Without purpose, but not in vain

What benefit was gained by the shedding of young blood at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown Connecticut? 

This is a question that I have not seen probed much in the news, in blogs, or in various Facebook dialogs since this tragedy.  Naturally our questions have not surrounded the benefits of such a tragedy, because to think of possible benefits seems to be trite, and distasteful.  Instead the primary question being asked is “why?”  That is a good question, a question that many have tried to answer, and every answer seems to fail.  There is Westboro Baptist’s answer that this is the judgment of God, there are other Christian commentators that say this is the result of removal of God from schools.  Still there are others who blame a lack of gun control, while others make the claim that if gun control were more lax we would not have these problems.  Other people, myself included, have pointed to lack of understanding of mental health issues, and the church and society’s unwillingness to come alongside the disturbed to offer them real help.  All of these questions of ‘why’ are appropriate, but none of them offer anything of peace, or give us any sense of hope, or any glimmer of light into the situation.  Of course the seemingly Christian mantra of ‘everything happens for a reason’ is equally void of hope, and Christians ought to be willing, especially in the face of such a tragedy to forgo that worn out line.  In the wake of this tragedy the atheist’s line of thinking tends to gain traction… “If God is good, he must not be all powerful because he has not stopped this, or If God is all powerful, then He certainly is not good because he has allowed (thereby effectively caused) these things to happen.”  I’m not here to defend God, or even to pretend to have a cogent response to that line of thought.  What I desire to come back to is my first question:

“What benefit was gained by the shedding of young blood last week?”

This is a great and a healing question.  It is not a question in which the answer poses ‘the reason’ or ‘purpose’ of this happening, not at all.  It is a question of whether or not these children died in vain.  So as I begin to outline the ‘benefits’ gained by this tragedy, I am NOT saying these benefits are some grand divine purpose for the tragedy in the first place.  In other words, I don’t offer the remainder of this post as words to help us understand the question ‘why?’  The event was senseless.  However what I am posing here is that these children did not die completely in vain.

This past Friday countless children across America received something from their parents that they have not received in a long time.  They received hugs, affirming words of love, glances from their parents that showed that they were indeed deeply cared for.  Parents walked into their homes from work, and for the first time in many weeks even they were happy to see their children.  They dropped their coats and ran to their children and gave them the love they should be giving them every day.  We ought to give thanks to those twenty children for this; their sacrifice (however unwilling) produced a newfound love for children who are starved for it.  Millions of children received long overdue love.  I would not contend that this was worth the price those twenty children paid, but I will say that they did not completely die in vain.

This week countless teachers across this country are looking at their students differently.  Children again are being seen as something of tremendous and sacred worth, not mere pupils for teachers to educate in order to get their paycheck.  Most teachers have always loved their students, but somehow after a tragedy like this we begin to see the true worth of the students given into our care.  As the news of this was being reported I am certain that every elementary teacher in the country began to think about each of their students in ways they had never thought about them before.  Millions of students were seen by their teachers for what they really are.  Again, I would not contend that this was worth the price those kids in Connecticut paid, but will say that they did not completely die in vain.

At the national level we saw corporate weeping, as collectively we were reminded again of the value of life.  Thoughts surrounded around the protection of children, which is odd during this during the Christmas season which is marked more by exploiting the desires of children for a profit.  Flags across the country are at half-staff, churches are joining in praying unified prayers for those affected.  Even the President of the United States has read words of comfort from the scripture to bring comfort to the whole nation.  These are wonderful occurrences.  Certainly these occurrences are not worth the price paid to attain them, but they remind me again that these children did not die completely in vain.

In the midst of all this we were reminded again of what our first responders and our teachers are really all about, we are reminded of valor, and sacrifice.  Of course the price was too high to make it all worth it, but let us at least see that these children did not die completely in vain.

Let me be clear that I do not believe that the ‘reason’ for this event was to reap the above benefits I expressed.  I do not think there is a good ‘reason’ or ‘purpose’ for tragedy, I have no desire to cheapen it all with reasons or purposes.  As far as a cause, that is simple, fallen humanity in a fallen world doing wicked things.  That is what caused this, and it is sad and terrifying.

Yet despite these events being completely senseless, reasonless, and purposeless, the victims and their families at least deserve to know that their children’s death was not in vain.  These families deserve to know that the blood their children shed fertilized the fallow loveless ground of millions of homes.  It doesn’t bring them back, it doesn’t make it worth it, nothing could make it worth it, but the blood wasn’t spilt completely in vain.

While the victims ought to naturally be bitter that the rest of the nation still has their children to love, I hope they will hear the unspoken thanks of all the children who have unexpectedly found themselves loved sincerely by their parents again.  The blood was not spilled completely in vain. 


Is there another way?

In the lead up to yesterday’s election I was fairly vocal that voting third party was an intelligent and influential way to vote.  Needless to say I was greeted by no small amount of criticism for that position.  In hindsight I think we can look more rationally at third party voting than we are really capable of doing during the emotional ramp up to the elections themselves.

First, for a very obvious case where third party voting makes sense; if someone lives in a state that is going to be a landslide victory, and they are voting in opposition to the landslide, then they above all people are biggest vote wasters.  There is no reason for a Californian to vote for a GOP candidate if another candidate offers a platform more congruent with their desires.  That seems obvious.  Of course if all minority party voters in landslide states would take this to heart we would quickly see a rise of a third party, and they would receive enough popular vote to receive federal campaign funding, as well as a like place at the table during the debates.  This goes for red states as well.  If you are a hardcore liberal and live in a red state you are better serving your cause by voting for the most liberal third party candidate that you can.  Remember that popular vote doesn't (and might I add, shouldn't) matter in the election.

The Second case is when you think that your own party absolutely blundered when nominating their candidate.  For instance, say you believed strongly in a much more limited use of military on foreign soil, massive limitations to government, and a truly balanced budget and you were a Republican.  The odds are that you supported someone like Ron Paul in the primary.  You are a prime person to vote third party.  In fact, by voting major party when you fundamentally disagree with the selection that party made, you have given them license to continue selecting those types of candidates.  However, if they continually lose close elections because people like you refuse to support their candidates, then they are forced to rethink their views.

The third case is simply a vote of no confidence.  There is no way in our system to cast a ‘no’ vote.  You can elect to not cast a ballot for any given candidate, but there is only one way to vote ‘against’ both candidates, and that is with a third party vote.  Again the vote of no confidence should not be looked as a mere ‘wasted’ vote.  In fact it is a potentially nation altering vote (especially in a swing state like Ohio where I live.)
Beyond simply having the potential to swing an election, you also have the potential to bring the third party closer to that magical 5% number which gets them in on Federal Campaign Finance money, and a possible seat at the table for the debates.  This is really important.  Now granted we are nowhere close to the 5% number right now with any third party.  However, by clearly articulating the good reasons to vote 3rd party we can push the number closer to that line.  As that % approaches 5, both parties begin to get scared and have to restructure themselves to accommodate you and your views.  So in voting third party you have the potential to fundamentally change a party’s platform, while voting major party you give an endorsement of the party’s current platform.

