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World Vision and Unmasking Priorities

So, this happened.  World Vision is now allowing married gay Christians (and unmarried gay Christians willing to agree to WV’s policy of abstinence until marriage) to serve in the organization.

As you can probably guess, I’m behind this as a step forward.  Is it perfect?  No.  I’m not a champion of abstinence until marriage (and really, are they so sure their employees are all waiting anyway?).  I also understand that this prevents couples in any state not recognizing legal same-sex marriages from employment, since that’s the specific parameter.  I understand the implications that WV appears to be endorsing a heteronormative view of relationships (that’s a whole other discussion).  But in the Christian world, this is huge.

Which, of course, means that the backlash has been huge.  And that’s what I was thinking about when I woke up this morning to see that my friends had linked to several articles, tweets, and blog posts in which WV has been accused of deception, “empowering the darkness,” embracing “the world” (Christianese for “stuff the church considers wrong in society”), presenting a false gospel, and more.  People have questioned whether they should withdraw support or discontinue sponsoring a child through WV.  Lots and lots of people have expressed being “sad” about WV’s change in policy.

To which I say: Wow, people have messed up priorities.

Nothing reveals the true values of people more than asking them how they feel about anything related to same-sex marriage.  Almost no one says, “I don’t really care; whatever.”  The vast majority of people have one view or the other–that it ought to be legal universally or it ought to be banned or called something else so as not to mess with the “official” definition of marriage.

It would be awfully nice if it were a non-issue, but it isn’t, certainly not when people are expressing horror and outrage at WV’s comparatively innocuous change in policy.  I mean, come on, people.  WV did not suddenly announce that they have adopted a policy of beating small children or setting forest fires or shooting sub-par employees or drowning puppies.  All they did was say they’re going to hire gay people.

How about we get back to protesting something that actually matters for a change?  Because honestly, the only reason it makes a difference whether WV hires gay people is if you think being gay and/or being in a same-sex marriage is worse than acts of harm and violence.  It only matters if you think same-sex relationships are more terrible social ills than poverty.

Yesterday, I posted a link on Facebook to a good review of the movie Frozen.  (I promise, this is related.)  A family member joked that I must not be worried that watching it will turn my kids gay.  I replied that I wasn’t, but even if it did, I didn’t care.  I suspect that’s the real fear—that gay missionaries are going to somehow turn the world gay.

I suppose my question, then, is this:  Who cares?  Which is more important—telling people about God’s love and providing people with food and clean water, or making sure no one is threatened by the presence of gay people?  I guess maybe my own priorities are messed up because I sure prefer the former.

And if my kids somehow turn gay* because they’ve been around gay people or watched “gay” (by that I mean “things people accuse of being gay”) movies, so what?  That just means both the church and the gay community get two more awesome members, ’cause everyone knows my kids are the best and anyone would be lucky to have ‘em.

Let go of the warped idea that a small subset of the population is looking to colonize the world and plant their rainbow flag in the dirt of impoverished villages everywhere.  Instead, let’s take seriously WV’s call to come together in Christian unity for the good of all.


*I truly do not believe it works that way; I’m just saying I wouldn’t care if it did.  For real, I could write a whole blog post on why we need to stop saying “But it’s not going to turn them gay!” as a defense regarding gender pigeon-holing.

Burning

Today I’m linking up with my fellow bloggers in a synchroblog over at Addie Zierman’s site in honor of her book, When We Were on Fire, being released today.  I confess that I haven’t read anything of the book other than the parts available online, but I’m looking forward to having the chance to read the whole thing.  Be sure to check out the other posts linked on her site today, and keep checking back because more will be added through the week.

