Saturday, October 28, 2006

The True Meaning of Halloween

I'm upset. The city of Harrisburg chose to observe the infamous pastime of "trick-or-treat" this past Thursday, some 5 days before Halloween. This, we did not know. We were on our way back from a nice night out with the family when we noticed the little ghosts and gobblins infiltrating our neighborhood. So, with haste, we sped wrecklessly through our neighborhood, past the haunting little ones, and into the house. The kids quicly donned their ghoulish attire and spent the next thirty minutes sucking up candy from all available sources.

Commercialization is ruining the true spirit of the holiday (or evilday?). It's supposed to be the night of endless pagan rituals, allowing the spirit world to make contact with the physical world through witchcraft and sorcery. Now, little children wander through neighborhoods scrambling for candy in a mad rush. It's all about the candy. I bet that next year, we'll see Halloween candy and decorations on the shelves the day after July 4th! It gets earlier and earlier each year! I'm thinking of picketing Hershey Foods - I believe their lust for candy bar sales are a big reason that we've lost the spirit of the season.

And the costumes! How many children realize that the costume is designed to scare away evil spirits or to hide your true identity from them? Instead, we pay big time money for the latest superhero costume. What does Batman have to do with Halloween?

I think the ACLU is behind this, trying to ruin the true meaning of Halloween. What do you think?

Thursday, October 26, 2006

Uniform Agreement

A friend said to me recently that sports fans were quite foolish. Players come and go, come and go, and yet we still cheer for the same team. Are we really cheering for the "team," since they change so often? Or are we just cheering for the uniform? It's been said that our fascination with sports speaks of our collective mental illness. Could this finally be the proof?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

A Killer Profile

As many of you know, I'm working for a food distribution company until we get the coffee shop open. This week, I was making a delivery to a school in Lancaster County, PA. As I was making the delivery, a woman continued to lock me out of the school. She told me they weren't allowed to keep a door unlocked or open in light of the Amish school killing. I can't blame her. After all, I do fit the profile.

The Amish school shooter was a father of three in his mid-thirties who made deliveries in central PA. Right now, at least, that's me. In fact, I was in Lancaster County the Friday before the shooting. It so happened I delivered some basic staples to an Amish store (with no electricity, of course) on the same road that the school was on. And since it was a difficult store to find (no sign out front), needless to say, this rookie driver spent a lot of time on that road.

It was a beautiful day. Weather was perfect. And the Amish were amazing. One girl was running through a cornfield with her hands outstretched, like something out of the Sound of Music. Two little boys in the back of a carriage pumped their fists up and down hoping I'd sound the air horn. But the memory that haunts me is the group of Amish girls I saw walking home from school that afternoon. There were about ten of them, and they were laughing and playing together as they walked. I've since wondered how many of those girls were in that school house that following Monday. I can't imagine they were walking home from any other school.

That day, the little stretch of road was the "middle of nowhere." In a few days, it would be the center of the nation's attention. That day, I was just a delivery driver. Now, I fit the profile of a terrible killer.

It kind of reminds me of why Jesus was so hated by the Pharisees. Before Jesus, they were the most righteous and moral people on the planet. After the sermon on the mount, they were adulterers and murderers. "You have heard it said, 'Do not murder...'; I tell you if that anyone who is angry with his brother is a murderer."

I guess there are two kinds of people whose sin gets exposed and revealed to all, and sinners whose sin stays hidden in the heart. It's truly amazing that God would love sinners like us.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

The Meaning of the Atonement

Throughout the modern period, numerous theories have been advanced to explain the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ. God must have had a "reasonable" and "systematic" purpose for sending Jesus. Thus came the example theory (Jesus died to inspire us to obedience), the satisfaction theory (His death satisfies God's demand for justice), and the ransom theory (His death "pays off" Satan who holds us captive), to name a few.

By far, the most popular theory is the substitutionary atonement theory. We should have died on the cross for the sins we committed. Someone had to pay the penalty, so Jesus died in our place.

My struggle with these theories is that they each impose forces upon God that are outside of Him, and thus, by definition, bigger than Him. As if God is forced to answer to some higher law or rule about justice or atonement or sin. Jesus' death has to be more than the answer to a cosmic math problem or a means of plugging a hole in the cosmic plan or a weight to level a cosmic imbalance. The modern approach leaves us with the problem solved, but with a less-than God who is subject to a higher force or rule.

