Saturday, August 29, 2009

A Prelude

I've been chewing on a post I'll call "A Theology of Love" for a while. This post is not that, because I don't think I'm quite ready to write it yet, but in any case, that's not what this post is about. This is a meta-post, if you will. A post about the post I have yet to write.

Over the last few years, I've done a lot of wrestling. That wrestling is largely chronicled in this blog, so if you want to read about what led up to this point, it's all there. But the relatively, but definitely not absolutely short version is thus:

As a preacher's kid, by the time I was at the point where I might start to make my faith my own, I already had a lot of expectations as to what my faith was supposed to be, and what my faith was supposed to do. If I had started questioning or doubting, it would have been some significant boat-rocking - there were a lot of people watching me, expecting me to be what I wasn't yet. So I learned to playact. And I got really good at it. Now a lot of this process was subconscious, but I believe it to be pretty accurate. I'm not saying it's anyone's fault, and I obviously have a big part in it. But whatever the reason, by the time I headed off to college, I was an excellent doer of church. To borrow a phrase from my new friend and author of Stuff Christian Culture Likes, I was really good at "doing things and avoiding true relationship." And also had no personal faith whatsoever. I don't believe that to be an exaggeration.

Then I showed up at SPU. In comparison to my middle school (which is where I formed/was handed most of my good Christian Conservative beliefs), SPU is pretty liberal. Granted, their social policies are somewhat stringent (no alcohol or sex), but they teach evolution and have several Catholic faculty, and profs have told me that America was definitively not founded on Christianity. All of this contributed to the realization that there was a duality in my beliefs: the Christianity that I was raised with and professed, and what actually made sense to me. The latter, of course, was what I actually believed and based my decisions off of, especially now that I was free of expectations. This set off a long process of deconstructing my worldview that I was given, and building up, bit by bit, one that was I could honestly say I held. This involved throwing off ideas that were not essentially Christian, and problematic to my worldview, such as Creationism or American Sovereignty. I kept a tent, as Descartes would say, of basic Christian morality (which I do adhere to), but did a lot of stripping my worldview down to the core. Some great books such as Mere Christianity, Pagan Christianity? and Language of God were very helpful in not only distinguishing the core from the periphery, but also in reassuring me that I'm not crazy, and that I'm probably not on my way to Hell.

Now all of this deconstruction caused much strife in my family, my friends back home, and many people who care about me. Many feared (and may still fear) that I am "straying from the faith", that I'm suffering in "my walk", or I'm drifting away from Christ, or am being deceived by the world. Now, I can't say for sure on the latter, but the rest could not be farther from the truth. I am just now truthfully, sincerely approaching faith and Christ for the first time. Up to this point, I have had no faith to stray from, no walk to suffer, and no relationship with Christ (on my part, anwyay) to drift from.

That brings us to today. At this point, most of my deconstruction is done. I've cleared out a huge portion of the periphery that was standing between me and a genuine faith. Depending on who you ask, I may be a bad Christian now, but frankly, they can believe that if they want. I'm done arguing. So now I've found myself asking: what now? What do I do with this? I know pretty well what I don't believe, but what do I replace that with?

That's what I've been wrestling with for the past few months. I've had some fantastic people that have helped me with this - first and foremost my girlfriend, who is an incredible blessing and a fantastic co-conspirator, and is constantly wrestling with me, keeping me accountable, questioning alongside me, offering a refreshing perspective on things, and most of all, setting an example of what it means to truly, deeply love people. My father, the preacher of "Confessions of a Preacher's Kid," has also been very open to my questions and struggles, is more like myself than I had imagined, and has been very honest about what he has been wrestling with. John Chase, my former college group leader, former pastor, and always friend, has been a great "elder" to talk to and bounce things off of. I've had some good conversations with Nancy Smith, my Mom's college friend who has also gone fairly liberal, but has a solid faith and asks me tough questions, but is confident in my search regardless of my answers. UScholars has been an incredibly helpful experience as well. And I've also read some books that have helped steer me towards something that I can actually believe, instead of steering me away from things that I don't. First and foremost, Shane Claiborne's raw, honest testimony of a man living out the words of Christ - not the words of Christianity - in Irresistible Revolution has had a profound effect in focusing my thoughts, and is basically the mainfesto for my life. I also came across an excellent little book called Stories of Emergence that has some excellent thoughts by real people. And recently A.J. Jacobs' Year of Living Biblically was surprisingly insightful in getting down to the reasons and meaning of religion and belief.

So after all this talking, reading, and thinking, where am I headed? I'm still not exactly sure, but I do know this. It will be a theology of love. Period. This is the prelude for the yet-to-be-written manifesto, if you will, of that theology. But basically, it is this: God is Love. Again, period. It is a theology of reaching out, of loving people, regardless of who they are or what they believe. A theology of helping the poor and the widowed, of sharing your wealth, your life, yourself with others. Of loving your neighbor as yourself, and doing unto others better than you would have them do unto you. Of accepting people as they are, without judgement, and loving them where they are at. Of forgiveness, of not holding wrongs. Of defending the downtrodden, and questioning and fighting anything that devalues another human being. How exactly that meshes with Christianity I am still hashing out, and will elaborate on later. I'm still pretty clueless as to what it really means to do things like put your faith in God, ask Christ to forgive your sins, or be in a relationship with the divine. But seeing as how this idea of love is pretty much what Christ did, I think I'm on the right track. Because last I checked, Christianity pretty much means be as much like Christ as humanly possible, and then some. This is common knowledge, but it is surprising - and heartbreaking - how often it is lost by the wayside by peripheral, insignificant squabbling. One of the reasons my father understands where I'm coming from is that he wrote his thesis on how ludicrous it was that churches split over millenialism. We don't really do that today, but there are a multitude of issues that are just as arbitrary, and just as divisive. My goal is to shout at these debates, STOP! Please, stop! This is destructive, stupid, wrong, and, as far as I can tell sinful. Please, love people. Be Christlike. Stop fighting each other, and instead together fight homelessness, genocide, injustice, human rights abuse, slavery. And individually, fight loneliness, discrimination, and apathy. Society today needs us. Not to protect it from the gays, the liberals, or the ecofreaks. Not to rescue it the humanists, the atheists, the Mormons, or the Catholics. Not even to save it from the Christians or the conservatives or capitalism. Instead, society needs love. It needs people who care, both for and about their fellow human. People who love others, for no other reason than the fact that they, too, are human. People who work to relieve the suffering with which this world is rife. In short, it needs Christ. In person-sized serving sizes known as "Christians."

That is what I believe. Nothing more, nothing less.

