Sunday, September 07, 2008


I am no good at being a Christian.

Yep, you heard me correctly. I stink at this Jesus-following gig.

Only one thing keeps me from throwing my hands in the air and proclaiming, "I can't do this! I give up!"


I know for a fact that there are at least a handful of people (non-Christians) in my life who are aware that I claim to be a Christ-follower and think I give my faith a bad name.

This essay is for them - those people who smell the stink of sin (read: hypocrisy) radiating from this self-proclaimed Jesus Freak.

The fact is that I don't live up to the tenets of my faith. I fail daily at the three greatest commandments: "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength, and love your neighbor as yourself," Jesus instructed.

I'm not so great at loving God. Don't get me wrong - I love God. He is my creator, my friend, my perfect heavenly Father, my anchor in a world that is constantly topsy-turvy. I love Him with a passion and to a depth that can drive me to tears. But the act of loving Him - talking to Him, spending time with Him, praising Him, thanking Him, making Him my first priority - well, I fall down on that job an awful lot.

I'm not so great at loving people, either. The thing is, Jesus wasn't talking about loving the people we naturally love, like our closest friends and the family members we get along with, although of course, we should love them, too. He was talking about everyone. The guy who cut me off on Barrington Road en route to church this morning, for example (Oh, the irony - especially since I called him a fool pretty loudly and then walked into church three minutes later. How benevolent of me, right?). The friend who irritated me without meaning to. My mom, who frequently misunderstands me. I may not always treat people unlovingly, but I am guilty of being unloving in my heart on a daily basis.

The implied third command is that we are to love ourselves. And yes, I fail in this area as well. I look in the mirror and despise my fat spots. I reflect on my weaknesses and feel pathetic. I ponder my singleness and wonder what the heck is wrong with me. I mentally relive my darkest sins and feel completely unworthy of Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross...

And yet the cross is the key.

According to the Old Testament laws, I deserve to die because I constantly sin, failing to live up to God's standards. "The wages of sin is death," the Bible proclaims. However, instead of me dying for my sins, Jesus died in my place, nailed to a wooden cross on the hill of Golgotha outside Jerusalem, a little over 2000 years ago. The cross is what makes it possible for me to have confidence that, in spite of my inherent inability to live a holy, blameless life by my own efforts, I will spend eternity with God. 

That, my friends, is grace.

I, the hypocrite, am going to heaven, along with all the other hypocritical Christians. And please note: all Christians are hypocrites. None of us have what it takes to live out God's commands without grace. Thank goodness the Lord sent Jesus to die for us. And thank goodness Jesus didn't say, "Man, these people are so not worth it," and bail. Because He died willingly, I am clean by proxy.

Does this excuse my hypocrisy, my sinfulness? No way. But it does "cover over a multitude of sins." If it didn't, then Jesus died a horrible death for nothing.

And the fact is, he didn't die for nothing. He died for all humanity. This is the cool part: this grace thing I've got going on, well, it's not exclusive. It's available to the whole flipping human race. The earth's entire population. You.

I must warn you, though: grace is life-altering. If you have any heart at all, you'll find yourself overwhelmed by the enormity of it. Once you have the guarantee of eternity before you, life here on earth starts looking a little different.

Inevitably, people who discover grace are hit hard by the impact of Jesus' sacrifice on the cross, and their own unworthiness to receive the benefit of that sacrifice. Ideally, they are filled with love for the Lord in response to His generous gift, and they begin trying daily to live lives that honor what He did. That is the journey of "discipleship," as they say in Christianese, or of learning how to try to follow Jesus and become more like Him. I won't lie - it's not easy.

I try, though, because I truly love my savior. Unfortunately, I let Him down all the time (all Christ-followers do). But I keep on keeping on out of sheer faith and trust, and out of an overpowering desire not to let Him have died in vain. I accept His sacrifice gratefully, because if I don't, I'll have let Him down in a far bigger way.

I am a hypocrite. I am a sinner. I am messed-up. I am unclean in heart and mind.

But I am pursuing Christ in spite of my shortcomings.

