The demise of Christianity?

Recently it seems as though I have come across articles talking about the demised of, either, Christianity or the Church in America. One famous astrophysicist said, something to the affect, “I don’t believe in miracles, I believe in science.” I believe in both.

In a sense, Christianity has been, “demising”, since the death of Jesus. The Christianity of Jesus is different than the Christianity of Paul, and both are different than the Christianity of the early church then, ultimately, various Christian denominations. And Christianity will look different on the coming generations. More accurately, the “demise” of Christianity would be the, re-defining, or better yet, a new exploration of Christianity.

So what does it mean to be a Christian? Christianity is a lens to understand and interpret life. I think part of being human is to seek meaning; meaning to life and suffering, to explore the complexities and intricacies of life and the human condition- on this planet and beyond. In seeking meaning, we look at life through a prism- a set of assumptions.

One of my assumptions is that there is a God, and how God is interpreted is open for discussion. In a sense, “God” is my, Higgs-Boson. Higgs-Boson is a particle that scientists theorize exist, but they can’t quite get their hands on it, they’re not sure what purpose it may serve, but they “know” it exists. I believe there is a God and the best I can describe my understanding of God is to borrow the language of astrophysics- God is the, “theory of everything”; and I realize some do not find this description helpful.

The criticisms of, “God” is that God is somewhat, capricious; the innocent die young while the scoundrel lives a lifetime in luxury or- “Why do some get stricken with an illness or horrible disease?” There doesn’t seem to be a rhyme or reason to God. To the specifics of any given example, I don’t have a good answer. I do know that our understanding of the complexity of human existence is in its infancy. We learn what we can and we pass our learnings to a new generation who grapples with things. What I do think is, 1) God reveals God’s self only to the extent that humans can understand and 2) humans only understand what they are emotionally able to understand.

1)      Imagine sitting with the great minds of 2000 years ago, You’re sitting around the campfire talking about the stars and the heavens, creation and the purpose of existence and you say, “The beauty of quantum physics is that is gives us an understanding universe and how it is really the product of quarks and leptons. The real challenge facing us is a unifying theory.” First, those around the campfire would have no clue what you’re talking about because that’s not their lens through which they understand life and, those words and concepts were not in their vocabulary. The point of the analogy is, we can only understand what we’re able to understand, what we have the vocabulary for. The human understanding of God has evolved over the span of human existence, and will continue to evolve.

2)     We can only understand those things that we can emotionally accept. It could be that God is fully revealing God’s self everyday but emotionally we can only accept so much. For example, evolution has a scientific rationale to it. But there are those who, for emotional reasons, cannot accept evolution.  When evolution was first suggested, it was dismissed because it challenged the prevailing world view. Over time it became more accepted and as it was more accepted, the thought behind it was less challenging. But, still in some religious circles, evolution is emotionally unacceptable to the point that in the 21st century, some states won’t teach evolution a science.

Humans like, “order”. We need to know that the sun will rise in the east and set in the west; that winter follows fall- which follows summer. Order helps us to make sense out of life- so western religion has taught that God is a God of order. So, it’s not so much that homosexuality is morally wrong- homosexuality challenges the order of things. Boys and girls fall in love, get married and have babies. People who marry and have no intention of having children live outside the norm. Sex for the sake of sex? That’s sinful. More recently, couple living together challenged the order of things, and they are still “frowned” upon. Most recently, the acceptance of homosexuality has challenged the order of things. Two men holding hands challenges the, order of things. Currently, we are struggling with transgendered people, men who self-identify as women, etc. Regardless of what science and genetic testing might show, emotionally some can’t and might never accept it. But what if, “faithfulness”, defined God instead of order? Sometimes life isn’t orderly. As much as there is order in life, there is chaos. An aspect of order is control. Parents control children- and children rebel; the Church likes to control people, and people rebel. But what if, “control” isn’t a priority in the nature of God? What if, “freedom” is? How would that redefine life? What would it look like if we spent less time judging people for their gender identification or partner selection and encouraged them to explore what it means for them to be fully human? Do we have the courage to enter uncertainty? The words we chose to define God matters.

