Faith Meets World

Reflections on faith in a messed-up but beautiful world

Category: Church (Page 2 of 5)

Religion as reality avoidance

AddictAmerican shame researcher Brené Brown describes the current generation of adults as “the most obese, in debt, medicated and addicted adults in human history”. I don’t think I know many people who would seriously disagree with that assessment.

What’s driving this trend? I would say it basically boils down to one thing: reality avoidance. The world is just too painful and difficult a place, so rather than deal with the distressing reality of it, we find all kinds of creative ways to distract and numb ourselves.

Some go shopping, even when they don’t really need anything and can’t afford it anyway (sometimes half-jokingly but tellingly referred to as “retail therapy”). Others begin to indulge in eating sweet or fatty foods; at first, they find comfort in it, but it soon morphs into something they need in order to survive. Many immerse themselves in social media, spending every spare moment presenting a curated version of themselves to the world, all the while carefully hiding their true selves. Some are addicted to work; for others, it might be porn or sex; still others find themselves enslaved to alcohol or drugs.

In one form or another, addiction is all around us.

(As a bit of an aside, you might think the world has surely always been just as painful as it is now, if not more painful. I would agree with you. In which case, why the recent massive increase in addictive and compulsive behaviours? I’d say the key difference is that we now live in an age that is driven more than ever before by image. From TV and magazine ads and celebrity idols to the carefully crafted perfect personas with which we are bombarded hour after hour on Facebook, we are surrounded by unrelenting pressure to look the best, be the best, know the most, earn the most, have the nicest house, raise the nicest kids. And, conveniently, the consumer model quickly steps in to constantly pepper us with an array of products and services that will help us achieve those very things. It’s a double whammy: we feel more pressured than ever before to live up to an idealised image, and we’re offered more promises than ever before to help us do it. The prevalence of addictive and compulsive behaviours is simply evidence that these promises never deliver.)

But there’s another form of addiction that I haven’t mentioned so far, yet which is very common and very subtle – and which serves exactly the same purpose as all the other addictions we’ve already talked about. I’m talking about being addicted to religion.

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Power, but not as we know it

SpiritThis coming Sunday is an important day on the Christian calendar: it’s the day when we celebrate the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

You can read about it in Acts 2, but let me give you the gist. In the greatest reversal of all time, Jesus, after being put to an ignominious death by lynch mob, is raised to life on the third day. He spends forty days appearing to his disciples and various others, before finally ascending to the right hand of the Father. But before his ascension, he instructs his disciples to wait in Jerusalem, where he promises to send the Holy Spirit to them.

Ten days later, the disciples are all gathered in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit is poured out on them as promised. It’s an amazing and thoroughly supernatural phenomenon, attested by tongues of fire and the disciples’ sudden ability to speak in other languages. Peter is emboldened to address the many curious onlookers who have converged to witness this strange event, and around three thousand people are added to the church that day. (I’d say that’s some pretty impressive church growth!)

Now that I’ve set the scene of what the Day of Pentecost is all about, I can get to the main thrust of what I want to say.

Earlier today, one UK Christian leader (it really doesn’t matter who) tweeted the following:

Pentecost remains the power for the church. We need strategy, leadership training, excellence and creativity, but more than anything his power.

Before I go on, let me make it completely clear that my purpose in this post is not to criticise or decry this leader or his tweet. Having said that, however, his words did give me food for thought.

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Forgiven sinners

Fisheye churchThis is the penultimate post in our ongoing survey of the final chapters of Tom Wright’s Simply Jesus (full review here; click here to link to all posts in the series).

Let’s jump right in with today’s quote from the final chapter of Simply Jesus:

The church is not supposed to be a society of perfect people doing great work. It’s a society of forgiven sinners repaying their unpayable debt of love by working for Jesus’ kingdom in every way they can, knowing themselves to be unworthy of the task. The moment any Christian, particularly any Christian leader, forgets that — the moment any of us imagine that we are automatically special or above the dangers and temptations that afflict ordinary mortals — that is the moment when we are in gravest danger. Peter’s disastrous, humiliating crash came an hour or two after he had declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and even to death.

— Tom Wright, Simply Jesus

You might well read the above paragraph and think it says nothing that isn’t perfectly obvious. However, there is a big implication for the church.

If you asked many non-religious folks their opinion of Christians, you would undoubtedly get a wide range of answers. However, a good chunk of those answers would surely be along the lines that Christians are a bunch of holier-than-thou do-gooders, people who consider themselves morally a cut above the average Joe or Jane and who spend their lives looking down their noses at the moral inadequacy of those not so enlightened as they are. This view may appear to be based on a caricature, but it’s the view that a lot of people hold, and one has to assume that they mostly have at least some reason for holding it.

Jesus spent his time hanging out with people who were transparently bad and/or messed up in a variety of ways. When he was referred to as the “friend of sinners”, this was not a compliment. Furthermore, the twelve men he chose to be his closest associates and into whom he poured his life and teaching were a motley band of liars, hot-heads, deniers and betrayers.

And so we seemingly have a major disconnect. On the one hand, the Jesus of first century Palestine kept community with all manner of social misfits, outcasts and ne’er-do-wells; on the other hand; the community of Jesus in the twenty-first century (the church) is largely seen as being made up of self-important morality police.

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Come

This is the table, not of the church, but of the Lord.
It is made ready for those who love him
And for those who want to love him more.
So come, you who have much faith and you who have little,
You who have been here often and you who have not been here long,
You who have tried to follow and you who have failed.
Come, because it is the Lord who invites you.
It is his will that those who want him should meet him here.

(I have come across this communion invitation in a number of places, but have not been able to establish its origins or authorship. If you have can throw any light on this, I’d love to know.)

Called to share

The whole creation is in labour, longing for God’s new world to be born. The church is called to share that pain and that hope. The church is not to be apart from the pain of the world; it is to be in prayer at precisely the place where the world is in pain. That is part of our calling, our high but strange role within God’s purposes for new creation.

— Tom Wright, Paul for everyone: Romans, Part 1

The five ages of the church

In the beginning the church was a fellowship of men and women centering on the living Christ. Then the church moved to Greece where it became a philosophy. Then it moved to Rome where it became an institution. Next, it moved to Europe, where it became a culture. And, finally, it moved to America where it became an enterprise.

(Attributed to Richard Halverson, former chaplain to the US Senate)

A glimpse of the Mystery

Yet, when all is said and done, what the world most needs from the church is not so much instruction about the nature of the mystery as a glimpse of the Mystery itself operative in us. It already knows its own passion, and the vastness of the shipwreck of history; it waits for us to show it the power of Christ’s Passion and to lift man’s agony into His.

— Robert Farrar Capon, An Offering of Uncles: The Priesthood of Adam and the Shape of the World

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