Now naturally there are some large psychological hurdles you need to get over to be able to vote third party.  I think the tallest of those hurdles is the notion that the future hinges entirely on one particular election.  We hear it every four years “This is the most important election ever”, and with many people, maybe even a majority of people, their vote is cast more out of fear of the opposition than anything else.  There are a number of problems with that; the biggest is that voting out of fear promotes supporting things that are not rational.  When everyone is in fight or flight mode they will do anything for survival, including voting for someone or something that they adamantly oppose.

My suggested plan for moving forward:
1.       Get minority party voters in landslide states to cast 3rd party votes.
2.       Get people who honestly believe their candidate got hosed in the primary to cast 3rd party votes.
3.       Remind people that dispensationalism is wrong and we don’t stand on the cusp of the end of the world with every election cycle.
4.       Get current 3rd party voters to speak rationally and winsomely about why 3rd party voting makes sense at times other than the election cycle.  Clue them in on things to look for during the upcoming elections, and try to get people to solidify their stance on various issues prior to the party’s selection of a candidate.  This lays the ground work for getting them to vote third party once the madness starts.
5.       Finally, if a main party does move their platform because of third party influence, support that main party, and enjoy the fact that your vote really did matter even though it never got close to being for a winning candidate.

Anyone else have thoughts on this?


Make Babies or Open the Border

I suppose in the midst of the political season it would be a great time to post some politically charged idea and see where it leads.  This is a bit of a divergence from what I normally like to do here, but hey, it’s my blog so I’ll give it a whirl.

The topic I want to look at is immigration.  It seems to me that there is an intense fear of immigration among those who are adamant about closing down the borders.  Of course those who support the lock down of the borders will say, “I have nothing against immigration, I am only against ‘illegal’ immigration.”  However in the course of discussion with a majority of these people you will find that they want legal immigration to be a very difficult process, which includes the learning of our language, a better understanding of our government than most 20 year old Americans have, along with countless other regulations that would make immigration nearly impossible for any nominally educated person from south of our borders.  (Let’s be clear that when people talk about securing our borders they are not usually talking about the Canada or our Eastern or Western seaboards.)

Now the arguments against a loose immigration policy are many, and we have heard most of them over and over again.  Many of those arguments have some merit, or are at least grounded in something that resembles truth.  For instance, the people who come across the border will need jobs, and we have limited jobs already.  Or the people who come across the border will force us to provide all sorts of bilingual amenities, signage, etc.  There are a number of arguments that make sense at face value.  Of course there are other arguments that seem to me to be a bit petty.  “You know if we let them come in, we will quickly become the minority.”  (“We” meaning people of European decent.)  God forbid our society becomes a shade darker over the next 100 years.

It seems to me that people who are in favor of a looser immigration policy have done an absolutely horrible job of expressing to the general public the great value of a looser policy.  Usually their arguments surround around the simple fact that immigration will actually be easier to control if there is less incentive to do it illegally.  There is some validity to that argument, but it doesn’t even begin to touch upon the real value of a looser immigration policy.

Here is why I am for loosening up our borders.  The first thing we must realize is that our entire society is essentially a pyramid scheme that relies on population growth to sustain it.  Social Security, Medicare, Pension Plans, our very economy itself, is dependent on a growth of consumption.  If the economy is not growing, it dies, period.   Couple that reality with the birth rate continuing to drop, and the age at which people begin to have children continuing to go up, and the reality that our whole system is in a precarious state becomes obvious.  Loosened immigration allows for the population growth that we are not achieving with our own birthrate.  As you read this do not underestimate the importance of this simple factor.  Regardless of how conservative or liberal your politics may be, the economy cannot sustain a decline in population.

The other big thing to realize is that an immigrant comes in with virtually nothing, and in most cases a legal immigrant catches on to the American dream relatively fast.  This means that they need shelter, which means the production of homes and apartment complexes needs to occur.  They need places of worship, requiring the construction of Churches.  They need transportation, which necessitates the building of cars. (The list could go on and on.)  The very needs that an immigrant has are an asset to our economy.  It is no different than the birth of child in the sense that it adds another consumer to the economy.  With an aging population that is not replacing itself there is a desperate need of consumers to keep the economy thriving.  It’s not hard to get your mind around this.  If you work in a clothing shop you want customers who need clothes, not those who simply browse, if you are a realtor you want people who need houses not just nosey neighbors who drop in at an open house.  If you operate a grocery store you hope that people with an empty pantry at home will stop in.  It just makes sense.  The greatest contributors to any economy are people who have little who are working their tails off to obtain more.  That is exactly what the immigrating populace by and large is.  The caricature of immigrants being people who merely come across the border to obtain the social services supplied by the US while not contributing anything themselves is patently false, and if you have ever met a first generation immigrant I am certain that you would concur with the falsity of that caricature.

There needs to be a distinction made, between the poor immigrant, and the generationally impoverished American.  We middle to upper class people tend to lump poor people into some homogenous group, and it is sad that we do.  We see poor people who seem to do nothing to get out of poverty other than looking to what social services they can receive.  Certainly there are poor people like that, whether they are at fault, or whether it is a generational thing can be debated.  However not all poor people fall into that category.  The impoverished immigrant who comes across the border looking to work for a better life has already (by their immigration) proven that they are in a different class of poor.  They are those who are coming to make a life, obtain a dream, to earn and to purchase.  Again the poor who seek a better life through work and consumption are the greatest asset an economy can have, and a loosened immigration policy provides our economy with a great influx of that type of person.

I contest that in the not so distant future you will find that countries with dwindling birthrates will begin to court immigrants and actually attempt to draw them into their borders.  If we don’t get on board with that idea, eventually immigrants will choose to go elsewhere and we will have missed a golden opportunity to make our economy more robust.

Obviously this whole post reduces people to mere economic units, which is unfortunate.  I have almost dehumanized people by looking at them only to ultimate gain we receive from them, that is not my heart in this.  My point is only to say that a loosened border is a positive economic move for us, in fact I believe (unless we decide to start making babies fast) it is a necessary economic move for us.


Where's my candy?

It is difficult, albeit not impossible, to give what you do not possess already.  I don’t mean this in the obvious sense, but in a deeper more psychological sense.  For instance, if my son has no candy and he is asked to hand out candy at a parade, it is incredibly difficult for him to do such a thing if he is not to receive any of the candy himself.  In his mind there is an injustice in the whole thing, “daddy why do I have to give out all of this candy, I don’t have candy, this is not fair.”  Of course the typical “Christian” response to my son would involve telling him how much he does have, and how he shouldn’t be selfish and so on.  Nonetheless a psychological barrier will still exist no matter how much explaining we attempt.  To give what one does not receive themselves is a near impossibility.

We see this often when it comes to charitable causes.  The person, who for their entire life, was forced to ‘pull themselves up by their own bootstraps’ often finds it incredibly difficult or even deplorable to offer a free handout to anyone.  On the flip side, the person who has consciously benefitted from the charity of others to attain a decent station in life will typically find it much easier to return the favor back upon society.  The person who has received a handout, and used it wisely, will typically have the audacity to believe that handouts work, while the people who have always refused the handout will believe that works of charity will only produce laziness and not develop character.  Both people have legitimate arguments from experience.  The point is that it is easier to give if you have received, and it is far more difficult to give if you perceive that you have not received.

