to either a contemporary or a classical service. All three students picked the classical service because the music would be better.

When the church keeps stale, judgmental, culture-based theology and tries to cover it up with a terrible rock band, it just comes across as sad...and a little threatening. I can see some young people thinking, "Wow, this looks so great, but if that guy up there leading worship knew that I was gay, the music would stop and the faces pointed at me would be shocked and ugly." There's nothing worse than a cover up. It's the treatment of people and the delivery of the gospel that need an update, not the tunes.

6) Churches worship the Bible, not God- Quick question. What, according to John, is the Word of God? JESUS. What did the early church not have? The Bible as we know it today. And yet, through the power of the Holy Spirit, they were able to not only function, but to thrive. When a discussion actually gets on its shaking, fledgling feet in churches, it is often struck down with someone going, "Well, the Bible says this. Period."

There follows no discussion of context, interpretation, culture, time, place, or logic. It's just BOOM. Literally and wrongly taken, scripture can keep us from intellectual honesty, listening to the Holy Spirit, and spiritual growth. You can't use it as a bat to hit people over the head with. And you can't pay more attention/respect to the Bible than, you know, God himself. That comes across as dogmatic.

I love the Bible. Y'all know that. But I'm getting awful sick of hearing Christians plugging it. The Bible doesn't need to be defended. You don't have to demand that Christians respect truth. If it's true, it will ring true. If someone reads the Bible with an open mind, the Bible does a great job of plugging itself.

7) Teach the actual Bible, not just the applicable stuff- The quickest way to learn the Bible is cool is to start studying the parts that don't get much attention. Don't try to get people fired up or crying. Tell them how Jesus was quoting Psalm 22 on the cross. That's a real prophecy. That will get their attention. Don't just give out Hallmark-card anecdotes.

Most college group talks give you scripture verses on how to defeat a problem or sin in your life, and then they end with the gospel so you can apologize for not following the rules. You walk out with a piece of paper with everything the Bible has to say about lying. It's like self-help. I get that pastors think they need to make the word directly applicable to our lives, but...they really don't.

They need to teach the Bible as the story of God interacting with humans on this Earth. They need to teach it as history, as character study, as a cultural study. Bible stories aren't for kids; they are for adults. Young adults can actually relate to King David. A five-year-old can't. Bottom line, don't be afraid to just jump in and teach the Bible without trying to package it for the college life. Teach the hard stuff. Teach Leviticus. Teach us why God thought the Leviticus laws were necessary for that time. By looking at what God did, rather than what we should do, we get to know him better. That is what will affect someone.

Tell us how the gospel transformed the world or Paul's life, or how it changed the ancient culture from one of sacrifices and guilt to one of grace. Get students to love the Bible. After all, the rules are already written on their hearts. They don't need to be taught "don't lie" at this point. They need to be shown what God is like. The more you know about God, the less you want to sin, I think.

Also, churches fail to acknowledge truth from other sources. When a kid starts taking college courses that add to or contradict the Bible, they are going to feel like religion is constraining thought and progress. Early on, the church needs to validate and encourage sciences, scientific experiment, truth in other religions, the value of some of the advice Oprah gives, helpful teachings in psychology, and different points of view on the Bible.

If kids hear it from the church first, they aren't going to feel like the church is afraid of it. Also, it feels flimsy and dishonest when the church essentially says, "If it's not in our book, we don't need it." Remember, even if you believe everything in the Bible is true and from God, you must admit that not everything that's true is found in the Bible.

8) Churches eat their own wounded- I think Christians are pretty nice to nonbelievers. It's the other Christians they really crucify. If you make a mistake, people in your church will trot out the "they were never a real Christian" line. Or, worse, "they lost their salvation" (that's a Church of Christ thing). My mom got a divorce and lost nearly all of her Christian friends. Ouch.

If the church is supposed to follow Christ, what does it say when the secular world shows more grace and love than the church does to its own people? To me, it says Christianity doesn't work, and Christ's forgiveness to the sinners of his day is too audacious for "the real world" where people will "take advantage of" grace. That is an oft-heard fear that I don't think is that dangerous or prevalent in practice. Everyone tries to do what they think is right, God or no God.

Churches have this attitude of "once converted, you are fully converted." They don't think about Peter getting jealous of Paul's success even after he received the Holy Spirit, do they? No one is ever perfect, and Christians need love the most when they mess up. We're born with shame and feel guilt. One time, I messed up a lot, and it just felt good to hear my mom say, "We've all done that exact thing at one point or another."

