***Disclaimer about last week’s disclaimer: I said LAST WEEK that I didn’t want to offend anyone, and well, that didn’t really work out. In fact, (to save you the time of reading it all), I was told that the post was “nothing but an invitation for deceivers to join together to spit in the face of God.” NOT what I was going for. So, I’m going to stress something in disclaimer #2. I am sharing my opinion, and if yours doesn’t match mine, we’re cool! In fact, if you’ve got thoughts that don’t jive with mine, let me know, and we can work it out. That’s what big people do.
With the exception of one person, I had an overwhelmingly wonderful response to last week’s post. After shamelessly self-promoting at one of my favorite blogs, last week’s post was the most visited ever on my blog--seriously crazy numbers--so thank you to everyone who read, responded, and shared the post with friends.
One of my favorite responses came from a friend who especially appreciated my quotation from The Dude. Bryan sent me a message on Facebook through his wife: “nobody f&@*# with the Jesus.” Thank you, Bryan. I’m sure we’ve just offended someone else together. Team work!
If you didn’t read last week’s post, I’m reading the Bible (the whole thing, cover to cover) in 90 days with my Sunday school class, and every Sunday between now and then, I will post my thoughts about the readings and the process. For those of you who have somehow stumbled across this blog and don’t know me from Eve, I am not a pastor or a seminary student or even a “lay minister” in the strictest sense of those words. I’m just a thinker, and these are my thoughts.
These posts are for three different types of people:
- My non-Christian friends: I have a lot of friends who are not Christians, and I hope that these posts clarify to you what being a Christian means to me.
- My Christian friends who don’t go to church: I figure if you slept in this morning and missed church, here’s a little (ha ha--not so little by the time you get to the end!) sermon of sorts for you to chew on before you watch some football.
- The Church: I am, like so many people I know, trying to work through my (lack of) faith in “the Church.” I willingly admit that I’ve got a chip on my shoulder, a bone to pick, something in my crawl--whatever you want to call it--when it comes to my relationship with the “body of Christ.” So many of my friends have left the church angry, bitter, and/or hurt, and I don’t blame them. On some level, I really want to just quit, too. But there’s an idealist in me that keeps trying to fix what’s broken. So, I hope to represent a huge number of people who feel they have been systematically failed by the Church in an effort to bring insight to those who still consider themselves part of the Church.
So, I’ve been joking around about having to read Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy this week because it’s generally known as the most boring part of the Bible. For those of you who haven’t read the Bible, it’s comparable to the chapter in Moby Dick when Melville describes the measurement of the whale’s skeleton. For those of you who haven’t read Moby Dick, just take my word for it--it’s boring. We’ve got lists of rules and regulations, some of them repeated over and over again. We also have descriptions of highly symbolic buildings and religious items and a census, where all of the Israelites are counted. Not riveting.
You know what, though? I actually kind of enjoyed reading Leviticus. I mean, I might have nodded off a couple of times, but looking at these books for the first time in a few years gave me fresh eyes to notice some interesting things. In context, I find it fascinating that this many rules and regulations existed, and although a lot of them seem strange (like the 13 verses that outline how to deal with mildew), it makes sense. They didn’t have the kind of modern medicine or even cleansers that we have, so containing bodily fluids (I got really tired of reading the words discharge, semen, and period) and staying clean was quite literally their saving grace. If you think about how quickly the flu or a stomach bug can travel through a kindergarten class that is stocked with hand sanitizer, Clorox wipes, and tissues today, just think what it must have been like for thousands of people living in tents.
In Numbers, I got to a part that I don’t remember ever reading (even though I know I have). The section in my Bible is titled “The Test for an Unfaithful Wife.” This whole section reminds me of THIS. Also, a bright spot in Numbers is what is known as the Aaronic blessing (I think it would be better called the Ironic Blessing, as so much of what surrounds it is a bit doomy and gloomy). Most people have probably heard this said in wedding ceremonies: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace.” That’s actually really beautiful--right in the middle of a bunch of stuff that weighs pretty heavily on me. For a good portion of Numbers, we are following the Israelites on the way to Canaan--a place that has been promised to them, a land flowing with milk and honey (which actually sounds rather sticky).
