A Little Less Salt, Please

Salt is a wondrous combination of two things — sodium and chlorine — that are dangerous and poisonous on their own. It’s important enough to life and history that Mark Kurlansky wrote an entire book about it (highly recommended).

But salt’s goodness has limits.

A little bit of salt enhances a dish. Too much salt ruins a dish: It no longer tastes like the dish it was meant to be; it only tastes like salt. When it comes to salt, moderation makes it more effective and saturation makes it unpalatable.

salt
(Image: “salt,” by Stock Catalog, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Those of us who are Christians should bear that in mind. Christ’s words to the disciples hold true for us, yes: We are — not should be, not could be, but are — the salt of the Earth. And we should take care to retain our saltiness, lest we be good for nothing. But our job is not to preserve things as they are, to keep them from rotting; it’s to improve things, to make them better than they were before and even better than they are on their own. We should take care to flavor the world, not to ruin it by dumping bucketfuls of our otherwise beneficial salt on everything in sight.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Putting Service into Worship?

I wonder what it would be like if a worship service were structured to emphasize actual community service?

That is, what if a Sunday service began with praise and prayer and worship, but instead of following that with a sermon it segued into a period of no-kidding, hands-on service directed toward some specific need(s) outside the congregation? Sometimes we learn best by doing, after all, and the activity could illustrate specific Scriptures or just general principles.

Maybe it’s been tried somewhere, but I don’t recall ever seeing it in any order of worship.


Don’t forget: the word translated as “charity” also means “love.” (Image: “Saint Vincent de Paul Catholic Church (Mount Vernon, Ohio) – stained glass, Charity,” by Nheyob, on Wikimedia Commons.)

Given how many evangelical churches seem to concentrate on offering entertainment value these days, I wonder: if a church were to institute such a thing, how well would we as congregants participate in it? Would we do it very often, or for very long?

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Kingdom of God Doesn’t Look Like Your Fancy Building, Part II

In part one, which you can read here if you like (and I’d be grateful if you did), I discussed what I see as a sad and unfortunate occurrence in the modern evangelical Protestant church: the emphasis on the church building, even when put in terms of how it serves the church body, more than on the church working in the wider world to help those in need. I haven’t collected statistics, so I can’t call it a trend, but I’ve noticed it over just the last couple of years in a handful of churches in central North Carolina so I think it’s safe to deduce that it may be happening elsewhere as well.

I wrote in part one that

Of course, you don’t need my approval to step out in faith (or to take out that mortgage) and build whatever kind of building you want. And you can believe “where God guides, he provides” and believe that God is guiding you in that endeavor. After all, Isaiah 58:11 says, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your soul in scorched places,” does it not?

Now, let’s take a closer look at that “where God guides, he provides” idea.

Scripture offers us many examples of God providing for his people, from the ram in the thicket that Abraham could sacrifice in place of Isaac (for which Abraham named the place “The Lord will provide,” or in Hebrew, “YHWH-jireh”) to the triple provisions of water, manna, and meat as the newly-freed Jews traversed the desert. And we can find numerous references to God’s guidance, in the form of miraculous clouds and fire, angelic visitations, dreams, and so forth; in accounts of people heeding that guidance or struggling against it; in exhortations to guide others wisely and warnings against false guides; in expressions of hope, such as “You are my rock and my fortress; For Your name’s sake You will lead me and guide me” (Psalm 31:3); etc.

However, I haven’t found that pithy saying “where God guides, he provides” in Scripture. The closest match I’ve been able to find is that verse from Isaiah 58 quoted above, which mentions continuous guidance and follows that with the assurance that God will satisfy the soul (sometimes rendered “desire”). Looser translations go so far as to express that soul-satisfaction or that fulfilment of desire in the form of being given good food to eat, even when we are in deserted places.

But I learned long ago that we can lead ourselves into error when we look at individual Scripture verses out of context.

So what else does Isaiah 58 say? Let’s start in at verse six:

Is this not the fast which I choose: to loosen the bonds of wickedness, to undo the bands of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free and break every yoke? Is it not to divide your bread for the hungry and bring the homeless poor into the house; when you see the naked, to cover him; and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?

Then your light will break out like the dawn, and your recovery will speedily spring forth; and your righteousness will go before you. The glory of the Lord will be your rear guard.

Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry, and He will say, “Here I am.”

If you remove the yoke from your midst, the sending out and speaking wickedness, and if you furnish yourself to the hungry and satisfy the soul of the afflicted, then your light will rise in darkness and your gloom will become like midday.