______________________________

I don’t remember the phrase “on fire” being used much in my teen years.  I didn’t grow up evangelical; I was a transplant from a Unitarian Universalist church.  I probably wouldn’t have ended up with the evangelical set if it hadn’t been for the fact that one Sunday in my UU teen class we were asked what other religions we’d been exposed to.  My dad is Jewish and I’d been to my friend’s Presbyterian youth group, so I said, “Judaism and Christianity.”  That was the wrong answer; I was immediately pressured to avoid “organized religion.”  Needless to say, my rebellious teenage self immediately concluded that the “persecution” I’d already heard about must be real and therefore returning to the Presbyterian church must be the right thing to do.  (Never mind that I could easily have decided to become Jewish, but I don’t think my dad’s family had the same sense that persecution = being more right than everyone else.)

There wasn’t much talk about being on fire, really.  There were rules–many of them, on every topic from clothes to books to music to sex.  It wasn’t about being passionate about our faith, it was about avoiding the appearance of evil and being “in the world but not of the world.”  We may not have used those exact words, “on fire,” even if we did sing Pass It On accompanied by our youth leaders on guitar.  But there were two things I knew I had to do: Reject my family and obey the Rules.  If I did that, it would be a sure sign that I was full-on for God.

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.”  (Luke 14:25-27)

oOo

We stood in the bathroom on the ground floor of the church, my three closest church friends and I.  We were just freshening up during hang-out time at youth group.  Before we left, I said, “Wait.  I have to tell you something.”  My heart was pounding.

They listened as I explained to them about my sister.  “She’s gay,” I said.  They didn’t seem to know how to respond to that.  Finally, one of them said it must be so hard for me.  She felt sorry for me.  She would pray for me.  My friends told me not to worry; if I prayed earnestly and kept working on her, she would become a Christian and reject the “gay lifestyle.”

I did that for a long time, until I finally gave up the pretense that there was any truth to it at all.

oOo

I was forbidden to tell my grandparents that I was a Christian.  It made me feel righteous, this secret, like I was being silenced.  Persecuted.  Just like they said I would be.  I didn’t mind the not telling.  But it did make me fear for their eternal souls.

When my grandfather died, I sobbed–not for missing him (I barely knew him) but because I’d never gotten to tell him about Jesus.

oOo

I never truly understood my mother and her journey of faith.  I wish I’d asked her.  I wish I’d known the right questions.  I know she grew up in a precursor to the “on fire” 80s and 90s.  I always believed that she must never have been a real, true Christian or she wouldn’t have left the faith.  Even years after she reconnected with her Christian roots, I wasn’t sure what she actually believed.  I was told I was the most spiritually mature person in my family of origin.  It fueled my distrust of them.

oOo

I gave up secular music (I didn’t burn my tapes) and Girl Scout meetings (I wish I’d stayed) and books that weren’t Christian (I read a lot of Frank Peretti).  I wrote in my journal that I was dirty whenever I thought about anything sexual or (God forbid) touched myself.  I rejected the boy who liked me just for me because I was terrified of liking him back and all the intense feelings that brought.  I made sure I stayed away from the wrong influences.  I went to a Christian college to be away from the worldly influences of my family and my high school peers.  I needed to be completely immersed in Godly culture.  I think some of my professors (and probably a few of my classmates) felt sorry for my narrow-mindedness.  I wish I’d been able to explain (to myself and to them) that it was only surface-deep.

oOo

Somewhere along the way, the flame of my self-righteousness burned out.  I’d never been any good at evangelism outside the church.  Oh, I could give a gospel message to a group of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds.  I could deliver a two-week lesson unit to a group of young campers.  I could give a public testimony in hopes that someone who didn’t know Jesus might be listening and choose to be born again.  But talking to friends and co-workers about God?  Nope.

I thought that meant I was broken.  I hadn’t been able to reach my own family, and I couldn’t talk about Jesus with my non-Christian acquaintances.  I wasn’t trying hard enough.  I wasn’t on fire enough.

And then I realized I’d never wanted that kind of fire anyway.

oOo

I nearly lost my faith entirely.  By the time I left evangelical culture (not evangelical Christianity, really), my heart was in shreds.  I wasn’t sure if I believed in God anymore, or if I ever even had.  I finally saw the damage being done in the name of Jesus.  I was sliced open, raw, bleeding.

