Sunday, July 25, 2010

Burning Hearts

They asked each other, "Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?" Luke 24:32

This scripture was given to open yesterday's sermon in the building. It seems that the pastor's key phrase for this season is going to be "fire," or more specifically, "holy fire." We were warned after the Oklahoma campmeeting of what supposedly might happen to us as a result of not keeping the fire going (loss of salvation). Obviously the pastor has more to say on this theme. So do I.

The pastor made some true points. Today's American Christians are, overall, a pretty lukewarm bunch of people. The pastor seems to jump to the conclusion that this is because of laziness, being fleshly, wanting the pleasures of material things more than we want God. I believe this is addressing the symptoms of a people who have never truly walked closely with the living God, rather than the heart issues.

I am going to provide a series of contrasting thoughts and images to give an idea of what was said yesterday (and what I've heard repeated over and over in most of organized Christiandom) with things that are burning in my own heart.

Sunday school and church seemed to be running on parallel tracks. Several key words and phrases were used at least half a dozen times apiece: we must be willing to (fill in the blank), we ought to, we should, we need to, we must, we better be, we need to be.

I hate flying. I get airsick and claustrophobic. But if I get to see my friends, where we can build each other up and be ourselves without fear of failure or criticism, it's worth it. I carry their smiling faces and kind words in my heart. No one will ever have to tell me I 'should' fellowship with them. Through them I feel God's love like warm sunshine. You can't "better be" love or any of its expressions. Nor can you infuse it with guilt, obligation or shame to give it life.

"This week's assignment is to answer this question honestly in your notebook. Do you love God with all your heart, all your soul and all your strength, as God commanded the people in Deuteronomy? Three boxes to check: yes, no, or maybe." The Sunday school teacher looked at the quiet class and said, "Any questions or comments? No? Well, you all have been good listeners today." With a pleasant smile and a closing prayer, class was closed.

I try to understand what a day by day, close, healthy, loving, protective, strengthening relationship with a face-to-face brother would look like. I have no frame of reference, other than stories I've heard from others. I can only imagine Mary on the third day, crying and babbling in shocked amazement and joy, while clinging to Jesus for dear life, probably shaking him back and forth like a rag doll. Does anyone think anyone but Jesus himself could have persuaded her to let go of his robe? If anyone had asked her to check a box saying 'yes,' 'no,' or 'maybe' to whether she loved Him, she might have responded, "Are you freaking kidding me?"

The pastor's stated goal in yesterday's sermon was to have us all "get on fire for God." We were also informed that "Christianity is meant to be a religion of flaming hearts." His frustration at our seeming lack of flaming hearts was causing him to get quite worked up. In a few short minutes, we watched a red-faced, sweating preacher shuck his suit jacket so he wouldn't pass out behind the pulpit. Freed from the extra layer of clothing, he found the strength to continue to shout and gesture excitedly for the next several minutes. He informed us that he knows he tends to repeat himself, but that if he says it enough times, he hopes that maybe around the 10th time it will actually get through!

Somehow, I thought the purpose of Jesus' death and resurrection was supposed to set us free from religion altogether and bring us this amazing, abiding relationship of Love like we'd never imagined. One thing that has never, ever worked for me in any relationship of any kind, no matter whether the person means well, is being shouted at. I still remember my earthly father shouting at me in anger. I also remember the physical abuse that often followed. I shut down like a bank vault when people raise their voices at me. Can't we as parents usually see the futility of shouting at or scolding our children? Sometimes they will do what we've asked just to get us to shut up, but it won't bring our hearts any closer. It's a good thing the Holy Spirit tends to speak in a soul-stirring whisper.

The pastor had made a number of good points, including the lukewarm state of the American church at large, the uselessness of a watered-down gospel, and the fact that the devil has used religion to make people miss out on God (although the irony of this last remark was not lost on me). So far, though, he had gotten through almost an entire sermon without totally sticking in the dagger. This was about to change in the next few seconds.

A few years ago, I sat in my back yard, reading a chapter of Jim Palmer's "Divine Nobodies." I was in tears over an especially touching and poignant essay about Jim's gay friend Richard. Richard had been looking for God in so many places, from church houses to gay bars. I asked Jesus, where do I go to find you? I have the same question! And he answered me gently, right here. Right here.

