Stony Soil; of Love and Listlessness

4 02 2012

Alda is the nicest little old lady I know, and, honestly, I have trouble even calling her a little old lady, even though she is little, and she is, technically, old.  She’s got the liveliness of someone years younger.  One day, while we were in the kitchen chatting, she told my wife and I that though she had loved her late husband for many years, she never was really in love with him.  They treated each other lovingly, but the emotional appeal wasn’t really there.  She told us that she wanted to remarry, to have a chance to be deeply in love with someone.  She said she wanted a marriage like ours.  Now, my wife and I have been married for years; we are definitely not newlyweds, but I would certainly say that we are still very much in love.  It’s really just a matter of emotion.

Some couples are just married and some are just married.  Either they’re just married, as in recently married, or they’re just married, as in not living life to the fullest, content with just being married.  It’s a rotten stereotype, and it’s not always true.  While I’ll grant that the happiest married couples are generally the ones who still have rice in their hair, marriage really does get an unfair treatment.

First comes the infatuation, then the disillusionment, and then comes the “mature” love, which essentially boils down to treating each other fairly and raising kids together, without all of that emotional impetus that got them together in the first place.  In other words, marriage has a nasty habit of turning into something more like a business agreement.  It’s a convenient way to have a warm body in bed, and it’s a stable arrangement for rearing children.  It would seem that romance was nothing but a bait-and-switch trick of the hippocampus.  Does marriage always follow this course?

You see, I have to ask, because the relationship of the church to Christ is that of a bride.  The nature of a marriage parallels our relationship with our savior.  Consequently, Christians often go through the same stages in their pursuit of the faith that many couples endure over their years as spouses.  Jesus likened faith to a farmer casting seed around his land.  Some of the seed landed on the path and never took root.  Some landed on the stony soil and sprouted quickly but never took deep enough root to survive.  Some seed grew among thorns and got choked out by the weeds.  Then, there was the successful seed.  In the application to marriage, the seed that lands on the path is the unrequited love.  You courted her, but she was not interested.  You flirted with him, and he moved on to greener pastures.  Likewise, God courts some of us, and he is shunned outright.  The love is never reciprocated.

Then, there is the seed that lands among the thorns.  You fell in love.  You married and raised a family.  Then, the effort of raising kids, maintaining two incomes, maintaining outside relationships, maintaining the house, etc. all worked toward alienating you from the one you married.  The weeds, the distractions, grew between you, and you found yourself married to a stranger.  Similarly, the act of being a Christian and doing Christian things, coupled with all of the other distractions of life can add up to finding yourself a stranger to God.  You find that you’re still going through the motions, but that romance, the initial emotion that drew you into a relationship to begin with, is gone.

And then…there are the stony marriages.  The infatuation is there.  The feeling is intense, but it goes no deeper than a feeling.  After the initial thrill wears off, there’s no substance to hold the marriage together.  It withers and dies.  This is, really, the three-step marriage cycle most commonly described by the psychologists.  Just because you found a way to get along and keep the marriage going, doesn’t make it a success.  The romance is dead.  You love, but you’re no longer in love.  The common belief is that this is truly mature love.  This is correct.  It is mature love, but that doesn’t make it ideal love.  The common parallel to spiritual life can be found among charismatics.  The charismatic church is, by far, the best at evangelizing, at bringing unbelievers into the fold.  The non-charismatic or even anti-charismatic church seems more largely composed of those who either grew up in that kind of church or switched over from a more charismatic church after becoming disillusioned.  Their view of the charismatic faith is that such faith is shallow, lacking in substance, development, commitment and wisdom.  Very often, they’re absolutely correct.  Charismatic faith is saturated with feeling and emotion, and it is very often not backed up by anything more substantive.  The seed fell on the stony soil and sprouted rapidly, but it never found any depth.  They fall in love, and then they get bored or fall out of love.  Then, very often, they leave.

Contrary to the anti-charismatic opinion, though, the emotional appeal of charisma is not a weakness.  That’s actually the strength of it.  The weakness is the lack of depth.  The seed was not faulty because it sprouted quickly.  The seed was faulty because it never gained any depth.  Charismatics are not to be faulted for their emotional drive.  The lack of emotion is the weakness of the other side.  We ought not to curse the stem for the lack of roots, when the stem is the only thing going right.  Similarly, disappointed and cynical failures at romance ought not to criticize the young lovers for being  infatuated.  The young lovers are the ones who really have a good thing going.  There’s really no reason to aim for unfeeling marriage.  The real fault of young love is that it often does not have the depth to remain in the beautiful and glorious state that it’s already in.  Emotional love is the goal, the thing to be aimed for.  It is not the error of the immature.  Falling out of that state is the error of the immature.