When we bring this line of thinking inside the walls of the church we see a bit of a strange picture emerge.  Pastors are constantly urging to people to be more forgiving, to be more outward, to be more of a transformational agent to the community and so on.   We hear ad nauseum about everything we are to give, and we are promised blessing in return, but precious little is done to break down that psychological barrier that was outlined above.  We say that if we are going to be the church we must do (insert pastor’s favorite act of mercy here) while that particular act of mercy is never actually enacted upon the hearers.

Here is how it plays out.  It is relatively easy to get a group together to feed the homeless, to build a habitat house, or to do various mission work.  People realize that they have food, so it is relatively easy to give food.  People realize they have shelter so it is relatively easy to give shelter, people realize they have a clean environment to live in so they find it relatively easy to go clean up a neighborhood.  However in the midst of all of this these same people, in most instances, will find it very difficult to offer real grace, real forgiveness, and true mercy to those who they encounter in the midst of their charitable service.  It is not for a lack of desire that charitable people struggle with this.  I am certain that most if not all Christians who do charitable work operate with the most upright of intentions.  Nonetheless most of us have nothing more to give than the tangible service that we offer.  In other words, when the rubber meets the road, and we are face to face with the destitute, we find it very difficult to offer them hope, we find it very difficult to hear of their situations and audibly absolve them of their sin.  We find it very difficult to speak of grace in Christ.  We default to offering an invitation to church (which may or may not be appropriate) or maybe a few platitudes of comfort that have little effect.

I contend that the reason we struggle at getting beyond physical charity into legitimately offering spiritual grace to people is that very same psychological barrier that keeps my son from wanting to hand out candy if he hasn’t received any himself.  We are people who have spiritually pulled ourselves up by our bootstraps, attended worship, got involved with service, and done the work under our own power and have had a drive to do good.  The truth is that in most worship settings the church is never directly told the words ‘you are forgiven’.  The church is rarely told, ‘you no longer stand under judgment.’  The church almost never hears ‘you are the light of the world’ ‘you are the salt of the earth’ no strings attached.  Instead we are told, if you pray this prayer all will be forgiven, or you need to go be salt and light.  In most preaching no grace is ever really offered, instead a way of purchasing grace is all that is offered.  It is no wonder that Christians struggle to offer free forgiveness when wronged, because nobody is offering them free forgiveness from wrong without certain conditions attached.  It’s no wonder that Christians are quick to offer everyone biblical advice, but slow to offer biblical grace.  We have been inundated with ‘relevant’ messages that we can apply to our life, but are rarely given messages about what has already been applied to us freely (namely the life, death, and resurrection of Christ on our behalf.)

It’s really hard to hand out candy at the parade when nobody has handed you candy first.  Yet if you frequently receive candy with joy, there is no psychological barrier in place to keep you from distributing candy with joy.

Every pastor must remember that it is a primary duty of theirs to distribute grace, offer absolution of sin, pronounce that their people are no longer under condemnation.  If this is done weekly, and rightly, we will find that it is much easier for our people to distribute real grace in the conversations, to withhold judgment of others, and be merciful beyond simply providing for physical needs.  If our preaching does not pronounce forgiveness, we ought not to expect our people to pronounce a forgiveness to the world.


Getting at the headwaters

Whoever controls the discourse controls the world.  One of the great mistakes of education in the past few decades has been to place an absurd emphasis on math, science, and technology.  In the 80s and 90s we were inundated with the news that Japanese, Chinese, and other-ese children from all over the world were outscoring American children in both math and science.  Couple this with the rise of the internet, the rapid increase in automation, and overall boom in technology, and we had what most educators felt was a crisis that would result in the demise of the American economy if not addressed.   As someone who was educated during the 80s and 90s the pressure of this ‘impending crisis’ were nearly palpable.  I can recall bragging about my math and science scores on the ACT while being unconcerned with my reading and language scores which were comparatively much lower.  I can recall being impressed by hearing that people who had graduated high school before me were in college taking classes in three-dimensional calculus, while thinking that those who studied classical literature were wasting their time.  My thoughts on this paralleled so many other students of my generation.  We were taught, and I believe that students are still taught, that unlocking the keys of this world lied in a firm grasp of math, science, and technology.  In the meantime, the majority of us never read a full book during the duration of our high school education, the more diligent among us would read through the Cliff’s Notes, or Spark Notes, while the rest of us would just B.S. our way through the reading units.  Strangely enough this was acceptable, and it was relatively easy function at A or B level by doing the bare minimum.  Of course there was no reason for concern, as long as students were beginning to excel in the math and sciences at a higher level than the classes before them.

My contention is that we have been sold a bill of goods, and that we are reaping the rewards of that now.  Most of us have an intense struggle to communicate our thoughts in a meaningful way.  We read only what can be digested easily, and it seems that most of our conversations don’t rise much above a 2nd grade reading level.  Granted we can solve a math problem, as long as it isn’t a story problem.  We can balance a check book, but cannot speak coherently about how our spending habits affect our future or the people around us.

The point here is not to minimize the importance of the sciences, but the truth of the matter remains that it is those who understand communication, and who can control discourse, that will be the people who will ultimately assume the power of shaping the future of the world.  Just watch the political process play out and you will see this clearly.  Most people are in the hands of politicians and media, and because we are incapable of articulating our own thoughts we are stuck repeating the talking points that they have given us.  Put it in the context of religion, and we find that most of us are pawns in the hands of those who lead us in matters of faith.  Incapable of giving words to our own thoughts, we are stuck with whatever clever oration our pastors give us.  We are easily beguiled by 140 character tidbits because our minds have not been fashioned to think in 200 page chunks.  Even this blog post has already gotten uncomfortably long for a number of readers, which is just more evidence to my point.

We must recover the study of our own language.  If you consider that you develop your own thoughts in the English language, it must follow that the stronger your command of that language, the more able you are to think clearly.  This goes beyond simple grammatical syntax, but into thought processes, things like irony and sarcasm, symbolism and foreshadowing.    Believe it or not, the collective consciousness of English speaking people has been shaped by Shakespeare, by the King James Bible, by classic works by various authors.  You cannot watch a sitcom or TV drama that cannot trace its roots back to classic literature that was written decades, and centuries before.  Yet without going back to the source of these narratives you are stuck simply regurgitating the surrounding culture without producing a unique thought process on your own.  Yet if you can go back to the head waters of the English speaking culture you are capable of introducing a new ingredient into those waters that will improve (or destroy) much of goes for culture today.  People with real and lasting influence are people who can get at those headwaters, and you will never get at them without immersing yourself in good literature.