Now, the hard part: doing it.

Here goes nothing. Or maybe, just maybe, everything.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009


I apologize. This is not a positive post. I really did intend to change my ways, and still do, but this is a necessary exception.

It strikes me that "devotions" is a significantly different word than "devotion". The latter is outright allegiance to something or someone, throwing yourself completely and wholly into something, almost with abandon. It's living, breathing, active, dynamic by nature. You can't be passively devoted to something.

The former, on the other hand, is maybe reading a scripture passage, and definitely reading a usually far-fetched illustration or story that attempts to make the scripture passage things like "cool" or "relevant" or "funny", usually creating characters that are laughably unreal or reprinting stories from Christian humor books. (Example: "Jennifer likes a guy at her school named Ryan. She talks and thinks about him constantly. Her friends think she's psycho because everything is always about Ryan, Ryan, Ryan!") This is usually followed by filling in (or answering orally) the same questions as everyone else and perhaps "discussing" it afterwards. This usually consists of the "group leader" reading the questions out loud, looking around at a bunch of blank stares, perhaps some canned answers that kids remember hearing in Sunday school, and then suggesting the "correct" answers.

I thought maybe I was exaggerating a little bit, but read the Sample Text from Youth Specialties, from this promo text: "You'll love the exciting look and feel of this Bible. The page-by-page bursts of surprising facts, cool graphics, crazy humor, and radical ideas to chew on—and apply." It even has 22 full-color pages!



22 full-color pages? Crazy humor? Cool graphics? Ideas to chew on? THIS is what is going to encourage me to devote my life, radically and completely, to the man whose prophet dressed in camelskin and ate locusts? The man that demanded I give up my wealth, my shiny things, and love people radically? THIS is going to shake up my world, cause me to question everything I find important?

No. This is a spiritual vita-gummy. It gives me my daily dose of scripture, tries to force me to regurgitate the correct answers, and throws in pretty pictures to make it less painful.

I would cite more examples of how ludicrous, and surfacey these "devotionals" are, but that would just cause more frustration. Just check out more examples of these sugar-coated booster pills that think rewriting the Bible to dub Jeremiah "Jer" and give the Isrealites "relevant" phrases like "sooo negative" and "lighten up" is the ticket to fostering devotion.

This post was started because I walked through campus today, and there were all these kids, presumably from some Bible camp thing, scattered about the lawns, all doing their individual devotions and prayer, like good little Bible camp kids. It brought back memories of the many devotions I forged through at Bible camp, and while Bible camp was fun*, we'll just say it wasn't because of the devotionals.

So what do I suggest? I don't have a cure-all, a one-shot solution. But I can suggest a mindset. Children, youth, Christians - they're not a market to target. They're not a demographic to satisfy. Physical age is somewhat related to emotional maturity, but has zero correlation to spiritual maturity. None. I know there are plenty of people younger than me that are significantly more spiritually mature, and there are lots of people way older than me that are still babes in Christ. Jesus can't be packaged. He wasn't meant to be made "cool" or "relevant". He's not your handy phrasebook to help you out of tough situations.

Christianity is a way of life, a frame of mind, not a bunch of right answers. Growth is accomplished by asking hard questions (the ones that aren't in the devotional books), loving people, living out Christ.

Devotions are a lot like the educational system. Both of them give kids the right answers, assume that people at the same age are at the same level, and largely treat children as a large, homogeneous group. Both work very well to equip kids with the right answers, and infuse in them the correct groupthink, make sure they know how to toe the party line. And neither work very well for those kids who think outside the box, who want to learn things, who can never get enough, who are always curious. I can comfortably say that the majority of learning I have done has occurred outside of, or in spite of, the classroom. Not all - classes like math, English, History gave me some tools to work with. But most of my learning took place either outside of those classes, or in homeschool. I am incredibly grateful for my five years of homeschooling. Individual attention, varying education according to a specific child's needs, makes all the difference. Maybe that's what we need - more spiritual homeschooling. I still don't know how I'm going to raise my kids. As I've said before, they screw everything up. And despite all my anger, annoyance, and skepticism, I am very grateful for how I was raised, cheesy devotionals, camps, and all. I ended up where I am, which I'm okay with. But it's been a hard and painful journey. I'm sure I've hurt, and continue to hurt, the people that raised me, primarily my parents. And I apologize, but I don't know how else to do this. And that's what I hope to avoid. I look back at everything in my spiritual past, and realize that it did get me to a point where at 18, when I realized I had no personal faith or devotion whatsoever (despite dozens of devotionals), I had something to work from. But I wonder if it could be better. If I could somehow avoid that breaking point, that pain, that confusion. My parents are anything but failures - they have been supportive, loving, and gave me the equipment I'm working with now. But it's only natural that I want to do better, right? I can at least try, and hope that when my kids grow up, they'll at least have as good of a foundation as my parents gave me.

*Except for AWANA Scholarship Camp. That place was run like a military operation. Patriotic songs played over the PA system for call to Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner, no kidding. Eugh. Oddly enough, those are the only devotionals I specifically remember, mostly because I colored in the Apostle Paul with highlighter.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Loving Illegal Immigrants

This blog, so far, has been a lot of negative. What I don't like about the church, what makes me angry, and what was wrong about my views up to this point. I want to change that, and have a couple of posts started, but tonight I got an anti-illegal-immigrant e-mail forward which is well documented on Snopes to be entirely false and pointless, as most forwards are.

However, with a passage such as this:

We further demand that there not be any amnesty given to illegals, NO free services, no funding, no payments to and for illegal immigrants. We are fed up with the lack of action about this matter and are tired of paying for services to illegals.
I realized that the 970 people who signed the petition anyway were probably very angry at these illegal immigrants, and a good many of them (judging by certain members of my extended family) probably read the e-mail, muttered something about the damn Mexicans sending our country to hell in a handbasket, and forwarded it on after "signing" it.

This, at first, made me angry. But as I started to write a response, it mostly made me sad. Sad that these 970 largely normal people, most of whom I'm sure lead normal lives and don't normally going around being racists and bigots, would sign their name on such a spiteful, hateful e-mail, and forward it on. Sad that they don't see the humanity of the illegal immigrants they are ready to send back to Mexico. And sad that, since I got the e-mail from someone I knew from a Christian camp, and more generally since this tends to be a position of the religious right, that this is how Jesus was being represented to the illegal immigrants. I did my best to be loving, and not snarky or mean. I have a hard time doing that, especially on the internet, but I tried. So this is the response I wrote.