And I am saved.

Respecting the Bride

"I'd like to experience your church sometime," a friend said to me the other day.

Experience my church? Hmm.

Based on previous comments, I know what she meant.

What she meant is that she wants to see Bill Hybels teach so she can decide whether or not she thinks his teaching is acceptable to her. She wants to hear the Willow Creek worship band and decide whether or not the style appeals to her. She wants to sit in the biggest auditorium in the United States and decide whether or not she thinks a church should have a facility this large and whether what happens onstage is worthy of such a facility.

She wants to assess my church - my place of worship, my church family, my spiritual home on earth - and see if it meets with her approval. Whether any of it meets with God's approval, is pleasing to Him, serves Him, or honors Him, is apparently obsolete. Excuse the sarcasm, but I take issue with this. After all, she will be assessing a piece of my heart, a piece of me...or rather, something of which I am a piece.

I wonder sometimes how many of the people who enter Willow's doors for the first time are on a similar mission. I also wonder about their motivations. Willow, after all, has taken a lot of hits over the years, and will probably continue to do so. This is fine with me; it means that Willow is a church with the courage to pursue growth, to take risks to that end. And the last place I want to be is a stagnant church. But let's get back to my friend and her desire to "experience" my church.

She's "experienced" a lot of churches.

Please don't mistake me. I'm not waxing holier-than-thou here. I've been guilty of this kind of thing myself. I used to "visit" churches and do this same kind of "assessing" without intending to judge. But I was judging, nevertheless.

Until God showed me how He wants me to view His Church.

Scripture names the Church as the "Bride of Christ," and  if we examine that notion in light of the Biblical model of marriage, then the Church is to be cherished by its people as Jesus cherished it. The Apostle Paul makes no designations in regard to denomination, location, size, influence. The Church is all churches - all denominations, all buildings, all believers in Christ. They are not separate in God's eyes, but part of the same body. 

It is we, not God, who have separated the church, who have fragmented her in accordance with our own human preferences and prejudices, our varying interpretations of Scripture, our own perceived spiritual needs. It is humankind that has added "laws," or "rites" that were not commanded by Jesus in the New Testament, just as the pharisees added many decrees to God's laws to help the Jews live righteously in the Old Testament.

When I first fully realized this, I had a moment of breathlessness. I was grieved by the way we have departed from what Christ modeled for us, taking something so simple and making it so complicated. We took faith and made it back into religion. Centuries ago, the church turned upon itself, and it remains in battle. In the name of God, in the name of righteousness and truth and holiness, but falsely so in many ways.

At the same time, I was convicted by a sense of responsibility to model respect for the Church - all her denominations, all her people - from that day on.

This does not mean that I will not question church practices. This does not mean I will not examine doctrines with a critical eye. There are false teachings and doctrines that do not line up with Jesus' teachings out there. But we are called to fight for righteousness with love. Loving examination of the Church out of a desire to please God and serve Him is necessary. At the same time, the reality is that the Church is made up of people. Flawed, broken people. The Church is therefore imperfect. She will make mistakes. But she is still the Bride of Christ. We are commanded to respect her, to uphold her, to defend her. We are commanded to be part of her: to learn, to grow, to serve.

I was raised Lutheran, but today I consider myself non-denominational. My maternal grandparents were Presbyterian. My paternal grandparents are Methodist. My best friend from high school is Catholic. The differences in our churches do not bother me. We are all believers in Christ.

There are churches that would not agree with me. There is much bitterness and prejudice, much pride and envy. The Church has spent centuries attempting to tear its own limbs from its body. I'm resigned to that. But my heart tells me that God did not pursue the Gentiles so that He could establish a Church where some people were judged more righteous than others.

Now, when I visit a church that is not my own, but which is clearly pursuing the heart of God, I am awed by its very existence. I am thankful that its people have a place to worship our Lord, even thought they may do things a little differently. I consider that church a proof of God's love, of His power and might, and of His work in this world. Someday, the Lord will put everything right, and the Church will be one body again.

