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Get Real !

A Call for Authenticity in the Church

   

 

 

       P. J. Staup, Ed.S.

 


Introduction

Chapter 1:  The Super-Christian Lie

Chapter 2:  Jesus:  A "Real" Guy

Chapter 3:  Sometimes It Hurts So Bad

Chapter 4:  The Church and Me

Chapter 5:  The Theology of Law and Grace

Chapter 6:  What is it to be "Real" Anyway?

Chapter 7:  Evangelism and Realness

Chapter 8:  How to Make the Church User Friendly


 

Introduction

 

            It may sound as if I am against the church by what you are about to read, but nothing could be further from the truth.  The fact of the matter is that I love and am deeply indebted to the church for my salvation, my development and sanctification, for being responsible for having met my wife, and for having provided me with some of the best friends a person could ever want.  I also believe in the church and in the mission God has given it, especially in these difficult times.  I know that I am writing about, us, the Bride of Christ, and, therefore, how important we are as individuals and as an institution.

     It is because of this importance that I have written

these words. It is my hope to be a catalyst for positive

change.  I am by nature a person who believes in the best,

even in the worst of circumstances.  I am also a person who is

sensitive, perceptive, insightful, discerning, intuitive, and,

honest enough to put such truths in print.

            At the same time, my goal is to reach those people, like myself, who have been hurt by the church’s tendency to produce and reinforce believers who have a lack of authenticity, genuineness, and realness.  I know that most of this hurt has been done unintentionally and, that some of these hurts have probably even been done with good intentions.  Still, hurt is hurt and the resultant pain is pain and, therefore, it must be spoken of no matter where it happens.

            Some of you may argue that I am writing in order to vent my anger.  I want to tell you, you are correct: I am angry.

            The more I have learned about mental, emotional, and spiritual health, ironically, the angrier I have become.  This is because for years I repressed and denied my anger while attempting to follow the church’s general teachings that anger was always wrong and unbecoming of a “good Christian.”  Conversely, during my training toward becoming a Christian counselor, I learned that anger is an appropriate emotional reaction to pain, hurt, and abuse.  It is hard to imagine the church would be a place where these things occur, but I believe pain and hurt can come in many forms and places, even if it be spiritual lessons gone awry in the “house that God built.”   

            Still, it is wonderful to know that I can be angry, not sin, and be following God's will by expressing it.  I have found healing for past pain by naming it, grieving it, and then turning it into positive action for myself.  Similarly, writing this book is a reaction to what I believe to be righteous indignation. 

            I pray for those of you who know what I am talking about that this book will be part of God's plan of healing you. God bless you in your tough, but glorious journey!

            Ironically, in a church where people are rarely authentic and deeply real with one another, most of us are in real pain.  Most of what we hear in response to this pain is partially helpful at best.  Because of this the church is not only a place of healing, but also a place of hurt.  For those who have experienced their share of emotional, mental, and spiritual injury, especially in the name of the church, Jesus Christ, or God, finding yourself harmed in church can be an injury that is too much to bear. 

            You usually blame yourself and the church typically and, ignorantly, blames you for your lack of faith.  The result is you heap further guilt onto your already broken souls.  For you, these people, I write this book.  I dedicate it to the suffering you have experienced while you have waited and depended on your church to be a place of genuineness, authenticity, deeper honesty and realness.  Without knowing it, you have been a courageous, silent survivor.  Because of your patience, continued faith and belief in Jesus (the only one we can really trust fully), and because of your willingness to endure so much falseness around you while maintaining a good attitude, you are an inspiration to the Gospel.

            I also know there are others of you out there who will be angry with my message.  To you, I make no apology.  My prayer is that you will see through your own agenda, have an open mind, and try to learn from those who suffer.  I am not attacking you and, for that matter, I don’t believe I am not attacking anything or anyone.

