Christian Perfection?

Holiness can sometimes look more like something out of “50 Shades of Grey” than something that came out of church.

 

BlacklightBDSMOkay. That did it. I was chewing on an idea for a post, feeling like I needed to write it “for the good of all humanity” (ego much?), and then got distracted by this latest tidbit on Facebook:  “It is therefore settled, by authority, that holiness or Christian perfection is the central idea of Christianity” (Bishop Jesse T. Peck (1811-1883).  I’ve made a half-hearted New Year’s resolution to not respond (or “correct”) every bit of stupid I run across on the interwebs, but sometimes you just gotta…

This one is just so typical of the Christian attitude that prevails in Western culture these days that it needs speaking out against.

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Bishop Jesse T. Peck (1811-1883)

It’s a philosophy that encourages comparing ourselves against others — and more dangerously, comparing others against some standard the we’ve set up as the true measure of a Christian. It’s bad enough we have all these white-washed churches lining up to throw stones at every “sinner” they encounter in the news, or start the paranoid screaming about how America is going to the dogs because of [fill in the blank]. People putting on their Sunday best — not just clothes for Sunday morning worship, but their Sunday best faces for the rest of the week where they can pretend moral superiority over others who do those “unholy” things, like go to bars, smoke cigarettes (or worse, weed!), or have sex outside of marriage. Hopefully, they’ve evolved past getting upset over tattoos or ear-piercings and choice of clothes, but who knows? In some places, those are still outward signs of inner holiness.

And all these little “standards” just act as tools to measure — judge! — other people. “He’s obviously not saved because he was out last night at the clubs — he even still smells like smoke.”  “She needs the Lord, because I heard her boyfriend slept over last night.”  “He’s dating a MAN! Lawd ha’ mercy!”  We can kinda laugh at these people. They’re living caricatures like you’d see Madea make fun of, or find in an old SNL sketch of the “Church Lady.”  They’ve made the church and Christianity a joke in the eyes of normal people.

Does it honestly need to be said yet again that the hallmark of Christianity — at least as defined by Jesus — is love? Love of God and love for each other.  Is it loving to judgmentally comment on a person’s clothes as a reflection of their relationship with God? Is it loving, or even truth, to turn up our nose at someone because they’re in an open relationship? Do we reflect the heart of God when we dismiss someone because they have a fondness for leather or BDSM in their personal life?  How much less so over stupid stuff like clothes, entertainment, if-what-how-often they drink or smoke, have piercings, their hairstyles, their sexual orientation, or … you name it.

All that stuff is just stupid. Holiness is the degree to which we reflect the heart of God. It has nothing to do with outward appearance, although it should certainly bear outward fruit. The heart of the Father — the fruit of the Spirit — is mostly inward stuff that works its way out in normal, everyday action: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. It’s how we think and how we act. Holiness is how we treat each other.  And frankly, if the guy who not two hours before was tied to a chair, wearing a leather mask, and getting mental and physical sexual release through being flogged (I’m deliberately painting an image that radically flies in the face of traditional views of “Christian perfection and holiness”) — if this guy stops to help me with a problem that is crushing me, or shares a kind word with me when I need it most, he IS being holy.  And you can keep your “saintly perfection” for yourself.

Okay. All this venting really relies on my old-school interpretation of these ideas of “Christian holiness.” They are the “white-washed tombs full of decaying flesh and bones” — tidy and well-kept to some on the outside, but putrid and repugnant to any who dare get close enough for a closer inspection. It’s the stuff I heard in churches growing up and saw in the lives of my friends’ religious families. It is the stuff that has caused most genuinely-seeking individuals hungry for “realness” to turn away from all forms of institutional Christianity. It smells of fakeness and entrapment, of oppression and death.

Give me people who care enough to help me fix my car, or who make sure I have groceries in my cupboards. Give me people who check up on me if they haven’t seen me for a few days on Facebook. Give me people who encourage me, ask me out for coffee or a beer, who want to be part of my life. Give me people who will actually mention my name to God at random times during the day because they’re thinking of me and honestly want God to touch me. Give me that kind of holiness. Because that’s what I’m looking for, and that’s what many people I know — outside of the church — are looking for before they’ll take on the label “Christian” for themselves. Realness. Real love.

“It is therefore settled, by authority, that holiness or Christian perfection is the central idea of Christianity.” Despite my New Year’s intentions, I couldn’t help myself. I commented on that Facebook post: “huh. I thought it was love — loving God, loving others. Guess maybe I’m not holy enough.”  And maybe I’m not.

photo credit: “Blacklight BDSM” by Beo Beyond on Flickr. cc. 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Jesus in Drag

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Funny thing happened in church today. (Yeah, I know. Sounds like the start of a joke.) The church I frequently attend put on a nice Christmas program, with the choir singing some of the holiday favorites, interspersed with readings about Jesus, and a good mix of worship songs that never let our minds drift too far from the theme that Jesus is at the heart of our holiday.

God’s got an interesting sense of humor. Because, there I was, sitting way over in the left section of the sanctuary, empty seats around me, and about a half hour into the program, two women whom I thought might well be hookers, came in and sat next to me. I smiled and nodded politely — being the welcoming Christian gentleman that I pretend to be. And a few minutes later, in the middle of a choir member’s monologue, one of the lady’s phone goes off. And it’s ringing. Literally, ringing, like the old style phones. And it keeps ringing. And she’s fumbling with it, trying to shut it off. And still it rings. You’d think it would stop after a few rings — even if she can’t manage to find the mute — and go to voicemail. But no. It rings continuously for close to a minute. I thought, surely she’d just get up and leave the quiet intimacy of the sanctuary and try to deal with the noise out in the lobby. But no. Eventually, after what seemed an embarrassingly drawn out period of time, her friend grabs the phone from her and puts it under her thigh, effectively muffling it. After my initial sense of mortification and a brief moment of internal wrestling with judgmental indignation, I manage to find the humor in it, and just start chuckling. The one sitting on the phone looks over at me and starts to laugh too. Quietly, of course. And she smiles at me. Okay, “welcoming mission” accomplished.

The guy sitting right in front of me, also on an otherwise empty row, … I don’t know quite what to make of. At first glance, I thought he was one of the homeless youth we’re currently providing winter clothes for, but during the “meet and greet” — that moment all introverts dread — when I shook his hand and we exchanged names, I realized he was no teenager. He must have been in his 30s at least. And he couldn’t have been homeless because he was dressed in clean loungewear. A cut off tanktop that showed his belly (not rock-hard abs, in case you were wondering) and … I don’t even know what to call them: fuzzy pink and lime leppard print tights? Sweats? Yeah, not what they’re wearing on the streets these days.

That’s God’s sense of humor for you. In a room full of familiar faces, the handful of first-timers flocked to the seats immediately by me. The professional ladies and the … party boy? … and the uptight middle-class white guy in a constant battle to keep his Christianity real. We were like a reunion of the cast from the Island of Misfit Toys. Must be something about that side of the sanctuary that intuitively drew us — check who’s over on the left side next time you’re in church — or maybe God was just punking me. But hey, I did the smiley face pretty convincingly apparently, since the ladies chatted me up a bit afterwards, asking if I was a member, and telling me how they’d often walked past the place, but this was their first time to get the courage to come in, and how maybe they’ll see me next week. I only got to nod goodbye to the guy in the pink and lime jammies, as he kinda hurried out the door and I got caught up in after-church conversation that always seems to go on in places like that.

