About Julie Simpson

Reader, writer, searcher. Mother to one son, wife to one husband, follower of One God.

Why the Church Will Always Fail You

“Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.” –Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

This Sunday, after sitting through yet another sermon that left me feeling guilty and inadequate and worn out rather than refreshed, loved, and encouraged, I just wept. Our church of four years preaches social justice while neglecting the gospel, leaving a hollow shell of a community, rife with burnout, bitterness, and false piety. I was angry, but more than that I was just sad. Sad to see yet another church community fail to embody the truth of the gospel, the love of God.

It wasn’t the first time. When you’ve been a Christian and a part of Christian communities for as long as you can remember, you begin to rack up a significant list of the times the church has failed you. Personal sleights, leadership failures, organizational crumbling, members giving themselves over to sin. My heart breaks when I say that I’ve seen it all.

And like every other time I’ve been disappointed by my church community, I feel terrible about feeling this way. I mean, who am I to tell a church that they’re doing things wrong, that they’re missing the mark? For a long time, despite my previous experiences, I’ve been unwilling to admit that my current church has its problems too. People smarter and more spiritual than me have to be in charge, and they know what they’re doing.

But yet again I have to acknowledge the disappointing truth: the church is imperfect.

And I have to ask myself: why haven’t I just left? Why haven’t I given up on this project altogether? I know plenty of people who have left, who have rejected God because of His people. And I’ve heard it over and over again from people who have heard my war stories: “I just don’t see myself staying in the church after something like that.”

So why have I stayed?

I can narrow it down to a few foundational truths.

1. God is not people, not even church people.
The goal of the church is to be a community that embodies and reflects the heart of God through love, worship, thanksgiving, and service. In an ideal world, in which we do not reside, the church would be a perfect and accurate representation of God’s character. However, in this world, full of sin, trying to see God in the church is like trying to see an image in a broken mirror. We do our best, but because we bring our sinfulness with us into the community of the church, this community of people will never be a perfect reflection of God’s character.

This is why I have difficulty with the idea that I should have left God because of the ways I’ve seen church people fail. I admit that I have felt the temptation in my pain and disappointment to equate God with those who have hurt me or the community. After all, people are right in front of us while God is invisible, and sometimes it’s just easier to believe that how people treat us reflects how God feels about us. But in these moments of despair, I have to come back to the truth of God’s Word: He loved us enough to die for us, and He had to die because humanity is enslaved to sin. God is perfect love, and we are broken. Was God the pastor who had the affair? No. Was God the person who said something about me behind my back? No. God is Himself, perfect and blameless and loving and forgiving. People may fail in their attempts to emulate God, but this does not change God’s character. Our failure to embody Him does not make Him any less of a perfect model. God is not people.

2. The church is a community of sinners.
Though this was already touched on in the first point, it’s worth its own mention because it’s a truth so often forgotten. We would all like to think that when we go to church we are somehow escaping the evils of the world, that we’ve found a safe haven where we never have to worry about conflict and temptation and difficulty ever again. We want to feel completely safe, isolated from the sin we know lurks around in the world outside. In principle, this isn’t a bad desire. We are longing for heaven, and in its attempt to bring heaven to earth the church should look brighter and more heavenly in comparison to the rest of the world. But the church is not heaven. Its members are not completely sanctified, washed clean from all sin, except in the sense that they have been forgiven of those sins through the blood of Christ.

We all bring our sinful selves with us to church. In fact, that seems to be the point. In seeking out a church community, we seek out brothers and sisters who can help us combat our sinful desires in order that we may live closer to the holiness God desires for us. An acknowledgement of our sinfulness, then, seems a necessary first step for a healthy church community; unless we recognize sin in the church, we can’t do much to work on it, much the same as how an individual must recognize their sinfulness before God before they can receive forgiveness and salvation.

Bonhoeffer discusses this “necessary disillusionment” at length in his book about church community, Life Together. He insists that “only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community, the better for both.” In other words, Bonhoeffer argues, a church can only truly begin to understand God’s plan for community when it comes to terms with the reality of its own brokenness, when each individual member realizes that their church is not perfect, but rather a place where imperfect people have come together to strive toward holiness. To believe in the perfection of the church is to hinder its progress toward that holiness. “He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself,” Bonhoeffer insists, “becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.”