It’s not that religion is dying or that God is passé. It could be that the words once used have lost their significance and we’re looking for a vocabulary. As science continues to struggle and search with meaning and purpose, so I continue to search for a meaningful understanding of God.

The Privilege and the Problem

The Bible tells the story that on the evening of the Resurrection of Jesus, two followers of Jesus were walking on a road to Emmaus. On their journey they were sharing life and grief.

Sometimes we might find ourselves on a journey to Emmaus with a friend, or maybe someone who just came into our lives. On this journey they might talk about life, maybe even share their pain- and there's the Privilege and the problem.

The privilege is that someone is entrusting us with their deepest hurts, taking us to a place in their lives that few people are allowed, in a sense- pouring their hearts out; it's almost a sacred trust. The problem is that sometimes we feel like we need to, "save" them with wise words or cute comments. Sometimes people just need to talk, maybe that's why people spend time talking to their pets.

Part of the religious journey is to share each other's burdens, maybe that means just listening; not taking on the problem ourselves, not tying to fix anything, not offering sage words- just listen. At it's best, that's what Church does and that's what religious people do.

If you find yourself with a companion who needs to talk, I hope you can listen and if you're alone on your, "road to Emmaus", I hope you find a companion, someone with whom you can share your hurts.

Life

The other night I was walking through the neighborhood; this area had no street light and so visibility was very limited. Off in the near distance I heard a kid say, “I’m 16 years old, I know I could die tomorrow, and I haven’t done anything with my life.” As he rode by I noticed he had no lights on his bike, he was wearing dark clothes, steering his bike with one hand while holding onto a skateboard with the other – but that’s another story. I remember hearing him so clearly say, “I haven’t done anything with my life.”
Philosophers and people with too much time on their hands often wonder about the purpose of life. To me the purpose of life is, life; living completely in the moment. What happened yesterday is over (the consequences may linger but it’s over) and tomorrow can be a lifetime away. To me, living in the moment is reflected in the words of Henry David Thoreau, “I [want] to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life”. Personally, I want to breathe deep the breath of life.
Life has a need to reproduce life, from a single cell Amoeba to the complicated cellular make up of a human- life has a need to produce life. In our younger years our hormones drive us to reproduce. But giving life is more than a biological thing.
When we smile and offer good words, we give life. When we touch, listen, or care- we give life. But we also have the ability to give death. (Maybe that’s part of what it means to be created in the image of God, we can give life and we can give death). We give death when we say things that hurt, ignore those in need, or do things that destroy another person’s hope and dreams.
When I was at my sickest this year, I wondered about the point of life- but I was alive, and I embraced life and I embraced the pain.
My religious perspective:
The kid on the bike, if I was on the other end of that phone conversation, I would have asked two questions: are you living completely in the moment, living each moment as a gift from God? If so, then you’ve done something with your life. The second question would be, have you given life? As God has given you life, have you given others life? Offer words of encouragement, called your grandmother, gave a smile to the new kid at school? If you can answer, Yes, to both questions then you’ve lived life to its fullest.
I hope you are living the life God has entrusted to you.

Want To Take A Walk Together?

A young man at Hope has lost an amazing amount of weight and he looks exceptional. As he and I have talked over the weeks since his weight loss, I've reminded him that it's one thing to lose the weight, it's another to keep the weight off- that is a change in lifestyle, in a sense, a constant battle.

What happens is, the body is used to the old weight, the old way of eating and exercising- maybe not exercising, spending time at the gym instead on the couch. Physiologically, the body will do everything it can to get you to back to, “normal”. One day, the body will come to recognize that this new weight is, "normal" and the body will not like long times on the couch and old eating habits. I think the same thing is true for being religious; it's not easy.

Being religious is a daily battle. It's a struggle within ourselves of jealousy, self-contentedness, anger, sometimes hatred. I suppose you could say it's a battle within us with sin- however that may be defined. Being religious means spending time with those things which nourish that sense of, "holiness" within us, seeking God's peace instead of our desires, accepting others as God created them rather than judging them by our standards. It's not easy.