Acceptance didn't make me "stop trying" or "take advantage of grace." It just made me feel loved. Instead of shunning a Christian until they get it together, put your arm around their shoulder and say, "Yeah, most of us have been there in some way. You'll figure it out. We love you." People don't care what you know until they know that you care.

9) Spiritually dead rituals- This may come as a shock to you, but the big buildings reaching toward the sky, the services, the one speaker, and many of the rote traditions in Christianity come from Paganism. I don't know about you, but when people start lighting the stupid advent candles, I start playing with my phone. (Also, why don't we sing AFTER the sermon, when we know what we are singing about and are in the mood to worship?)

But I get serious when communion comes out. Even as a kid, it just felt important to me. That's because it's a spiritually rich tradition, started by Jesus. Churches can make their own traditions or follow old ones, as long as people know the meaning behind them or as long as it brings people together. Most of them are just a bunch of pomp and circumstance. That really turns a lot of young people off.

10) Older people making you go and making you conform- First off, no one wants to go to church if they are forced to go. Even if they are sitting there, they will naturally rebel against it. They will find fault with everything they can, argue mentally with the sermon, and feel happy to get out of it. When you're 13, you should have a choice of whether you go.

Also, older people don't realize that younger people have their own culture. All cultures have good and bad. Older people need to drop the insignificant stuff like hair length and color, slang, shoes, piercings, racial blending, etc. Older people need to accept a melting pot rather than making young people pretend to conform.

We had enough of the pressure to hide differences in high school. We're over that. It can't be stressed enough. Kids need to feel like they can have their own personalities and thoughts at church rather than some cookie-cutter norm.

11) Too much pressure on one man- I love the trend of rotating pastors. If there is a too-enormous pressure on one man, he is going to become a hypocrite. His sin is going to have to be hidden and then it is going to grow. Share the load. Share the power. He's way less likely to get caught in a torrid affair if he's part of a group of teachers. Also, we need to bring back the confessing of sins to each other, once the other Christian has earned our trust. Leaders should encourage that. Leaders should support each other.

12) Emphasizing sexual sins over pride-based ones- Enough said. We’re not going to ditch our gay friends because church people get quiet and weird when we talk about them or bring them around. 

13) Gossip- The ultimate church killer.

In total, young people are looking for a church to be based on real relationships/fellowship, genuine people and leaders, service to the community, fear-free and challenging teachings, beautiful music/art, and grace for each other. If I found a church like that, I'd go.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Job 3

Job goes on a rant. All these people talk in these long poems or stanzas. You could make a GREAT opera of this book. I'm going to give you an abridged Message version of what he says. You can google the KJV or NIV or ESV for comparison later, if you want.

"Obliterate the day I was born and blank out the night I was conceived. Turn that night into pure nothingness- no sounds of pleasure from that night, ever. May those who are good at cursing curse that day. May God forget it ever happened. Erase it from the books, rip the date off the calendar. Unleash the Leviathan on it. May its morning stars turn to black cinders, waiting for a daylight that never comes. And why? Because it released me from my mother's womb into a life with so much trouble.

Why didn't I die at birth? Why were there arms to rock me and breasts for me to drink from? I could be resting in peace right now, asleep forever, feeling no pain...where bone-weary people get a long-deserved rest? The small and great are equals in that place and slaves are free from their masters.

Why does God bother giving light to the miserable? Why bother keeping bitter people alive? Those who want in the worst way to die and can't, who can't imagine anything better than death? What's the point of life when it doesn't make sense? When God blocks all the roads to meaning? Instead of bread, I get groans for my supper, then leave the table and vomit my anguish. The worst of my fears has come true. What I'd dreaded most has happened. My repose is shattered. My peace destroyed. No rest for me, ever- death has invaded life."

I think that sometimes in modern Christianity, we are given the following messages: 1) Sad people and moaners are selfish, 2) it's best to pretend that you are perfect and your life is perfect, 3) emotional people are crazy, and 4) Godly people have all the answers to the meaning of life.

Notice that all that doesn't qualify as cursing God or a win for Satan. Job is showing great emotion and misery. He's not sitting peacefully like a nun or a saint in a cartoon, raising his glowing face while angel choirs back up his stoic meditations. He's upset, he's allowed to be, and he's not hiding it.

