Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Chapter 8 – be practical 
If religion were true, its followers would not try to bludgeon their young into an artificial conformity; but would merely insist on their unbending quest for truth, irrespective of artificial backgrounds or practical consequences. ~H. P. Lovecraft

     At this point I have spent a good amount of time and text to decry the problems of the modern church, but pointing out problems and accepting them as “reasons for change” are only half the issue.  As concerned Christians we must not only see and admit the problems but we must begin to take steps to change the systems within the church so that these problems can be solved.  Unfortunately the church did not become damaged in a single day and so it won’t be fixed in a single day, but by beginning to take small consistent steps we can begin to heal wounds and lift the church to what it can become; a place of practical learning, caring and giving, where all are welcome and ministry, not business, is the order of the day.  
     To make this concise I’m going to break this down into three basic areas of concern: teaching, caring and giving.  These three concepts are what I believe our churches should be founded on, as they are exemplified in the life of Jesus of Nazareth.  Teaching is foundational to all other functions within the church; if we are not teaching the correct concepts then we cannot expect the appropriate behaviors.  So, what should we be teaching?  When we look at the aspects of the life of Jesus as we know it, we can see that his teachings covered very practical areas of concern.  The life of the individual and that individual’s growth spiritually is foremost in importance.  Each person is important, no matter their status, wealth, color, creed or affiliation.  The single most important lesson we can learn from Jesus is to completely cease to judge others.  To realize that each and every human being is part of a greater whole, and that each of us shares the same internal and external struggles.  Not everyone is plagued the same way, but we face the same basic concerns.  Humans struggle with self-worth, with shame and guilt and with the need for acceptance and purpose in life.  Jesus makes it a point to motivate people that he meets to deal directly with these spiritual issues in their lives.  The aspect of forgiveness is a consistent cornerstone of Jesus’ ministry, and that forgiveness is without strings, without measure.  In every instance Jesus forgives someone in the stories we hear, he forgives them before he instructs them on how to fix the problem.  He doesn't demand that they change and then acquire forgiveness, which is sadly the state of Christianity today.  People must learn to be “un-burdened” before they can truly begin to fix the issues they are dealing with.  The church needs to teach forgiveness up front, no strings, no salvation, no hoops to jump through.  We need to focus on the acts of encouraging curiosity about spiritual growth, and give people the tools necessary to seek out that growth.  Our churches have become assembly lines of “new” Christians, “save’em and set’em in a pew” and that really is often the end of it.  Truly understanding and delving into the mystery of the teaching of Jesus is a lifelong endeavor, and it is often hard to do.  Much of what Jesus speaks of is esoteric, symbolic and metaphorical, and without guidance in understanding these mysteries, folks just tend to give up and listen to whatever rhetoric happens to pour out of the mouths of those they believe to have some kind of authority.  Instead the practical aspect is that we need to teach people to accept the responsibility and the authority for themselves, that it is they who can study, understand and validate their own lives.  This takes power away from the center, takes the danger out of centralized authority and gives the church members the responsibility of ministry as a team.  This book cannot fully go into the necessary specifics so that will have to wait for further writing, but for now, it’s enough to understand that we must teach what will move us towards creating a loving, accepting, forgiving and unified church team. 
     Once we have begun to teach folks how to understand their own authority and potential, we then must give examples in how we use these teachings to care for our communities.  The church should not be a social club for those who fit in, or know the “secret” handshake.  Churches have become hotbeds of social institution, back slapping good ol’ boys, and fashion shows for the ne’er do well.  It’s this sort of business that puts a bad taste in the mouth of anyone not fortunate enough to fit in to such a fool’s paradise.  The church should be carried on the concepts of unity, openness, and true care for each and every person in one’s community.  This means stepping across many boundaries that the church has erected over the years.  Who should be accepted?  Everyone, including single mothers, gays, Jews, African Americans, Muslims, junkies, poor folks, prostitutes, and even the wealthy and elite.  Church should be the one place that you go and set aside your differences, and rub shoulders with folks you might not normally ever speak to.  Look at the disciples that followed Jesus, fishermen, tax collectors, militant resistance fighters, women of ill repute, doubters, fighters, some rich, some poor, but all brought together by the teachings of love and acceptance.  Our churches need to be out in the community, not protesting abortion clinics, but asking those mothers what kind of help they might need.  We need to be motivated to attend gay rallies and let folks know that God loves them, walk down the street and meet your local prostitutes and instead of handing them a tract, hand them some money, so that they can buy the things they need.  The care that the church gives out needs to be practical, not lifting up cop out prayers or handing out propaganda, but actually getting your hands dirty practical work.  Instead of meeting in a pent up building every week, meet at John Doe’s house and help fix his roof, that’s ministry.  Take your church to the hurting people in your community, not to impress or get anything in return, but to show that you really do follow the teachings of Jesus.  Again, there are 1001 things that we can do and not enough space in this book to speak of them all, but we must get out there and actually live the life that Jesus exemplified, without that all we are saying are words without meaning. 
