I admit it: I’m a life-long church attendee. There, I said it. It feels better to get that off my chest. One of my greatest blessings in life is that I married someone who was NOT a life-long church attendee. This is a wonderful asset because often times I, like so many others in the church, get caught up using my church lingo and I simply assume everyone knows what I’m talking about. My wife is gracious enough to remind me that not everyone has such a working knowledge of “churchy terms.”
This makes me wonder: how guilty are we all in the Church for doing this? How often do we fail to remember that not everyone who might visit our churches will understand what we’re doing in the context of worship? How often do we use catch phrases and sound bytes to describe the Christian faith to other people? How often do we resort to using our own “churchy terms” as a means of trying to explain very large and complex issues of life?
There are a lot of rhetorical terms we use in the our churches and faith circles that I think we should really consider what they mean sometimes. Sure, we can talk about trials and tribulations in poetic terms by claiming that “we all bear our own crosses.” Besides the fact that such an analogy misses the point of Jesus’ words altogether, what does that even mean? We love talking about things like “transformation” in our preaching and teaching. But what does that even look like? How about being “Christlike” or “a disciple?” My point is not to argue that we shouldn’t use these terms. I would hope we would use them often. But using these terms simply as rhetorical devices in hopes of stirring people’s emotions or in offering simplistic answers is, in the end, a dependence on very empty words.
There’s a poignant scene in an episode of the show The West Wing. The President is preparing to debate a challenger who has built a reputation on 12-word responses. The episode shows the President’s aides racking their brains to find their own 12-word response that he could use during the debate. As the debate unfolds, there is a moment where the President’s challenger uses a great sound byte in reference to tax reform-much to the chagrin of the President’s staffers who could never come up with one of their own. After a moment of reflection, the President begins to tell the truth about the emptiness of sound-byte thinking. “What are the next 12 words? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Tell me what the next 12 words are. How would you fix it?”
“Saved by grace through faith”-how does that work? “Making disciples for a Christlike world”-how? What exactly does a disciple look like? What does a Christlike world look like? “Following Jesus”-what does that mean? How does it look to follow Jesus? You see, this is the difference between observance and practice. Faith is not faith if it’s something we merely observe and agree with. We have to press that faith and all of the cliches that come with it. Faith must, over time, transform us into something different than we were before we encountered it. Terms like forgiveness, love, sacrifice, justice, and hospitality mean nothing unless we demand nothing less than to experience them in practice. I guess you could say that maybe those of us in the Church should worry a little less about “talking the talk,” and worry a little more about how we actually equip one another to “walk the walk.”
I recently saw one of my favorite movies on TV the other night-A Time to Kill. It stars Matthew McConaughey as the bright, young attorney who defends Carl Lee Haley, played by Samuel L. Jackson, as he faces trial for killing two men who raped his daughter.
There’s a wonderfully poignant gut-check that happens toward the end of the movie. Just when the bright attorney, Jake, realizes that he’s out of legal options to get Carl Lee acquitted for the crime, and he’s at the jail explaining this to Carl Lee, he gets a good dose of reality from Carl Lee in return. “Don’t you see, Jake? You’re one of them. That’s why I got you to defend me. If I have any chance against all of them I need someone who’s one of them to help me.” Carl Lee goes on to say, “You’re one of the bad guys. You don’t mean to be, it’s just how you were raised. I’ll never be just a man to you. I’ll always be a black man.” Jake tries to protest, “we’re friends Carl Lee.” “We ain’t friends, Jake. You may eat in black restaraunts but I’ve never seen you in my part of town. Our daughters don’t play together.”
And who can forget that gripping closing argument Jake gives after his encounter with Carl Lee? He vividly recounts the rape of Carl Lee’s daughter as the jury and everyone in the courtroom closes their eyes to visualize it. As he goes through the painfullly graphic details you can see the tears begin to flow down the cheeks of many of the listeners. And then, Jake turns it on them, “…can you see her? Now imagine that she’s white.” And with that, mouths fall open. The conscience of the people were exposed live and in living color in that courtroom. All of the supposedly hidden prejudice is just left out in the open for all to see.
The movie ends with Jake’s transformation culminating in his surprising Carl Lee and his wife by bringing his family to a celebration cookout Carl Lee and his family were having in light of his acquittal. The wives greet one another and the two daughters are introuduced. And we’re left with Jake’s words, “I thought out daughters could play together.”
These scenes depict a rich and often overlooked aspect of what it means to live and love in a faith community. So often, our communities of faith are homogenous bodies where everyone looks, talks, acts, and dresses just alike. We’re so good at matching new people up with others who we think would “fit” with them. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s actually a wildly successful way of growing communities.
What we often fail to recognize is the negative by-product of such a successful community building project. The realities of our world is that homogenous communities can’t sustain themselves. Life requires that we all have to encounter people who are vastly different from us. That’s why truly vibrant communities consist of people who are not always alike. This doesn’t have to simply boil down to race or social class. It can include belief, background, values, or anything else that makes us different. Community building cannot simply seek to build a community of identical clones. It must also go further than merely recognizing that we’re different. What makes a community truly vibrant, is when members of the community can somehow, by the grace of God, see themselves in the faces and lives of those who are strikingly different from them-”the other.” When this happens, we’re able to open our lives and learn to love all people just as God loves us. This the truest test of our humanity. Strike that. It’s actually the truest test of our faithfulness to God.
