Board Games

Posted on June 29, 2008
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I went to Pine Baptist this week. Like Cherry Baptist and Tioga Baptist, the Sunday School service was modestly partcipatory. The fellow leading the study seemed to have gotten his insight straight out of a study Bible or two, which is not a fault of itself but is always disappointing to me, as I constantly wish people knew the Bible well enough to have ideas about its meaning on their own. At least it was the Bible we were discussing.

Whenever I am permitted to make comments and I chose to do so, people always compliment me for my knowledge. This reinforces my tendency to feel that I know more theological truth than at least 90% of them all lumped together. I suppose this could even be true–but the quanitity of thelogical truth one knows has no value in itself. (I get the feeling, although on scant evidence please note, that Cherry Baptist has somewhat missed this.) Any one of them likely has more expereince trusting God in times of need and seeing his faithfulness, no matter how little they may know or understand of the record of God’s faithfulness and of his promises in the Bible. God is not a concept to be appreciated by bright minds. The glory of God revealed to the intellect is just one ray of his inapproachable light.

The sermon turned out to be on church discipline. And, as to be expected, it turned out that they had exercised disciplinary action against a (former?) member a few weeks prior. The pastor belabored the typical themes of intention to restore the wayward brother in all discipline, and escalation of discipline only when quieter and more private approaches had failed, and generally nothing that was wrong by the book. In fact, as far as what was stated, it fit my understanding of the scripture much better than the prior week’s sermon in Tioga Baptist that only sins that offended non-Christians actually had to be acted against corporately.

But the sermon also served as notice that the church operated very governmentally, and was very committed to the iron fist hold upright the cross of Christ. If this needed any reinforcement, the special singining (for the non-liturgical members of my audience, that’s when neither the chior nor the assembly sings, but a few people who have some musical talent–and frequently the time when the pass around the main collection, I mean, offering plate) had a patriotic theme and culminated in singing the Star Spangled Banner. I have nothing against respect and appreciation for this country or whatever country a believer may be in, any more than I would condemn appreciation for food, clothing, or housing. It is a great country, by any standard countries are measured on. But it is still a worldly thing, and singing anthems in its praise in an assembly to the Lord is no more appropriate than singing praises to my car, or my employer. It is idolatry, and only pagan ignorance could excuse it.

That is the level of so many churches, though: a general knowledge that God is out there, a general attitude of God-fearing, as of the God-fearing Gentiles, but no understanding of the whole work of God, of the specific meaning of the gospel of God.

I lounged in a pew after the service, loitering around in anticipation of the pastor coming back to size me up more thoroughly than he had before. Yes, I was feeling feisty. But I got invited to lunch instead by an older woman who was clearly very busy in the church, and another man came along with his wife. Over lunch I gave this fellow, H.B., an earful of what I thought about the typical structure of church. I have tried to be restrained and even circumspect in my comments on other occasions, since it is so much my desire to hastily condemn everything and wait brightly for them to ask for my solution, but as I already confessed I was feeling impatient. He listened attentively but without engagement, and offered that the pastor has allowed the church to vote on his subject matter for the summer as some consolation towards my lament over the lack of mutual fellowship. Of course voting on Topic A, B, or C has nothing to do with fellowship, but that is typically how critiques of fundamental church structure are answered: with a different brick from the same row.

A board-game enthusiast, H.B. invited me over to his house and we played two games of Settlers of Cataan. I played one or maybe twice before, but the first game he explained the strategy as we played, and I won. On the second I asked for a square match and lost, but not badly. I enjoyed myself immensely and would look forward to future events, but I am not sure that there will be many as he and his gang usually gather Friday or Saturday evenings, both of which conflict with higher priorities in my schedule.

Out of place

Posted on June 22, 2008
Filed Under Journeyman Chronicles | Comments Off on Out of place

This Sunday was my third consecutive Sunday at Tioga Baptist. I have been there once before, so the total is four visits.

Tioga Baptist is starting a new series in its Sunday School, working from Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ. It’s certainly not the first time I have heard of Strobel’s book, but it is the first time someone put a free copy in my hands, so I read it. About as I expected, this veteran journalist inteviewed a bunch of Christian experts who all agreed that the gospels were factual. Strobel asked some confrontational questions, but, in classic journalistic fashion, since he has no personal knowledge in any of the academic fields his experts work in, all he can do is nod along when they give him their line of evidence. Yes, none of them was caught stammering and blushing and at a loss for words, but who is surprised?