You probably don't know me, but I just wanted to say something. In short, it's just not that simple. At length:

Before you get upset about social security being taken away by illegals, and "demand that there not be any amnesty given to illegal aliens, NO free services, no funding, no payments to and for illegal immigrants," I just want to remind you that these "illegal immigrants" are people. They are people with lives, families and names, just like you and everyone at your workplace, school, or church. Some of them are grumpy, some of them are friendly, some of them are mean, and a good many of them are the nicest people you'll ever meet. Just like every other group of people that ever existed. I'd advise getting to know an "illegal" or two.

Secondly, you are all (unless there are Native Americans on the list) "illegal immigrants." Some more than others, some more "legal" than others due to whatever laws happened to be in place when your ancestors came to America, but 99% (it really is 99%, I checked) of Americans immigrated here form somewhere - be it the original colonists, or any of the massive immigrations that have taken place over the years.

So, what does that mean? Illegal immigrants, like all people, live here and contribute to our economy - they have jobs, they work hard, they pay into social security, they get involved in their community. One of the reasons we have so many "illegal" immigrants is that our legal immigration system is broken. It often takes years, and is incredibly difficult for immigrants that want to get legal status to do so. For many, it's not worth the effort, especially since it also takes significant financial investment in lawyers, paperwork, and fees, and they're already having a hard enough time making a living as is.

It's easy enough to call foul because someone you know supposedly got their job stolen by a damn Mexican, but it's harder to do so when you realize that damn Mexican actually is a person, and even harder if you know them. Maybe her name is Diane Batista, the mother of a two-year-old whose husband lived in the US for four years, paying medicare, social security, and even getting a tax ID, but was denied a waiver request, and can't reapply for ten years. Or J.R. Gonzalez, who was brought to the US when he was 8 months old, is now 34 with two kids, and found out his mother just never filed the paperwork to make him a legal immigrant. Perhaps his name is Jesus Manuel Cordova, who saved a 9-year-old's life. For every story of someone's job being "stolen", there is a story of the system miserably failing good people.

I'm not claiming that illegal immigrants aren't a problem. Yes, some of them form gangs. Some of them are lazy. Some of them are annoying. However, all of these also apply to black people. And white people. And Native American people. Last time I checked, deporting black people back to Africa, whites to Europe, or Native Americans reservations, or cutting them off from our economy, wasn't a viable way of dealing with them. Making it easier to become legal for those who want to, solving problems that are actually problems (gangs, violence, underhanded business practices), and generally treating them like people, is.

So, to review:

  • Immigrants are people, just like you and me
  • We are all immigrants of some kind
  • Many of them are good, caring people who work hard
  • Many of them are illegal simply because it's difficult and expensive to be "legal"
  • Our immigration system is badly broken
  • There are also bad, grumpy, and annoying immigrants - and also bad, grumpy, and annoying Americans, and coworkers, and schoolmates, and church members.

These are all reasons to not hate "illegal aliens", and maybe think twice before proposing shipping them all back to where they came from. Even if you don't agree with that, consider that this particular e-mail is entirely false.

There is no such law being passed. Illegal aliens, in fact, are not able to collect social security. In fact, illegal aliens leaving would actually be worse for Social Security, because many of them (remember, they have jobs and families like you, I, and your neighbor) pay into it, and can't collect from it, to the tune of $7 billion, according to Social Security officials themselves.

The fact that near 1,000 signatures has been gathered, to protest a law that is not being considered, and a law that would be entirely redundant anyway if it were, indicates another problem: this petition is irrelevant anyway, and highly ineffectual. Yes, there are 1,000 names, but if not one of them checked to see if such a law is even being debated, they mean little.

Please, stop forwarding these pointless, hurtful, and fearmongering e-mails.

And if you don't read any of this, at least consider the words etched into the Statue of Liberty, one of the most recognizable symbols of this country, a beacon of hope and freedom originally intended to be called "Mother of Exiles":

Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!
This is the spirit our country was founded on. A great country, welcoming those that are oppressed, unwanted, and devastated by war, poverty, famine, and economic misfortune in their home countries to find refuge in our shores. This petition, and the spirit that comes with it, is a far cry from the very reason for which this country began.

And next time, please use snopes:

Thank you for your time.

Joel Bradshaw

P.S. If you feel you have been informed, calmed, or at all bettered by this e-mail, by all means find this e-mail as was originally sent to you and hit a reply-all to forward this on to the people that sent it to you. But since this is a calm, practical e-mail that actually looks at the issues at hand, doesn't try to stir up fear and irrational hatred, and is in the wrong target demographic anyway, I don't expect too much. But thanks anyway. If I make one person re-think, just a little, their position regarding the 4% of this country that don't have paperwork saying they are citizens, my work has been worth it.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

The problem with focusing on eternity

Today I was reading Shane Claiborne's Irresistible Revolution, and came across this quote:

Few people are interested in a religion that has nothing to say to the world and offers them only life after death, when what people are really wondering is whether there is life before death.
Shane has a way with words, and he succinctly expressed something that I had been mulling in my mind - there is a fundamental problem with the salvation/eternity-centric faith that is so prevalent. I know that in theory (I have a blog post coming on those two words, and will link it when it's done) the eternity-centric faith isn't solely eternity-centric, and offers more than just life after death, but in reality, that's not what comes across.

If we place our focus on "getting saved" and "making it to heaven" then we miss out on the vast majority of Jesus' ministry. As Shane again points out:

And yet I am convinced that Jesus came not just to prepare us to die but to teach us how to live. Otherwise, much of Jesus’ wisdom would prove quite unnecessary for the afterlife. After all, how hard could it be to love our enemies in heaven? And the kingdom that Jesus speaks so much about is not just something we hope for after we die but is something we are to incarnate now. Jesus says the kingdom is "within us," "among us," "at hand," and we are to pray that it comes "on earth as it is in heaven."
This is exacerbated by the sense that the world is evil, ruled by Satan, and a trial we have to wait out. "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passin through" may make a great old hymn, but ignores a big chunk of Jesus' life, which was helping and loving people in this world, and making this world better.

I was looking for the lyrics and came across a blog post that exemplified the mindset that is so depressing to me:

My son, a mortal creation like myself, has started the adventure of this short life. For a few years we will suffer together under the various afflictions of our current human condition, and then, eventually, we may both enjoy eternal love and fellowship beyond this world.
Now, I'm not sure if that is an outlier in her thoughts, but it does frame the problem pretty well. If this world is just something to suffer through, longing for our eternity, we aren't likely to try to make it better.