            Because of these statements I have made so far and the ones that are to come, I am sure some of you will believe that I have gone too far.  Perhaps you feel the church is too important to criticize.  I think the opposite.  Because it is so important, we must be in constant discussion about her state of affairs. We must dialogue about what we are doing in the name of Jesus more than anything.  If this happens then I think God will be pleased.

            Then, there are others of you who will think I have not gone far enough.  I want you to know that I am doing my best to speak what I know to be the truth, in love.  I do not want people to reject what I have written simply because it is filled with anger.  I want people to read it and dialogue and decide for themselves about how real the church is and isn’t. 

            I do not mean to be divisive.  This is not the intent of the book.  The intent is rather to examine one man's perspective on the state of the modern evangelical church.  If I am far from the truth and, therefore, way off base, then discard what you are about to read.  But, if I am right on, then, like a good movie, if what I have written inspires meaningful discussions and deep talks among you, then perhaps this book can be a small step forward for all of us who call ourselves Christian.  If this happens, we can go more boldly into the future knowing with confidence that God is being glorified in our lives and houses of worship!

            Finally, I look forward to meeting many of you and being a part of a dynamic process that makes us, the Bride of Christ, a more perfect spouse.


Chapter One

  The Super-Christian Lie

 

            When I go to church and other Christian related activities, I often feel out of place.  This is a strange reality because I have been a Christian since I gave my heart to Jesus at the age of nine, which means I have been a Christian for 40 years.  It’s not like church is new to me.  Still, I think God's house should be for me more of a place of solace, acceptance, retreat, and of safety and security.  It needs to be an oasis for tired and battered people in need for shelter.  And I believe people would find church being these things if we as Christians would drop our facades and masks and venture to be more real with each other.  Church should be the most authentic place we experience.

            Instead, what I find is that the church is one of the most “unreal” places I step into and that Christians are some of the most “unreal” people I know.  For this reason, for me, the church is a scary place to go to, and, likewise many Christians are scary people to know.  Sometimes, likewise, they are the last one’s I choose to trust. 

            This is because the judgments made in God's house can often be the cruelest around.  We as Christians can be harder on each other than any non-Christian.  The persecution we give to each other often times makes the grief the non-Christian world gives us pale in comparison.  It has been said that Christians are the only ones who are part of an army who shoot their wounded.  The stress of being shot by another Christian causes great fear among us.  I believe it causes us to hide from God, ourselves, and each other, similarly to the way Adam and Eve hid from God after they had sinned.

            This hiding makes it so we are afraid to be ourselves with each other.  My resulting experience and reality is that when I go to church I feel a great deal of anxiety.  I know deep down in my soul that differences are neither tolerated nor valued; what is valued is sameness and strength.  We try so hard to look like each other or like the mythical “Super-Christian” that exists in each of our minds.

            Sometimes, I get the urge to be politically incorrect in my appearance to see how the people who are my spiritual family will react. My sense is that people would begin to pressure me to go back to “the me” they think they know.  If I did not, I believe there would be consequences to this apparent aberrant behavior, some of which may be severe. 

            An experiment by a sociologist bears this truth.  His hypothesis was that family members could not handle a slight shift in the behavior of one of its members.  He asked the college students he was teaching to act like total strangers when they went home for one of their school breaks.  He asked them to say please and thank you to everything that was done for them, or to be formal in what was ordinarily a very informal setting.  They were instructed to do this for only one hour

            The result was that none of them were able to complete the experiment.  It put such pressure on the family system that none of the individuals could stand it.  The family put immense pressure on the student to become the informal role they were before the experiment.

            I believe the same dynamic exists in and is true of most social institutions, including and, maybe even more so, the church.  The church as a social institution has a very difficult time with change and, therefore, lags behind other institutions, such as businesses in adapting to a world of increasing change.

