Christianity

...now browsing by category

 

Christianity is not the American Dream

Sunday, January 7th, 2018

I grew up as a pastor’s daughter, an identity that I largely shook when I left home at 18, but which played an undeniable role in my formation. In getting to know other pastor’s kids (PKs) over the years, I’ve found some common threads in our experiences; for example, the pressure of visibility, unfair expectations from certain members of the church community, the learned ability to be whoever we needed to be for the given person in front of us, and stealing the leftover communion bread to wolf down in the fellowship hall (privilege negates sacrilege).

Some PKs seem to resent their upbringing, but for the most part, I enjoyed mine. While nowhere in the bible, my marching orders seemed clear: follow the rules and Jesus will love you — or was it Jesus loves you, so you’d better follow the rules? Either way, for this natural rule follower, it all seemed reasonable enough.

Church felt safe to me because I was good at it. I felt at home in Sunday School and church musicals and youth group and worship teams, and always knew I had a big group of people who loved me and were rooting for me. I had the answers to the questions, and prayed fervently over life’s most dire concerns: algebra tests and my future husband. After leaving my hometown to study music at a Christian college, I went to work full-time at a large Presbyterian church. For the first 25 years of my life, I coasted on what was largely an inherited faith — one that served me well as long as I stuck with like-minded people, followed the rules, and did everything right.

In other words, it was only a matter of time.

The past ten years have been a process of disintegration as I began to discover that the “faith” of my upbringing was largely circumstantial and hardly personal. Not only could I not keep up with “the rules,” I realized that I didn’t want to — because as it turned out, no amount of rule following prevented babies from dying or parents from divorcing or bodies from breaking or hearts from shattering. For all I had given God — that is, my deeds, my schedule, my proclamations — how dare he not come through on his end of the bargain? The bargain being, you know, keeping me and everyone I love safe and happy and comfortable. THAT’S THE DEAL, God.

As it turns out, that’s not the deal.

More and more, I’m coming to believe that this is the deal, the only deal: God wants us just as we are, not as we should be, and that we are called to be like Jesus. And if you know anything about the life of Jesus, this means taking our battered and broken down selves and scrapping our reputation in favor of loving the unlovable, welcoming the outsiders and outcasts, sacrificing on behalf of others, forgiving without condition, and suffering. There will be suffering.

In western culture, Christianity has long been sold as a happy, therapeutic path to self-actualization: love God, be a good person, and he’ll give you a great life. But Christianity is not the American Dream. At the risk of being a total killjoy, the true nature of Christianity is costly: join Jesus, give your life away, and die.

Surely this definition would dissuade many from faith. But if churches were more honest about the true path of following Jesus, I wonder if Christians would have a healthier, more realistic view of what it is that we’re actually buying into. I wonder if we wouldn’t feel so entitled to a cute, happy life, and indignant when we don’t get it. I wonder if we’d be more willing to give ourselves away, seeing as how we’re following a man who willingly walked to a brutal death on a cross.

The thought scares me, because who actually wants to live a life marked by selflessness? Here, I’ll go first: I DON’T. I generally prefer a quid pro quo sort of God, one who will reward my faithfulness with recognition and bounty; it’s only fair. And as we’ve already established, I’m amazing at “the rules” — so this kind of arrangement would work out pretty well for me.

But Jesus takes “the rules” and throws them out the window, because he values relationship over transaction. As such, the Christian life is full of paradoxes:

What if death isn’t what we assume? What if death is the pathway to life — and not just the “die and go to heaven” sort of eternal life, but kingdom come life here and now? What if dying up front sets us free to really live? What if being stripped of all falsehood leaves our truest selves exposed? What if the end is the beginning?

If you’re lucky enough to be in a season of life that feels abundant and beautiful, that is a gift and you absolutely should soak it up. But if you, like me, are a Christian who is looking around at all that is passing away and sometimes thinking, “Wait, I didn’t sign up for this,” be encouraged — because maybe we actually did.

Hope floats (not the movie)

Monday, October 10th, 2011

As one who grew up in the church, I have had moments in the last several years when I have wondered, “Why am I a Christian?”  Is it just because I was raised to believe what I believe – or is there a deeper reason?  Do I have faith on my own, apart from my family and friends and community?  If I was born in another time and place, would the core of what I believe be the same?

These are big questions, especially for someone who has never had much opportunity to separate God from the American Christian church – and I, like many others, have learned that the church is not always the best representation of what the Christian faith is about.

Come to think of it, *I* am not always the best representation of what the Christian faith is about.

Personally, I have struggled with a lot of cynicism and doubt, especially in the last couple of years.  I don’t doubt that there is a God, but I have wondered if he is, indeed, involved in an intimate way in our lives.  Did he create the world, set it spinning, and then just step back?  Does he really love us – not just in a “whole world in his hands” kind of way, but in a deeply personal and specific way?  When the Bible tells us that God says, “I know the plans I have for you,” does it mean that there is, in fact, a PLAN for our lives?  Is God truly in the details?  Does he care if I choose option A or option B?  Does God care, period?

