Fake Church


Sharon Johnston Park

Sharon Johnston Park, where I didn’t preach a sermon Sunday.

This is going somewhere. Bear with me.

Up until four years ago, I was Southern Baptist, plain and simple. I’d really only ever been to Southern Baptist churches, with rare exceptions visiting friends, one Sunday at a time. That background was all I knew, and I was OK with that.

But four years ago, I was invited to attend a house-based congregation led by one of my former Sunday School teachers. And, long story short, I went. And that, in turn, led to a paradigm-shifting study as to what exactly “church” is. The issue was prompted by my then-coworker Heather, who argued that the home congregation wasn’t really “church.” We had several conversations as to what church is or isn’t and does or doesn’t have to be, and I did a fair bit of reading followed later by field research, with the upshot being that I have a very different sense of what “my church” is that I did four years ago, and one that is continuing to evolve and be challenged today.

But one of the asides to come out of it was that, due to Heather’s allegation that the home congregation wasn’t “real church,” I affectionately dubbed it “fake church,” not as any sort of disparagement, but as a nod to the fact that we were doing something that wasn’t beholden to preconceived notions. Greg was, in turn, my “fake pastor,” despite the fact that, in truth, he was more my real pastor than anyone before or since.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago. I’m at work at the Depot, and having a conversation with one of my co-workers, who is the head of a Civil War re-enactment regiment. He’s talking about an event that’s coming up, and notes that they don’t have anyone to preach that Sunday morning. When they do weekend-long events, they try to have a service so the men don’t have to miss church, but they were recently short a chaplain and so had no one to lead it.

I made the off-hand comment that I would totally do something like that. Matthew asked if I was kidding or not. I actually had to stop and think before answering that I was mostly kidding, I thought.

But the idea got stuck in my head, and I wrote him back that evening and said that if they found anyone remotely qualified, he should have them do it, but if it was going to make the difference between having church or not, I would do it.

So at some point last week, it’s decided that I’m about to preach my first sermon.

Talk about “fake church,” huh? An utterly “unordained” and unqualified guy preaching at a re-enactment. And, yet …

Now, rather than let there be any excitement about that, I will jump ahead and say that I did not, in fact, preach Sunday, due to a variety of factors including weather and low attendance.

But I did go through the process of getting ready, which was an interesting one. I started with the question of, “OK, David, if you were going to get to preach one sermon in your life, what would you want to use it to say?” And I realized that, while I had some ideas there, none of them really felt right for the occasion. So I changed my question to, “OK, then, David, if you were going to preach a sermon to a bunch of people at a Civil War re-enactment, what would you want to say?” And I did come up with a couple of ideas there, which eventually merged into one sermon.

That sermon isn’t really the point of this post, but I’ll say that it basically combined Ebenezer and the idea of living the gospel.

I’m a little proud of myself for being willing to do it, because it was very much stepping out on faith. I would like to think that I could have done it, and, ironically, would have liked to have heard the sermon that would have been preached myself. That’s not to say there wasn’t a little bit of relief on my part when I got the message the night before that they wouldn’t be doing it.

I have no idea if this the end of this story, or the beginning, if almost preaching was the point of the story, or was preparation.

But if you’re ever desperate for a preacher, I have most of a sermon ready …

Welcome to the Golden Age of Heresy


Rob Bell in the "Love Wins" trailer

OK, for those not in the sorts of circles to know this, I’ll summarize.

There’s this guy, Rob Bell. He’s a preacher. And he’s written books with hip-sounding names like Velvet Elvisand Sex Godand Drops Like Stars.

I’ve read Velvet Elvis. I own others, but haven’t read them yet. I’ve also seen some of his video stuff.

So he’s got a new book coming out, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.

He made a video trailer for his new book. In the video, he questions whether Gandhi’s in hell.

This has made many people upset.

These upset people have tweeted and blogged a lot about being upset.

People were upset because saying that Gandhi might not be in hell is heresy.

And heresy, they say, is bad.

Saying that Gandhi might not be in hell, they say, means that Bell may not be a real Christian.

“Farewell, Rob Bell,” they say.

For those people, things are just going to get worse.