            Even with something as meaningless as growing my hair longer, I have sensed the uncomfortableness of my fellow Christians around me.  When I was in my mid-thirties I was sporting shoulder length hair that rapped into a neatly packaged six inch ponytail.  Some people did not know how to react to it.  Some needed relieve their anxiety by making a joke, but most people said nothing hoping it was just a stage I was going through.  I grew it because I always wanted one and was curious how it would look on me.  I could have easily told them this if they just asked, but sadly, I don’t think this would have settled the issue in their minds.

            I remember when a famous Christian musician came to our worship service to sing and showed up in ragged, faded blue jeans that people whispered in disapproval of his looks.  Little thought was given to his message and his music.  Far too many people had an impossible time looking past his clothes to see his worshipful music.  We, as a congregation, were not used to someone dressing so informally in church. 

     I also remember being jealous of the freedom he had to be able to sing and leave and not have it affect his long-term social and economic status.  I doubt he will be re-invited.  It's amazing to me how much we judge people on outward appearances; I expect this of the world, but I find it even more prevalent in the church.  The range of behaviors, emotions, language, and just over all who we happen to be is much more constricted in the church than in the world.

            On the outside, we talk of cooperation and fellowship, but inside each of us are in competition.  In reality, true cooperation and fellowship always encourages people to express WEAKNESS AND FAILURE.

            We compete mostly by our outside image.  We try desperately to never let anyone know our loneliness, depression, and fear.  Instead, we walk around with smiles on our faces and, by doing so, tell everyone that all is “well with our soul.”

            Some “lucky” (oops, sorry, I must be politically and theologically correct and use the word “fortunate” instead of “lucky” to intimate God’s involvement………This just one of many examples of how silly our fundamental and evangelical Christian subculture and it’s language is) individuals seem to have it all together.  They wear the right clothes, say the right words, they have the right friends.  Certainly, some the “lucky” people are truly good people; they have charisma and their life is filled with many opportunities.  Their exceptional gifts and talents are matched by an equally exceptional internal integrity.  The most obvious sign of their spiritual maturity is their sensitivity and heart for those in pain.  This sensitivity reflects a humility that knows that “but for the grace of God, go I.”  These people who are real know that they are not any better than anyone else, and that they easily could swap shoes with someone who is in an unfortunate situation or someone who has made even a series of poor choices.  They are like Jesus in that they are not judgmental.

           These people are a pleasure to meet and be around because they try to treat everyone the same. Their humility and their accepting spirit makes others feel at peace around them.  People who are struggling feel an acceptance that is real.  Being with them is like being with Christ because they, in fact, are Christ-like!  We desperately need more believers like this in the church.

            On the other hand, the Super-Christian presents an impossible ideal for us to reach.  Still, he is too often lifted in our up churches as the model.  He is presented as the model of spiritual maturity, and, therefore, promoted amongst us.  Many times he is elected to the Board of Elders, not so much for his spiritual acumen, but  because he is able to “play the Christian game” better than the rest of us.  This game is as political as anything that happens in Washington, D.C. and perhaps more so.  In addition, he is too often chosen to lead because he has been successful in the business world or because he has a gift, talent, or skill that the church needs in order to function better. 

            The Super-Christian is also successful because he is better at hiding his weaknesses.  He believes this is the best way to behave and live in the church setting.  He intuitively knows that it doesn’t pay to be open about his dirty laundry.  This he shares with few people, if any at all, including his wife, his kids, himself, and his God.  Because of this, he fools himself and others about his own worth and level of spirituality.  In reality, he doesn't know just how sick, spiritually and emotionally he is and, the rest of the church body doesn’t either. 

            This model leaves the rest of us in a spiritual vacuum.  The harder we try, the more we fail to be like him or her.  This is a confusing message because we too often believe this person to be “like Christ.”  As we try to pursue our own spiritual path, we compare ourselves to these “together” individuals and end up on the short end of the stick.  No matter what we do, we will never be as good, special, or spiritual.  This is because it is very hard to play this game and, while few have mastered it, those who have too often become our leaders.  And when they implicitly and covertly communicate that it isn’t safe to be open, the rest of us follow along like “sheep to the slaughter.”