But here’s the kicker. During one of the choir monologues about Jesus being the Way, the Truth, the Life, the Gift of Love from the Father, the woman with the neverending-ringing cell phone had her eyes closed and her hands in the air. I think I even saw tears in the corner of her eyes. And her friend was just quietly smiling. And during one of the songs, I heard her whisper “Jesus.” And the fashionable guy in front of me was clapping in beat with some of the songs and standing at appropriate moments of worship.

I don’t know what was going on in their minds any more than I know what was going on in the hearts of the guys wearing suits a few rows up and to the right of me. But God was there. The Spirit connected with hearts that reached out for him. “Emmanuel. God with us.” And I got to witness a little bit of that taking place.

Jesus said whoever welcomes the least among us welcomes him. I’m still wrestling to shed my white, middle-class, evangelical uptightness, but at this particular holiday event, I was reminded powerfully — yet again — that Jesus comes in all shapes, sizes, and packaging.

Merry Christmas!

 

photo credit:  Pablo Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon, by Wally Gobetz on Flickr, cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore

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I just read yet another article on why millennials are abandoning church. And honestly, if you’ve been around in the church-world for a few decades, it’s really just the same ole spin, same ole reasons used with every generation: “The young people are fleeing the church — what can we do to stop it?”  Nothing new under the sun.

But at the same time, the points in the article were entirely valid — not because they specifically reflected “millennial values,” but simply because they cut to the core of the whole point and purpose of the church.  What it boils down to is this: People see no reason to join a stale organization that doesn’t seem to serve an important purpose.

The author of the piece puts it in more churchy language: “Millennials perceive established churches to have values that are entrenched in non-missional traditions.” He writes that this generation of 20- and 30-somethings values community, service to others, and a world-awareness, but they see established churches acting contrary to those values.  Churches today seem more concerned about maintaining the status quo — too much “doing the same thing because that’s how it’s always been done” — rather than making an actual difference in the world. And in the process, losing the whole point of the Church in the first place.

But this is not just the perception of millennials. Any person with an appetite for authenticity and spiritual reality will tend to view churches the same way. In years past, “relevance” was the buzz word. Churches were dying because they were frozen in decades past, preaching about issues and sins no one cared about, using out-moded language, not addressing the modern viewpoint. So churches started trying to act “hip”.  Worship music was updated. New lighting systems were installed. Smoke machines were purchased to add effect. Youth ministers dressed in youth-trendy fashions. The suit jacket and tie disappeared from the pulpit in favor of jeans and open-neck, button-down shirts. Even the old bulky wooden pulpits themselves were replaced with transparent acrylic or newer industrial metal lecterns.

And there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with any of that. But it’s all simply cosmetic if the heart of the church isn’t renewed, if the church doesn’t get back to its core purpose of reaching out to a hurting world.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

I heard a sermon online recently where the pastor spoke at length about the Christian obligation to “go into all the world” and “witness,” and it largely revolved around inviting people to church. “Let’s fill this house, let’s pack these pews.”  Really? Is that what Jesus commanded us to do?

Just to be clear, Jesus never instructed us to “go out and witness.” He commanded us to BE witnesses, to make disciples. That’s a day-to-day thing, being a living presence where you are, being a light for those around you to see. It’s about building relationships with people, where you get your hands dirty in their messy lives. Where you walk beside them, being a friend, a help, offering insight where you have it. “Discipleship” is day-to-day influence through one-on-one relationship. If you have to make a special effort, if you have to put on airs or act differently in order to “witness,” you’re really missing the point. It’s about being personally transformed by your own relationship with God, and having that work its way out in the way you interact with people, the way you do your job, the way you view the world. It’s about living a life of love that is so attractive to others that they hunger for what you have. That they want God in their lives the way he is in yours. They are drawn to the light.  But if you don’t have it, you can’t offer it.  And you sure can’t fake it. Nobody falls for that crap.

The church loses each successive generation because it is too tied with the past, too tied to maintaining the building, paying for the heat and light — too distracted with upkeep of the existing building — that it’s lost track of reaching out beyond its walls. It’s become a cycle of self-survival. And when the church turns inward, when it loses its outward focus, it become stagnant. It becomes about “us” and keeping us entertained. As the writer of that other article said, “the established church feels more like a religious country club rather than an outwardly-focused organization.”

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God. Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

So, you want more millennials in your church? You want more people genuinely interested in the “real thing” that you have? Then get back to the basics. Get back to a heart that cares. Hands that serve. Money that goes to feed the poor, clothe the naked, help the homeless, care for the sick — that DOES SOMETHING. Be a group of people that actively engages the world, that goes to the bars, that enjoys life, that loves on people as they are and where they are — not a group that seals itself off from the “great unclean” world out there, shunning “sinners,” cloistering itself in its own little holy community.

The church stuck within its own walls is not a church at all.  It’s a farce.  It is people consumed by religious routine deluding themselves that they are the Kingdom of God.

So what is the Church?  It is the people of God doing the work of God.

Doing. Acting. Interacting. Moving. Motivated by love.

A friend posted a personal observation on Facebook today about his health.  He hadn’t been to the gym since he’d gotten back from a vacation in Europe, and noticed that he was feeling lethargic with lower energy levels.  Even his sleeping was effected, where he wasn’t sleeping straight through the night. So he returned to the gym, to physical activity — to “movement” — getting back to his cardio workout and yoga practice. Suddenly, he’s sleeping soundly again and his energy levels are back.  He sums it up: “All I did was move! The body is meant for movement.”

And it’s the same for the church. Too many churches have become lethargic, with low energy levels. The self-absorption and lack of involvement with the world around them has caused them to become dull and lifeless — and people are losing interest. People are drifting away.  Like my friend’s body, the Body of Christ is meant for movement. For activity. And like the human body, without it, we become unhealthy.

And the solution is just as simple. “Nothing elaborate — just move. The results are immediate.”

Maybe if we focused less on our shrinking church family and more on the people around us — becoming active in our communities, serving each other, taking care of our world — we wouldn’t be having these perpetual conversations about how the current generation doesn’t seem to be interested in us anymore.


photo credit: Seth Sawyers via Flickr, cc

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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Who Cares What the Bible Says?

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Okay, that title is a bit cheeky and misleading, but it cuts to the heart of the issue.

I’ve got Facebook open most of the day. When I’m at work, yes, I’m working, but I still glance over from time to time to see what’s happening with friends and random acquaintances. And today, a friend posted an ad for a discussion group at a local college on what the Bible says about homosexuality. And the thought came to me: “If you’re going to the Bible for special instructions on how to treat certain people, you’re already asking the wrong question.”

And that part really hit me: “You’re already asking the wrong question.” Because, honestly, we can make the Bible say whatever we want it to say. We’ve done it for thousands of years. In our own recent history, we’ve justified slavery and the oppression of women by it. We’ve endorsed racial segregation. We’ve shunned divorced people. We’ve even justified wars by it. And we’ve had these “Homosexuality and the Bible” talks ad nauseum — and surprisingly, few minds have been changed.