Even so, there was something left in the wake of the fire.

oOo

I can’t be angry about my experiences without acknowledging the good that came from them.  I can reject the hate and the strange subculture and the list of rules.  I can reject the notion that it’s my responsibility to save the whole world.  But I won’t reject all of it, because then I would have to reject the people, too.  It would erase the youth leader who drove me home week after week and never pressured me about my faith; we just talked about life (and she was the only one–ever, in all those years–who never told me to reject my sister).  It would erase the youth leader who introduced me to great literature and never once told me to stop reading books by non-Christians.  It would erase the two pastors who held us in love when my mother died.  It would erase the young men and women who have tenderly cared for my children in church, at camp, and in our home.  It would erase my ties to my Christian college, including my orchestra and the conductor who gently offers prayer for us when tension fuels our mistakes.

It would erase my own marriage, a relationship which began when I was still at least on the fringes of being on fire.

oOo

The problem with fire is that it gives the appearance of being a living thing–it breathes, it grows.  But it isn’t alive, and ultimately, it consumes everything before it burns itself out.  That’s not the kind of faith I want, and it’s not the kind of faith I want my children to have.

Better is a seed.  There’s a reason Jesus doesn’t use fire as a metaphor for faith.  He uses seeds–more than once.  Instead of a pseudo-life, a seed is the infant of a living, growing thing.  Unlike fire, which requires nothing but consumables in order to burn, a seed needs to be nurtured.  Active, not passive.  Something we must do carefully and gently over time.  Not a mad rush to throw more on the fire to keep in burning but a long, slow process of food and water.

I’m still nurturing that seed.  I’m not even sure what kind of tree it is yet.  All I know is that it isn’t burning–it’s growing.

______________________________

If you want to add your story, click on the picture above and visit Addie Zierman’s site.  You can also read the first few chapters here or order the book here.

A little more on evangelism

Coppo di Marcovaldo [Public domain or Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

I made a commitment to a friend that I would post a bit more on this subject just to clarify a few things.  My apologies to people who consider themselves evangelical who thought perhaps I was trashing the concept itself or all evangelical Christians.  Let me state this as unambiguously as possible: I do not hate evangelical Christians.  What I dislike is evangelical culture and many of the teachings that lead to what I call “friends with an agenda” and inauthentic relationships.

Not all people who consider themselves evangelical Christians do these things, of course.  That’s because a person is separate from an institution.  Not only that, there’s a big difference between “churches that evangelize” and “evangelical churches.”  The former applies to any church that encourages people to tell others about their faith in Jesus.  The latter refers to denominations that are built on the premise of evangelism.  So churches like mine (Lutheran) and mainline Protestant churches (Methodist, Presbyterian) are not considered “evangelical churches” despite the fact that they may do some evangelizing.  However, some churches that evangelize can and do encourage behaviors that are far closer to evangelical denominations and evangelical culture.

There are some specific aspects of evangelical culture that are more common in some churches than in others, and those are the things that concern me most.  For example, Calvinism and its offshoots always make me a little (or a lot) irritable.  Some specific things common to evangelical culture (which may or may not be true of a given church or individual):

  • Belief that people are either born bad or become tainted at some randomly appointed age (“age of accountability”)
  • Pressure to work Jesus into conversations with non-Christian friends, family, and co-workers
  • Belief that “salvation” means rescuing from eternal suffering after death
  • Encouragement to make friends with people for the express purpose of converting them
  • Hosting large-scale events to which people can invite others in order to either hear a salvation message or see the church in a positive light and return at a future time
  • Pressure to bring friends and family to church services
  • Door-to-door visits, mass mailings, newspaper ads, or in-church handouts used to bring people to church, frequently containing ambiguous, misleading, or provocative language in order to pique interest

None of that has anything to do with genuine relationships, no matter how hard a church tries to sell it as such.