To avoid in the first place the illusion that the church is a perfect community, it helps to remind myself who I am. I am a member of the church, and I am not perfect. I am a sinner. Everyone else in this endeavor with me is a sinner. Therefore, why should I expect the church to be perfect?

So what do we do when the church disappoints us? Every time I’m disillusioned with the church yet again, I come back to this critical decision. It’s never an easy situation to face. But in addition to remembering the two most important points above, I try to determine the source of my disillusionment and my response to it by asking the following questions:

1. Is my disillusionment being caused by the church community as a whole or just one person?
Though it seems silly, this is an important question. I don’t know if this is true for everyone, but I know for me sometimes a person just ticks me off, and instead of dealing with my feelings towards this individual, I start lashing out against the community within which I am forced to interact with them. We might have been spurned or judged or rejected by one person, and yet we point to the music or the sermons or dissatisfaction with the children’s programming as our contentions. And we leave. As I’ve already beat to death, people are sinful. There will always be individuals or even groups of individuals who we don’t get along with at church, whether because of our sin or theirs or both. I have learned not to blame the church for the sins of individual members. Dealing with sinfulness is just a part of being in a community.

There are, however, also those times when we realize that our church is not theologically sound, and that is a more serious issue. Rather than our frustration being centered on the unavoidable sin of other church members, we realize that the church as an organization is not following the direction of God’s word. I won’t tell anyone what they should do in this situation. Certainly, discussions with pastors and elders about your concerns are a good, though difficult, first step. Sometimes, as hard as it is, this problem might even require leaving to find a different church community. But the first step is just determining whether this is actually the problem, or whether we are simply frustrated with the reality of the sinfulness of fellow members.

2. Is this a me and church problem or a me and God problem?
Sometimes church rubs us the wrong way because we just don’t want to hear what the community needs to say. For example, that annoying tithing sermon. Or that sermon that tells you that you shouldn’t be having sex outside of marriage, but you just really want to stay with that person you’re living with. Or when the pastor talks about the end times again. Some subjects of the Christian life just aren’t comfortable for us to hear. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t need to hear them. If I’m sitting in church and find myself getting angry at the pastor and/or the church I have to ask myself: Am I angry at the church because they’re making me feel guilty over something I should probably feel guilty over? The converse also needs to be asked. Am I angry because someone is making me feel guilty over something I don’t need to feel guilty about? This is an important question. In these situations, I take the time to search my heart and look to Scripture, godly advice, and what I know of God’s character. Sometimes we get angry at the church because we feel convicted, and that conviction is a good thing. But if a community is making us feel guilty in a way that doesn’t line up with God’s Word, we need to take a second look at what is being taught.

3. Is this something I can fix instead of just complain about?
This question always kicks me in the gut. It’s really easy to complain, but much harder to be a part of the solution. But the reality is that if no one in the church actively seeks to improve the community, then nothing will ever change or progress. If you see a visitor alone in a corner, don’t just get angry that your church doesn’t have a better greeting ministry. Instead, remind yourself that you are the church, walk over there, and say hello. Better yet, talk to your pastor about setting up a greeting ministry, so you can recruit more people to help you out in your goal. A handful of pastors and elders can’t be all things to a church. So if you see a place where your community is falling short, step in and fill up the gap.

These truths and questions can help us consider wisely our place within a Christian community and the reality of disillusionment due to sin. Just because we accept disillusionment as a part of the project of the church, however, does not mean that we should not also mourn whenever it occurs. When yet another sex scandal breaks on a church like a storm, we mourn. When someone we trusted as a fellow believer betrays that trust, we mourn. When we are unnecessarily hurtful or unkind toward one of our brothers or sisters, we mourn. But in our lament over our sinfulness, we should also look to God and His plan for the church in hope. No, this community is not perfect. But the fact that it exists, that God is moving it toward perfection, and that we have each other to lean on as we limp slowly toward that glory: this is a gift and a mercy on which we should never give up.

Giving Up

My husband and I recently went on vacation in Door County, Wisconsin: a whole week of camping and biking and kayaking. The kayaking was my husband’s idea, but it sounded fun. Lake Michigan was still a lake, right, so how rough could the water be?

The answer: really, really rough.kayak3

If you’ve never kayaked before (like us), you find out that it’s a lot more difficult than it looks. In a two person rig, the person in front paddles to provide forward movement to the boat while the person in the back is in charge of ruddering with his or her paddle to keep the nose pointed in the right direction.