Today I also noticed another FB friend had posted an informal poll on his wall, asking what top 3 things people look for when searching for a church home. Hey, that might be interesting info to know, so I was curious. Not surprisingly, although “fellowship” and “spirit-filled worship” were high on the list, the #1 response was “Word-based” / “Bible-based” as what these guys look for when thinking about joining a church. In fact, one responder put for his three choices: “The Word, The Word, The Word.” And another guy was even more emphatic, “The absolute unadulterated word of God being preached.”

Okay. I get it. People want a church that preaches and teaches “the Word of God.” But I bet if we asked them what that means, we’d get a variety of answers. What is “absolute, unadulterated”? Doesn’t a Southern Baptist church preach the Word, often straight out of the King James Bible? Doesn’t a liturgical Episcopal church that reads from the Bible every Sunday satisfy that criteria? Yet neither of those churches would likely satisfy those responders. Why?

Oh, by the way, these weren’t just fundamentalist or charismatic Christians who were responding. My friend is not a pastor. He’s a fitness coach, and his posts mostly focus on health, workouts and nutrition. And his friends/followers are mostly gay, fitness-oriented, and yes, Christian — of all stripes.

But these multiple respondents all reflect a similar mentality. We place a premium on hearing the authoritative voice of God — and for the most part, that looks like someone telling us what God wants of us based on what’s written in the Bible — a Bible we’ve all probably read countless times already.

Ruled by the Head instead of the Heart

We want an “authority” to base our faith around — to tell us how to live our lives. The problem is, the Bible doesn’t work that way. It isn’t that simple. Just ask any Southern Baptist and Episcopalian the same question, and see what they claim the Bible says. Faith doesn’t work that way either. A spiritual walk cannot be directed or legislated from an outside source. It must be directed from within, from a personal interaction with direction and promptings that come from the Spiritual Voice of God. And you won’t get that from a pulpit — or from just reading “the Word.” It is a spiritual activity.

So, ultimately, it’s not what the Bible says about a topic that is important. It’s how you read it. How you interpret what the Bible says, how you respond to it, what seeds of power are birthed through it by the Spirit. Because a Southern Baptist, an Episcopalian, and a charismatic Word of Faith believer are all going to read the same Bible and walk away with completely different understandings of what is expected of them.

So what then should be the standard we use to evaluate an issue or idea? How about Love? If we call ourselves Christians, followers of Jesus, and the New Testament is the filter through which we view all of Scripture, then we have to believe that the heart and will of God is as Jesus described it. It is demonstrated in the way Jesus lived it out.

So, let’s go to our chief example, Jesus. Look how he handled Scripture. Whenever religious people came to him wanting some technical answer or legal ruling — “What does God command us to do in this situation?” — he responded with “the heart” of the message, not the letter of the Law. He continually turned their cold and callous interpretation of Scripture on its head, and gave them something totally unexpected.

And the answers Jesus gave were always uplifting, forgiving, affirming, full of grace. In a word, full of Love. People walked away feeling they were special, important to God. Jesus didn’t use Scripture to trap people, to restrict them, to justify throwing stones at them. Ever. And the only people he seemed to have a harsh word for were those same religious folks bent on controlling others through “the Word.”

That’s why Jesus could say over and over, “You have heard it said…, but I say to you …” He took the Scripture that religious people were wielding heartlessly, dangerously, hatefully, and showed them the warm, affirming, loving side of it. He brought out the true meaning of those Biblical texts. He read Scripture through the eyes of the Spirit of God. He heard Scripture read through the ears of the Compassionate God. And the lessons he taught were so full of affirmation and love that when some of his followers wanted to leave him, and he asked Peter if he would leave him too, Peter responded immediately: “Where shall we go? You have the words of life!”

“Words of Life.” When’s the last time someone described our Bible-sword-fights like that? When’s the last time someone walked out of your Word-based church and felt they had just been fed the “words of life”?

So maybe it’s time we stop having these conferences about “What Scripture Says About …” and start reading Scripture ourselves — with the heart of the God whose will we claim to value so highly. Maybe it’s time we start looking at our lives, at the controversial issues that provoke us during the day, at the outrageous behavior of neighbors who challenge our religious cultural values, with the eyes of Love — the Love of God. Love defined not by mushy feelings or impersonal religious objectivity, but a Love that says “I wouldn’t want to be treated that way, so I won’t treat YOU that way.”

Maybe it’s time we stop asking “What does the Bible say about …”, and start asking, “What is the Loving way to handle this situation?” Or, “How can I show these people what True Love looks like?”

Christians of all denominations love to measure others by “what the Word says.” But the center of that Word is Jesus; we believe that all Scripture points to him. So maybe it’s time to stop being so “Word-focused” and more Jesus-focused. Maybe it’s time to stop asking for technical, black-and-white answers to everything, and start acting out of the Love that Word speaks of so much. Seems like things might be so much simpler then. And we wouldn’t need to call for so many convocations and conventions to determine how to treat our neighbors.


photo credit: “Open Bible with Pen,” Ryk Neethling via Flickr, cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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What Makes a Great City … or a Great Church

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I just saw an article on why Houston is the best city in America. As a non-Houstonian I thought, “Okay, whatever.” But then my thoughts started churning, the synapses started firing, and I started making connections with the church-world.

Okay, obviously you’ve got to do a bit of mental translation here, but what supposedly makes Houston such a great city are some of the same qualities that would make a great church too.

 Jobs. Houston’s got this great job market. In my mind, that translates in the church-world as involvement. Give church members a chance to DO something, to make a difference. It’s what we’re supposed to be about, afterall, isn’t it? Equipping the saints to do the work of the Kingdom. So let’s equip and then point them in the right direction to “do”.

 More healthcare businesses. This, to me, translates as: church should be involved in meeting people’s physical needs, not just spiritual.  It’s been said over and over. You can’t proclaim the Gospel to people when they’re dead. If we don’t feed them, clothe them, help with their medical bills (“Good Samaritan” ring any bells?), then no one’s gonna be much inclined to listen to what we have to say. Besides, it’s what Jesus told us to do.

 Massive international trade. Translates as “a global perspective.” The church is more than just a local body of believers. It should have a heart and resources that stretch beyond borders. And I’m not just talking about “missionary work.” I mean we should actually care about the people on the other side of the world.

 Houston is Space City, NASA. Okay, this is a stretch, but how about “Prayer“? Our prayers should be reaching out into the heavens. The church needs a solid grounding in prayer, not just as an occasional activity people do in their morning devos.

 A paycheck goes farther / cost of living. A good church should stretch its dollars to go the farthest and to have maximum impact. If we’re spending $$ on “stuff”, we’re probably missing it. The church has a responsibility to spend money wisely — especially considering that for most people putting money in the plate, every dollar counts.

 Ethnically and racially diverse. ‘Nuff said. The church is bigger than just a bunch of old, straight, white people. Everybody should be included. The local church should be a reflection of the local community. We need color, we need diversity to be healthy. Plus, it’s just a lot more fun that way.

