Thursday, February 26, 2009

Washing off the Ash

A very good friend of mine e-mailed me yesterday and asked what exactly I'm doing these days. He wondered if I'm blogging while on the treadmill (working on it), writing a novel, and performing some sort of service at my "real job." What struck me is that he referred to my blog postings as "religious." I guess there's no other way to categorize it, but it still struck me as funny. I've never considered myself religious and still don't. Let me explain.

I'm a fairly intelligent person, though I have my moments of self-destructive idiocy. My favorite method of self-destruction is food. Love food. All kinds, man. My wife and I have this fantasy of going to Disney World without the kids and eating our way through Epcot. I can (and have) consumed an entire batch of chocolate chip cookie dough without breaking a sweat. You are now, no doubt, picturing me as a contestant on his first day at the Biggest Loser Ranch..."Why, yes, Allison, I do enjoy the occasional snack of vanilla frosting and graham, no, the whole can...what's that? Oh, all the crackers, baby...are you going to be pregnant every season? Sorry, my blood sugar is any of your prego-stash Twinkies around?"

But it's not quite that bad. I have struggled with my weight since I was ten years old but have never been obese. I have my ups and downs, like most, but I can never just give up and coast along. I've been on various diets and exercise routines and, for the most part, have held together and survived 42 years on this planet.

Stay with me. I'm going somewhere with this. Until groups like Weight Watchers turned the corner some years back, weight loss plans were often very regimented. Rules had to be adhered to, calorie counting followed precisely. It was, and often still is, a religion. I hated it then, I hate it now. That's not living, brother. If a hot piece of apple pie hits my plate, it's go time.

The plans that did work, and still do, are those that give me some freedom. The aforementioned Weight Watchers lightened up some years ago and provide a lot more flexibility in my eating plan. My exercise schedule is fairly loose, but I stick to it. All this means that I'm dieting, but not on a diet. I'm dieting in the way that we were meant to diet, by returning to a normal lifestyle, not the McDonald's mentality that we've attached ourselves to over the last fifty years or so. What we call a diet, our recent ancestors called living.

Let's bring this analogy home. Religion, to me, is a set of rules that I have to follow to gain God's grace. Many of my Christian friends are nodding in agreement. Oh, really? Take a look around, many of our brothers and sisters shout "heretic!" at every one they don't see in a mirror.

But faith, as I prefer to call it, is simply letting go. Letting go of what? I'm not sure. Pride, selfishness, greed, and gluttony...especially gluttony (I recommend Weight Watchers). Faith is more like the diet that is simply a return to normalcy. This is what God wanted from us in the Garden. Just trusting in Him and enjoying the life He's provided for us. Know what happens when we try to improve on the life He's provided for us? Please refer to the newspaper stories in section A on any given weekday. Just like trying to improve on our natural diet leads to reality shows where people actually compete to turn around the morbid results of their eating habits.

I shudder to think that anyone refers to me as "religious." I'm sure it happens because that's the tag society has created for those of us who go to church every Sunday. I don't like rules. I'm still me. But I'm me without the excess baggage. I'm free, unhindered by sin or rules. When I came home last night from Ash Wednesday services and washed the ashes from my forehead, I wasn't any less a follower of Christ. It's just ash. Underneath was flesh, blood, and a spirit I'm still trying to understand.

And I'm looking damn good in my 32 waist Levis.

Monday, February 09, 2009

Fighting Rome

Like most Christians in American, my political leanings are conservative. I was a conservative before being a Christian. At that time it had nothing to do with abortion, religious freedom, lax restrictions on the porn industry, or any of the other reasons normally associated with the so called religious right. It began with my military upbringing and then my understanding of economics.

It's extremely tempting to launch into an argument against big government and for a more conservative platform. Trust me, it's taking everything in me to stay off my soap box. That is not the intent of this blog and I must remain true to that or start another blog.

I say all that so that you'll understand the depth of my passion for the conservative movement. If I were an extreme liberal, explaining that would serve the same purpose. Because what I ponder, what every student of the New Testament must ponder, is the Christian's place in a very secular, political world.

Jesus made it clear that neither the Jews nor his followers (who were, of course, also Jews) were to defend themselves against Rome. He never spoke out against Caesar or even Herod. Every minute of his time on Earth was directed at focusing on our spiritual well-being. Prayer, giving to the poor, humility, self-denial. And loving our enemies.

Paul reinforces these aspects of the Christian life later in his many letters. Never does he rally the faithful to speak out against the oppressive rulers of the day. Though Jesus and Paul both speak out against injustice. Which seems to be the gray area here. Are they speaking about injustice on a national scale? Or the daily injustices doled out among individuals? It's tough to say.

While Jesus and Paul certainly saw the futility of taking a stand against Rome, would we have advised William Wilberforce to keep silent his views about the slave trade in England? I'll hazard a guess that no one reading this thinks so. If, in certain cases of extreme human suffering, we are to take a stand against the powers that be, where is the boundary line between real suffering and simple disagreements on policy?

I write this because I have no answer to that question. I write this because, like many of my brothers and sisters in Christ, I wonder where the Lord would prefer I spend my energies. I could make the case that big government could eventually lead to outright socialism, which leads toward government abuse of power, lower standards of living for all, and poverty on a mass scale.