When I was in college, I worked at a Christian camp.  One part of our work was to present the message of salvation to the kids under our care.  Now, let me just say, I love this camp.  My own kids now go there, and I have no complaints about what they’re being taught.  I am glad that they’re hearing about Jesus in a caring, fun atmosphere.  If I had a problem with evangelism in general, I would not send my kids to camp–end of story.  But as both a former employee and director, I am fully aware that the camp counselors often come from different backgrounds and may have learned things that are different from what our family and our church teach and believe.

This particular camp is a day camp, but there’s one overnight trip.  As part of that, the counselors deliver a gospel/salvation message.  One year, back when I was working, the other counselors decided to present the message in the form of a skit.  In this particular atrocious story, a group of girls is in a car wreck, and they all die.  One of them goes to heaven and the rest to hell.  The last part of the skit is the girls, being pulled down by Satan, shrieking at their friend, “Why didn’t you ever tell us?”

I could not make this shit up.

I wasn’t part of the skit.  My campers were all six and seven years old.  They were absolutely terrified.  One of the girls sat with me by the campfire afterward and sobbed, telling me she was scared that her parents were going to hell and that it was all her fault.  It took an hour to calm her down.  Needless to say, when I became camp director, I put a ban on that kind of skit.

Instead, they did the one about the teenage party girl who wants Jesus to leave her alone so she can get drunk and do some unspecified “bad” thing.*  But, you know, Jesus loves her anyway.

Which is the other part of this–telling people that they need God because on their own, they are worthless.  There’s a persistent, stubborn belief that Christians are good because we have the Holy Spirit and non-Christians are bad because they don’t.  If a Christian screws up, then it’s because “we’re all still sinners.”  If a non-Christian screws up, it’s because they didn’t have godly morality.  If a Christian does good things, it’s because of Jesus.  If a non-Christian does good things, it’s only out of selfishness or accident.  Being convinced of the “truth” of these things is the only way some churches can get people to share their faith.  It’s as though they’re saying our religion (yes, it is a religion) isn’t good enough on its own–we need to convince people of their need for it first, either by devaluing them or frightening them.

Which, when you think about it, is absolutely necessary if you believe that the fate of one’s soul rests on a specific set of beliefs.

Is it any wonder that my teenage self was terrified for the eternal souls of my family?  I was the lone Christian, both in my immediate and my extended family.  Skits–and teaching–like the one above are the reason I told family members that being gay was on par with being a rapist, in hopes that it would scare them into getting saved.

I was sixteen when my Jewish grandfather passed away.  The Sunday following his death, I sat through a salvation message in Sunday school, watching a video on the eternal fate of the unsaved.  By the end I was crying because of my failure to present the gospel to this man I barely knew and had been forbidden to tell I was a Christian.  One of the adults made some noncommittal noises about Jews being “God’s chosen people.”  It didn’t help.  What if one of my neither-Jewish-nor-Christian family members died without knowing Jesus?  Looking back, I truly think these people did not know what to say to me, because what I was going through was completely alien to them, far outside the reaches of their insight.

This is the screwed up kind of evangelism I’m talking about.  Not the average, share-your-faith-because-Jesus-rocks kind of evangelism.  I mean the sort that tells children they are “deeply broken” and frightens people into telling others about God.  The kind that genuinely believes more than two-thirds of the world’s population–billions of people–are destined to fry eternally for the crime of unbelief.

I can’t get behind that.  If that’s your bag, please find someone else’s eternal soul to fret over.  If my failure to pressure people into belief in Jesus results in their damnation, then I don’t think I want to spend forever with that kind of God anyway.

______________________________

*Probably sex, but these were little kids, after all.  We can scare ‘em about hell, but forget sex.

No-vangelism 101

By Brian Sawyer from Westford, MA, USA (Wanted: Americans in Heaven) [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

I’m not entirely sure what brought this to mind.  I do tend to have random progressions of thought, so that’s probably all it was.  I mean, I’m the person who can hear my husband say, “You look really sexy” and respond with, “That reminds me–I should put bagels on the shopping list.”  Only I know how those are related.  And no, I’m not telling you.  I guess this might be part of the process of reconstructing my faith after nearly losing it entirely.  Not that it would have been terrible if I’d decided I no longer believed, but that wasn’t the right thing for me.  I’m finally in a good place where I’m ready to begin rebuilding.