He's questioning the meaning of life. That's something we all deal with. Yeah, we have more information about the afterlife, Jesus, and the Great Commission, but we all want to know the details about what we are contributing. Life must have some meaning in addition to evangelizing, or the pre-Jesus people were just a waste of everyone's time. God doesn't create wastes of time.

Looking at his situation, it's easy to see why Job feels like his life has come to nothing. He doesn't even have anything left to leave on the Earth. (If it were the present day, you can just see some good Christian coming out of the woodwork with a five-step plan to get Job right with God. In many circles, they have all the answers. There's no mystery left.)

I want to note that, obviously, Job did not kill himself or attempt to kill himself. Even though the Bible is largely silent on suicide, we intrinsically know that we are breaking some sort of important rule. At least Job did.

Also, Job isn't specifically complaining about his health, the deaths, or his material losses. He goes right to the spiritual issues. "What's the meaning of my life?" "Why did God put me here?" "I have no peace." The agony mostly comes from the existential crisis these losses have brought about, not the physical problems.

There is also a question of whether Satan was attacking Job's mind, giving him depression and spiritual malaise in addition to sickness. I find this unlikely. The human mind can drum this stuff up without the Devil's help.

I think this passage is great for people who question whether they add anything to the world or whether they should have been born. Job thought this way, and he ended up having a great destiny. He won a cosmic battle between God and Satan, brought glory to God and goodness, proved his judgmental friends wrong, became closer to God, taught millions of believers important lessons, and ended up with more riches and family than ever before.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Women afraid to be themselves in the church? Um, absolutely.

I’ve had numerous conversations with women who are sincerely conflicted about how to legitimately bring their voice into relationships simply because of their gender. One woman told me she realized it was much easier for her to use her voice when she was single and working in the business world. In Christian circles, she felt all the relational lines had been redrawn to caution her against using her voice. “I felt a sense of energy when I showed up to a meeting at work where I was prepared to engage collaboratively. When I attend meetings at church, I don’t expect to contribute and often feel that it would not be my place to do so,” she said. The difference she noticed as she entered the room was predominantly internal. In one she felt integral, the other incidental.
Now, however, she feels a box had been drawn for her with four strong walls labeled, “Submission,” “Quiet,” “Gentle Spirit,” and “Authority Structure.” Sadly, she was led to question her value as a person more after she entered the church than before. When she inadvertently stepped over invisible lines by asking questions or starting conversations, she felt the message was clear that she had gone far enough..She felt often confused by the complicated, subtle messages that she had to be distant, cautious, and not engage too personally…
At church, the woman inferred from the leadership that she was to speak only when spoken to. Her attempts to conversationally engage matters of interest to her in the ministry of the church felt undervalued; often, her attempts were ignored completely. She began to realize compulsory steps were required of her in this dance, involving carefully nuancing her remarks, monitoring and measuring her tone, and speaking tentatively, in a hesitant voice so as not to appear “too strong.” One other woman told me that anytime she even asked a question, she felt church leadership viewed her as dangerous…She voiced a fear I hear often from Christian women, that of being blackballed. “I have known women who after speaking up were rarely asked to do anything again at church. Now I understand more fully why I feel more comfortable asking my husband to voice my thoughts than speaking of them myself.” Both she and her husband would agree that when he speaks, he is taken more seriously and is better received.
Strength seems to be valued when it’s an internal, unseen quality, but not so much when paired with a woman’s voice. It’s possible that being viewed as a strong woman appears to be a spiritual defect. When a woman feels compeled to hold back from revealing her essence, to withhold her voice, one must ask if the reason is fear. Is there more safety in hiding?

Pam Macrae
You guys would not believe how happy I was to read this. FINALLY, someone knew what I was talking about when I said I didn’t feel comfortable and accepted in the church. There are other people out there who don’t think I’m “silly”!??? It’s kind of healing to hear it’s not just me.
My aunt gave me this book, and I didn't expect to like it, but I do. It's all about how Christian women should have integrity (rather than just being quiet, social, manipulative, and sweet.
Whenever I'm in church, I feel like I'm in trouble, even if I don't say a word. I feel depressed. I feel unwanted. I followed all "the rules." Heck, who else is a 26-year-old virgin around here? But I feel like the defective, uncouth weirdo in any church setting and have since I was an adolescent. 
I know mostly dudes read this blog, but if any women feel the same way...you're not alone. I wonder if dudes feel this way ever?
Also, I feel like this is less the guys' faults and more of the pressure from the "perfect" Christian moms and wives who need to make sure other women stay in line.