This business of his flock not making head count in the pen for Sunday evening service really is bothering the pastor. A firm admonishment toward those "not serious enough for God" was given, namely, those not in attendance for Sunday evening and Wednesday evening services. It was suggested that we're just too fleshly. Probably, we're off going to the movies, drinking, or somehow pursuing something else of "the world." We don't want to be inconvenienced to make a sacrifice, said he. Seemingly this passionate, irritated rant was fueled by the underlying belief that God still dwells primarily in the building, and there must we go to worship Him.

I wrote in my journal, The law brings death but the Spirit gives Life! Must we try to make 'church attendance' into a law to get people to come?

The pastor said, "I'll close now" and I seriously doubt I was the only one thinking, Hallelujuah! His closing statement (paraphrased) was one of those take-this-one-home-while-you-try-to-enjoy-your-Sunday-laziness clinchers: "There are two kinds of fire, holy fire and the other kind. Everyone will face fire, either the holy kind that cleanses them from all their sins, or the kind that is the fire of eternal torment."
Thanks for coming everybody! Have a nice afternoon! The alter began to fill up with folks repentant of being lukewarm for God.

Please Jesus... I grasped for his face, his shirt. Please, I need you. The real you. I want, I NEED to know you, ever more, always. Almost immediately I sensed His precious face near mine, kissing me ever so gently. I closed my eyes and breathed in his presence. Just basking in his love, clinging to him. Why, oh why do Christian preachers feel the need to threaten their flock, saved people, your own children, with hellfire? It's okay, said he. It's okay. I'm here.

And so was another morning of some form of Spiritual Kindergarten 101. Must must must. Mustn't mustn't mustn't. We'll give you a few chances to straighten up, and if you don't, guess what? You'll get an eternity of spankings! A spanking that lasts for-e-ver! I didn't hear a significant statement about how very much God loves us and how widespread his Grace is all morning. I guess they think fear and guilt are better motivators. Needless to say, we didn't attend the Sunday evening service. I wonder if his sermon worked on anybody else.

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love. - 1 John 4:18

I hadn't heard or thought of this song in ages but it popped into my head as the sermon was ending. I think it's perfect for this subject.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Hello Spokane

My butt was cramped and my back was tired from sitting in the narrow airplane seat for so long. As the evening wore on, my eyelids grew heavier with sleep but I resisted the urge. My tiny "in flight beverage" cup was empty again, and I gave up trying to flag down the busy flight attendant for more water even though I was thirsty. The airplane smelled like B.O, which didn't help my tummy, already off kilter from a combination of airsickness and hunger.

Finally, the magic words that made it all worth it came over the intercom. The pilot reminded us to remain seated until the aircraft had completely stopped, gave us a weather report, thanked us for flying Southwest, and said, "Welcome to Spokane."

I could hardly wait for the pokey people in front of me gathering all their stuff to move out of my way as I wiggled in impatience to walk off the airplane. But a few minutes later, I was hugging my pajama-clad friends as we exchanged tired but happy smiles. It had been over a year since we had last seen each other, but they looked exactly the same - beautiful.

It is so good to spend a precious few days around people you can just be yourself with. No religious posturing, no feeling of having to hide our true selves, no need to cover up our incomplete or hurting areas for fear of religious admonishment. We were there to just breathe in each other's company. Sometimes, the conversation naturally drifted to God, other times, we talked about a variety of other things.

I think the sad thing is when people feel the need to draw a sharp line between "things of God" and "things of the world." Many Christians I know are obsessed with "worldy vs. spiritual." Many people would say that since we didn't pull out our Bibles for a group study, the entire weekend was an unspiritual waste of time.

I know that all three of us needed each other's encouragement, each other's thoughts, each other's company. Just knowing I have sisters who I love and who love me gives me enough courage and edification to go another whole year without seeing them, if necessary. And it may be that long and then some, since we all live so far apart.

I know that God was there with us, and in us, as we (*gasp*!) tasted wine together at a winery, and as we sat together eating huckleberry ice cream and talking about child birth, and as we had a loud conversation by the lake that drew the attention of a few people around us. (The conversation was about the wrong of beating people over the head with the Bible).

