Friday, December 25, 2009

Pain, Christmas and… Gratitude?

    The streets are quiet. From the lofty view on the eighth floor, the world seems especially still tonight, and the only sound on the balcony is the wind flapping an unhinged piece of plastic against one of the trees below me. It is after 3am, and Christmas morning is still a few hours away. Most of the city remains locked in their holiday slumber, as I should be, but the pain has returned and sleep is not an option.

    It's been a rough two weeks. An abscessed tooth on the left side of my mouth has rejected the recent spate of antibiotics, and so after only a day or so of relief, the pain has returned on the eve of this Christmas morning to push me from my sleep. The pain is intense and comes in waves, and often feels as though someone is sawing a knife into my gums. Before the dentist was able to assign me antibiotics nearly a week ago, I'd gone through nearly ten extra strength tylenol a day, to little effect. It was only hours before I'd hoped that the pain was finally gone, but it has returned in full force, and after another night of little or no sleep, I am awake. In many ways, I feel like I've lost two weeks, because it's hard to keep track of the days when you're not sleeping and you never know when another staggering wave of pain will thrash your existence and bring you, often literally, to your knees.    And yet this morning, despite the physical agony I find myself in, I can't help feeling just a little grateful. I know it sounds like ridiculous, like one of those pat answers we hand out to people who are suffering to make ourselves feel better because we feel all right and well, we don't know what else to say. And as much as I'd like to not feel as if the dentist forgot his needle in my mouth, it does remind me of the people in this world who are in much greater pain. More than infected tissue brushing against a nerve, we are surrounded by people who suffer from recurring emotional scars that are ripped open, again and again, especially during holidays like Christmas. And while we are not meant to give up our own happiness or fulfillment to continually ponder the fates of those who are struggling, a reminder about the nature of humanity can serve, I think, to help us deal with our own pain and the struggles we all endure.


    There was a time not so long ago when Christianity was the faith of the suffering, the wounded, and the broken hearted. It was the faith that called its God the 'Man of Sorrows'. A faith that believed the Incarnation had been revealed in a poor, itinerant Rabbi during a tempestuous and violent period in the world's history. And a faith that viewed life in the light of its hardship and promised only hope.

    That faith, that version of Christianity, is no longer popular in North America or in most Western cultures. Instead, we look for the shiny red package with a bow on top, the faith that promises more goodies if only you'll choose it. Jesus, who has become a Western icon, is hard to distinguish from the morass of proto-masculine figures of the sports and entertainment world. In this world he isn't Swedish, as some would say, but more like the former gridiron star turned politician who has a good feel for people and a kind word for the women and children. He is marketable and likable and eminently successful. Massive churches and entire denominations design their advertising campaigns around him. Books promote his willingness to make you successful. Movies and music promise peace and joy if you'll just surrender to him… and donate twenty dollars to their ministry. Jesus is the Everyman, the star who fills the role that everyone can identify with, and he commands a huge market and a massive commission. With such a Saviour, we don't have much time for pain, just a quick, easy smile for the cameras before we flash forward to our next promotional visit. The underlying basis for humanity, the tragedy that enjoins us, is not important, not so long as we can get people into our building to recite our mantras and buy our stuff. The New Jesus wants to make You Better! The New Jesus doesn't want you to even think about the Negative. Focus on the Goodness! Focus on the Love! Okay, turn here, now smile… Good. Got it.

    In the world where entertainment is news and news is entertainment, the New Jesus strides across the room with a smile and a quip and presents for everyone.

    I don't like the New Jesus very much. He may earn twenty million for a movie and write best selling books that are sold in huge churches, and he might have a TV show that is shown to millions around the world and a rich following dressed in three piece suits and earnest faces, but I don't trust him. I know that I'm supposed to, know that I'm supposed to have more faith and just 'believe', but no matter how relevant or counter cultural or easy it all seems to believe in him, it just doesn't feel right. I admit that I don't know what God is supposed to feel like or look like, but when I see the New Jesus, the Jesus you see on your TV sets and the Jesus you find advertised in and by so many churches, it only makes me want to change the channel.


    Some of my friends don't like Christmas very much. In fact, there are quite a few people who don't like our current holiday creation, for a variety of reasons. For some, it is simply a matter of being too commercial, a created holiday for stores that has nothing to do with God or anything else. For others however, Christmas is a painful time because of what it recalls. Painful childhood memories of dysfunctional and abusive homes. Loved ones we've lost and lost loves. Suicide rates hit their peak during the Christmas season, and as every youth worker knows, it is often hardest on the young, who are forced to watch glamorized tales of perfect families and holiday rancor before heading home to a world filled with pain. For them, and many others, Christmas is far worse than even the worst sort of physical pain, because there is no operation and no painkiller that can take away the deep ache inside, an ache that Christmas seems only to highlight. For them, December 25th is the yearly reminder that God doesn't love them or doesn't exist. The New Jesus does not make them want to change the channel so much as it does break the television. Of course, there's another Jesus, but we don't talk about him much these days…


    On a wind swept Judean hillside, the night is cold, and a young couple huddles together over a fire. Stars blanket the night sky like glittering diamonds, but the woman doesn't notice. Her legs and arms ache from the ride and she runs a trembling hand over her stomach. The time is soon. Her husband looks on anxiously and tries to wrap her in his blanket to keep her warm. The fire has little effect. Her hands feel numb with cold, though her forehead is covered in sweat. He tries to get her to eat, but she isn't hungry. They need a place to stay. It's soon, she tells him. He nods and puts out the fire. He has his own worries. Normally, the inns would have plenty of room, but with the Census, the roads are packed with travelers, and the young couple does not have enough money to buy someone out of their room. He is a simple man, and he worries about his young wife. He feels guilty that he cannot do better for her.

    He moves them back onto the road, which even now sees a fair share of travelers. No one speaks to them, however. No one offers them help, though the woman is clearly pregnant and struggling to stay on their donkey. Everyone is headed somewhere else. Everyone except for us, the man thinks. Alone in his thoughts, he reaches up to hold his wife's hand. Her fingers feel cold in his callused palm. They go as fast as they dare, but it is still slow going and the night is cold. He prays under his breath for Yahweh to help, but God seems absent this night. For years he was content in his work, until he met her, when suddenly things changed. He never could have anticipated this, however.

    She grasps her husband's hand and holds tight. She remembers the strange vision, and the visit from her cousin, but all she can think about is the pain. Everything hurts. She wonders why no one offers them help. But these are not people she grew up with. They are strangers, culled from the countryside at the beckons of their King, all anxious to be home. She sighs. The thought of a home, like the thought of no pain, is too much to hold onto. There is only the next minute. The next hour. The child must come, but she wonders why God has made this so difficult. Why he has chosen her? If he has chosen her. Doubts come and the pain is relentless, but she holds onto her husband's hand and tries to hide her face from the cold.

    The stable is dirty and stinks of cows and manure. Does it have to be here, she asks? Her husband nods, the misery and worry etched onto his face. She smiles at him, though her heart is filled with fear. She will not have any help. Not her mother or aunt or anyone else. She will have to do it alone. They will have to do it alone.

    He watches the way his wife accepts their fate, accepts his poverty, and smiles at him. Momentarily he hates himself for it and curses God for putting him in such a position. He sighs and asks forgiveness, grateful that his wife has a place to lie down. There is so much to be angry about, but the stable is better than the road. He thinks about his family and wishes his parents were still alive. He puts the thought out of his head. There is no one else now. Just him and his wife and the baby.

    Oh Yahweh, where are you?


    The gurgling sound seems to rise above the cacophony of the animals and he stares in wonder at the little boy. His wife is soaked in sweat but she is smiling. God be praised, he thinks, they've done it. What he doesn't understand is why they've had to do it alone. Or have they? He worries about where they will live and the rumors of war. He worries about the little boy being healthy and his wife getting sick.

    His wife holds up the boy and hands it to him. He takes it, cradling it in his arms, surprised by how light the baby is, how warm he feels. He asks his wife if its normal, but she just smiles as if he's said something in Greek. His worries vanish for the moment as he runs a finger over the boy's dark, wrinkled skin. He rocks him gently while his wife dozes. He wants to plan for the future, plan for his family, figure out a way to ensure they can survive the cold winters and blazing summers, but for the moment he is lost as he stares into his little one's eyes, and all he can do is whisper a quiet thanks.

    Merry Christmas, everyone.




Sunday, December 06, 2009

Halloween, Christmas and Other Atrocities


    The knock took me by surprise. I looked over at Bethany and checked the clock. 9pm? Who'd be coming by at this hour? She answered the door and I heard a familiar chorus.

    "Trick or treat!"

    "Hold on a minute, guys." She said. I caught a glimpse of their costumes from the living room. Two little kids, who couldn't have been more than five or six, dressed as executives. (They clearly hadn't been following the news.) She gave them some candy, and I heard their thank-you's as the door closed. Since we live on the 8th floor of an apartment building, they were our only visitors. I thought about telling them that Halloween was the Devil's night, that Jesus would be very unhappy with them, and asking them where the tradition of Halloween had come from, but as they were only kids, they probably wouldn't understand what I was saying. Of course, age rarely comes into play when it comes to understanding, just as ignorance wears a variety of masks…


    When I was a kid, we dressed up every year to go out for Halloween. We didn't have a lot of money, but my mom worked hard on our costumes -- I still remember my sisters going out as Raggedy Ann and Andy -- and we always had a lot of fun, especially afterwards when my sisters and I would sit on our beds and 'trade'. (Any trade that brought you a chocolate bar was a winner. 'Best player in the trade' mentality.) Our home was traditional Catholic, but it never occurred to anyone in my family that somehow by putting on costumes and going door to door we were dishonouring God. That changed when I went into ministry. The Pentecostal church where I was working thought Halloween was the devil's night and had videos to prove it. Not only that, as we were taught in excruciating detail, the roots of Halloween went back to a dangerous and ignorant time, when the masks and costumes were worn to scare evil spirits, and trick or treat involved a sacrifice to these spirits. Sometimes, they said, those sacrifices included human sacrifices. I was horrified. I did some research, and wouldn't you know it, it was true. Halloween had indeed been a pagan holiday. They had indeed used masks in an attempt to scare the evil spirits. The idea that Christians celebrated such an evil holiday was an atrocity. I immediately crossed Halloween off my holiday list.