I took the front, while Jeremy was in the back. And we found the limits of trust and patience in our marriage.

Jeremy didn’t know how to steer, so every time we tried to go straight the wind would push us in circles. The waves were breaking over the front of the kayak, a terrifying sight as I tried to paddle as hard as possible with the nose of the boat tipping first up into the sky and then down into a deep valley of ominous blue-green water.

After five minutes, I was yelling. After ten minutes, I was threatening divorce (if we survived). After twenty minutes, I propped my paddle across the prow out of the water and just cried. We were going to die during our summer vacation, 200 yards from shore.

Eventually, Jeremy figured out how to steer and we had a nice day feeling pretty bad-ass as we crested the massive waves with growing skill. But my initial breakdown revealed something ugly I didn’t want to realize: the very shallow level of trust I had in my husband.

I should have remembered all the things he’s done, and then I would have known that if it meant jumping out of the boat into the freezing water to pull me to shore, he would have done it. He’s always sacrificed his own comfort for mine, faced down his fears so I don’t have to be afraid. But I was afraid. And I blamed him for it.

It made me realize how bad I am at trust in general. I can’t trust my husband for twenty minutes in lake-sized waves. And I can see him. I can touch him. But God is mysterious. He’s invisible. How could I possibly trust Him?

Lately I’ve been reading in the Old Testament, specifically the Pentateuch or Torah, or the first five books that detail the creation of the nation of Israel, God’s covenants with them, and His leading them into the promised land. Sounds like a great positive, happy story, right? But over and over again the Israelites complain. And rebel. And want to turn back.

If they were in the front of the kayak and God in the back, they would be putting up their paddles and crying.

Whenever I read about Israel, particularly when they tell God right to His face that they would be better off in Egypt, I just want to smack them up-side their collective head and say, “Don’t you remember the ten plagues? Don’t you remember the Red Sea?” I think to myself that if I had manna every morning and a pillar of cloud over my church every day that I would have no problem trusting that God was awesome and powerful and had everything under control. That if I had a God who gave me water in the desert and food from the sky, I would never doubt His good intentions and ability to carry them out.

But if I’m really honest, I don’t get upset with Israel because they’re stupid and I could do better. I get upset with them because they’re me.

God has come through for me time and time again. He’s saved me from staying put in bad situations, He’s given me material things I’ve needed right at the last moment, He’s plucked me out of what I thought I wanted and put me somewhere even better, fulfilling my wildest hopes and dreams. He’s showered me with blessings and love and goodness.

But all it takes is one big wave, one look at how far away the shore is, and I start yelling. And threatening to leave. And then just giving up.

Just like I do with the Israelites, I mock Peter when he fails to trust Jesus even after he has already taken several steps (!) across the water of the Sea of Galilee (which is just a lake, if you didn’t know). Just like them, Peter has seen the power and the awesome faithfulness of Jesus over and over again, but when he looks down at the waves, they just seem more real than God, and he sinks.

peter1Israel, Peter, and I all struggle(d) with the same thing: sometimes the scariness of the physical situation around us just seems stronger than God’s power. And we cry out to go back to Egypt. We start sinking beneath the waves.

But the Old Testament, the New Testament and personal experience all tell us that though we may try to give up on God, God never gives up on us.

God sticks with the Israelites through the entire Bible, thousands of years, and even incarnates Himself as one of them in order to suffer and die and offer grace to the entire world through them. If He has been that faithful to them despite their failures, think of how faithful He must be towards us who have been marked with the blood of the Son as His children.

So while sometimes I want to hate myself for just how faithless and pathetic I can be, I try my faltering best at remembering not just God’s power, but also His love. Yes, it would be better if I could just trust Him all the time no matter how big the waves are, and I should always be trying to improve my faith, but when I fail, I have God’s amazing character to fall back on.

I’m seeking to grow in double trust: faith in God’s power to lead me through what seems impossible, and faith in His character to never leave me even when I deserve to be left.

My husband didn’t push me out the boat and leave me to float in the middle of Lake Michigan, though he had good reason to. If he as a human being can be that patient and compassionate, I’m pretty sure I can trust God to get me safely back to shore.

kayak4

The Parable of the Lost Dog…er, Sheep

DSC03084I love my dogs. Yes, I’ll admit it. I’m one of those weird people (you know the ones) who talk to their pets in squeaky baby voices, buy them pretty collars and soft beds, cry on their fur after a bad day. I call them my “fur-babies.” I haven’t yet started buying them Halloween costumes, but if I don’t have human babies soon, its only a matter of time.