That's why I struggle with going to church. If I can't be authentic and make real relationships...what's the point? If I can sense that the other women are unnaturally subdued, how can I get to know them? If I leave feeling depressed, is it all on me?

Another quote from that book: Never did Christ nag, flatter, coax, patronize, or make jokes about women. He took their questions and arguments seriously, never mapping out their spheres for them. He simply had no axe to grind. He took them as he found them. Perhaps it is no wonder that the women were first at the Cradle and last at the Cross. They had never known a man like this Man- there never has been such another. (Paraphrased from Dorothy Sayers)

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Job's health is destroyed

Job 2- I've heard it said that if you don't have your health, you don't have anything. I think that's true, to an extent, because you can't really do anything. How can you concentrate with a headache, a mind clouded by drugs, or surgeries to worry about?

You can't focus on anything but pain and discomfort. You feel out of control of your own body and your life. If the sickness is permanent, you feel as though your best days are behind you. And, of course, there are the mortality issues. We're wired to want to survive.

That's why it took Job to a super dark place when his health was taken. Satan came for another visit and God said, "Job still maintains his integrity, though you incited me against him to ruin him without any reason." It's interesting that God takes credit for the ruin and says he was incited against Job, even though he just took away the protection and Satan did all the actual ruining. He takes full responsibility for things that aren't entirely his fault. It also showed that God had full control of the situation and it only happened because God allowed it.

Satan says, "Skin for skin! A man will give all he has for his own life. Stretch out your hand and strike his flesh and bones, and he will surely curse you to your face." Satan's theory is that Job stayed quiet so that he would not be killed as well, and that he was fine with losing his family because he was spared. "Skin for skin." He traded his kids for his own security, Satan thinks (and that's probably what Satan would do if he had kids, haha). So, the Lord allows Satan to cover Job with sores from head to foot.

Satan has failed in the emotional/mental attack. He is now going for the flesh. In my teens, I (wrongly) thought it would be fun to see if I could fit the family puppy's whole head in my mouth. I could, but I was in for a shock. I didn't know the puppy would perceive the situation as " I'm being eaten." She did, and she let out a scream such as I've never heard. That's the survival instinct. The instant scream and despair when your body is threatened. All animals fear this. Satan knows we're part animal. He knows a huge part of us is attached to our flesh.

It wasn't just sores either. Later in the book of Job, we find out that he also suffered from bone pain, skin that grew black and fell off, halitosis, itching, fever, and emaciation. Job scrapes himself with a piece of broken pottery, probably to help with the itching.

Job's wife advised him to give up his integrity, curse God, and die. On a shallow reading, it might seem like this woman is a godless villain, but she's just lost her home and kids. She doesn't know it's because she happened to marry Job. She's saying that death would be better than what Job is going through. She doesn't think there is a way up from this. Of course, she's wrong and Satan got her to abandon her integrity, but she's also pretty normal. Job didn't cave to his wife's influence.

Then Job's three friends, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, came to comfort him. When they saw him, they hardly recognized him. They started crying, tore their robes, and sprinkled dust on their heads. They sat on the ground with him for seven days, not saying a word. Later, we find out that these friends are frenemies, but their initial action was cool. If only they had kept their mouths shut, didn't start judging, and just continued to sit quietly, in the same position as Job was. But that's for later.

Job's wife didn't want to see him suffer; it would have been better to join their children in heaven then to live with what she probably assumed as an incurable illness. It's hard to say when someone's health is so bad that they should just go ahead and die. In Job's situation, death would have been the wrong answer, so he held on.

Does that mean euthanasia is the wrong answer, Biblically, for all or most people? Maybe this passage isn't about that at all, but it's interesting evidence for one of the sides that Job stayed, and he's seen to be a good guy with integrity. Either way, it must suck to lose your health. Maybe I'll go for a bike ride today and lay off the Taco Bell....

Thursday, March 21, 2013


So, it's been a month. I didn't feel like blogging, because I was going through one of those existential crisis periods where I questioned lots of what I believe. Not the existence of God or the divinity of Jesus or anything huge. Smaller issues, but still significant ones (significant enough to make me a tad morose).