In my second year of ministry, my senior pastor informed me that they were going to offer an alternative costume party for the kids. I thought it was a great idea. This way, he said, the kids would get their candy and not be left out, and the church could reaffirm the glory of God instead of partaking in some old pagan/satanic ritual. It would be years before I would reconsider this idea of Halloween as the devil's night. Halloween was evil. It was right there in the history books. Or was it?

When my sister first told the family a number of years ago that she wasn't celebrating Christmas anymore and that it was a pagan holiday, I thought she was nuts. It was the birth of Jesus! For crying out loud, I thought, you couldn't get any more 'Christian' than that! She was vey calm.

"Christmas is a pagan holiday. The Romans changed it when the church came into power. December 25th was traditionally the celebration of Winter Solstice. And historians have long confirmed that Jesus was born sometime in February. Also, Christmas trees were a form of pagan worship, particularly popular in Germany, but also known throughout Ireland and Scotland."

"That's not true," I said, unwilling to stay quiet. "The trees are evergreens, they represent Jesus' limbs and how they reach out all year round… or something like that."

My sister just looked at me and I shuffled uneasily under her gaze.

"Okay, fine. But how about St. Nick? He was a real saint who helped orphans and-"

"-now he's a fat man with a red coat and talking reindeer who lives at the North Pole. Christmas is nothing more than a big bloated business opportunity!"

I looked at my sister's serious expression and waved my hands.

"Bah humbug!"

It was all I had left. The sad thing of it all was that my sister was right. Her church, at least when it came to celebrations, was very consistent. They didn't celebrate anything except birthdays, which is to say, they didn't celebrate anything. (Loads of fun for the kids, but hey, they're consistent, and isn't that what's really important?)

I guess it was after that I started thinking about Halloween. The truth, conveniently ignored by those of us in the church, including me, was that all of our customs and rituals had ties to the past. Except that for most evangelicals, Christmas made the cut and Halloween didn't. I could only wonder at the discrepancy. Of the two holidays, Christmas seemed far less "Christian". It encouraged consumerism and gluttony and materialism. Jesus was as much a footnote to our cultural practice of Christianity as Satan was to our cultural practice of Halloween. And I certainly didn't see people offering sacrifices to evil spirits on Halloween. Oh, I had no doubt there were people who tried to re-enact the pagan rituals on October 31st. These so-called occultists. So what? I didn't see why it mattered so much. If a group of people decided to worship suitcases every July 4th, would Christians declare that to be a no-travel day as a form of protest? In essence, what the church was doing was giving Satan equal billing with an omnipotent God.

The more I thought about it, the more I wondered why they persisted in producing so much anti-Halloween material. It had become so ridiculous to me, especially when I saw the medieval images of Satan wearing horns and a tail and usually in red tights. How was this seen as biblical? I brought it up with some of my Christian friends as a joke, but they never laughed. Mostly I got disapproving frowns. It was spiritual, they told me, and there was nothing 'trivial' about it. Well, I agreed with them about that. It certainly wasn't trivial. And as I'd found out this past year, the anti-Halloween movement hadn't slowed at all. It was all kind of sad and rheumy, like finding your grandfather's favourite old rocker in the garage covered with dust and being sold as something new and fresh.

But I guess we're taking a stand, aren't we? I just wonder when we're going to wake up and see that in all of our rhetoric, we're committing a much greater atrocity.





For me, the saddest part of all this is that my sister hasn't celebrated Christmas with my family in fifteen years. Her church has taken a stand, and God Bless Them, they're consistent. There will be no pagan celebrations in their family. And for many of my evangelical and charismatic friends, there will be no Halloween celebrations in their family either.

I guess that's okay. I don't like consumerism very much, and most people don't want to honour evil, but what if we're wrong about these traditions. What if the meaning of a tradition is simply the meaning you ascribe to it?

When I think about Christmas growing up, I don't think about the fact it was a pagan holiday or that Jesus was born in February. Instead, I remember family gatherings, getting together at the Croatian Hall with my cousins and waiting for Santa to appear, or our tradition of opening presents one at a time on Christmas morning. When I think about Halloween, I don't think about the occultist ties or ignorance of scaring spirits, I think about the costumes my mom made for us, trading candy with my sisters, engaging with our neighbours, and later, with my neighbours' children.

It's easy, I think, to take a perpetual stance of condemning culture. It's easy to automatically label customs as wrong or sinful and even easier to find reasons not to participate. Maybe that happens because it gives us a sense of both self-importance and self-sacrifice and doesn't really cost us anything. Except that it does. It reinforces the idea that Christians are proud and elitist. It reinforces the idea that Christians think that they are better. It tells the world that Christianity is as exclusive as a yacht club, and forces some of us who love Jesus to explain to our friends why these other Christians are such cultural snobs. Perhaps the worst thing about it though, is that while we're celebrating our differences from the world on these holidays, there will be people at work and on our streets who have no one with whom they can share anything. It goes without saying, I think, that the real atrocities of life are never concerned with issues, just people. The same people the church insists that it loves.

I miss our family Christmas. I miss the fact we can't gather together as a family because a portion of the church insists on teaching anti-culturalism. My hope this year is that we will remember to celebrate the holidays (yes, all of them) as seasons of hope and giving. That we will look at the world as not a place to condemn, but as a family to join. And that we will hold close not the doctrines that divide us, but the relationships that make this whole thing matter.




Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Comments, Questions, and A Lot of Criticism

My apologies for not posting lately. The book has taken a great deal of time from what I'm used to doing on this site, along with some articles I've been working on for publication. That said, I will be posting my next blog for this site within the week as it's almost done. What is it concerning? Let's just say I'm a little frustrated over the response to Halloween by many people in the church, and our position on holidays in general. It's time we step back and look at what we've created the past thirty years or so.

For now, I thought I'd post some of the comments I received from the latest blog, The Origin of Christian Arrogance. As some of you are aware, I will generally post a piece on a variety of sites aside from this one. The last blog upset some of you, and I appreciated your thoughtful opinions of dissent.

A couple of things very quickly:

  1. I like it when people disagree, and especially when they take the time to produce a thoughtful dialogue. Yes, I believe in right and wrong, but much of that is situational and cultural. I know we don't like to hear that (the Pharisees certainly didn't when Jesus was around) but when we externalize evil in the form of people groups or cultures we become antithetical to the Gospel.
  2. The only comments I do not publish are personal attacks (of which there have been a few) or those which cross the boundary of appropriateness. (My blog, my discretion) I rarely have to worry about this because those of you who stop by here tend to be quite thoughtful.
  3. On the last comment, instead of writing back, I simply inserted my response into the text itself using <my thoughts> brackets. I don't like to do that, but the comment is a long one and I want everyone who takes the time to write me to get full attention. In this case, I was simply afraid I would not be able to address everything that was brought up in the comment.

Okay, on to the comments. I hope you all are enjoying the late fall sunshine.


From SH, Calgary, AB
You know Steve, I think we make it difficult for ourselves when we continually focus on the rules and struggle with the decision of following them or ignoring them and trying something new.

A suggestion? Stop focusing so much on what we've done wrong.

To SH,
I appreciate your comment. :) The problem I have with not paying attention to the rules is that many of these 'rules' have nothing to do with God, and impart nothing but heartache. It's easy, I think, to ignore these so-called rules, but look at who suffers. I think of the slaves, of the women who have tried to be leaders, at the ... Read More homosexuals who are told they are worthless and the poor who are ignored simply because they're not important. And then I think about who Jesus would stand for, and it pushes me to do the same.

From AG, Ottawa, ONT

Dear Steve... and I say this in a respectful way because I know you guys desperately believe in god, but... I don't have to deal with these issues, and I feel my particular view of the world has become more rich than all the excuses cited above could give. I may live in a godless world, but it is full of passion, understanding, love, empathy, compassion... compassion... Read More, caring, inquisitiveness, desire, ambition, and hope! I really feel sorry and sad when I read stories like this, and my heart is moved with compassion for her and how she clings to an unfulfilled life and simple tenants. I know to many Christians living a life without god is very much looked down on, but for those of us who aren't Christians and embrace learning on another level, with an open mind, we learn more about ourselves than the bible can offer and enrich what we can offer in this life with that.

Just a thought from the light side.

To AG,
It's nice to hear from you. :) My fear of those who live in a 'godless' world, as you say, is that there is little room for humility. I cite Sam Harris, who would like to bomb the entire Muslim world, or Richard Dawkins, a hyper atheist fundamentalist who is so arrogant he believes himself to be superior to everyone around him. It is not so much that I desperately believe in God, but that He believes in me. To let go, simply because it's easy, makes no spiritual or intellectual sense for me. In fact, it would be intellectually lazy for me to do so in an attempt to divine our purpose here. I fear the idea of learning on "another level" as you say, because I think that learns implies condescension. That is, it implies some have reached a higher spiritual plane than others. That sounds like too many religious people I know, and not at all like Jesus, who "though he was God, became one of us, and considered others better than Himself." It's hard, but I think it's worth it.

From AG, Ottawa, ON
Hey Steve... I know most Christians have very little tolerance for those two but I find they make a lot of sense. I have read Dawkins, own his movies... thought about what he had to say. He's pretty staunch, it's true, however he is a genuine man utterly frustrated with the senseless acts he sees around him and I agree with him there but certainly not so arrogant as you think. It's senseless as you put it how many fundamentalist Christians treat gays, women, and I might add the climate, our environment, animals, science, war etc. So many are repulsed by the notion in America to have a health care system but was not Jesus in essence a socialist?

To us, we can't understand statements like "he (God) believes in me"... leaves us somewhat baffled. To take "another level" to mean a higher level is entirely your perception if you want it that way. I might suggest that it would be the position of a man in a defensive position to automatically conclude such a thing. I would probably have given it a separate branch of a birthing root and a conclusion we came to parallel to yours, it's simply a decision to decide for or against the evidence of there being a god. And I'm leaving spiritual notions entirely out of it, such things have no place in my world so it's rather impossible for me to claim a higher spiritual level....

