Saturday, February 21, 2015

GOING THROUGH THE MOTIONS

I believe it's important for us - whatever group we claim allegiance to - to occasionally take a look at ourselves through the eyes of others, no matter how negative their views may be.  So when I came across the book The Great Derangement by Rolling Stone reporter Matt Taibbi, I was intrigued.  In reading the book, I never quite felt sure where Taibbi was headed and though it was an entertaining read, I still felt a bit baffled when I concluded.  His purpose seemed to me to be to demonstrate that America is full of crazies and is headed down the tubes.
 
To pursue his thesis Taibbi places himself with different degrees of feigned sincerity into four different "subcultures" - the military, a newsman in Congress, the 9/11 Truthers movement and a mega-church.  It is his experiences in the church that occupy the largest portion of the book, as well as my interest.
 
Though Taibbi comes across as a cynical atheist, in his dealings with the church, his descriptions of his experiences, though saddening, are fascinating and entertaining.  I found it hard to put the book down.  I have no idea why he chose the church that he did - John Hagee's Cornerstone Church in San Antonio, Texas.  Perhaps because its pastor comes across even to us non-cynics as clownish, both in his preaching style and his TV appearance.
 
[Note:  I have no sympathy for Mr. Hagee.  I believe that his "Christian Zionism" is a politicization of a false theology.  His unquestioning endorsement of the nation of Israel has led him to a "two-Messiah" heresy which denies that Jesus is the Messiah of the Jews.]

Taibbi describes his experiences in the church, beginning with a 3-day weekend retreat.  He goes through a "conversion," baptism and even speaking in tongues (which he accomplishes by reciting Russian poetry).  He prays aloud and sings praises, all the while holding a contemptuous and unsympathetic attitude toward his deluded fellow-worshippers.  But what struck me was an unexpected lengthy confession he makes in the middle of his narration of all his hypocritical play-acting on his 3-day retreat.

"After two days of nearly constant religious instruction, songs, worship, and praise - ... an unending regimen of forced and fake responses - a funny thing started to happen to my head.  There is a transformational quality in these external demonstrations of faith and belief.  The more you shout out praising the Lord, singing along ..., telling people how blessed you feel, and so on, the more a sort of mechanical Christian skin starts to grow all over your real self.  Even if you're a degenerate Rolling Stone reporter inwardly chuckling and busting on the whole scene ... outwardly you're swaying to the gospel and singing and praising and acting the part, and those outward ministrations assume a kind of sincerity in themselves.  ... that 'inner you' begins to get tired of the whole spectacle and sometimes forgets to protest ... while the outer me did the 'work' of singing and praising.  ... which one is the real you?"

"You may think you know the answer, but by my third day I began to notice how effortlessly my soft-spoken Matt-mannequin was going through his robotic motions of praise, and I was shocked.  For a brief, fleeting moment I could see how under different circumstances it would be easy enough to bury your 'sinful' self far under the skin of your outer Christian and to just travel through life this way.  ... so long as you are going through all the motions, never breaking the facade, who are you really?  ... it was the very first time I worried that the experience of entering this world might prove to be anything more than an unusually tiring assignment.  I feared for my normal."

Taibbi's confession took an entire page, I had to go back and re-read it; and then I did so again.  I read it aloud to Uni.  Here in the midst of Taibbi's cynical criticisms of his fellow-"worshippers" was a page full of un-cynical honesty!  What to make of it?

It raised questions in my own mind.  Could - should - I make a similar confession?  Have I, at least at times worn "a sort of mechanical Christian skin"?  Have I been guilty of "checking out into ... daydreams" in the middle of worship?  Have I simply gone through "robotic motions of praise"?

I'm afraid that there are many times I'd have to answer "Yes" to all of these questions.  While Taibbi was afraid of his experience affecting his "normal" - his cynical atheism, I am afraid for my "normal" - the reality of my Christian life.

Yes, we'd have a biblical/theological explanation for this phenomenon.  We'd say that this is worship "in the flesh."  But somehow having a phrase for this isn't comforting.  Worshipping in the flesh with our mind disengaged and with the Spirit disengaged, is easy to do.  Do I fit the description Jesus gave when He said, "This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me?"  (Matthew 15:8, quoting Isaiah 29:13)

The Sunday after I read this, I was very self-conscious in our Church worship service.  As I found myself going through the motions of worship my mind wandered - not to daydreams but to self-examination.  Is this real?  I glanced around at those worshipping around me, singing, clapping, and raising their hands, amening.  Is this real for them?