The real aim of a successful marriage is to sprout that romance and grow it, keeping it alive and well by developing the depth necessary to weather good and bad days, the ups and the downs in life, and yet never cease to be in love, not just loving.  The aim is to be permanently infatuated.  After all, some seed does fall on the fertile soil.  It sprouts up like the seed among thorns and the seed among stones, but the difference is that it stays that way.  The other two don’t.  The former charismatic looks back on the emotional thrill ride of that former life as an empty shell.  He thinks he is wiser, and he’s right.  He is wiser, but he lost the romance in the process.  His marriage to the faith is still loving, but he is no longer in love.  He went through all of the stages of marriage, from infatuation, through disillusionment, to “maturity.”  But he is now a cynic.  Those three stages are the phases of the stony soil faith.  He won’t pray for healing.  Why?  Because he no longer believes.  He won’t seek out prophecy, because he no longer believes.  It’s in the Bible, quite clearly, but he still rejects it, and he rejects it on the basis of being a Bible-only believer, ironically.

The former charismatic says she was not saved because of the charismatic church, but in spite of it.  That’s like saying she didn’t get married because she fell in love, but in spite of it.  This is patently false.  She could blame the charismatic church for not giving her the tools to become strong in the faith, but she could never claim that the passion and excitement of faith, of real mountain-moving faith, repelled her from that faith.  We all come to Christ by falling in love.

It’s not common, especially these days, to find an old married couple, still holding hands and casting adoring sidelong glances at each other after half a century of marriage.  It’s not common, but it happens.  I wish it would happen to us all.

Advertisements




Dipolar Christianity

9 01 2012

For those who weren’t paying attention, over the years the Christian faith has largely split into two camps, the highly charismatic, and the cessationists.  It used to be that we identified ourselves along the lines of protestant and Catholic, but in places where that battle has come to a truce, more or less, we’ve come to divide ourselves along the line distinguishing ourselves between those who expect God to work miracles every day and those who think that all miracles died with Jesus and failed to rise again.  Unbelievers like the first group, because they’re easy to mock, and they like the second group, because that form of Christianity is so dead that it poses no real threat to secular normalcy.

Before the old protestant-Catholic battle, there was the Catholic-orthodox conflagration.  Before that, it was the Christian versus the Jew.  With the earliest split, the Jews were the persecutors, and the conflict ended when a third party, Rome, trampled all over Judea and made the Jewish divine privilege look like a bankrupt gentleman’s club.  Then the Catholics split from the Eastern Orthodox, and the Catholics became the persecutors during the crusades.  Then the protestants split from the Catholics, and the Catholics were still the persecutors.  We can thank Napoleon for confining the Vatican to a tiny little plot of apolitical territory.  Since that emasculation, we’ve only found our nemesis in the Anglican Church (the other papacy), which persecuted people as power in England shifted back and forth between the Catholics and the Anglicans between the times of Henry the Eighth and Queen Elisabeth, and the Episcopalians (the other Anglican church), which brought us the glorious Salem witch trials.  Are we done yet?

One would think that we could be done with dividing ourselves into fundamental opposition.  Here, in the United States, the Catholic church has no power to persecute.  The Orthodox barely exist.  The Jews control the media (just kidding).  Actually, Jewishness has lost its cultural identity to such an extent these days, that they could hardly be considered a social force at all, anymore.  These should be the golden days of Christendom, but we apparently seem addicted to culling the herd and refining our social set to the true faith.

On the one hand, we have the Vineyard, the Assemblies of God, the Foursquare Church, etc., along with some really wild charismatic offshoots, doing their best to promote glossolalia, prophecy and miraculous healing.  On the other hand, we have all of the old-school mainstream churches such as the Methodists, Wesleyan and the Northern Baptists taking the tamest and safest route to faith, which is to say that God ignores you until you die (until he kills you), and then suddenly he becomes your benefactor and your very best friend, ushering you into Heaven.

If I had no clue which were true, I would have to say that I would rather be a Charismatic and be wrong than be a cessationist and be wrong.  I would rather live with the hope and faith that God still intervenes in our lives and performs encouraging miracles along the way, even if I’m wrong, than believe that Christ abandoned us when he ascended into Heaven, and be wrong.  At least, if I’m a charismatic, I have hope.  If I’m a cessationist, then I lean upon the arm of an apathetic God.  I would least want to be a cessationist and be right.

If nothing else, at least the charismatics have the guts to stick their necks out and make themselves an easy target.  The other extreme believes in little more for this life than does the unbeliever.  It’s easy to say that we can expect nothing miraculous until after the grave, because it can never be tested or verified.  This is really just a lame excuse for faith.  The faith of the believer approximates the faith of the unbeliever, and that’s nothing to live by.