And the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your soul in scorched places, and give strength to your bones. And you will be like a watered garden, like a spring of water whose waters do not deceive.

Those from among you will rebuild the ancient ruins; you will raise up the age-old foundations; and you will be called the repairer of the breach, the restorer of the paths in which to dwell.

I suggest two takeaways here.

First, if the Lord continually guides us and satisfies our needs in hot, deserted places, then it must be that the Lord guided us into those hot, deserted places from the outset. Not into some cool, air-conditioned auditoriums where we can satisfy ourselves, where we can bask in the incandescent, fluorescent, and halogen glow of God’s love and enjoy the music of those angelic electric guitars, but into difficult places, dangerous places, where we might fear to tread were it not the Lord guiding us.

Second, the guidance and provision come after we have done what the Lord would have us do: after we have loosed the bonds of wickedness and oppression, shared our bread with the hungry and the poor, and so forth. Then our light will shine like the dawn — or as Jesus said, so that others may glorify our Father in heaven: not so that we may be glorified as individuals or as a church. Then the Lord will answer our calls and our cries and our prayers. The Lord will provide for us while we do those things because those are the things He would guide us to do.

Work Ethic (1 of 2)
(Image: “Work Ethic,” by brett jordan, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Which means to me that if we are not doing those things — if we are taking care of ourselves by building fancy facilities at the expense of doing the good works which are the purpose for which we are saved (Ephesians 2:10), and without which we are dead in our faith (James 2:26) — then our light will be dim and gloomy to the world that is watching us. We may convince ourselves that our churches are alive inside, but from the outside their fancy trappings look like whitewashed tombs.

I’ve been told, for more years than I can recall, that the church isn’t the building, it’s the people. I wonder if those pastors and congregations who put a lot of emphasis on (and pour most of their money into) big, impressive buildings still believe that. I think deep down they must, but I fear they’ve been seduced by spiritual scoreboards that tally baptisms and weekly attendance as if those are the measures by which Christ values their ministries.

I’ve been told also that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. And I’m beginning to think it may be lined on both sides with massive, expensive church buildings that sit empty and unused 90% of the time — and may be empty of compassion and pure religion even when occupied.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Kingdom of God Doesn’t Look Like Your Fancy Building

Some months ago, at a church we were visiting, as part of his sermon the pastor presented a detailed design for a new multi-building campus. It was a “this is what we feel led to do” message, even though they had no land to build upon, and a prelude to asking the congregation to sign on to the ambitious vision.

More recently, another pastor posted plans on social media for his church’s grand new building, reminding his congregation that it was about time for them to get their pledges in so the renovations and construction could commence. From what I saw, it looked quite spiffy (as so many modern churches do): lots of seats in the fancy auditorium, plenty of classrooms and bathrooms, and of course a first-rate visitor’s center.

We’ve seen other churches propose equally bold schemes for expansion, all prefaced by the need to “step out in faith” — because “where God guides, he provides,” right?

Maybe, but this emphasis on buildings and this scraping for money to build them makes me profoundly sad. I find myself thinking that when they say “this is what we feel led by God to do” it’s really code (or a socially acceptable translation) for “this is what we want to do.”

They’d say it’s all for the glory of God, no doubt, and maybe they even believe it, but it sure looks as if it’s for the glory of that church, that congregation, that pastorate. The emphasis is on the building, the campus, the edifice — that’s where the bulk of their treasure is going, and we remember what Jesus said about where our treasure is, right? Way to keep the tithes in the storehouse, y’all.

After all, how much treasure does it take to build a building, pave a parking lot, renovate a fellowship hall? How much treasure is going to be locked away in cinder blocks and carpeting, heat pumps and flatscreen monitors, nurseries and offices and state-of-the-art sound systems? In comparison, how much treasure do they spend to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit the lonely? That is, if we graphed it by amount spent (or by percentage), which column would be higher: facilities, or charity? And how great would be the difference?

Of course their church needs a building, some base of operations, some place where the congregation can congregate. But if a widow or orphan in distress showed up at the door of their building, could they do much more than treat them to a great concert, a stunning light show, and a thoughtful message about how much God loves them? They’ve spent their treasure on that welcome center with the coffee bar, so maybe they can give them a cup of coffee, and they’ve got a wonderful house band so maybe they can give them a CD or DVD. And of course they can pray for them. But would they have to cash in a spotlight or a microphone or a monitor to actually provide those needy people with something that would make a difference in their situation?

Maybe they’d say they’re most concerned with leading the lost to salvation, and that preaching takes precedence over reaching out a helping hand. But do they care so much about people’s souls that they don’t really care about them as people, or about addressing their physical, human needs? “And all Heaven just weeps,” sang Keith Green.

