“I don’t like telling my friends that I am Christian,” she told me. “I always have so much explaining to do.”
Maybe you have felt patronized, judged, or violated by someone’s attempt to evangelize you. Others may know the discomfort of identifying yourself as Christian and watching people stiffen, bristle, and look for an easy exit from a conversation. I cringe when news media sum up Christianity with a one dimensional sound bite, which shrinks nuance, metaphor, and a 2000 year history of religious thought and lived expression to nail clipping snippets.
The image of Christianity in the United States has suffered a major setback in the past twenty years, and not without good cause. Dan Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons call this “a growing tide of hostility and resentment toward Christianity.” From the beginning Christians have disagreed about interpretation of faith. They have treated one another terribly in the process, as well as many non Christians, who have crossed their path over the centuries.
Yet outsiders in the twentieth century held a favorable view of the disparate followers of Jesus. In 1996 eighty five per cent of the people on the outside looking in at Christianity had widespread respect for Christianity. However today, only fifteen years later, younger people outside the faith, as well as some inside the faith, have lost much of their respect for Christianity.
Among the twenty four million outsiders (agnostics, atheists, and persons of other faiths) who are age sixteen to twenty nine, thirty eight per cent have a bad impression of present day Christianity. One-third say Christianity presents a negative image with which they do not want to be associated. Seventeen per cent maintain very bad perceptions of Christian faith. (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, Un Christian – What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity … and Why It Matters, Baker Books, 2008, pp 24-25.)
Clergy today are held with suspicion and even contempt by some people. Professional misconduct, the flagrant abuse of those entrusted to their care, scandals, and fraud have left a bad taste for all of us, and deeply scarred many.
I recently heard about a congregation which observed a day of repentance for the sins of Christians against others and against the earth. I like this idea so much that I think it ought to be incorporated in church calendars – a day of atonement for sins committed in the name of religion.
Once in a while I come up against hostility in thoughtful, intelligent, open minded people and am stunned to find a bigot. At such moments I give thanks I am not in Rome when Paul was, or other places today where Christians are persecuted and killed. And in such moments I get a glimpse of what Muslim brothers and sisters must endure from those who perceive them as potential terrorists.
I also realize with a sigh that I have a lot of explaining to do, if I want to do the work of developing a more intimate and honest relationship with this person. This is not because I think the person needs to be saved, but because Christianity so deeply defines me, that for us to have an authentic relationship, we both need to be known as we are.
So why am I Christian? I will do a little explaining. My mother was a Quaker and my father, Mennonite, and faith was as common and sustaining as the air they breathed. When they got married, they joined the Presbyterian Church and there I was raised. Unassuming faith, which never had a conflict with science or a searching mind, was woven into our lives and led my parents to take stands to protect the environment and to respond to injustice.
In my early twenties I stepped back from the faith of my father and mother and did some exploring. Then in my early thirties I had a crisis of faith. It was not a crisis in my faith in God. No. It was a crisis in my faith in myself. I painfully discovered that I could not find wholeness and peace by how smart I was, how good I was, by how hard I worked, by what people thought of me.
In the giddy 1970s psychology and the human potential movement were going to save us. I remember clearly the day when I came up against the endless striving of my ego and saw the emptiness and futility of all my efforts to establish my well being on what I could do, or know, or possess.
I began to discover that peace and joy seemed to hinge more on my capacity to love and forgive others, my willingness to risk my personal well being for another’s well being, and to help those who suffered.
For as long as I can remember, Love has burned in my heart, as a nameless yearning, an aching desire for more, for expansion, and connection. Love has opened my heart to its breaking, driven me to the limits of my hope, my intellect, and my strength over and over. Love continues to draw me beyond myself, and my known world, toward what I can neither fully name, nor live without.
Because of this Love, which will not let me go, I want to live well, even nobly, while I am here on this earth. Faith helps me to do that. I suppose, given all the bad press and worse behavior of some Christians, if I could avoid it, I wouldn’t be a Christian, but it is the best way I know to be whole and free and full of joy.
My friend, Jeff Bean, recently posted this on his Facebook page:
Why do I love the Lord? To learn to love my wife better. Why do I love my wife? To learn to love the Lord better. Life is about perfecting our love.
Like Jeff, life is for me is about perfecting my ability to love, and boy do I need help. This is why I am a Christian.