There are ‘bible-only’ Christians out there who would never crack a work of fiction, and truth be told their sermons, their counsel, and their general discourse is a bore.  Worse than that is that their words may be true, but they get nowhere near the headwaters of our culture and have little to no effect on the general discourse of their places of employment, their churches, or within their family.  There are also the ‘theological work only’ Christians, who read a million books on Christian living and doctrine, yet have no thought processes that actually touch on the human condition beyond theological talking points.  Again, this is a huge mistake.

Personally, I have not arrived at some point where I could pretend to be a good writer, and I am doubtful that I will ever come to a place of respectability in that realm.  However I can tell you that over the past 3 years as I have begun to read more and more classic ‘upstream’ stories my own thought processes have become more clear, and more efficient.  I have found it easier to not be led around by the current thoughts and trends of the day.  Math and science didn’t get me to that point.  Even when I was an engineer, I would have had a far better handle on my profession, had I heeded the advice I offer here.  Words are the air which ideas breathe, most of our ideas are choking because we refuse to inhale.


Anxiety is a sin, which is good news for the anxious

One of the greatest tasks of pastoral ministry is to bring the comfort of the Gospel to the people who are in your charge that are afflicted and despairing.  I suppose that goes without saying, and certainly every pastor worth their salt feels the weight of this task.  Of course this task runs beyond just the pastoral office, and every Christian reader of this blog ought also to feel the weight of this calling.
I have been preparing to preach this weekend from Matthew 6:25-34, which to refresh your memory, is Jesus’ teaching regarding worry.  Jesus lays out the imperative to not worry, and bases that imperative upon the value of humanity in comparison to grass, and birds.  God basically says, look if God is going to clothe grass with beautiful wild flowers, and if God cares about sparrows, why are you worrying when you are worth so much more to God than these things.

Strangely enough this text has been used by many well-meaning preachers to give comfort to people mired with anxiety.  Anxiety is subtle, hidden epidemic in that debilitates countless people… possibly a majority of people in this world.  If we take Matthew 6:25-34 at face value it is not really all that comforting of a text.  What person who struggles with anxiety is not trying to not worry?  Nobody believes themselves to be choosing to worry, nobody.  Yet, this text, and the pastors who preach it are typically preaching a message telling people to not choose worry.  It is a very condemning passage, a LAW passage so to speak.  It basically tells us “stop doing something that you have no power to stop doing.”  To which we might ask… “and how are we supposed to do that?”

Now many of us have seen the epidemic of worry, and it unfortunately has caused us to change our approach to the issue of anxiety.  We have come to a place where we no longer approach anxiety as a sin.  We take a passage that is clearly condemning upon anxiety, and we tip toe around it and fail to let the text do the work it sets out to do, that is, to condemn anxiety.  Instead we treat anxiety as though it were a personal trait on par with the color of our hair or eyes.  In other words we no longer treat it as a sinful disposition; instead we treat it as something inherent to our pre-fall being.  I completely understand our tendency towards this, we want to bring comfort to the afflicted, we want to tell the anxious person that ‘you are ok, everything is fine, this is a natural problem that a lot of people struggle with, there is nothing wrong with you.’  The problem is that the anxious person knows better!  They know that there is something wrong or else they would not feel the way they do.  By taking anxiety out of the sin category, we have essentially told people that they are stuck with it, that it is no different than their hair color, or height.  In our attempt to bring comfort in the short term, we actually leave people in despair for the long haul.  (Please don’t get sidetracked, I am not against anxiety medication, this has nothing to do with that.)

If we are going to allow the cross to be our source of comfort, and the cross to have the final word on our reality, then we need to be able to approach issues like anxiety differently.  We need to be able to call anxiety what it is, a sinful disposition.  It is a disposition that fails to realize the sovereignty and provision of God, a disposition that is narcissistic and faithless.  That was a harsh sentence was it not?  Not really.

Here is the point.  If anxiety (or any other sinful disposition) is placed properly in the ‘sin’ category, it can be dealt with in the cross.  The person who is honestly struggling with anxiety, if they see it as sin, can know that they have received forgiveness for that sin in Christ, they can know that Christ has borne their anxiety on His shoulders, and has determine that anxiety would not have the last word on them.  However if we leave anxiety in the personality trait column, the believer is stuck dealing with anxiety, without a Christ who has borne their anxiety.  They are left to merely try to pull themselves up by their boot straps, and try harder not to worry and they are bound to constant failure, with no cross to comfort them.

Let’s try a different approach in case you are not following.  If we take a different sin, say lust, and view it in the same light it becomes clear.  If you take someone who struggles with lust, and tell them it is not a sin, they are left to simply stay enslaved to lust, knowing it is wrong, but not knowing of the forgiveness they have received, and not knowing of the possibility of repentance.  It is a disaster. However the person who struggles against lust knowing it is a sin has the opportunity to struggle with the hope that their sin is forgiven, and that hope that by the power of the cross they will be delivered from that sin.

Naming something a sin, is not a means of condemnation to someone, though it appears that way at first, instead naming something as a sin allows that sin to come under the domain of the cross where it can be dealt with hopefully with forgiveness and grace.
A popular verse that is drawn out by fundamentalists is Isaiah 5:20, and it is usually used to call down condemnation upon people who affirm a particular sin as non-sinful.  The text does that, and it is not an altogether bad approach to Isaiah 5:20, but it runs the risk of missing a key point.
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter! (Isaiah 5:20)

In the context of Isaiah 5, we see the prophet pronouncing ‘present-tense woes’, not future tense.  In other words, he is not saying, “look out if you are calling evil good and good evil, because in the judgment you are going to really get it from God.”  He instead is saying that by calling ‘evil good, and good evil’, you have placed yourself in a current state of woe.  When you call evil good and good evil, you are *currently* reaping the rewards of your paradigm.

Now let’s go back to the example of anxiety.  By refusing to call it evil, you are placed in a permanent state of ‘woe’ without any way to get out.  However by calling it what it is, ‘evil’, there is a cross to deal with it, and it becomes a struggle under the umbrella of grace.

Let us deal with sin as sin, for Christ came to deal with sin, and to deal with it gracefully.  Let us not make the mistake of writing any sin off as being not sinful, lest we place our people in position where they must struggle outside of the cross.

If we have a disposition, that has always seemed to us to be just a personality trait, we ought to be joyfully surprised to find out that our disposition is sinful.  Not because we are glad to be sin, but the moment we realize our disposition is indeed sinful, is the moment that we can have the hope of true forgiveness, repentance, and healing from that disposition.


West Ohio Conference Health Insurance... What can we do?

In the West Ohio Conference of the United Methodist Church a pastor who is in a full time appointment is to be enrolled in the West Ohio Conference healthcare plan, paid for by the local church and provided through Medical Mutual of Ohio.  The cost to local congregation is approximately 18k (corrected) per year for a family my size, with the family also contributing a portion of the premium as a payroll deduction.  Overall the cost of this policy probably lands somewhere around 19.6k per year.

The reason for the exorbitant cost is the quantity of ‘uninsurable’  or difficult to insure members within this plan.  Given the general health of the group being insured the cost is understandable.  I am certain that within our conference the leadership has done everything within their scope of ability to negotiate with Medical Mutual of Ohio the best possible heath care package for the clergy of our conference.  I doubt that anyone would accuse them of foul play, or a lack of due diligence.  These leaders face a serious dilemma regarding making health care both available and affordable to all full time Methodist clergy in West Ohio.  This post is no way taking a stab at the praiseworthy efforts of those individuals.