Maybe they think they can do it all — have the fancy building and the fog machine and the comfortable chairs, and still reach out a helping hand. But when weighed against the treasure they’ve spent on the church building, the help they offer looks like the scraps that fall from the rich man’s table. It reminds me of an old song,

“The poor you will always have with you,”
These are the words of our Lord.
I hope you’ll come to the service this Sunday
We got some brand-new mahogany doors

Megachurch
According to Wikipedia, a “megachurch” is “defined by the Hartford Institute as any Protestant Christian church having 2,000 or more people in average weekend attendance.” (Image: “Megachurch,” by Silly Deity, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

Of course, they don’t need my approval to step out in faith (or to take out that mortgage) and build whatever kind of building they want. And they can believe that “where God guides, he provides,” and by extension they can believe that God is guiding them in that endeavor. After all, Isaiah 58:11 says, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your soul in scorched places,” does it not?

Yes, but there’s more to the Lord’s guiding and providing. We’ll look at that in part two.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The More We Know, the Less We Understand

I’m not equipped by training or temperament to grasp all of what David Bentley Hart writes about, but he does make me think! His translation of The New Testament is a gem, and I very much appreciate this conclusion of his article “Spirits, Souls… Tunics?” from Church Life Journal:

… the more we know of the intellectual and spiritual world in which Christianity and its scriptures took shape, the more perplexing the language and imagery of the texts become.

The more successful we are in departing from the prejudices and preconceptions of the present and in making our way back into that age, the more we find ourselves confused by the variety, complexity, and sheer wildness of its vision of reality. The more we know, the less we understand; and, conversely, the more we understand, the more we discover what we do not know. And so, after two millennia of theological and hermeneutical tradition–and, indeed, to a very great extent, because of tradition–we find ourselves ever anew confronted by these texts as mysteries yet to be penetrated . . . worlds yet to be discovered.

Good stuff!

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A Guideline for Religious Freedom

The Attorney General’s announcement earlier this week that the Justice Department would start a “Religious Liberty Task Force” has caused a bit of consternation, especially among people who fear that the US is heading toward some sort of theocracy or “dominionist” regime. The DoJ’s task force appears to be an internal exercise, but fear has a way of making things seem bigger and more threatening than perhaps they really are.

Beyond the bounds of the government, and on the day-to-day scale of dealing with people who may not share our beliefs, we don’t need a task force. We may need a better understanding that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion” means no law with respect to establishing a state religion, and that “no law … prohibiting the free exercise thereof” means no law prohibiting people from practicing their religion according to its doctrines and dictates. But when it comes to “free exercise,” some broad guidelines might help the rest of us when it comes to exercising our religious liberty responsibly. That is, it might help if we had some reference by which to determine whether our religious freedom — i.e., our religious practice and the obligations we have taken on with respect to honoring and serving God — is infringing on the rights (or the freedoms) of others.

I find a useful guideline for religious freedom in what Paul the Apostle wrote to the church in Galatia about the “fruit of the Spirit.” Paul listed nine things and claimed, “against these there is no law”

  • Love
  • Joy
  • Peace
  • Patience
  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Faithfulness
  • Gentleness
  • Self-Control

It’s quite a lovely list, and a friend of mine once declared that each of those characteristics builds upon the other, starting with Self-Control. That is, without Self-Control we are unable (or at least unlikely) to exhibit much in the way of Gentleness; until we learn how to be gentle with others and with ourselves deep Faithfulness may elude us; without faith we may be “good enough” to get by, but consistent and unconditional Goodness will be beyond our reach; and so forth. But that’s not what I mean by a guideline for religious liberty.


(Image: Stained Glass, Christ Church Cathedral, High Street, Dublin; by Andreas F. Borchert, on Wikimedia Commons. Full description: “Right stained glass rose window in the east wall of the passage to the Synod Hall [now Dublinia], depicting in its centre the Lord as Good Shepherd along with the Fruit of the Spirit, namely Love [inscription in centre], Joy & Peace [top inscription], and in clockwise direction: Longsuffering, Faith, Gentleness, Goodness, Meekness, Temperance in reference to Galatians 5:22-23….”)

Because the First Amendment prevents our government from establishing a state religion and from prohibiting citizens from freely exercising their religion, I would approach it as follows: As long as your “free exercise” of your religious faith is demonstrated in the love you show to others, the joy you share, the peacefulness with which you live your life, how patient you are when people vex you, the kindness you show to those around you, the good that you do, the faithfulness you practice, how gently you treat others, and the self-control you exhibit, then by all means enjoy your religious freedom. Against those things, there is no law.

