Wednesday, February 28, 2007


Many of us associate the Christian faith with a list of do's and don'ts. And there are do's and don'ts, to be sure. But if the Christian life is to be oriented in relationship, why is there so much talk of formula? Could it be that the reason we are more interested in formula than relationship is that we would like to deal with our need for religion without dealing with the complications of relationship? That even though we have chosen the Christian faith instead of "poppycock religion," we ultimately want the same thing as the pagan? And what is that? Easy answers, comfortable sentiments, beliefs that make us feel good. So we go through the motions. We go to our churches, we read our self-help books, we watch our religious television, and we check each item off our to-do list as if we were doing work for pay. One thing I am sure of. This is not the kind of real-life faith I'm looking for.

-Donald Miller, Prayer and the Art of Volkswagen Maintenance, pgs. 272-273

Not surprisingly, most Israelites declined the prophet's [Amos] invitation to enter into a dialogue with Yahweh. They preferred a less demanding religion of cultic observance either in the Jerusalem Temple or in the old fertility cults of Canaan. This continues to be the case: the religion of compassion is followed only by a minority; most religious people are content with decorous worship in synagogue, church, temple and mosque.

-Karen Armstrong, A History of God, page 46

I thought it was interesting to find two completely unrelated quotes comparing your average Sunday morning Christian to ancient Pagans. It's hardly revolutionary to point out the large number of people (Christian and otherwise) whose lives appear to be minimally impacted by whatever religion they claim to adhere to, but it is interesting to note how common this problem is to humanity as a whole.

Even in our modern, scientific era most people continue to proclaim belief in the existence of an authority beyond themselves and beyond human institutions, but the majority are interested in little more than paying 'dues' to this authority (like we would a human government) so that we can carry on with our own lives and our own agendas unmolested.

Even among evangelicals, who so frequently proclaim that Christianity is "a relationship, not a religion," that 'relationship' seldom goes deeper than doing what we're told we need to do to pay God off. Our prayers tend to read like a child's letter to Santa Claus - we say "thank you" and "I'm sorry" a few times, we promise to be good (or to stop being bad), and then we rattle off our list of needs and wants.

The Church's gravitic tendency toward legalism only worsens matters. We equate obedience to lists of dos and don'ts with holiness, even though such a conflation can only be extracted from the New Testament through the most creative (and selective) of interpretive methods. By applying the correct labels to ourselves and striving to avoid certain 'bad' behaviors, we qualify as 'good Christians' in the eyes of our peers, even if our self-labeling comes at the expense of honesty and authenticity.

We act as though our lists of rules give us a relationship with God, but how many of our real-life relationships can we reduce to checklists and formulas? There are guidelines that can be generalized to most relationships, certainly, but each relationship is still going to have its own set of rules, based on the unique personalities and situations involved, and those rules and boundaries will shift over time to reflect changes in the circumstances, needs and inclinations of those involved.

Why, then, would we expect any less from a relationship with God? Even if we conclude that God never grows or changes, each of us nonetheless does, just as every one of us is different from each other in innumerable ways. Real relationships are complicated and continually evolving. The more intimate the relationship, the more work that is required to maintain it - not by going through a checklist but by paying close attention to the other person, by seeking to meet their needs, by interpreting the signals received from them and working out the best way to respond to them.

Many would argue that, just as parents lay down rules for their children, so God has done the same for us. It's a valid point, but in practice such a stance is most commonly used to justify a legalistic mindset. And what are God's rules? Contrary to the belief of many, the only clear answer we can extract from the Bible requires boiling it all down to Jesus' simple formula: Love God and love others. As soon as we try to expand the list beyond those two commands, we run into trouble: ask 500 theologians to summarize the important commands in the Bible, and you'll get 500 conflicting lists.

But here the parent-child analogy becomes helpful to us. As any parent with multiple children can attest, each of their kids is different. What worked well with one may have disastrous results with the next. What pushes one child in a bad direction may actually be beneficial to another. It's sometimes necessary to show mercy at the expense of the rules, and there's even a time to change the rules altogether. Why, then, would we expect anything less from God, who is infinitely wiser than even the best human parent?

Intimate relationships are difficult. They require hard work, constant attentiveness and a continual readjustment of our personal priorities. They cause us pain and inconvenience and they repeatedly push us out of our comfort zones. They bring us fulfillment one minute and drain our last ounce of strength in the next. How could a real relationship with God be any less demanding?

The legalist would argue that adherence to all of God's rules is just as demanding, and there's certainly no denying what a heavy burden legalism places on its subjects. The difference is that the legalist can fulfill all of the obligations of 'holy' living without ever truly connecting with God. Obedience to the rules requires a sense of duty, but love for the one in authority is purely optional. I can follow the letter of the law perfectly, and even go through all the outward motions of appearing loving and devout, all the while secretly hating my master.