The thing that sticks out to me through this whole passage is the fact that the Israelites are super cranky, always complaining about their situation. They repeatedly say things like, “Wouldn’t it be better for us to go back to Egypt?” Seriously? You’re this close to the land that God has been promising you, and you want to go back to the place where you were enslaved for 400 years? Really? (There’s a phenomenal book by Rob Bell called Jesus Wants to Save Christians that chronicles the Exodus in painstakingly beautiful detail that every thinking Christian should read.) Interspersed with this story of the Israelites’ journey are more rules, and I’m struck by the juxtaposition--a man is stoned for breaking the Sabbath right before instructions on having tassels on the corner of their garments. Seems a bit odd.
Now, If I were someone reading this for the first time, Deuteronomy is about the time I would be saying, “ALL RIGHT, ALREADY! ENOUGH!” But as someone who has read the end of the story, I know that there are significant things in Deuteronomy that come into play right around the climax of the Bible, a very long, confusing book.
So fast-forward to the New Testament (I know, I know--I’m kind of cheating by fast-forwarding), and some smartypants religious guys were trying to trip Jesus up (it was always the religious folk causing problems for Jesus), so one of them asked, “Of all the commandments, which is the most important?” He answers by saying, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus, a rabbi, wasn’t just picking these out of thin air--he was combining a verse from Deuteronomy with a verse from Leviticus.
I have a lot of friends who don’t believe in God or if they do, they aren’t Christians, so I want to clarify something. When I talk about having a “relationship” with God (my interpretation of the greatest commandment), I’m talking about believing that there is something protecting and guiding me, a source of unconditional love, peace, and grace. I believe I can communicate with God and that God can communicate with me--as long as I’m open to it. And loving God with my heart, soul, mind, and strength takes purposeful action on my part.
It’s not magic. There’s no formula. I just know that from a very young age (like, I don’t remember not feeling this way), I have felt God’s “presence” (to use a Christianese word). Some might argue, “Well, of course, you did! You were raised by Christians! We all latch on to what’s presented to us first!”
But that’s not what I’m talking about. I’m not talking about dogma or doctrine or laws or lessons. I’m talking about a sense of being part of something bigger than me that is separate from what people label as being a “Christian.” (I have friends who grew up in other parts of the world where they could have been killed for believing in God, who would testify to this same phenomenon.)
There are a lot of things about the Christian faith that confuse me or just plain freak me out to the point that I don’t have the ability to articulate what I believe (yet), but this is something I’ve worked out. I believe in God in a personal way, not just as a creator, but as joy and kindness and inspiration for living. There are people who will read this and think, “Uh, duh.” And there are others who will read this and think, “Uh, crazy!” And I’m totally fine with both of those responses. I’m just trying to share where I am and why, and I am trying to make sense to a wide variety of people. My friends are a mixed bag--one thing that I really, really like about my life.
So, back to the greatest commandments. This right here is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Love God and love others.
One of the things about evangelical faith that is so disheartening is the mixed messages. In the beginning, we are told that God’s grace is unending and unconditional. But the longer we hang around the smartypants religious people, we start finding out stuff that seems ending and conditional. And I think that’s where a lot of people give up. As a Christian, I am at the basic level saying that I subscribe to the Gospel of Jesus Christ--love God and love others. But what a lot of Christians do is try to take Biblical insights and substitute them for Jesus’ Gospel. I like to call this concept the Gospel of Righteousness.
Instead of focusing on loving God and loving others, some people focus on being as “righteous” as possible. The way this translates in the real world is they constantly strive to live up to an unattainable standard. Growing up, I heard a lot of talk about living for God in an extreme way. There’s a verse in Revelation that gets tossed around when people are living according to the Gospel of Righteousness. It says, “I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot, I wish you were one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I am about to spit you out of my mouth.” In addition to the fact that Revelation is easily the most misunderstood book of the Bible, this verse in particular I think is used out of context to make people feel guilty about not being an extreme Christian. God is going to spit you out if you don’t live a certain way. People take this to mean we must do certain things like:
- read the Bible enough
- pray enough
- go to church enough
- wear modest clothing
- refrain from cutting hair, wearing make-up/jewelry
- associate with people who only “edify” us in our faith
- avoid secular pop culture (movies, music, tattoos, etc.)