My liberal friends would say I'm overreacting. Our system of government would never allow things to go that far and our Constitution allows for the reversal of such extremes. It's happened in Europe, after all, and several countries have reversed a trend toward socialism. This I can grant you. Unless the Constitution is completely overthrown, we can undo any harm done by a wildly socialistic government. I'm not sure I believe that, but for the sake of the argument, I'll concede to it.

Which brings me back to my quandary: is it the Christian's place to expend his or her time, talent, and energies fighting for a political stance, be it conservatism, liberalism, or any other ism? Are we better serving our Lord by helping the poor, visiting prisoners, and reaching out to a lost generation, one person at a time?

There is no easy answer to this. The Church is expected to continue its mission despite the economic and political circumstances in which it finds itself. After all, China now has a larger population of Christians than the U.S. The Chinese church doesn't seem to be waiting for a more agreeable human rights arrangement with its government before they enter into service to the Lord. While they get imprisoned for holding unauthorized church services, we protest the removal of a nativity scene from the courthouse lawn. Has the U.S. church gotten a little soft or are we realistically heading off a plunge into a socialist, anti-church America?

To some that seems preposterous, something only found in the minds of the most fanatical conspiracy theorists. But let me leave you this: there is a bill floating around in Washington called the Fairness Doctrine. While the title says fairness, it is obviously an Orwellian attempt to silence the conservative majority in talk radio. If something like that is possible in America, how far will we go? And I still haven't answered my question. Do I speak out and spend hours writing congressmen or do I keep my attention focused on things I have more power to control, like giving a homeless man a coat or volunteering in a soup kitchen?

If anyone has an answer, I'm listening. I believe God has an answer, so I'll spend more time listening to Him and less time screaming at the headlines.

Thursday, February 05, 2009

Empty Cubby Holes

I want to back up a bit. I'm writing a series of books and today's chapter topic stood out as one that I should include here. Writing is a wonderful way to get your thoughts flowing, isn't it?

A major factor in the shrinking church is the amount of information now available to the new believer. While many would say information is always a good thing, I'd like to make the case that we're losing a great number of people because of the information available.

Here's the scenario I use in my book:

Remember your first day of kindergarten? If not, think about your child's first day. When you first walked into that room, you were awestruck. Everything was a wonder. All the little chairs and desks neatly arranged. The alphabet running along the top of the walls. The smell of glue. The jars of paints. You'd never been so thrilled in your life.

Now imagine this: as you walked through the door for your first day, there's a high school senior standard there with a smirk on his face. He tells you about the thirteen years of tests, homework, bullies, and pretty girls that snicker as you pass by. He tells you that you'd better start practicing now if there's any hope of making the basketball team. And the SATs. Oh, my, wait 'till you experience the pressure surrounding those!

By now you've turned tail and run home to your Tinker Toys.

While this scenario seems silly, it's very close to what happens to the person who has finally decided to step out in faith and believe in a loving God and his Son. Often, within a day or even an hour of believing, the new Christian is accosted by the Expert. And there are plenty of them. The Expert explains what you should believe, where you should worship, how you are to be baptized, which bible version is correct, and what not to watch on television. You are directed to a series of approved books explaining the history of Israel, how to be a Godly wife, and how to prepare for the End Times. Before you do all that, though, please sign up to serve coffee after church or do your time in the nursery.

It's enough to send you back to the Tinker Toys.

If we can just allow the new believer to bask in the glow of this new discovery, take in the sights, sounds, smells, rummage around in the empty cubby hole under his desk. Maybe, if we can keep our Expert mouths shut long enough, we'll have a new friend.

If, however, our desire to steer our new convert in the "correct" direction is more important to us than letting her take that first childlike step with all the wonder that comes with it, then we're destined to become a body of believers cut off from the world and shrinking in numbers.

Tuesday, February 03, 2009

Missing Christians

While most folks can buy into the notion of an intelligent being floating about in the cosmos, the idea of creation and a God very much alive and active in our daily lives is a bigger stretch. It is this step of faith that causes many to fall into the "agnostic" or "non-affiliated Christian" categories. Polls tells us that 80-90% of Americans proclaim a belief in God. Preachers proclaim a 70-80% absence from the pews.


Let's start with a typical scenario found after the Sunday morning services of any church of any major denomination. The congregants file out, shake hands with the Pastor, head downstairs for cookies and coffee, visit with one another for maybe twenty minutes or so, and chat.

Know what they chat about? The weather. The economy. Football. Kids. TV shows.

Notice something missing? That's right. Rarely will the conversations turn to Jesus, salvation, the bible, or even the sermon they just heard.

It's a comfort thing. Even church-attending Christians feel uncomfortable talking to each other about their faith. So, if we the followers of Christ can't even get over our embarrassment to speak His name in the church, why are we surprised when most Americans see no reason to attend church or speak openly about their faith?

Taking it a step further, if most Americans are unwilling to publicly proclaim their faith (unless, ironically, running for public office), why should the children of those quiet Christians grow up believing in anything at all? They shouldn't. And since this slip into a "personal religious viewpoint" has been going on for over forty years, it's no surprise that the pews are emptying.

This leaves us with two problems: how to start speaking openly about our faith, thus reversing the trend, and how to convince an entire generation of agnostics that God is real, God is alive, and God wants a relationship with them.

I don't believe this is simply a matter of packing people back into the church. I honestly believe that our country's survival depends on it.

More to come...