Genuine love - and genuine relationship - eliminates the need for a strict set of rules (and in fact makes it impossible to come up with a fixed list), while at the same time binding the ones who love more securely than anything an external authority could ever impose. No wonder most Christians prefer the way of the ancient Pagan.

Friday, February 23, 2007


Some recent audio and video links of note:

1. A great interview with Chad Allen on GCN Radio, discussing his work on End of the Spear and the upcoming movie Save Me. God seems to be up to something big...

(to link directly to the audio program, click here.)

2. Peterson Toscano's appearance on Montel Williams. They didn't give him nearly enough time to share his story, but that seems to be fairly standard for these kinds of shows.

3. On a lighter note, George Takei offers the best response ever to NBA Star Tim Hardaway's homophobic rant.

4. And finally, on a completely unrelated note, a very cool advertisement that was reportedly produced without the use of computer graphics...

Monday, February 19, 2007

Taking Flight

Pomoprophet recently shared the following on his blog:

Though I no longer identify with Exodus in many reguards and though I am not sure if I will continue on that path or continue on the path to accepting these feelings as the way God created me, I can not deny that life was more full then. Not happier. Not easier. I spent plenty of time being miserable. But when I was on that journey, I had a sense of hope, of fulfillment. Life was bigger than me. It's something that has been missing in my life for a long, long time. And its left a hole...

That statement stood out to me, because there was a time when I could have written something very similar. I don't want to make the mistake of assuming that what he's experiencing is what I went through; I could very well be reading my own experience into his words.

For my part, though, I can attest that the closest I ever felt to God was just before I transitioned into a Stage Four faith. For quite a while the colder, starker realities of Stage Four left me seriously concerned that I was spiraling away from God, but despite my fervent prayers and best efforts I couldn't make the questions stop flooding out, and the way back to that safe, warm spot I'd been in seemed permanently closed.

As I was reflecting back on that time over the weekend, it made me wonder if that isn't how the butterfly feels when it first leaves the safety and warmth of the cocoon for the colder, emptier and seemingly endless expanse of sky that's suddenly all around it.

Or perhaps it's like the young bird that's just been pushed out of the nest and forced to find its wings. Even after it discovers that it can halt that terrifying initial plummet and begins to taste the incredible freedom of flight, there's no doubt a sense of loss associated with the realization that it no longer 'fits' back in its mother's nest.

And what do the other birds left in the next think of their 'fallen' brother? Even if he flies back to reassure them that he's still alive, will they call him a rebel for straying so far from what for them is still home? Will it occur to any of them that they, too, might someday be destined to fly?

Not that I suddenly ceased needing God; I need him as much as ever. But my relationship to God has changed, just as an 18-year-old relates to her parents in a different way than she did at the age of twelve. Is it such a stretch to imagine that God (who knows us better than we know ourselves) meets us where we're at, rather than forcing us all to be in the same place? Just as the nest is absolutely essential to the well-being of a chick that's just hatched from its egg, so I needed God to be close to me during certain key times in my life. Who knows how having him that close right now might actually impede my growth?

The open sky can be a daunting place. There are challenges to overcome and perils to avoid, but there are also wonders beyond anything that those still in the nest could imagine.

For those new to my blog, an overview of Fowler's Stages of Faith can be downloaded here.

Thursday, February 15, 2007


Reflecting back on my post about love, I'm not completely satisfied with my qualification about the need for healthy boundaries. On the one hand, the world doesn't lack for predatory individuals seeking to take advantage of the generosity of others, but on the other hand setting limits and conditions, no matter how practical, can very easily lead us back to a conditional love that demands conformity to whatever we decree important.

Somewhere in there a balance lies waiting to be found. While it's certainly true that God places no limits on his love, it's also true that such ideals have a way of colliding in unpleasant ways with the realities of the world we mere mortals have to live in.

At the same time, though, to love is to open oneself up to the possibility of being hurt. What really lies in the heart of the scoundrel? Only God knows for sure. What if we hold the key to that individual's redemption?

One of the most commonly cited examples of unconditional love comes from Les Miserables and the story of the priest that Jean Valjean tried to rob. When the police caught Valjean with the silverware he had stolen, the priest could have justly reclaimed his possessions and had Valjean thrown back in prison. Instead, the priest tells the policemen that he gave the (expensive) silverware to Valjean, and chides the thief for forgetting to take the candlesticks.

For all the priest knew, Valjean could have chosen to party away his ill-gotten gains and then go back to a life of crime. That the priest's astounding act of grace transformed Valjean's life was a less than certain outcome, but what would have happened to Valjean (and the many lives he went on to impact) if the priest had sought justice?

It's a challenging question. To be honest, if I'd been in the priest's place I most likely would have left Valjean to face justice for his actions. It's not as though I can bear all of the world's problems on my shoulders, after all. But what if I'm giving up an opportunity to transform somebody's life by refusing to let myself be hurt?