Here is where a postmodern approach might help us. Postmoderns embrace the mysteries that go beyond logic and reason and embrace the mystical relationship that exists between God and humankind. With this in mind, we can read with great interest verses like Romans 5:8 - "But God demonstrated his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Or I John 3:16 - "This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us."

Could it be that Jesus' death is first and foremost his way of simply saying to us, "I love you." Our sin problem is that we've turned away from God and turned to ourselves for find meaning in our living. Out of this narcissistism has come a fundamental distrust of others - how can we trust others to do what is best for us if they are really like us - out for themselves? The Lie Adam and Eve chose to believe is that God's design for us could not be trusted. You have to look out for yourself. Trust no one.

So how does God show us that he cares far more for our well-being than we can care for ourselves even in our most narcissistic moments? He comes to the world and gives up for us the one thing we could never give up - self. He dies on the cross as if to say, "I care so much for you that I care nothing for my own life in comparison. Your life comes first for me. You can trust me. Please trust me." God chooses instead to lavish love upon us to draw us to him.

As I think about a world that is lost and love-hungry, I wonder how it is that we expect people to turn to God after hearing a rational, formulaic explanation of Jesus' transaction on the cross. How much more would this hurting world, full of deep mistrust and narcissism, respond to an undeniable display of selfless love. Let's lay aside our theological finepoints and point the world to a God who loves so much that he simply is willing to die for us to prove his love is true.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Rethinking the term "Conservative"

I've always thought myself to be, and still do, a conservative Christian. I believe the Bible from cover to cover (including the maps!) and have no problem at all saying it's without error and perfect in it's original form. But I can't tell you how many times I've given an opinion and someone gives me that "you liberal!" look. Even though you might expect that I'd run from the conservative label given all my frustrations with the conservative church, I find no desire to give up the "conservative" tag.

But something about that word "conservative" has never set right with me, and I think I've finally figured out what it is. Most conservative evangelical Christians aren't conservative at all. They are conservative on a scale marked and measured by secular and denominational politics for sure, but the real nature of conservativism is not there.

Conservative, of course, has its base in the word "conserve," but conserve what? I find that for most evangelical Christians, it is either about conserving denominational interpretive traditions, or Republican values, or simply a literal reading of the Bible.

But for me, what I seek to "conserve" is the authorial intention of the biblical text. That is, the ultimate path to biblical truth, for me, comes in the question, "What did the biblical author, inspired by God, intend to say and how did he choose to say it?" Sounds simple enough, I know, but take Jonah for instance. Most of us say that a conservative believes Jonah was swallowed by a whale, and liberals do not. But that's an effort to conserve literalism. But is it conservative to conserve literalism if, perhaps, the author intented symbolism? No. That's just bad interpretation.

Now for me, the jury is still out on whether or not Jonah is a literal or symbolic story. But I do know this. The author intentionally uses hyperbole (exaggeration to make a point) throughout the story. It took three days for Jonah to march around the city where a king ruled. Then Jonah preaches a one minute sermon and the most evil nation that ever walked the face of the earth suddenly repents all at once.

Here's what we know. It only takes a few hours to walk around the city. There was no king of Ninevah. No historical records exist showing that the Assyrians ever had any Jewish conversion of any size. And we know beyond a shadow of any doubt that no preacher has ever preached a one minute sermon!

So, is it "liberal" to point these things out? Is it "conservative" to insist that Jonah is literal and do whatever it takes to explain away these issues? Or is it better for us to ponder these issues and ask a simple question, "What is the author trying to do with this story?" Then we can explore some options. Maybe it's a parable. Parables often use exaggerated details to make a point. Jesus used these fictional stories to explain undeniable truths all the time! So can't an Old Testament writer do the same? Or it could be an alleghory, or an edited composition of several sources or stories woven together. Or maybe it is historical. Perhaps it is a fictional type of story based on an historical figure (Jesus did this too - i.e. The Rich Man and Lazarus).

What I'm saying is this. If the author intented this to be literal and we take it figuratively because we can't find it in ourselves to believe in divine miracles, then we are liberals. But if the author intended to write a parable, and we turn it into a literal story that must be accepted as literal before it can be true, then haven't we become liberals there too, making the text what we want it to be and not what God wants it to be?