 Wide range of ethnic cuisines. Pretty close to the last one, but … “food“. Need I say more? The church thrives on breaking bread.  What we eat says something about who we are, and sharing food, pot lucks, well, it’s just an essential part of that thing we call “fellowship.”

 One of the most exciting places to eat. Kinda the same deal. But maybe we could squeeze in “spiritual feeding” here. If you’re being fed the same ole tired spiritual food, maybe you need some fresh inspiration. We should be people of the Living Word of God, not the same old commercials. “If it ain’t fresh, don’t eat it.”

 More parks than most cities. For me, this is recreation and relaxation. The church that plays together stays together. Being a “church family” should be more than getting together on Sundays to do “the church thing.” And it should be a place where we can let our hair down after a hectic week of work and modern life, not a place where we have to put on a mask. It’s where we come to be re-energized, refreshed, and restored, not where we get more drained by having to pretend to be who we’re not.

 Great universities. I probably shouldn’t have to say that the church should also be a place where minds are being engaged as well as spirits, but we all know the unfortunate truth. In many houses of worship, an inquiring mind is considered the devil’s playground.  Just ask any of the “recovering fundamentalists.” In church, questions should be asked, and your spiritual exploration encouraged. You should be growing, stretching, seeing things in a new way, “growing in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” Cuz if we’re not growing, we’re stagnating.

 Houston is filled with museums and cultural landmarks. You know what? The church should be filled with art, music, and beauty too. Didn’t God say everything was “good” when he created it? We should celebrate beauty. It can inspire us in higher ways to connect with God.  Maybe we need to swap out one or two of our Bible studies for free art classes, or hang the work of local artists in our church coffee shops. That would be great.

 Largest rodeos. Authenticity. This one I gotta give credit to my friend Rita Bosico who pointed it out when I first made these comments on Facebook. She said, having been to — and felt like she belonged in — a cowboy church, what she liked best about their attitude was that they were real people with real problems who need a real God. They had no time for phony “playing church.” They had a sense of raw unmasked spirituality that was refreshing. Most didn’t dress up but came right from he fields … with dirt and non-dirt on their shoes. And wouldn’t that be a nice change if we could just come to church showing our “dirt” and all?  When I thought of rodeos, well, umm, all I could think of was rodeo clowns, and everybody knows the church has plenty of clowns.

 Great sports teams. Church softball and bowling teams, anyone? More of that “play together, stay together” stuff. Besides, you should be able to work out your aggressions in ways other than yelling at the pastor.

 Finally, Houston is a great place for Southern Hip-Hop. Lord knows I’m not a big fan of funky music in church, but … it can have a place. Music is part of our soul, so it’s natural that it should be an integral part of our worship experience. Maybe we can let our hair down and really let go once in a while … umm, without having to pretend we suddenly “got the Holy Ghost.”  Just saying.

See? Almost anything can be turned into a sermon! Thanks, seminary!

Oh well. Until my next moment of random inspiration …

– Steve

 

photo credit: “Houston Skyline” by John Colosimo

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a Bible teacher at Expressions in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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“Submission”: Why Church Words Matter

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My Facebook feed is full of them. Kinda inevitable, I guess, since I have so many Facebook friends who are pastors and religious practioners. Posts, statuses, comments, full of churchy words, theological jargon, traditional King-Jamesy sounding terms. Stuff that passes for Christianese.

And I’m sick of it.

Up till now my reasons have been personal. Those words always sounded fake, cheesy, insincere. And they were over-used and under-understood. They were often meaningless, even to those who quoted them. And, they rang a lot of bells from memories of hostile churches, sermons directed against people instead of words spoken to build up, embrace, and encourage.

Words like … Saved and Salvation. Redeemed. Blood-bought. Sanctified. Righteous. Born again. Blessed. Glory!

And I would frequently mutter under my breath, “if you can’t find another word for it, then you probably don’t even know what it means.” How else is anybody else gonna know what the heck you’re talking about?!

Those words — intending to convey a sense of power and holiness, of awe and gravitas — only sounded empty, cliche, and archane, the secret language of the religiously initiated. “Are you saved? Are you one of the chosen?”

And recently, during table talk over dinner, a friend threw in another one. “Submission.” This is a loaded one, especially for anyone who’s grown up in conservative circles where it was taught that wives should submit to their husbands. In this case it was about submitting to spiritual authority.

“Spiritual authority”? That almost intuitively sounds like a contradiction in terms. Isn’t true spirituality marked by humility? But you want to exercise authority over other people in the name of religion, in the name of a divine calling or holy office? If that doesn’t conjure up images of the Church in the Middle Ages, of Inquisitions, of Tribunals, of imprisonment and excommunication and harsh discipline… Just walk away, baby, walk away.

Those familiar with recent church history will also remember the “Shepherding/Discipleship movement.” People with sincere hearts, seeking God and holy living, surrendered themselves and their wills to pastoral leaders who spoke for God. They allowed pastors to make basic life decisions for them, from what job to take, what house to buy, even whom to marry. And the abuse of power was rampant. Lives were crushed, and the flocks scattered, confused and more lost than ever. Sounds like a cult, right? And that is exactly what it was. But it started out as a sincere evangelical movement based on a supposed biblical concept — no nefarious motives involved.

Yet to this day you’ll still hear “submit to spiritual authority” mentioned in certain churches. It goes hand in hand with that manipulative command, “touch not mine anointed” — that misquoted biblical injunction not to take matters into your own hands against divinely appointed leadership. That somehow, leadership is infallible.

So, it boils down to this: Are we, as bible-believing, sincere Christians, to submit to spiritual authority?

The short answer is NO. At least not in the sense normally understood — and that is exactly why the words we use are so important.

Here’s a famous biblical case in point: In the “Acts of the Apostles” in the bible, the early Christians in Jerusalem lived together in order to live out their faith with a true sense of brotherhood and community. They pooled their resources and lived essentially in communes, with the apostles as their community leaders. Those who had resources shared with those who did not. And people would sell their lands and property, and lay the money “at the feet of the apostles” — basically surrendering their wealth for community use. The needs of the poor, the sick, the widows and defenseless were all taken care of. And in this way, no one was needy.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus.

It was a beautiful thing. But human nature can’t stand that kind of sharing for too long. Selfishness is deeply rooted in our DNA. During these idyllic days, a rich property-owning married couple named Ananias and Sapphira sold some land but decided to keep a chunk of the profits for themselves. They brought a fraction of the money, and laid it at Peter’s feet. And because of their deceit, they were struck dead — they had lied to the apostles and to the Holy Spirit.

Here’s the key. Peter states the case clearly: they were under no compulsion to “submit” their worldly goods. “Didn’t the property belong to you before it was sold? And after it was sold, wasn’t the money yours to do with as you pleased?” But because they tried to fool the apostles and community into thinking they were giving their all, they received the harshest punishment. And young men came in and carried their bodies out to be buried. (Acts 5:1-10)

A quick search through the New Testament for the word “submit” or “submission” shows a wide range of contexts and situations where we are to defer to others for the common good and for our own benefit. And the ultimate expression of that is always with reference to God. There are a few mentions of slaves submitting to masters, wives submitting to their husbands as the husbands submit to Christ, and even evil spirits submitting to the authority of the name of Jesus. Paul says we should submit to civil authority so that we can live in peace, and that we should not submit to our evil desires — or even to religious rules (Col 2:20).

