Sunday, April 22, 2007

Asking tough questions

We're in the middle of a great series at church - Honest Answers to Tough Questions. I've heard some of the answers before, but others are completely new to me. I'm learning a lot. I know this will sound funny, but the best lesson I've taken from this series so far is that it's actually OK to ask the questions in the first place and look for evidence in history, archeology, etc. I thought it was a sign of weak faith to even ask questions like that in the first place.

On Easter the subject was the resurrection. Last week it was why bad things happen to good people. Today, it was the reliability of the Bible.

The first part of the message covered historical evidences: the number and accuracy of manuscripts & archeological finds. That was encouraging. Then the prophetic aspects were covered: stuff the Bible predicted that has proven to be true, prophecies about Jesus, etc.

If the Bible is reliable, we should study it. One of the verses used to illustrate this was Acts 17:11 - which talks about the Bereans searching the Scriptures to see if what Paul preached was true. I can understand that, but somehow I pictured this as the leadership of the Bereans testing what this travelling preacher was teaching, not the rank-n-file folks. But today, that's exactly what my pastor did: he invited everyone in the church to check it out for themselves--he told the whole church it was OK to question him! The idea that the "average" Christian would do this seems foreign to me. What if they found that it wasn't the truth? Then what? Do they ask the leader for clarification? Do they just leave? How much room is there for disagreement?

Monday, April 16, 2007

Virginia Tech Massacre

Wow. Today was a horrible day -- it makes me sick to think about it. 32 innocent people just wiped out by one nutcase.

Yesterday's message from church seems somehow even more relevant today.

I'm just hoping that some well-meaning "Christian" leader doesn't add to the pain of these students and families by suggesting some profound sounding psuedo-spiritual reason for the massacre. That absolutely disgusted me in the wake of hurricane Katrina -- "Christians" claimed that Katrina was divine punishment for everything from gambling to drunkenness to slavery.

After 9/11, I was actually in a church where the pastor said that more people would have survived if they had been "tuned in" to God and listened to his warnings. He cited instances of folks who only survived because they were late for work that morning or decided to run other errands before coming to the office. What an insensitive position to take... not only is your loved one gone, but they couldn't have possibly been "tuned in" to God when they died. In other words, they must have been lousy Christians if they were Christians at all.

My thoughts and prayers are with the students and their families... and with those who will be ministering to them in the days to come. I hope they will have the wisdom to apply salve rather than salt to the wounds.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

Bad things happen...

Why do bad things happen to good people?

That was the subject of today's message at church. It was really refreshing... no earth-shattering revelations, just some practical wisdom. Basically, bad stuff happens because choices have consequences--they could be our choices, they could be other people's choices. Bad stuff also happens because we live in a world where stuff happens. God promises us peace in Him, but many trials and sorrows in the world.

Those who believe in iron-clad 'divine protection' would answer that question in an entirely different way: Bad things happen to people who are outside of God's will. At first, this approach was attractive and seemed to make sense: God is all powerful. We're God's kids. God will protect His kids, as long as they stay close enough to Him and did what He said to do. When I was younger, it seemed to work pretty well. I was relatively healthy. Finances were steady. The family was stable. Life was good.

Well, life has a way of changing and throwing in a few curves. Those curves are difficult enough to handle on their own... but when you actually believe in guaranteed divine protection, it makes the hard times considerably harder. Not only are you dealing with a difficult circumstance, but you have the added weight of wondering what you did (or neglected to do) to bring this punishment on yourself... and the uneasy feeling that those around you are probably wondering where you went wrong too. An illness becomes a symptom of some deeper spiritual problem. A business failure also represents failure of your faith or a deficiency in your spiritual life. You can always respond to an altar call and have someone lay hands on you and declare the problem solved... but what if your situation is still unchanged afterwards?

One of the things that I love about my current church home is how open everyone is about their struggles--whether it be health or finances or jobs or family. We pray for eachother in small groups and get regular updates on how things are going. We're vulnerable with eachother... and it is only in that willingness to expose our individual weaknesses that we can discover the strength of fellowship and community.

People just aren't as willing to share when they believe that their struggles are a sign of some spiritual failure. They keep their struggles to themselves, and keep others far enough away so that they can't see what's really going on inside. It's actually quite sad. If you are reluctant to share when you yourself are struggling, you'll also be reluctant to share your experiences as an encouragement to someone else who is going through a tough time. You miss out on the support of your friends, and you miss out on the awesome opportunity God gives us to comfort one another with the comfort we ourselves have received.

This is probably one of the reasons why the community here is so much deeper and richer than it ever was for me in a pentecostal (especially "Word of Faith") setting. We build relationships when we share common struggles. We strengthen the ties when we bear eachothers burdens.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

Rethinking everything

There is one nice thing about being in an ultra-strict church: at least you know exactly what is expected of you... and you'll probably hear about it if you stray! Over the years, I've learned to adhere to a certain set of standards. They never felt overly restrictive--I just accepted them as the norm. It's easy to feel that way when you spend most of your time building friendships only with those who hold the same beliefs.

The problem is, everyone doesn't hold those beliefs. In fact, the majority of the Christian world doesn't.

So now I'm part of a considerably less restrictive church... but my pre-programmed knee-jerk reactions to certain otherwise "normal" things is still about as strong as it was before. It's not unusual for folks come to church in shorts and tank tops and other clothing that would have been considered completely inappropriate in my previous churches. It's not unusual for people to talk openly about their illnesses and the prescription medications that they are taking. In many pentecostal circles, that would have been met with a stern rebuke. (If your doctrine says that sickness is the result of sin or demonic attack in your life, then the appropriate response to illness is repentence, prayer and study -- not a doctor's visit.) Sometimes stuff like this still catches me off guard.

Secular music is no longer taboo, but it still seems strange for me to hang out with folks from my church and listen to secular music. I feel a twinge of... guilt. Like I'm doing something wrong. Alcohol was completely off limits in pentecostal churches - but here, moderation seems to be the rule. I had always been open to having a glass of champaigne or wine at a special family dinner or celebration... but it was rare and certainly not something I would have ever mentioned to a pastor. In some of my previous ministry-related jobs, a violation of these standards was grounds for immediate termination.

So all of this is still a little weird for me. It's not that I was completely unprepared: I expected (and even looked forward to) many of these differences. Yet, when I see these things which were taboo for me for so long, my knee-jerk reaction is still to kinda look down on them and judge it as "wrong." I wonder how long it will take for me to shake off those feelings...

Walking away from a church or organization is the easy part. Leaving behind old attitudes and mindsets... this could take a while...