- refrain from drinking/dancing/having sex before marriage/hanging out with people who do these things
Depending on the faith community (re: church), there are levels to the required activity. In churches where part of this Gospel is adopted, people may be only legalistic in reference to the amount of “time spent with God.” (I remember thinking at a very young age, "If God is everywhere, aren't we always spending time with him?") I grew up with the idea that if I missed a day of reading my Bible, I was simply not doing enough to keep up my relationship with God, and I was on a slippery slope to becoming a backsliding heathen. (Soapbox sidenote: the American Christians who subscribe to this notion--and there are a lot of them who do--fail to realize that there are Christians all over the world who do not have access to a Bible, let alone the ability to read. Somehow these people find ways to connect with God.) Choosing a specific activity (i.e. reading the Bible, praying, going to church) as the way to reach God is egocentric and narrow-minded.
In moderate versions of this, you might see things like sermons that focus solely on specific actions (i.e. drinking, sex before marriage, modesty). Again, hearing someone’s opinion about these subjects is fine by me, and I don’t even object to the general idea of “clean living.” I do not think getting drunk all the time and dressing like a hoochie is a good way to show God that I love him and my neighbors. However, when our focus shifts to behavior, we lose sight of the goal. And this is the area where most people who do not consider themselves a part of the church decide they have no desire to be part of the church. In our effort to live up to a certain standard, we don’t come off as “different” or “holy” as many Christians like to think. We come off as weird and holier than thou.
In extreme cases, you have congregations who do nothing but go to church for CD-stomping services and book bonfires because they are afraid that if any part of “the world” rubs off on them, they simply aren’t righteous enough.
Do I think that living out any of the things on that list is bad? No. I think reading the Bible, praying, going to church, and hanging out with people with similar beliefs can absolutely make for a better life. I think the rest of the issues are totally personal preference and culturally-based (I’ve been in church services with bare-breasted women in other countries, while Americans have arguments about whether a skirt above the knee is appropriate for a woman singing in the choir), and I’m not going to judge someone on either end of the spectrum. I have tattooed, beer-drinking friends who love Jesus, and I have friends who won’t watch R-rated movies or wear make-up who love Jesus. And at the risk of sounding flippant, I say: whatever floats your boat.
What I do believe is that replacing Jesus’ Gospel of “love God and love others” with a list of requirements is a really bad idea (and the exact opposite of grace). The more (self-)righteous we become, the less focused we are on doing the thing that Christ told us to do in the first place. The Gospel of Righteousness is at its core a legalistic faith that dwindles to a) check-the-box feel-good moments in time, or worse b) a constant sense that we have failed God by not living up to contrived expectations. It’s a Gospel of frustration that sucks the very joy out of living.
So, how do we make sure to avoid replacing the supreme Gospel of love with bad (or good) ideas? This, I think, is the essence of that “relationship” with God I was talking about. How do I love God and love people? Oddly enough, I found the answer in the boring book of Deuteronomy. Following the verse that tells me to love God with my heart, soul, and strength (Jesus actually added the mind part...another interesting topic altogether), we find these beautiful words: “These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”
Although I fail miserably some days, I try my best to look at everything through the lens of love. Is what I’m doing (or most often, thinking) in line with loving God and loving others? When an issue of personal/cultural preference comes up, it’s easy to make a choice in my behavior if I keep that in mind.
I love that those verses say that we should be talking about this stuff with our children and when we lie down and when we get up, at home and on the road. There isn’t a moment of the day that should not be motivated by love. The concept of tying symbols on my hands and binding them on my forehead is beautiful. As strange as it sounds, I might be better at doing this if every time I looked at my hands or stared at myself in the mirror, a great big LOVE stared back at me.
Next week, I'm supposed to finish Deuteronomy and read through most of 1 Samuel. Looking forward to more awkwardly awesome stories...or something like that.