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Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Can We Cure Christian Insanity?

Albert Einstein is frequently credited, incorrectly, with saying that insanity is repeatedly doing the same thing but expecting different results. Repeatedly point out that the attribution is incorrect is likely a form of insanity, as it will doubtless still be attributed to Albert Einstein. (You can read the details on the Quote Investigator.)

I like the form given by George A. Kelly in 1955 (as quoted in op. cit.):

“… we may define a disorder as any personal construction which is used repeatedly in spite of consistent invalidation.”

The Quote Investigator

The phrase “… in spite of consistent invalidation” is my sort of language! I must note that I use that sort of language on people frequently, with the most common result being blank looks. Not what I was looking for. Yet I repeat.

By this definition, however, many, many churches can be diagnosed with some sort of disorder. We have churches and whole denominations diminishing in numbers, worrying about those diminishing numbers, holding meetings and conferences about them, without ever actually making substantive changes.

I’m reminded of a pastor who once told me how his church had asked him for a plan to grow their congregation and to reach their community for Christ. He labored over the plan for months, and it was presented to the church with some fanfare, ceremony, and excitement. The members agreed that this plan would bring in new people, and they thought it would reach people in their community for Christ. But they decided not to do it because their church would no longer be the church of their childhoods. They wouldn’t really like it anymore.

One disorder in the church is that we can determine the quality of some church by numbers. Mainline denominations are criticized because their numbers are dropping. It’s often considered the end of the argument: “Our church is growing, so we’re better. Yours is shrinking, so you’re worse.”

But there are large, growing churches with quite different and contradictory theologies. We’ve discussed and tried to cure our numbers problems for years. Is it possible that our obsession with numbers is one sign of church insanity? Is the number of backsides contacting the pews of our church buildings each Sunday a good indicator of spiritual health, or even of church health? More importantly, is finding what appears to be a good strategy for church growth the right way to be the Body of Christ in the world?

Why am I writing this at Christmas?

Well, I’m really writing it in Advent, and this advent season, I’d like to consider the possibility that the best strategy we can devise is not God’s strategy, the best measurements we can devise do not measure what God wants measured, and finally that God’s strategy might look totally hopeless and useless to us.

Think of yourself in the Roman world in the late 1st century BCE or early 1st century CE. What do you see as your problem? How do you measure it?

Lots of modern Christians criticize the Jewish people for “expecting the wrong thing.” I’d like to take note of two things. I suspect if you think that, you haven’t been reading the texts in the Hebrew Scriptures with care and attention and looking at them in context. There were plenty of indications that God’s plan was to free his people politically and make them the center of the nations and to do it now! Second, Christians criticizing the Jews seem to be looking for the same things as the Jews were. We’re chucking stones through openings in our glass houses. One of the great Christian pretensions, quite insane, is that somehow we would do better than Israel did, that we are somehow better people.

And it was not only the Jews who wanted freedom from the Romans. History looks back on the Pax Romana with a certain amount of approval. As brutal as Roman government was, it did provide an unprecedented degree of law and order. Many still wanted to rebel, and the Romans provided them with many reasons to do so. One reason for their failure, however, was that people appreciate law and order, as long as they are not the ones suffering the penalties. Line the roads with people dying on crosses, and as long as one can convince oneself that one is not headed to the cross next, one will often support the oppressor.

One thing we often forget about the rise of tyrants is that it is not just the tyrants who are involved. Often a weak, divided, corrupt, and ineffective opposition is the would-be tyrant’s best friend.

So clearly I must be advocating for a good grand strategy, mobilizing the right people, making the opposition effective, getting the right weapons, and acting in a unified way.

As a member of a United Methodist congregation, the strategy should be greater grounding in Wesleyan doctrine, more advertising of Methodist churches, more money spent on hospitality and relationships with our visitors, and more people inviting others to church. Right?

That would, after all, be the equivalent of uniting the opposition to a tyrant around a clear plan, led by people who are known not to be corrupt, with plenty of financial backing, and perhaps even weapons and people with training willing to put them into action.