I am not questioning the validity of my faith, or that of my fellow worshippers.  But I am saying that our external Christian behavior can be unreal.  I often have thoughts - disconnected and irrelevant thoughts - running through my mind during worship at church or even prayer at home.  At times the very words used in worship can suggest other directions for our minds to follow.  I'm not speaking here of evil or greedy or lustful thoughts, however, just thoughts of any kind that distract from the reality of worship.  And of the ability to keep up the motions of worship while those thoughts are going on.

Lord, I do confess that my worship has often been carried on in the flesh.  Cleanse me from that sin and give me the grace to worship you with my mind and in Your Spirit.

Thursday, February 12, 2015

MAN UP!

I was sitting in my recliner reading a newsmagazine with the pages folded over, when Uni started snickering.  She was reading the headline on the opposite page:  "How to Tell Time Like a Man."  I flipped my magazine over and read the fine print aloud to her.  It was a full-page 81/2"x11" ad for a wristwatch.

"Your watch ..." it claimed (and I'm not making this up), "should look and feel like a power tool and not a piece of bling.  Wearing it shouldn't make you think twice about swinging a hammer or changing a tire.  A real man's timepiece needs to be ready for anything."

Urrrgh!  Shades of Tim the Tool Man!

But that's not all!  After some info about the price the ad continues:  "Call me old-fashioned, but I want my boots to be leather, my tires to be deep-tread monsters, and my steak thick and rare.  Inspiration for a man's watch should come from things like fast cars, firefighters and power tools."

The rest of the page has details about the watch and its bargain pricing and it features an actual photo of the watch, about double actual size (I'd hope - otherwise one would have to wear it around his neck).

Now while the watch I wear was purchased for much less - seems like it was around $10 at Wal*Mart - I can understand that men in some trades would require a heavier-duty watch.  I do wear leather boots - "manly footwear," as Merle's song goes (see picture above).  And I do have a few power tools.  Alas, my 14-year-old PT Cruiser doesn't qualify; it's not fast and doesn't have monster tires.

But is my masculinity to be measured by the appurtenances of manhood mentioned in the ad?  If I lack any of these am I less of a man?  That seems to be the implicit message I'm being given.  So if I'm a real man I should call the number given on the page immediately so that I can add this watch to my power tools, leather boots, etc.

I do suspect, however, that this type of appeal gets more response from those who are unsure of their masculinity than from those who are confident in theirs.

Well then, how should I measure my manhood?  What are the signs of manhood if they're not the external macho trappings mentioned?  How do I "man up"?

Once - and only once - is there an expression given in the New Testament telling us to "man up."  Paul uses the Greek verb andrizomai in 1 Corinthians 16:13.  The word is usually translated "be men" or "act like men."  It is related to the noun aner which is simply the word for "man" as male.  [This word is not to be confused with anthropos, which though translated "man" in older translations, basically means "human" or "person" and can include those of both genders.]

Andrizomai was, however, used about 20 times in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (ca. 200 BC) usually in pep talks to troops before sending them off to war.  Moses to the Israelite armies before sending them across the Jordan to conquer the Canaanites:  "Be men (andrizomai) and be strong!  Don't be afraid or cowardly or fearful in their presence ..." (Deuteronomy 31:6).  He repeats the same to his successor Joshua in the next verse.  Then after crossing the Jordan, Joshua is found giving the same command to his troops (Joshua 1:6-7, 9; 10:25).  The word is still used in modern Greek, though more in the sense of "be strong."

But when Paul exhorts his (male?) readers to be men, he is not sending them forth to physical combat.  Neither is he telling them of those external features or accessories that are supposed to be the marks of a "real man."  In his concluding remarks to his First Letter to the Corinthians he says these words:

"Stay awake, stand firm in the faith, be men (or man up) be strong!  Let everything you do be done in love!"  (1 Corinthians 16:13, 14)

There are five imperatives in these two verses, all in the present tense, which gives the sense of continual action.  These are to be the characteristics of Paul's readers, including us - our continual behavior.  And the third command is the one that I believe sums up the others.  Or to put it another way, the other four commands tell us what it means to man up.

·       "Stay awake!"  This word is often translated "watch."  It's what Jesus commanded His disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane, just before He was betrayed.  Real men are spiritually alert.  They understand what's going on around them.