The killer text

Where we trip up is the reference in Hebrews 13 about placing trust in our spiritual leaders and “submitting to their authority” because they “keep watch over you as those who must give an account.” In other words, we should cooperate with those given the responsibility for caring for us, so that we may fully benefit from their guidance. Similar to the 5th Commandment, “honor your father and mother, so that you may have a long life…”, it is simply a good idea to heed the advice of those with more maturity and experience than us.

And the Apostle Peter describes what thatshould  look like from the perspective of the leaders of religious congregations. “To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them — not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.” (1 Pet 5:1-3)

Spiritual leaders are to be examples to the flock, and we should follow their example. “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble. Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. (1 Pet 5:5).

For our own personal and spiritual growth, we should pay attention (“submit”) to the spiritual advice of those with greater maturity: our spiritual elders. But no where do these apostles suggest that that influence and respect apply outside the realm of spiritual development. Like Peter’s words to Ananias and Sapphira, we are under no physical, material, financial or any other obligation to obey religious leaders, other than what is due out of respect and love. Complete personal obedience was never in the picture.

In that regard, our only obligation for total submission is to God. We are his people, his children. We live in his Kingdom. He is our King.

The idea of abject obedience to some person in religious office is contrary to the teaching of Jesus. He taught that the least will be first, the first would be last, and we should serve one another out of mutual love. In a brief moment of power-play when two of his disciples asked to be seated at his left and right hand when the Kingdom came in full, he rebuked them gently. The pagans rule and lord it over each other. But that is not how it was to be in his kingdom. Why then do we choose this loaded word as a characteristic of the godly life?

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others.

The bottom line here on submission is that we are to treat each other with respect, and give honor where it is due. We are to serve one another, to put others before ourselves. It is a reflection of the grace God has shown us, and we in turn show others. This is proper behavior for those who recognize the God who created us all in his image, as his children. But it is not about slave-like obedience or surrender of our wills. We are to “submit to one another” out of mutual love — it is not just a one-way street where the flock owes allegiance to the shepherds. We are to serve one another, following the example of Jesus who served his own disciples.

Submission is about recognizing the Godly gifts in each other, honoring each other as brothers and sisters in the family of God, knowing that others are created in the image of God just as we are. If you’ll excuse borrowing imagery from another religion, it is similar to the attitude in the Hindu greeting “Namaste” — a recongition of the divine in each of us. “You have value. I will respect you for who you are.” And that is a far cry from surrendering our wills to the wishes and caprices of those with holy titles.

Peter summarizes the entire range of “submission” responsibility in one quick statement: “Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.” With that basic principle in mind, can we please drop that word from our everyday religious vocabulary? To contemporary believers, it is too suggestive of drone-like obedience, too out of step with the humble nature of our faith, and not at all reflective of the reverential respect we owe each other. Treat each other as you would like to be treated, as fellow children of God, and the “submission” part will take care of itself.

photo credit: “Spanish Inquisition”, Claudia Gold via Flickr, cc.

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT is a teacher at Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He is editor of IMPACT Magazine, and blogs here on the Cafe Inspirado column. Plus you can find him making random comments about life on Facebook.

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This is Not “Your” Country

ChristianFlag_7899058016_1512abf4da_oThey say you should never drive while you’re angry. The same probably goes for writing. And while I recently learned “not everything needs to be barked at,” sometimes some things do.

I stay in touch with a lot of Christian groups online, mostly on Facebook, because I like to be engaged with relevant issues. And today, in one of those groups, someone posted this video along with the comment that Christians need to “Stand Up!” and take back our country for Jesus.

(You can watch just his short speech uninterupted here.)

The back story here is that the school district had banned public prayer when it started receiving complaints that too many social functions were being opened with sectarian prayer.  So this student, given the opportunity as valedictorian to exhort his fellow students, tore up his approved speech and instead subjected the audience to his testimony and recitation of the Lord’s Prayer.

What’s wrong with a little prayer? Absolutely nothing. Prayer is a wonderful thing. Unless it’s when you are flaunting your faith, rubbing other people’s noses in it. Or when you’re imposing your religion on other people who don’t share it.  Remember Jesus’ own words about people who make a big show about praying in public?  In America, we honor religious practice; its protection is enshrined in our constitution — and that’s exactly why we shouldn’t open public ceremonies and official events with prayer. Because it excludes people, people who don’t pray that way or believe the same way — and that’s neither the American nor the loving thing to do.

This is an ongoing thing here in “God’s Country.”  Some Americans feel threatened by all the radical shifts occurring in society – whether it’s the bold embracing of “sin” (like abortion or gay marriage: oddly never about greed or oppressing widows and orphans), or when white Americans feel their majority slipping through their fingers and their beloved country being overrun by people of a different color or who speak a different language. Some of this we can try to be patient with as the remnants of a dying culture still grasp with withered fingers to keep their hold on civic affairs. We can even pity them. Yes, it must be difficult watching this younger generation embrace their gay and lesbian friends, where the word “queer” is no longer used as an insult, where Spanish is heard more often on the streets than English, and when you walk downtown you are no longer surrounded by familiar white faces. Change is hard. But it’s not always bad – as your kids know all too well.

Unfortunately even churches get in on the act. Same deal: we might forgive their overzealous approach to certain social issues when we consider their life-sucking religiosity and narrower code of morality. Okay, that was a bit harsh. How about, when we take into account their particular set of beliefs about right and wrong? Aren’t churches in the business of trying to stop sin and create a more godly culture?  Umm, yes – although that is a completely unbiblical mandate for the Church. Forcefully controlling other people’s lives was never a mission of Jesus.

Nevertheless, churches continue to promote social and political agendas, endorsing political candidates, hosting “pro-American” programs – everything from inviting disgraced politicians like Tom DeLay to speak at their churches because he supports a conservative agenda, to even handing out guns as a way to increase church attendance.  (Yeah, that really happened.)  And these churches, with their political endorsements, are in direct violation of law which grants them the coveted tax-exempt status provided they stay out of the political arena. But let’s ignore that technicality for now. Many churches have embraced patriotism, equating being a good (conservative) American with being a good (conservative) Christian.  Somewhere along the line, we’ve confused “give to Caesar what belongs to Caesar, and to God what belongs to God,” equating God with Caesar.

In doing so, we’ve painted God as a white, heterosexual American male. Ya know, even that can be tolerated to some degree.  God is big. He created EVERYTHING and everybody, in infinite varieties of shapes, sizes, colors, personalities, and I’m sure he doesn’t mind if we relate to him best when we think of him as “similar” to us.  So if I walk into a church with stained glass windows depicting a black baby Jesus, hey, that’s okay – at least as okay as painting that Middle Eastern Jew as a blond-haired, blue-eyed man.  I’ve seen Jesus with almond eyes in Eastern Orthodox churches, and with distinctly Asian features painted by Korean Christians.  When it’s done as a way of better connecting with God and out of genuine affection for him, I’m sure Jesus loves it.

But when we start doing this at the expense of other people who don’t quite fit our vision of God, or who don’t quite hold the same codes of holiness we do, when the exercise of our religious freedom makes other people feel left out instead of lovingly included, I’m pretty sure Jesus isn’t smiling about it.

