Thursday, July 7, 2011

Tension, Part II

We’ve done ourselves a disservice, really. By claiming to have all the answers to all of life’s problems, we’ve actually painted ourselves into a corner. “We have what you need. Just say the right things, believe the right things, think the right things, and do the right things, and we’ll guarantee you’ll be ok.” No wonder no one seems to want to be a Christian. It sounds too much like a used car salesman’s desperate pitch.

My generation, especially, seems suspicious of such widespread claims. Of course, my generation is too afraid or lazy to actually engage in the discussion. We’re the microwave generation, and we want what WE want. Yesterday. We’re the generation of microwave popcorn, plug-n-play computer peripherals, express lane checkouts, and prepackaged everything. Fast food drive-thrus weren’t fast enough, so we invented the idea of calling ahead so our food would be ready when we get there. They’ll even charge our credit card and then bring it out to our car, so we don’t have to fool with cash or get out of the car to go inside.* Instant global communication? Done. Our cell phones surf the web, access social networking sites, send and receive emails and text messages, and can even make phone calls. We’re so obsessed with speed that our phone providers advertize 4G speeds despite the fact that no one in the US has the technology deployed yet – and won’t for a couple more years. We don’t wait for the newspaper or even the dedicated news networks anymore. We get it all, instantly, online. We don’t fix things, we throw them away and replace them. Sometimes we’ll wait until it’s broken, but mostly we upgrade as soon as the newest one hits the store shelves. And a leisurely breakfast with the family before going to work? Forget it.

Not only do we want our stuff fast, we want our faith fast, too. We don’t want to work on building belief and understanding. We want it prepackaged, right out of the box. We don’t want to struggle with our faith. We want it to be easy. Unfortunately, life isn’t like that, so we escape reality. We use drugs and alcohol. We create an online, virtual persona, one that is “cool” and without foibles or failures. We, in the words of The Who, put on “an eminence front.” Perhaps worst of all we decide that Christianity is too hard, and the people who call themselves Christians too imperfect. So we turn to strange eastern religions, ones that don’t claim to have all the answers, ones that contradict themselves on things, because somehow we know that in that environment we can hide our true selves. From ourselves.

Of course, it isn’t just my generation that tries to lose itself. Those older than me get lost in nostalgia and the “golden years”. “We’ve always done it this way...” or the corollary, “But we’ve never done it that way!” We get lost in the idea that the way it used to be is still the way it is. We’re stuck in 1950s-style ministry practices and philosophies, despite the fact that was 60 years ago. Remember how fast-paced we are? Five years is a long time; ten years an eternity. Does anyone remember what a hanging chad is? How about Monica Lewinsky? Even here in the southern US, which is chronically 10-15 years behind the rest of the country, things are changing. Ministry ideas, such as going door to door, or explaining the five spiritual laws, don’t work anymore. You do realize the “sinner’s prayer” does not appear anywhere in Scripture, right? But our churches are filled with people who are obsessed with reliving the glory days of the past, and refuse to change the way they reach out to the newer generations.

But I digress. See, the Church has made a claim it cannot really uphold, and our society has gotten lazy. My generation, as well as the Baby Boomers, have had stuff handed to us our entire lives, and we’ve come to feel entitled. So when the Church’s claim of having all the answers doesn’t seem to pan out, we react with accusations of hypocrisy and then leave. Mainline denominations aren’t even keeping up with population growth, which means that instead of “winning souls for Christ”, we’re losing them. Actually, “hemorrhaging” is a better word.

It’s discouraging, really. How can we be the faithful followers and disciple-makers that Jesus told us to be in a new and ever-changing world? How do we answer the claims of hypocrisy, judgmentalism, and self-importance? Or do we just keep bumbling along, hoping that the “seeds” we’ve “planted” will take root?

It’s a tension, and an important one. On the one hand, we have the unchanging message of the Gospel: That God loves us and wants us to love him back, that God sent his divine Son to be a human and dwell among us, modeling for us the right way to live, that Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection actually meant something in the grand scheme of things and that now we can be set free of the burdens that sin puts on us so that we can live in harmony with God and each other. On the other hand, we have an ever-changing world, and a society that refuses to engage in anything too deep, lest we be confronted with the truth. The instant global communication I mentioned above? Therein lies the paradox: We have the opportunity to instantly communicate with any person anywhere in the world, yet our relationships have become increasingly superficial. We don’t want our “friends” to see the real person inside, so we project only those qualities we think are good, while repressing those qualities we deem to be bad. And people who have any depth are called “creepy”.

So where will this tension lead us? I don’t know. I do know this: Something has to change, and change fast. We’re too stuck in the past. We think that tradition means what we grew up with, or what our parents and grandparents experienced. We forget that tradition encompasses two thousand years of growth and development, and countless millions of saints, with whom we are supposedly in full Communion.

We’re too modernist. The Church’s modern mindset has put God in a box. God is bigger than that. We cannot classify God. We cannot describe God. We cannot make him safe or sanitized or personalized. He’s not a Barbie doll. He’s the God of the Universe, the supreme Creator. Faith isn’t a systemized way of describing or analyzing God, as though he were a science experiment. God does not exist on our terms. We exist on his.

God is an artist. God is a creator. God did not decide every single tiny detail in ages past, leaving us to be mere puppets on a stage. God knows what to expect, because as the supreme Creator he is infinitely wise and intelligent. To quote Brian McLaren:

...if God is infinitely wise and intelligent, then every possible scenario could be played out in God’s mind in an instant. (That’s a rather mind blowing thought!) So... nothing would take God by surprise. But that’s not the same as saying that God has already fast forwarded and seen the whole movie, so in a way it’s all determined, it’s all mechanistic, it’s all a done deal. Somehow, the idea of creation includes the idea of reality ... that this whole thing is real, it’s really happening, it’s not just a mind game of God, etc. (“More Ready Than You Realize”, pg. 123 [Zondervan, 2006])

Remember, it was the modernist mindset (Calvin’s, and his followers) that came up with the idea that God had pre-planned everything, and that no matter what we choose God had already decided it. It is much more risky (and Biblical, in my opinion) to believe that while God knows all the possible outcomes, it is up to us to choose. God is not a chess player, playing both sides of the board. God is a chess player who has invited us to play the other side. He knows what moves we’re likely to make next, but the choice is ours to make. And the choice we make affects God’s next move and the outcome of the game.

The tension we face is an important one. Once again we are reminded that the way we respond to this tension, the way we harness it, the way we allow it to stretch us and grow us, will in turn determine how people respond to us. Will we release the things of our past, the way things used to be, the glory days of our memories? Will we allow God to move in a new way? Will we let go of Mayberry and embrace people where they live?

The tension is good. Embrace the tension, for it is the tension that makes us strong.

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*What I find funny, though, is that despite the rise of fast food drive-thrus and “curbside takeaway”, the full-service gas station is nearly extinct. We want our food delivered right to the car so we don’t have to get out at all, yet we insist on pumping gas ourselves. Fascinating.

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