I’m supposedly a grown woman these days, free to live as I please, and no one is making me go to church.  The stable home and family that I had always known has recently crumbled beneath my feet.  While my childhood and college years were spent largely in church-centric settings, I’m out in the “big, bad world” now, surrounded by plenty of kind and intelligent people who would not necessarily align themselves with the Christian faith.  So what is it about this Jesus?

Some days, when life hits me like an avalanche and I’m pummeled by rocks and snow, left jarred and confused and not sure which way is up, I can be at a loss for answers.

But in the midst of all of my questions, here is what I know.

Regardless of what I believe, or what you believe, or what anyone believes, humans ask the eternal sorts of questions.  Where did I come from, and where am I going?  What is my purpose?  What is good and what is evil?  What will happen to me after I die?  All of us have wondered these things – they are the deep and primal questions of the soul.  Why would we long for answers if there wasn’t a supreme truth?  This makes me trust that there is a God, and that there is an ultimate answer – and that even if the details might be fuzzy and confusing now, I believe that one day we will see the truth clearly.

When I think of my own path, and how many times I have been tempted to give up hope – for little specific things, or in an overarching way – the moment hope returns is nothing short of a miracle.  I mean it – it’s a miracle.  It’s not by my own doing – I cannot will the hope back – it’s not the “triumph of my human spirit” (because trust me, my human spirit isn’t that strong – currently, it’s shriveled up and ugly, like newborn Benjamin Button).

But hope just keeps coming back.  I can’t shake it.  And every time it returns, I think that there must be a God who loves me, Annie – and maybe he even has a plan for my life.  Maybe he’s somehow steering the course, despite my anger and doubt and fear, and all of the times that I’ve thumbed my nose at him.  Maybe I don’t have to believe that “everything happens for a reason,” but maybe I can get behind the idea that “nothing is ever wasted.”  Maybe there is a purpose and a design to the apparent chaos of my current world – maybe it’s actually getting me where I’m supposed to be.

Maybe it’s less about “being a Christian,” and more about knowing Jesus.

I may not have all of the answers, or see the truth clearly.  I know that many who read this don’t believe the same things that I do – and I’m not going to try to convince anyone of anything.  This blog is not a tent revival (yelling and sweat have never really been my thing).  But in the words of Frederick Buechner:

A Christian is one who points at Christ and says, “I can’t prove a thing, but there’s something about his eyes and his voice.  There’s something about the way he carries his head, his hands, the way he carries his cross – the way he carries me.”

That’s all I know.

Again: "Distract me from myself"

Wednesday, August 20th, 2008

I recently ran across Paul Bradshaw’s 2006 interview with Rick Warren, the best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life” and a pastor at Saddleback Church in Orange County. Typically, I’m very suspicious of the Christian “it” celebrities and their latest-and-greatest books – or, as my dad calls it, “pablum” (fantastic word – if you don’t know it, look it up… and then use it in a sentence). But I have to admit that I have a hard time finding a whole lot of fault with Rick Warren. There is much to respect about the man, including his role as facilitator for last weekend’s interviews with Barack Obama and John McCain.

Much of what Warren said in this interview from 2 years ago jumped out at me. I think you should read it – I think everyone should read it. Here’s an excerpt:

Life is a series of problems: either you are in one now, you’re just coming out of one, or you’re getting ready to go into another one. The reason for this is that God is more interested in your character than your comfort. God is more interested in making your life holy than he is in making your life happy. We can be reasonably happy here on earth, but that’s not the goal of life: the goal is to grow in character, in Christ-likeness.

I used to think that life was hills and valleys – you go through a dark time, then you got to the mountaintop, back and forth. I don’t believe that anymore. Rather than life being hills and valleys, I believe that it’s kind of like two rails on a railroad track, and at all times you have something good and something bad in your life. No matter how good things are in your life, there is always something bad that needs to be worked on. And no matter how bad things are in your life, there is always something good you can thank God for.

You can focus on your purposes, or you can focus on your problems. If you focus on your problems, you’re going into self-centeredness, which is “my problem, my issues, my pain.”

But one of the easiest ways to get rid of pain is to get your focus off yourself and onto God and others. (For the entire interview, go here.)

We live in a self-centered culture, and my eyes are being opened more and more every day to my own glaring obsession with myself. I look out for my own well-being, and think about my own needs, and have a journal and a calendar and a prayer life and a thought life and conversations related solely to myself. But if I see the meaning and purpose of life simply “to be happy” or “to enjoy myself,” then I am missing the point.

Life gains significance only when we give ourselves away.

And for a beautiful illustration of this, rent “Bella” and watch it tonight.