Most of our hyper-literalism comes from our reaction to those who have turned any story they feel uncomfortable with into a symbolic story. When I speak to someone about symbolism, I invariably hear, How long before you say the resurrection didn't happen?" But the fact is the literary form known as "gospel" is a form that uses historical and literal language to make the point. So I'm assuming that if a writer chose a literal form, we must interpret it literally to receive the truth. Likewise, if the writer chooses a symbolic form (like "apocalypse" in Revelation, poetry in Psalms, etc.), then we interpret it symbolically. True conservatives let the text and style speak about what's literal and what's not literal. We must avoide the "all symbolic" or "all literal" extremes.

I would just love to find a few "conservative" Christian friends who are willing to open the text with me and ask, "What is the author trying to say and how is he trying to say it" and then be willing to go wherever that discussion leads. How refreshing that would be rather than someone pulling out their denominational charts and comparing our stated answers with the latest version of the Baptist Faith and Message and judging your "correctness" by it.

Well, enough of that. Just don't forget these two important things. 1) The message of Jonah is simply that God will forgive anyone of anything if they repent. You get that truth whether it's historical or a parable. And 2) every single author of the Bible is dead. So approach the text with great humility!

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

What's Right about the Traditional Church?

So I've been asked the question, what is right about the traditional church? To respond adequately to that question, I must first dispel the idea that this is a discussion about traditional church vs. contemporary church. Let me clearly say, I see the two as the same. To reduce the issues of the church down to guitar vs organ is to rearrange the proverbial deck chairs on the Titanic. I agree with Reggie McNeal's assessment of the contemporary church, it's really nothing more than the traditional church on steroids. The music is different, the dress is casual, and the sermon is more conversational, but that's just packaging. Underneath the wrapping, one still finds the same structures in the church of the 1950s, just with different names. They are still institutions. They still need "members." They still have their creeds. They still have a "gathered" mentality. They still have the same "three step" program to fixing every spiritual problem. They still have hierarchy. They still have a classroom view of discipleship. They still need lots of money to support bloated staffs and even bigger buildings.

The structure of the contemporary church is no different than the traditional church, only the wrappings are a little shinier.

So to ask the question "what's good about the traditional church," one must ask that question in context of the realities of a specific day and age. 50 years ago, near everything was right about the "traditional" church. The church connected with the language people were speaking. We spoke in terms of members. So did the culture. We spoke in terms of denominations and institutions. The culture was fine with that. It trusted government and religious institutions. After all, America was a "Christian Nation." The church could act as a club. People thought in club terms. The church spoke against every taboo in the culture. The culture was agreed with those rules. The church had complex financial structures for affecting change. So did the VFW, the Lion's Club, and every other organization like it. The church was "step by step" oriented, introducing the cut and paste versions of the Roman's Road and the Four Spiritual Laws and the Sinner's Prayer. That was okay. The culture thought in modern, methodological terms.

But ALL that has changed. Every single bit. America is no longer a "Christian Nation." The moral culture is radically different. Institutions are viewed with extreme distrust. Most hierarchies are seen as bloated and self-serving. The culture rejects extreme bureaucratic processes for filtering change and spiritual care. Thinking is much more relative and open. And we have rejected soundly the step by step easy solutions to life. Life is complicated. Spirituality is an ongoing journey. And God cannot be reduced to a simple set of statements. The culture realizes that these things have failed us, yet the church continues to dress up those old failed ways with new wrapping paper.

You might be thinking, who cares what the culture thinks? The church should drive culture, not the other way around. Agreed. But the reality is that these things we defend in the traditional church are NOT IN THE BIBLE. They are add-ons that we've incorporated in the institutional life of the church. Not one place in the New Testament do you find membership, or a step by step process to union with Christ, or buildings, or budgets, or religious nationalism. What we as revolutionaries are talking about is not tearing away at essentials of the faith, but embracing the true essentials. Tearing down all that is not Scriptural. It happened once (i.e. Martin Luther) and it needs to happen again.

Our culture is way ahead of us in areas in which the church should be leading. The culture is talking about spirituality. The church is talking rules and creeds. The culture is talking about eliminating world hunger and AIDS. The church is talking about how to get more members. The culture is examining through science, philosophy and spirituality the deep complexities of the universe. The church reduces the beauty of life to simple unnatural literalism. The culture is embracing volunteerism in transforming numbers. The church needs more committee members. The culture is hungry for community. The church emphasizes big gatherings while giving cheap talk about true intimacy. The culture is taking the important conversations about life into the streets, restaurants and coffee shops. The church is building their own streets, restaurants and coffee shops. Fad diets and plastic surgeons promise only a superficial transformation, and people are buying it! Why? They are hungry to be transformed. And how do we respond? We offer more classes.