Anyway, I was thinking about evangelism.  We currently attend a Lutheran church–ELCA–, and, not having grown up Lutheran (or having any prior experience), I’ve been learning some very interesting things.  One of my discoveries is that “evangelism” means something really different to Lutherans than to people in denominations labeled “evangelical” (such as Baptists).  The separation on this point is as wide between Lutherans and Baptists as it is between Baptists and, say, Mormons.

The main difference is that there’s no pressure to “share my faith.”  That is, I’m not expected to go tell everyone how to be saved, nor am I pressured to constantly invite people to things so they can hear the message of salvation from someone else.  In fact, that doesn’t even exist, and Lutherans (at least, the ones at my church) kind of think it’s weird.  One woman shared with me that she attended an evangelical non-denominational church with a friend.  She said someone at the church approached her and said, “Have you found Jesus?”  The woman was momentarily thrown off, but she recovered and replied, “I don’t think I ever lost him.”

I have to admit, I like this approach.  I really don’t mind talking about Jesus, but I hate the sense that every single one of my interactions with my friends of other (or no) religions must have some kind of Formula for Sharing the Gospel.  Maybe it’s that whole random progression of thought thing, but it always just felt so forced, like I had to find some way to work God into the conversation even if we were just talking about spaghetti sauce recipes or breastfeeding or Doctor Who.  I was never good at steering conversations that way.

Plus, it just felt manipulative.  Those people who come door-to-door are so much more honest.  They’re not trying to be your friend, they’re trying to get you to listen to them talk about their religion.  You have the option to say no thank you because you’re not blindsided by it.  You also have the choice to engage and either listen or argue with them.  There’s no real manipulation there.  Sure, they may try to hook you by asking you questions designed to elicit certain responses.  But everyone knows that going in.

It’s not like that with the evangelical set.  I’m not lying when I tell you that they teach classes on this stuff.  You’re instructed to find ways to work it into your conversation, to “share your story,” and to find commonalities with your target.  Yes, I said target because that’s what it always felt like.  You’re supposed to consider who in your life “needs Jesus” and then try to “build relationship” with the express purpose of presenting the gospel message.

Of course, this all makes perfect sense if your belief going in is that anyone who hasn’t “found Jesus” is going to hell to suffer eternal conscious torment.  I mean, who wants their loved ones to end up that way?  Or their random acquaintances?  Even Mark Driscoll doesn’t deserve that kind of punishment.  Honestly, I think that must be a very scary way to live, constantly afraid that when they die the vast majority of humanity will be permanently separated from God and tortured.

Imagine my relief at not having to worry about that anymore.  This particular version of hell and the requirement to believe in order to be spared were one of the first things to go when I stepped away from that strain of Christianity.  I had never really looked at my friends and family as some kind of mission field anyway, but it was good to give myself permission not to feel guilty about that.

At this point, I don’t really have a clue exactly what happens after this life, and I don’t much care.  Being spared some awful fate isn’t the focus of either my church or my faith.  For now, it’s enough to concentrate on whether my beliefs are making me a better person.  Because if they’re not, then either there’s something wrong with those beliefs, or I’m doing something wrong.

If you’re in process of deconstructing, what are some of the beliefs you want to let go of?  What are some of the things that you hold on to?

The Past of Sinner – Seven Deadly Sins, Franciszek Żmurko [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

At church on Sunday, in her sermon, our pastor mentioned some key differences between evangelical and mainline/liturgical faith practice.  There were several, including believer’s baptism and the preference for praise songs over hymns.  Among these differences was the tendency of evangelical Christians to emphasize The Testimony–a telling of one’s story of coming to faith or of what God has been doing in one’s life.