But: If you are unloving, if you cause despair, if you are unruly, impatient, unkind, evil, unfaithful, cruel, or undisciplined — and in practicing your religious freedom you bring harm where you should bring healing — then your religious freedom may (and possibly should) be limited.

No doubt some may bristle at my proposing a Christian scripture as a guideline for general religious liberty. (Some people bristle at anything Christian.) If anyone knows of a comparable passage of scripture from some other religious tradition that encapsulates how faith may be put into practice for the most benefit and least harm, I would certainly consider it. Barring that, I will be content to do my best to live up to what was taught the Galatians.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Writing that Crosses the Spiritual Divide

(Cross-posted, with some light edits, from my 12 June 2018 guest post on the Speculative Faith blog.)

The conventional wisdom is that authors shouldn’t read reviews of our own work.

If the reviews are good, they can inflate already outsized egos, and if the reviews are bad, well — egos don’t always just deflate. A hot-air-balloon-sized ego, pierced by a bad review, might slowly settle into a mass of hard-to-wrangle canvas, but a smaller, more fragile ego might burst into shreds that are impossible to reassemble.

Nevertheless, some of us are drawn to reviews like moths to flame. If we’re lucky, the flame is a gentle candle and we just get singed if we get too close. If we’re unlucky, it’s a napalm-spewing flamethrower and we get terribly burned.

Sometimes we just get confused, as I was at two contrasting reviews of my novel, Walking on the Sea of Clouds. First, an Amazon reviewer gave the novel three stars and noted that it was a “good story” with strong character development but was “a bit bible-preachy [sic] for [their] tastes in hard science fiction.” Then the first issue of the Lorehaven online magazine included a brief, positive review that warned those seeking discernment that the story “only briefly referenced Christianity.”

Same story. Bible-preachy. Only briefly referenced Christianity.

I think this illustrates the fact that every reader brings their own experiences, attitudes, and expectations to the stories they read. Orson Scott Card told us in his writing workshop that whatever we’ve written is not the story, because the real story is in the reader’s head — and what’s in your head when you read a story is different from what’s in another person’s head when they read the same story. You might agree on some points, but you’ll disagree on others, and that’s okay.

In the case of my novel, someone who was not used to reading about believers and faith in the context of hard science fiction was put off by it. I have no way to know whether that person is a believer who was just surprised or a nonbeliever who was repulsed, and that really doesn’t matter. Their reading of the text is just as valid as anyone else’s — including the Lorehaven reviewer who might have been looking for more overt Christian themes. Was that person disappointed not to find them, or just surprised? I have no way of knowing, and again it hardly matters because however they read the story was the right way, for them.

Same story. Different readers. Different results.

It reminds me of what the Apostle Paul wrote to the church at Corinth, about the message of the cross seeming foolish to the lost, but representing the very power of God to those of us who believe (1 Corinthians 1:18). Same message. Different audience. Vastly different results.

Even within the body of believers, though, we can differ in our interpretations of Scripture. How much more should we expect to differ in reading science fiction and fantasy stories?


My friend Keith Phillips (Colonel, USAF, Retired), with whom I served in the 4th Space Operations Squadron, showing off his copy of Walking on the Sea of Clouds.

What does it take to cross the spiritual divide effectively in a literary or artistic work? Is it foolish even to try? I hope not, because in this age of growing doubt and disbelief I believe that Christian ideals, values, and themes still have a place in literature and art, whether science fiction, fantasy, or more mundane creations. And not just Christian principles, but Christian characters belong in fantastical stories — even in technology-heavy hard science fiction — just as surely as Christian people belong in every profession.

Unfortunately, sometimes the Christian characters in these stories end up being caricatures more than characters, reflecting the authors’ preconceptions rather than being portrayed as individuals, as people. I’ve found this to be true in stories by believers and nonbelievers alike, and it was something I tried to avoid.

That is, I tried to cross the spiritual divide by including Christian characters where they’re not always found — and by representing them as individual people with their own virtues and flaws, and even with different attitudes toward and expressions of faith. Some talk about it, some hide it, some deny it. Some ignore it, some sneer at it, some question it. That seemed realistic to me, and above all I tried to make the story seem realistic.

And maybe those two contrasting reviews — too much Bible to some people, not that much to others — show that I struck the right balance after all.

If you’ve read the story, I’d love to know what you think! And if you haven’t read the story, then now you know a little more of what you might find in it.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

When Church is Less Like Home and More Like ‘a Home’

(Another sermonette, of sorts.)