     Finally we come to giving, but not giving in the sense of a tithe, although that is included, but giving in the sense of truly living out the life that we have been taught by Jesus.  Over and over again in the Gospels we see Jesus being approached by one person or another and these people always ask the same basic question; how do I get to heaven?  Now, we need a quick interpretation here, because they are not asking what you think they are asking.  The aspects of heaven as Jesus speaks of it are not some "pie in the sky by and by" sort of place somewhere up above our heads.  In Judaic concept there is no place but this place, God is interwoven in everything around us, and through us.  God is not somewhere else, not on a high mountain, or on a cloud throne, but actually woven into the very fabric of our existence.  When Jesus speaks of heaven he is speaking of a change in our physical, mental and spiritual world.  Heaven is not a reward for after death, but a place that can exist right here and now, if only we could grasp how to bring it about. So, how do we get to heaven?  Jesus answers this question in the same way every time, you get to heaven by giving up everything that is holding you back, whether that is riches, regret, doubt, fear, or whatever, unless you can truly let it go and give away those things that distract you from following his teachings, you will not create heaven in your life.  When I speak of giving this is what I mean, we are asked to give everything we are to live the life that God has promised to us.  But our lives have so much distraction, so many things, ideas, and feelings get in our way and we cannot seem to let them go long enough to move past them.  If we are going to be followers of Jesus, we must take this last step in order to truly call ourselves his disciples.  
     We must teach the truth that Jesus gave example of, and we must care enough in practical ways to live out that teaching, and finally we must give up all distraction in order to bring about heaven for ourselves, our children and our communities.  If we plan to be Christians, we must truly follow that man from Nazareth, even if it’s hard, even if it seems impossible, because giving up everything allows us to truly, finally, do anything.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Chapter seven – Be open

People are very open-minded about new things - as long as they're exactly like the old ones.
~Charles Kettering

     New wine doesn't go well in old wine skins.  Meaning that; new ideas are not always easily accepted, especially by those already established in age and power.  The Christian church has adopted particular behaviors that have been passed on as tradition down through the ages.  Tradition itself is not wrong or bad in any way, but the ideas and behaviors that pass down might be.  Time for another history lesson; let’s begin with the early church.  Well actually, there wasn't an “early” church, at least, not really.  You hear a lot of church folks talking about wanting to “worship” like they did in the first century church, but the problem is, no one really knows how that might have looked.  We can conjecture based on some historical records and archaeological findings, but that seems to paint a very different picture of what the church was in those days.  
     First of all, there was no bible, no amalgamation of books designed to teach from, there was some small access to the Hebrew Scriptures, but even that was limited.  There were also no church buildings per se, just small groups of Christians meeting in the homes or public spaces around their towns.  There was also little or no structure to speak of, sure there were guys like Peter and Paul who were there to give some guidance, but in a world with no access to long distance communication other than letters or messenger, it was almost impossible to keep any sort of structure afloat.  Rules are a big thing in today’s churches, rules about music, dress, what it means to be “saved”, and so on and so forth, but in those days without some integral structure, there really wasn't a framework to hang such rules on.  So, in a nutshell, the early church was actually regularly disorganized, guided by the whims of those in control in whatever town the church had grown in, and each group was for the most part autonomous, and without any distinct guide towards some sort of structure.  
     Now about 350 years into the new millennium  Rome decides to adopt Christianity as its state religion.  It’s only at this point that we actually begin to see some kind of structure develop.  The bible is brought together; some books or letters are approved while others are thrown out.  A structure of leaders and rules are then applied to make the new religion digestible for the largest part of the citizens.  The “new” Christianity does not make everyone happy, many Christian sects rail against this new concept and get exiled or killed for speaking out.  Many of these groups fall under the term “Gnostics”, and Gnosticism becomes the hated enemy of the Roman church.   Any books not approved for use in the newly formed bible now get the label “Gnostic text” and are destroyed.  The Roman church becomes a juggernaut of power and control and then it becomes apparent why all of these changes were made.  Rome needed something to bring together the varied and often warring groups of pagans within its citizenry.  A single religion, with a set system of behaviors, and built in controls would give them exactly the kind of organization and power that they needed.  These “traditions” of control have been passed down within the organized church for over two thousand years now, and it is these traditions that I find despicable and deadly to the faith of the common people.  Every step we take, every new challenge within spirituality is meant to grow and eventually free us from the bondage of fear, doubt and suffering.  But the traditions that have been passed down by the ancient church do exactly the opposite, they incite fear, doubt and suffering on a global scale.  