Welcome to the Golden Age of heresy.

Everything I’ve heard about the book, including watching the video, makes me think it probably is, in fact, heresy.

And, personally, as much as it sucks, I think believing Gandhi is not in hell is a dubious belief, Christianity-wise.

But I’m not upset about Rob Bell saying it.

See, people use the word “heresy” like it’s a bad thing.

Me, I believe heresy is going to save the church.

Some people would say it has before. Ironically, some of those are the same people condemning Rob Bell for heresy.

All heresy is, is saying that you believe something outside the mainstream orthodoxy.

Sometimes heretics are the people who twist religion to fit their own purposes. I’d agree that sort of heresy is a bad thing.

Sometimes, however, heretics are the people who stand up and say that mainstream orthodoxy is wrong, that it’s the result of someone twisting religion to fit their own purposes. I’d say that sort of heresy is a good thing.

If you believe that the elements of communion do not literally transubstantiate into the body and blood of Christ, thank a heretic. John Wycliffe died for that belief.

If you believe that the Earth orbits the sun, instead of vice versa, thank a heretic. Galileo was threatened with death for this belief.

Heresy is how the church matures, how it evolves, how it grows, how it rights itself when it is wrong.

It can also be how the church goes wrong in the first place.

How do we decide which a given heresy is? By listening to it. By evaluating it. By comparing it to scripture. By praying about it.

The same way we evaluate any new belief we’re exposed to.

So why do we live in fear of heresy?

Because we’re told to.

Because heresy is a threat to those in power in the church. Church leaders are only church leaders to people who believe the things they’re teaching. If people read Rob Bell’s book and think about it and evaluate it and compare it to scripture and pray about it and end up deciding it has merit, some church leaders will lose followers. They will lose power. They will lose influence. They will lose books sales and tithe money.

Those people don’t want you to read and evaluate the book. They want to stop you from hearing what it has to say. They want to dismiss it as heresy. They want to dismiss Bell as un-Christian.

Five hundred years ago, reformer John Calvin said of heretic Michael Servetus, “If he comes [to Geneva], I shall never let him go out alive if my authority has weight.” Servetus was the originator of the now not-uncommon doctrine of “once saved, always saved,” or the “perseverance of the saints.”  Seven years later, Calvin testified against Servetus in a trial that resulted in Servetus being burned alive at the stake for heresy.

We live now in a different world. Today, John Piper, perhaps Calvin’s best-known modern follower, tweets to his hundred thousand followers, “Farewell, Rob Bell.”

Today’s established leaders have new tools for silencing those who would share ideas.

Unfortunately for them, we are entering a new Golden Age of heresy.

We are living in an age where heretics can be heard like never before. They can tweet. They can write blogs. They can write books. Their ideas can spread. And those who agree with them can say so. Just like those who don’t.

Like never before, Christians have the freedom to explore new ideas. They have the freedom to evaluate their beliefs for themselves. They have the ability to explore the scripture for themselves, aided by vast resources from generations of experts. They have literally volumes written by competing schools of thought to peruse and compare.

You don’t have to take John Piper’s word on Rob Bell. You can read his book yourself. You can read Piper’s books. You can — you must — read what scripture says about both of their arguments. And you can decide.

Until I can read the book, I won’t know for sure what Bell says in it.

From what I’ve seen so far, it flies in the face of beliefs I consider important.

What I have seen, I would call heresy.

It’s not uncommon for me to read books with heretical viewpoints and consider them without merit.

It’s also not uncommon for me to read books with more orthodox viewpoints and consider them without merit.

I can’t guarantee what I’ll think of Bell’s book. But I’ll be interested to see what it says.

You don’t have to agree with Bell. You don’t have to read his book. But you also don’t have to dismiss him because someone says to. The choice is yours.

The days of silencing heretics are over.

“Wonderful Counselor”


 

This is a light-hearted picture. This is not a light-hearted post.

One may think we’re alright
But we need pills to sleep at night
We need lies to make it through the day
We’re not okay

— The Perishers, “Pills”

I mentioned a while back that I’ve been taking a counseling class. I’ve been meaning to expound on that.