The Christian faith helps, even makes it possible for me to strive toward that perfection and to love well. A relationship with Love, which remains ever beyond my possession and control, who will not become anyone’s brand or commodity, who stands always beyond in the mystery of Being itself, informs and shapes my relationship with the universe and everything that is in it.
Being a Christian invites me to forgive, which is the only way I know to bring lasting peace. It calls me to be more than I am, more caring, more compassionate, more honest and transparent. It exposes my brokenness and sin – my greed, selfishness, lust, envy, pride – and asks me to take responsibility for it.
Christianity bows before a Power beyond my coercion to whom I am accountable for how I live my life. Christianity offers a community to support, teach, challenge, and love me into greater love.
Christianity gives me a story, a narrative of the journeys and wisdom of others who have struggled and learned to love. In their stories I mine my own story, like a vein of gold woven into the layers of the lives of other people, who have responded to and resisted Love’s call and demands. The multivalent resonance of the Bible, echoing, reflecting, and revealing truth and meaning, connects me with a purpose and a reality larger than my own tedious little drama.
The group of believers, the church, (and yes, sometimes they drive me crazy) asks me to trust in the wisdom of a community as the church keeps forming and reforming itself. Since its beginning the church has been falling down and getting up again, which gives me courage and hope, because I fall down all the time.
Christianity takes me to the extreme limits of my self identity, who I think I am, and draws me through the narrow channel of the cross of suffering to the death of parts of myself, which impede or block the flow of love.
Gina Beukelman, Topeka, KS The World Race Mission Volunteer
Christianity asks me to go places I want to avoid, to love people I don’t want to love, and to live with integrity and purity of heart in the midst of a world awash in deceit and greed. My faith requires me to resist evil, in all its guises – empires, systems, and institutions – and to commit myself to work for justice and peace.
As a person of faith I discover my security not in what I own or who I know or how much power I possess, but rather in how many possessions and how much power and status I give away.
Finally, in the despised and rejected Palestinian Jewish peasant, who called himself the Son of Love, I am met by a most unlikely lover of my soul, who unfurls endlessly before me, the way, the truth, and the life.
I find in Jesus, who was the enemy, both of religion, and the oppressive empire, the grace to make us one. Here I find the generosity, compassion, and freedom to love even the icky ones – Christians, pagans, Muslims, atheists, Jews, rednecks, republicans, democrats, and my own icky self.
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Posted in Christianity, Contemplation, prayer, faith
Tagged apologetics, Christianity, Christianity for Seekers, church, hostility to Christianity, Jesus, love, questioning faith, unchristian
In the spring of the year in small towns in Kansas ladies often gather in church basements for their annual salad luncheon. This event summons forth the culinary creativity of the local community. Here you may find things done to beets and broccoli, which no respectable vegetable or fruit would ever dream of. Featured ingredients of these marvels include Jell-O, cool whip, Eagle brand condensed milk, and cherry pie filling.
The salads, spread out over several tables, accented with canning jars of lilacs, are something to behold, maybe, for some, even to kneel before. Chicken salad, cucumber salad, pasta salad, bean salad, and seven layered pea salad are served in big bowls and platters. Rainbow colored Jell-O salads hold bits of carrots, celery, fruit and nuts under layers of cream cheese and shredded cabbage.
After the meal, the women clear the tables, refill the glasses of ice tea, and settle back to listen to the guest speaker from out of town.
On one of these occasions over twenty five years ago I was that out of town guest speaker. This fact alone made me an expert on something which these women already knew plenty about: prayer.
So this is how I came to be finishing up my cranberry fluff salad, as my hostess was introducing me. I began to pray, as was my custom, “Lord, what do you want me to tell the people?” This was the prayer I often prayed as I prepared sermons and presentations. Though this prayer was part of my preparation long before my actual presentation, I would check in with God just before I began speaking in case there were any updates.
After I prayed, what I had always heard in the silence of my heart was, “Tell the people that I love them.” Okay, I would think. I can roll with this. Over the years, God was very consistent in the direction: “Here’s the word, sweetie, tell the little boogers I love em. They still need to hear it.”
So it was, that as my hostess was reading off my credentials to the ladies and I was wiping the crumbs from my mouth, I asked my question, what do you want me to tell the people?
And God said:
Tell the people that I miss them.