On the other hand, because the charismatics do stick their necks out and stand for the miraculous, the result is that we’ve had a lot of rolling heads over the years.  We have the miraculous speaking of other languages (glossolalia), and those languages often don’t exist, and often, just based on what’s being articulated, the person could hardly be speaking more than repetitive gibberish, anyway.  We have notorious cases of miraculous “healing” that did little more than prevent the victim from seeking conventional medicine, even to the point of death.  We’ve had outrageous preachers who blaspheme, distort and self-aggrandize.  In short, charisma has come to be synonymous with sensationalism.

The truth of the matter is that in a side-by-side comparison, the charismatic movement will always provide plenty more fodder for debunking.  They get it wrong and they blunder several times a day, globally.  The cessationists never prove wrong, because they never stand for anything.  Claims can’t be false if they’re never made.  The positive assertion is always the riskiest assertion.  The skeptic’s position is the easy one, in all respects.  It’s always easier to sit back and poke holes in the opponent’s claims than to stand up and make a positive assertion about anything.  Ambitious people fail more often than the lazy, because they try more often.  Professional sportsmen fail more often than the armchair quarterback, because they play more often.  Hence, charismatics make fools of themselves, and the cessationists do not.

If we take the Bible at its word, then miracles do still happen.  It’s exactly as the charismatics say, but it is not necessarily as often, or under the same circumstances.  Of a thousand prophecies, one may actually be true.  Of a hundred-thousand speakings of an angelic language, maybe one is genuine and useful for teaching a person of the gospel.  All it takes is one example of a genuine miracle, and the cessationist is proven wrong.  He is not proven right every time the charismatic offering comes to naught.

Personally, I understand both sides, and I respect both to a great degree.  One is hopeful, and the other is rational.  One runs blindly, and the other convinces himself that he sees nothing.  I would love to see both sides in the same church, waiting patiently and expectantly for the move of the Holy Spirit, not daring to make it happen by their own will, and not daring to condemn it out of hand.

My brother, a charismatic preacher, once asked me if my church was the kind where the Holy Spirit moved, or whether it was one that didn’t believe in the work of God.  I said, “Neither one.”  Then he asked me if it was the kind that believed in the work of the Holy Spirit, but was essentially dead, waiting around for something that never happened.  He believed it to be the saddest kind of church.  Oh, but it was not that at all.  It was the most honest kind of church.  It was the kind that refused to prevent the work of the Spirit either by faking it or by dismissing it before it even happened.  It was a church that remained on the verge of something big.

What the church needs today is not a hyper-rational sect of witch-hunters tearing down the charismatic movement.  It would be better to die young than to discourage and dismay the body of Christ, first.  What the church needs is not a three-ring-circus miracle roadshow, condemning the cessationists for their lack of faith.  The only thing worse than a lack of miracles is disillusioning believers through exposed farce.  Personally, I would love to see more miracles in the church, today, but I want it to be real, and nothing less.

What we really don’t need is another religious split, but that’s what we might get if we don’t treat each other with gentleness and respect, not for having perfect theology, but for being a child of God.





Everyone a Pastor

13 10 2010

Following a man has always been easier than following God.  Even so, he is still only a man.  If we closely emulate his strengths, then we may closely emulate his faults.  But, choose whom we will to follow, our leader never goes to Hell on our behalf.  He goes there for himself, and we go to our own fate.

Following a man has always been so much easier than taking responsibility for our own faith, that we have an innate tendency to venerate our spiritual leaders, as though they were anything better than just another lost soul.  He is but one man among peers.  We sent him off to get his education.  He returned to impart his wisdom to us.  If he taught us for an hour every Sunday, then we sat through fifty-two hours of sermons per year and five-hundred-twenty hours each decade.  By our early thirties, we would have listened to 15,600 solid hours of preaching.  If there were anything left for him to teach us that he had not already discussed, then we ought to dismiss him for his negligence.  We ought, by all rights, to have learned enough to be our own preachers.

Can you say “amen” to that?

To borrow the cliché, our man of the cloth is all too often more cloth than man.  He looks good in the pulpit, but his character tends to be shallow.  It is his fault for expecting to be the shepherd of his flock.  Only Christ is the shepherd.  It is our fault for putting him on a pedestal, as though the platform were raised for his honor, and not merely so that we could see him better.  We should call no man “father” except our Father in Heaven.  A pastor is a peer among equals.

When a layman commits adultery against his wife, we condemn him, but we are not shaken.  When a pastor does such a thing, our church splits, some leave that church, and some leave all church, entirely.  When a pastor falls, we are shaken.  Yet, a pastor is just a theologically educated member of the congregation.  But, so are we.