Shane quotes Rich Mullins, from an address he made at his college chapel:

You guys are all into that born again thing, which is great. We do need to be born again, since Jesus said that to a guy named Nicodemus. But if you tell me I have to be born again to enter the kingdom of God, I can tell you that you have to sell everything you have and give it to the poor, because Jesus said that to one guy too...[pause in awkward silence]...But I guess that's why God invented highlighters, so we can highlight the parts we like and ignore the rest.
Obviously eternity and "getting saved" are important, but they should not be the focus. Living out Christ, being his love, should be the focus. And that's a focus I can get behind.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The Money God

Today I got TweetDeck set up via Adobe Air on my Ubuntu Linux, and up on it popped a tweet linking to a post on the Mars Hill Blog titled "Death to the Money God". That is what this post is about.

During the last three years, I have come to dislike, to put it nicely, the idea of churches having budgets. And having just finished Pagan Christianity?, I had even more reason to dislike it, and some additional reason to boot. Obviously, this is tightly connected to the idea of tithing, and the "Money God" (aka Mammon) that this blog post over at Mars Hill was about. You can read it yourself, but it was a pretty stock "you should tithe because God says to" kind of message that comes around every year about this time. In particular, Pastor Jamie recounts a story of him as a youngun, giving $10 a week to church and feeling good, and then being convicted to give more. He (yes, I checked my gender pronouns) also noted that Christians need "encouragement, instruction, rebuke, or in some cases even assistance" when it comes to tithing, citing 2 Corinthians 8-9.

Now, I have a few problems with this. Don't get me wrong - I'm not against tithing, or giving money, and I am not denying that Mammon is a big problem. In fact, the problem of Mammon is one of the reasons I so strongly disagree with a "Christian America" and most American Christianity. Any true Christianity is antithetical to capitalism - it shouldn't fit well in America. But that's beside the point. The point is, the idea that assistance is an afterthought is highly disturbing. Now admittedly, as one of my profs used to say, I'm not a theologian, but I read all the way through 2 Corinthians 8-9, and (admittedly with some background from Pagan Christianity), this is what I saw:

  • The church in Macedonia, entirely on their own, gave, even in poverty, to serve the saints (that's other believers) - vv. 3-4
  • Paul encouraged the Corinthians to finish what they had started a year back, seeing the example of Macedonia, and give to their bretheren - vv. 6-7, 10-11
  • Paul says that the giving is so that "at the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need," referring to the Corinthians sharing their bounty with the other Christians - v. 14
  • Starting in Chapter 9, Paul says he wants to ensure that the Corinthians make good on the intentions Paul has been bragging on to the Macedonians, to avoid making either Paul or the Corinthians liars. - vv. 2-5
  • The purpose of the gift is "supplying the needs of God's people" and giving "thanks to God" - v. 12
  • Other people will thank God for the generosity of the Corinthians - v. 13
Now, I see a couple themes in this passage:
  • Paul is very careful to emphasize that giving is not to be coerced or proscribed - repeated phrases like "Entirely on their own", "I am not commanding you", "sincerity of your love", "here is my advice", "your eager willingness", "if the willingness is there", "a generous gift, not as one grudgingly given", "what he has decided in his heart", "God loves a cheerful giver", "your generosity in sharing" clearly show that giving is the result of an internal desire, not external pressure.
  • In the case of the Corinthians, Paul is largely encouraging them to make good on a specific promise to help a specific church - parts like "bring also to completion", "no need for me to write to you", "I know of your eagerness to help", "finish the arrangements for the generous gift you had promised", show that it is a planned gift that simply has to be followed up on, not a continual plea for funds.

The passage, as far as I can see, leaves little room for any kind of scriptural support for continual maintenance, or base salary for the apostles, or anything that is such a huge part of the church budget today. In fact, it leaves little room for any kind of "budget" at all - all the giving here is from church to church - one church that is blessed helping another in need. Indeed, in summing up, Paul writes:

Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need. Then there will be equality, as it is written: "He who gathered much did not have too much, and he who gathered little did not have too little." (8:13-15)
Whatever "tithing" is present in the original church was to directly help other Christians in times of need, and there seems to be no concept of a budget or ongoing support costs.

It is because of this - the idea that the very purpose of tithes is to help our bretheren in need - that phrases like "in some cases even assistance" are alarming to me. And even if that was simply a bad choice of words by Pastor Jamie, we can look at the numbers. Of the $12 million budget [PDF] that Mars Hill plans to work with this year, a solid half of it goes to staff, another $2 million to facilities, and over a million to operations. In fact, I made a nice pie chart, which wasn't supplied in the budget: The chart makes the last explanatory note painfully clear: "Staffing and facilities expenses for Mars Hill Church account for 72% of our total budget." They include a parenthetical statement that is supposed to make me feel better: "The norm for churches is 70-80%." The idea that on an optimistic average, 30% of what I give to a church actually goes to those in need is not comforting in the least.

In addition to the numbers above, Mars Hill has another $25 million in land, equipment, and furniture, most of which is used probably a couple days out of the week. I assume Mars Hill uses its facilities more than the average church, but it seems to me, and always has, that sinking so much of the money that could be going to those in need into a building that's used, save a small bit of office space, for a few hours a week (perhaps a few days a week in the best case) isn't the best stewardship of the offerings of the body. The entire purpose of tithes under the new covenant should be to help others in need - especially Christians. It is not to pay rent, or salary a leader, or buy flowers or communion crackers. In general, using only 20% of the offering to actually directly help people is apalling when you step back and look at it. It is to me at least.

I believe, in fact, that if the tithe was actually going to people in need, getting people to tithe wouldn't be such an issue. I, at least, am discouraged when 70-80% of the money I am giving is going straight into just keeping the church running. I believe that people will be much more apt to give if their money is actually going to people, instead of paying the bills.

In the organic church, without a pastor or building, there is no salary or rent payment that needs to be supported by the tithe. Everything the body gives could go to helping fellow believers, or reaching out to those around us. As Paul says, giving out of our bounty to help those who are in need, that when we are in need, we can humbly rely on the Christians around us to support us in that need. If it sounds communist, that's because it is. Christianity is very communist in nature - the good, pure kind of communism. Neither Christianity or communism work as government, because you can't force people to care for each other. But in a community where people care for one another, and strive to help each other, it works wonderfully. That's what Christianity, in its true form, is.

A few cleanup items. As to the pattern of tithing in the Old Testament, tithes went to support the Levites - the priesthood class that was forbidden from having any kind of income for themselves, to support the festivals, and to help the poor and widowed. Today, and in the New Testament, that priest class has been superseded by the priesthood of all believers, headed by Christ himself - the only hierarchy is that of Christ over all believers, and Christ definitely doesn't need a salary. We also don't have any ritual festivals - we do have Christmas and Easter, and if the body wants to pitch in to throw a party for those, that would be fine with me.