The cost of this health care hinges on the more easily insurable members staying in the program.  If the young clergy, and clergy without any pre-existing conditions were to opt out of this plan, the overall cost for the rest of the aging clergy and clergy with pre-existing conditions would sky rocket.  If the ‘insurable’ clergy opt out, the churches with ‘uninsurable’ clergy would long for the days when insurance was a mere $19.6k a year.
With these realities before them, the Conference set in place a rule that if a pastor in a full time appointment decides to opt out of the West Ohio Conference’s health care plan that pastor will never, under any circumstance, be allowed to opt back into the plan.  This of course is a very real threat, and it is a threat that the Conference needed to make in order to keep costs manageable for local congregations.  (It is debatable if $20k per year is manageable).

So that is the background, but what is an insurable young clergy person to do with this?  Healthy insurable clergy placed in the middle of a rock and hard place.

Currently I get my insurance privately and the local church I serve reimburses my premiums (I am a licensed local pastor in full time appointment).  My current insurance is much more comprehensive than the Conference plan, and is over $10k per year cheaper than the conference plan.  The question is should I opt out of the WOC plan and free $10k per year of my church’s budget for ministry, or should I opt into the WOC plan to the tune of an extra $10k per year of expense to my church so that uninsurable clergy can still retain their insurance?  (Note this is all while my wife still retains maternity coverage, at some point we will no longer need that coverage which accounts for 40% of our premium.)

Whether or not to remain in is a valid question.  If, and I know it is a big ‘if’, I stay healthy and insurable, over the next 30 years I will save the local congregations I serve at least $300k.  I also will personally save money, and on top of that have better healthcare.  With those numbers before me it seems a worthy risk.  However, is it unjust to opt out knowing that it will increase the burden on churches that are served by uninsurable pastors?

Of course there is the threat of never being allowed back in the WOC plan if one opts out, but every year the WOC plan becomes less and less desirable anyway, and with the aging body of clergy it is not showing any signs of getting better.  In other words, will there ever really be a reason that I would want to re-enroll in that plan?  Moreover the nature and laws surrounding health care are in such flux right now that the odds of the current rules and healthcare laws still being in place 30 years from now are slim to none.   In light of these realities, the threat of never being allowed back in the WOC plan really is not all that threatening.  Again, the only issue at stake here is the issue of justice.  If you take that out of the equation it is a no brainer and every healthy pastor should find it to be a relatively easy decision to opt out of the WOC plan, and save their churches 10s of thousands of dollars for ministry every year.

I do not dare to call for a mass exodus from the plan, but something needs to be done to make this whole thing more equitable.  If I were to enroll in the WOC plan, my church is effectively getting stuck with an  $10k per year apportionment and the only reason they would pay that money is for the strengthening of the connection by providing all clergy with equal benefits.  The local church gains nothing by this other than piece of mind.  To call this $10k anything other than an apportionment is a mistake, because that is exactly what it is.

If we want this system to be fair, at the very least a portion (preferably the entirety) of the difference of cost between self-insurance and WOC group insurance should be deducted from the local church’s yearly conference apportionments.  (I can hear a collective cringe from conference leadership at this thought.)  Certainly that would make people at the conference offices a little bit nervous, but what else can be done?  The bottom line is that if healthy clergy take the time to look at this plan and look at the future of health care they will come to the same conclusions I am, and they will withdraw from the plan altogether.   If that occurs there is a real mess on everyone’s hands.  At least by giving churches with healthy pastors a significant break on their apportionments, the pastors could still consider it prudent to remain within the conference plan, because ultimately the local church loses nothing by staying enrolled.

Again, I don’t presume to have all the answers on this, and I know that my solution of reduced apportionments doesn’t solve the whole issue, BUT it might keep our young healthy clergy from making the obvious decision to opt out.  The bottom line is that no matter how you cut it, whether you reduce apportionments, or whether pastors start opting out, the churches that are served by uninsurable pastors are going to get short end of the stick.  On the flipside, for the last so many years the churches have been served by insurable pastors are the ones who got the short end.

I am very interested in thoughts of other West Ohio friends surrounding this.  Charge conferences are only 4 or 5 short months away, and at that point we are going to have to nail our colors to the wall one way or another.  Do I stick the church with a $10k bill and commit to the good of uninsurable pastors, or do I self-insure and commit to the good of the community of Delta?

I know this post was outside of the scope of what we normally do here at The Tenth Letter…, and I apologize for taking the time of non-West Ohio Conference pastors and parishioners who may have trudged through this, but this is my only real public venue to air this, so this is where the post had to land.

Update: June 20, 2012
The total cost for insuring my family through the WOC plan is $19.6k with $1.5k being the clergy's responsibility.  The church is responsible for about $18k.  (I corrected those numbers up top since the original posting)

It is important to note that the conference has included an HSA contribution within the scope of this plan which is an important upside to the plan. (Again I still maintain they are doing their best with what they have to work with), but the plan has a deductible much higher than the personal plans healthy clergy can obtain.

Finally, I want to express appreciation for the Conference Treasurer for directly contacting me in response to this blog.


Sovereign Satan... Really?

One of the most disturbing trends in Christianity over the last couple hundred years is the idea of a sovereign devil.  Personally I have never met a single Christian who would vocally affirm that they believe in a sovereign Satan; however I have found countless believers whose praxis affirms what their words would never say.

Allow me to make a few real case studies of how this plays out:

Case #1:
I have served on a number of Chrysalis Flights in my day.  Chrysalis is a 3 day retreat for youth that inculcates them with the Gospel message in a meaningful way.  (This study is not a dis of Chrysalis, I am gladly serving on the next retreat.)  During the process of preparation for a Chrysalis weekend the team meets for 4 to 6 weeks prior to the weekend itself.  At the conclusion of the last team meeting prior to the weekend there will be, without fail, a discussion among team members to be on the lookout for attacks from the ‘evil one’ during the week.  In other words there is this thought that what is going to happen on that weekend is so wonderful that Satan is going to do everything in his power to stop it.  When the team arrives on Thursday night to prepare for the weekend there inevitably is the conversation between some team members about the things Satan allegedly did to try to thwart the weekend.  Usually it is their kid getting sick, having car trouble, or a stressful week at work.  After these exchanges those involved in the discourse typically sit back and marvel at the work the evil did to try to distract them.

Case #1 analysis:
For those involved in these conversations Satan is sovereign over the work place which caused the stress.  Satan is sovereign over the pot hole that sent their care to the shop.  Satan is sovereign over the bacteria that gave their kid a cold… etc.  Can you see it?  Can this really be?  Um… if Satan has that kind of authority, well I might be better off worshiping him, because it appears to me that it is he who is really the one true god.  God forbid that someone acknowledges the real possibility that God himself would orchestrate said events in order to sharpen one’s focus… or *gasp* that those events might be chalked up to the basic course of life in a fallen world over which God sovereignly reigns.