He distances himself from his people.  He needs that air of infallibility.  If he related to us as one of us, then we might see his faults.  We hold him in such a critical esteem, that his would be the first faults we found, even before our own.  Yet, he is only a man, and he is only human.  Considering the pressure, considering the lack of moral support, and considering the lack of mentoring, one might conclude that the pastor lives an act.  He must, even if he is sincere.  He lives the best that he can, and he hides the rest, or he loses his job.  Such is the fact of the matter.  In this, there grows a weakness.  Quite possibly the shakiest faith in the church is the one that stands behind the pulpit.  The weakest in the group stands to be the backbone.

The disparity between the pastor and the laity is a two-part problem.  Firstly, the pastor has no pastor.  The second problem is like the first, that the congregation has no congregation.  We do not work on Sunday, but the pastor might only work on Sunday.  We turn to him for guidance, but he has no one.  He does not sit in church every Sunday and listen to anyone’s sermon.  He is alone.  God is his only guidance.  Even so, God should be our guidance, also.  He is called to speak the truth, but so are we.  He is called to reach the lost, but we are, also.  We are pastors to a lost world, but we act like spectators.  Our message is as bad as our worship, being nothing but lip service, and only a lip service within the walls of the church building, at that.

We are the preachers who do not preach.  He is the laity that does not listen.  We have led him through his fear for our approval.  We have failed to follow, because we have not emulated him to the world.  We watch him like a television.  We sing a few songs.  We chat a little, and then we go home.

We are only peers among pastors.  No man is above us.  No one is beneath us.  We are all responsible for working out our own faith, with the fear and trembling of a man tottering above the flames of Hell.  Only one man has paid the price for us, and he isn’t the pastor.  Only I am responsible for finding my salvation.  We are in this together.  We are judged separately.

Every single one of us has some insight that you lack.  Every single one of us needs support that only you can give.  We are all pastors.  We are all laity.  We were all lost.  We are all found.





The Soapbox and the Train

16 05 2010

True story: a woman dropped her coat on the ground, just below a platform.  She climbed down to retrieve her coat, and some complete stranger jumped down and rudely shoved her, attempting to force her back onto the platform in a hurry.  Several bystanders stood there and watched.  In the next moment, he was dead, and she was critically injured, but alive.  All of this, because of a mere coat.  To save that material article, she climbed onto the subway tracks.  Then the man climbed onto the tracks to save her.  Most would say that the coat wasn’t worth it.  Some might even say that the woman wasn’t worth it.

But that was just a subway, and he tried by physical means.  It was only a matter of life and death, nothing more.  In another time and another place, a man stood on a soapbox and preached at a passing crowd.  This is also a true story.  He told the world that they were sinners and needed to repent.  He said that they needed Jesus.  He warned them that they were going to Hell.  A man with good intentions stopped to argue with him.  In fact, the man who wished to take him to task was no less than a pastor.  He asked the man on the soapbox why he was being so mean-spirited, why he didn’t just show people the love of God.  Fortunately, the man on the soapbox ignored him.

Let’s take the two true stories and merge them for the sake of analogy.  A woman drops her coat on the train tracks, and in a moment of carelessness, she places exceedingly high priority on a temporary piece of property at the expense of something far greater.  A coat is until the next paycheck, but death is forever.  A man on the platform yells and screams at her to abandon the coat and move to safety.  He warns her of impending doom.  The other people around him mostly do nothing, same as before.  One man stops and accuses him of being unloving, harsh and overly critical.  According to the detractor, all of this yelling and screaming is only bound to chase her farther onto the tracks.  “She’ll never come to safety if you keep on like that,” he says.  At some later time, we might even make the suggestion that the police come and arrest the shouter for “hate speech.”  The liberal says that a loving God would surely not let a train come and crush a person flat, simply because she followed her own tendencies.  What harm did she do anyone?  How did her actions justify the punishment?

Yet, God’s moral laws are no more flexible than his physical laws.  She stood on the tracks when the train came, and she was to be crushed by it.  We don’t fault the train.  We don’t fault God.  We place the blame squarely on the woman.  She should have known better.

There’s a popular little lie that makes its rounds among believers that we should, “preach the gospel to the world, using words, if necessary.”  Faith comes by hearing, and hearing comes by people speaking the message (Romans 10:17).  If no one speaks it, then no one is going to hear it.  Somehow, we are expected to simply be nice people, without ever really getting to the marrow of what we believe to be not only the truth, but a dire truth, at that.  In any other dire situation, we would be expected to go out of our way to convey the danger of the matter to the potential victims as quickly and as loudly as we possibly could.  Yet, somehow, when it comes to the only thing more important than life or death, being Heaven and Hell, we are expected to simply show people the love of God, without ever broaching the subject of the other person’s future of burning in Hell for all of eternity.