Good strategy, yes. God’s strategy, no.

You see, this is a Christmas post (yes, I know, posted in Advent). Faced with probably the most efficient army the world had known up to that time (at least the world as seen from the Mediterranean), with a brutal but effective means of enforcing rule, and a government willing to apply that method with the necessary ruthlessness, God did not summon up an army. Not even an army of angels. The only angels around seem to have been bringing messages or singing songs.

God didn’t find a charismatic political leader to organize a party, nor did God bring a political leader to take effective action in the Roman senate. He didn’t perform a miracle to wipe the oppressors out so that others could fill the vacuum.

Faced with a terrible, intractable situation, God went stupid. I say that with the utmost respect. Awe even. Reverence.

God sent a baby, born of a nobody, barely surviving childhood, raised on the wrong side of the tracks. Donkey tracks, that is!

Not a good plan, Lord! Bad strategy! Losing, even!

This was grace in action. “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). Let’s expand that. While we were still sinners, Jesus came as a baby, lived as we have to live, encountered dangers and we have to encounter them, lived through reproach, and then died the horrible death that the authorities had prepared for someone like him.

The reality is that if we’re honest, we will confess that this strategy would never occur to us and we wouldn’t really try it. As evidence, I will point out that we never seem to plan church strategies of that kind. Our strategies are not designed to give without waiting for a return.

If they were, then church growth groups couldn’t sell their services to churches by promising more members. Stewardship consultants wouldn’t be able to sell churches their services by promising a certain amount of increase in the weekly take in the offering plate.

We’ve been doing those things for years, and yes, business plans built around such activities can work for a time. That stewardship consultant very likely can increase your weekly offering.

But here’s the problem. That success is not a success of the Body of Christ, but rather of your organization, your people, and your goals. It is advertising one thing but then offering people another when they come in the doors. The greater offering intake, greater influence in the community, and better social programs don’t solve people’s basic needs. These things may make your church successful, provided what you’re selling is Sunday morning entertainment and a platform for social programs.

But if that is what you’re offering, don’t be surprised when people down the street, with any number of motivations and programs, provide a better mechanism for people to influence the social realm and even help people economically than your church does.

Perhaps we need to look at our behavior, recognize our “disorder,” and look to God for a strategy. Perhaps we need to prepare to go out into the world, build relationships, walk alongside people in their need. As recipients of God’s grace, perhaps we can be sharers of God’s grace.

Some will be saying, “But those big buildings, the money in our offering plate, and our big platform are helping us serve the world.” If they are doing that, great! Thanks be to God for that great blessing!

But if you still feel that something’s missing, or if the pews start to empty as people realize they can do as much by sending a check to their favorite charity, then consider that you may need to go out into the world in the way that God sent his son. (But remember also that people may be leaving because they don’t want to take up their cross.)

No, we cannot cure our insanity. Only the grace of God can do that. The starting point is to realize that we are insane, that we can’t cure it, but our gracious God can.

Yes, I’m a publisher. Let me recommend a book.

Featured image credit: Adobe Stock 95049255. Not public domain.

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

Advent, Christmas, Epiphany

From time to time I hear Christians, particularly pastors, lament the neglect of the Advent season. As a religious celebration Christmas comes best after the season of Advent in which we study and meditate on expectation. Then comes Christmas. Because of the commercialization of Christmas as a secular holiday (I believe one can commemorate the spiritual Christmas in the midst of a secular celebration if you want), the time of Advent is not spent in waiting and expectation, so much as in a rush. Ebenezer Scrooge had a point about Christmas being a time to buy things we can’t afford!

But many of those who spend time on Advent don’t pay similar attention to Epiphany, which caps the twelve days of Christmas. It generally doesn’t come on a Sunday, and how can you possibly get people into church on a weekday?

But all three of these days or seasons (Christmas is also a season), reflect important moments in spiritual life. Besides a historical reflection on the events that stand behind the Christian faith, we can have a reflection on the present of our lives, in which we wait with expectation for God to act, see God intervening, and/or come to the realization that God has acted, though God may have chosen to do so in a way that was not recognized at the time.