We call it a “church home,” but sometimes it’s … not.

At least, not home like a family home: a somewhat secure and comfortable family place where we spend a portion of our time, sometimes relaxing and eating and pursuing interests that captivate us and other times doing housework and chores and routine maintenance. Not a home that is a central gathering place or a base of operations for the time when we’re not at school or the office or the gym or wherever.

No: too often it seems more like a “home,” a rest home, an assisted living facility where the good church people hang out with the good church people and do good-church-person things. At these rest-home churches, we don’t often look beyond the church walls to see what we can do to make the world a better place. (Stained-glass windows are hard to see through.)

We’re shut-ins, and too often we shut out the world.

That’s not universally true, of course (but so little is). Some churches function fairly effectively as temporary refuges, where believers can refresh themselves before going back out into work and life and service. Some churches, though, appear to be permanent refuges, strongholds against the world, as if Christ had said “take yourselves out of the world” instead of telling us to be “in the world, but not of it.”


Stained-glass windows can be beautiful, but they’re not easy to see through. (Image: The “Space Window” at the National Cathedral. NASA photo.)

In a similar vein, we may call it a church “family,” but sometimes it’s not. Many churches do have a family atmosphere in which believers support one another and help one another through crises — even if it is dysfunctional at times, it’s still a caring family that does the best it can. Sometimes, in some respects, it can be better than a real family; sometimes it can be far worse.

But we don’t often mean a family like real relations in a household, in which — if we do it right — we encourage one another to grow and reach for the dreams that drive us, in which we learn right and wrong and discover our talents in order to make our way out in the world. As a church, nurturing young believers into mature believers — making disciples — we don’t always do so with the intention of preparing them to serve and live out their faith outside the church, in the real world. Often our attention is turned inward, as if serving the church and the church family is the single most Holy-Spirit-approved way of glorifying God.

But Christ didn’t tell his Disciples to stay in Jerusalem and serve only each other. And Christ doesn’t tell us to stay in the church and serve only each other.

Lord, forgive me when I prefer to stay safe in the cloister instead of walking with you in the wider world.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

The Disciples Couldn’t Stay Gone

Consider this my Easter sermon….

As I usually do, I spent part of Holy Saturday yesterday thinking about the Disciples’ sadness and despair and fear after Jesus’s crucifixion. I don’t think any of them actually expected or even dared to hope for the resurrection on the third day, and I expect that all of them were in shock to varying degrees. After all, scripture says that they “left him and fled,” which was, if not a fulfillment, at least a representation of Zechariah 13:6-7 (which Matthew tells us Jesus quoted at the Last Supper).

And if anyone asks him, “What are these wounds between your hands?” then he shall answer, “The wounds I received in the house of my friends.”

“Awake, O sword, against My shepherd, against the man who is My associate,” says the Lord of Hosts. “Strike the shepherd, and the sheep shall be scattered; I will turn My hand against the little ones….”

So yesterday I wondered what exactly the disciples did on that day of despair.

I imagine that some of them had relatives in Jerusalem or in the outlying areas, and sought refuge with them. Perhaps they went alone, or in twos and threes, but it’s unlikely they would have roamed or lodged together as a group that first day. I imagine that they stayed hidden for a time, and when it became clear they were not being pursued they became comfortable enough to venture out.

I imagine that when they ventured out they probably saw other Disciples here or there. I imagine them looking furtively around, perhaps afraid to signal or greet each other openly. They would recognize one another on sight, of course: not only because they had spent many months together and knew each other well, but because each of them would be marked by the hours he had spent in abject grief.

Resurrection
(Image: “Resurrection,” by fady habib, on Flickr under Creative Commons.)

But they couldn’t stay gone. They came back together.

We are not told who came back first, or what order they came back in. We are told that at one point Thomas had not joined them yet. But the main lesson, again, is that they could not stay away.

We, like the Disciples, may flee from certain troubles, may hide away for a time before we feel safe venturing out, and may glance about and over our shoulders to see if we’re being pursued. But if we fall away, may we find our way back as the Disciples did — and find the courage to live our faith in the open again.

Amen.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather

A Hard Teaching

I’ve come to think of responsibility as, at its most basic, the ability to respond. That presents a high bar to clear, in light of this hard teaching about following the example of Christ:

In carnal wisdom, in earthly wisdom, it is height of responsibility to take responsibility for your own actions. But in God’s economy, in God’s new world, we are called to take responsibility for what we did not do….

I need to think more about the implications of that.

Lord, help me to understand.

Facebooktwittergoogle_pluspinterestlinkedinmailby feather