My husband and I were sitting in the last pew, and we were shaking with silent laughter and exchanging fistbumps of solidarity.  I thought about all the times, as a teenager and college student, I listened to people’s testimonies–and even gave my own more than once.  After the church service, when we greeted the pastor on our way out, she said, “I have to know why you were laughing.”  Still giggling, I explained that everything she’d said rang true and brought back a lot of memories of similar experiences.

(In fairness, our pastor’s point was actually not about these differences or about passing judgment; she was talking about how “reasonable” any part of our faith really is.  I’m not going to recap the whole thing here, of course, but it was a good message.)

Later, I had time to consider just what struck a chord in me and why, exactly, I found it so funny.  I think I can answer that now.  It’s not the idea of giving a testimony that I have issue with; it’s the specific way in which it’s often done that makes me cringe.

There’s nothing wrong with sharing the blessings in our lives.  There’s no problem with talking about how our faith has shaped us or what we believe we can attribute to God.  What I’ve found, however, is that in many evangelical circles, it follows a pattern that troubles me because of the heavy emphasis on having been bad, wretched, evil, self-destructive and having been turned around to become a “new” person.

I don’t doubt that faith changes lives.  I’ve certainly seen it happen.  But there are some disturbing aspects of testimony culture.  First, when a person has not had a past involving much of what the conservative Christian world regards as sin, one of two things happens.  Either the person becomes convinced that mere thoughts are enough to send them to hell, or the person makes up a testimony about being brought out of the pit.  I’m an example of the former; Mike Warnke is an example of the latter (though an extreme one).

Second, there’s a common view that when one has come to faith, the person will automatically have some magical transformation.  When it doesn’t happen that way, and a person continues to do what their particular church regards as unacceptable, there’s often very little grace.  I recall one friend, many years ago, telling me that when he first stepped into a church, he had a serious, ongoing addiction.  As a result of the warm welcome he received in the church, he began to turn his life around.  He entered recovery and remained clean for years.  In the end, however, the church continued to view him as little more than an addict, and every challenge on his journey was met with disapproval for not having come far enough, fast enough.  After all, if he was now a committed Christian, how could he do something seen as sinful?

On the other side of that are people who have the “perfect” testimony with the public appearance of righteousness to match.  More often than not, people like that are able to deflect blame for their shortcomings, particularly when they have used “biblical” authority to abuse others around them.  This is often the case when thought-policing is involved in someone’s testimony.  For example, young men who claim to have had “lust issues” can frequently excuse themselves by placing blame on women for being “immodest” and causing them to “stumble.”

Third, due to the heavy emphasis on the myriad sexual sins listed by conservative evangelicals, many people find their testimonies involve repentance for a wide range of human sexual experience and expression.  Because the focus is on the meaning and appropriate context of sex, rather than on how to have healthy, ethical relationships, many people are led to believe that even their natural physical reactions are sinful and must be controlled.  “Addiction” is thrown around without fully understanding the meaning of the word and sometimes becomes used as a way to bolster testimony.  Someone who can claim to have overcome “porn addiction” (often without the help of an actual professional with experience in the field) is viewed as “honest” and is celebrated for such a victory over sin.  That person may be held up as an example of the power of God and paraded around by church authorities.

As I said, it’s not the testimonies that are the problem necessarily; it’s the fixation on “proving” that God changes lives in extraordinary ways.  It’s a natural result of the view that what one believes is of greater importance than what one does.  When the whole message can be summed up with “Sin–repent–stop sinning,” and evangelism is reduced to “convince people they are sinners so they can repent and stop sinning,” we’ve lost the point of Jesus’ life and ministry.

I don’t believe people should stop talking about what God’s doing in their lives.  I do think we need to reconsider how we handle it.  It should never be about turning bad people into good ones or using words to shame others into belief or pretending that if we just pray hard enough things will work out in our favor.  The testimony that convinced me to throw my lot in with the Christians was nothing like that.  It was about the power of God’s love to help us see ourselves as worthy simply because we exist–God doesn’t make garbage.  I’m grateful for that testimony and for the ways my life has been changed as a result.  Maybe that’s where we should start: seeing each person as inherently valuable and taking it from there.