I taught the Sunday School lesson this morning, and the key scripture was Matthew 2:1-12, which would be better placed on Epiphany than on Christmas Eve. Yet it helps make an important point placed here. Very few people recognized what was going on. I suggested that my class check the rest of the gospels. Nowhere does Jesus encounter someone who remembered something about his birth. “Wow, those shepherds told me about you, and here you are!” is a line that simply doesn’t come up.

Different people recognized Jesus in different ways and under different circumstances. It’s important to remember that. Why? Because we need to understand where different people are in their experiences.

I’ve watched a few Christmas movies this season. I enjoy the light entertainment with a definite good finish, even if I can predict it practically from the opening credits. Small towns generally win over cities. People who do “country” things generally win over those who are urban. The driven and ambitious are generally cast as villains. But there’s a sweetness to all of it.

One interesting thing is that while the movies tell us about people who have been hurt during the holiday season, they generally tell the story of the moment in which someone overcomes or transcends that hurt and finds the joy of the wonderful holiday season.

It would be nice if that was how the world works. It doesn’t. There will be people who will transcend emotional hurt and find healing this Christmas season. There are others who will experience new wounds. Yet others will suffer through the season, often silently, simply hoping it will be over. They won’t want to admit that they’d love to say, “Bah! Humbug!” because then they’d get labeled with the ultimate badge of dishonor: Scrooge. Before the ghosts.

As a community, we need to be prepared to bring comfort to those who aren’t “in season.” It’s easy to imagine that someone will get into the proper spirit of expectation of advent, receive their gifts, and THE GIFT, on Christmas day, and rejoice with the Wise Men (astrologers, no doubt), on Epiphany. But many will not.

We need to find the the time and the season of those in need of help and support. We need to recognize that Advent is not necessarily a time of confident and certain expectancy, but may be a time of wondering and struggle.

One of the things the Israelite religion, and particularly the prophetic school, brought to Judaism and through it to Christianity is the idea that living is not an endless cycle. We’re going somewhere. There’s a point to the arrangement church fathers made of scripture, with Genesis 1 at the beginning and Revelation 21-22 at the end. We don’t live in an endless cycle. We’re going somewhere, and that somewhere is good.

But in the meantime we celebrate cycles, with New Year’s Day coming up as we celebrate the arrival of a new year, and in many cases make resolutions that say that this next 365 (or 366) days will be better than the last. We celebrate advent every year, realizing that not everything is realized yet. We commemorate Easter, not because the event must be repeated, but because we need the reminder of new life.

We’re always tempted to get mired one way or the other. On the one hand we can fall into hopelessness and maintain that the cycles of life are all that there are. On the other, we can get the idea that, having reached our Epiphany, we’ve made it permanently, and everyone else should join us. In the future, if we pay attention to these days it’s just a commemoration of how wonderful our lives have gotten. So we lie and we judge. We lie as we pretend that life really is that good. We judge because others haven’t attained what we pretend to have attained.

Romans 7 is an interesting illustration. Paul seems to wallow in difficulty, finally saying, “Oh wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me?” We have the answer (or so we think) in Romans 8 as we learn that “there is now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” and we proclaim, “Thanks be to God! Through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Which leads to a debate in biblical interpretation. Does Romans 7 speak of the life of one who has not accepted the grace of Christ or does it describe the life of the Christian? Do we really get to that better life here in this world, or is the Romans 8 proclamation the result of our glorification? (And, you may ask, what does this have to do with Christmas?)

I bring up Romans 7 because it is so incredibly real. Wesleyans use the terms “prevenient grace,” meaning that grace which God offers to everyone and which is there before you even ask, and “sanctifying grace,” mean the grace that keeps moving one along toward holiness (or on toward perfection, as John Wesley might say). Romans 7, I think, speaks to us of the cycles of our lives. We do not always move forward. We also fall backward. We do what we think is not good, and sometimes (all too many times) we do what we think we ought not to do. I think the idea that we suddenly cease to experience Romans 7 is a lie we tell. It’s a lie we expect our leaders to tell. We all experience these cycles.