And to let go does in no way imply that it's an easier route, it's a different route. You chose your path, I choose mine, both have personally rewarding ends, but for some I fear, they had a path picked for them that they aren't as well adjusted to, and perhaps the alternative might offer more comfort. , caring, inquisitiveness, desire, ambition, and hope! I really feel sorry and sad when i read stories like this, and my heart is moved with compassion for her and how she clings to an unfulfilled life and simple tenants. I know to many Christians living a life without god is very much looked down on, but for those of us who aren't Christians and embrace learning on another level, with an open mind, we learn more about ourselves than the bible can offer and enrich what we can offer in this life with that.

Just a thought from the light side.

To AG,
Thanks again for the comment! Honestly, do not see the difference between Dawkins and religious fundamentalists, and I'm not the only one. Have you read Christopher Hedges? He's a Pulitzer Prize winning author who spent two years studying the Christian Right in the US, and wrote a book about it, and called their form of Christianity 'fascism'. He sees the same thing in the "New Atheists". Their fundamental view of the world is black and white, just like a Christian or Muslim fundamentalist. They see no nuance, no colour. Dawkins is a brilliant science writer, but when he writes about theology he's an amateur, and he spends more time defending the 'cult of science' than sticking to the essence of science. He's the most religious sounding scientist I've ever heard! (Two of my friends ARE scientists, and he confuses them)
Fundamentally, Dawkins and the others externalize evil, which is exactly what fundamentalists do. They see evil as something outside of themselves and believe that with reason and education we can move to some sort of human utopia. That we (because we are educated atheists or dedicated Christians) are better and have the "right" of things. The fundamentalist always turns the world into two sides. Us vs. Them. This is exactly what Dawkins does. (I can't believe you call him 'staunch', he's an ass towards people who don't agree with him, just like American fundamentalist preacher types -- condescending and patronizing) For Dawkins, the problem is religion. But the problem isn't religion; the problem is that we are all immoral. Humankind will use all sort of things to create terror, and sometimes its religion. Sometimes its communism, sometimes its fascism or government. These are not the reflections of a religious mind, but the natural immorality of humanity. When we make the assumption, like the Germans did, that we can educate and rationalize and that we're moving towards a smarter, more evolved humanity, we end up with Bureaucrats taking notes while millions are slaughtered in concentration camps.
Dawkins cannot accept the basic principle of human immorality, and that we are not "getting better" or morally evolving. No amount of reason will change that. -Steve

From MJ, California

The problem that I see here, Steve, is that if anyone sees God and the world differently than you then they are either simple, immature, or not as experienced as you and thus THAT is why they don't agree with you, and that in and of itself is arrogance.

Your friend has faith in God. She has settled the issue in her heart, and it's obvious you haven't. Not yet, at least. Despite the pain and the tragedy in this world God is still in control and we must trust in Him. It may not make a whole lot of sense to our finite minds, where we inevitably ask "Why?", but ultimately we must accept, and settle the issue, that if our God is who He says He is, He does all things for our best interests and for His ultimate glory. Near the end of Job, God and Job have a little discussion. Read that again before you start diminishing your friends perspective, and mine.

You refer to Jesus and the Gospels. Good. Doesn't He repeatedly make the point that we are to come to Him as little children, with simple faith? To me, perhaps, simple faith is real faith. Your friend was right. She has peace. You do not. She has settled the issue. You need to. Do I trust in God or do I trust in the world? You can't have both, and perhaps that's the dilemma, why your spiritual walk is full of strife and grief. You're trying to meld the two, and the two are, unfortunately, diametrically opposed.

If I am wrong, then let me ask you a question. With the attitude you have, what is it about God that is appealing to a hurting and lonely world? What do you have to offer that someone else can't? What is so great about God? You may make people feel good about themselves, but ultimately do you bring them any closer to Jesus, the master healer? And more to the point, why not? Could it be that perhaps, deep down, you don't trust that God will heal hurting hearts? That God will give comfort? You have to settle this issue, because if you're not pointing people to Jesus you're pointing people to you, and no MA degree or PhD can change that. In fact, it probably makes things worse.

I've been reading your blogs for several years and I've noticed you've become more and more cynical, and far less tolerant of others and their walk with Jesus. It seems, with but few exceptions, everyone is arrogant, immature, inexperienced, or flat out wrong. You diminish the work that God is faithfully doing in everyone's life when it doesn't track with yours. How dare we have joy? How dare we trust in God? Instead of growth I see a hardened heart, and before God will allow you to minister to anyone you have to get back to the way you used to be, Steve, when everything was simple. Sometimes thinking too much can cause our hearts to grow cold.

To MJ,
Thanks for your comment. I want you to know that we often disagree, I appreciate you taking the time to comment and I do consider carefully before responding. There are several points here. I found it interesting that when I first posted this blog (which went as a note to facebook) the two people to respond immediately were a Christian evangelical friend, and an atheist, both of whom disagreed with me. There's a link there, because fundamentalism is way of seeing the world, and both John Hagee and Richard Dawkins see it the same way. I won't repeat my comments there, but I will try to address the points you made. When I was a conservative, I used the argument you make here, that anyone who sees the world other than I do is intolerant, therefore, really, everyone is intolerant. The problem with that thought process is that it allows everything.

Patriarchy, misogyny and racism are dangerous, in that they cause a great deal of suffering, so to that, I AM intolerant of it. I have seen great hurt and damage done by those of "simple faith", who have used the Bible to beat down those not in power. What I don't understand is how Christians can call that acceptable. Wasn't Jesus chastised for doing that very thing? My wife grew up in Ethiopia as the daughter of missionaries. Her parents are kind, loving people. But for most of her life, because of the missionary organization she belonged to, she was taught that her opinions didn't matter. Do you know why? Because she was a woman. As to my friend, perhaps my portrait was not clear enough. She was a beaten woman. Through the years, I've seen what abused women look like and so while she was quoting Scripture, she was beaten. She had no life in her, Matt. Do you know how sad that is to see? She didn't have joy. She was despondent and lifeless. I've seen that before, as I said, and it is very, very sad. In this case, the church did not stick up for her, because she was a woman. She wasn't quoting Scripture out of joy. "Simple faith" works well if you are a man, especially a white, straight man. Not so much if you are part of the population with power. I'm afraid I see this as antithetical to a God who goes after one lost sheep.

As for me, you're right when you say, what do YOU have to offer. My answer would be... nothing. I wish I didn't see the pain I see, and I wish I could simply write about what a great life I have and how God loves me. I don't write articles to necessarily make people feel better, and I'm not interested in writing about that which I do not feel, which I consider to be Christian propaganda. It would be hypocritical for me to do so. You point out Job, which is probably an apt comparison to the way many people feel. I find it difficult to simply say "God has a plan". He does? When does this plan go into effect? And yet, I have devoted the vast majority of my life both seeking and worshipping the One who created us. I have no doubt that God exists, or that Jesus is the Incarnation. It doesn't lessen the pain I feel for the hurt I see around me. And it certainly won't stop me from asking questions like "where are you, God?" The prophets were commended for their faith in the OT, and when you read their words, or the psalms, much of what they are doing is asking the same questions I ask, that many people ask. The church has become too interested in marketing Jesus... "Why would someone come to church after listening to you?" and less interested in being authentic. So while people may come to church because of our sunny smiles, there are many who want to know that you, like them, do not have all the answers. We have somewhere gotten this idea that church is something WE need to expand. I disagree. God grows the church. It's His church after all. I am not interested in Christian pamphlets or fake smiles or tired clichés.

Have I become more cynical? Maybe. That is not a result of school, but exposure. The myth of human progress, the atheistic 18th century idea, seems prevalent in the church these days, as if it were a Christian idea. Certainly, I do not want to be one who 'steals the joy' from other Christians. If I tell you I wish I had more of that, what would you say? Different people have different callings and different struggles. As you've read my work, you know that I have always tried to be honest about my own. About three or four years ago, when I came back to the church, I made a simple promise to God. I promised that I would no longer hide. I wouldn't hide my questions or doubts. That I would write honestly, from the heart, without trying to 'make things nice.' Today, that promise holds. I will never convince someone else that Jesus is God Incarnate. Nor will I try. That is God's doing. I am not a salesperson nor a marketer nor a politician, and it is my firm belief that when we attempt to 'evangelize', that often (in our methods) we are degrading God. I'm sure you disagree, and that's okay, it's just where I'm at.

Thanks again for your comment. Know that your words are prayerfully considered.


From MJ, California
I suppose what I was getting at was that you often lump evangelicals and charismatics as being harmful, and I am both. I suppose I'm not a typical Christian in that I often challenge and question church doctrine that is not backed up with scripture.

<I do tend to lump them together, which is sometimes problematic, I admit. I do it because I was a Pentecostal pastor (and they are all evangelicals) As to the second point about checking with Scripture, it is something I always used to say as well, but it's simply not possible. Evangelicals use that term a lot and yet know the least about the history of the church and understanding Scripture in context, which is why it gets abused so consistently. This is problematic in that it checks Scripture literally when it wants to, as in regards to women and spiritual leadership rules and homosexuality, but then becomes loving your enemy, cutting off the body part that causes you to sin, and all sorts of verses. We are all selective! And Scripture is ancient text, and can not be read as a 21st Century letter to Western Europeans and their descendants.

But what I take offense to is your generalizations about conservative Christians. I don't walk in lock step with the church. I don't just accept what is taught without analyzing it and praying about it (and getting additional counsel from others about it), just as Paul encouraged the Boreans to do. And mostly, I don't claim to have all the answers. <Me neither, MJ. >It wasn't until my father passed away when I realized I don't HAVE to have the answers, and I'm okay with it...finally. And what bothers me is the reverse chauvinism that is being displayed here. My opinions are dismissible because I am a white male. How can I possibly understand? Never mind the fact that it is a misconception that men are the only ones who are abusive, because I myself was abused by my first wife, and no one believed me. No one came to my defense, not the church and not my friends. However, I didn't let that dishearten me.