I'm not sure I'm discerning enough to tell the difference. Maybe I'll feel a prompting from God when the opportunity arises - but what if it's not really God's prompting? It wouldn't be the first time somebody misinterpreted their own emotions.

I suppose it's not a dilemma that's easily solved. At the very least, we can allow stories like Les Miserables to inspire us toward greater love. And maybe we will get hurt in the process of trying to love our neighbors. Christ could have avoided dying on a cross, too, but then where would we be?

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


Those who claim the mantle of objectivity usually do so to hide their own bias. This is no less true in the realm of theology, especially among those who insist that they know God's opinion on the issues of the day.

Thursday, February 08, 2007


In his response to my comments about "tough love" in my previous post, David observed that love is more than merely "letting one alone," an important point to keep in mind as we note the broken lives and shattered faith that the "tough love" approach leaves in its wake. Just as there's nothing loving about using emotional and spiritual blackmail to force others to submit to your will, so it's no more loving to be so passive as to effectively be apathetic.

Where does the balance lie, then? As with anything else in this life, there's no simple answer. Just as each person is unique, so loving them will require a unique approach. There are characteristics that loving relationships hold in common, certainly, but they provide us with little in the way of formulas.

There is a time to express concern, but there's also a time to back off. Listening to the other person's perspective is at least as important as expressing our own. No matter how certain I am that the other person is making a mistake, they must ultimately be free to make that mistake. I may need to establish boundaries to protect myself and my other loved ones from the consequences of my friend's actions, but by committing to support him as a person regardless of what happens I'll be in a place to help him pick up the pieces afterward, if necessary - precisely when he needs me the most.

We could debate endlessly about where one draws the line, but that's getting into areas of wisdom and discernment for which there are no simple answers. In terms of love it boils down to unconditional acceptance of the other person. Unconditional acceptance is a costly thing to give, since it forces us to set aside our own priorities and sometimes even our own legitimate wants and needs for the good of the other person. But if we truly wish to follow the example of Christ how could we do any less?

The problem with "tough love" is that it places the giver's agenda ahead of the other person. That agenda may be cloaked in the guise of proclaiming what God wants for the recipient, but it's ultimately centered on me - what *I* think they need, how they can please *me* (since I'm the one defining what will please God), how they can assuage *my* fears for them. If they fail to live up to *my* standards, I protect *my* sense of holiness by cutting them out of my life.

Ultimately, only God can know what's truly best for any individual. Deferring once again to the wisdom of JRR Tolkien, Gandalf, in a similar situation, gave this advice:

Frodo: It's a pity Bilbo didn't kill him [Gollum] when he had the chance!

Gandalf: Pity? It was pity that stayed Bilbo's hand. Many that live deserve death, and some that die deserve life. Can you give it to them, Frodo? Do not be too eager to deal out death in judgment. Even the very wise cannot see all ends. My heart tells me that Gollum has some part to play yet, for good or ill, before this is over. The pity of Bilbo may rule the fate of many.

The parallel isn't exact, of course, since most of us will never literally kill another person, but in the situation in question Bilbo would arguably have been justified in ending Gollum's life, and his failure to do so left Gollum free to cause a considerable amount of misery for others. And yet if Bilbo had killed Gollum, it's almost certain that the One Ring would have ended up in Sauron's hands.

In short, no matter how noble our intentions, we do not know what consequences may result from our forcible intervention. It is at this point that the fundamentalist's restrictive definition of freedom creates a conundrum: we may genuinely want the best for the other person, but by blackmailing them into accepting our version of what they can and cannot do we may inadvertently prevent them from doing the right thing. It may even be that I'm largely right about what the other person needs to do, but if I force them to do it prematurely it may become the wrong thing to do.

Unconditional love liberates its recipients to do the right thing. Fundamentalists think that they must put conditions and limitations on love to motivate others to do the right thing, but it's only when we know that we're more valuable than any thing, doctrine or agenda that we're capable of properly valuing ourselves, and thereby free enough to examine all of our options and discover what is truly best. It doesn't guarantee that I will do the right thing, but at least I have a chance of eventually getting it right.

I feel like I haven't said much of anything in all of that; there's certainly little I can offer in the way of concrete formulas. But then again, it's our desire for easily defined absolutes, for formulas that reduce individuals to stereotypes, that's created much of the mess we find ourselves in. Unconditional love is very simple in a sense, yet in practice it's one of the most difficult, costly, complicated, painful and time consuming endeavors we could undertake, with rewards that we may not realize in this lifetime. No wonder it's so rare.

Monday, February 05, 2007


...Rocket Kid? I've kept him on my blogroll for the time being even though his old site no longer exists. I remember he talked about looking into other options since his .Mac account was expiring at the end of the year, but haven't found any sign that he actually started a new blog. Anyone have a new link?