After last week’s class, I really felt like I needed to.

This is something I’ve been interested in for a while. If I had the means and time and dedication to go back to school, I would love to earn a degree in mental/behavioral health and be able to work in that field.

So when I saw that Heather’s church was offering a counseling class on Wednesday nights, it was sort of something that I had to do.

The class is being offered through Light University (which is apparently basically a continuing education  program of Liberty University) and, after a number of semester-length classes, culminates in participants earning a certificate from the American Association of Christian Counselors.

It’s not “real”counseling licensure, and I have no illusion that it is, but it could be used for church counseling, and will provide me with some formal training and background in the field. Flint River is interested in working on establishing a stronger counseling service, and it’s possible I could be involved in that after finishing the program.

It’s going to be a long process, and I’m still at the very beginning of it. But I’m excited about starting.

I’ve long had an interest in the field. My ex-wife worked as a counselor and social worker, and over the years I picked up both a little knowledge and interest from her. I’ve done some reading on the subject myself, and have been seeing a counselor myself on and off for about two years, so have connections in several ways.

My ex-wife had experience on both sides of the fence as well, both working as a behavioral health professional, and seeing professionals to help with her own issues. During our marriage, there were times when I felt like it was my role to sort of keep her duct-taped together so that she could help other people. The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the one or the few. It reached a point, however, when I felt like she presented more a potential danger than benefit, and it was no longer my job to keep her duct-taped enough to do that.

I very much like the idea, however, of being able to work with others myself to help fill that void. And I like the idea of being able to help people deal with things like she was struggling with; things that, because we were married, that we both had to struggle with. I would love nothing more than to make those struggles easier for other people than they were for us, and possibly to help them find a happier ending.

Last week was very much a wake-up call along those lines, however.

The first couple of sessions of the class were just breezy for me. I went in to them with enough of a background that I felt pretty comfortable with everything that was being discussed. Not really anything I hadn’t heard before.

And then, in the latter half of last week’s session, came the video on dealing with victims of sexual abuse.

I mentioned on here yesterday that those had been issues in my marriage, along with addiction issues. My ex-wife’s story is not mine to tell, but I don’t think she hid the fact that she had been abused as a child, in pretty much every way a child could be — physically, emotionally, sexually.

The class stopped being breezy. I cried. Pretty much the entire time.

I knew about her past before we even started dating. I understood nothing. I had no clue.

I was sheltered and naive. Utterly unequipped to be what she needed.

I’ve wondered several times if I had known then the things I know now, if things could have been different. Could I have helped her better? Could I have made things better for her? Could I have been a boon instead of a burden?

Or would I have run instead of dealing with it?

Someone made a comment along the class that it’s just a problem like any other problem. That’s true, to an extent.

Other than the fact that it’s completely false.

It’s insidious. It’s not one thing. It’s everything.

What did we deal with because of that “one problem”? Trust issues. Self-esteem issues. Eating disorders. Mental health issues. Addiction issues. Self-harm. Medical problems. Relationship issues. On and on and on. The better question is what part of her life did it not touch? And, by extension, what part of my life did it not touch?

Twelve years ago I was too naive to know what I was getting into. Today, it’s overwhelming. Could I help someone in that situation? Could I even try to work with someone in that situation?

It’s scary.

The thing I have to remind myself is that I’m just at the beginning of this process. I don’t have to confront it tomorrow. There’s a lot more training to go through first. A lot more preparation.

But my confidence has been shaken. And that’s probably a good thing, right? That’s the whole point of Christian counseling. I don’t help anybody. I just help be a catalyst for God to help them. And I’m certainly willing to see where I wouldn’t be the person helping anyone in that situation.

Father, help me.

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. — Isaiah 9:6

Review: Anne Jackson’s “Permission To Speak Freely”


After writing this review, I wrote a follow-up piece here that has more rounded-out thoughts on the book.


The project began in May 2008 when Jackson posed a question on her blog: “What is the one thing you feel you can’t say in the church?” The response was immediate and heartfelt. More than 500 comments poured in with confessions about addiction and adultery, admissions of loneliness and lost faith, and much more.