<I think that your situation is terrible, MJ. You are the rarest of cases, however. As to being a white, straight male, I used to complain about 'reverse discrimination' as well. Then I started working in a multi-cultural environment and started to really talk and listen to my female friends. As a rule, white, straight males still have the power in our society. Based on ability alone, there are no limitations on where we can go and what we can achieve. That's not true for any other group in our society.>

I still trust in God, and although I don't see how He orchestrates things while I'm in hard times, so very often once I've come out on the other side I've seen how He actually did. I find that is often the case. How can a loving God let so much misery continue? There are no easy answers, and that's okay. We live in a sinful world where <Humans>man are so often too selfish to be like Jesus. Should the church have been there to protect your wife? You're damn right they should have and they will be held accountable to it by God (if not in this life then the next). But you see, that's why we need Jesus, because on our own we will always fall short of Christ's character and not be merciful to those who need mercy, and don't love people that need to be loved, and don't help those that need help. That is the biggest sin of fallen man, that we come in Christ's name but not in His CHARACTER.


We tell people all the time ABOUT Jesus but rarely reflect Him through our lives.

<Exactly. I agree. So maybe its time we stopped talking about it. Maybe its time we stopped worrying about evangelism.>

That's what a hurting world is sees, and is the real reason people have stopped going to church; the hypocrisy.

<I disagree. It isn't the hypocrisy, it's the surety. Every evangelical is taught that they know they are Christians. How? Because they just know it in their knower. It's dishonest and dumb and inauthentic. You DON'T KNOW! I DON'T KNOW! How can you rationally KNOW about God? Unless you are Him or Her? I think the churches would fill up if the people inside them just started saying "I don't know", all the time. Can you think of a more welcoming place than the Church of the I Don't Know. Instead, we do our marketing reports that tell us we need more parking and nursery spaces and better music. Maybe we just need a bunch of people who can I Don't Know together about Jesus and go help someone.>

But in that we must understand that the church is made up of people who suffer from the same problems as those that don't go to church. We are just as fallible, just as selfish, and just as wounded, while the world looks to us for answers to their pain and suffering.

<No, it doesn't look to us for answers. That's the point. It doesn't look at us at all. We're just another stupid organization where people are trying to fit in together. Maybe if we stopped thinking we were "the answer" we'd be a little more humble, and people would ask for our help.>

They want easy answers, and there are none, as most honest Christians have come to understand. But in that failing, I see those that genuinely love God cannot help <but> love others, and in so doing try perhaps too hard to give answers they are not skilled to give out of the earnest desire to lead them to Jesus.

<Bah. Okay, I guess I'm getting a bit grumpy here. They're not simply 'trying too hard', they've been taught that 'leading someone to Jesus' is like taking someone to the washroom. That anyone can do it if you know the way. Really? So we serve a mystical, omnipotent God, but if we follow four easy steps that person is now 'saved'. Bah! Do you think God cares so little for his children that YOU are the answer. We may be part of it, but evangelicals can't even see the ridiculous amount of pride in their position. I know I didn't. Listen, we all want to feel important. And no doubt, 'leading someone to the Lord', may make you feel that way. Unfortunately, it isn't just about you, and that's the problem with evangelicals and especially charismatics, who see your salvation as their personal problem to be solved. While its true that many are sincere in trying to help, too often charismatics attract personality types who seek attention, and act in a manner that is offensive and belies their own insecurity. Which begs the point. If they are so sure of their own salvation, why are they always trying to convince others that they're right 'about the Lord'?>

In Him I have hope, that despite all that I've been through, I can still have peace. God gave me joy (not what most people interpret as being happiness, but joy, an entirely different thing altogether) and want others who have come to walk in Christ have it as well, instead of clinging to their pain. Cuz, you see, I too have suffered great loss, great pain, great abuse, great neglect, and deep depression. When I gave my life to Him he flipped all that on its head and for the first time in my life I knew what joy actually is. Now, that's not say my life has been all rosy since. In fact, some of the most painful times I've ever had has happened since I've become a Christian, however I've come to have that intimacy with God where he comforts me and strengthens me through those hard and difficult (and sometimes lonely) times. THAT is what we as Christians have to offer a lost and hurting world. I can't help anyone. I can't rescue anyone. I can only point them to the One who can.

It's up to them to make that decision: "Will I put my trust in God, or keep doing things the way I've always done?" And sometimes, their choice can grieve us as they choose to do their own thing and thus continue on in their pain alone. Some even, as was the case with my second wife, are more comfortable with pain and sorrow than the freedom that a life in Christ offers. People like me are an anathema to them. It forces them to step outside of their comfort zone and patterns of behavior embedded in their psyche so deep after decades of practice. If one is a true follower of Jesus you should be going somewhere with your walk. You cannot be a disciple of Christ and remain the same.

You know this. Christ offers peace, rest, and comfort, but at the same time challenges us to embrace a life we are completely foreign to, to be better than who we think we can be, and takes us out of our comfort zone.

<There's another paradox in there. God offers us peace and then takes us out of our comfort zone? I think I understand what you're saying, but it comes across as more clichéd talking points from a church bulletin.>

Having joy joy joy is not a delusion, nor is it a sign of an immature faith. I've been slugging it out in the trenches for over 14 years now, so I'm not exactly inexperienced nor am I unread (nor am I a mindless sheep of church doctrine). Faith CAN be real and simple.

<Considering the paradoxes you've lined up… I'm not sure how you can call faith 'simple'. They seem clear when you're in the church, because we're given weekly driving lessons down those winding trails each week, but step outside the church for a while and you get gobbly gook.>

Faith is a matter of trust that, despite what my eyes can see and what my finite mind can comprehend, I know God is watching my back and loves me enough that whatever I may have gone through He can redeem for His glory and my benefit (even though it may hurt like hell at the time). Christ said "I came to give life and life more abundantly" and it's my goal in life that Christians understand this. His love heals...but only if we let Him. I see the pain in people's lives and if I didn't care I'd keep it to myself and not do anything about it, but I also see the solution.

<What is the solution? What is it? Go to church more? Ask Jesus to forgive us for our sins? What IS THE SOLUTION? I'm not just talking to MJ here, but unfortunately, his letter catches the blow. Christians always like to say that they have the solution! I don't think so. I think that Christians have a greater insight into the mystery of life. I think that as we grow we understand that we know less. When I see people who are absolutely sure about what they know about God, I immediately back up. They are either salespeople, wing nuts, shallow, not too smart, and have some other motive for wanting me to be part of their church.>

However, not very many people (including those who claim to be Christians) want the solution. "It's too easy." Yes, it is. It is also that HARD.

<It's your conscience that's speaking when you repress your questions. This is exactly what cults say to their cult members.>

In fact, trusting God enough to let Him inside and heal you is quite possibly the most terrifying thing a Christian has to do, and is often a life long process of surrendering those things (attitudes, beliefs, habits, loves, hates, dreams, fears, people, and possessions) to Him who wants the best for us.

<Again, none of that seems as simple as seem to believe it is, MJ. I think we are in more agreement than you realize.>

My special thanks to those who wrote in, and to MJ, who always writes thoughtful and considered comments on one of my sites. I appreciate his readership, and if today I seemed harsh, please understand it is not personal, but he expresses clichés that the church refuses to acknowledge and need to be addressed.

By the way, this idea that the church has the answer has filtered down to the individual level, where there are a number of people in churches who occupy positions of power – board members, pastors, prayer leaders – who insist that they know everything there is to know about God. They're called bullies, and Jesus addressed them, 2000 years ago.

To quote the Son of God then… "Sons of bitches and polly-glam empty asses" Matt 23: 33, New Stephen Burns Revised Edition)


Saturday, October 17, 2009

The Origins of Christian Arrogance

    "It isn't that simple-"

    "Faith IS simple, Steve. I asked Jesus to forgive me, and he has, and now I live as a Christian. It's right there in the Bible." She said.

    I looked at Sheila for a second without saying anything. My old Bible College classmate sat across from me in the downtown Starbucks, her red hair held back in a long braid. She was dressed modestly, in a white blouse and long gray skirt. Her daughter slept in the stroller next to the table. We'd bumped into one another the day before – I'd hardly recognized her – and she'd agreed to meet me for a coffee the next day. She told me about her two kids, Brian was nine, and little Rebekkah, in the stroller who was "a pleasant surprise." What was surprising was that she was still married. Yes, she'd separated from her husband, but he had confessed his sins to the Lord, she said, and they were a family again. It'd been five years since I last heard from her. At the time, she was getting counseling to help deal with the abuse, both physical and emotional, her husband had heaped on her their first five years of marriage. Back then, she'd been as fiery as her hair colour indicated. She seemed different now, as if she'd tired of fighting.

    I watched her as she moved the stroller back and forth, the way her gaze loved her child, and the quiet sag in her shoulders.

    "Faith isn't simple, Sheila." I said, as gently as I could. "Faith in God, in a world filled with tragedy, is complicated and difficult. The world is not black and white, and it's for us to figure out that sometimes we don't know what should be done, or to question God's absence from the pain many of us hold so deeply."

    "That kind of gobblegook message keeps people away from the church. " She said, her fire briefly renewed. "Jesus rescues us. With him we are triumphant."

    "Not always." I said quietly. "Not for me, anyway."

    Something flashed across her face – compassion, empathy, understanding – I couldn't tell, but just as quickly it left as she turned to her daughter.

    "I'll pray for you, Steve. You're just making things difficult for yourself."

    We talked for a little while longer, and I complimented her on her daughter, and tried to make her laugh a little. She gave me a quick hug and we promised to be in touch, though we both knew I would never see her again. There was nothing comforting about my presence, and I was unwilling to offer the same, tired clichés about God making everything all right. Too often, it seemed to me, God didn't make things "all right."



