Grace Emerges

Friday, January 25, 2013

Matters of the Heart

by Brad Duncan

Sometimes someone will ask me why we should question matters of faith and tradition.  Why, if so many people adhere to it, should we openly challenge notions of God and the Gospel that our parents, teachers and traditions have taught us?  I'll tell you now it's not about a rebellion or change for change sake.  It's a matter of the heart and spirit.  I'll briefly explain.

In short, our moderate evangelical Christian culture needs a make-over.  A new reformation, to be challenged with deconstruction and reconstruction, a complete re-think.  Why?  Due to fundamental matters of the heart.  At huge risk of over-generalizing, a few reasons I can think of are:

1) We are missing out on community: 

Ironically, with all our focus on building a community, we are failing to be a community.  When it comes to the local church, as an attempt at Christian community, the focus and energy is on building something, protecting it, running it, defining it, leading it, and paying for it.  It's close to the mark, in that the community is supposed to be an environment where people can connect to each other and to God, but the actual effort and resources are spent running church services, and operating an organization.  These activities indirectly help people be a community, but do not directly, actively bring people into a mode of helping each other, relating, sharing, and caring, very much of time time.  If we are attending church to share our lives with one another, most weeks we are walking away as lonely as we came.  Or if we are gregarious, maybe we accumulate several dozen "hello, how are you's" and have 5 minutes of intelligent conversation.  But, isn't that ironic?  Are we really relating?  Are we sharing our pains, expressing our views, learning from one another?  Or are we depending on the structure and organized activities (like sermons) to do the relating for us?

You might say or think that I'm just stung by a lack of popularity or friends in my church.  Actually that's far from the truth.  The problem is that we people, especially me, are anti-social at times!  If we are given a mission and purpose, other than caring for people, then we will spend our efforts efficiently carrying out that purpose.  Further, if you attach that purpose to some spiritual, religious requirements, then we are easily distracted away from those we care about, in order to work hard to be "right" and do "right".  But this distraction is wrong.  In fact, true worship, according to James, is to care for orphans and widows, especially when they are your friends in the church!

2) We are too busy to care for the hurting

If we are not doing an adequate job of caring for our friends and communities, you can imagine that we are also failing to make a difference in the world outside, in our greater communities of the towns and states where we live, and in remote communities where we can make a difference in lives of the needy.

Certainly some churches spend a large amount of money and effort on outreach, and I'm not claiming that they don't.  As one test, if the local church is a non-profit organization designated to help people, then a majority (90%?) of the effort and resources should be spent on helping people, split appropriately between in-reach and outreach (maybe 50/50?).  The rest is overhead.  How much overhead does it take to spread a little bit of love?

Evidence of this syndrome of being too busy to care, are power struggles, arguing over who's the boss, egos, squabbles, rumors and gossip.  Are our battles in the church about how to care for each other and those outside the church better?  Or are they about insubstantial things?  Are we more concerned with who's in charge, than who's falling between the cracks or who is hurting?

So, why is this commentary about caring an issue of theology and reformation?  That's simple. Our justification for running things the way we are comes from exactly our view of God, our teaching about the Bible, and our statement of faith.  We have to go back and take a serious look at "why". Why don't we care?  What are we investing in, instead of people?  We'll find that we are focused on other things, because we think God likes it that way!  I won't go into it here -- but my point is that our views of God have a problem, if they don't lead directly to LOVE.  It's a matter of the heart!

3) We are too concerned about our own interests

Often, in order to protect the system we have built, we spend our energy opposing people we think are a threat to our community. People of other religions, atheists, liberals, gays, peace activists and tree-huggers, whoever.  That is not just a waste of precious community resources, it is deliberately doing harm to others in order to protect our own interests.  There's little of "Love Others" in the way we treat people we don't agree with.  "Don't get me started! ...".  Suffice to say that our theology leads us to fight enemies of "truth" rather than to love them.  We judge people because of how we think God judges them.  We are imitating the God we believe in.  So, it's a matter of theology that leads us to be judgmental and even hateful toward others.

So what can we do instead?  Let's invest the majority of our church-organized time, human effort, and budgets toward Matters of the Heart, instead of running the machine and defending it against outsiders.  That's a good start. Let's allow discussions of our beliefs in God and how they tend to lead us away from loving others, counter to our very mission to love others.  Maybe something needs to change.

4) We are too busy to relate to God

This busy-ness and preoccupation with running the system can carry over to discipleship, worship, prayer and listening to the Holy Spirit.  What is the most ironic, is that we can be so busy trying to build a system that pleases God, that we are mostly ignoring God.  I know these are harsh words.  I also know these are familiar words.  I have heard so many times in sermons that we need to stop being busy and get back to our fundamentals in relationship with God.  We need to obey and surrender. We need to pray, serve and please God with our lives.  And yet our structure of Christian community comes from our fundamental belief that God is pleased with our system of worship.  If we adhere to it, then God will be satisfied, duly worshiped by his people during weekly services and regular traditions, and by participation in good works, discipleship rituals, Christian T-shirts and radio stations, etc.  

The problem is obvious (to me anyway): God is a passionate intelligent being, more passionate and more intelligent than we can imagine!  That God is not going to take pleasure in rituals.  The scriptures are filled with examples of that principle.  As I mentioned earlier, if true worship is caring for orphans and widows, than why are we spinning our wheels on rituals at all?  If you dig deeper into the meaning of worship and discipleship, you will see that these concepts are for us, not for God.  They help us to engage in examining our own hearts, listening to the passionate voice of God through the Holy Spirit, and absorbing truth from seeing things through God's perspective.  But if we are too busy with ritual and running the machine, we are not getting the benefits of relating to God.  The rituals and traditions might be okay, but only if they are used for the purpose intended, which is to spend more of our attention on our Maker in genuine relationship.

Again, "why"?  Why and how could we spend effort and resources on relating to God and yet not achieve it. Maybe once again there's overhead and distraction. Maybe 10% of our attention goes to God while the rest goes to doing things that we think will please God but which we don't even bother to ask if God likes.  Again, a deeper look into "why" we do these things is our theology and understanding of the Bible.  We hold onto ritual and structure because we think that Jesus came to build a religion that will lead us and the rest of the world to God.  But doesn't that contradict just about every word that Jesus said?  Didn't Jesus finally lose it and knock over the tables of the money changers, declaring that they were turning God's house into a den of thieves?  How many times did Jesus go to the synagogue and patiently walk past the "machine" of money-changers before he finally showed his outrage?  Doesn't it resonate with how we run our own communities?  Would Jesus object to the money-changers if he visited our churches?

Jesus taught us the deeper meaning of all scripture.  "Love God, Love Others."  He also repeatedly taught "Follow Me" as he demonstrated how to live out this deeper meaning.  I am not in any way rebelling against following Jesus, or wanting to pick a different path of change for change sake.  Instead I want to reform our entire approach, in the practice and spirit of following Christ.  Like John the Baptist, we need to levels the mountains, fill in the valleys, and make the path of following Christ straight for everyone to follow.

In summary, don't just assume that defending the status quo and fighting for our system and style of worship will honor God. Isn't it better to face head-on our failings, ask the hard questions, and commit to any reform necessary?  Or are we too tied to this machine that we have built, to tear it down and start over.  These are not just vain words.  These are important matters of the heart!

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