            As a way to convince us that this unreal behavior is in fact the opposite, or real, we hear sermon after sermon telling us it is just a matter of faith, time, and maturity, while our insides desperately have a healing need for the truth.  We are told (implicitly and explicitly) that if we try hard enough, we, too, can be like this!  That it's a matter of obedience and faith and, sadly, because of our itching ears, we buy into this message hook, line, and sinker. 

            The problem with this misguided truth is that no matter how hard we try, we will never be good enough and/or a Super-Christian and this is why it makes it a lie.  Still, we want to believe it; it's what we want to believe, because we do not like who we are.  We have not yet learned to accept ourselves, just as we are. 

            Funny, God has accepted us just the way we are; after all, He did make us.  And the word on the street is that God doesn’t make any mistakes when He makes people, He only makes people who make mistakes.

            But the material world in front of our eyes begs us to believe the “Super-Christian lie.”

            What's ironic is that this process mimics the carnal world.  We don’t have to look too hard to realize that what we find in the world is competition and a fight for survival.  This is often ruthless and unfair.  In the church we have just re-interpreted the meaning of this experience.  We used spiritual words and spiritual props to make us believe that what we are doing is God's will.  The truth is that, too often, just like the world, we are following our own selfish and egotistical desires.  By using spiritual language, we copy the world without knowing it.  The result is the same.  People are put in cliques and a whole social hierarchy exists which no one wants to talk about.

            Certainly, we judge each other with a different set of characteristics and criteria than the world, but these judgments can be just as cruel and un-Christ like. 

            At the Christian college where I teach, individuals are more “datable” if they represent the Super-Christian ideal.  The students put each other under immense pressure to conform to this ideal. Typically, these characteristics manifest themselves by having a happy Christian face, communicating that they will be a success in the Christian world. 

            They must not be committed to materialism, but ironically it helps to come from a wealthy Christian family. 

            They share some similar traits as their non-Christian counterparts as well.  It helps to be good looking, smart, a little avant-garde, athletic, and witty.  It is also best not to have any significant hang-ups.  If you have had a rough and tumbly past, this can help you if you prove to others that it is behind you.  In fact, you may be envied by those who have not been able to free themselves from their Christian upbringing enough to sow a few wild oats.  If you have these qualities, the rewards of the Christian world await you.  If you do not, your worth as a person, in our Christian subculture, is typically minimized.  No matter how much you try, unless you conform to these fundamental and evangelical Christian norms, you will only be successful to a limited degree. 

            In the end, the church is no more tolerant, and maybe less so, of serious personal difficulties and differences than the outside world.  For example, most of the people I see in counseling are Christians, and most of these people have learned a long time ago that people will listen to their problems only for a short time.  Sooner or later they are usually told to pray about their problems.  This is just another way to let someone know that you are finished listening.  It would be more honest to say you don't know the answers, that you would be happy to talk more about it later, and that you will help them find someone who can help them if that is what they want.

            In addition, as Christians we are under the dubious social pressure that goes something like this, “Not knowing the answers to life's difficult questions might suggest that your personal Christianity and walk is not strong enough to handle such problems.”  This confronts the misguided belief that the Christian life, if lived right, is easy.  Nothing is further from the truth. 

            I have heard sermon after sermon in which the basic message is that if you follow these simple three point biblical instructions, you will be successful, more acceptable and pleasing to God, and, therefore, more blessed by Him.  And I don't mean momentarily (although sometimes this is the message), I mean that since God has instructed us in all ways as to how to obey Him the  message is you must make a choice.  Eventually the Christian life is made up of a series of choices to obey God and be, therefore, blessed.  The message is clear:  Being blessed by God and living the successful Christian life is up to us, it is ultimately a choice to obey and be blessed or not obey and be unhappy.  When this message becomes internalized we tell ourselves, even unconsciously that we responsible for the condition in which we find our life.  It is not hard for the average Christian to eventually deduce that “if you are not happy, it is your fault,” or to hear that “happiness is a worldly desire and something you should stay away from.” In other words, if you are unhappy, there can't be anything wrong with God and His Word or the church, so it must be you.