Surprisingly, it wasn't atheists or liberals or (horrors!) the new Rob Bell book, but a couple of Christian fundamentalists that made me question how much they (and I) have right about spirituality. As they were talking to me, they showed a lot of paranoia, closed-mindedness, and an exclusionary mindset that made me realize how ignorant they were about themselves, human nature, and the world in general.

If I agree with most of their doctrine...and if I was taught most of my doctrine by fundamentalists...how much of it can I really trust when it comes from such shallow, fear-filled brains? If Christianity WORKS, really works, then why is the church filled with more self-righteousness, scandal, and a focus on looking good than with love, compassion, trust, and openness.

Maybe that's a dumb reason to start questioning Christian tenants that usually make sense, but I started ruminating on specific issues and it all spiraled out of control. When I get to the passages in the Bible that touch on the issues, I'll let you know. I guess one good thing about this blog is it's a spiritual barometer for me. When I'm not feeling close to God, I don't even want to touch it. I've gotten to the point where I want to study/talk about the Bible again. So, onward. Back to Job soon. For now, check out this quote. It pretty much nails where I've landed:

For many people in our world, the opposite of faith is doubt. The goal, then, within this understanding is to eliminate doubt. But faith and doubt aren’t opposites. Doubt is often a sign that your faith has a pulse, that it’s alive and well and exploring and searching. Faith and doubt…are excellent dance partners….

Fundamentalism shouldn’t surprise us. When a leader comes along who eliminates the tension and dodges the paradox and neatly and precisely explains who the enemies are and gives black-and-white answers to questions, leaving little room for the very real mystery of the divine, it should not surprise us when that person gains a large audience.

Especially when that person is really, really confident.

Certainty is easier, faster, awesome for fundraising, and it often generates large amounts of energy because who doesn’t want to be right?…Two people can believe the same thing but hold that belief in very different ways.

You can believe something with so much conviction that you’d die for that belief, and yet in the exact same moment you can also say, “I could be wrong.”

This is because conviction and humility, like faith and doubt, are not opposites; they’re dance partners. It’s possible to hold your faith with open ands, living with great conviction and yet at the same time humbly admitting that your knowledge and perspective will always be limited.

Do you believe the exact same things you did in the exact same way you did five years ago? Probably not. You’ve grown, evolved, changed, had new experiences, studied, listened, observed, suffered, reflected, and reexamined. That’s how faith is. We learn as we go.

#fundies gonna fundie

Monday, February 11, 2013


The rest of Job chapter 1: One day, the angels come “to present themselves before the Lord.” Satan comes too, being equal to the angels, and God allows Satan to be in his presence at this time. Satan isn’t the complete opposite of God, and his power isn’t comparable. He’s the opposite of, like, the archangels Michael or Gabriel. They are pretty tough and awesome, but they aren’t God. Thinking of Satan as the other side of the power coin (where God is one side), power-wise, gives Satan way too much credit. Satan takes a break from “roaming throughout the earth, going back and forth on it.” Unlike God, Satan is not omnipresent.

God decides to brag on one of his kids a little bit. Yeah, God brings Job up, obviously knowing what’s going to happen. God says, “Have you seen Job? There’s no one on Earth like him.” Satan says, “Well, of course he fears and obeys you. You’ve given him protection, riches, and blessings. If things didn’t go his way all the time, and if life wasn’t so good, he’d curse you to your face.” Satan has been watching people, so he throws down this challenge.

Satan knows it’s easy to trust, be loving, and think you have all the rules down when life is going well. He knows that it’s suffering that makes or breaks you. Nietzsche was wrong. That which does not kill us does not always make us stronger. (That which kills us makes us stronger.) There is a personal choice element involved in that. Hardship can make us better or worse. God tells Satan to take everything Job has, but not to lay a finger on Job himself. Satan takes Job’s children and property.

When I was 14, I said to my counselor at Christian camp, “Why would God do this to Job just to prove a point?” I got scolded for asking the question, so I didn’t ever ask  it again. She said, “That’s a horrible way to think about it. If you want to be like that and just be contrary, fine. You’re always so disagreeable. It’s such a good example FOR US to live by.” Well, excuse me for living. I guess my counselor was, like, 22 years old, so I’ll give her a break.