My church is not better than any other church. It is just a piece of the body of Christ trying to live out God's commands, imperfectly, it's true, but in the spirit of love and service, and for the glory of God.

Let my friend assess that and find it wanting, if she can.

Friday, May 30, 2008

The Burden of Representation

During a class on relational evangelism at Willow Creek Community Church last Wednesday night, director of evangelism Garry Poole looked at his audience and asked, "What keeps people from reaching out to others and sharing the love of Christ?"

Hands shot up. Everyone's answer was the same:


"What scares you about evangelism?" asked Poole.

The responses were what I expected.


"The possibility of getting into a debate."

"Being judged for being a Christian."

"Not being able to answer questions."

"Misrepresenting Jesus."

"Knowing how much to say."

These are all valid - and common - fears Christians come face to face with when they want to share the gospel with a non-believer. They are so valid, so common and so realistic, in fact, that they can scare a believer into silence.

I experience these same concerns. However, my most recent frustration is something altogether different.

Rather than a fear, when I consider evangelism these days, I feel the intensity of the burden that I will potentially have to defend the Western church. And the Western church, unfortunately, has something of a bad reputation.

A few weeks ago, Catholic priest Father Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina, an all-black church on Chicago's South Side, publicly mocked Senator Hillary Clinton during a visit to Trinity Church of Christ, the church attended by Illinois senator and Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama. Pfleger, who is white, went so far as to suggest that Clinton believes she deserved the Democratic presidential nomination over Obama because she is white. Pfleger later claimed he was not mocking Clinton and that his remarks did not reflect his heart.

Unfortunately, I was watching the evening news when Pfleger's antics were broadcast for the entire nation. What I saw made me ill. I saw a man who was out of control disparaging one of his nation's leaders from the pulpit (the Bible clearly calls for Christians to respect those in governmental authority), setting an unbiblical example for that congregation, and above all, misrepresenting the church. Make that misrepresenting Christ.

When the segment was over, I sighed and said to my roommate, with more than a hint of sarcasm, "Well, he just made the church look really good."

Pfleger's bio is impressive - in the 33 years he's been at St. Sabina, he has increased attendance from 400 to over 1200; he has helped parishioners start a school and several community programs that have changed the neighborhood. He protests gun violence and works tirelessly to better the conditions of the people living in the St. Sabina neighborhood. All this has ended up doing nothing for him in the face of his recent conduct - Chicago's Cardinal George has reassigned Pfleger to another parish. I can't help wondering, What's the point? Taking Pfleger from the job where he's done so much good prevents him from continuing that good work. And let's face it: the damage to the church is already done.

I'm not saying Pfleger as an individual is what's wrong with the Western church, but he sure makes for a good example. His actions run along the same lines as Jerry Falwell blaming September 11 on the abortionists and homosexuals. Neither one of these situations sound much like Jesus to me.

The truth is that Jesus preached love, not judgment. He preached grace and forgiveness. He modeled ethics and integrity.

Blessed are the peacemakers, Jesus said.

But why should non-believers want to explore a church that publicly disparages political figures, that blows up abortion clinics, that blames homosexuals for acts of terrorism, that supports the killing of children in Iraq, that molests children, that embezzles money?

Why should broken, hurting, lost people who are craving unconditional love, forgiveness, healing, community and truth think they will find what they need in the church?

The truth is that they can find all of this in the church. It just doesn't always look like it. As always, the bottom line in any American industry is the almighty dollar, and the media is no different. Sex sells. Scandal sells. Violence sells. (This is why I didn't go into professional journalism.)

I suppose the answer is that I have to be the church. In my relationships with non-believers, I have the opportunity to break down the image of the church as judgmental and unloving, and remake it in Christ's image, as it was meant to be, for the people I'm reaching out to. I must love as Christ commanded, teach as He taught, walk as He walked, to the best of my ability.

That's a lot of pressure for this very broken, very imperfect, often hypocritical disciple. Shoot, it's a lot of pressure for a church made up of very broken, very imperfect, often hypocritical disciples.