We adopted both our dogs from the same shelter. Amos, our first pet, is a wrinkly, cuddly, stinky mess of a beagle pug mix, otherwise known as a puggle. He deserves his old man/biblical prophet name, as his face perpetually looks mournful due to his sagging facial skin. We call him “spot jacker” because no matter how asleep he may seem, he always takes the warm place you were just sitting in if you get up to go to the bathroom or get more popcorn during a movie. He goes crazy whenever he smells chocolate. He sleeps with his head on a pillow like a human. He snores louder than my husband with a cold. All day.

We adopted Lucy last summer when we decided that Amos needed a buddy, mostly to remind him that he is, in fact, a canine. We thought a seven pound chihuahua mix would be a perfect addition to the house–a sweet little girl, submissive and barely noticeable, just a tiny little thing to distract Amos so he wouldn’t be so needy — like I said before, he’s a cuddler. Lucy fit this description…for a few hours. But a big personality came in a tiny package. She uses Amos’s face skin as a tug-of-war toy, she pulls off my socks and attacks my toes if she’s bored, she growls at pit bulls ten times her size. She wakes me up in the morning when she’s hungry by perching on my chest, fixing me with an unblinking stare, and furiously wagging her little stub of a tail. Her nickname, if you can guess, is “little beasty.” Or occasionally, simply “monster.” Oh, and if she gets excited she pees all over herself.DSC03072

So why all this talk about my dogs?

Well, first because I love them. And because living with them has taught me a few things about God.

For all of you non-dog people now rolling your eyes, let me digress into telling a story. Sorry, it’s still about animals, but this time we’re talking sheep. Sheep don’t jump on you or try to lick your face, so try to give them a chance.

Once upon a time, a man had a hundred sheep. He knew each of them by sight, and one day when he looked out over the herd, he noticed that a particular sheep was missing. Trusting the rest of the herd to stay together where they happily chomped away at a lush patch of grass, the man headed into the rocky hills where he figured the lone sheep had wandered.

Thorns tore at his clothes. He narrowly missed placing his hand on a rattlesnake sunning itself on a ledge. He kept his ears tuned to any hint of a lion, which would eat him just as readily as the lone sheep, if he didn’t find it in time. The sharp rocks cut his hands despite his calluses, leaving a crimson trail behind him in the hot sand.

Finally, after hours of sweaty searching, the man heard a faint bleating. The echoing, panicked cry led him to a rocky pit. At the bottom, there was his sheep. Using the last reserves of his strength, the man climbed down the crumbling wall of the hole, hoisted the frantically bleating sheep over his shoulders, and struggled back out into the sun. After applying soothing oil to the animal’s scratches and bruises, he took the beast on his shoulders once again and made his way back to the pleasant valley and the rest of the flock.

If you recognize this story, that’s probably because its’s one of a series of parables that Jesus relates to a large crowd, as recorded in Luke 15. Luke tells us that Jesus is hanging out with “sinners and tax collectors,” and that the religious authorities of the day, the Pharisees, are scandalized by the sort of company he chooses to keep. Jesus offers this story as an explanation.

Now back to my dogs.

Amos ran away once. It was in the middle of a pouring deluge, a sudden and terrific summer thunderstorm, and his extra neck skin made it easy for him to pull out of a wet collar. He’s not particularly afraid of thunder; I suppose he thought he could do better on his own, find a place safe and dry and warm if he wasn’t forced to obey the person holding the leash. In any case, we and a collection of friends and neighbors ran around in the dark and the rain for what seemed an eternity, calling and calling and calling Amos’s name between cracks of thunder.

As it turned out, he was circling the block as we were chasing him, too scared to stop, but just smart enough to know the general location of his home. He ran in the same direction we were chasing, round and round the same path. Someone sitting on their porch told us they had seen him pass several times, so we switched directions and caught him. All he would have had to do is stop, and we would have found him earlier and brought him in out of the rain. Or better, he could have just not run away in the first place.

SONY DSCBut Amos is dumb. I love him, but he just is. He doesn’t know what’s best for him. If he didn’t have my husband and me, if he didn’t have a master, he would die.  If he did whatever he wanted, he would run into traffic, he would get lost, he would pick fights with mean dogs, he would eat that half box of tacos somebody left on the sidewalk.  He would do whatever seemed best to him, and that would kill him.