Now that I think about it, I’d say that the point was important enough that it had to be proven to Satan and to us. It’s not JUST that Job is a good example that we can emulate. It’s not like “we too can be so so so good if we just try hard.” No. The point is that good always triumphs over evil, faith can take you through anything, all hope is never lost, and you can prove evil wrong. You can take a horrible situation and literally lay the smackdown on the forces of darkness. And all of Heaven and Earth is watching. This isn’t an earthly conflict, even though it seems so physical. It’s a cosmic battle.

When you suffer, the picture is bigger than what is going on. There’s more at stake than people think. The fight against bitterness after loss has eternal implications. God chose us; he’s always betting on us. He’s betting that the grace thing can actually work and that people really can have a relationship with him if they also have free will. Because this is one of the oldest books of the Bible, this is also one of the oldest, most fundamental lessons God wants to teach us by having this writing preserved for so long.

One of the lessons here is that God doesn’t always do what we think is fair or what we want him to do. He’s not a pez dispenser or Oprah giving out cars. He does what he wants. He has his own reasoning. Like Lewis said, God is good, but he’s not safe. We’re not always going to agree with him. Another lesson that’s hard for us to grasp (since we like humble heroes who glorify themselves accidentally) is that God is doing this for his own glory. But God’s glory is the best thing for everyone. The entire universe: plants, rocks, animals, us. We all need for everything that God is to be affirmed. Is it enough to justify suffering? Job had to decide, as do we all.

My favorite lesson from this story is that you can’t know why bad things are happening to people. In this world, when people suffer, some are quick to point out that it is their fault in some way. I hear lots of Christians say, “Well, God isn’t blessing this man because he didn’t do such-and-such.” God is punishing them, God isn’t blessing them, the law of attraction, etc.

People want to believe that they can control whether bad things happen to them. To a degree, you can. If you live an unwise life, there will be consequences. But you can’t judge people just because you are more blessed than they are. I see it all the time. It’s prosperity gospel.  I’m really glad I can say, “Uh uh, Job. And also the blind guy in the New Testament. Read the Bible.” You can’t know what's going on in the other realms. It's like Stephen King's Dark Tower books. None of the humans in our world know the what's important and being affected by Roland's world. (Okay, nerd aside over).

Also, you can’t know how much God is blessing and protecting a person, even when their lives aren’t perfect. Whose lives are perfect? In this story, God had a hedge of protection around Job, and he lowered it just enough for this bet. He was still protecting Job from death (telling Satan that he couldn’t kill Job). Later, Jesus tells Peter that God has a hedge of protection around Peter that kept Satan from destroying him. Jesus tells Peter that Satan wanted to do much worse things to Peter than God would allow.

I’ve failed Job’s test before, on a small scale. I remember one time years and years ago, after losing something I worked for, that I thought God owed me, my reaction was, “Well, then I’m gonna do THIS. I’m not going to obey this rule anymore. What’s the point? You do everything right, you get nothing. You break the rules and you get power, riches, attention, and love from the world.” I had a setback; I was mad at God. I decided that “all that bull” about him having “a plan for my life” was too good to be true. Obviously, I changed my mind later. 

When Job found out that his loved ones, who he sacrificed and cared for, were dead, he tore his robe and shaved his head. He grieved. But then he worshipped. He said the famous lines, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away. May the name of the Lord be praised.” Job’s riches, life, health, children, property, love, abilities, mind, breath, spirit, and everything else came from God. God promises us things and gives us things. He protects and blesses us, but we have no cause to demand anything. We don’t have birthrights.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Profile of Job: How to Handle Success

The first half of Job chapter 1- You guys you guys you guys!!!!! We’re not in Genesis anymore. I want to go chronologically from now on, so Job is next. Job is ancient, so much so that translators had trouble with it. Some of these words have just been completely lost. Context saves the day with a lot of them.

Job probably existed around the time Abraham did. Some people think it was around the time of Jacob and Esau. Either way, it was a long time ago. Job is a book of Hebrew poetry. No one knows who wrote it, but I like to think it WASN’T Job. If a rich dude wrote a whole book about what a good guy he was, that would cause some serious eye rolls. It doesn't sound like him.

What made Job so awesome that God used him as an example to Satan of the best humanity had to offer? What did Job do and have that set him apart and awarded him the dubious honor of being this example of faith through hardship? 

Tim Kelller said in a sermon you might remember that the two biggest tests in this life are success and suffering. In chapter one, we see that Job has passed that first one. He’s handled power, wealth, and blessings well. To whom much is given, much is expected. Job was not a Jew, but he knew God. Kind of like the first priest, Melchizedeck. This is one of the first recorded relationships with God. 