This post marks the one hundredth post of the Praying Life Blog. Over the past two years, I have been attempting to tell you this in various ways. This post gives it to you straight:
God misses you. God longs for you, pines for you, walks the floor at night for you. God throws himself down on the ground weeping for you. God slumps on the couch, drowning his sorrow, eating three cartons of Haagen-Dazs rocky road ice cream for you.
God misses you.
A whole lot.
This is what you must write to the angel of the church in Ephesus:
I am the one who holds the seven stars in my right hand, and I walk among the seven gold lamp stands. Listen to what I say.
I know everything you have done, including your hard work and how you have endured. I know you won’t put up with anyone who is evil. When some people pretended to be apostles, you tested them and found out that they were liars. You have endured and gone through hard times because of me, and you have not given up.
But I do have something against you!
And it is this:
You don’t have as much love as you used to. Revelation 2: 1-4
Farmer, poet, lover of the land – Wendell Berry:
I know that I have life
only insofar as I have love.
I have no love
except it come from Thee.
Help me, please, to carry
this candle against the wind.
One could not put truth more succinctly.
Isn’t this what most of us battle – the dying of the light?
The wind is a wily deceiver,
a furious demon,
a double minded,
Pray for help to carry
the love we are blessed to bear.
and the light
The wind is only the wind.
Weeping before the box, she lifts out the pieces and places them on the counter. All but one or two are broken.
Two weeks before when the boxes arrived, I had carried, heartsick, this one filled with the chink and clatter of broken pottery to the basement. Then I forgot all about the box of broken dreams, until I heard her carrying it up the stairs, shards rattling like a chest of huge coins.
She moves the pieces on the counter, sorting and fitting parts together.
In a distant city another young woman also picks out the ruins of herself from the broken jar of illusion.
So much is broken – plans, relationships, jobs, dreams – and rattles around inside us. We take out the pieces, hold them to the light, and try to fit them together. This confrontation with our fallibility and that nothing earthly lasts forever brings deep suffering. Loss is always more painful than the books can say, the scriptures convey, or the prophets of prosperity preach. We need a picture.
A man at the end of his own dance with mortality, hunched over on his knees in a dark garden, tears rolling down his face. He says to his father, the Heaven Dweller, “Take this cup from me.” And to his friends, “Can you not stay with me one hour in this agony?”
There may be something harder than watching one’s children suffer, but on this day I do not know what it is. The hardest thing I do in this work of ministry, prayer, and listening to souls in their journey to God is staying awake with others in their pain. This is to say, that the hardest thing is staying awake with Jesus as he suffers in others.
Some days I fail. I numb out. I fall asleep. I deny the suffering, blame the sufferer, quibble and become annoyed and irritated with how the person expresses her pain. The other day I thought of one family, “Always lots of drama in this family system.” I suppose, applying the same cynical criteria, one would have to say that Jesus was the all time drama queen.
Can’t you just stay with me in this torment? Can we just be there, trusting God and the soul to figure things out? Respecting the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the awesome autonomy of an individual life, while lifting up the candles of faith, hope, and love seem to be my task.
I fidget. I want to fix things, pass out band aids. Leaning over her shattered treasures, she tries to wire one sculpture back together, fashioning a frame of cardboard.
“We need some glue. I’ll get some glue,” I say. “Let’s go to the store and get some good glue.”
Finally I stop.
Several days later I ask about the box of jumbled shards on the porch. “Oh, I don’t care what you do with it,” she tells me, as she heads off with her eyes on new heights.
To love, to know passion, and bliss is also to have our hearts broken. I know of no way to get around this and anyone who tries to tell you different is a liar. To live, we must die. To touch transcendence and eternity is also to gaze upon and weep over the box of our own finitude, our broken handiwork, our illusions, and limited understanding. “Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in,” sings Leonard Cohen.
The man in the dark garden gets up. It is time, he says, to be broken.
It is time
for us to be made whole.
The birds they sang
at the break of day
I heard them say
Don’t dwell on what
has passed away
or what is yet to be.
Ah the wars they will
be fought again
The holy dove
She will be caught again
bought and sold
and bought again
the dove is never free.
Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.
Dear Hearts: Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up. For fun – A couple of video versions of Cohen’s Anthem.
Posted in faith, God, Prayer, Spiritual Practices, spirituality
Tagged crucifixion, hope, Leonard Cohen, letting go, Loss, love, Mark 14: 32-41, sin, suffering