Focus on Heaven, they say.  Don’t scare them with the stuff about Hell.  So our victim is bending over to pick up her coat, and the man on the platform is calling to her seductively, telling her how wonderful it would be if she could stand up there on the platform with him, instead of being down there on the dirty old tracks, like that.  Her response?  Yes, of course it would be nice to stand on the platform, instead, but she’s going to get her coat first.  Yes, it would be nice to get into Heaven, but I’ve got time, and I’m going to enjoy life first.  In the end, the woman still gets crushed, but at least the man didn’t get hurt in the process.

That’s what it’s all about, anyway, isn’t it?  We try to win people to Christ in the way that is least likely to get us hurt.  The train comes.  We don’t mention it.  We act like there’s no hurry.  We behave as though there were no threat.  We even pass laws against telling people that they are going to be utterly destroyed if they don’t get out of harm’s way.  That’s hate speech.  But, love is not always polite.

Jesus was often rude.  He spent much time railing against the teachers who led people astray.  In his case, he was so determined to save a person, that, like the good fellow who tried to rescue the woman, he died trying.  As in that case, more often than not, Christ’s own attempts to save people are for naught.  In the end the train comes, and there is Hell to pay.  Even so, he still hopped down from his high place and died in the attempt.  Futile effort is better than the nightmare of having done nothing.

It doesn’t have to be futile, though.  There was always some slim chance that the person might be saved.  In fact, sometimes the hero is rewarded with another soul rescued, a life saved from imminent doom.  We are not that hero.  We are only asked to speak the warning from our place of relative safety.  Our job will not always be this easy.  For now, the bystanders only ridicule us for speaking of the train and the danger.  For now, we are only made to endure a little scorn.  The time is coming when the masses will drag us away and put us in prison, that the woman may remain on the tracks until her execution.  That is, they will do so if we continue to warn.  As it is, we mostly stand and stare, like an audience at a horror film.

And we think we are virtuous for our gentleness.





A Blaze for Glazed Eyes

7 04 2010

It’s a memory burned into my mind.  I was a little kid, watching television with my older brother and sister, when I noticed that I was the only one laughing at the punchlines.  I could imagine that the humor may not have been their style, but it begs the question as to why they were even watching it if they were not being entertained by it.  I glanced back at them and did a double-take.  They stared at the television in a hypnotic state.  Their eyes were glazed over, and they did not respond when I tried to talk to them.  This was a very creepy moment in my life.  I don’t know what it is about television that shuts people’s minds off, but I’ve heard it said that brain activity is actually greater in people who stare at a blank wall.  I have no trouble believing that.  People who watch comedies rarely laugh.  Even the laugh track is fake.  What impact does this have on us?

Every now and then we hear about how someone was brutalized in public, and no one even called the police, or how a beaten individual was left lying in the street, only to have people veer around the victim without stopping to help.  Life is just one big television to us.  No response is required.  At least, that’s a habit that we have developed.

So much so, when it comes to helping others.  More dangerously so, when it comes to helping ourselves.  I remember the first time I saw smoke in the distance, rising in the east.  There was nothing between our home and that smoke but an endless expanse of dry brush.  I wondered what could possibly stop its advance.  We made no preparations for escape.  Had it reached us, we could have lost everything.  Fortunately, it never got close.  But, we did not learn, and we were not ready the next time, either.

My next memory of that ominous cloud was to the north.  We speculated that it was a controlled burn.  We thought nothing of it.  The cloud got a little bigger, at first, but looked like it might stop altogether.  Near midnight, my mother woke me from bed, panicked.  She was telling me that we needed to evacuate.  I got up and wandered to the living room, lit eerily by the light of a fire, creeping over the nearest hill line like a blanket of lava, creeping toward our home.  Nothing lay between us but the only road out of there.  What did we do about it?  We sat there and watched it, of course.  We watched it come down to the road and stop.  Then we got in the car and drove around the perimeter of the fire, watching its advance.  At the time, the blaze was considered huge.  A mile west, it crossed the road that served as our fire break and started toward us.  For some reason, it just stopped.  Maybe it was the work of the fire crew, though they were almost entirely tied up with protecting some mansions directly in the path of the blaze.  We did not evacuate.  We were not even packed.  We had no plan at all.

The next major fire struck after I was married and moved away.  It passed my parents’ home narrowly on the south, way down at the bottom of a valley, with nothing to guard them but a two-lane highway.  The fire crew were absent.  They only stopped to warn my parents that they would not be able to do anything about it if it should come up the hill.  This was the scariest fire by far.  If the tiniest spark had crossed that road, it would have raced up the steep hillside and devoured my parents home in a moment.  And they were entirely unprepared.