You might protest that the clergy needs to be paid, they need to make a living, we need to pay for the building, none of this translates into today's society. But all those problems are a direct cause of the advent of the church building and the clergy/laity split, both largely thrust upon us by Constantine, and carried on by momentum and the ferocious power of tradition. If we didn't have a building, and truly operated as a living body, a priesthood of all believers, none of this would be necessary.

Also, in their followup "Two Weeks Left to Make Budget" post, Mars Hill mentioned the "biblical model of cheerful, regular, and sacrificial giving." Many people will try to take 1 Corinthians 16:1-2 as mandating a regular, weekly tithe. This passage, however, also seems to be referring to a special, pre-arranged gift (probably the same one mentioned again in his next letter), and the weekly tithe is simply a matter of logistics - instead of worrying about having one lump sum when Paul shows up, make sure to be setting aside a little at a time so there will be something to take to the Christians in need when Paul gets there. It's hardly a mandate, or even reccomendation for a weekly tithe of 10% of your income.

Am I saying that Mars Hill hasn't done anything good with their money? Of course not. Could they be using it better? Probably, but not dramatically, at least in their current form. Should Christians give? Of course. That is very biblical. Should they be obligated to pay rent and salaries to keep the institutional church running? Currently, maybe. My problems with the church always come down to the fact that you can't change things instantly. I acknowledge that the current model, however suboptimal, must be supported due to the millions upon millions of participants involved, and tithing to the building is one necessary support structure. But going forward, I can, and will, do things differently. And if as a community of Christians we work to move towards it, we can become a more vibrant body that better does the work we are mandated to do.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Thoughts on Homosexuality, Christianity, and the like

Last Friday, I took part in the Day of Silence on campus, and during the debriefing session, we were asked by the administration not to serve communion. They gave some cover reason that really didn't make much sense, unless of course they were trying to make everyone happy by washing their hands of the gay community. I have, and have had, an immense amount of respect for Dr. Neuhouser for unashamedly supporting Haven and furthering the conversation about homosexuality and Christianity.
Then, later that night, I went to XY, basically a "Let's Talk About Sex" for guys (which has been a long time coming, by the way). The speakers were Shawn "Papa Shawn" Whitney, student counselor and former Hill RLC, and Dr. Rick Steele, professor of Theology and the man who told me I ticked him off by sleeping too much in his class. During the question and answer time, there was a question (submitted anonymously) along the lines of, "I am a gay Christian, and I want out. How do I rid myself of this, and am I destined to a life of celibacy?" Both speakers were initially just silent - which I appreciated, as a kneejerk reaction of "go to an ex-gay clinic" isn't terribly helpful, in my opinion. And then Dr. Steele took the card, read it over again, asked for clarification, let out a long, pained, struggling sigh, and said, highly, powerfully emotional yet very firm, this (as best I can remember):
What we can't do is make the Bible say that homosexuality is OK. I've seen it, it's crap exegesis. But what I can say, is that when I see a homosexual couple that is wholly loving, committed, and in every way, except perhaps the physical aspect, the very picture of a holy and godly relationship, and then there is a heterosexual couple that is screwing up their relationship, and screwing anyone they can, the idea that the homosexual couple is somehow less of a couple than the heterosexual couple is absurd, and hurtful, and wrong. Which plugs go in which holes is not nearly as important as the relationship, the devotion, the commitment.
As far as I could tell, I was the only one that Amened his answer, but in that moment, Dr. Steele gained so incredibly much respect in my eyes. It was obvious that this was not something he took lightly, not something he had a quick answer for, something that he had thought, studied, prayed, and struggled over intensely. It wasn't a pat, surface "love the sinner, hate the sin", "accepting of the person but not affirming the lifestyle" easy answer that either only makes those who have already otherized the LGBTQ community happy, or doesn't fully answer the question, depending on who is saying it. This answer was the raw, real, powerful, and genuine result of a man who knows what he's talking about really wrestling with the issue. He then went off on a tangent discussing celibacy, and that it is not necessarily the cursed life that it is assumed to be, but only if you are called to it - which he has no way of knowing one way or the other, after which a former homosexual (is that a PC enough term for ex-gay?) went ballistic, making sure that we all knew that HOMOSEXUALITY WAS DIRECTLY FROM SATAN, AND IT IS AN ABOMINATION, AND A PERVERSION, UTTER PERVERSION AND FILTH AND PERVERSION and then went on to shout about how in High School, he had lustful desires for men, and just had sex all over the place, men, women, anyone he could, just sex all over the place, lust lust lust...and it hurt my heart. As he kept preaching, it became clear that his perversion was not (primarily?) homosexuality - it was lust. Pure, unbridled lust. Which is destructive, and a perversion, and hurtful. But the fact that he bludgeoned everyone over the head with his personal struggles with lust, after Dr. Steele had so carefully, lovingly, truthfully and insightfully poured out his soul on the quite separate issue of homosexuality, made my heart sink. It didn't even make me angry - it just made me deeply sad. One careful step forward, and then we go tumbling back down the hill.
This reactionary, angry, shouting, otherizing approach to homosexuality is deeply harmful, and I have severe doubts that it will ever solve anything. Yes, I'm sure that guy has a very personal, convicting, deep story that I'm trampling all over, and I'm not thinking of his feelings. But the post that inspired me today, over on pastor Eugene Cho's blog, has a couple tragic, convicting, deep stories to consider for anyone who dares use the heartstring defense against the LGBTQ community, or dares to raise up anger against the evildoers. And I refuse to play that game - I am emphatic that emotional appeals aren't effective in actually solving anything, and there is just as much emotional charge on one side as the other. The facts are that the appalling suicide rates, homeless rates, and dropout rates of LGBTQ youth is a rousing sign that we as a nation are sorely in need of a fresh set of eyes on the matter. We are urgently in need of reconciliation - a word that SPU is strangely fond of, considering their response to Haven. It's all well and good until it comes against the massive hatred and fear of the LGBTQ community among Christians, and then it all falls apart. And really, I can't blame the administration too much - they rely on this community for donations to keep this school going, to send students their way, and it probably would be suicidal to be more openly approving of the LGBTQ community. That sucks, and it's wrong, but it's the reality. Because change doesn't happen from the top down. It never has, and it never will. It starts with hearts, and gradually works its way up. And that is where I am hopeful. Because people like Dr. Neuhouser, Dr. Steele, everyone who participated in the Day of Silence, and the many students on campus that support Haven, are thinking, praying, wrestling, and most importantly, changing hearts. We will get there, I truly believe. It will take a while, it may even take a whole new generation of open hearts. But I am hopeful.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Go Iowa!