That’s some bad news. The struggle continues. You’ll still be praying for God to act. You’ll still be living through times of expectation. God may still intervene, only to go unrecognized for some time afterward, when we suddenly receiver our epiphany.

It’s also some good news. What it says is that grace is ever active. God’s sanctifying grace is persistent and active, and when we fall back into that cycle, God’s grace reaches out, grabs us, and pushes us forward so that we can still be moving onward, despite the difficulty. The bad news is that there will be more “Oh wretched man that I am” moments; the good news is that Grace will respond to each with those moments of “no condemnation” which will result in our proclamation of thanks to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.

If we shed the lies and are real, we’ll be prepared to help others whatever their season. We do this not as people who have no problems, but as overcomers of problems who know, because we’ve experience it, that times of advent waiting are followed by God’s intervention, and that often God has already intervened, and like the folks in Herod’s court and in Jerusalem, we simply haven’t recognized the event yet. We’re waiting for epiphany.

If you’re joyous this Christmas, I rejoice with you. What I pray is that you use your joy to help strengthen the weak, to encourage those who are less joyful, and to be real in all your times of trouble.

The gift that Jesus brought was himself, yes, but himself as the messenger and vehicle of God’s grace. Be gracious to yourself and others in this season of joy … and grace.

Ignoring the Biblical Teaching about Greed

Ignoring the Biblical Teaching about Greed

Credit: Openclipart.org

On a variety of subjects I regularly hear about how people ignore the plain teaching of scripture. I’d like to take away the phrases “the Bible clearly teaches” and “the plain teaching of scripture” from conservatives, while taking “we don’t take that literally” away from liberals. Then maybe we could get around to discussing the nuances and appropriate social contexts for some biblical materials.

But one thing that I hear about much more rarely is the sin of greed, surely one of the things Jesus talked about very frequently in a number of different ways. I’d like to nominate “committing all that I possess to God” as a pretty clear teaching of Jesus.

Nobody is really saying “greed is good” using the word. Instead, we justify greedy actions by ourselves and others. I’d be very shocked to learn that more than a couple of percent of the possessions of the Christians in the United States was committed to God (or the church), and of what’s committed to the church, a significant amount is used in a self-centered manner.

Perhaps this would be an important topic on which to make a new commitment as we observe commercialism and greed used as a way to celebrate the birth of Jesus, who had no place to lay his head.

That was all launched as I was looking back through Christmas stories from my fiction blop (The Jevlir Caravansary), and found How Scrooge Got It All Wrong.

You see, what Scrooge really needed was some good, modern business advice!

Links: Some C. S. Lewis on Christmas

Links: Some C. S. Lewis on Christmas

Thomas Hudgins provides samples: here, here, and here.

For those who may not know, Thomas Hudgins is the lead translator for the Spanish edition of David Alan Black’s intorductory Greek grammar, Aprenda a Leer el Griego del Nuevo Testamento, which we expect to start shipping around mid-January 2015. If I can find the time, I’m going to comment on some posts of his regarding teaching textual criticism.

On Christians Insulting Atheists

On Christians Insulting Atheists

A couple of months ago I got a forwarded e-mail which purported to tell about a court case in Florida. An atheist was said to be complaining about not having a holiday like various varieties of religious folks, and got the ACLU to take the issue to court. The judge explains that he does have a holiday already, April Fools Day, citing Psalm 14:1/Psalm 53:1. It was an obvious joke, though it was forwarded seriously. I read it and deleted it. It wasn’t even the first time I’d seen a variant of this story. I decided to look for a link for this post, and the obvious source was Snopes.com, which does, indeed, list the story and informs us it is fake, though they note that there certainly are plenty of people who have taken it seriously.