As I carried him back into the warm apartment after we found him that night, I was so angry and so happy to see him that I just cried and squeezed him till he stopped shaking. Stupid dog. Stupid, precious dog I love so much.

I don’t know about all of you, but when I do stupid things I feel like God hates me. I feel like He’s looking down on me, disappointed and angry, giving me a silent look that says, “You got yourself into this mess. Now you’re going to have to get yourself out of it.” And in the times that I’ve run away, I feel like God will never be able to love me again, even if He condescends to accept me crawling back.

That makes me a Pharisee.

But Jesus, talking and laughing with a rough crowd, corrects that perspective.  He tells a story about a man, just like any good shepherd, who goes after a lost sheep. His story doesn’t talk about how stupid the sheep is, how the sheep deserved to be eaten by a lion. He focuses on the shepherd and how he without question goes after that one sheep.

Jesus implies that if a shepherd, as a part of his job, is willing to risk injury and death to find one stupid sheep, one of a hundred, then how much more do you think God is willing to do for just one human being? A human being that He made? A human being that He loves?

Most often we talk about this passage to remind church people to break down their walls and care about those God cares about, the “sinners” that a lot of religious people would rather avoid. But I think we sometimes forget: we are all those sinners. Even if we’ve already accepted God’s mercy through Christ to receive righteousness, aren’t there times that most of us have “run away”? Made mistakes? Decided we’re going to head out on our own? Just been plain stupid?

I know I have. And I feel like if I were God, I wouldn’t take me back.

But as I’m cleaning up taco-filled dog barf, standing in the alley in -15 degree windchill as they find that perfect place to pee, buy expensive food with real meat in it, brush dog hair off my favorite sweater, find holes in my new socks, urine on my floor, and Amos drool on my pillow, I realize I do these things because I love these stupid dogs. And if I do these things willingly, voluntarily, because I, in my limited way, love these dumb animals, then…could God, just maybe, love me even more?

So when I’ve run away again and I don’t want to come back or call out to God for help, I think about my dogs, and that story Jesus told about the sheep. I picture Amos in the rain, and that sheep in the hills, and I know that if I can understand love that much, then perhaps I can believe in God’s love. I see Him running through a thunderstorm, calling my name. I see Him hot and sweaty, worry and relief in His eyes, as He climbs down the side of the pit to carry me out. I see him suffering, humiliated, bleeding quietly, dying on a cross.

Woven Together

This past weekend I had the opportunity to share a story with my church family on our annual retreat. I thought I’d share it here as well.

Our church has recently been emphasizing evangelism, specifically by individual church members in daily life as opposed to large church outreaches. At the forefront of this movement is the idea of “discovery groups,” organized by church members around a common activity or hobby to which they can invite non-church members. The main idea is to connect with the community in a non-threatening way. It gets non-Christians connected to Christians and gives Christians a chance to talk to them about Jesus while making friendships over, say, basketball or cooking or origami.

Great idea, right? But when I was handed a sheaf of paper full of details, logistics, and bullet points about this plan, I felt only resentment and frustration. For one, I was just sick and tired of how complicated and intimidating the church kept making these things. Can’t we talk about stuff in simple, straightforward ways that make sense to everybody? I mean, we don’t all have seminary degrees.

I also felt alienated by the nature of the plan in general. For a goal that the church was emphasizing as its primary vision for the future, it was very much geared toward extroverted people who were good at leadership and organization. Like people who were already pastors.

It made me angry. It was too complicated. It was too exclusive. Mostly, though, it hit me in a place that was already feeling sore about the church and my belonging in it.

Where was I supposed to fit? I’m an introverted bibliophile who chooses the paperwork jobs instead of the at-the-front-door-greeting-people roles. I sit in the back with my eyes closed instead of standing in the aisle with my hands raised. I pray for friends before bed or over coffee with them, not in the middle of a group of people at the altar after service.

It’s not that I’m ashamed of my faith. It’s the most important part of my life, my purpose, my joy and my hope. And I want everyone else to feel as loved by God as I do. I’m just not that person. I’m quiet. I’m shy. I’m in the background. I’m a perfect churchy version of a wallflower.

When it comes down to it, I just don’t really like people. I do fine at loving them in small numbers. But they’re scary, and sometimes hurtful, and always exhausting. I was just doing my best with the small group of close friends and acquaintances I could manage.