The truth is that in spite of the influence of the American media, in spite of research that shows people do not want to be part of the church because of its media image, there is hope. Father Michael Pfleger is not the church. Jerry Falwell was not the church. The anti-abortion extremist groups are not the church. It is ordinary people who love Jesus and want everyone they meet to know the boundless depths of God's grace through the cross who are the church, who must be the church.

Evangelism, says Willow Creek pastor Bill Hybels, happens best through relationships - through ordinary, genuine, committed friendships wherein ordinary, broken, imperfect Christians earn the trust and respect of non-believers in ordinary relational ways, and then, because they have earned genuine credibility, and because they want their friends to experience the love and grace they themselves know, share their faith in authentic ways.

Saturday, May 10, 2008


Last summer, while visiting relatives near Traverse City, Michigan, I spent an afternoon with my younger brother and sister at Memorial Park, a small, serene beach in the village of Elk Rapids on the East Arm of Grand Traverse Bay. They romped in the uncustomarily warm water for hours as I lay in the sand, simultaneously warmed by the late June sun and chilled by the breeze off the bay. The images of that afternoon stand out in my memory. The sun sparkling on the water, waves crested with foam as they crashed onto the beach, made everything seem blue and gold and irridescent. And on the beach, a few hundred yards from where I lay, was an unusual sight. Alone at the end of a narrow peninsula of sand jutting out into the water, stood a chuppah.

It appeared to be a simple thing constructed of four poles, a white sheet of cloth stretched between them. The cloth fluttered in the wind, its whiteness rendered even brighter by the sunlight. It looked empty and abandoned, yet beautiful in its pristine simplicity, serene in its lonely setting. I was mystified by its presence, for there was no one around. My mind flooded with questions I could not answer. Was it there for a wedding? Had the wedding already occurred, or would it take place sometime that day or the next, perhaps? Who might be getting married under it? Were they Jewish?

Finally, unwilling to look from afar any longer, I got up and, calling to my siblings to stay where they could see me, walked down the beach and out onto the narrow peninsula to where the chuppah swayed in the wind.

It was exactly what it had appeared to be from a distance - a simple white cloth stretched above four wooden poles shoved deep into the sand. It was just large enough to shelter two people. I stood beneath it, contemplating its significance.

Not being Jewish, not having grown up around anyone who was Jewish, and never having attended a Jewish wedding, I first encountered a chuppah at some point during my college years in - of all things - an issue of Martha Stewart Weddings magazine. I remember the article pretty vividly - it was the profile of a young Jewish couple in New York City. I recall being charmed by the black-and-white photo of the couple standing beneath a simple white chuppah while a rabbi led them through their marriage vows. But I had no idea, at that time, what the chuppah represented.

In Chapter Seven of his book Sex God, entitled "Under the Chuppah," Rob Bell explains that the practice of using a chuppah as part of Jewish weddings can be traced back to the Book of Exodus, when God hovered over His people in a cloud, leading the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert of Sinai. Most significantly, the chuppah is reminiscent of the giving of the Ten Commandments through Moses, when God promises the Israelites, "Now if you obey me fully and keep my covenant, then out of all nations you will be my treasured possessions" (Exodus 19:5). The Hebrew word for God's presence is shekinah, and the chuppah, suspended over a couple during the pronouncement of their marriage vows, is a reminder of the cloud shekinah of God, of the vows He made to Israel. Later, Jews began to use a prayer shawl stretched between four poles as a symbol of the seriousness of the marriage covenant.

The chuppah is a sacred thing. It creates a sacred space, a space for just two people, who have chosen each other out of all the other people in the world. The chuppah represents commitment. It represents the sacredness of intimacy in marriage. It represents faith and trust and the submission of our autonomy in exchange for something God designed to be infinitely better. It represents all the reasons for which God created Eve. It represents the end of Adam's loneliness.

Even more striking, the chuppah could perhaps be seen as a representation of the greatest of all unions - humanity's with Jesus Christ. After all, Jesus claimed to have come to fulfill the Law of Moses. The chuppah is a representation of the convenant between God and Israel through that Law. The progression and connection seem clear.