    The weather had changed the past week, and I shivered as a cool wind cut my jacket as I stood outside the bookstore, sipping my coffee. The ground was wet with rain, but the air was cold and fresh. People scurried past me, to and from the parking lot. An elderly Asian woman watched helplessly as the strong wind flipped her umbrella inside out, and then hustled to her car holding it like a lance. It'd been months since I spoke to Sheila, and yet today I could not stop thinking about our conversation. It wasn't the first conversation I'd had with old colleagues and friends who'd expressed the idea that faith in God was a simple thing. Men seemed to do it with more bluster and laughter, the women with resigned shrugs and only momentary fierceness. I could not understand why this was so, except that "simple faith" usually marked itself in patriarchy, where women were little more than second-class citizens. This, in many ways, was the unspoken arrangement between the genders, one that long outdated Evangelicalism or Fundamentalism. "Simple faith" had other markers as well, which usually included a clear and narrow path to the Creator marked by 'hard' borders, a strictly imposed morality structure, and the externalization of evil. I'd often heard that a pastor should communicate clearly what was expected of the congregation, that a 'mist in the pulpit was a fog in the pews.' Of course, the idea of 'clear communication' had been around a long time.

    Thousands of years ago, according to the story in Genesis 11, all people spoke the same language. They found a plain in Shinar, and decided that they should build a great Tower to reach the heavens, and in so doing, declare their greatness. God saw this and confused their languages so they could not complete the Tower, and the people scattered over the earth. God said, "If one people speaking the same language have begun to do this, then nothing they plan will be impossible for them." And yet, despite the warning in this story, which need not be taken literally for us to understand the point, people have continued building the Tower where ever they have scattered. It is a human thing, this desire to not only reach God but to be God; this longing to have the steps of our faith clearly mapped in front of us, like stone, so that we can simply walk up the Tower. In every religion there are rules. Rules about how we should live and why we should do certain things. Some of these are good, as they make us strive to develop character, to produce patience and love and compassion. Many of them however, are nothing more than steps up the Stone Tower. They are simple in their understanding of God, and require simplicity in its understanding. That the applications of these simple rules are highly destructive seem not to matter, so long as we can hold on blindly to this thing we call "faith", but which in actuality is the pagan idea of 'Fate.' Faith should be dynamic and active, questing and doubtful and angry, hopeful and frightening. Fate is the antithesis of faith. It is unquestioning and accepting and apathetic.

    A simple faith has rules, which you have seen before, such as:

  1. Men are the spiritual leader in the home and in the church.
  2. We are new creatures in Christ when we ask Jesus to forgive our sins.
  3. Every verse of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching (we must take the Bible literally)

We could produce a long list of rules, couldn't we? I've chosen these three as examples simply because their acceptance is so widespread in the church. I know, because I used to teach them, and they never caused a stir. Ever.

A simple faith says that men are spiritual leaders, as Paul mentions in his letters in the New Testament. Real faith asks why? Why men? What is the context? Are men a better fit to be the leader? Or is that the hierarchy God intended? Much abuse has been done in the church, some of which has been chronicled on this blog, in what men have done to maintain their patriarchal superiority through the application of this simple rule. It is often done with condescending smiles and patronizing explanations. And jokes, of course. Why so few Christians challenge this rule speaks not to agreement, but to the disharmony in so many lives. Most people will accept any structure, any sense of community when they have none, even if it means subjugating yourself to a demeaning form of 'church'.

We are new creatures in Christ, the old has passed away… so says the New Testament. The simple faith says we are victorious, that we are special, that God has saved us. Real faith says… saved us from what? Real faith exists in a non-utopian world, where the poor die from starvation and people are slaughtered for having the wrong beliefs or being born in the wrong country. Real faith must check itself every day, must tremble in the witness of a life that is the same as it was before they professed to following Christ, and ask why that is so. Why am I still so angry? Why does my son still not listen to me? Why do I still feel like a second class citizen? Real faith has the courage to ask the hard questions.

Every verse of Scripture is God-breathed and useful for teaching, according to one verse in the New Testament. Most of us have used this verse to wring the interpretation we want from other parts of the Bible, and why the fundamentalists and charismatics insist that we must read the Bible literally. Simple faith says that this must be true. It is the reason why the Christian (American)South and many of the British Parliament could defend slavery. It is used to oppress women and minorities. It is used to defend patriarchy. It is used to attack homosexuals. It is used, primarily, as a weapon. Real faith does not accept it, because it knows that not every verse IS useful. (Tell Timothy to fetch my cloak?) Real faith knows that the point is not to align ourselves correctly on one side or another, but to hear the resonance between the story of God and our relationship with Him; to hear it and do our best to apply it to the world around us. How is it, for example, that Christians can defend the Iraq war, when Jesus says to love our enemies? How is it that Christians can engage in all kinds of racist and misogynistic behavior, in the face of the gospels? Is there anything more saddening than to surf the internet at various Christian sites, and read the comments. The hatred and vitriol speak to a suppressed multitude who may, in person, talk about the love of God, but in reality find it necessary to displace their anger they refuse to see in themselves.

Simple faith says that we are always right about God. Real faith asks… what happened?

The birth of Christian arrogance lies in the codification of something that is relational and dynamic. Our faith, like us, must breathe. In and out, inhale and exhale. It should challenge us and push us to re-examine who we are and ask ourselves why we do the things we do. While rewarding, it is never easy and often frustrating. We want so badly to understand, to understand why God allows such terror and tragedy both in the world and in our lives. And when no explanation is forthcoming, it is the natural thing to lean on one another, to form groups that rely on simple rules that have little to do with the Creator or what it means to be human.     

Real faith costs us a great deal. It refuses to offer easy answers. And it does not allow us to live in our own created utopia, because it forces us to see the world as it truly is, with all of her wounds and ugliness, and accept her anyway.

There is much in the Gospels about Jesus healing lepers. About how he touched them and visited them when few would. Leprosy, in the ancient world, was used to denote a wide range of skin disorders and diseases, some more severe than others, and all of them ugly. Yet Jesus reached out to this shunned community. Knowing that gives me hope, because our world is just as ugly. People haven't changed. We are still selfish and arrogant. We kill for power and profit. We turn away from the poor and give reasons for our own uniqueness. When I think of the ugliness in my own heart, the one that wants to build a new Tower of Babel with 'simple faith', I am thankful for God's reminder that faith, like life, isn't easy. That arrogance is antithetical to one who believes in the Incarnation. And that while knowledge is to be respected, real faith is not about having the right answer, but the right heart, one that is willing to both accept our humanity and wrestle with it as well.


Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Christianity vs. Islam

Part I: The Games, 2025

A roar went up from the stadium and thundered in the locker rooms below the arena. Jean Belanger, aka the White Knight, fiddled with his white cloak. His sword lay next to him on the bench. The room was stark, little more than a set of banged up lockers and wooden benches for the participants. Beside him, Joe Brown, aka the Black Joseph, was stretching out his hamstrings with a series of yoga exercises. Jean watched his colleague, unable to hide his disdain.

“You know, if you weren’t the Captain and the crowd ever saw you stretching like that, they’d throw you into a Turban factory.”

Joe ignored him, moving easily from Warrior One to Warrior Two. The doors banged open as the rest of their colleagues sauntered in, their packs over their shoulders, laughing and yelling.

“This is it, boys!”

“Time to take down the Ragheads!”

Joe finished his stretching and picked up his sword. It was surprisingly light for its length, and he double checked the edges for any nics in its razor sharp blade. He’d never imagined himself as gladiator, but the times had been hard for his family, and if there was one thing Joe knew for certain, it was who to blame. The Muslims had been multiplying like rabbits for the past twenty years, and small wars had broken out all across the planet. His pastor had been right to warn them about the spiritual darkness that was Islam. Within a span of five years the Muslims had infiltrated the country with their blasphemous language and funny robes and war-like manner. The United States had resisted, thank God, as more and more Christians had armed themselves. Ten years of civil violence had led to the proposal and development of the Games. Leading clerics on both sides (though calling a Muslim cleric was ridiculous to Joe) had hammered out the details.

The rules were simple. Each year Christians and Muslims selected their twelve best warriors. They fought until all the members of one side were dead.
For the remainder of that year, the winning side’s religion received complete immunity from any pending lawsuit and was officially declared the State’s Religion. The Supreme Court had refused to even consider such a law when it was originally proposed, but the rising crime and lawlessness, along with the death of the three most vigorous judges on the court, had paved the way for the Games. Christianity had lost the first two years, but as the Games gathered momentum, more resources had been poured into training, and they’d won the past three contests. Warriors for The Right, so the Christians had named themselves, were considered heroes, and making the team considered a great honor.

Joe checked his blade. This year’s team was as strong as any he’d seen. As the lone survivor from last year’s contest, he was an easy choice for the Captain’s role. “Lord, bless my blade again this year.” He prayed softly. He thought about his wife and two young girls back home. He wasn’t worried about their well being, making the Team automatically gave them a healthy pension in the case of his death, he simply missed them. Training days were long, and he rarely saw them. The sound of clinking armor and the rustle of swords and curses reverberated through the locker room as he quieted his breathing. As the hour passed, the rest of the room became increasingly silent. Joe glanced at the clock. Ten minutes to show time.

He stood and waited until he had his team’s attention.

“Tonight we fight for more than a religion. We fight for our country. We fight for our faith.” He paused. “Tonight, we fight on God’s side!”

The locker room exploded with the rattle of swords hammered on shields and shouts from the men. He held up his hand and unsheathed his sword. The whisper of eleven swords joined his own.

“Honour. Life. Faith.”

“Honour. Life. Faith.” The men responded.

“Watch your back.”Joe said. “Don’t do too much. Stay with the team. If you remember these things you may live to fight another day. Okay, let’s pray.”

The men took a knee as Joe asked for God’s blessing. When he’d finished, he led them up the ramp into the bright lights of the new Texas Stadium.