Prayer Is Not a Tool

Bertram Mackennal [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Bertram Mackennal [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Forgive me for the lapse in blog posts.  My husband came home from his two-week intensive training program on Sunday night.  As he was away for our anniversary, we took yesterday as a mini-vacation together while the kids were at camp.  We were able to go out for a whole day, without anyone else in tow, for the first time since before we had children.  Today’s post won’t be long or deep, as I’m too tired to think critically about much of anything.

On Sunday, I attended a church to which we don’t belong.  We were visiting because it was a special church service for my kids’ camp.

During the time of prayer, the pastor offered a simple, sincere, gentle prayer for the victims of the Colorado shooting and their families.  He prayed that those who had died would be welcomed into the Father’s arms, and that those who lived and the families of the victims would be comforted.  It wasn’t long, elaborate, or complex.

Some things the prayer wasn’t:  It wasn’t a speculation about the eternal fate of those who had died.  It wasn’t an opportunity to remind everyone that we need to extend grace to the shooter, even as we pray for the victims.  It wasn’t an evangelistic tool, despite the greater than usual number of visiting families.  It wasn’t a fervent request that God “use” the tragedy to create more disciples.

For that, I am grateful.

It isn’t that I have any problem with extending grace and forgiveness, thinking deeply about what happens after this life, sharing our faith with others, or looking for blessings amidst trials.  Those are all good things.  But they are not good a) immediately following a significant, tragic event when people are most in need of comfort; b) without a significant amount of careful consideration and a heavy dose of humility; and c) during prayer, pretty much ever.

It’s that last one I’m most concerned with.  Prayer is not a time in which we are supposed to be working the room for Jesus.  Prayer isn’t an outreach to others.  If it is, or it becomes so, then you’re not doing it right.  Prayer is between us and God.  Nothing more, nothing less.  It’s not something that should be carefully crafted so as to maximize its outreach potential.

Using prayer, especially after something so devastating, as a method of evangelism is a lot more common that people realize.  Strangely, the same people who think that we need to craft our words to God in order to have the greatest impact are usually the same ones who believe scripted prayer is insincere.  I fail to see how delivering a sermon in a prayer is more sincere than meditating on the words found in the Book of Common Prayer.

I’d like to see Christians stop using prayer in the wake of disaster as a “witness.”  You want to reach out to others, even present the Gospel, that’s fine.  But don’t use your time of communion with God to do that.

Let’s let prayer be our words to God, not to humans.

Sunshine, Happiness and Gum*

The youth at our church are going through a series called “Happy,” on the Beatitudes.  In yesterday’s message, the youth pastor asked what culture says they should chase after to find happiness.  The answers weren’t surprising: Looks, relationships, money, popularity, possessions.

Not much changes between adolescence and adulthood.

It set me thinking about a couple of things.  First, it occurred to me that we don’t just tell people that they will be happy once they beautify themselves skinny, meet Mr./Ms Right, and settle down in their McMansion with their 2.4 children.  We also tell them that if they don’t have all that and a side salad of career power, they should actually be unhappy.  It goes beyond conveying the message that having it all makes your life good, but that your life simply cannot be good unless and until you do.

The second thing I realized is that Christians are just as guilty of this.**  We like to tell ourselves we aren’t.  After all, aren’t we so counter-culture in our insistence that life isn’t about money, sex, and power?  We’re all about Jesus!  And Love!  And Following God!  I don’t even mean that in a self-righteous way.  I mean in the sense that we define ourselves by being people who have relationship with the Living God, and what could be better than that?

It’s certainly noble.  The problem is, we make the opposite mistake from “the world.”  We assume that people who are “far from God” are the most unhappy, miserable people who do nothing but run after all the wrong things.  We assume that people of other religions are unhappy because they are too busy making sure they follow all the rules.  We assume atheists are sad because they have no hope.  We assume that people who tick the “none of the above” box on the census are miserable because they have no morals.  We assume that anyone who doesn’t follow Jesus is desperate to have his or her life turned around from the wicked ways of lusting after earthly pleasures.