The Case for Christ has some merit; it’s a quick, easy-reading antidote for people who have never heard anti-Christian academic expertise rebutted at all. But it is potentially dangerous, something like giving a boy a water pistol and telling him to join the war. Your scholar asserts that the gospels were written generations after Jesus walked the earth; my scholar says they were written within the same generation. So far we have a draw; what next? Well, if your adversary has some scholastic background, he will launch into studies of forms of Greek, styles of writing, contemporary events, and textual analysis, and then laugh at you for being mislead by a bunch of agenda-driven, whitewashing, featherweight pseudo-scholars. The Case for Christ is not conclusive, and anyone who builds on that foundation is setting themselves up for disaster.

Fact-based argument is only useful if both parties accept the same facts, and the dispute is over how they best align. Then you can talk about the details of the specific facts to build your case. Some, like Strobel himself, might come to believe in God through looking at evidences, but one who will not believe in God will not believe in the evidence. It is not possible to prove God, but God makes proof possible.

So Sunday School this week was not about God or the Bible, it was about Lee Strobel’s book; but it wasn’t even about the book, really, as that would imply some thought and discussion of the book. It was an exercise in non-critical thinking, in getting caught up in the imagery so as to swallow the point without hesistation. We were asked to recall court cases that had been overturned based on new evidence, and to imagine that we were a jury, and to remember that even Christian media is sometimes biased. If there was a lesson in there anywhere then it was about the criminal justice system, or our ignorance thereof; or the inadequacies of legal reporting (although nobody was making the very valid connection to the inadequacies of The Case for Christ itself; presumptively, this great work transcends all those flaws). But nothing was learned about God’s methods of revelation, or the limits of all man’s systems of proofs. Postmodernism was mentioned, but rather than talking about how postmodernism does a wonderful and valid job of demolishing all man’s systems of proof (only failing by coming to the conlcusion that there is then no proof, and choosing the hedonistic and self-deifying embrace of lawlessness), it was merely vilified as the reason people won’t fall down and convert when presented with evidence of Christianity’s truth.

Then in the main service there was the usual liturgy: some songs are sung by the whole church, some by just the choir with the pastor at the pulpit, some by the choir joined by the pastor, some by soloists; and sometimes you stand while other times you sit. When finally we got to the sermon, 1 Corinthians 5 was preached. We were assured that this was a tremendously difficult passage, buried with scintillating statistics on the thriving business in pornography, and assured that questions of sexual conduct were still relevant today. This was about half the sermon and I think only that Japanese guy who crawled out of a bunker on some Pacific island and surrendered from World War II a year or so ago needed to be convinced that the topic was relevant to modern culture.

The great difficulty contained in this passage seemed to be whether Paul was really requiring the Corinthians to disassociate from all professing Christians engaged in sexual immorrality, or just this one person whose behaviour was so henious it was an embarrassment even in the pagan world. Acknowledging that Paul was talking about disassociation from someone who claimed to be a Christian and not the general populace of sexually promiscious and perverse Greeks, the pastor still crafted his message to imply (not quite daring to conclude anything in plain terms) that only someone whose sin was repugnant even to the outside world should be disowned by the church; after all, in those times and places there were probably a lot of Christians with sexual sin in the church, just only the one who was that bad.

What a commentary on the present church! What an open invitation to continue in sexual immorality and be accepted in your claim to be a Christian in fellowship with that church! Oh, the pastor was very worried he might drive someone away; he invited us all who “were not quite there yet” to turn our “relationships” into real marriages, but he left no doubt that we would be welcomed either way.

This pastor is always trying to sell me his church, to remind me of his young-adult program in the evening and talk up how exciting and interesting the Sunday school series will be. I have not seen anything in this pastor that looks malign–covetousness, intention to pervert truth, heresy or seduction–but he seems to be ignorant of the ways of God: how God saves, how he preserves and protects the faith of his saints, and what he intends his church to do and to be. He seems earnest in his belief that God is good, but rather than understanding what God means by good, and by those stronger words “holy,” “just,” and “righteous,” the pastor seems to take anything that seems good and stretch it back to God and tack it there with some verses. He’s convinced that God is good so he is convinced that his efforts to attribute goodness to God are not in vain, and he just doesn’t understand that he has the whole meaning of goodness so inverted that he is actually preaching postmodernism–“Do what seems most right and let God sort out the details.” That’s not what he tells people to do, but it is what he shows them to do.