·       "Stand firm!"  The idea is of standing firm, confident in our faith in Christ and in our freedom in Him.  (Galatians 5:1; Philippians 1:27; 4:1, etc.)

·       "Be strong!"  The word is used of both John the Baptist and of Jesus as children.  (Luke 1:80; 2:40).  The idea seems to be of a continual growth in strength.  But I don't believe that Paul is commanded physical training here.

·        "Let everything you do be done in love!"  Love is an active word - that which seeks what is best in its object.  It is to characterize every action of the real man.

So how is our - my - manhood measured?  Apparently not by the standards enumerated in the magazine ad, nor by other standards urged upon us by American culture.

Our manliness is a goal we are to strive for - our likeness to Jesus Christ.  Or as Paul says elsewhere, we are to continue our growth "... until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man (aner), to the measure of the stature of Christ's fullness" (Ephesians 4:13).

Sunday, February 8, 2015

THE PRESIDENT'S SPEECH

There have been a number of remarks on the internet and elsewhere concerning President Obama's talk at the National Prayer Breakfast.  Quite a few (mostly from the right) have been negative, some questioning or even denying the President's faith, yet a few giving him reasonably high grades.  A Google search brought up many comments, but I finally found the talk itself and listened/watched the full 24 minutes.
 
After this I went back and attempted the same with some of his critics though I couldn't bring myself to finish most of them.  I even came across Glenn Beck's rant.  (There are apparently still some who take stock in this guy's rantings!)  As I listened to these tirades the question crossed my mind as to whether they and I had observed the same talk - but, of course, we had.

The main points of most of these criticisms was their assertion that he had compared Islamic terrorism with Christianity or that he had said bad things about Christianity and/or  America, which in the minds of many of the critics were the same entity.  He was criticized for not spending more of his talk attacking ISIS and Islamic terrorism.  It was even claimed that his confessions of America's and of Christianity's faults were evidence that he is not a Christian or a patriot.

The President spoke of the fact that many evils have been committed in the name of Christ.  He mentioned the Crusades and the Inquisition.  He talked of the slave trade and Jim Crow laws and how the Bible had been used to justify these evils.  He even used the word SIN a few times and over and over again emphasized our need for humility.  He talked about the need to practice the Golden Rule and to love our neighbors.

Did these negative critics forget the context of these remarks?  This was a Prayer Breakfast!  Barack Obama was not there to speak as the Commander-In-Chief, giving a Patton-like pep-talk urging his hearers to get out there and kill those _______'s.   Barack Obama was speaking as a follower of Jesus Christ, urging himself and his hearers - most of whom were professional politicians and national leaders - to live out their faith in their particular circumstances.

Perhaps the critics are unfamiliar with the kind of Christian context this was supposed to be.  I have had many experiences and attended many different kinds of Christian meetings and worship services, so I suspect that I know the type the critics are used to:  the preacher rants about the sins and evils of those out there - those terrorists, those abortionists, those homosexuals, those cultists, those liberals.  It's easy to condemn those on the outside - they can't say anything.  And the preacher gets many "Amens!" from those on the inside.

But there are other types of worship services - services where believers gather to worship God and to recognize their need for His grace, services that even begin with confession, with sermons that speak of ­­­our sin and need, more than of the sins of those out there.

Yes, we can find areas for criticism in the President's talk.  We may dislike his slow deliberate style, his lack of dogmatism (I don't.), his occasional misquoting of Scripture.  But these are petty.  We must remember too that even though in this talk he was speaking simply as a follower of Christ, he also recognized his need, because of his position, for being "politic" in all his words.  But I do not believe that in speaking of "our" sin rather than "theirs," he was in any way comparing Christianity unfavorably with Islam in any of its manifestations.

I think that NY Times columnist David Brookes - himself a conservative and a Christian said it best:

"I think if the President had come as an Atheist to attack religion and to attack Christianity, the Republicans would have a point - that's not what a President should be doing.  But that is not how he came ... He's come as a Christian.  And the things he said - I've never met a Christian who disagreed with what he said - that the religion has been perverted, that we have to walk humbly before the face the Lord, that God's purposes are mysterious to us.  This is not some tangential weird belief - this is at the core of every Christian's faith and every Jew's faith and so what he said was utterly normal and a recognition of historical fact and an urge toward some humility.  And so I thought the protests were manufactured and falsely manufactured."  (PBS News Hour, 2/5/2015)

Thursday, January 29, 2015

FRANCIS & ME

[NOTE:  Most of the following thoughts were written before I wrote my post FRANCIS & CHARLIE.  In that post I strongly disagreed with Pope Francis on a particular issue, but that disagreement does not negate what I have to say here.]
 