     I remember when I was about seven years old; I had gone to spend some time with my brother who is much older than me.  He took his family to a new church the first Sunday that I was staying with them.  I won’t mention the denomination, but the church was a well-established group in the small town we were living in.  Upon arriving I met the preacher, and although he was a bit old and seemed somewhat distant, he won me over with a piece of candy from his jacket pocket.  As we sat through the service I hung on every word, as I had been informed by my brother that this man spoke with the authority of God.  At first his words seemed gentle, but as the sermon drew on he began to increase his volume and his aggression.  Soon he was slamming his fist onto the pulpit, and vehemently decrying the sins of mankind.  As his fervor increased, I began to sweat, and shift uncomfortably in my pew.  Soon he was rattling off lists of sins, and talking about the awful punishments that would be doled out by God on the poor souls who dared commit them.  Several of the sins on that list I was pretty sure I had already committed, and I was frightened beyond belief.  As soon as the invitation was given I knew I had to be first in line, so I ran up the aisle as fast as I could, weeping tears of fright, and knelt before this man of god, and confessed my sins asking for forgiveness.  I was told I had done the right thing, and that I must be baptized and must choose to sin no more.  Thus began a lifelong struggle with my own sense of value as a human being.  That preacher did not just implant fear into a child’s mind that day, he implanted that fear into my heart and I continue to struggle with it to this very day.  Was this preacher a bad man?  No, not really, he was simply regurgitating what had been forced on him by his mentors, and this lineage follows all the way back to those men in Rome.  We have passed down the instruction of fear and self-loathing as a tradition in our churches.  No one is good enough, no one is without sin, and all of us are condemned because God seeks perfection. It is for this reason that Jesus came and died and that we all must be saved, we all must fall in line, act according to the rules and regulations and do as we are told, so that our vile nasty self won’t get the better of us.  
      Complete and total rubbish…to assume that the race of mankind is flawed is to assume that our creator made a mistake, or at least was set upon by unforeseen happenstance, either way that god is apparently not very powerful or wise.  We were not “born in sin” we were in fact conceived in love and compassion, children to be grown, taught and encouraged.  Do we make bad decisions?  Sure we do, and we probably always will, but the issue is that we must realize that we are not flawed at our center.  We are flawed by our teachers, parents, relatives, and the society we grow up in.  Flaws come from outside of us, not inside, and as children we are blank slates ready to adapt ourselves to whatever our authorities want to teach us.  If we are broken, sinful, and misguided it is the fault of those in authority over us, not to relinquish us from responsibility, but to say these things have a reasonable and obvious starting point.  The church’s implementation of deceit and fear as tools to control the populace has done more harm to mankind than a thousand wars.  The very way we see and understand our own value has been tainted and distorted.  The reasonable God that we have spoken of made no mistakes, we are each created perfectly, full of potential and open mindedness, and it is the venom injected by our authorities and society that damn us.  
     As Christians our first and foremost teaching should be that God loves everyone, no matter what, no matter who they are or what they have done or will do.  I see it much like the relationship I have with my own children.  As a father I often get disappointed with my kids.  They don’t always listen, and they often have a mind of their own to do things that I know and have taught them are not beneficial to themselves or others.  Yet time and again they make the wrong decisions and reap the consequences.  Now, in the mindset of the old “god”…I would need to dig a pit in the back yard and fill it with burning sulfur and brimstone, and throw my kids in there after they had disappointed me too many times, or at least admonish them to the point where I have stripped them of all dignity and self-will and made them into my own little automatons, to be used or abused at will.  All of that is nonsense of course, because the truth is, no matter what they do, or how many times they miss the mark, I will always love them.  They are my children, and although I may at times be disappointed in their behaviors, I always hold out hope that they will grow and learn, and eventually just that happens.  Now, I know I am by far not the best father in the world, but if I love my own children that much, how much more does God love us?  Again, it only makes sense, if God is a god of love and compassion, there really is no other option, He loves us all, or He is not the god He claims to be.  