Was I doing something wrong? Did I need to change myself? Jesus talked about the left hand not knowing what the right is doing, and the blessings due to the meek. He often went off to pray by himself and tried to escape the crowds. He had only twelve close disciples and three trusted friends. Right?

I felt guilty. Just looking at the packet gave me an anxious stomachache.

I mean, I didn’t feel like I had anything to offer anyway. I didn’t have enough non-Christian friends to create a group. And nobody cared about my weird hobbies and interests. Everyone would just laugh and make fun of the girl who thought people would come to a social group all about the birth of the modern novel or the economic world of Charles Dickens.

So when I was urged to create a discovery group, my heart gave a resounding, injured no.

But my extroverted friends, Isabel and Heather, were super excited about the idea. They already had lists of people they knew they’d like to invite, tons of non-Christian friends who they couldn’t get to come to church but who would come to a discovery group. They just couldn’t come up with an idea for a group to invite them to.

Their devious solution: make me start a free crocheting class. They had the people. I had the skills.

I only agreed on the condition that this would not be a discovery group. It would just be me teaching crocheting to Isabel and Heather and their friends in a local coffee shop every other Saturday. Girls showed up, I taught them how to crochet, we talked about life and frustrations and relationships and religion.

Then I was asked by the pastors to talk about “my discovery group” as an example for the rest of the church at the annual retreat. And grudgingly, I finally had to admit that I had done exactly what that annoying, complicated guide was meant to encourage the congregation to do all along.

Yes, their method of communicating their goal might have been wrong. But I was wrong too for thinking that I had nothing to offer in forwarding that goal.

Yes, their wording excluded the introverted, the meek, the ones who aren’t good at networking. But it was selfish of me to think of my hobbies and activities as just mine, as something no one else might be interested in but me, as something God couldn’t use.

I realized I had matured enough to recognize that God made me the way I am, but not enough to realize that I could be used for evangelism as well as anyone else. Like Moses, I fell back on excuses provided by my weaknesses instead of asking God how He wanted to use those “weaknesses” He gave me.

I also made the mistake of thinking about evangelism as something I had to do on my own. I didn’t look around and see all the people who were good at what I wasn’t, the people who could fill in the gaps.

And the more I stepped back, the more I saw the metaphor right in my own hands. The church was a blanket.

In my crochet projects, it’s really boring to use only one color. But with a combination of contrasting colors, a project becomes uniquely beautiful and complex. It’s also a fact that each row is woven into those before it. If you try to rip out one color, the whole thing falls apart. Every row, every half inch, is created in inseparable connection to the last.

Progress is slow. The work tedious. Sometimes it feels like hours of work haven’t gotten you anywhere at all. But if you don’t give up, in the end you have a beautiful, useful final product.

I thought I had to be the only color, a boring, unlikeable tone. I didn’t see my place in the pattern. But working together, woven together, different colors made something beautiful. I didn’t have to be everything, just something. I didn’t have to knit everything together myself. Rather, I submitted myself to the Master Craftsman who made me just the way I am so I could represent a specific hue in the spectrum of his artistry.

We are each in fact what we’re meant to be, woven together to make something beautiful. So beautiful, in fact, that we can’t even imagine the end result. So don’t be afraid. Open your eyes to the work going on around you, and like me, you will find your place in the beauty He makes.

Tension in Tolerance

Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. — Jesus, Matthew 10:34

I had a very interesting discussion with one of my professors last week about the changing meaning of the word “tolerance.” We got on the topic by discussing Henry David Thoreau, a guy who in the early years of America went and lived in a cabin by a pond for a year, just to see what he could learn about how a person can live a full life. He wrote a book about it, titled Walden, that is currently included in most undergraduate American literature reading requirements.

Discussing Thoreau’s writings in my grad school class, my professor was astonished to find that most of our group wasn’t offended or annoyed by the book. She admitted that the longer she has taught, the more her undergraduate students seem to hate Thoreau, claiming that he is “pushing his ideas of how life should be lived” and “preaching” and “judgmental.” My professor was confused, she said, since my generation had no problems with Thoreau, but that each successive freshman class has gotten more and more rabid toward Walden. What was up?