All it would take is one careless driver, flicking a cigarette out the window, and there would be nothing to stop the blaze.

They were the hobby ranchers.  When disaster struck, they were left to beg friends to cross fire lines with horse trailers to save their horses.  They were left to pace and wring their hands and scramble to load their chickens, pig, rabbits, goats, sheep, dogs, parakeets, etc. into one minivan, plus whatever they could borrow.  It must have been like loading Noah’s Ark without the benefit of God’s guidance, or, for that matter, an ark.  The fire roared toward them, and it raced by them, and they watched it pass while talking on the telephone.  Nothing was ready to be saved, not even the humans.  In that same fire event, a similar woman died while waiting for someone to help her rescue her horses.  That could have been my parents’ fate, but for the mercy of God.  For that matter, it could have been my fate at one time.

The next fire that visited them was the one that got them. For the first time in their lives, they were finally prepared…mostly.  Their fire insurance company dropped them like a viper, and the next insurance agency was diligent enough to make them clear a wide swath around their home.  My father complained at the huge loss of plant life on their property, that such a large clearing would be required.  For the first time, ever, they had enough clearing to save their home and their barn.  They purchased a horse trailer.  They loaded the animals at the first sign of trouble.  They sorted and packed their most precious memorabilia.  They were ready, for once.  The only thing they had not accounted for was the fact that one horse was not accustomed to being in a trailer.  They still had to recruit the help of friends to force the horse into the conveyance.

They survived.  They got out before the blaze ripped through their property, burning everything flat for miles in all directions.  The most important structures survived.  My father laughed when he saw it, remembering his chagrin at having to clear so much brush, before.  It was all cleared, now, for miles.

The next blaze….

The next blaze will be an even bigger blaze.  No fire line will stop it.  No water will quench it.  It will burn forever, and hardly anyone will be prepared for it.  The preparation is simple.  The safety is reachable.  Yet, I somehow think that we will still all find ourselves staring at the approaching disaster, like we stared at the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, or the earthquake at Haiti, or the tsunami at Sri Lanka.  We watch the world go by like we watch television.  We have become accustomed to the idea that no response is required.  The next blaze comes for everyone, urban and rural, in all manner of terrain, in any season.  The next blaze is Hell, and it will catch, is catching, the entire world unprepared.  A physical fire can destroy an entire town, yet people do not think that the spiritual one is any threat to them.  At least, they do not think it a threat to them, in particular.  So scary is the fire that destroys the body, and so fictional seems the fire that destroys souls.  When it comes, there will be no time to prepare.

I know people who get an external hard drive with automatic backup, and they think themselves prepared.  I ask them if they know how to use it, and they say they use it regularly.  I tell them that it’s fine that they know how to use it when nothing is going wrong, but do they know how to use it when their computer crashes?  Then, when the computer actually crashes, they have no idea how to recover their data, even with it all stored right there on the backup drive.  The disk is boot-able, but they don’t know how to boot from it.  In the end, surprisingly, they seem to “lose” their data just as though they had not safeguarded it.

Get ready.  No, seriously, get ready.  The barn will burn and the animals will roast.  Are you going to be ready for that disaster?  Are you really going to be ready, or are you relying on a false sense of security?  Every land has its natural disasters.  Every person gets to stare into the pit of Hell.  So few are ever ready for it when it comes.

Life is a hobby ranch and we are the ranchers.  Life is a television and we are the viewers.  We do not take it seriously enough to be truly prepared.  We hardly take it seriously enough to be truly entertained.  God, help us, for we gaze upon the blaze with glazed eyes.





The Virtue of Boredom

27 03 2010

Sometimes I wonder if I’m alone on this, but I have on occasion encountered circumstances in which I was greatly enthusiastic about something, only to get shot down by criticism from friends and others.  I think something is great and exciting, and they think me a fool for it.  Times like that make the safest possible reaction to all things to be boredom and disinterest.  If I’m the unamused one, then I’m the only one in any position to mock or ridicule.  Coolness has the false appearance of strength.  Negativity is the safest position.  A critical person is often the hardest person to criticize.

This is most unfortunate, but therein lies a very real principle that boredom is, in fact, used as a defense mechanism.  The more critical the environment, the more it seems to call for an indifferent response.

Where else can we find a hostile environment than within the four walls of a church?  It is a place of stark criticism.  In one sense, we do need to evaluate our faith and reasoning, but the harsh reality of it is that an unintended side effect can be an unforgiving environment in which a person is not free to worship at will, nor free to be excited about anything.  The trend in many churches, today, is to reject anything extraordinary, even despite the fact that the faith is founded inherently upon the miraculous.  The church is quickly losing its childlike wonder.  They have managed to confine the Holy Spirit to a box.  Prophecy has been reduced to good preaching.  Miraculous healing has been reduced to comforting people and helping them to accept their sickness.  Inspiration means a cut-and-paste of scripture, with no room for real life application.  We don’t have wisdom.  We parrot.  This is surely the safest habit.  Or, it seems so because it is the least extraordinary.