I know that God was with us when Kim got sick, when Kirsten encountered a troubling situation, when I argued with my husband over the phone. I know God was with us when we had to say goodbye and remind each other that we love one another. Leaving Kirsten at the airport was hard. I managed not to cry, but I felt like I had so much more that I wanted us to talk about while I was there. But the time was gone.

I had the same poignant mixture of happy and sad feelings as I hugged Kim goodbye, crying, in the narrow aisle of the airplane as I left to go board my connecting flight to Dallas. I knew this time I was on my own, both friends were to be left hundreds of miles behind on the west coast. But I know we will see each other again, because we love one another and are spiritually connected, no matter how many miles separate us.

This morning as I sat through another admonishment from the preacher (it seems that some folks' lack of attendance on Sunday evening and Wednesday evening is really sticking in his craw) I thought about Kirsten and I in gales of laughter over a silly YouTube video, and Kim and I eagerly peering out the airplane windows together at the snow-capped mountains. No one would have to admonish me to be sure and spend time with Kirsten and Kim, because well if I don't, my sincerity for God is in question. Please. I spend time with them because I love them and I experience Father's love for me far more with them than I do through a hundred typical church meetings in the building, with the mostly surface level chit chat and admonishments to try harder to please God.

Thank you Lord, for showing me that walking with you really is about a truly abiding relationship rooted and grounded in Love, with you and with my fellow saints. However that may look. I just hope that someday, you will open doors for abiding relationships with the people I see around me in my daily life as well.

"Hello Seattle" was the closest song I could find to my blog title "Hello Spokane," but I thought the lyrics fit my experience pretty well.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Eternal Insecurity

The delayed posting of this blog is because of a busy schedule and a computer meltdown. However, it is the cherry on top of the 'hot fudge sundae' of the campmeeting I described in my last blog.

Rather predictably, the pastor of the place we attend gave a sermon on making sure we don't lose our 'fire' after such an experience of this camp meeting. A friend recently commented to me on memories of her own youth camps; she remembers her pastor saying the same thing after those meetings in her youth. She also remarked that fire is an emergency or at least high stress state not meant to be sustained for long periods - it's too stressful and will burn us out (or burn us up!)

The worst part of the sermon was that the pastor then took a passage out of Luke 10 where Jesus tells a parable of a man who built bigger barns to store all his 'stuff' and turned it into a warning lecture to make sure we don't 'slack off' spiritually and become lazy. According to the pastor, it matters not if you're tired from 4 days of a campmeeting (or anything else) because no 'spiritual vacations' are allowed for God's people. You have to make sure to study your Bible without fail, and keep following after God, and not sin, and... and... or else, well, you might not make it to heaven. He flat out stated that he believes salvation is conditional on these things.

There are so many problems I have with this theology that I hardly know where to begin. But I will just state here that it is a relationship killer. As "The God's Honest Truth" states and elaborates on, security that is not eternal is really no security at all. While it's true that sanctification is a very necessary part of salvation, eternal insecurity theology is spiritually paralyzing. It's like if I told my kids I'll love them forever, but if they don't make their beds and do their homework every day, I'll douse them with gasoline and light them on fire. This might motivate them to be a lot more punctual with their responsibilities, but it will ensure that I never have their heart. And without our hearts being closely joined their growth and well being will be stunted, at best.

Once people swallow this idea of eternal insecurity, they're set up to 'need' church as we know it for as long as they believe it. They never can know for sure where they really stand with God, so it's better to be safe than sorry. Following someone else's lead who seems to know more and be elevated above them (read: the pastor) and do what they're told, when they're told to do it (read their Bible daily, show up to the building when told) gives people a sense of security they so badly need. If you can't count on God or on yourself, you've got to count on something.

It's one thing to get out of the institution and read lots of good material explaining so well those sick feelings you had all along of something being wrong. It's another thing to go back and see it all again after your eyes have been opened.

What is most baffling of all is how happy most people seem with such theology. Like a bunch of drug addicts, they haven't learned to see it as a poisonous substance. I heard several loud proclamations as we left the sanctuary of what a great sermon that was.

As for me, the eternal insecurity message was like a noxious fume bomb had been set off in the sanctuary. My gas mask was my open Bible, where I read over and over, "He has made perfect forever those who are being made holy..."