I suggested it might have something to do with changing ideas of tolerance in the modern world. Tolerance used to mean that even if you didn’t live a certain lifestyle, you didn’t tell someone else that their lifestyle was somehow bad or less good than yours. In that generation, my generation, you could live your life however you wanted as long as you didn’t say it was best (of course, for Christians, this definition of tolerance poses problems, but I think you can figure them out on your own without a rabbit trail of an explanation). I suppose that is why we had no problem with Thoreau back then; to us, he was just another guy trying to find the best way to live his life, whether we thought he was going about it in the right way or not.

But recently, I said, tolerance has seemed to take on a slightly different meaning. The more the term is pushed, the more it seems to imply that even choosing a way of living, that picking a side, so to speak, automatically makes you intolerant. I suggested that this is what has happened with Thoreau: where my generation could read his ideas and reject or accept them, younger generations are offended just by the fact that he chose a direction. Just by living his life in a certain, deliberate way, Thoreau seems to offend the modern idea of tolerance. Indeed, my professor sardonically laughed, it seems that “every man for himself” has become “every man is everything,” meaning that the idea of “tolerance” is actually intolerant by enforcing a vision of neutrality.

Now, I was at first distressed by this increasingly anti-Christian cultural philosophy. (Everything is just getting worse! The whole kit and kaboodle is going to H-E-double hockey sticks!) But I remembered that somewhere Jesus might have said something about this, and I turned to Matthew.

Though I’d read it a million times over, I was surprised to find Jesus directly addressing my concerns not just in one verse, but in several. (But not in the way I wanted: “Hide! Run away! Darn them all to H-E-double hockey sticks!”) In fact, it seemed like Jesus actually knew that the world was going downhill and that we would be hated. That being disliked was a necessary result of our faith.

Most shocking, though, was what I read in chapter 10: “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.”

Okay, what?

We talk a lot about Jesus and peace, and I’m not saying I think that’s wrong. The hope of the gospel is that Jesus will come and reign again and cure us and the whole world of sin, destroying the very thing that has destroyed peace since Adam and Eve ate the fruit. But what Jesus is saying in Matthew about his ministry then and there, and the ministry of those who follow him until he returns again, is that it causes division, not peace. Strife, not resolution.

Again, what? And what does this mean for tolerance?

We live in a world that grows more and more antagonistic toward Christianity. Not just the existence of God, not just the morality we promote, not just our general political leanings or preachings or missions or worship or community. It is growing more antagonistic toward anyone who not only says that their beliefs are truth, are best, but also toward anyone who chooses a direction.

And when we choose Jesus, whether we like it or not, it means choosing a direction. We pick a side. We take the narrow way, instead of the wide one. We are different.

In a world where “tolerance” and “getting along” are the highest goals, what are we to do? The idea of making people mad makes us cringe (I’m a huge people-pleaser, so it makes me want to vomit), but we read these verses about how our beliefs might even separate families and we get confused. God, what do you want? Division? Or peace?

God of course loves peace. I don’t think Jesus is telling us to literally take a sword (paintball gun, mace, two-by-four, spray paint…) to people who don’t believe what we do. I think he is simply telling us the truth: when you chose a side, my side, there will be people who are on the other side who don’t like you. By choosing a direction, you will be going against the neutrality, the anti-confrontationalism, the passivity of the world.

Jesus didn’t bring peace when he came the first time. He brought a dividing line.

You see, the world thinks that peace will come if we all just water down our beliefs enough that really we won’t be different anymore and we can all just be friends. Just Jesus knows that we will only have peace when we all are united under one belief: our belief in him. But that won’t come until later. So for now, by choosing a direction, we’re going against the grain.

Should this get us down (oh, hooray, a whole life of people hating me!)? After reading Matthew, I was actually really encouraged to know, first of all, that none of this is a surprise to Jesus. But secondly, I think Jesus wants us to see how this is the way it was always meant to be and it gives us a great place from which to proclaim his name.

Indeed, most of his metaphors for us talk about standing out. We are salt and light, not dirt and twilight shadows. We were never meant to blend in. So as the world gets more “tolerant,” the more we stand out. Yes, this means we will catch more flac, but it also means more questions will be asked, more opportunities for conversations will come about, more light will shine in the increasing darkness.

Really, it makes our jobs easier. While before we had to preach loudly, explain how our religion is better than others, explain why Christianity is not disproved by science, now all we have to do is…choose. Choose a direction. Have an opinion. Commit yourself to God’s directions for living.

Follow Jesus, and the tension with tolerance will find you.

An Affair With God

Scandalous title, right?