On top of that, Jesus frequently compared his relationship with his church to a marriage.

There was something sacred about standing under the chuppah on that lonely beach, Lake Michigan's waters sparkling in the sun, the laughter of children echoing on the breeze. I remember looking up at the white cloth over my head and feeling sheltered in some way I couldn't explain at the time. Now that I know a little more about the significance of the chuppah, that feeling makes sense.

Bell writes, "It's a chuppah, but maybe it's more than a chuppah."

I say there's no maybe about it. The chuppah is far more than a piece of cloth suspended between two poles.

It is God's promise to love us, a promise made milleniums ago and fulfilled milleniums later when Jesus died on the cross for the world. For me. For you.

When I get married, it will be because I've found a man who gets this truth as deeply as I do, and who considers marriage to be a covenant that mirrors God's promise to us. Eternal. Unbreakable. Sacrificial. Nothing less is acceptable. Nothing less is truly holy.

And perhaps, at our wedding, we might stand under a chuppah.

Saturday, April 26, 2008

Beans and Rice, Rice and Beans

I just finished a week of subsisting on beans and rice. Or was that rice and beans I was eating? Po-tay-to, po-tah-to. However you choose to word it, I don't want to see it again for a long, long time.

My choice to forego my usual vegetarian diet of fresh, organic (read: expensive) foods was part of an act of solidarity with my church congregation (several thousand people all over Chicagoland eating nothing but rice and beans for five days - whoa). The point of the rice and beans was to spend five days eating as the Third World eats, to come alongside the poorest third of the earth's population and understand their forcibly limited diet. The point was to understand what famine feels like.

I didn't think five days of rice and beans would be that bad, and it wasn't, really. I wasn't suffering in any way, after all. As a vegetarian, the lack of meat didn't impact me the way I'm sure it did all the carnivores in the congregation. But I did feel hungry. Portions were small - about one cup of food at each meal. That's not a lot - our stomachs can hold about a pint, which is twice that much, and most of us (this is America) eat to an overfull state at meals. My tummy grumbled quite often. And I definitely felt reduced energy - I managed only one run all week, and it was a short one.

Besides being hungry, I was quickly tired of the lack of variety. I'm a fruit lover, and I eat three or more fresh fruits a day. I have never been as glad to see a banana as I was the morning after the famine ended. But one thing in particular stuck in my mind: all throughout those five days, I was aware that there was an end to my famine, and that it was not far off. I had a goal to reach - a place to get to in order for the hunger and the monotony to stop. The poor don't have that opportunity. There are no bananas waiting for them on Saturday morning.

As members of the top 10% wealthiest population, we have so many choices. We choose where to live, what to wear, what to watch on TV (for that matter, we are able to choose to watch TV in the first place), what to listen to on our iPods, whose calls to answer, whether or not to respond to that email. And we choose what to eat.

Every morning, I open cupboards and fridge and decide what to have for breakfast. The Third World eats rice and beans. I choose what to put in my lunch bag. The Third World eats rice and beans. I choose to cook dinner or to go out to dinner. The Third World eats rice and beans.

I have a balanced diet of protein and whole grains, fruits and vegetables and healthy fats. I am able to take vitamins and drink at least 64 ounces of safe, clean water every day. I have access to organic produce and every kind of ethnic food I could possibly want. I am so blessed.

The poor feel blessed just to get three small meals a day. I am annoyed if I forget my afternoon snack. The poor feel blessed to have their rice and beans. Eating the same thing for five days made me crazy.

What does this say about me?

It says that I am privileged and used to it. It says I am spoiled. It says I am conditioned to expect things to be a certain way, and to feel irritated when my expectations are not met. It says I am, unfortunately, a product of my culture whether I like it or not. It says I have a long way to go to shed my very American entitlement issues.

It also says that I need to remember to appreciate the abundant variety of foods to which I have access daily. It says I need to remember to be grateful every time I feel full.

