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.