            What results is, hundreds of people in church feeling the need to wear a mask and appearing happy and together.  I have had many people say to me that they must be the only ones struggling with their Christian walk, because everyone else looks so happy, together, and successful.  Similarly, I also have stopped getting surprised or shocked by stories of “successful” Christians who have fallen off the deep end.  It can be devastating to be a new believer (or any believer, for that matter) to watch such a spiritual “icon” fall.  Paradoxically, what is closer to the truth is that we are all stumbling and falling. 

            If we were more honest  with each other, the church would be a much healthier place to be.  When we are dishonest, we wear a mask to cover up our imperfections.  This mask leads some people to be accepted (by being good players at this unreal game), while others are rejected for not fitting in or for choosing not to conform to the Super-Christian mold, ideal or lie.

            The rejection in the church is more serious because we are adding God to the equation.  When we fail at this unreal game, not only are we failing to meet our fellow Christians' standards, but, in a way, these standards are communicating what we all believe God wants from us.  When we fail these standards and ideals, in our head and in our hearts, we believe we are also failing God.  The result is a lifelong struggle to get close enough to the “super-Christian” ideal.  The result is a life long feeling of not being a “good enough” Christian.

            What adds to the insanity of this social reality is that Jesus has done all that is necessary for us to be acceptable to God and, since we have all professed to have accepted His sacrifice, it would only make sense that we would more naturally be the most real, accepting, and genuine people around.  Too many times the opposite is the truth; we, as Christians, are often the most fake people to be in relationship with.

            But let me get back to the struggle of trying to be a “Super Christian.”  This uphill and chronically exhausting struggle makes some Christians give up this fight.  They cannot handle the rejection and failure, because through this process they feel like a failure.  Many leave the church to go back to the world.  The world may not have the answers, but, for this person, it sure is not as lonely, hard, judgmental, tiring, rejecting, unrealistic, and mystifying in its expectations.  A person can handle only so much loneliness and pain before they find solace in the wrong places.

            When this happens, we blame the person for not having enough “faith.”  By doing this we can continue to reject them while relieving our own guilt about who we are as people. Sadly, the church gets smaller instead of bigger.  The people who stay in the church are the ones who have made it or the ones who are still trying to.  In the end, the church keeps the “successful” people, while it gives the slow, subtle message to those who do not fit in, that they belong elsewhere.  The subtle and covert message is that if you do not fit in, “either become like us or leave." 

            I believe that the church should be a place where all people should feel loved and accepted.  This needs to include the successful and the unsuccessful, the pretty and the ugly, those who are in need and those who have something to give.  Those who are hurting, and confused, and cynical, and those people who are used to losing, should also feel that church is the safest place to be.  We do not need additional messages that we are unfit because the world is cruel enough and rejecting enough just the way it is!

            Usually, the process I am talking about takes a while.  When a person first becomes a Christian, they are usually accepted just the way they are, but sooner or later, this honeymoon ends and, the person is told implicitly and/or explicitly that they are to change. 

            Certainly change is a necessary part of the Christian life.  The problem is that most of the changes we are concerned about are superficial.  Sometimes we focus on a person's hair and how long it is or isn't, what clothes they wear, how much money they seem to have, where they sit in church, who their friends are, where they live, and what they do for a living.  A perceptive person sees through the political nature of the church and either chooses to join the hypocrisy, tries to be an agent of change, becomes a church-hopper, or leaves the church altogether.

            In other words, people are being hurt in the church just like in the world.  The main difference is that in the world, people are generally more willing to admit that their motives are selfish.  They don't understand our Christian subculture where everything is so covert and hidden.  When a non-Christian becomes born-again, it often takes time for reality to set in that it doesn't pay to be as honest in the church as they were in the world.