Not quite.

I don’t know about you, but I know plenty of joy-filled, content non-Christians.  I also know an awful lot of Christians who are unhappy, and it isn’t because they don’t have enough faith or because they are still caught up in pursuit of cultural happiness.  Religion that dictates whether or not we should be happy with our lives is religion gone bad.  It diminishes the real joy and the real pain that people experience.

I see why it happens.  People are reluctant to frighten their friends and neighbors by telling them they will go to Hell if they don’t convert.  (Not that this is bad; scaring people into faith is pretty sick.)  So what can we do, if we don’t just want to turn everyone off to Christ with our fire and brimstone?  Aha!  We can remind them how hopeless and tragic this life is unless they know Jesus.  Unfortunately, that isn’t an improvement.

We need better ways to communicate the Gospel without reducing it to a set of before-and-after pictures (either the Hell kind or the happiness kind).  I suggest we start by living the way Jesus taught, pursuing love, peace, and justice.  The rest will come.

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*For the morbidly curious, the title of this post is a line from a Phineas and Ferb song.
**This isn’t meant as a criticism of the message the youth heard in church on Sunday.

Relationships: Friends with Strings Attached

Almost two years ago, my husband and I attended a Bible study.  It was a video series on reaching out to bring Christ to the people around you called “Just Walk Across the Room” with Bill Hybels.  Overall, it was a great series.  In one of the last sessions, Hybels talks about reconnecting with an old friend.  This friend had left the faith of his childhood behind.  He mentions having told this friend that he would be there for him, continue to be his friend, regardless of whether this person ever made a commitment to follow Christ.

After watching, several of the members of our group seemed confused and a little uncomfortable.  More than one wondered how a Christian could be close friends with a non-Christian, especially without continuing to “witness” to this friend (i.e., talk about Jesus).  There were murmurings about being “unequally yoked,” as in marriage.  Some people expressed concern that just being friends without actively evangelizing might be a failure on our part to do God’s will.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer that my friendships not have strings attached.  If I want to have a relationship with you, it absolutely must go deeper than trying to convert you to my religion.  All of my friends who are of other faiths know exactly where I stand, that I am a Christian.  But they also know that I am not going to spend as much time as possible “sharing the good news” with them.  They also know (I hope) that I am not friends with them for the express purpose of finding new disciples.  I choose my friends because I like them and we have common interests.  They also know (I hope) that should they tell me flat-out that there is nothing that would ever make them want to become followers of Christ, I would still want to be friends.

When I was a new Christian, I thought that’s what evangelism was—continuing to remind people that Jesus died for their sins, in those exact words.  It was my job to persuade people that they were essentially bad and that they were facing the wrath of what one friend aptly termed “Big Angry Sky Daddy.”  If I could convince them of those two facts, then I could move in for the “kill”: That if they said the magic words, Jesus would save them from Hell.  I think I’m oversimplifying it a bit, but not much.  This was really the gist of the message I believed I was supposed to spread.  I also had the impression that I wasn’t supposed to be friends with anyone unless I was going to make an effort to convert them.  I don’t think that part was really what I was being taught, but at least some of the Christians around me seemed to look at the world that way.  You can imagine how much my family, being non-Christians, appreciated my efforts.

People can tell when we are being fake with them.  No one is fooled by a Christian who strikes up a relationship solely to create converts.  It’s far better to develop friendships with people you enjoy, then let God work in both your hearts to develop mutual respect and understanding.  We must also learn to live with and respect family members who don’t see things the same way we do.  It doesn’t make family life pleasant for anyone when we act as though the love we have for our family members only goes so far.  Withholding love, putting conditions on friendships, and using spiritual blackmail doesn’t demonstrate Jesus’ love for all people.  Instead, love people, respect people, share your faith, and let the Holy Spirit handle the rest.