Friday, October 12, 2012

Embarrassing Christians

Sometimes it is embarrassing to be a Christian.  I’ll give just a couple of examples.

Driving north on US 127 heading toward Mackinaw, at mile 203 there is a sign along the side of the highway saying “Jesus come into my heart.”  Well, this is not exactly embarrassing, at least not in itself.  But when I first saw that sign, perhaps ten or more years ago, I thought that the person who put that there thought that every person who drove by the sign and read or pronounced the words, even just in their head, were thereby “saved.”  That is probably not true at all.  It is the thought that occurred to me.  Just suppose that was the motivation of the person who first put the sign there.  Is there really something mysterious or magical about pronouncing in English the phrase “Jesus come into my heart”?  Imagine the large majority of the world’s population who do not read English.  Or imagine a non-English speaker driving by the sign, able to pronounce English words without knowledge of the reference of the words.

A month ago I was visiting a relative for a weekend and went to church with my relative.  I’ve attended church with them a few times, and almost always get annoyed with something.  But this time it started well, and I thought it would be a great church service.  The congregation sang a mid-20th century hymn “Heaven Came Down and Glory Filled My Soul.”  After the hymn, the pastor said that the point of becoming a Christian is not to avoid hell, escape this earth, and get to heaven.  The point is to bring heaven down to earth, to make our earthly life and surroundings more heaven-like.  Nice, I thought.  This guy has read N.T. Wright too.  Later, the sermon was on anger.  For this week, the sermon was on divine anger.  Apparently the previous week he had spoken about human anger.  In reviewing that, he said the biblical texts do not proscribe anger.  But there are lots of warnings and cautions about human anger.  When we get angry, the emotion can incline us to do something that is proscribed.  We are just not very good at handling anger.  So far, so good.

In the sermon, he addressed several biblical texts that refer to God being angry, and the pastor wanted to identify several things that get God angry.  At one point he quoted Matthew 5.22: “whosoever is angry with his brother without a cause shall be in danger of the judgment.”  He proceeded to tell the congregation why they should read only the King James Version because other versions leave out “without a cause.”  For instance, the New International Version: “anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment,” with a footnote between “sister” and “will” saying that the Greek text has just adelphos (“brother”) but not adelphia (“sister”), but that nonetheless the text means it to refer to all people, sisters, brothers, fathers, mothers, orphans, anyone.  In the same place is a footnote reporting that some Greek manuscripts add “without a cause.”  He stated that the King James Version is the only correct Bible, that the New International Version suggests that anyone who is angry, with or without a cause, is subject to judgment, and that is just plain wrong.  It is only if you are angry without a cause that you are subject to judgment.  Fine and good; but do you need to believe that the King James Version is the only correct bible to believe that?  Furthermore, think of the consequences of believing that the King James Version is the only correct bible.  If you lived before 1611 it was tough luck for you.  If you read and speak only Japanese, or Spanish, or anything but English, tough luck.  If you understand contemporary English, but not Elizabethan English, tough luck.  If you were Jesus, or Peter, or Paul, and spoke Hebrew or Aramaic and Greek, well, whatever bible you were reading just wasn’t up to snuff.

It gets better or, rather, worse.  He identified the Matthew biblical text in his discussion of God’s anger because he then wanted to go on to show that all the instances in the bible of divine anger (he said something like 90% of the references to “anger” in the bible refer to divine anger) were with cause, were justified.  While talking about the things that make God angry, God’s justly caused anger, he at various times in his sermon discredited nearly every church within two miles of that church.  For instance, in speaking about God’s anger over human excessive pride, he referred to a sign in front of a church down the road (those in themselves are often embarrassing, the goofy things they say).  It said “You are awesome.”  I remembered seeing it as we were driving to the church, in front of a Nazarene church.  When I saw the sign, I took the reference to be God.  But the pastor, in the sermon, took it to be referring to people.  Did he give them a telephone call and ask?  I doubt it.  He said “you are not awesome; you are sinners, full of wickedness.  Whatever goodness you have is fully and only imputed by God.  Churches that teach the nonsense that you are good, that you are awesome are so wrong they have to be avoided.  You come to our church to find the truth about what you are.”  In the sermon, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Methodists, Pentecostals, and Roman Catholics were all singled out for leading people astray.  Apparently one thing that does not make God angry is when Christians denigrate other Christian groups and believe theirs has the corner on the truth (or if they are a Four Square Gospel church, they probably have all the corners on the truth).

For a final example, I am in a reading group of guys that meet Friday mornings at a restaurant.  The book we are reading is kind of boring, kind of repetitive.  It is #2 on the Christian best-seller's list; not sure why.  The guy's main thesis or thought is that if you are not fully committed all-out on-fire for Jesus in every area and aspect of your life, you are not really a follower of Jesus, you're only a fan.  None of this "my heart, Christ's home" idea, where we might have Christ in the front door, over time we let him into various rooms, but sometimes or forever we keep him out of certain closets.  None of this, as Anne Lamott says, “God loves us exactly the way we are, and God loves us too much to let us stay like this.”  None of this "just as I am, without one plea."  In fact in one chapter he talked about an unmarried couple living together who came to his church. During an altar call they came forward to accept Jesus, and were told upon making a commitment to Christ that the first thing they needed to do was to stop living together.  So they stopped going to that church.  I am never sure what the first thing a person needs to change when they come to Christ, but having a legal document in order to live together is likely not #1.  That kind of attitude comes through in the book.  Not much grace, not much patience for a christian walk or marathon.  No, it is a christian 100 yd dash from initial commitment to fully there.  If only it were so easy.

I know.  I’ve just been an embarrassment to you as I have just embarrassed myself.  I’ve denigrated other Christians.  I’ve talked as if I understand what is good, proper, and true, and used my perspective on the good, proper, and true to judge others.  Not just judge, but sentence and execute.  Yes, I am pretty firmly committed to being less dogmatic, less judgmental, more open and accommodating.  I want to exhibit a generous, not stingy, orthodoxy.  And I am pretty dogmatic and judgmental about that.

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