In worship, one would think that the most solemn (boring) means are the holiest.  Hence, we can rest assured that the hymn and the organ are the tools of choice for sending God our… enthusiastic praise.  Is that worship?  Or, is worship a matter of being willing to make a fool of one’s self from an abundance of joy in God?  Ancient Israel and the early church used to dance and sing before Yahweh.  I challenge anyone to dance to a hymn.  Perhaps solemnity has its place, but perhaps we are being too easy on ourselves.

There is no end to this trend.  The Amish have mastered it.  God tells us not to conform to the image of this world, so they have rejected everything about the world.   Whatever the world does, they spurn.  Whatever the world enjoys, they condemn.  The Amish have mastered it, but fundamentalist Christians, of which I am one, are also party to it.  Scripture tells us to be in the world but not of it.  Whatever trends the world embraces, we reject.

Yet, there are two ways to conform to this world.  The first is obvious: we assimilate into it and become part of it.  The second is subtle: we become whatever the world is not.  Never mind what the Bible says, if the world likes rap, then we hate it.  If the world likes rock, then we hate it.  If the world hates strophic chorus, then we love it.  If they speak casually, then we speak like a living concordance.  If they’re accepting, then we sternly reject.  If they wear denim, then we wear polyester.  Whatever they disregard, we hold to steadfastly.

But, not conforming to this world doesn’t mean being anti-world.  Most of the time, this may seem to be true.  The nature of the world is against God to its very core.  But we do not define ourselves by our relation to the world, whether for or against.  We do not follow them, but we do not simply live to antagonize them, either.  We are not here to spite the world, but we are to be godly in spite of it.

The problem with reactionism is that the reactionist is defined by the thing that he opposes.  If we simply live to oppose the world, then our identity is defined by the world.  We must not simply reject a thing because it is worldly.  We must reject it because it is ungodly.  God has nowhere in scripture defined what style of music we shouldn’t sing, nor what materials we shouldn’t wear, nor a variety of other things that Christians so quickly condemn.

Entertainment has a high place in the world around us.  People think that they read the news to be informed, but this is not really true.  They read it to be entertained.  The vast majority of what they read has no practical value and not much accuracy.  Entertainment is what caused you to visit this blog.  Entertainment is what will decide what you do next.  People even eat to be entertained.  They tend to vote for the most entertaining politicians.  To some extent, they even seek entertaining employment.  The church’s response, naturally, is to seek boredom and solemnity.  Not all of us do.  It’s just enough to become a problem.  The idea of Christian entertainment seems somehow blasphemous to some people.  I say that they follow the route of least resistance.  They defend themselves through the virtue/vice of boredom.  They find it safer.  A Christian is not called to be entertained, they say.  Never mind that this is nowhere to be found in the Bible.  In truth, their efforts to become less worldly have actually made them more worldly, even if in a negative sense.

A truly God-centered Christian does not concern himself with what the world does.  If I and my unbelieving friend can find common ground in entertainment, then so much the better!  I am free in Christ.  I am not called to be bored out of my mind.

Boredom is not a virtue.





Déjà Vu, Idle Chatter and Barking Dogs

16 03 2010

No one gets déjà vu worse than I do.  Well, no one I know does, at least.  The phenomenon is considered to be the feeling that one is experiencing something that has already happened.  What it really amounts to is a vague sense of repetition.  Well, for most it is just a vague sense of repetition, but oftentimes I find that the situation goes well beyond that.  I used to think it a silly social custom for people to have repeat conversations.  When you run out of things to talk about, then you go back over the old subjects and discuss them again as though they had not been discussed before.  A few years ago, though, I noticed some coworkers having a repeat conversation for at least the third time, and they were repeating themselves almost verbatim.  They could have been reading from a script, they were following their previous conversation so closely.  What was more amazing to me was that one conversationalist was reacting to the other’s words with astonishment, the same as before.  Now, generally, when someone tells me something that I find intriguing, I think I’m pretty likely to remember it.  At the very least, it shouldn’t surprise me when I hear it again…I think.

But that’s the real problem.  If other people were repeating their own conversation exactly, then how many times did I hear it before I first recognized that they were repeating themselves?  I might experience this redundancy unawares.  I only know that others experience it one or two more times than I do before coming to the sense that they’ve had this or that conversation before.  They could have repeated it twenty times, with me being aware only of the nineteenth and twentieth times, where they only remember the twentieth.