The other day, my girlfriend was reading for one of her classes about Brazil, where they have several tiers of marriage, and religious marriage is left up to the religious organizations, and the government just deals with civil marriages. Call me a crazy liberal, brainwashed by living in Seattle for these three years, but this is my ideal system for the US - one where the government doesn't have anything to do with marriage, and people can get married if they want, in a religious organization, without any legal implications. This sort of exists in the US with civil unions, but it's far from actually implemented, and there is still a huge stigma to civil unions. I know Brazil doesn't allow gay civil unioning, but the system would allow for it in the US.
Then today, I was reading through an an opinion piece about an over-the-top cheesy anti-gay ad, and it alluded to the actual filing from the Iowa decision to allow gay marriage. It included this section, written by judge Mark S. Cady, evidently a Republican nominee:

I. Religious Opposition to Same-Sex Marriage. Now that we have addressed and rejected each specific interest advanced by the County to justify the classification drawn under the statute, we consider the reason for the exclusion of gay and lesbian couples from civil marriage left unspoken by the County: religious opposition to same-sex marriage. The County’s silence reflects, we believe, its understanding this reason cannot, under our Iowa Constitution, be used to justify a ban on same-sex marriage.
While unexpressed, religious sentiment most likely motivates many, if not most, opponents of same-sex civil marriage and perhaps even shapes the views of those people who may accept gay and lesbian unions but find the notion of same-sex marriage unsettling. Consequently, we address the religious undercurrent propelling the same-sex marriage debate as a means to fully explain our rationale for rejecting the dual-gender requirement of the marriage statute.
It is quite understandable that religiously motivated opposition to same-sex civil marriage shapes the basis for legal opposition to same-sex marriage, even if only indirectly. Religious objections to same-sex marriage are supported by thousands of years of tradition and biblical interpretation. The belief that the “sanctity of marriage” would be undermined by the inclusion of gay and lesbian couples bears a striking conceptual resemblance to the expressed secular rationale for maintaining the tradition of marriage as a union between dual-gender couples, but better identifies the source of the opposition. Whether expressly or impliedly, much of society rejects same-sex marriage due to sincere, deeply ingrained— even fundamental—religious belief.
Yet, such views are not the only religious views of marriage. As demonstrated by amicus groups, other equally sincere groups and people in a survey in the Des Moines Register in 2008 found 28.1% of individuals surveyed supported same-sex marriage, 2% opposed same-sex marriage but supported civil unions, and thirty-two percent of respondents opposed both same-sex marriage and civil unions. The Des Moines Register survey is consistent with a national survey by the PEW Research Center in 2003. This PEW survey found that fifty-nine percent of Americans oppose same-sex marriage, and thirty-two percent favor same-sex marriage. However, opposition to same-sex marriage jumped to eighty percent for people “with a high level of religious commitment,” with only twelve percent of such people in favor of same-sex marriage. Iowa and around the nation have strong religious views that yield the opposite conclusion.
This contrast of opinions in our society largely explains the absence of any religion-based rationale to test the constitutionality of Iowa’s same-sex marriage ban. Our constitution does not permit any branch of government to resolve these types of religious debates and entrusts to courts the task of ensuring government avoids them. See Iowa Const. art. I, § 3 (“The general assembly shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion . . . .”). The statute at issue in this case does not prescribe a definition of marriage for religious institutions. Instead, the statute declares, “Marriage is a civil contract” and then regulates that civil contract. Iowa Code § 595A.1. Thus, in pursuing our task in this case, we proceed as civil judges, far removed from the theological debate of religious clerics, and focus only on the concept of civil marriage and the state licensing system that identifies a limited class of persons entitled to secular rights and benefits associated with civil marriage.
We, of course, have a constitutional mandate to protect the free exercise of religion in Iowa, which includes the freedom of a religious organization to define marriages it solemnizes as unions between a man and a woman. See Iowa Const. art. I, § 3 (“The general assembly shall make no law . . . prohibiting the free exercise [of religion] . . . .”). This mission to protect religious freedom is consistent with our task to prevent government from endorsing any religious view. State government can have no religious views, either directly or indirectly, expressed through its legislation. [Knowlton v. Baumhover, 182 Iowa 691, 710, 166 N.W. 202, 208 (1918)]. This proposition is the essence of the separation of church and state. As a result, civil marriage must be judged under our constitutional standards of equal protection and not under religious doctrines or the religious views of individuals. This approach does not disrespect or denigrate the religious views of many Iowans who may strongly believe in marriage as a dual-gender union, but considers, as we must, only the constitutional rights of all people, as expressed by the promise of equal protection for all. We are not permitted to do less and would damage our constitution immeasurably by trying to do more.
The only legitimate inquiry we can make is whether [the statute] is constitutional. If it is not, its virtues . . . cannot save it; if it is, its faults cannot be invoked to accomplish its destruction. If the provisions of the Constitution be not upheld when they pinch as well as when they comfort, they may as well be abandoned.
In the final analysis, we give respect to the views of all Iowans on the issue of same-sex marriage—religious or otherwise—by giving respect to our constitutional principles. These principles require that the state recognize both opposite-sex and same-sex civil marriage. Religious doctrine and views contrary to this principle of law are unaffected, and people can continue to associate with the religion that best reflects their views. A religious denomination can still define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and a marriage ceremony performed by a minister, priest, rabbi, or other person ordained or designated as a leader of the person’s religious faith does not lose its meaning as a sacrament or other religious institution. The sanctity of all religious marriages celebrated in the future will have the same meaning as those celebrated in the past. The only difference is civil marriage will now take on a new meaning that reflects a more complete understanding of equal protection of the law. This result is what our constitution requires.

All I can say is, wow. That is one powerful piece of writing, coming from a state on the fringes of the Bible belt. No east or west coast crazies involved here, this is coming the heart of the country. And it is long overdue.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Tradition Sucks.

"Hey, when I showed up, I didn't go about using big words or religious terminology. I didn't pretend to be more educated or have special insight when I told you about my experience with God. It was my goal to know of nothing except Jesus Christ, crucified, when I was with you guys. I was weak and afraid. Very afraid. My thoughts, my message weren't from a high vernacular, not set in persuasion or wisdom. They were a demonstration of the Holy Spirit's raw power, so that you can have faith because of God and his power, not me or any other man."
--1 Corinthians 2:1-5, paraphrased

Just so you know that I'm not completely off my rocker with my (admittely biased) paraphrasing, here's the NIV:
"When I came to you, brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear, and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on men's wisdom, but on God's power."