Like many, I was horrified to learn of the tragedy that happened in Arizona this past weekend when a Congresswoman, along with a handful of others, was shot at a political event. This horrific event seems to have been the work of a man that lacked the cognitive abilities to discern right from wrong. This is a nice way of saying that the man seems to have been mentally/emotionally ill. Nonetheless, his actions were terribly wrong. And now we seek to know why.
It didn’t take long for pundits to seize upon the opportunity to assign blame for such a terrible tragedy. It’s interesting how when political points are up for grabs, blame for tragedy is levied before details can even be sorted out. At the same time, to simply write off this terrible event as “just the work of a crazy person” would shortchange the opportunity we have to look deep within the soul and psyche of the American culture.
When did violence become such an accepted part of our society? I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t find some sort of violence to enjoy in my life. I grew up loving GI Joes and Professional Wrestling. Both of these captivate the imagination by creating story lines of good vs. evil. What we often miss is that it’s just accepted that violence is the only means of behavior in these settings. Children are taught that if someone picks on you, you pick back. I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard, “I don’t care if you get in trouble, you don’t let them push you around” from parents. I grew up playing with toy guns and idolized heros in movies whose vigilante violence endeared them to everyone who came in contact with them. I’m of the first true generation to have come up during the video game evolution and one doesn’t have to go very far to find the popularity of violent games.
Our political landscape is riddled with violent rhetoric. In the age of 24-hour cable news, violent rhetoric has now been adopted by personalities who choose not to broadcast news, but would rather build a following of support for whatever cause or agenda they’re pushing.
I don’t blame the Tea Party or Sarah Palin for what happened Saturday. I don’t blame Glenn Beck or Rush Limbaugh. I don’t even blame CNN, Fox News, or MSNBC. What happened Saturday reveals a condition much deeper than any of these could ever be solely responsible for. At the end of the day, the only people we have to blame for violence erupting, no matter how isolated, is US. We have, for too long, accepted violence as a normal part of our everyday life. Christianity isn’t even absolved from contribution to such a condition. Much of our historical agenda has been centered around a “battle of good and evil.” One could argue that our faith offers the first story as such of substantial impact on the world. For too long we have admired might and power as virtues that exemplify what is considered good in our world.
Saturday is not the fault of one isolated man. It’s not the fault of a few political pundits who wish to score political points. No, it’s the fault of all of us. You see, this man may have been mentally ill-but our society taught him the language and means by which he carried out his insane actions. Only when we stop admiring violence as the only means of justice will we ever have a hope of ridding ourselves of such insane acts. Now is not the time to simply speak out against “them” in response to this tragedy. Now, more than ever, is the time to preach and teach and proclaim the story of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace.
Try to guess what I’m talking about: It’s become everyone’s guilty pleasure. It’s that one place you go when you don’t feel like working or paying attention and you just want to see what’s going on in the world. It’s become one of the biggest time-wasters in life and yet, it’s also become the one of the first places where we share and announce life events. Relationships are no longer “official” until they are announced here. Acquaintances and friendships are not legitimized until they are “official” here. Job interviews can be ruined if too much information is exposed here. Give up yet? The answer is: Facebook.
With over 500 million people projected to be signed up, the website would be the 3rd largest country in the world. Last month, TIME Magazine named Mark Zuckerberg, the founder of Facebook, as the TIME Magazine Person of the Year. Now we can probably have a good debate on the actual value of Facebook in the world. Many nay-sayers claim it to feed our narcissism, waste our time, and teach us that superficial connections are the only ones that matter in life. This isn’t entirely untrue. In fact, much of Facebook is just that. On the other hand, it’s one example of the new reality we face of how society operates. So I’m going to go ahead and show my cards by saying that I believe Facebook to be not only of great value to our society, but also a source of inspiration for the Church and how it attempts to exist in a changing world.
TIME’s Editor, Richard Stengal, wrote a great essay on the meaning behind Facebook and what is exposes about our society. Stengal argues that we live in a world where people don’t trust authority or institutions like we once did. It used to be that blind loyalty was a trademark of institutions like the Church. We went to church because our parents went to church and because their parents went to church. It doesn’t take an expert on church trends to see that such a line of thinking is about as out-of-date as 8-Track Players and typewriters. Folks no longer go to church out of some sort of “cultural obligation” or sense of loyalty.
So what does that mean for those of us who still believe in the Church? For starters, it means we have to look to places like Facebook for insight. Stengal would go on to write that despite the great sense of doubt and mistrust of those authorities and institutions we historically turned to, Facebook shows us that there’s one place we still trust and will turn to: each other. We go to a lot of trouble in our churches searching for that next great program or ministry. We try to nuance what we do by putting in rock bands or catchy program names or whatever else might make us seem relevant. All the while, we miss the fundamental need people have. At the end of the day, people just want to connect with other people.
It’s through the authentic connection and community building that people will experience the love and grace of the Living God. People are hungry for the connection-not our programs. What makes people find a place in our churches boils down to how willing we (in the church) are to love and accept all people no matter what. After all, that’s how God looks at each and every one of us.
And to think, it took a Harvard dropout like Mark Zuckerberg to help show us in our 21st Century language what Jesus meant when he said, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34-35)