Monday, April 14, 2008

A Year of Need Versus Want

I've made a rather monumental decision in the interests of financial freedom and self-discipline. For one calendar year, I'm committing to not purchase anything I don't need. This means no new clothes, more than likely (with the exception of a new pair of running shoes when my current pair has accumulated 500 miles). It means no more kitsch for my apartment. It means no DVDs, no CDs, no books that are not purely educational. It means not going crazy at the grocery store and buying way more than I can possibly consume in a week's time, but establishing a budget and sticking to it. It means downsizing the amount I spend on socializing - foregoing dinner out in favor of coffee, for example.

It means no recreational shopping. Argh. This is not going to be easy.

My decision was prompted by a few things. For one, my budget has been a little tight lately, and I know it's possible to ease that. I need to be taking better stock of my resources and paying more attention to my cash flow. I'd really like to be saving more money than I currently do. With my income tax return due to arrive in my bank account any day, I will be in good shape - that money will enable me to get some things in order that have been out of order. But I'd like to be in even better shape. The Bible counsels against debt, and I'd like to get rid of mine, student loans included. It would feel so great to be debt-free. If I had no debt, I could do anything, go anywhere. Nothing would hold me back. I like that idea. I also like the idea of having more savings set aside, so that in the case of an emergency, I don't have to go into debt again, to anyone, even my family.

I've struggled to fully surrender my finances to God for a long time, but haven't been able to do it. I don't know why, but I woke up the other day suddenly ready for the free fall into reckless trust with my money - maybe it's the intensity of my recent journey back to Christ and the sense that it is time to surrender all the areas of my life I never have before; maybe it's the desire for total freedom from control. After all, if I give my money over to God's care and start thinking of myself as just the recipient of a gift, or a simple steward and not the "owner" of my financial resources, then I am responsible in a much different capacity. I have to answer to God, rather than to my broken self (and my broken self is very good at making flawed decisions, especially about money). Anyway, it's funny how we can resist God's call for years sometimes and then we just wake up one day convicted and everything looks different, and there's no rational explanation for it. I think that is often how we know it's Him working in our lives.

Last Saturday morning, the day I awoke feeling so charged up, I went to Target to pick up a few household items. Target can be dangerous for me. I tend to fill the cart with all kinds of stuff I don't need - clothes, accessories, shoes, DVDs, books, CDS, you name it. This week, though, I stuck to my list. I left the store with nothing more than what I'd come to buy - some toothpaste, a bottle of hairspray, shower gel, a pack of toilet paper and some gum. It felt good. I felt self-disciplined and in control (in a surrendered way, if that makes any sense), rather than controlled by the urge to buy, buy, buy. I want to have that feeling more often. The Bible advises us not to store up treasures on earth, but to keep all our treasures in heaven. I get it. Heaven lasts forever. Manolo Blahniks, iPods and Xboxes don't.

I was explaining my decision to a friend, and she challenged me on it, saying I was trying to be too in control and didn't I think that was unhealthy? She just didn't get it. I'm reading Rob Bell's second book, Sex God, and he sums it up well, writing, "Freedom isn't being able to have whatever we crave. Freedom is going without whatever we crave and being fine with it."

I think this kind of freedom is why God doesn't want us to be in debt - He doesn't want us to be controlled by something as earthly and as corruptible/corrupting as money. Financial freedom gives Him freedom to do amazing things in our lives. Financial debt not only hinders us, it hinders Him and His ability to send us to new places, to give us new callings.

I also want to be in a position to be more generous. I want to give more freely to ministries and charities I view as worthwhile and as making a positive impact in the world. I want to increase my pitiful tithe to a full 10% of my gross income, and then give on top of that when the opportunity arises. God calls us to care for the poor, the sick, and the oppressed. There was nothing Christ emphasized more, other than loving God.