The purpose of the book is simple, Jackson says: “to share the confessions I’ve received, as well as my own life and experience, to show you that you’re not alone in your battle with fear and secrets. We are not isolated in our brokenness.”

So says the official website for Anne Jackson’s book Permission to Speak Freely.

Which, together with copy on the back cover of the book, might give one the impression that is what the book is about.

One would be wrong.

Or, at least, one would be mostly wrong. Those things are in the book, and those do have something to do with where the book ends up.

The journey getting there, however, has little to do with people’s experiences with the church. There are a handful of the “confessions” thrown in as garnishes, but it’s not really about what people wish they could say or why they feel they can’t or what the church needs to do to change that.

It’s about bad things that happened in the life of Anne Jackson.

As such, it’s not a bad book. As a memoir reflecting telling her story, it lives up to her goal of openness and honesty. Jackson argues that the reason people feel they can’t say things is that nobody says things. The more we are transparent, the more people feel they can be transparent.

To be sure, there’s a limited amount of transparency here — it’s a relatively short book and there have been many bad things to happen to Ms. Jackson, so one hoping to learn from any of her experiences may also be disappointed.

I’ll admit it was interesting to read this week that Jackson and her husband are divorcing; their marriage figures prominently in the book, and arguably serves as example of progress in her life. I intentionally did not read what she had to say about the divorce until after writing this review in order not to color this further. But that was another of the problems I had with the book; one’s answers to life’s problems are valuable only if they’re efficacious, and Jackson fails to fully make that case using her life as example.

The book is an enjoyable read. I do agree with its ultimate conclusion. It meanders in getting to that conclusion, but is short enough, and enjoyable enough, that the conclusion is worth the read regardless.

Wednesday Roundup


OK, I used to the Weekend Updates, way back when, but haven’t in a while. I figured this was a good opportunity to catch up on some things that haven’t made it into full blog posts yet.

Gearlog blogged about the Angry Birds fanfic I wrote a while back. This makes me happy.

• I’m taking a class at church with Heather to get Christian counseling certification. This also makes me happy.

• My List that I made a while back has largely sat ignored for a very long time, but on Friday, I bought a ticket to go skydiving. This also also makes me happy. Heather wrote a blog post about it.

The diet initially met with decent success — 10 pounds in two weeks — which made me happy. But I’ve plateaued already. In fact, I regained a bit over the weekend. I probably deserved that, but also really deserved to lose yesterday. Staying motivated, I’ve realized, is going to be a big challenge. It’s great having Heather participating also and supporting me.

• The U.S. Space and Rocket Center has laid off its curator and archivist, Irene Wilhite, which makes me unhappy.  I’ll admit my bias at the outset; I’ve volunteered at the USSRC for Irene; she’s helped me out several times, and is a good friend. Bias aside, a curator seems like a thing a museum should have. Irene and her staff (her son) have done a lot of work preparing and maintaining exhibits at the museum. USSRC has long had to balance the financial concerns of the museum and Space Camp, and lately has been working, with varying degrees of success, to bring in money-making non-space special exhibits. I hope that this decision is not a sign that the space museum part of USSRC is not being neglected

Another Sunday — Flint River Baptist Church III


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

The last time I saw Steve Bell, he was in handcuffs.

This is the third Sunday morning I’ve visited Flint River Baptist Church with Heather recently, but the last two were special programs. No sermons. So this week was the first time I’ve heard their regular pastor preach for about two and a half years.

The last time I saw him, he was in handcuffs, as an illustration for his sermon series about breaking free of spiritual prisons. To be honest, while I thought the sermon was good, I thought the handcuff bit was rather gimmicky.

This Sunday was about spiritual “hoarders.” There was, as with last time, a flashy introductory video, and the stage was covered with junk as an illustration for the concept. To be honest, I thought it was all a bit gimmicky.

All of which would be fine, except that the sermon dealt with wrong attitudes Christians have. They don’t prepare before coming to church, and they expect to show up and be the audience. They fail to understand that church isn’t where you come to catch up with God, and that when you come, He is the audience for your worship.