There are churches around here more strict in their moral teaching who would not have soft-shoed around casting out all the sinners from their church, and there are those who would not have bothered read that part of Corinthians at all if it bothered them. All of the churches seem frantic that there aren’t more people coming, and they react in various ways. Some are noticeable bitter, and are ready to blame the world and all the sinners and especially those so-called Christians who don’t respect the Sabbath and are probably out there buying something on the Lord’s day instead of giving money to him. Some are strategizing on how to take the world by storm, how to subvert every conversation into a subtle ploy to make people curious about church; some want to make it such a fun place, or so exotic, that people will rush in for the thrill of it. None of them understand church as a retreat for weary soldiers, a reunion for dispersed family members.

I am not at all convinced that this is the least-wrong church of all the churches I have visited. I have returned to this church only because it feels like it is changing, evolving, wanting to get better even as it has know idea of what better is. This is only in comparison with other churches, which feel dead and closed, so dry and closed that you wonder people don’t perish after attending five times. And this Tioga Baptist feels much the same way; the difference is marginal.

But I am not returning because the church is doing something more right. I am returning to try to puzzle out how to do anything that is right with any of the churches that are so wrong. They seem to all be perfect storms of self-destruction. You cannot even speak in them because the speaking is all done by the leader; you could have some input if you joined but before you join you have to swear to abide by all the self-defeating practices and notions the church already has; and the only advice they are interested in hearing is on how to get more people in the church. Like a drug addict, all they want is more of their drug even as it kills them.

How do you help a drug addict? How do you help a church–or more correctly, church-going Christians?

Is there any way to reach them? In my wildest and most ego-driven dreams I’d like to convert whole churches into my right way, of course. But I know that many in the churches have no desire to be a part of the real church, of the family of God and accountable to him. Those who want their church are welcome to keep it. I can’t imagine any fruitful growth in Christian maturity within the confines of the least of the trappings of the modern church system, so mutually-supporting is the whole buisness of church, but I also do not believe I am the only one in the area with a genuine hunger to know God. There might be none in this particular church, but since Christianity began Christians have taken their doctrine into a city and somehow found in that city those who had the hunger to know God. My intention is to do no more and no less, but I am not sure how it is done. It seems that when you are looking for God-fearers in a Godless city, if you have no introduction than you must simply go to there place and meet them where they are; synagogue or acropolis, find where they worship their gods, look for some sign of a genuine attempt to worship God, and introduce the God you know and the gospel he has given you.

And do not expect them to be suddenly transformed into the perfect church. Paul wrote letters to churches he had established, and these churches had faults large and small. The apostle, the example to us all, did not so “succeed” that he could leave behind sound, self-regulating churches that needed only minor corrections. They went far astray, and embraced grevious error, and could not have all been in a better way then all the churches around me.

So if I have the same God and the same gospel, I have also the confidence that this gospel is not for me, it is for them. Whether I should find “them” at work or at church, or somewhere else; whether I should confront them directly and challenge them with a blunt declaration of their perdition, or suggest to them slowly a better way, I do not know. I pray that I do not become so focused on the church that I neglect what opportunity or responsiblity I have to also witness the gospel at work. I think there are different ways to preach Christ in different times and places, and seek to find not so much a particular way as some way in all times.

After a year of working in one office within my workplace, I have left for another office. In that year I don’t know that I ever gave so much as a hint to anyone that God–real, living, and personal–was everything to me. I know they all got the drift that I was religious, but religion is not Christ, and I don’t know that they saw anything of Christ in me. I know at some times they saw some commendable things in me, but they also see some commendable things in other people they work with; I don’t know that they ever saw Christ.

Perhaps they did, and I don’t know, and it is not my place to know. Perhaps they didn’t, but it was not through any fault per se of my witness; perhaps they didn’t, and it is very much because I did not show Christ in the way I should have. I know for a fact that they saw me accept, adopt, and particpate in some things that were not Christ-like. It is partly because of that that I have begun going to these churches; not that they can make me a better Christian, but that in going to places where I know Christ ought to be the focus, and there is no excuse of being “in the world” to use for being an invisible Christian, that I consciously challenge myself in what I ought to do to witness Christ, and try to take the same challenge and habit to the rest of my life.