Years ago, America's preacher was Billy Graham. he held crusades across the world and people by the hundreds and thousands responded to his message by "giving their life to Christ". Over the years research was done to see how these folks were doing with their new lives. Consistently the research showed that after 6 months of their religious experience, over 98% of the people who responded to Mr. Graham's message went back to the way things were. The euphoria of the experience wore off and life had to be lived. This isn't meant to be a criticism of the Billy Graham's crusades or the people moved by his message. It's a recognition that being religious takes work. Call it the devil, call it "life", call it what you will, there is something within us that wants to go back to the way things were. Intentional time of prayer, contemplation- study, putting others' needs before our own, intentional acts of kindness, being forgiving & accepting are—these are tough things, but this is the stuff of a religious life. The trade-off is the possibility of real peace, a real sense of life and purpose in life, a joy in living, an understanding of our place in the universe. But there’s an old expression that says, “a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step.” If you want a partner on this journey, drop me a note.

 

 

Remembering

Today I sat next to an aging saint in an Alzheimer's Care Unit, there just happened to be a concert by a pianist & flutist. The residents listened and smiled but then the duo played, Ave Maria, and things changed. The gentleman to my left slowly tapped his foot and a lady to the right of me began to hum along; the lady I came to see began to rock ever so gently from side to side.

I've always found it interesting what we choose to remember in life- the songs and the stories, and more telling what we choose to forget- the pains. But somewhere in the minds of these people whose minds are elsewhere, a memory was triggered- that just for a moment brought all of us together. No disease, no lost memories- just a community living in the present, however fleeting the present may be. That's the transcendent beauty of music, a beauty that bridges time and connect us all. It seems to me it's a similar thing with religion.

To those of us who are religious, deep inside there's a sense of God's spirit which sometimes gets lost in our daily lives of virtual insanity. In our metaphorical world of Alzheimer's we forget who we are, we forget our roots, we struggle in life and just can't seem to remember... anything. It's all we can do to just get through the moment. If we're lucky, every now and then we remember. Someone says something, we hear "that hymn", we see an intentional act of kindness or we hear that story of transformative love and, if just for a moment, we move and we feel, we remember, we are whole once again. That's religion at its best.

I hope you find that music, your music that helps you to remember.

Community

"I had... an experience. I can't prove it. I can't even explain it. All I can tell you is that everything I know as a human being, everything I am -- tells me that it was real. I was given something wonderful. Something that changed me. A vision of the universe that made it overwhelmingly clear just how tiny and insignificant -- and at the same time how rare and precious we all are. A vision... that tells us we belong to something greater than ourselves... that we're not – that none of us -- is alone. I wish I could share it. I wish everyone, if only for a moment -- could feel that sense of awe, and humility... and hope. That continues to be my wish."

This quote is from a book that was made into one of my favorite movies. To me this quote summarizes Moses on Sinai with God, Paul on the road to Damascus.

Religious experiences are exactly that, an experience. For just a moment, or maybe a lifetime, we sense something and that something changes us. St. Paul had an experience on his road to Damascus that changed his life forever, a woman caught in adultery had an experience of forgiveness with Jesus.

In these experiences, if just for a moment, we see life in a different light; we see how incredible and vast God’s creation is but we are also aware of how small we can seem in the bigger picture of things. It’s easy to get lost. This “smallness” can be overwhelming at times but what gets us through it all is the presence of others, even if it’s just one person, and the presence of God in our life.

 

When “church” is done correctly, the vastness of space is manageable by community, we’re not alone. I hope you have a community who accepts you and is willing to journey though the vastness of life with you.

Community

Sometimes life is overwhelming. It's almost like life is a, "whack a gopher" game--we take care of one problem and two more pop up somewhere else. Some will say that God never gives us more than we can handle and I'm not sure how I feel about that, God giving us things to suffer through. What I do know is that God gives us community to help with the stuff that life throws at us. A holy community listens to us and prays with us, a holy community will laugh with us and cry with us- but most of all, a holy community will be there loving us. If you don't have a holy community, I hope God puts one in your life- then I hope you will consider taking that chance and become part of that community.

New Beginnings

Easter and the time around Easter can be a time for new beginnings. There’s new growth on the trees & flowers (lest we don’t pay attention, our allergies remind us), for some there’s new relationships, for graduating kids there’s new challenges (college or career), and so on.