And the problem I have with that is, sure, it’s easy to say, but you can’t be surprised that people feel that way when that’s what the church trains them to do. Rather than a New Testament model where everyone comes to church to participate, today’s church turns most members into an audience, mostly watching quietly and still as the preacher and worship team perform. And here’s a preacher, on stage, complete with big screen videos and set dressing, like a concert, chiding his audience for acting like, well, an audience.

This is one of the biggest problems with the church today — you cannot create a structure based on complacency, and then be surprised when it produces complacent Christians.

In his defense, he was preaching, generally, the right things. I agreed with almost everything he said. I just wish the medium didn’t outweigh the message.

That said, this past Sunday was unusual for me for another reason — it’s the first time in almost two years that I’ve been to Life Group or Sunday School or whatever name it happens to go by. And it was good. The lesson was somewhat pro forma, but that’s OK. The real great part was the people. It was the first time I’d been to Heather’s class with her. I’d met many of the people before in other contexts, but I was still a little worried about what it was going to be like going to her class with her, how people would accept me, how they would accept the change. And everyone was wonderful. In addition to having met some of the people, Heather has talked about them a lot, and how they’ve supported her, in myriad ways, over the year. And being there, it’s easy to understand. This are good people, this is a good group.

And that, to me, more than preachers and sermons and worship leaders, is what a good church is about. (And, again, I think Steve Bell wouldnt’ completely disagree.) It was a pleasure to be among them.

Another Sunday — Sojourn VIII


This entry is part of my series on my on-going “church journey” that I’ll be documenting as it takes place. You can read about other visits with the “journey” tag.

This past Sunday I was back at Sojourn Kids, teaching about Moses, which I’ll get to in just a moment. First, however, I wanted to link to this post that Heather wrote on her blog about visiting Sojourn while the boys and I were in the kids groups. She did a good job at capturing that my “journey” series is about; the experience of visiting a new church and exploring what makes it unique.

Sojourn While David the kids were in kids church Sunday I went to Sojourn’s “big church.” It was the first time in … ever? that I’ve gone to a new church, for the first time, all by myself. That, in itself, was liberating. The church is small — 40 or 50 people in worship, I guess. It meets in a brewery, which initially the smell got to me, but I kinda got over that after a while. I’ve had strong opinions in the past about holding church in a place that … Read More

via Calluna

Now — like I said, while she was there, the boys and I were at Sojourn Kids. The lesson was about Moses, covering from burning bush and the plagues. I prepared by reviewing the lesson materials and the scripture and some Moses mood music — The Plagues from Prince of Egypt, a “Let My People Go” bit that in my opinion rivals the Charlton Heston bit.

It’s hard for me to say for sure, but it felt like one of my better performances teaching at Sojourn Kids.  Aided by some great acoustics, I did a pretty decent retelling of the story.  The crossing of the Red Sea wasn’t part of the lesson, but the kids wanted to hear that part and the Passover, so I added those in. My Red Sea crossing, and the encore performance the kids asked for, got applause.  It felt like a week that I made good use of everything I brought to the table, from understanding of scripture to improv acting skills. I’m biased, but I feel like I’ve made some progress over the past year.

So that complicates the decision as to whether to continue or not. I’ve been doing this for a year, and so it’s sort of a logical time to move on. I started doing it on an open-ended basis, but didn’t think it would be permanent. To be honest, I really believed I would be so bad at it they would have asked me to stop by now, but was willing to “put my ‘yes’ on the table,” as Heather would say, and be used if called to serve. I plan to start going to church with Heather and the boys more, so that’s a factor; the boys like hearing me teach, so that’s a factor; but they also don’t like going back and forth, so that’s a counter-factor to the last factor. There are also some changes in Sojourn Kids leadership coming, and I think that may be the deciding factor; while I like the new people, I started as largely a personal favor to the outgoing leader, so that makes this a logical time to move on. I wouldn’t teach again until next month, so I may have a little time to decide, but I think that may have been my last lesson.

It was sort of an appropriate lesson for dealing with that; it’s easy to forget just how reluctant and resistant Moses was when God called him to service at the burning bush.  I’m nowhere near that set on quitting this, so if He wants me to keep going, I’m sure He’ll let me know.