Case #2:
A young woman leaves her fundamentalist home and heads off to a fundamentalist Christian college.  While away at college she decides that this particular college is not right for her because she had a bad experience with the faculty, her classmates, and the curriculum.  The parents of this child grow deeply concerned that ‘the evil one’ has thwarted God’s will for her to go to this college.

Case #2 analysis:
Satan is sovereign over the experiences this girl had with the faculty… or at least is sovereign over her interpretation of those events.  Satan is sovereign over here interactions with her classmates.  Or Satan has directly influenced her perception of the curriculum.  Again, I would be willing to bet my home that the parents of this girl would never vocalize that they believe in a sovereign devil, but their praxis proves that they do.  God forbid that her leaving the college might actually be the will of God (which in this case it likely was.)  Or God forbid that her leaving this college is *gasp* caused by living life in a world effected by the fall.

Case #3:
Barack Obama

Case #3 Analysis
Countless people seem to believe that our government is under the authority of the evil one, and that the presence of certain elected officials proves that.  Um… I do not give a lick where you stand on political issues.  It seems, to these folks, that Satan somehow is sovereign over our entire political process, which means that Satan somehow has the authority to pull voting levers, run political campaigns, make chads hang from ballots, and swap out the internals of Diebold voting machines.  Just stop people, you sound ridiculous.

General Thoughts…
I could lay out countless more cases of this ad nauseum, but these three will suffice.
Every time a person gives credit to the evil one for something they personally do not like, they without knowing are actually affirming that they themselves are gods.  While that sounds bold, it is true.  The definition of evil is “that which displeases God”.  In affirming that all is evil which displeases one’s self, or interferes with one’s perceived notion of what ‘should be’, one is affirming themselves as god.  They make their own thoughts out as though they were God’s thoughts.  It is a dangerous road to walk.

Moreover when a person credits every hiccup in their plans to a work of the evil one, they are without even realizing it, affirming the sovereignty of Satan.  The devil is not sovereign, God is in authority of all your situations, not simply the ones where you feel that you are being moved of the Spirit.  In more charismatic circles there is a heavy emphasis on experiencing the Holy Spirit, but the reality is that God is at work in all, ALL, things and while these people tread through this world looking for the next experience they miss the simple fact that they are in the midst of a constant experience of God’s sovereignty.  Unfortunately they attribute the sovereign work of God in making their tire go flat out to be the work of the evil and by doing so they blaspheme God.  That’s right, it is blasphemy to credit the working of God to be the work of Satan, yet this is common place not only among charismatics, but among most of evangelicalism.

I do offer this one caution, evil things do happen!  Things which displease God actually occur.  God is not pleased with tyranny and war, or with genocide, or abuse, sexual license, etc… however the question we ought to ask is ‘why does God allow that which displeases Him?’  That is a good question, and it is one that I do not have an easy answer to.  Nonetheless I am not, nor should you be willing to chalk up evil to a sovereign Satan.

Remember that Satan is bound, he is limited, and he is NOT the reason you spilled spaghetti sauce on your nice church clothes.


The problem with "Not Guilty"

We are creatures who are driven by guilt.  Our societies, be they primitive, or refined, all have guilt as their governing principle.  Our laws, be they derived from scripture or not, all find their power in guilt.  A speed limit only finds its effectiveness in the reality of the guilt it creates.  Our parental rules for our children only find their effectiveness if they create a consequence for guilt.  We are punished for not completing assignments, not performing as we are expected to perform in the work place, not being the spouse we are supposed to be, and so on.  Guilt is foundational to everything we do.  I do not venture to launch out on a tirade against guilt, or even to say guilt is a bad thing, or an improper emotion or reality.  My purpose here is to say that guilt is the very fabric of society, it drives everything.

The strange thing to realize is that this is actually the way we like it.  We get very uncomfortable when something begins to tear at the fabric of guilt.  For instance if an employee no longer feels guilty for not doing the job they are paid to do we have no choice but to remove that employee from our company.  If a student no longer feels guilty for not doing their work we no longer have a means to make them learn.  If we remove guilt from our legal system we no longer have a legal system.  If a man has no sense of guilt for mistreating his wife or children he becomes a very dangerous man.  Anything, or anyone, that would seek to remove guilt from a conscience of someone who has done wrong is making a horrific affront against all that is humane.  We cannot understate the importance of guilt to our life, and when we see someone who feels no guilt we are frightened.  A person unresponsive to guilt is, in our eyes, an incredibly dangerous or incredibly useless person.

When we look at texts like Romans 2:12-16 and we get the idea that the Law is written on everyone’s heart, this is exactly what we are getting at.  Let’s not make the mistake of oversimplifying here.  Paul is not writing that everyone universally knows, understands, and affirms the Law of God.  That really is not the case at all.  Moral law is relative from society to society.  The universal truth is that everyone is driven by Law, and that the guilty vs. not guilty paradigm is intrinsic to everyone.  In that sense the Law is written on everyone’s, without exception, heart.  If the concept of ‘law’ was not written on everyone’s heart, there would be no sense of guilt, and without the sense of guilt society would not function.  We would be mere animals.

Enter the Gospel.  The Gospel is an absolutely terrifying message when taken at face value precisely because it tears away this fabric of guilt upon which our society rests.  Make no mistake, the Gospel, really does undermine and redefine society as we know it.  I can recall disciplining my child when his actions caused him to be guilty of violating our family’s laws, and my little man reminded me that on the cross Jesus already paid for his sin (true story).  In one sense I was very proud of my son for realizing that glorious truth, and applying it to his situation, but as a parent it was terrifying.  It was terrifying because if Christ really took away his guilt, and he really believed that to be true, then maybe all of my family ‘law’ was in jeopardy of being rendered useless.  At the very least the family ‘law’ had been rendered useless in the way that I was applying it to him as a believer in Christ.  Take the situation of my son, and expand it to our entire society and you can see how the Gospel message of ‘not guilty’ undercuts everything.  If a person believes themselves to not be guilty then they are truly free… free from me and my laws… free from society and its laws… free from God’s Law.  Maybe the Gospel isn’t such Good News after all?  Maybe we’d be better off to never speak of this Gospel again for fear that people might actually believe it, and actually believe themselves “not guilty.”

Of course the Gospel is by definition “Good News” and should not be seen as anything but Good News, but it is terrifying news.  The Gospel creates a New Kingdom that is driven by a completely different paradigm than the one which our society operates under.  The Gospel creates a Kingdom where obedience to the law is driven by gratitude for what has been done for us, not by fear of guilt for not upholding the Law.  The Gospel has created a people who cannot be driven by society’s most effective driving mechanism, which is guilt.