I find it disturbing that people with the intelligence to turn on a computer might think this was real. What matters more, I think, is that people regard this as a good joke, and that some of those who regard it as real expressed the hope that we would get more judges like the one in this joke. We would be rightly be angry if such a joke were told about a racial minority or a disabled person, but it’s just fine to tell it about atheists.

What got me thinking about this was all the “war on Christmas” junk that goes around this time of year. We have the constant effort to get religious displays on public property and then to prevent other displays, such as atheist or humanist ones, from getting shown as well. It’s not as if we don’t have hundreds of places to display our nativity scenes. I even put one on the header of my company’s web site, Energion Publications. I get to do that. It’s my company. I don’t have to give equal time.

My downtown Pensacola church can put up any displays they want, and most of the town will have the opportunity to see them. My church doesn’t have to give other groups equal time. It’s a church. It gets to promote the views of its membership. But once we go onto public property, such as at city hall or at a school, things are somewhat different. There, the government is a sponsor.

For example, in West Chest, PA, a display on public property excluded a Tree of Knowledge sponsored by the local free thought society. I mention this one in particular—there are dozens—because I know someone who is involved. My question would be just who is harmed by the display of this tree of knowledge. Why would someone be insulted that some other person disagreed, and was able to express their disagreement. It is not as though Christians don’t have plenty of opportunity to express their point of view.

Elsewhere, Christians have tried to prevent Muslims from erecting a mosque, a place of worship. The argument has been made that Muslims should be regarded as a political movement, and thus not covered by freedom of religion. Often Christians have led in these actions. (Note that this point alone would be sufficient to mean that I would never vote for Cain or Gingrich under any circumstances.)

The comments on posts and news stories about these issues are very revealing, however. I’m amazed at the insulting language used by Christian commenters. Now there are doubtless readers who are thinking, “But what about the insulting language used by atheist posters?” I know of atheists who are quite concerned with such insulting language, but I’m a Christian, and what concerns me here is Christian witness. Posting obscenities about atheists says very bad things about Christians who do it.

My interest here is not in the legal aspects. I support separation of church and state, but I really want to address Christians and the way we think about these issues and the way we behave. The word “blasphemy,” in my opinion, has no place in political discourse. The government should know nothing of and have no concern with “blasphemy.” It’s a religious concept. One of the arguments Christians use is that by their very denial of God, atheists blaspheme. By writing against Christianity, they do so even more.

But here’s what I think is truly blasphemous, and since I’m addressing Christians about what would be blasphemy in Christianity, I think the word “blasphemy” is entirely appropriate. When a Christian says “I am a Christian” and then uses obscenities about another human being, or insults that person, that is blasphemy. It is also taking the name of the Lord, Jesus, in vain. It’s not the use of four letter words that constitutes “in vain.” It’s the claim that you are a follower of Jesus, in scriptural terms part of the Body of Christ in the world, and then acting in a way that is diametrically opposed to what you claim.

By insulting, I don’t mean disagreement, even when vigorously expressed. If you disagree with me, for example, and inform me of that disagreement, that’s not insult. But if you call me immoral for my view, or call me a fool, or lace your explanation with obscenities directed at me, then that’s insulting. Christians shouldn’t be doing that. Indeed, nobody should, but as a Christian, I’m addressing Christians.

What should we do instead? In my view, there should be a line of Christians at any hearing that was about denying someone else their freedom of expression. We should be testifying in their favor. Just think of the difference in our witness if, instead of being insulted that others have views that differ from ours, we went out of our way to treat them as we would want to be treated.

I think Jesus said something about that somewhere.

Oh, yes.  “Do to others whatever you would like them to do to you. This is the essence of all that is taught in the law and the prophets” (Matthew 7:12 NLT).

 

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Linking the Birth of Our Nation with the Birth of Our Savior

Linking the Birth of Our Nation with the Birth of Our Savior

Chuck Baldwin maintains that the birth of our Savior and the birth of our nation are closely linked. I’m afraid I don’t get it, even allowing all his facts, some of which I would dispute. I just don’t see the parallel between the guns of the revolution and the Babe of Bethlehem emptying himself of divinity to come save us.

What do you think?

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