Pope Francis is undoubtedly the most popular living human in the world.  Just being the head man of the Roman Catholic Church would automatically qualify him for that label, but his popularity goes way beyond that granted to him by those of his church.  He seems to be a man who takes his position seriously - who is striving to be the representative of Jesus on earth.  And he is admired for that.
 
A few years ago I could not have imagined myself saying the above words.  After all I'm a Protestant - and from a "Fundamentalist" background.
 
My mother's side of the family was Roman Catholic.  She had come to this country from Austria as a child with her parents and older siblings.  Roman Catholicism was part of their culture, even though most members of her family were non-practicing.  So it had little religious influence on me.  I had never considered myself a Catholic.
 
When I committed my life to Christ it was in a fundamentalist Baptist church.  In this sphere, Roman Catholics were not consider "saved"; the Catholic church was "apostate" and my early attempts at witness were often aimed at refuting Catholic doctrine.  In my studies of the Scripture and theology, I came to even greater disagreement with Roman Catholicism.  I found the doctrine of transubstantiation to be not only unbiblical but logically bizarre.  Putting tradition on the same level as Scripture, the exaltation of Mary and the saints were also problematic.  I still believe these are incorrect teachings.
 
Gradually, however, as I grew as a follower of Christ I began to realize two things.  The first was that while correct theology is important, the theology I had been taught was often laced with rigid legalism and not all those who were properly "saved" were living out their salvation as Jesus and the Bible taught.  Second I found that many whose theology was in my understanding, deficient were living out their salvation in Christ-like fashion often more so than many of my fundamentalist friends.  So my fellowship with brothers and sisters became less bound by theological or denominational restrictions.
 
Then along came the "Religious Right" - a political movement.  At first it consisted of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals opposed to various perceived moral evils in society - primarily abortion and homosexuality - but soon this movement was joined by other groups of similar moral persuasions - Roman Catholics, Jews, Mormons and others.  To some, myself included, this was puzzling; how could these groups, often at each other's throats, unite without compromising some basic theological convictions?
 
Though many of the issues with which the Religious Right were concerned were certainly serious moral issues, their big mistake was in assuming these moral issues could be dealt with through political means.  In order to achieve their goals politically they united themselves with the political right and in doing so found themselves wed to other issues - the issues the Republican party holds sacred.  (See:  SHE'S A GOOD HEARTED WOMAN.)
 
So now the Roman Catholic Church has a pope whose moral pronouncements are sometimes opposed by many American Catholics.  He still holds to the essential Catholic doctrines; he is still opposed to abortion; he apparently still believes that homosexual behavior is sin.  So why is he opposed by many American Catholics even while he is beloved by most other Catholics and is accepted by many non-Catholics?
 
Well, for starters, he extends the forgiveness of Christ toward sinners - even homosexuals, divorced persons and others.  If that's not discomforting enough, he speaks against the death penalty, he speaks against the evils of capitalism (not capitalism itself); he speaks against the imbalance of wealth; he preaches responsibility in caring for the environment in the face of global warming.  This flies in the face of the positions held by the right.
 
And so he is opposed by American Catholics as well as Evangelical Protestants, though not on theological grounds or moral or ethical grounds based on Christian teaching.  He is rather opposed by those who base their morality and ethics on the tenets of the Republican Party.
 
However, I suspect that those of the secular (and religious) left will soon grow weary of Pope Francis as well.  He has already shown himself extremely conservative on many moral issues.  As I mentioned above he still opposes abortion and homosexual behavior.  Extending grace and forgiveness to those one considers sinners is not the same thing as endorsing their behavior.  He has not ex cathedra begun to revise the Roman Catholic Church's position on divorce or birth control.  I doubt he has a desire to do so even if we'd like him to.  He is not as many on the left seem to want to believe, one of them.
 
And so I find myself, while still theologically an Evangelical and still in disagreement with many Roman Catholic teachings, siding more and more with the Pope than with many Evangelicals and Catholics.  He wants to be like Jesus.  I think I do too.