I was sitting in the Gold section, about eight rows up with some of the guys from my Bible College. The stadium was over twenty years old, and the small plastic seats were chipped and worn, but nobody cared. Just to be able to get seats took either a lot of money or a special connection. Thankfully, the Bible College was always given ten seats, four of which my buddies and I had won in a school contest. The stadium was full, the crowd roaring and waving. Each year two blocks of tickets were sold; one for the Christians and one for the Muslims. I could see the enemy on the other side of the bowl, their turbans and hijabs and other strange head coverings unable to mask their anger or venom with which they yelled at the Christians. The bearded man man beside me was standing, along with his two young children, a boy and a girl.
“Go back to the desert, you stupid ragheads!” He screamed.

He handed his pennant, a cheap, white stenciled piece of foam that said “No God but Jesus”, to his little boy, who waved it vigorously to the delight of his father.

“That’s it, Johnny! One day that might be you down there!”

I nodded in approval, though me and the guys had refused to buy any gear from the proprietors. Bible College students were the intellectual force, or so we’d been taught, and were expected to show restraint. Despite that, the school offered a basic weapons course, and I’d chosen it as one of my electives for the coming fall.

The crowd roared as the participants entered the arena, and I stood with my feet, clapping and chanting as The Black Joseph led the men onto the field. When the Games had started five years earlier, I wasn’t sure what to make of it, but I’d quickly bought in. Especially after the bombing in Phoenix. There was a significant difference between the two religions. Christianity was about ushering in God’s Kingdom, and Islam, as they’d shown consistently, was about the worship of a false prophet and violence. They were not interested in the welfare of others like Christians were. The tragedy was that it wasn’t even their fault. How could they become more loving if they didn’t know about Jesus? The announcer’s voice boomed through the stadium.

“Please stand for a moment of silence and the Lord’s Prayer.”

As the reigning champions, the Christians had earned the right to pray before the game, and we all bowed in unison as the sacred words of ‘Our Father’ were repeated throughout the stadium.

“You ready, bro!” Mike said, standing next to me.

“Yeah! We’ll get ‘em!” I said.

The fight started quickly, as the two teams rushed each other before parrying off into groups of two and three. The action was fast and vicious, and blood soaked the sand within minutes. Six of the Christians had already fallen, and only three Muslims. My heart hammered in my chest. No. No. God, don’t let us lose! Black Joseph had managed to group the remaining Christians, and they fought back to back now, their swords flashing in the lights, the clash of steel and grunts magnified by the microphones embedded in the sand so every moment could be captured by the fans and the cameras.

Another Christian went down. Then another. Black Joseph had been isolated away from his teammates now, and his sword flashed desperately as two of the Muslims fought to destroy Christianity’s leader. As I watched, my heart began to sink. What would happen if the Christians lost? What would happen if the Muslims became the State religion again? Unwilling to concede my world to spiritual darkness, I turned and yelled at my buddies.

“Guys, let’s pray. We need to pray!”

They looked at me uncomprehendingly for a minute, their gazes filled with the violence of the fight, and then nodded. I pointed to our warriors.

“They need it!”

I grabbed Mike’s hand, bowed my head, and began to pray aloud. I felt a little hand grabbing my free hand, and I opened my eyes a crack as I realized that everyone around us had joined in. The young boy beside me didn’t look up even as he clenched tightly to my fingers. His eyes were squeezed tight, and I nodded even as I continued to pray. What I didn’t see was the sudden spread of what we were doing in our corner. In the midst of the battle, the Christians began to bow their heads and pray.

And it was working.

First one Muslim went down under the fury of Black Joseph’s sword. Then another. Soon enough the odds had evened up, and there was only four warriors left. Two Christians. Two Muslims. We continued to pray aloud, though most of us kept our eyes open now.

“Lord, we pray that your will be done!” I said, over and over, certain of what it meant and that it was about to happen.

Two more died, and it was all down to the two captains. I could feel my heart pounding in excitement. God would do it again. Once more he would pull his people from the fire and rescue them.

“Kill him, Black Joseph! You’re the Man!” I screamed, before starting once again to pray aloud.

The two men circled warily. Black Joseph was bleeding from his left shoulder and walking with a visible limp. Both men seemed to pause, and then… pounced. There was no other way to describe it. And suddenly the Muslim Captain was on the ground. Black Joseph paused long enough to take a breath and raise his sword for the killing blow.

“Yaaaaa! For God be the Glory!” The man beside me yelled, hugging his children.
Suddenly Black Joseph paused, his head driven back as if hit by something, and then stopped before collapsing on the field. The Muslim captain stood, his own rapier thrust high in the air even as the Muslim crowd went wild with delight. His short quick thrust ended the career of Black Joseph, and the entire Christian assembly sat in dejected silence.
“It’s not fair.” I said to Mike. “They cheated. Someone in the crowd hit Black Joseph with a rock.”

All around me I could hear those same murmurs, rising until they were full throated shouts and screams. The Muslims did not seem to notice until a Christian darted on the field and grabbed Black Joseph’s sword. He charged into the Muslim crowd, swinging wildly. A number of Christians followed him, and within minutes the entire stadium had erupted into a violent spree. Police officers flowed out of the tunnels, but ended up joining their side in the fight. Soon enough, gunshots rang across the stadium as the policemen emptied their pistols into the respective crowds.

“It’s crazy! Let’s get out of here!” I had to yell to be heard.
Everyone jammed into the aisles. Some ran towards the field. Others tried to get away. The acrid smell of smoke rose from somewhere, though I couldn’t see any fire. The stadium had turned into a cauldron of eighty thousand people in full panic, a boiling, wriggling mass of confusion and hatred. Two policemen pointed their guns in our direction and started firing. I dropped low, but not before the father beside me fell clutching his chest. I looked for his kids but couldn’t see them, and ducked my head again as another gunshot snapped overhead. I was breathing hard, flat on the ground, staring at the litter in front of my face even as the world ignited around me.
Oh God, what’s happening? Where are you? Why didn’t we win? How can this happen?
I lifted my head just as a scuffle broke out beside me. A boot lashed out at my head, and everything went black. be continued

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Books, Writers, and Other News

It's been a wonderful few weeks of weather lately, I wonder where that's been all summer? For those of you who have honoured me the past few years with your readership, I thought I'd bring you up to date on the latest news. As most of you are well-aware, my 'blog' really isn't a blog at all. At least, it doesn't look like most blogs I read. For the most part, I see it as a place for my work, some of which would be hard to classify or pinpoint in regards to a particular market such as a magazine or newspaper.

In book news, I am currently hard at work on a fantasy novel. I know that may sound strange, but when your primary passions are theology, philosophy, and politics (and you loved adventure novels as a kid), what better place to go than that of a novel which requires all three. That said, it's revealed itself to be an arduous task. World building sounds like fun... until you start detailing the history of a nation, complete with cultural idioms, language provisions, money type, government evolution, and so on. Still, its been an enjoyable process, and I hope to have a rough first draft done by Christmas. (Approx 140,000 words)

I now have my fitness site up and running (, and for those of you in the area, if you'd like to drop me a question about working out or nutrition or training, feel free to drop me a line.

I received a disturbing email recently, a Christian "Call to Arms", about the spreading "Spiritual Darkness" and "Signs of the Times." It was disturbing to read that many Christians actually believe the "end is upon us." We sell millions of dollars of crap related to this while people around us starve. Please try to avoid the Christian consumer trap. Spend your time and money more wisely than investing in these charlatans. If you need to escape, might I suggest the Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan? Great, fun books that won't make you look at your neighbour and people of other cultures as if they're the devil. (Quick quiz: Anyone know how the Jehovah Witnesses started? The first person to shoot me an email will get Jordan's first book for free.)

As for my next "real" blog, I'll be posting later this week. Part 1 is almost done.

Until then, keep... eating... that chicken. :)


Thursday, August 27, 2009

Miserable… And Loving It

The classroom was about half full. About twenty five students scattered through the room patiently waiting their turn to introduce themselves to the class. Our professor had told us to give a brief introduction about who we were. I looked over at Mark and rolled my eyes. The idea was to stand up and give a few quick highlights, most importantly, or so I thought, was my name. Maybe my favourite colour. Or the name of my cat. Inevitably however, someone decided that anything less than their troubled childhood and road to redemption and how Jesus had set them free and how unique and wonderful their story was… complete with a signed book contract from Disney that would probably turn into a wonderfully inspirational story that everyone could relate to so that so many lives could be changed and oh yeah, did they mention how unusual their story was and how it had never happened before in the history of the universe and yet was still totally relatable to everyone… somehow wasn't enough. It was amazing, but some people actually believed we'd paid thousands of dollars to pursue our Masters to hear them, and not the Professors. Don't get me wrong, I liked meeting people. And in a class like Spiritual Formation, I knew the value of meeting people from a variety of theological and cultural backgrounds would be a boon to my faith. I just hated the introductions. So far however, things had been progressing smoothly.

Our professor called another name, and a blond, middle aged woman stepped up to the front. I groaned inwardly. Never a good sign when someone went to the front. Not in a class of twenty five when everyone could hear you if you whispered.

The woman was somehow bouncing while standing still, and she smiled at us all like she was addressing a class of curious five year olds. She said hello to the class. I wanted to say "Hi Mrs. Carroll" with the rest of the students, but everyone else was too busy listening. She went through her story, a three act drama that would have made Aristotle proud. And when she'd finished, she looked at us all, her adopted Sunday School class, and clasped her hands together.

"And now, with Jesus, it's just joy all the time! Joy, joy, joy! All of the time!"

Dr. Sherbano thanked the woman and she sat down, somehow bouncing as she did so. I looked over at Mark, my eyebrows raised. What? Was she serious? Whatever she'd had, and I don't mean faith, I wanted.

Mark and I would joke about that class – and that introduction – for months after. Though we always laughed, there was a sense of sadness in it too. Both of us believed that God was not only real, but that he loved people. And both of us believed that the church, while flawed, could play a valuable role in the world. Unfortunately, this consumer ideal of perfection, this idea that what we attach to happiness sells better than what we attach to sorrow, was an indefatigable force in the Seminary. A stroll through any Christian bookstore revealed that it was the same in the churches. On some level, it was understandable and even logical. Who would invest in a faith that promised heartache and misery? People would move to the next section of the bookstore, the self-help section, and find something. They would miss the gospel! We must make the church relevant and positive! What saddened Mark and I was that positivism, whether connected to the church or not, eventually faded in the light of real sorrow and human life. And when that occurred, the bouncy positivists had two choices: Reject the notion of "Jesus Happy" as being true and leave the church, or reject the reality of pain and leave the world. In my years since ministry, I'd seen both, and neither one ended well.