I finally am reading the rest of Pagan Christianity, and will move immediately onto Reimagining Church after this. It's a good sign when books like this have you straight up read some scripture, and this one stood out to me. A few choice quotes from this chapter, with my thoughts: "The sermon creates an excessive and pathological dependence on the clergy. The semon make the preacher the religious specialist—the only one having anything worthy to say. Everyone else is treated as a second-class Christian—a silent pew warmer. (While this is not usually voiced, it is the unspoken reality.)"
Not only is that a doozy of a first sentence ("excessive and pathological dependence"), it's a good one. I find, as I read this and as I consider my experience on my own, that that last parenthetical phrase is anything but unimportant. It instead describes the church I know all to often. "Bad" things are often not voiced, or even vocally denied or condemned, but in reality are all too true and present. Things like this class system, the idea that the pastor is above everyone and the focus of Christianity (have you ever seen a church? The chapter on architecture was fascinating), the concept of love the sinner, hate the sin, the idea that works are a necessary result of "faith", the ridiculous obsession with wealth and prosperity. But those are getting into other issues. Back to the topic at hand:
"It [the sermon] has become so entrenched in the Christian mind that most Bible-believing pastors and laymen fail to see that they are affirming and perpetuating an unscriptural practice out of sheer tradition. The sermon has become permanently embedded in a complex organizational structure that is far removed from first-century church life." And a quote from David C. Norrington, author of To Preach or Not to Preach: "The sermon is, in practice, beyond criticism. It has become an end in itself, sacred—the product of a distorted reverence for 'the tradition of the elders' seems strangely inconsistent that those who are most disposed to claim that the Bible is the Word of God, the 'supreme guide in all matters of faith and practice' are amongst the first to reject biblical methods in favor of the 'broken cisterns' of their fathers (Jeremiah 2:13)."

The power of tradition is intimidating, and overwhelming. It is not always bad, but can often perpetuate bad practice. Tradition is the only reason that a majority of Christians (by my estimation, anyway) will tell you that people laughed at Noah, there was no rain before the flood, there were three wise men that showed up when Jesus was born, and Jesus had a whip when he chased the sellers out of the temple. None of these have the slightest shred, however, of Scriptural evidence. It is also the reason that some churches (like mine) have sacred communion tables, polyester choir robes, and yes, the sacred sermon (which every church that I've been to has). And it's not a good reason. There are many reasons that the sermon as it stands is a bad idea. And you should read Pagan Christianity. Because it's really, really good.

Monday, March 2, 2009

I Hate All Your Show

I was catching up on my feeds, when I came across this post over at the Holy Heteroclite, which is a re-post of part of a post elsewhere, which I will in turn partially reproduce here. It's a list of vocabulary that doesn't mean what it used to:
churchbuilding, organizationgathering of friends
worshipreligious concert & lecturea life poured out, as a sacrifice
savedguilt free passsalvaged and put back to hard work
truthproposition, world viewa person--Jesus
christianreligious conservativeone who loves & suffers like Jesus
preachreligious lectureannounce on the street
ministryprofessional religious programserving like a slave
apostlespiritual superstarexpendable messenger
prophetdead, lacking diplomacylistens to God
pastorreligious CEOsmelly sheep tender
lovefeeling or moodsacrificial, tender care acted out
Too often a very accurate list, that I have seen in action.

Additionally, in following some links, I rediscovered Jon Foreman's song, "I Hate All Your Show" - there's a post with lyrics and a video elsewhere, I won't repeat it here. But it is an excellent song - check it out and ponder it.

I know constantly and exclusively saying what's wrong with the church and Christians isn't the way to fix things, and is easy to do. But whatever my faith ends up looking like, it will hopefully be one of doing, being, and relationships. And, most difficult for someone with pride issues like me, humility and subservience. We'll see how that goes.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Instant gratification, Christianity, America, and kids, the last of which screws everything up.

So, I'm reading about the traditional Creationist view of instant, exclusively-God origins versus the theistic evolution view of gradual, God-initiated origins. The author is a theistic evolutionist (my term, not his, I'm generalizing here), and he was talking about how the introduction of the "human element" (perhaps the "soul" if you will) that enables mankind to use language and indulge in religious practices among other things was a gradual process, which subtly grates against the idea that we are specially designed by God to be unique and especially in God's image. It's not an absolute contradiction, but there is some discomfort.

Also, this was going to be a shorter post, because I'm doing my UScholars reading for tomorrow, it's almost 5am, and I work in three hours. But now I probably just won't sleep...anyway, that's beside the point.

I got to thinking about this gradual vs instant thing, and realized that this "instant gratification" creation that I grew up with was similar to another element of theology that I grew up with - "instant gratification" salvation. This is the idea of the sinner's prayer - that you're not a Christian until you say it, and once you say it, you're in. If you press hard enough, it becomes more elaborate, and it ends up being less black and white, but regardless, that's what I gleaned from my spiritual upbringing, since I didn't ask too many questions before I left home, for reasons far too numerous and loaded for this note. If you haven't read my other notes, and are confused or have questions, read them, or my snazzy new blog, which has them all nicely gathered. Anyway, the comfort in this black/white view, and the reason it's so prevalent, I think, is that it's easy - you don't have to worry about whether you're going to heaven or not, there's no uncertainty - you're either in or out. And as a bonus, it's really easy to get in - all you have to do is say the right words. Basically, as long as you involve Jesus, the fact that you're a sinner, and repentance, you're good.

Except if you don't really mean it. Or you're too young to understand fully. Or is that covered under some underage clause? And if it is, do you have to re-commit once you're old enough? Or does it just kind of transfer over?
What if you say it when you're four in the guest bedroom, following after your father so you can get to heaven, and then never actually follow up later in life?
What if you do follow up later in life, but realize that you're not entirely hunky-dory with everything you were raised with, and so you don't explicitly re-commit the same way?
Are you still in?
Do you get to go to heaven?
Or are you going to burn in hell for eternity?
And what's with this intense focus on heaven and hell, anyway? Isn't Christianity about more than some giant, supernatural Admiral's Club?

As you can tell, this is something I've struggled with, pretty hard. For more on that, again see my other notes (or, again, my blog). Strangely enough, though, I have largely settled on a more gradual, evolutionary, if you will, kind of salvation. That you're judged not on where you are on a journey, but where you're headed - not on whether or not you've crossed some fairly arbitrary line. Spiritual growth is not linear. The idea that it's a black and white, in-or-out scenario just doesn't sit well with me. That may seem like a cop-out, but I don't see any resolution unless you just don't ask questions, which just isn't an option for me. I think the seeming cop-out is a result of a misplaced focus on heaven and hell, as I alluded to earlier, and a result of a larger, more general tendency to want this instant-gratification spirituality.