And that is exactly what that young man did in his valedictorian speech. He defied authority and potentially offended so many people in that audience who don’t subscribe to his version of faith.  “Yes,” I commented on that man’s post, “I’m sure the Jewish students especially appreciated this. Imagine if that had been a Muslim student, defying school rules, and reciting a prayer from the Quran.”

Guess what? America does not belong to just white, Protestant Christians.  And I’m not speaking theoretically. I have Jewish and Muslim friends, and I would never insult them by reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a ceremony celebrating their accomplishments. (Honestly, knowing some of them, they probably wouldn’t mind so much, giving me grace to express my faith as suits me.) And I wouldn’t slam my Christian fist into the stomachs of my Buddhist or Hindu friends by usurping the opportunity to offer encouraging words about their future and turning it instead into a testimony about how they should turn their lives over to Jesus.

Do people still ask “WWJD?”  I’m pretty sure he wouldn’t do any of that.

And on a purely patriotic level, America was founded as a safe-place for people who don’t subscribe to “official” religion. Remember the Pilgrims? Puritans who fled England because they were persecuted for not following the official faith of the throne.  Remember the Statue of Liberty? Holding up her torch “beside the golden door,” welcoming those who sought freedom. And here we are, even in our “Houses of God,” waving flags, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, voting ministers into political positions and inviting politicians into our pulpits, making better Americans (“Christians”) out of those who may not want to be Christians.

“This land was made for you and me,” we were taught to sing in elementary school. “This land is your land, this land is my land …”  It belongs to all of us – by historical roots, by Constitutional right, and I believe by the favor of God.  We can never please God by offending others, by using our faith to slap them across the face, by using our privileged positions to ram our beliefs down their throats. By giving our salvation testimony and reciting the Lord’s Prayer at a high school commencement meant to honor other people besides just us.  Because our public institutions and civic functions — even if not our houses of worship — should be places where people are made to feel welcome and included, not where they are treated like they are unimportant or don’t even exist at all.

“This land is your land”, but it is not “your” land.  It doesn’t belong to you exclusively, nor is it yours to impose your beliefs on others. That’s just selfishness and ignorance. It’s not American. And it’s certainly not Christian.

Photo credit: CJF20 on Flickr, cc
[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

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Good News? What’s So Good About It?

laughing-jesusAll the religious/political hooplah that’s been in the news so much recently has left many people with a bitter taste in their mouths when it comes to Christianity. And understandably so.

Images of shunning people and public shaming  (à la John MacArthur), denying their very existence and resisting their legal rights (à la Southern Baptist Convention on transgender people), labeling them broken in need of repair because of their natural sexual orientation (à la Texas GOP platform), and the radical claims that LGBTQ people, simply by insisting on equal civil rights, are a threat to the Church and “the American Way of Life” (à la Tony Perkins and the Family Research Council, Franklin Graham, Pat RobertsonFocus on the Family, and other groups about LGBT people) … all these negative portrayals of a faith that claims to have LOVE as its central principle, have left most religiously unaffiliated people with an extremely negative impression of the followers of Jesus.

Such is the inevitable result of mixing faith with the politics of domination and control.

It’s obvious to many people that this approach is completely antithetical to the teaching of the Prince of Peace who allowed himself to be crushed by civil authority rather than to impose his own power over it.

And it’s left a lot of people asking a very important question:
If this is all nonsense, then what actually is the Gospel?

Even after all these generations of being a supposedly “Christian nation,” of being the most overly-churched, overly-exposed people to the Gospel in the entire world, we still have it ALL wrong. We still have very little idea what that “Gospel” is really all about. But then again, religious people are almost always the last to grasp the simple truth.

What Good News?

When Jesus first started doing public ministry, way back 2000 years ago, the very first words he said were: “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is here. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mk 1:15). I was rereading this a few days ago, and I was stumped by the phrase. “Believe the good news”? What good news?

Mark, the gospel writer, never explains what that is. Of course, it had to be related to the Kingdom of God arriving, but what did that really mean? Well, we have four gospels — Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John — and each describes the same events from different perspectives. Like four people at a party, each will remember and highlight certain things that were particularly important to him, bringing out details that the others may have overlooked. So I flipped over to Luke’s account to see if he could fill in the missing details: What good news?

Jesus went to Nazareth where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue … The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners,
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
Then he began by saying to them, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” Everyone spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words” (Lk 4:16-22).

There It Is … Something Good

And there it was — the good news. And these religious folks, these people who had read and memorized their Bibles all their lives, were amazed at what he was teaching them. Jesus didn’t just read to them, he “began by saying to them”, so he must have spent some time elaborating, explaining, telling them familiar truths in a way they’d never heard before. He opened their eyes for the first time in their lives to the true heart of God, hidden in words they already knew so well.

And this is it…

  • That religious prison you’ve been living in all your life — you’re free from it.
  • That view of God you’ve had all these years, the God who counts your sins, the one whom you try so hard to please but keep failing — here’s a different view. See the Father in a new way: not through laws and rules and religious lifestyle, but in simplicity of a loving relationship. Don’t be blind anymore to the true character of God. Open your eyes and see.
  • That oppression you’ve been living under, the frustration of constant failure to live up to other people’s expectations and rules and regulations, trying to force you into a mold of “holiness” — you’re released from all that.
  • Oh, and by the way, the time has come, your King is here now, and that means you NOW live in a time of God’s favor. You’re accepted, you’re loved, unconditionally, just as your are, right now, independent of your ability to live up to all these legalistic standards. It’s a whole new world, a whole new age. You are completely free from all that old stuff, and you already have God’s blessings and favor. It’s yours now.

And you don’t have to do anything to have it except receive it. That’s the good news!

So why do we make things so complicated, so religious, so legalistic about our relationship with God — even after two thousand years — when it’s so simple?

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me to proclaim freedom …”

What is the Gospel? What is the Good News?
In a single word, the heart of the good news is Freedom.

Freedom from ANY rule or protocol or standard of behavior required to enjoy the company of the Creator of the Universe in your normal, day-to-day life.

Real Life

But what does look like in real life? Simplicity itself.

You know those rules people told you about, things you had to do to please God? Or those things you weren’t doing, and that’s why God wasn’t pleased with you? Throw them all out.

You know how you were told you couldn’t wear too much make-up because it would displease God? Or how your hair was too long? Or that that tattoo you had on your arm was a sin? Or your dress was too short, or your ear was pierced too many times? Or how you went clubbing last night, or had too many drinks — or that you had a drink at all? Or that the person you love is the wrong gender? It’s all garbage.

To use the language of Old Testament law, that shirt you are wearing was made from two types of fabric: you’re a sinner. You cut the hair at the corners of your head. God is displeased. The tassels on your shirt are not showing in public — you failed. You walked too far on the Sabbath. You must die. You didn’t bring your whole tithe into God’s house — you are cursed. You ate shrimp for dinner last night — you are an abomination. You had pepperoni on your pizza — you must be outcast and shunned. Or the person you love is the same gender as you. You are abhorrent to God, and your blood is on your own hands. Rubbish. It’s all garbage.