The other day when I was driving home from work (just a few days after my pivotal shopping experience at Target), I was thinking about my car and how many miles it has accumulated in the short three years that I've owned it, and I found myself wishing I had a new car. Then, out of the blue, it hit me how selfish, materialistic, and unreasonable that desire was - and how much a product of my culture. As Rob Bell writes in
Sex God, craving what we don't have is lust. "Lust often starts with a thought somewhere in our head or heart: 'If I had that/him/her/it, I'd be...'" We are constantly confronted with the message that we need to have the latest new "thing," that we need to keep things new, and that buying will keep us young, beautiful and happy, that acquiring what we don't have will fulfill us, complete us. I know this cultural mentality is a lie, but it's difficult to resist. I buy in sometimes without even realizing it's happening - it just seeps in. This time, I gave myself a mental slap on the hand. Your car is fine, I told myself. Besides, it's not even your car - it's the car God has provided for you, and it's more than good enough.

enough. Enough. That word raised a question for me: what is enough? Most residents of the U.S. are among the top 10% of the wealthiest people in the world. I am in that category. I have a nice apartment. I get three very good, usually organic, meals a day. I have nice stuff - way more than I need. I have a college education and a job that enables me to feed, clothe and shelter myself without anyone's help. That's pretty profound, considering the state of most of the rest of the world.

So what is enough? For some people, one bowl of food a day is enough. For others, a safe place to sleep at night is enough. In light of this, having my needs met is more than enough, and restraining myself from indulging my frivolous material wants looks like a good practice to put in place.

Coincidentally, my church is launching an event this weekend called "Celebration of Hope." For the next several weeks, we are being challenged to actively raise our own awareness and understanding of world hunger and take action to help alleviate it. Events include reducing consumption (translation = spend less $$) and contributing the money we might have spent to help starving people, helping pack 3.5 million meals to feed 10,000 children in Zimbabwe for a year, a fair trade market weekend to encourage increased understanding of fair trade and microenterprise and the difference they make in Third World communites, and a five-day famine during which participants consume a limited diet in order to understand what most people in the world live on. After all, as Atticus Finch says in Harper Lee's
To Kill a Mockingbird, "You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them." I'm going to participate in all the Celebration of Hope activities, but when it's over, I'm going to keep on limiting my consumption. Celebration of Hope is just a good jumping-off point.

It's going to take some practice, I admit. I'm going to have to be mindful everywhere I go, from restaurants to the grocery store, Target and the mall. I'm certain to falter at some point, and I know there are going to be occasions, like my annual girls' shopping weekend in July, that are going to stretch me. Maybe I need to process what to do in those times, and make some kind of reasonable provision for them. It definitely warrants more consideration. I do know that I am going to need to be able to give myself grace from time to time, but not to allow grace to encourage me to lose ground, as with any challenge. No permission to fail just because permission is available, so-to-speak.

A year of need versus want. I wonder what my life, my soul, and my bank account will look like a year from now. I wonder if I will have made a greater contribution to the world. I will say this: I already feel a greater sense of freedom. And that alone is
enough for me.

*Side note: a GREAT book to read to learn more about hunger, poverty, and solutions like fair trade and microenterprise is
Hope's Edge: the Next Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappe and Anna Lappe. Also check out The End of Poverty by Jeffrey Sachs.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Brickianity v. Trampolinianity

I love Rob Bell. Well, I don't mean I actually love Rob Bell, but I, you know, "love" Rob Bell, or rather, I love his writing. Who is Rob Bell? Some people seem to think he's the greatest reformer of the Christian faith since Martin Luther (although I doubt Rob would call himself that). Some people seem to think he's a threat to traditional Christianity and the "established" church (and he just might be, but that just might be a good thing). I think he's cool because he's not afraid to ask tough questions, and because he makes me think outside the theological box.

Bell is the enigmatic pastor (I can label him "enigmatic" because I've seen him teach, and I am therefore allowed the use of such adjectives) of Mars Hill Church in Grandville, Michigan. He's also the creator of a series of superhip video shorts on the Christian life called NOOMA, and the author of a couple of books.

I read Rob Bell because he makes me think hard. He causes me to question my existance, to seek clarity about the tenets of my faith, to humger for greater understanding of the character of God. Right now, I'm reading his first book, Velvet Elvis. And let me just say, it is so velvet, and so Elvis, if that makes any sense.