Does the traditional church do right things? Yes. But the margin is incredibly slim. If we were forced to pinpoint a percentage on how much the church is doing truly biblical things, it would be less than 20 percent. And that's being generous. What takes the majority of our time? Athletic programs. Building campaigns. Finding more "members." Increased giving. More choirs. More flashy drama. More discipleship classes. More activities. More meetings. More rules. More isolation. More grandstanding. More rock throwing. At least 80 percent of our efforts are on things that aren't essentially biblical.

So, if you want me to say the traditional church is doing right things, I will say so. But if we really want to be applauded for the incredibly minimal impact we're having on the world, then maybe we are simply clinging to a state of denial. Here's reality: less than 4 percent of teenagers are projected to be a part of the institutional church in the future. Well. At least we're 4 percent on target.

I realize how negative I sound. Trust me. It gets old for me too! But I hunger to see a real move of God where Christians aren't held up in a Christian subculture, where Christians are a part of the essential conversations of society, where people don't refer to Christians as the butt of a bad joke, where our artificial categories of "good" people" and "bad" people are torn down and the conversation about who we are and who God made us to be can really take place, and where Jesus (the real Jesus, not the political Jesus) gets a real hearing.

If this seems too much, just read Acts 2. No pastors, no property, no creeds, no political action committees, no by-laws, no tracts, no new members classes, no invitations, no small group charts, no bookstores, and no guitars. Just a spiritual passion for living out the teachings of Jesus Christ - nothing more. And 3,000 plus people joined the fellowship that day. Now that deserves a standing ovation.

Tom Delay as Jesus Christ?

I spent several hours listening to a Bill Moyers special on the dealings of lobbyist and lawbreaker, Jack Abramoff. What I heard should send all true believers into a holy rage, if there is such a thing. Abramoff, an opportunist who used political position to gain financially, has left behind a trail of horrifying manipulation and misdeeds. Noted in the report, he milked millions from a Louisiana Indian tribe to help them maintain their gambling monopoly by using his political muscle to defeat a gambling bill in Texas. What the tribe didn't know is that gambling in Texas was never going to happen anyway. The Texas Attorney General had already defeated it.

At the same time, Abramoff went to a tribe in Texas who wanted desperately to reopen their casinos and promised them he'd help get their operation up and running again. While he was making millions, he worked behind the scenes to do exactly the opposite.

I guess that's what you'd expect from a crook.

But what about the two famous "Christians" involved in this. Two names: Tom Delay and Ralph Reed. Reed motivated Christians to campaign against Texas gambling in order to help Abramoff protect Louisiana tribe's monopoly on gambling. Reed manipulated Christians to campaign against gambling in order to protect the gambling that would make him a small fortune.

Then there's Delay. Delay helped Abramoff deceive the congress into believing that working conditions in the American Territory of Saipan were helping immigrants achieve the American Dream. It was a lie he told to protect Chinese textile tycoons (who were paying Abramoff handsomely) from having to submit to U.S. labor laws. The reality was, thousands of Chinese workers had been lured to the island in hopes of achieving the American dream. After turning over their life's savings, signing lengthy labor contracts, and living in slums, they were paid half of the American minimum wage. Delay killed the bill in congress while Abramoff was funneling cash into Delay's campaign groups.

When Delay was finally arrested for his illegal actions, he lined up for his famous mug shot. As he lined up for the photo, he reports that he prayed that people "would see Jesus in the mug shot. " It's sad when people who have told lies, committed fraud, and manipulated against others do so under the guise of holiness and a Jesus-like sacrifice. They take a public stage, cry the tears, put on a persona, and carry a cross simply to deceive those who would give them what they want.

Delay has since spent many hours speaking to religious groups across the country. I wonder how many well-meaning believers have bought into the lie that politicians are our next Messiah, that if we just rally around these wholesome causes in the name of religion, we'll turn this country back to God. Meanwhile, the only praying the movement leaders do is to prey on fears of well meaning Christians.