That’s why the Apostle Paul, who used to be one of the biggest legalists of his time, could say, “God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins. He canceled the written code that was against us and that stood opposed to us, with all its regulations. He took it away, nailing it to the cross. … Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink …” (Col 2:13-16).

The great news flash of Jesus is this:
none of these rules has ANY intrinsic spiritual value.

Not one of these rules can make you holy, and none of these has the power to make you unholy. The good news is that you are free from all these regulations and standards.

And anyone who tries to impose these on you again as a way of pleasing God is a liar, a prison-keeper, someone who wants to put you in chains — against the very Declaration of Freedom Jesus himself proclaimed.

You are FREE from the prison of religious rules and restrictions.
You are RELEASED from the oppression of other people’s expectations of your life as a way of having a relationship with the God who loves you.
The true image of your Father is RESTORED – one who accepts you, loves you, without any condition. And that blindness which kept you from seeing his true nature, which always made you think he was angry with you — it’s gone.
And on top you your total freedom, here’s the bonus. You walk in God’s FAVOR, whether you feel like it or not.

You were poor because all this freedom was kept from you. You walked alone in the misery of your life because religious people all around you told you that you had to take on the burden of all these rules and laws of “godly living” in order to have the blessings that are already yours.

This is the good news. You are FREE. You are FAVORED.

And when you walk in that simple, uncomplicated relationship with the Father who loves you, you will slowly begin fulfilling “godly standards” automatically. You won’t want to kill or steal. You won’t want to disrupt the beauty of someone’s marriage by having an affair with one of the spouses. You won’t want to gossip or bad-mouth your boss or that irritating co-worker because you know in your heart how hurtful that is. You’ll start feeling compassion for your neighbor who’s trying to deal with screaming kids. You’ll be concerned about that old woman down the street who can’t afford groceries. As you walk in the freedom of God’s love, your heart will be transformed. Any code of behavior that God is concerned about will be written on your heart, and you’ll do them naturally as you grow. No rules. No one telling you what you must do. Just natural living, loving God and loving your neighbor. Free.

And the good news is it’s already done. The time has come. Your King has arrived – and he wants an intimate relationship with you! You can have peace with God, you can have the wonders of his friendship — and it all comes without a rulebook. The good news is you can tear up that old rulebook and throw it in the garbage where it belongs.

Anything else is worthless. It’s nothing more than legalistic prison. You are free. You are released. You can see God as he is. And he is already pleased with you: you already walk in his favor. Because of Jesus, there’s nothing you need to do except believe it.

And that’s good news worth celebrating!

Editor’s note: A version of this article originally appeared in Cafe Inspirado, in Nov 2011.

 

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

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Stupid Religion

StupidReligion_3949650938_c226a78f72_b

 

I just had another one of those conversations.  The conversation I seem to have a lot these days with my Christian friends. Gay and straight. About what it means to be a Christian.

Am I still a “good Christian” if I don’t go to church? Am I a good Christian if I cuss, if I have sex with my girlfriend or boyfriend? And of course, that one question that seems to preoccupy the evangelical world right now: Can I be a good Christian if I’m gay?

Franklin Graham, the hostile son of that epitome of Christian kindness Billy Graham, thinks not.  And he’s spouting his morality-driven view of Christianity in all the media.  For him, and for many in the church world, Christianity is defined in terms of do’s and don’ts. Rules. Outward behavior.

And ya know, to some extent, I would agree with that. But only to the extent that “behavior” is defined as how we treat other people.

Christianity, at least for most Protestants, is defined by our faith in Jesus, and then how that faith translates into real life. More than just simple head-knowledge or believing something to be true, it is the transformational power of relationship with the Living God that defines us – proves us – to be true followers of Jesus. In a word, what makes us “good Christians.”

And that’s what I’ve come to conclude, after living my entire life in the church, growing up in a conservative evangelical home, going to an evangelical, charismatic seminary, and wrestling with God to sort out my own relationship with him.

Any so-called religion that does not result in a growing relationship with the Living God is a fake.

And any religion that does not transform you to treat other people around you in a better, more loving way is garbage.

If your religion – even if you can pull up all kinds of Scripture to justify your actions – results in alienating or hurting people, guess what?  You don’t know God, and you are not practicing God’s ways. You are not walking in the way of Jesus.  Period.

Because, at the core of it all, Jesus did not come to give us another book of holy rules to live by.

God is love, and the one who walks in love, lives in God, and God lives in him. … The one who claims to love God but treats his neighbor badly is a liar. – 1 John 4

A friend messaged me today on Facebook, in dismay over the cruel and cutting comments he received in one Facebook Christian group. They were targeted against “the gays,” of course, and our so-called delusion that we were saved.  My friend was puzzled how they could be so mean yet claim to have the truth.  For me, it was the same old, tired, story.  Stupid religion.  Words, Bible-knowledge in the head that never transformed the heart.

And this isn’t just a Christian thing.  Americans in general love to pick on Muslims and claim the actions of the radical fundamentalists are obviously not the actions of a Loving God – it’s a fake religion.  I’d have to agree – not about Islam in general, but about the hateful actions of radical fundamentalists.  And Jews, I’ve seen the reality of throwing stones and cold-hearted shunnings of the ultra-conservative against those who do not dress appropriately or honor the Sabbath as they believe it needs to be.  Even Buddhism, that religion known for its peaceful focus, has militant sects.  And my New Age/New Spirituality friends who have helped me see God in new and expanded ways … I see hearts seeking contact with the Universe, but sometimes in manipulative ways, trying to re-establish links with our own divinity in order to get what we want out of life.  And we Christians are no different. We have our militant sects, our KKKs, our Westboro Baptist Churches, our Franklin Grahams, even our seemingly Biblical messages coming from Assembly of God pulpits promoting a cultural agenda instead of offering the life-giving words of a Loving God.

Where is the personal transformation that comes from the faith? Where is the reflection of the God who sacrificed himself so that he could establish a better connection with humanity?

StupidReligion-274835316_3c95528b66_zI saw just a few days ago another post on Facebook by well-meaning Christians, trying to encourage holiness and morality in our “easy-believism” faith.  They quoted Jesus, “If you love me, keep my commandments.” And their emphasis was on keeping the laws of morality and purity, of “cleaning-up” the life of the Christian.  And my first thought was, “and what were Jesus’s commandments?”  “This is my commandment: that you love one another, as I have loved you.  By this the world will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35; 15:12,17)

Funny, Jesus didn’t say the world would know us by our clean-cut looks, our short hair, our modest clothes, or our sexual abstinence. He didn’t say our church attendance was the fulfillment of the law.  He said it was Love.  Period.

“But we do love you,” many Christians say. “That’s why we are trying to get you to stop living your sinful lifestyle.”  Or, in other words, “we love you, sinner, but we hate your sin.”   Haven’t we debunked that view enough already?  You cannot truly love someone while you are throwing stones at them. That’s not the life Jesus demonstrated for us.

If your religion is not transforming you to love your neighbor – to treat your neighbor as you want to be treated – then you are deceiving yourself. The truth is not in you. And you do not know the God you claim.

It’s really that simple.  “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and yet do not do the things I say?” Jesus asked.