We all know what we think of when we hear the word “affair,” and somehow applying it to our relationship with God just seems, well, naughty. But if God is love, isn’t He also…a lover?

Such is the theme of the classic novel by British author Graham Greene, The End of the Affair. Set in London during the Blitz of World War II, the story is narrated by Bendrix, a bachelor novelist bitterly relating the tale of his affair with the beautiful Sarah, a married woman.

For the first half of this short book, all you want to do is hate Bendrix. Beyond the fact that he’s literally stealing his neighbor’s wife, he acknowledges and doesn’t give a rip about his own depravity. Jealousy, pettiness, and what he calls “hate love” dominate his relationship with Sarah as both lovers desperately try to find wholeness in each other, both knowing they never will.

But the beauty, as well as the piercing depth, of this story comes from this realistic presentation of these desperately honest sinners. When it comes to well-crafted characters, nobody does it better than Graham Greene. All depraved to the core, you want to hate them but find you can’t, because they’re you. In Greene’s writing, you are faced with the reality of the darkness that we all carry inside of us, the darkness that can only be dissipated by the power of God’s grace.

And this book is about grace.

When Sarah ends her affair with Bendrix, his maddening jealousy convinces him that she has a new lover. Bendrix hires a detective to track down this unknown rival so he can win Sarah back, convinced that no one can love her as much as he does. But what if this new lover is even more jealous, strong, and loving than Bendrix could ever imagine?

I would love to talk about this book forever, since it’s my all-time favorite novel (and that means a lot, because I read a ton). But the best part of The End of the Affair is the way it hits you right in the soul with unexpected truths, and I don’t want to take away from any of the surprise of the experience.

I do want to say that while it’s an amazing book, it shouldn’t be interpreted as a theological text. Graham Greene was supposedly a Catholic, and if so not a very good one, so his word is not gospel.

But I can say with confidence that every time I’ve read this book I’ve come away with a deep-in-the-heart feeling of how our ordinary lives hide amazing spiritual realities and am reminded (to an extent I rarely receive from theology books) just how jealously God loves each of us. Each time I turn the last page, I take a deep breath and appreciate anew the most passionate, fulfilling relationship I have ever experienced, the one that saved me from the utter loneliness of this empty world: my affair with God. I hope that in reading The End of the Affair, you can be reminded of the same.

Living Christian in an Evil World

When I first opened up Mark Galli’s article on the Colorado theater shooting, I thought his words would feel dated and no longer that applicable, since I had “moved past” the event. You know, the news stops showing photos of panic, you stop thinking about it (mostly because you didn’t want to think about it in the first place), and life goes on.

But his essay wasn’t just another prayer for the victims’ families, not another cry of outrage to God, not another explanation of why bad things happen. Galli drives home what we all should have considered back when the tragedy occurred by widening the scope: this horrible event wasn’t an isolated violent incident in an otherwise perfect world.  It was yet another impossible-to-ignore example of just how broken, messed up, and violent our world really is. While we try to rationalize and spiritualize until that troubling fact goes away, we seem to be missing the one question we should be asking: what does this mean for my life as a Christian?

I saw myself in the author’s description of his reaction to the tragedy. First thoughts are of blank shock, then disbelief, then anger, then fear. If I would have been there, what would I have done? If I had lost a loved one, how would I feel? If I carry a gun, can I prevent something like this from happening again? But I never asked God what He thought about the situation, and I never thought about how the existence of evil should shape my Christian life. Do I live in fear because of this? Or can I find a way to walk in faith?

Galli reminds us of the irony of our religion: that the God to whom we bring our grief is also the God who has already worked to bring an end to all suffering, death, and sin. The same God who allowed Lazarus to die and wept at his tomb was also the one who brought him back to life, told him to walk into the sunlight.

Our God is a God who both knows suffering and gives healing. So as Christians, Galli asks, why do we respond to tragedies like everyone else: in fear, confusion, and unfocused anger? Is there a better way to deal with evil, and if so, what is it?

God does have an answer to suffering, if we’re only willing to take it: the peace that comes through knowing and believing in Christ Jesus, the one who suffered and overcame.

As this violent summer slips behind us, Mark Galli’s article is a timely and thought-provoking message with which we can strengthen our souls to face another day in an imperfect world. Click on the link below to go to his column on the Christianity Today webpage.

Making Non-Sense of the Colorado Shootings | Christianity Today.