Don’t underestimate how much people really fear the Gospel, even believers who know it is true (myself included) are terrified to realize the relief from guilt which Christ has given to us and the world.  The charge of Antimonianism which often gets leveled at true preachers of the Gospel is a frightening charge.  If I am going to proclaim righteousness apart from the Law it feels like stepping off of a cliff and expecting ground to somehow appear under my feet.  There is a very real fear about what could possibly happen if people decide to believe the Gospel we proclaim.  I ask myself the questions; “What if someone really does believe themselves to not be guilty, but then they are not filled with gratitude for what Christ has done? Will these people just do whatever they think is right and become lawless creatures that are bound to no sense of right and wrong?”  Or this; “If a person can no longer be driven by guilt, do they have any reason to serve people in need?  Do they have any reason to seek the forgiveness of people they have wronged?”

We must be willing to believe that the Gospel really is the power of God unto salvation, and that the effects of the Gospel really will be a society that lives in gratitude to God and willingly obeys the Law which he prescribed, without fear of condemnation from that Law.  In this light we can see that the Gospel is not quite as easy to believe as we initially think.  The Gospel upholds, and is not in any way at tension with the Law.  Yet the Gospel removes the guilt which is society’s only reason for upholding that Law.


trends trends trends

It’s interesting to watch the trends that drive worship settings in churches. For a number of years it has been assumed that a more contemporary setting is the best practical way to get young people who have left the church or never been a part of it to come inside the church doors for a worship service. Champions of the contemporary scene can boast the numerical success to prove this reality. Traditionalists have sat back, often frustrated, watching their time honored traditions go by the wayside in order to implement the various new styles. Of course over the last few decades this has produced more than enough debate and division in local congregations everywhere. Pragmatism seems to rule, the attitude is simply that if it works, and it honors Christ by proclaiming the Gospel then it is the right practice. We want to reach those who have not yet heard the Gospel, so we develop our services accordingly. In recent years we are beginning to see a trend that suggests that a more traditional service might be a pragmatically viable as the contemporary service. It is not uncommon to see, especially around universities, a return to a more traditional setting becoming the more attractive method of doing church. Traditionalists sit back and rejoice in seeing this trend, and are hopeful now that sticking to their guns is going to pay off as interest in the big box contemporary church begins to show signs of waning.

There is a brutal irony here. We who are more traditional are now coming out of the woodwork saying ‘look, it still works’ and we puff out our chests and rejoice in the trend that seems to vindicate our refusal to succumb to the latest trend. The irony is that traditionalists have argued against pragmatism ever since the mega-church stage show got rolling, and yet now that the traditional service seems pragmatically viable, the traditionalist appeals to the very pragmatism they once decried. Both the traditional and contemporary camps, are now appealing to the trends to say that their method is viable. The underlying truth that is being exposed here is that most traditionalists were still nothing more than pragmatists all along, and it is evidenced by their willingness to come out of the word work now that their method seems to be working again. Those of the contemporary mindset could rightly make the argument that the traditionalists were merely frustrated pragmatists all along. During the worship wars (contemporary v traditional) many of the contemporary people would level the claim that the traditional church was jealous that their methodology had run its course and was no longer as effective as the new style. We of the more traditional set decried that claim and we thought ourselves to be adhering to a more pure form of worship. Eventually many traditionalists, myself included, began to look at ourselves with some sort of ‘persecuted remnant’ philosophy, and found ourselves taking comfort in that. The truth is that the whole persecuted remnant thing was just a ruse. We traditionalists have come out of our shell, rejoiced at the gradual changing of the trend, and our rejoicing proves that we have longed to appeal to pragmatism and the will of the masses just as much as the most contemporary of churches.

The reality is that the appeal to pragmatism is flawed at the outset. Whether it is the traditionalist trying to justify their tradition by the renewed public interest in it, or whether it is the contemporary churchmen who can boast of gigantic churches, it really is simply two sides to the same coin. The fatal flaw in the whole debate is that success can be judged by how many people walk through our doors on a Sunday morning. Now listen, I get as excited as the next guy as I watch the church I serve grow, and I would be a liar if I did not say that I monitor our numbers very closely to assure that we are growing. The church that does not want to grow has serious problems. However if the church boasts rest in the fact that they are in line with the latest trend, and their growth is predicated on their trendiness (traditional or contemporary) there is a serious problem.

As we look in Acts we cannot deny the reality that large numbers were being redeemed, and that the magnitude of those numbers were recorded as important facts. You cannot speak out against a church because they have seen 3000 people converted, because the early church saw just that and found it important enough to include in the Holy Writ. There is one distinct factor in this though, that all the pragmatist worship design seems to miss… the great numbers that were converted were never converted by attending the worship service of the church. If you recall at Pentecost the great movement among the people was not because they were drawn into the service, but that those gathered in the upper room were led into the streets preaching a language which those outside of the church miraculously understood. All the great movements of the book of Acts were external to the gathering of the Church. The biblically normative method of church growth was the church outside of the facility discipling and baptizing. Of course those who were discipled and baptized then became a part of the church. The normal order of church growth was not attracting people to the church, but was in sending the church into the world.

This flies right in the face of all trend following. It doesn’t matter one bit that traditional worship is becoming more attractive to the next generation, because the worship service was never meant to be an attraction. Traditionalists are falling into the exact same trap that the contemporary church has fallen into, the trap of believing that people needed to come to church to hear the Gospel.

At some point we need to get off of this wheel, because the trends will continue to go back and forth, and the war will continue to wage, and whoever has the style that is most current to the times are the people who will believe themselves to be vindicated.

I can only think of one way to change this trend, and it is painfully difficult change to embrace. The change is simply this, make the Sunday worship gathering a setting that exists primarily for believers. The reality that unbelievers will gather in every assembly is a truth we must deal with, but that reality can no longer drive our methodology, be it traditional or contemporary. If we take this approach it allows us to preach as though we are preaching to believers, it allows us to practice church discipline as though we are disciplining believers… and more importantly than this, it places the onus of proclaiming the Gospel to the world upon the body of believers, not merely their pastor who represents them. This shift in thinking allows the pastor to approach their flock as an actual shepherd of believers, comforting them with the Gospel and commanding them with the Law so that they might go forth and make disciples. It causes the individual Christian to work with the people they meet in their vocation to bring them to the faith outside of the church, and then when the person begins to receive faith bring them into the church. It changes the whole dynamic. Yes it makes for smaller churches in the short run, but it makes for a more robust body of believers over the long haul.

Any thoughts on this?


Yes! Christianity is a Cult

Before embarking on this little exercise in reality I ought to make it clear that I am a Christian, I pastor a friendly welcoming and typically non-judgmental congregation, I believe that the Gospel invitation goes forth for all, and that Christ really did live, die, and raise for this world. I affirm what most evangelicals would consider the orthodox faith, and I make no apologies for that. I ask only one thing of you as you proceed, do not close your mind until you have given at least a few moments thought to what follows.

Let me start with one simple statement. Christianity is a cult. That is the thesis, and it is not too difficult of a thesis to prove. Christian, your hair may stand up on your back as you read that three word sentence, but it is true, and in denying it you unknowingly deny the faith handed down by Christ and the Apostles. Christianity is a cult.

Let us work through some of the standard markings of a cult, and let us see whether or not Christianity fits the bill.