Job was one of those people who did the best with the information he was given about God, even though he didn’t know the whole story. People can have a good relationship with God apart from religion if their eyes are open and they want to see it. That’s yet another reason why you can’t judge who truly knows God. You don't know what they've heard and what they've accepted or rejected. You don't know how much they have sought or how much they can take in. 

Job didn’t pray the sinner’s prayer or believe every part of some church’s doctrine. But he was committed to trusting in a higher power and acting in alignment with what is good and true. The Bible calls him blameless and upright, saying that he feared God and shunned evil. “Blameless” doesn’t mean “perfect.” It means that Job lived a life that gave him a good reputation. He's trusted. 

Although he doesn’t have access to the laws of Leviticus, Job knows, like many ancient people, that sinning puts a human so that he is not right with God and a sacrifice must be made. This is one of those universal truths that multiple ancient societies picked up on. Job would make sacrifices for his children after they threw birthday parties, so that they would be purified just in case they forgot themselves during the celebrations. 

There's no evidence that Job's children partied too much or engaged in debauchery. This is just how careful Job was to not offend God. He made these sacrifices as a precaution, thinking, “Maybe my kids sinned and cursed God in their hearts.” Job served as a head of his household, a priest, and a mediator between God and his family. Job’s children invited each other to their birthday parties, showing that they had close sibling relationships and enjoyed each other’s company. 

When we meet Job, he has ten children (which was more valued in that culture than in this one and would give Job great status) and a large estate. The Bible says that Job was the wealthiest man in the East. This is so impressive to me, because usually a rich man’s heart is consumed by his money. Usually powerful people are oblivious to others’ needs and the fact that they are not God. This also proves that you CAN have money and success and still keep God #1 in your life. But man, that’s got to be so rare. Camel, needle. 

We find out later that Job was a generous man. We find out that he took in orphans, argued against injustice and greed in local courts, and personally cared for the sick, handicapped, and dying. Part of being able to stay upright when you are rich is being generous. And don’t think you aren’t rich: you are in the top 1% of wealth in the history of the world. You’re sitting at a computer, reading this. Even if you have financial worries or aren’t wealthy compared to others in your life, you’re rich. 

God is about to give Job the other test, the test no one wants. The test of success is the one everyone thinks they can handle. The thought goes: "God should give me this position/resource. I would use it for him, unlike the worldly people I see with power. If I was just given this opportunity, I could serve God." People pray for God to use them. But I ask...and this is something I ask myself too...would we really do that well? 

I was reading the new Dresden Files book by Jim Butcher (that I mostly hated, but the other books in that series are good), and the main character said, "See, that's the tragedy of the human condition. No one wants to be corrupted by power when they set out to get it. They have good, even noble reasons for doing whatever it is they do. They don't want to misuse it, they don't want to abuse it, and they don't want to become vicious monsters. Good people, decent people, set out to take the high road, to pick up power without letting it change them or push them away from their ideals. But it keeps happening anyway. History is full of it. As a rule, people aren't good at handling power. And the second you start to think you're better at controlling your power than anyone else, you've already taken the first step."

That line hit me because, deep down, I do think I can handle power better than most other people. But when I look at what I've done with the power I already have, that I often don't realize I have, I'm not impressed. I have the opportunity to brighten the days of others, to keep in better touch with my loved ones, to serve, to put time into my relationships, and to share. These are opportunities I pass up on a daily basis. I worry about losing what I have or not getting what I want. 

I think I can handle power? I can't even be a good steward over my Toyota by keeping it clean. I don't take care of the body I grew up in because I stuff it full of Baconators and don't exercise. I cringe when I have to pay for my brother's meal at Burger King. I procrastinate and waste a powerful resource, time. And I'm rich. I have a car, clean water, an education (too much education, probably), freedom, choices, and health. Am I passing this test? I can't be certain. Sure, I've done good things too, but I can always do better before I start asking God for more to handle. It's fine to want God to use you and do great things with your life, but maybe he's already trying to more than you think.

As always, "trying harder" isn't the solution. Fearing God is. Remember what God did for you is. Trying to see others and material things as God does works better than beating yourself up. Letting God mold your heart and spending time getting to know him is what changes people, not guilt or pressure. Because the great tests aren't testing how good or disciplined you are; they are testing what position/place God has in your life and how much faith you place in him to take care of you.