It shows up in young-earth Creationism, salvation, churchgoing, Biblical literalism, and all kinds of places in the faith that I cobbled together during my first 18 years. Which makes sense, seeing as how I grew up in America, which is a very instant-gratification society.

But I don't think it's that easy. The Bible came way before we had any significant idea of how the world we live in came to be, and most of it was written thousands of years before modern science was even a twinkle in Francis Bacon's eye. Salvation, under much scrutiny, isn't a simple in/out affair. A lot of these things are not explicitly said (although some are), and some are even specifically contested (going to church doesn't make you a Christian), but they are nonetheless prevalent in mainstream American Christianity.

I think this is because Americans are lazy. Christianity does as much for you as you put into it, I would argue - not in a literal works sense, but in the sense that if I just, say, go to church, show up to youth group, memorize some scripture and the right answers to all the questions, sing some songs, go on missions, and believe what everyone tells me, It's not going to do a damn thing.

Sidenote for those who are shocked and/or offended: I considered stronger phrases, but settled on that. Swearing is another thing that I've come to see as less black and white. Swearing up and down, just because you stubbed your toe, or because you are late to work, is dumb, and rude. If used very sparingly, however, it can then indicate intense passion and emphasis about things you really care about. Using big words instead just seems to pretentious to me, and using a thesaurus doesn't make you intelligent. I use language *extremely* sparingly, because there are few things that I am *extremely* passionate about, and I don't want to dilute their power of emphasis by using them for lesser things, like a lot of people do. This, however, is one of the few worthy subjects. case you didn't get my drift, that's pretty much what I did. And it gave me a fantastic moral foundation and a pretty good starting point, but it could have been so much more, and it wasn't. Additionally, I now have to sort through 18 years of accumulated theology to figure out what is actually essential, what is negotiable, and what is unnecessary. Because with everything I've been told spiritually in the past, there is no way that it is 100% rock-solid, necessary theology.

It's a sad statement that I was able to, as a preacher's kid, even, make it through my childhood on cruise control theologically and spiritually. It is largely my fault, but my job was made a lot easier by the fact that in America particularly (the rest of the Western world to a lesser degree), "Christianity" is easy. Really easy. Like, braindead simple. It's arguable that you would have to almost make an effort to not be a "Christian."

Now, is everyone who calls himself a Christian really a Christian? Most assuredly not. 84% (or whatever statistic you quote) of people in America claim to be Christian, but far, far less than that are active Christians. I don't think I would even categorize myself in the latter category, at this point, or any other in my life.

So what is my point? What is the solution? Should Christianity be harder?

Yes. I think so. Christianity should be hard. It should be intellectually challenging, emotionally challenging, and spiritually challenging. Now for some devil's advocate Q&A that I've done for myself, that might mitigate some kickback, or at least explain where I'm coming from:

Q: Wouldn't that result in less Christians?
A: Most definitely.

Q: Is that a bad thing?
A: No. It would get rid of the massive amounts of chaff that show up in church on Sundays and don't do much else. And before you get all up in my grill about calling anyone chaff, I'm not. Whether you're chaff or not isn't my call.

Q: But what about those people who do become Christians simply by going to church? Wouldn't they just be "chaff" and never become Christians?
A: This isn't an easy one, but it's helpful to do a miniature paradigm shift. I like to think that people become Christians by seeing and witnessing other Christians in real life, and are then educated and ministered to by church. Church should not, in my opinion, be an evangelism center. For those that need it, there are rallies, Billy Graham style. But the way that people become Christians should be through existing Christians, living their lives, and sharing their joy. Church does not necessarily a Christian make, and, I think, is hard-pressed to a Christian make alone.
Now, I've heard tell of people becoming devout Christians because someone told them they were going to Hell. I'm sure there are devout Christians who started out just going to church. I would like to think that if there were more sincere Christians and less chaff Christians, those people would find Christianity without church. If not, then those are very different people than I am, and I don't pretend to understand them.

Q: But wouldn't it still result in a net loss of "real" Christians, if there was less of the Christian atmosphere?
A: Maybe, maybe not. Firstly, if you define "real" Christians as "people that are going to heaven," you're missing my point. I bet there will be people not in Heaven that a lot of people think should be, and probably people in Heaven that a lot of people think shouldn't be. The point being, Christians as whole, I think, would be more devout and less hypocritical. They would drive less people away, but also bring less people in. But of these less people, a much larger portion would actually be legitimate Christians. So where do the numbers land? I don't know. And I don't really care. Christianity shouldn't be a numbers game, and trying to make in into one royally screws everything up.

I think that's about all the Q/As that I can think of at the moment.

Now a quick rejoinder: all this is great for adults, but kids throw a huge wrench into the works. As having kids becomes less of a nebulous, distant event, and more of a palatable, possible happening, I've been considering how in the world I'm going to raise them. And although I've done a lot of thinking, and settled a good bit for myself, I haven't a clue how I'm going to raise my kids. I want them to have a strong moral foundation like I did, but don't want them to be able to coast like I did. How does one do that? Go to church yourselves, and start bringing them when they start asking questions? Raise them in the church and make them ask questions? Say to heck with it, and hope they figure it out? I haven't the foggiest. And as I've mentioned before, I'm grateful for the way my parents raised me - it's working out in the end, and it definitely gave me a good start. But if possible, I want to avoid the late start. The typical thought is that kids just can't understand such things until they're old, so you have to spoon-feed them until they're "old enough." But why, when we stop spoon-feeding them food, can't we stop spoon-feeding them theology? What is "old enough" anyway? Does spoon-feeding them long-term mess things up down the road, when you stop? Is the lack of understanding because of nature - the inherent capabilities of kids, or is it a circular nurture thing - because we spoon-feed them, they can't understand?

I don't know.

And I won't, until I'm a parent, and even then, I probably won't know until after I've gone too far to change course.

Being a parent sounds really, really hard, and I've heard it's a thankless job.

So to my parents: Thank you. Immensely, and truly. I know you did your best, and I appreciate it. Truly, and a lot. It did incredible things for me. The fact that I'm not copying it verbatim is anything but a slam on how you raised me. It is instead my own best effort, different because I'm coming from a different place than you were when you were raising kids, and trying to copy your methods when I'm a different person would most definitely mess everything up. Hopefully, my kids will turn out at least close to as well as I did. Which is scary, but it's the best I can do.

Here goes nothing.