All cults have a leader who makes audacious claims about themselves. The head of Christianity claimed to literally be the Son of God. This is the most audacious claim that could be made, it was the very claim that caused the leader of Christianity to be nailed to a cross.

Most cults claim to be the true manifestation of an existing accepted religion. Jesus claimed in Matthew 5 that he was the fulfillment of the Jewish Law and the words of their prophets.

Cult leaders demand irrational obedience to their leadership. Jesus demanded his followers to take up their cross and follow Him. Typically these commands include a separation from existing relationships. Certainly you recall Luke 14:25-27, and you will be hard pressed to convince me of that not being cultic language. Must I go on to Jesus’ other commands of obedience to Him? When Jesus called his disciples they were expected to drop their nets (their very livelihood), to not tend to the death of their parents, instead to let the dead bury their own dead. Come on folks, if you cannot see this as cultic you are simply stuffing your fingers in your ears and screaming “La la la la la la” at the top of your lungs. However we have only begun.

Cult leaders tell their followers that persecution by the majority validates what the cult leader is professing. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for my sake.” The leader of a cult knows full well that the majority will reject their message, so to encourage their followers the leader prepares them for constant rejection. If you cannot see this theme in the New Testament, again I think your blindness is intentional.

Cult leaders implement strange rites of initiation. Have you not read that we are baptized into the death of Christ. That we must be born again of water (baptism) and the Spirit? Wanna talk more about strange rites? Jesus said to his followers that unless they eat his flesh and drink his blood they have no part with Him. These are the words that only a cult leader would dare utter.

Cult leaders profess that the way which they proclaim is the only true way. Must I rehash all the exclusive verses of Christ? Jesus claimed himself as the way, truth, and life. His apostles taught that He was the only mediator between man and God. Another apostle claimed that all who rejected this leader would be cast into the lake of fire.

Cult leaders have insider language for their followers. Take a look at Matthew 13:10-17 and you will see that he taught in parables not to make things easy, but in order to confuse everyone who was not his follower. (As an aside, if you somehow think that parables were meant to make difficult topics more understandable you really need to stop reading this post and go read Matthew 13 for yourself. It’s at best a mistake, and at worst an outright lie to say that Jesus gave the parables to clear things up. The opposite is true, which by the way is the type of thing you might expect from a cult leader.)

Cult leaders have great things to say about their followers. “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world…”

Cult leaders make wild promises to their followers… um, Jesus promised his followers eternal (yeah, like forever and ever and ever) life in paradise.

Cult leaders typically work with an inferior class of people… you know like tax collectors and fishermen, as opposed to theologians who would know better.

So far we have just looked at the leader of Christianity, we have not looked at the church itself. Oh did I mention that the one who prepared the way and announced the arrival of this leader was a family member of His? That might raise the cult red flag a bit. Now hopefully what I have written so far has shaken you at least a little bit, and much more could be written about Christ and the cultic nature of His leadership. I do want to make sure you know my heart in this. I am not blaspheming Christ by affirming that he is the leader of a cult called Christianity, not at all. The claims that Christ made of Himself are true, and He verified them in His resurrection and ascension. Unlike the cult leaders we are most familiar, Jesus substantiated His claims. Nonetheless they are undeniably cultic claims.

Now on to the Church. The church was founded upon the teachings of the close friends of this leader, the apostles, who continued to propagate the claims the leader made about himself. Hmmm… a leader and his inner circle have the authority.

One of the marks of a cult is the incredible amounts of time the cult spends together. Have you not read in Acts that the believers met daily in their homes breaking bread, and devoting themselves to the teachings of the apostles?

The church met for prayers, psalms, and spiritual songs. The church gathers to partake of bread and wine which they profess in some way is the body and blood of their leader. The church requires baptism into Christ’s death for membership into its ranks. The church still gathers each week to hear ordained leaders speak to them for 30 minutes or so about the writings in their sacred book about their leader.

Cults are heavy on indoctrination. Isn’t the great commission from Christ to the church to go and make disciples, teaching and baptizing. Disciples? The very term disciple is undeniably cultic. This could go on and on.

Let us look beyond the church itself and look at the very basic nature of Christianity. We have a leader who claims to be the Son of God, we have a Holy Book that claims to be the word of God, we have a body of people who claim to be the people of God, we have sacraments which we claim to be instituted by God. Plug your ears, scream “la la la la la” if you want, but you will not change the reality that Christianity is a cult.

Congratulations if you have made it this far. Those with their fingers in their ears have left us a number of paragraphs ago. However for you who have hung in this far, you deserve to know the whole point of this little tirade, let those who left go polish their little porcelain Jesus to make him look really nice to the rest of the world. We are here to deal with the real thing.

The unbelieving world knows that Christianity is cult, they may not label it as such, but functionally they know it is. As Christians however we fail to see it, or worse we do everything in our power to deny it. In our effort to ‘de-cult’ Christianity we render the entire New Testament impotent.

We have a false notion that the world does not want to be Christian because they think it is too cultic. So what do we do in response? We remove all the cultic elements from the public eye. It is popular in the more cosmopolitan churches to have their baptisms performed at a separate service, you know so ‘seekers’ are not exposed to the ritual. Those churches will typically do the same thing with the Lord’s Supper. We spend our time on topical sermon series which allow us to pick and choose the scriptures we will cover so as to avoid those cultish ones. We remove unison prayer, we remove ancient songs, we remove the communal reading of the Psalms, we go so far as to attempt to proclaim that not only is Christianity not a cult, but we lie and say it is not even a religion. Why? Because we believe that people will not like the church if we do those things.

We are afraid to give people the real thing, because we believe they will not like it, that they will be offended by it. So we run around saying it is not a religion, it is not unique, it is not holy, it is not separate, it is not strange… then we invite them to our church… and if we are still preaching the cultic Christ, they are offended because we hoodwinked them. Or, we invite them to our church which has stripped Christ of all his uniqueness in favor of a pep rally about transforming your life (as though it is about you, and not about the leader of this cult.)

The unbelieving world deserves the truth about Christianity. Then they can come to our churches, and we will welcome them, and they won’t need to feel like we are trying to pull some sort of bait and switch on them.

What follows would be an honest invitation to our church:

I would love for you to come to Delta United Methodist Church. We are not going to judge you, we are as messed up as anyone, certainly as messed up if not more messed up than you. However I give you fair warning, we do some strange things, we worship a man who has made some strange claims, we sing some songs with some strange lyrics, and we pray some strange prayers. (Of course as Christians we find these things to be normal.) You see we know we are a strange bunch, and we want nothing more than for you to experience this strangeness with us. Yeah I suppose you could say it’s a cult, but it is open to all, we have nothing to hide, and we look forward to being upfront and explaining anything you might have a question about. We have had the same questions, and most of us still have a number that are yet unanswered. Yet grace abounds my friend, and you will find it here.

Isn’t that more honest than:

Hey come check us out. We have great music, great coffee, a relaxed atmosphere, and most of all we are not religious.

Then a few months later:

Join our small group, come to our baptism class, become a member and tithe, give to our building program, come to our special communion service…

Wait what? This is quite a bit different than the invitation you gave a few months ago.