     It’s time we opened our minds to some greater possibilities…what if God is really on our side?  What if God doesn't hate anyone?  What if we truly are loved no matter what our mistakes? What if Jesus didn't come to die for our sins, but died because of our sins?  It changes the playing field to think this way.  It changes what we should be about, what our teachings should carry to others.  It changes everything, and that change is good.  Don’t be afraid to be open to change, our openness to a realization that God truly is on our side, that He truly does care about each one of us, and that we are precious in His sight, makes all the difference in what the church is, and what the church could be.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Chapter six – be angry

Anybody can become angry - that is easy, but to be angry with the right person and to the right degree and at the right time and for the right purpose, and in the right way - that is not within everybody's power and is not easy. ~Aristotle

     Why should we be angry?  We should be angry because for nearly two thousand years the beautiful teachings and good deeds of Jesus of Nazareth have been twisted into a flail of fear and deceit with which to keep the people in line. In the last chapter I talked of the need for being aware and using our capacity to reason to make sense of who God is and what God wants for us. As modern Christians one of the things we don’t get is that our spiritual path is a beautiful and compassionate tool that can be used to aid people in many and diverse ways.  The God that we have been introduced to is a God who seeks relationship with us, not because we have earned it, but because God has chosen it. 
     So what is it that makes this God so different from any other concept of god?  Well, the biggest difference is that God seeks to aid us, not take from us, not demand from us, but simply to enrich our lives and grow us into the people we have the potential to be. The problem is that a good deal of this understanding has been lost because of foolish people using religion as a control on the populace and not seeing it for what it really is, a way to free us from needing that control.  How does this work?   First we need a bit of a history lesson.  In very ancient times, pre-Judaism, we see that people were practicing at various forms of animism and polytheism, and everything was very supernatural and there was a good deal of fighting over who’s god was stronger.  Judaism enters the scene and the idea of monotheism is brought about, this idea changes a good deal of the commonly held thoughts at the time.  
     Before Judaism gods weren't something you wanted to be involved with, gods were dangerous, finicky and bad tempered.  Village priests spent most of their time using concepts like sacrifice to avoid the attention of these deities and keep them happy.  So long as the local deity was happy, crops would grow, people would eat, and life was good.  If for any reason, the local deity got upset, then you could bet life was going to get hard, with floods, disease and famine, it paid to keep these beastly gods happy.  With the coming of the Judaic god, that concept began to change.  Suddenly there was a deity who wanted to help man.  Look at the promises that God makes to Abraham, to grow him, prosper him, and give him children and a land to have for his own.  That same God makes an appearance to Moses in Egypt and aids the Hebrew people in escaping their captivity and finding a homeland.  So why does it seem at this point that God seems to change? He suddenly goes from a God willing to help the people to a God of rules, regulations and often times a murderous temper.  Let’s use some of that reason again; what we have here is a change in the story of the people of Israel.  Before they were in captivity, or homeless in the case of Abraham, they needed help; they were looking for a reason to believe in themselves.  God provides that for both Abraham and for Moses, but then seems to change.  The change comes about when the Jews gain their own turf.  Now, it’s not about needing a helping hand up, now it’s about conquering and maintaining a land.  God didn't change, the thoughts and behaviors of the people did.  If God had helped them this far, then surely it was okay to slaughter and kill their perceived enemies.  This was the thinking of the pre-Judaic mindset coming back to haunt mankind. Haven’t you ever wondered why God’s temperament seems to change so drastically from time to time?  You see it all through the Old Testament, one second God seems to be on man’s side, trying to help and guide him, and then the next second God seems to turn hateful and vindictive, usually ending in a large number of people being massacred.  It’s all there, go read your Old Testament, you will find time after time that this cycle happens…God’s good, then God’s anything but good.  How do we reasonably explain this in Christianity?  
     Truth is, we don’t, or at least no particularly good explanation.  You usually get the old standby explanation of God being sovereign and so He can do as He pleases, or if the person you ask is a Theologian, they will trail off about God’s ethical identity, or the need to understand the unredeemable qualities of some ancient cultures or some other such rot, or if you’re really unlucky you’ll just get the most common answer, “because the bible says so.”  You know, I never liked that answer from my parents and I sure don’t want that answer from my church.  Nothing is ever because “someone says so”…there is always a reason that such decisions are made.  So why are these contradictory stories of God in the bible?  If you begin to understand that at various times, different authors were involved in creating, retelling, and eventually writing down the stories that make up the bible you being to understand why the variance is there.  You see the same technique used to write about today’s wars.  When the writer is in favor of peace and love and unity, that’s the kind of perception they are going to have of God and so that’s the flavor their writing is going to have.  If the writer sees God as giving the Hebrews the right to commit genocide on other cultures, he is naturally going to assume that God sees things his way and write accordingly.  When we go to war with anyone, the very first step we have to take is to dehumanize that group of people, so that we can have clear consciences about killing them.  So surely if God is on our side we can kill at will because God will surely forgive us, or maybe even reward us for taking care of this business. If you don’t believe it, just look at any war propaganda, from any country, during any war, the same tale is told over and over again.  