"C'mon, Diane, ten seconds more. You can do it."

I glanced at my stop watch and back at my client, who was lying forward on her elbows and toes in what was called a Plank.

"Done, great job." I said.

She collapsed on the mat and slowly rolled into a sitting position. I smiled and looked at the time.

"All done, girl. Good job today."

She nodded and wiped her face with a towel.

"Did I tell you my friend got a trainer back in November. She hasn't lost a single pound. What a terrible trainer."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, she hasn't lost any weight. She looks exactly the same."

"Diane, a trainer has one hour a week. It may be that her trainer is incompetent, but more likely she has not used the 167 of 168 hours she's on her own the way she should."

My client was silent for a minute.

"Yeah, I guess."

From that day on, I noticed an improvement in my client. It was as if it finally occurred to her that the endgame was the process, not the reward. Paying for a trainer was a good idea, but only if you were willing to put in the time on your own, if only you were willing to be miserable without someone holding your hand. It is ironic that North America, a rich culture more affected by depression and loneliness than any in the world, hasn't figured out that the way to happiness isn't through pleasure, but misery.


Perhaps more than any culture in history, the Western belief structure is built on the ideology that happiness is tied to pleasure. That more is better. These are not anthropological or sociological assumptions, they're marketing visions for multi-national corporations. Promulgated by the "success" of the mega-church movement, this secular ideology is reflected in the church by the "Jesus Happy" movement that dominates the Christian bookstores and media. The wide swath it cuts across the Western landscape is both awesome and destructive. Even a critic can not help but admire the largesse and gall of those authours and speakers who mouth happy stories and miracle living with dentally correct smiles, perfectly parted powder white hair, and thin, blonde women who sit beside them nodding in agreement. There is no talk of misery. Or sadness. At least, not without an "upper" story to follow. (Redemption, God's Grace, New Ministry, etc...) It is the perfect storm of a child's ideals, happy endings, cool new stuff, condescending simplicity to opposing viewpoints, and reaffirmed uniqueness of the individual.

It does leave a few questions though, like what happens when I'm miserable? How can we be positive and "joy, joy, joy-ing" when we've just suffered a death or lost our job or watched a family member self-destruct? Those are the moments that reveal the "Jesus happy" movement to be completely in touch with consumer society, and completely irrelevant to humanity.

The key to contentment is not pleasure or bright smiles or shiny cars or the latest six step formula from pseudo theologians like Bruce Wilkinson (The Prayer of Jabez). The true source of contentment… is misery.


I found a table near the outlet in the far corner of the café and set up my laptop, a 1996 model that weighed more than a small car. A long piece of tape was wrapped around the side that kept the CD drive from popping out. I glanced at the other shiny laptops in the vicinity, most of which were sleek silver things that looked like something out of the latest science fiction movie and glanced at my own, which would have looked new in the original Star Trek series. I shook myself for being so self-conscious and grumbled inwardly at my self-pity. I hadn't felt like coming in tonight, but it was time to write. I'd spent the morning working on my novel, and after working out and spending some time doing work for my clients in the afternoon, it was time to write again. I didn't want to write, and knew I was being petulant about it, which only made me feel like more of an idiot.

By the time I grabbed my coffee, my computer had finally come to life. As I bent to my work, the two high school girls in front of me started arguing. The one, a stout, long haired girl, had draped her legs over the arm of one of the big sofa chairs. Her friend, a self-conscious brunette, sat close by, playing with her hair.

"Is it Callie? Does she know?" Said the one in the sofa chair.

"I can't tell you."

"What about their relationship?"

"I can't tell you."

"Does Jillian even know?"

"I can't tell you."

For a full two minutes, the one girl peppered the other with questions, who always answered with the same "I can't tell you." You rarely see that kind of doggedness outside of Bob Woodward or fundamentalism, and even I, in my grumpiness, couldn't help but admire it. Even more surprising was how engaged the girls were every time the one asked a question. "I can't tell you" was delivered each time like it was a new line. Realizing that perhaps it would be a while before any new revelations about Jillian's rocky relationship with her boyfriend would be revealed, I plugged in my MP3 player and turned on some music.

The idea that misery is a good thing is counter to the definition of the word, especially here in North America. In our culture, we tend to define our lives by what we own, the importance of our job relative to the perceived hierarchy and class structure inherent within any society, and the amount of leisure time we are able to incorporate into our schedule. In fact, happiness is most often equated with leisure. Our vacations. Our new purchases. Our time spent doing what we want. The end result is that we try to cram as much leisure and pleasure as we can into our lives. We work hard so that we can relax well. We tolerate the work we do so that we can squeeze joy from those few moments when we live on our own terms, those few minutes or hours or days when we answer to no one save ourselves. After that, it's 'back to the grind'.

And it's all a load of crap.

No wonder the evangelicals teach this constant joy, joy, joy. This idea that to be a Christian is to be bouncy and happy ALL THE TIME. Who wants to merely tolerate the parts of our life that make up the majority of it? To that end, they have the right of it. Unfortunately, it's more like a bandage on a broken leg than a real solution to the real sorrows of life.

The truth is that we will be miserable. That we will experience great sorrow and great tragedy. That we will suffer losses and hurt and mourn and question God's existence and our own. And it's in those times that we need to accept the misery, acknowledge it, and live anyway.

I don't mean paint a false smile on our face and pretend all is well because we're afraid people will think our faith is weak or that we're weak. What we need to do is learn to accept the misery, accept the sorrow, and do what we're supposed to do anyway. I'm convinced a person has not experienced real contentment until they've beat back the forces of misery by pursuing their life goals and dreams without accepting the shallow sentimentality you find in the stores.

In fact, most misery comes not from the sorrows of life, but the self-wrought tragedies orchestrated by our own hands when we fail to do what God has called us to do. Whether that's art or business or charity or writing, when we ignore our own giftings and passions we set ourselves up for a lifetime of misery and drama. We have bought into the 300 billion dollar lie that we should be happy at all times. And so, we refuse to work through the necessary misery of real life because we are afraid to try something different. Afraid to fail. Afraid to succeed. Afraid to offend our parents or family. Afraid that people will not understand us or will forget us. We work very hard to maintain the status quo, and instead of happiness, find that we spend more time congratulating ourselves on how great things are. How joyful we are because of whatever new thing or new idea we discovered the past week.

Real contentment is found when we pursue our passions in the face of misery; when we thumb our noses at a society that keeps trying to sell us shiny new things and tell them that the reward is in the work, not the reward. Most people do not pursue their dreams because they fall short, but because they refuse to embrace the misery necessary to get them where they're supposed to go. Somehow they feel the universe, that God, should grant them a free pass from the Valley of the Shadow simply because they believe the right things or say the right things. Somehow we've forgotten that real growth occurs in the hard parts of our lives.

The problem with North American Christianity is that it has adopted "happiness" as it's 'raison d'etre'. The purpose of our lives is not happiness. We were not created to feel good all the time, no matter what mantra we mumble on our way to work in the morning. The purpose of our lives is to discover the passions unique to each one of us, be it an entrepreneur or a writer or a father or a combination of different things, and do that. The purpose of our lives is not the reward of heaven but the work of our calling.

The older generations have often said that people nowadays do not know how to work, that they spend too much time worrying about silly things. That may be true, but to work for the sake of work, to repeat yourself over and over each day because the job is secure or because you're too afraid to find out what you love or try new things, is just as bad.

The challenge of life is to understand that misery is not only part of it, but that it is a good thing. It helps us figure out who we are. It gives us a mountain to climb and a valley to travel, which, upon completion, gives us an even fuller sense of self.

My prayer this week is that you will see through the shallow nature of 'happy' movements, that you will take time to consider exactly what it is that you love and aim your life towards it, and that you will know the misery that leads not to sadness, but fulfillment.


Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Why Young People Leave the Church

There wasn't a lot of space in the dorm rooms, but five of us had squeezed in, literally draping ourselves over the chairs and across the bed for our break between classes. Textbooks and binders lay scattered haphazardly across the floor. The next class was Greek, and while we all loved our Prof, Brother James, it was spectacularly boring. However, it was something we all had to do to become pastors, so we sucked it up and did what we were taught. During the week, we sang hymns at the beginning of class, went to the optional Monday night worship services, and attended chapel six times. As was often the case, the conversation in the rooms was more interesting than our classes.

"Did you see Heidi today? Man, she looked hot in that skirt."

"She's dating Phil."

"I like in her in those pants, you know, those tight green ones. She's got a great-"

"She is not as hot as Vanessa."

"I heard Vanessa was sleeping with Phil."

A burst of laughter circled the room.

"Phil? Phil's a loser!"

We chatted for a while, until it was time, and with a collective groan picked up our books and headed to class. Walking through the hallway, I felt a surge of solidarity with my classmates. It was nice to be a young male and talk about guy stuff without someone looking over your shoulder and telling you that this was inappropriate and that was inappropriate. Some of the students at Eastern were like that, but we didn't hang around them much. We called those guys the Righteous Brothers. They used the word "Jesus" like my high school football teammates dropped the f-bomb, and they were always saying "praise the Lord."

"How are you doing today?" "Just fine, praise the Lord."

"I'm sorry, I heard about your mother." "She's in heaven, praise the Lord."

"How's it going with that essay?" "Jesus has given me words, praise the Lord."