My friend today did not know how to respond to those harsh words wielded by “good Christians.”  Honestly, he didn’t need to respond. Sometimes battling words accomplishes nothing. No one listens. No one is changed. But for his own reassurance, I suggested this.

Stupid-religion-facebookcomment

It really is that simple.

Love God. Love your neighbor.

And that “love neighbor” stuff isn’t just some vague, undefined feeling: “oh, yes, we love those sinners.” It’s your heart transformed by the power of God into loving action. It’s how you treat them. It’s what you say to them.

All the rest, all the verses from the Bible you can quote and hurl at people to prove your point that what they’re doing or how they’re living is wrong – all that is just religious technicalities. It is law. It is death. There is no life in it.

Without real love, all you have is a stupid religion.

 

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photo credits:
Angry God, Matt Katzenberger – flickrcc
Church Rules, Debby and Gary – flickr, cc

 

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STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York.

He blogs here on IMPACT Magazine’s Cafe Inspirado column, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.

 
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What Kind of Love is That?

California Vacation-Salvation MountainWe need more.

The Christian world (in America, at least) has gone through some painful experiences the past week or so. And honestly, I’m grateful to World Vision for opening up this can of worms.  More evangelicals have posted and written and blogged apologies for their hostile brethren, they’ve searched their hearts and seen how they’ve been guilty of applying a double-standard of Christian love to their LGBT “brothers and sisters.”

And yet, even when I think I’ve moved on, when I think “great, this has all been an eye-opener for the world,” I got hit with a new feeling.  Being patronized.

I just read a blog that was well-circulated on Facebook. The writer talked about how her heart was torn when she read the piece by “Registered Runaway” about being done with evangelicalism, about being so wounded that he just gave up on the Church. She talked about how this issue has really polarized American Christianity, and that it’s become bitter and ugly and unlike the character of the Lord we all profess.  And she talked about how she wanted to keep her views to herself so as not to be another bullet in somebody’s gun fired at the other side.  And the comments by straight Christians were almost touching, “wow, she really nailed that one”, “I couldn’t have said it better myself”, “Lord, help me to live this out in your love.”  All very nice. Even touching.

Except she then stated her position. It was kindly worded, but contained those words we LGBT Christians have grown to hate. “Sin” and “not God’s best.”  “Yes, we truly love gay people, and Jesus loves them too. And yes, we even believe that they will share in eternal heaven with us.”  … BUT … “it’s not God’s best”, “God didn’t design us to live and love that way.”

And I wonder if I really want her loving support after all.

Jesus-Stones-HomosIt is really, really nice to have one less person lined up to actually throw a stone at me and my friends.  I thank God for his mercy in moving their hearts so they at least do not want me jailed or executed for loving someone of the same gender. That is progress.  That is a huge blessing, especially compared to that church in NYC whose marquis read that Jesus would endorse my stoning.  Or those in the militant camp exporting their religious purity to countries like Uganda, Russia, Peru, Nigeria, and others, who now believe that by murdering gay men in the street, by publicly stripping them and setting them on fire, they are reclaiming their country for God.

My gay friends in Asia tell me repeatedly that we have it so much easier in America – our government isn’t actively persecuting us, and even our churches don’t hate us that much.

And I am grateful.  I am grateful to live in a time like this when at least the Church is actively talking about the issue, and more and more people of God are embracing gay and lesbian believers as full brothers and sisters in Christ. (Transgender folks, well, we’ve still got a ways to go before the Church embraces you for who you really are.)

But the question keeps going through my head.
What kind of love is that?

These well-intentioned Christian bloggers have made progress in their own spiritual and cultural journeys. They’ve been touched in a new way by the heart of God. They join Jesus in not being the first to cast the stone.

homosexuality-sinBut I’m still the disgusting Samaritan.

Okay, maybe not completely disgusting. Just fallen. Broken. Second class in God’s eyes. Sinner.

The eyes still have blind spots.  We can now, thankfully, fully embrace our divorced brothers and sisters. They can even be ordained into church leadership in many denominations.  They are no longer shunned, even in congregations that don’t theologically approve of divorce. I haven’t heard the words “sinner” or “not God’s best” applied to them in decades.

But LGBT believers, we’re still “not as God designed.”

I want to scream at them. Did God design us to wear clothes? (Clothes were a result of the Fall, remember?) Are you “not God’s best” because you wear glasses? Surely, God did not design us to need those.  What about single men or women, saints who live their whole lives unmarried.  This was definitely not how God intended us to live – at least if you’re using Eden as the rule.  Or honoring the Sabbath — something rooted in the Garden as part of God’s design for all humanity, yet Christians don’t bat an eye at completely ignoring this integral component of life.  I won’t even venture into other areas where we are not in full alignment with the paradise of Eden – all you have to do is compare your vision of Adam and Eve side-by-side with your own life.  How close are you to that “original design”?

“God’s best” is best left between God and the individual — not an outsider judging someone else’s life based on their own interpretation of God’s original design and purposes.

Fred Phelps, Westboro Baptist Church, and this World Vision debacle have opened the eyes of many Christians to the ugliness of hate within our sanctuaries. And many have taken steps to resist that kind of unChristian behavior. And that’s great.

But we need more. And not just we LGBT believers. You straight believers need to do better, need to walk in a more perfect love.

Because all you’ve done is find a kinder, gentler way
of saying “love the sinner, hate the sin.”
And we’ve had enough of that.

Our job as the people of God is to love. As simple as that. Love God, love our neighbor. And that doesn’t include calling someone else a “sinner.” Or “not God’s best.” Ever.

The Church will never come into complete agreement on any issue, let alone one as culturally upsetting as this one. And, speaking for many of my gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, we thank you sincerely for making progress, for stretching, for being willing to discuss matters of sexuality and identity. Believe me, we know that is a huge step for a big segment of American Christianity. And as much as we’d like you to see things our way, we know some of you never will.  It’s just not realistic. We can handle that.

But for those who truly want to act in love, please, take the next step.  Go beyond merely not throwing a stone at us. Accept us. Don’t refer to us as second-best, as sinners.  “Accept one another as Christ has accepted you,” the Apostle Paul tells us (Rom 15:7).  Even when you disagree with us, follow the example of Jesus in his dealings with Samaritans. He didn’t agree theologically with them, but he loved them, he hung out with them, he stayed in their villages. He did not make them feel second-class: he was their savior as well as the messiah of the Jews.

We appreciate the strides you’ve made, but we need more.  It would be nice to be seen as beloved children of God, as brothers and sisters sharing in a glorious inheritance, as equals and joint heirs, rather than being labeled as “that sin”. Or as “not God’s best.” It’s nice not to have one more person throwing the stones, but that’s not the same as acceptance. We can feel the difference.  And it still hurts.
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photo credit: “God is Love,” MythicSeabass via photopin cc

 

[box type=”bio”]
STEVE SCHMIDT serves on the pastoral staff of Expressions Church in Oklahoma City. He is a graduate of the seminary at Oral Roberts University in Tulsa, OK, and holds two masters degrees in Biblical Literature and Divinity. He did his doctoral research at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York. He blogs at CafeInspirado.com, and you can always find him skulking on Facebook.
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