      The pre-Judaic thinking about gods keeps coming back on us.  We start beating our religious chests and trying to proclaim our god as bigger and meaner. This is why the bible seems to constantly argue with itself about rules, regulations, and the status of various tribes and sins.   Its all “old” thought that is still hanging around even though the God who comes to Abraham and Moses really kind of did away with all that rhetoric. It comes down to this, God needs to make sense, and anything we do or say in the name of God should fall in line with who God is and what God expects from us.  So how do we make something that we can’t see, touch or manipulate in any real way, make sense? Can we ever really make sense of God, or is God so far removed from us that His ways really are beyond our understanding?  It is through sense and reason that we humans know anything and it is through those same tools that we are able to become civil and understand concepts like love and compassion, forgiveness and empathy.  So if it is through the senses that I can make the leap from barbarian to civilized human, then it seems logical that God makes sense and is reasonable.  
     We must ask questions; does God want peace on Earth, love among all people, compassion for the sick and weak?  If the answer to these questions is yes, then the answer is yes in all instances.  We can’t pick and choose when to be compassionate, we can’t manipulate these concepts to fit our daily whims, but in fact, we Christians have spent two thousand years doing just that.  Whether it was the persecution of pagans during the middle Ages, or the snubbing of the poor in our modern church, we are making the same mistakes over and over again. And these mistakes are unreasonable, without thought or logic, simply because someone says that this or that is right doesn't make it so.  The bible can be made to say just about anything you want, taken out of context; it literally is a smorgasbord of potentialities.  The bible has been used to uphold the concepts of slavery, murder, genocide, rape and child abuse, just to name a few.  The things we understand about God must make sense, and that sense must jive with the message that God has been trying to pass on to us ever since He called out Abraham.  “I am your God; I want the best for you. I want you to have peace, to love one another, respect one another and learn to get along.  I have tried to make it clear that I love you, no matter what, no matter who you are, what you have done, or what you believe and I want you to treat one another with consideration and compassion.”  Of course this is my own paraphrase, and you don’t have to believe it, but consider what you are left with if you don’t.  God is either a God of love, compassion, kindness and hope, or he truly is a god of hatefulness, murder and bigotry.  
     We either believe these things about God or we must see that it was man who made the changes, not God. It is our responsibility as Christians to live up to the example given by Jesus, and to understand and reason about who God is and what He expects of us.  The world needs to see that God isn't the bigoted, hateful, genocidal, and despotic, judge that Christianity has for too long portrayed Him as.  The only way that anyone can see who and what God is, is by watching what his followers do.  
     We are responsible for God’s negative propaganda, and we have allowed it to go on for way too long, it’s time for a change.  Urge your congregations to quit picketing abortion clinics, supporting anti-gay agendas, and doing anything that might even be construed as projecting the image of an angry, hateful God.  People inherently know good from bad, they don’t need someone wagging fingers in their direction if they are making mistakes, what they really need is someone there to pick up the pieces, and assure them that they are still loved.  The battle for whether or not the church will survive much into the 21st century rides almost entirely on whether or not we can begin to truly live the love and forgiveness of Jesus and open our arms and congregations to hurting and broken people, no matter who they are or what they profess.  It’s time to get angry, but not at people who are hurting and broken, no its time to get angry at the childish leaders of our churches who carry on their own wars of bigotry and hatred through their own ignorance and pass on that venom to their congregations.  Don’t willingly play a role in this sort of behavior, step up, get angry and put your foot down.  Since it’s your money going in the offering, and each and every church functions at the will of its congregants, take a stand.  If enough of us stand up and get angry about this sort of infantile nonsense, our churches just might have a chance to reform and ask forgiveness for a few thousand years of hate mongering.  It’s time for a change of face, and that change depends on you, the congregant, and whether or not you want to serve a God of love, compassion, and forgiveness, or be trampled under by hate and bigotry.