It was pretty hard to have a conversation with someone who insisted on talking like that, so I left the Righteous Brothers alone, and found a few guys, like me, who just wanted to be regular pastors. Even then, it was pretty exhausting. Most of us were already working in churches in some capacity, and we'd learned the boundaries. Every word and comment to the congregation was filtered through a system of common acceptance. For example, you could say that you struggled with lust, but you couldn't define what that struggle was exactly. You could make jokes about sex, but they had to be shaded so little kids wouldn't understand them and placed within the context of marriage, at which point everyone acted like sex was the greatest thing on earth. Still, if you did joke about sex, the next comment needed to be something serious about missions or people converting or something you discovered in your devotions. You were expected to live a "holy life", just a bit holier than the congregants. That made sense to me, though. If I couldn't live a certain way, I couldn't exactly ask the people I was shepherding to do it.

Rhetoric was encouraged as well. Statements like, "you are the only Jesus some people will ever see", or, "God hates sin but loves the sinner". These phrases were often met with reverence and awe, but even I didn't understand them. Or how to apply them. (If God loves the sinner, shouldn't we have more sinners in church? And am I still a sinner, or am I a different kind of sinner? If I'm the only Jesus some people will see, does that mean God screwed up if they don't see in me what they needed? Does that mean God loves certain people less by giving them a poor example to hear the gospel from?) Mostly we learned to toe the party line. And if you didn't, you were put in your place pretty quickly. Fortunately, I was fine with the rules. The church had given me this exciting mission, had told me how important I was, and I was willing to go through a brick wall to make sure we got it right. There were still moments though; twinges when I'd notice an "unbeliever" downtown and my conversation would change. No talk of sex or women or beer, only the difference Jesus could make in one's life. That seemed right, on the surface at least, because he'd changed my life, hadn't he? It wasn't those times in the dorm rooms that eventually caught up to me, it was the ones with my congregants, the ones with my youth, where I knew I couldn't give them the truth because it wasn't allowed. Where I felt like I'd suddenly joined a political party. That was the reason I left. Unfortunately, it's the reason why so many leave, especially young people.


The auditorium was packed. We knew that today was a special chapel service. The senior pastor of the biggest church in the city would be giving a talk, a popular one he'd given before, on alcohol. As Pentecostal Bible College students, we'd all signed forms upon our acceptance that we would not partake of any alcohol, tobacco or unmarried sex, among other things. We'd read the books and heard the lectures, everything from David Wilkerson's "Sipping Saints" to various treatises on holiness. Today, Reverend Patrick would break it down for us theologically why alcohol was wrong. Something we would be able to teach our congregations and youth groups and those we would witness to outside the church.

The students became quiet as we prayed and Pastor Frank stepped up to the podium.

"Did Jesus turn water into wine? Did he turn it into alcoholic wine?" He asked. Pastor Frank was tall and bearded, an ex-cop who'd made the transition into a mega-church pastor. I'd been to his church a few times, and wasn't a huge fan, but he seemed like a nice enough man. Only now I puzzled over the question. Was there another type of wine other than that with alcohol? Did he mean the non-alcoholic stuff we saw in Loblaws?

"In the book 'Bible Wines,' the author, William Patton, discusses four methods that the ancients used for the preservation of grape juice." Pastor Frank said. He told us it was common for people in the first Century to drink grape juice, and that even without refrigeration, you could prevent the drags from fermenting by storing the juice in extreme heat. Judea was a very hot, tropical like climate, he said, and the people often stored a thick concentrate only to add water to it later, like they did now when you bought the concentrate in the stores. The real miracle of Cana, Pastor Frank told us, was that Jesus surpassed or transcended the normal amount of time and the natural process that it takes to produce and harvest grape juice. That, which normally takes months, took Jesus but a moment.

I nodded my head, trying to absorb this new information. It sounded right. Especially when he moved on to the important reasons why there was no possible way Jesus could have turned the water into alcoholic wine.

"Think about it this way. The argument for drinking alcoholic wine goes like this: 'Since Jesus produced alcoholic wine, it is morally right for a person to drink it.' However, notice that their logic takes them further than most of them want to go. Since Jesus produced alcoholic wine (as they claim), then not only would it be morally right to drink it, it would be morally right to produce it, sell it, distribute it, and make a living from it. But since that would most certainly cause someone to stumble, then it must be morally right to cause someone to stumble. However, the logical consequence of their argument would oppose the Lord's teaching, as we find in Luke 17:1-2. No, the reasoning is a foolish argument that has no foundation in scripture."

I'd long since pulled out my notebook and was scrambling furiously to write it all down. This was such good stuff! I finally could give an answer to people about why we didn't drink, and why they needed to make the same commitment. Pastor Frank went on for about forty minutes. He reminded us that God was holy and perfect, and that if Jesus was God, than he could not have produced something so destructive. He reminded us that the Greek word for "wine," implied both alcoholic wine and non-alcoholic wine. (I made a mental note to pay more attention in Greek class.) And then quoted liberally from the Old Testament about the destructive nature of wine. (Absently, I wondered if the Hebrew word for wine also included non-alcoholic wine. I'd have to ask that question later.)

When he'd finished, he got a long round of applause from the student body. I stood, with everyone else, as we clapped our appreciation for all this new information. I was so excited! Finally, I could answer those people who insisted that Jesus had turned the water into wine. I had an answer for them when they told me that even in the passage it stated that usually the best wine was served first – the guests would be too drunk to notice the difference later. The fools, I thought, anything to justify their sinful lifestyle. Wait until they get a load of this!


The heat hit me like a hammer as I stepped outside the hospital. The sun was low on the horizon, but the humidity made it feel like a tropical swamp and I flicked my shirt in an effort to cool as I moved to a bench near the entrance. We'd been at the hospital all day. Bethany had not been feeling well, and after eight hours – most of which was spent waiting – we'd learned that she had a bad case of the flu and a minor infection. Both relieved and tired, I sat on the bench and tried to relax. Nearby, a heavy set woman with pale legs and coarse face was lighting a cigarette. Not far from her was a young woman in a tight skirt talking excitedly on her cell. The hospital was never a fun place to spend a great deal of time. Too much sadness. A bit earlier in the day a group of native women had broken out in tears and sobbing behind us in the waiting room when their pastor had informed them of a death in the family. I sighed and sipped the remains of my coffee. In front of me, a man with a long blonde pony tail and light beard walked by. He was wearing a hospital gown and sandals. Jesus in the hands of modern film makers, I thought.

Of course, we all modernized Jesus. Most guilty of it seemed those of us who insisted that we did nothing of the sort. They insisted that we had the original Jesus, that they had all the answers, that the Bible, specifically the New Testament, was not only both the first and last to that equation, but that their interpretation was also correct. It was a lot to assume, and to my eyes, particularly arrogant. I smiled and sipped my coffee. Religion had a funny way of doing that. Sixteen years earlier I would have told you why it was wrong to drink. A year ago I would have defended my position on alcohol. That there was nothing wrong with drinking wine. I would have mentioned that the arguments against 'alcoholic wine' were silly, that no historical records showed anything other than fermented wine, although they did comment on watering it down. I would have gone out of my way to mention that most of these arguments against Jesus turning water into wine referenced an uneducated preacher who wrote a book nearly a hundred and twenty years ago with no historical basis. The people who railed against drinking wine in the church had a sphere of influence, but by and large they were uneducated men. (I offer this paragraph, by Bruce Lackey, a Tennessee preacher who taught this notion that Jesus turned water into grape juice, as an example. When confronted by the Scripture regarding Paul's instruction to take a bit of wine for the stomach when not feeling well, Lackey responded this way: "We do not know what Timothy's specific infirmities were, nor do we know what kind of healing properties there were in grape juice. Maybe Paul was saying that Timothy should not drink the water, since in many parts of the world it is not pure and would cause a healthy person to have trouble from amoebas, etc. One who already had stomach problems would only multiply them by drinking impure water. Paul might have been recommending that Timothy drink grape juice only. In any case, we can be positive that he was not telling him to put alcohol in a bad stomach!")

I could only shake my head at Lackey's "amoebas in the stomach", a statement which would cause much laughter amongst a gathering of first year university science students. What I knew, having spent over fifteen years working with young people, was this: so long as the church, particularly the evangelicals, condoned intellectual dishonesty, young people interested in the truth were going to walk away. For them, as with many of us, it was better to be absent from truth than involved with a lie. At some point, the church needed to stop supplying wrong answers and start asking the right questions. I knew this because I was guilty of it, and as I sipped my coffee, I asked God to forgive me my arrogance.


I won't lie. It was absurd to me this notion that a Jewish Rabbi in the first century would turn water into grape juice, but what I realized was that I was still arguing for a Jewish Rabbi for turning water into wine. In other words, I was arguing for the likely preposterousness over the ridiculous preposterousness. I was, in fact, guilty of the silliest of all charges and the reason why faith in God seemed so ridiculous to many people. I was willing to fight with a fundamentalist about Jesus turning water into wine, and arguing for the specifics of the wine. Why not argue the vintage and year? I took another sip of my coffee and watched the sun as it slowly dipped behind the buildings. If only I was so arduous in my pursuit of God's love. If only I was so willing to make the sacrifice of my time when it really mattered, and worry less about the perfect proportions of my religion.

Young people are less worried about doctrine than they are lifestyle. Not piety, but sincerity. They judge us by our patience and love and self-control. This is what they see and mark, and what often makes them better judges than fully realized adults. It is one reason that I have always loved them and appreciated them

I moved from the bench and headed back inside. Recently I looked online, and amazingly, the water into wine argument persisted. When I was young, I would have snarled and defended my non-alcoholic stance. A few years ago, I would have scoffed and laughed at the idea that Jesus turned water into grape juice. Now, the entire debate saddens me. It saddens me that we waste the time and space on such silliness. Thankfully, there are examples in Scripture that people haven't changed, that even in the time of Jesus people worried about silly things. In Corinth, some Christians thought it okay to sleep with their in-laws. In Jerusalem, they worried about their diet. None of this is new or unusual, and so much as it is a very human thing to make big the pillars of unimportance in our lives, our faith can survive human frailty. That said, I still hold out hope that we can see beyond our humanity. Not always or even consistently, but on those rare occasions, when we realize that the thing we believe does not affect who we are or what we love, that we can find in ourselves the spark of God's nobility and love, and act in the manner for which we were designed, with or without wine.