The first Easter was a new beginning. In St. John’s account of Jesus’ resurrection, Mary Magdalene tries to grab hold of the resurrected Jesus but Jesus says, “Don’t hold onto to me.” In a sense, the old has passed and things have changed- it’s a new beginning for Mary and the rest of the disciples.

In my Lutheran religious tradition, every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, every Sunday is a new beginning- a chance to start over, some might call it a, “do over”. “Do overs” are possible because God is a God of second chances; that’s what is called, “unconditional love”.

Actually, second chances are available anytime, any day- it’s called prayer, reaching out to God or each other and saying, “I’m sorry, I was wrong.”. People have a hard time forgiving, especially forgiving ourselves, but God is a God of compassion and forgiveness.

I hope you have a blessed Easter, if you need it- a new beginning. And I hope you have a place at which you can celebrate Easter weekly. Celebrating Easter and new beginnings once a year is a bummer.

Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you.” John 20:19

The setting for this verse: Jesus had his last meal with his friends on Thursday (what some call Maundy Thursday), was crucified on Friday (originally called, God's Friday but later renamed, Good Friday), Easter morning the tomb was empty and it's Easter evening. Jesus' disciples are hiding out of fear and Jesus comes among them and says, "peace".

I don't know that the disciples actually "heard" what Jesus was saying. My experience, it's hard to hear, "peace" when you feel afraid; it's hard to be open when you're hiding behind locked doors.

I wonder how we would respond to Jesus offer of peace. We live in contentious and anxious times, seems like there's a lot of anger floating around. "Peace" doesn't mean a lack of these things but rather- in the midst of these things, in the midst of those trying to get us wrapped up in their anger, we choose compassion, we choose to risk loving others.

Metaphorically you could say that we live in times with a lot of locked doors and windows, shutting out those we don't like or who might think differently than we do. But living behind locked doors makes me wonder...who's really the prisoner? For my part...yes, it's a challenging world we live in but I want to open the doors of my life to fresh air and breezes to blow through (some would say to let the Spirit of God blow through). I want to live in the peace that Jesus offered to his followers.

"My Life is God's Prayer" Psalm 42:8

I came across this translation of Psalm 42:8 the other day. I looked at a variety of translations and Psalm 42:8 is usually translated something similar to, "a prayer to the God of my life". But the translation that I quoted, "My life is God's prayer", hmm.

This fascinating translation comes from the Evangelical Lutheran Worship book. I'm not a Hebrew scholar so I’m not able to make my own translation, but this translation is in a major denomination’s book of worship so I have to assume it’s somewhat accurate. So what does it mean, “my life is God’s prayer”?

Among many things, a ‘prayer’ is an offering. An offering is a way of saying, thanks; an offering is a way of honoring-- which leads me to question, is my life a holy offering to God?

Martin Luther (German guy from 16th century not civil rights guy from 20th century) might have answered, “no”. Sin (in this case, selfishness) stains our offering in that offerings can have strings attached. Sometimes offerings are guilt offerings trying to buy some peace of mind for ourselves, sometimes offerings are given out of duty rather than joy.

In life, we offer our lives to God but we might attach conditions--if we can live life the way we choose, i.e. the career I choose, the lifestyle I choose instead of what God calls us to be. This is a prayer, an offering with conditions.

Lives sometimes are offered out of a sense of guilt, or bargaining. In World War II, my father was a prisoner of war. The story goes that- if God would deliver him from the Nazis, my father would enter the ministry. He was delivered, after the war in a worship service that pastor announced that my father was entering the ministry…and it never happened. But we make deals with God, that’s what we do. I think deals help us control the future (or so we think) instead of letting God guide us through a world of ambiguity.

Offerings are also offered out of guilt, not out of gratitude. The old expression is that God loves a cheerful giver, one who give out of joy and thanksgiving—not out of regret. An offering of gratitude sees a life of abundance, gifts to be shared not stored away.

 

“My life is God’s prayer”. Maybe it has me consider...from my opening thoughts in the morning to my last thoughts before sleep,  did I honor the Spirit of God within me. “My life is God’s prayer” might ask me if the decisions I made throughout any given day would honor the Christ who died for me.

Tonight, before my mind disappears into another world for rest, I will wonder, Today—was my life God’s prayer?