I could propose my own Bible study. If I was willing to sign the paper and join the church I think I could have an officially sanctioned Bible study under my governance within a month. But joining the system to save the system does not seem right. I could argue incessantly with the pastor during the Bible study that he is not being Christ centered; and I might be right but I do not think I would be profitable. I could try to blend in for a while and then look for key people I might be able to convince to join me in my counter-church, doing things right. But setting out with the intention of poaching people, of taking people out and away, also does not seem profitable. It is up to the church and the synagogue and the city to throw out sincere followers of Christ, and not their place to voluntarily leave before they start acting like Christians.

So if I ought not batter down the front gate and assault the keep and start a revolution, and if I ought not stand in a dark corner and wait for people to fall out of the sky and ask me what I think about Jesus, how shall I live as Jesus lived, surrounded by people who didn’t and didn’t want to know, and yet calling, calling to those few who hungered?

No prophet, no seer

Posted on June 9, 2008
Filed Under Theological | Comments Off on No prophet, no seer

I am a small fellow, weighing perhaps 140 pounds when soaking wet, so my supper tonight was fully adequate: a thin steak, the size of a handspread, four or so slices of bread, and a salad. Not a staggering feast, but along with an apple before starting supper it is a full meal for someone of my stature and occupation.

This did not deter me from devouring, without pause, four ice cream sandwiches, and then viciously attacking a bag of snack mix.
Yes, it’s pretty easy to see what is going on here: compensation. One can easily imagine me looking with bewilderment at a belt that has shrunk so that it no longer fits my slender waist.

Please note with what fortitude I left the ice cream sandwiches untouched when I got back from the store, and the bag of snack mix! Observe how I took an apple and then left the kitchen to eat it, so my hand would not stray to other delights. See how I cooked my steak, and did not neglect to pull out the fresh lettuce. Remember how well-filled my stomach felt with the pumpernickel bread dipped in the oily residue from the steak pan, with all that lettuce and meat.

So why did it take me only fifteen seconds to lunge to the freezer, and why then four ice cream sandwiches? What was lacking in the first two or three? And why then the snack besides?

Oh, I am owed, mightily owed.

For what, though? For my slight at work, when I took my stand on the immovable word of my manager against the onslaught of the unworthy, but my footing did not hold? A convenient debt, to be sure, but not credible, because I left this morning with the same twist of ire that I carried home.

For what, then? For this another day and another week at this place where I work, where I have no friends and the work I do is vain, and the work I do not get done heaps in anguish for my neglect? Oh, so well approved, this debt of unrequited work! But hardly to be noticed by the innocent eye, which would more readily mark my good report with many important people, and the most of the criticisms I bear, I bear in anticipation only.

For what, then? What am I owed, that my gluttony may be kindly forgiven? Is it my poor lonely life, that I alone cross this threshold, and the door remains shut behind me? Ah, what a fount of woe that is! But neither am I all as lonely as I pretend; for I know you read this. Yes, you are there, and I can strike up a conversation with you whenever I wish. Let us not play the delerious parts of Romeo and Juliet, each of us expiring for the lack of the other.

No, every distress I count myself in now might still beset me, even if this lack or that were supplied. If Jesus Himself were in the boat, then I would not be afraid! And if He would give me the peace that passes all understanding, then I would not need ice cream! In each of my pities, and in all of them together, there are those more sorely afflicted and yet having more cheerful hearts.

I must conclude that this great debt is nothing more than the flowering of an evil seed of selfishness. It has no explanation or justification other than “I want.” But this is no revelation. I knew it when I got up this morning, and felt it. I knew it when I was scowling in the grocery store, as if I found the prices offensive. I might have, if I had looked at them, but I was too busy scowling. Throughout the day I felt a lump of my own violent selfishness as palpably as I feel those four sandwiches stretching my distended stomach

So this is what I really learned: Even when you know you are just being selfish, that does not give you grace to overcome. And even when you pray to God, when you get up in the morning and when you are driving home from the store in the evening, “Lord, grant me peace in Your will alone, and let me not be ruled by my selfish desires,” that does not mean that God will surely give you the power to resist your selfish gluttony. And that is my real question: Why not?

I don’t think there is an answer to that question. I don’t think Job got an answer to his “Why?” He got a reply, sure enough, but it wasn’t an answer to his question. It was something a little bit more like this:

“I am God. I know who made those ice cream sandwiches and who brought them to that store. I know what you had in mind when you brought them home and I know everyone who upset you. I am God, I hold all things in My hand, and I know why you ate what you knew you should not have eaten. Do you know?”