Velvet Elvis is like drinking a pitcher of red Kool-Aid on a really hot, humid day - you want to gulp and gulp and gulp because you are just that darn thirsty and now you want to go jump in the neighbor's swimming pool, or off the end of Navy Pier into Lake Michigan, fully clothed, because it's so hot out and you drank all the Kool-Aid, and there really wasn't enough of it to satiate you. Yeah, that pretty much sums up how I feel about Rob Bell and Velvet Elvis. Except that since I'm only on the fourth chapter, I still have a lot of Kool-Aid left to drink. But enough of the Kool-Aid metaphor. Let's move on to brick walls and trampoline springs...

Rob theorizes that some people's faith is built like a brick wall, with each piece of doctrine a hard, angular brick fitting into its exact space in the structure of the wall. These people believe in what he refers to as "Brickianity" (nice play on "Christianity," don't you think?). If a piece of a brick wall believer's doctrine is removed, or comes into question, then the integrity of the whole wall is threatened. The problem with Brickianity is that it's hard to invite other people to share in your wall. You're asking them to agree with the scope and placement of every individual brick in order to be vested in the wall at all. And if they don't - if they see things just a little differently from you, which is bound to happen - then the wall doesn't work for them. The people you meet who are seeking to encounter Christ are not looking for a faith that functions like a brick wall.

Rob basically says that Brickianity isn't effective, and I'm inclined to agree. Jesus isn't a brick wall, for one thing. For another, the church can't thrive as a brick wall - the need for interpretation and application of the scriptures, the history of the church and theologians' disagreements about these things, the subsequent fragmentation of the church (if not for the need for flexibility, we would all still be one church, and not divided into denominations), all support this. I won't get any deeper into a refutation of Brickianity - Rob does a much better job than I possibly could, and anyway, he's already covered it in Velvet Elvis. So get the book if you want to know more of what he says about it. Now, let's consider his other idea: trampoline springs.

According to Rob, faith needs to be more like the springs on a trampoline (refer to Velvet Elvis for a full explanation). Our beliefs should be flexible in some ways. Obviously, there are some things that should be beyond question - the basics, like God's existence - but the interpretation and application of the scriptures need to be flexible in order to be viable in our culture. Our faith should be like a trampoline on which we bounce - and on which we can invite others to jump with us, with the realization that each jump is unique unto itself, and each person's experience on the trampoline will have its own nuances. This makes more sense to me - Jesus meets people where they're at, after all, and invites each one of us to take our own journey with him. Jesus is far more like a trampoline than a brick wall, I think.

I really like the trampoline idea. I like it because I like jumping on trampolines (my little sister has one, and when I go home, we jump. It's one of my favorite things to do with her) and I like the idea that my faith should feel the way jumping on a trampoline feels - exhilarating and fun and sometimes breathless and sometimes just a little scary when you jump really high or lose your footing for a second. I also like the idea because it's friendly. While inviting someone to sit on a brick wall with you doesn't sound like much fun, inviting someone to jump on your trampoline does.

I definitely don't want to drag around a brick wall. I'd rather spend my life jumping. So I'm at a point of consensus with Rob Bell on this. But I'm left with a very important question:

How do I invite people to jump on my trampoline? For that matter, how do I present my trampoline? Does it really look like a trampoline, or does it look more like a brick wall? Do I make people want to jump with me, or would they rather not? Do I look like I'm loving every minute on my trampoline?

I don't think I'm very good at this part. I'm better at interacting with people who are already on the trampoline. But that's easy - they're already there. And yes, interacting with other jumpers is important - it helps us refine our own jumping techniques. But inviting new jumpers into the adventure is equally important.

To someone who's never jumped on a trampoline, the experience can look risky, even scary. How do I make it look non-threatening? How do I make it look like the amazing thing it is?

I'm going to keep working on the answer to this question. And while I'm working on it, I'm going to keep jumping, and I'm going to focus on keeping my trampoline a trampoline, so that I don't wake up one morning and find it's turned into a brick wall.