The next time they had that conversation, and they did, in fact, have that exact same conversation later, I stopped them and finished the conversation for them.  I begged them to please remember doing this before.  They said that they may have sort of remembered it.  At least they didn’t do it again.

That was not an isolated incident, though it may have been the worst.  I told my wife about it, and she thought it was funny.  A few weeks later, I told her about it again, and she reacted exactly the same way.  So long as I followed my part of the script, she followed hers.  I asked her if she realized we were repeating ourselves, and she got mad at me.  She doesn’t like to be tricked.

No need to take it personally, though.  Almost everyone I know seems able to have the same discussion multiple times without being remotely aware of it.  Particularly observant people can discuss a thing twice, where others can have the same chat four or more times.  I prefer to stop counting after four.  Again, though, that is four times more than I repeat myself unawares.  If I do it twice, then the one who seems to repeat himself four times actually does it six times.

The deciding factor seems to lie in the loquaciousness of the individual.  The more chatty a person is, the more prone they are to having the same discussion with the same people over and over again and react exactly the same way each time, as though never having heard it before.  Socially, I am possibly the least chatty person I know.  Hence, each discussion means more to me, and I am more likely to remember it.

I am under the impression that talk is cheap for most people, that the act of having a chat has nothing to do with the exchange of information and ideas.  That is to say that people talk to each other for the purpose of talking.  Previously, I had assumed that people talked for the sake of entertainment, which still may be true, but the act of talking, itself, is both the means and the end in most exchanges.  It’s the reason we say “hello” to people when we see them, even if we had just seen them the previous day.  What does that word even mean?  Most of the way people relate to each other conveys no great meaning, other than to emote.  “Hey, man, how’s it going?” is not a question, when it really comes down to it.  The statement, itself, is just a gesture.

Idle chatter, in many cases, is on par with the barking of dogs.  The point is in the vocalization, not the true meaning of words.  If people don’t take their conversations seriously, then they are not apt to remember them.  All they take away from the event is a sense of their relationship with the other person.

However, the lowest form of conversation, the one that really resembles the barking of dogs in terms of its intelligence, is the use of obscenities.  I don’t mean the use of crass words where more delicate words would suffice.  I mean the use of obscenities in sentences where the literal meaning of the word has no relevance to the subject at hand.  It’s an alternate to the word “duh.”  More often as of late, I find that people are throwing in obscenities in random places in their speech, out of pure habit.  If we replaced those words with the word, “duh,” not a single ounce of meaning would be lost from what they say.  For example, “Hey, duh, where did you get that duh awesome shirt?” to which the other person replies, “I got it from that duh store down on duh D Street…you know…the one with the duh picture of a duh gorgeous babe in the window.”  Generally speaking, in terms of vocalized speech, obscenities tend to be used most by people who have the hardest time thinking of the right words to say.  The bad words have actually come to substitute the nonsense word, duh, in every sense of the way.  But replacing poor language skills with foul language has not only ceased to be counter-culture, but it has actually become fashionable.

The summary meaning of this trend is that communication in our society is becoming dull.  We don’t really mean what we say, and we don’t care enough about what others say to remember it.

The brain acts as an excellent filter of information.  In truth, we would drive ourselves insane if we remembered everything.  Therefore, we have a knack for forgetting trivial stuff, which, in this case, is anything that a friend tells us.  If an event happens once, then the brain determines that it must not be important.  Useful information is always encountered over and over again, like the skill of driving a car, forming words or tying a shoe.  Hence, a conversation might be forgotten until it’s been had a few times.  The catch in all of this is that the brain cannot determine to start remembering these things on the third round if it does not remember that there was a first and second round.  What this means, then, is that people really do remember their conversations, even if they repeat themselves.  What they cannot do is recall those conversations.  It’s in the head, but it’s not coming out.

Two ways exist to promote memory, cognitively.  The first is to think about a thing repeatedly.  The second is to think about it deeply.  In reality, though, because the brain runs in cycles, a deep thought is really just a prolonged one, which is really just a thought that repeats itself over and over for a longer period of time.  Repetition is the primary determinant of whether we will recall the thing later on.  People forget their conversations, because they spend no time pondering them, because they really do not value what was said.

Churches are notorious for having people walk out of the doors and be hopelessly unable to remember anything that was said during the sermon.  Frankly, this is pathetic.  What it means is that they may listen, but they do not ponder.  They hear, but they do not consider.  They believe that they value the theology, but their memories betray them.  We remember the information that we cherish.  Fortunately for the pastor, though, even when the laity cannot recall what was said, the brain does still remember.  With enough sermons and enough reinforcement, a sound theology can be built with time.

Perhaps, if we pay attention, we can remember our lives and relationships, instead of living in a fog and doing everything twice.  Though, I have a feeling that “twice,” is an understatement.