            In the Christian world we have to hide our wrong doings and wrong beings.  The behaviors that the world accepts, we, too readily, force underground.  The result is a whole subculture of believers who rarely dare to be real around each other.  Sin must be hidden!  The face of doing well is worn by most of us because if we don’t it means that something must be wrong.  There are those in the church who will judge you for not “having enough faith”, and for not “rejoicing” or for not “counting it all joy.”  If you happen to be around someone who spiritualizes everything, this person might decide to “pray” for you or put you on their “prayer list.”

            Again, there is nothing wrong with prayer; this is an important Christian discipline.  The problem is in the attitude of the prayer; it is too often one of haughtiness or indifference while being covertly judgmental.  This judgmental attitude is covered by prayerful concern.

            This attitude shows how separated from each other we are.  It's almost as if the worst thing someone can do for you is pray for you, because it shows you have problems and may be failing in some major area of your life.  The sad truth is that we are all failing and badly in need of prayer.  Too often we use our Christianity as a shield (which it was never intended by God to be) to keep ourselves safe and hidden from this truth and from each other.

            As I said before, one of the most dangerous places to be the real you is in the church.

            What is both interesting from a sociological perspective as well as very frustrating, is the superficiality of most of our group prayer times.  My usual experience is that when someone asks for prayer requests, it's someone's far away Aunt in another state who is old and sick that gets mentioned (I know I am overstating the case, but I’m doing so to make a point, so please indulge me a little). 

            This is one of the prime examples of the lack of intimacy in the church.  We have small groups to counter this, but still, my experience is that this is as close as we dare to come toward each other.  Few want to risk mentioning how unhappy they are in their marriage, or the trouble they are having raising their children, or the depression and anxiety they experience.  As Christians, we give each other the covert message that being too personal and intimate is too dangerous.  By the time we find out what is really going on in someone’s life, it is too late, a crisis has already happened.

            On the other hand, did you ever notice how refreshing and fun it can be to be around non-Christians?  I don't find the same kind of pressure to be in a box or to be perfect.  They don't have our list of do's and don'ts!  To be fair, they have their own list and it may be just as hurtful as ours in its own way. 

            Still, our list may be very biblical, in a technical sense, but when we judge each other against our grid of do's and don'ts, some of us are winners and some are losers.  Non-Christians don't have this same grid.  Consequently, in a paradoxical and ironic way, they are more free to be themselves and more able to allow others to be so.  This is speaking of tolerance.  Non- Christians are generally more tolerant of differences than us.  While we must uphold the moral absolutes of the Bible, we must not do this harshly and without the respect of the individuals involved.  Too often we do this without love.  Additionally, sometimes our motive is to lift ourselves up compared to “failing Christians” and the “non-Christian” in general.

            I had a client come in the other day and tell me how enjoyable it was to be around a group of non-Christian musicians who had asked him to accompany a “big band.”  When he did, he found he was judged for his musical talent alone.  The other musicians were free to be themselves and they expected the same from him.

            I am not saying is that it is better to be a nonbeliever.  I value my relationship with Jesus more than anything else in the world and I would never let my envy of the freedom with which the lost can live their lives convince me, for a second, to give up the true freedom I have found in Christ.  What I am saying is that sometimes it boggles the imagination that I can be more myself with a nonbeliever than with my brothers and sisters in Christ.  

            The experience my client had with non-Christian musicians pales in comparison to the Christian school and church at which he works and attends.  At these places he cannot be himself.  If he was, he would probably lose his job and, therefore, he must go underground with his true self.  It's not that he has some terrible sin to hide, but even if he did the Christian school and church would be the last place he would share it. 

            Still, and sadly, as his Christian counselor, I am one of the few people who know him completely. He knows I will not judge or reject him for the spiritual struggle that is common and necessary for all of us called Christian.  While it is unfair to compare the safety of the counseling room to the rest of the church's social reality, ideally, the church should be a place of retreat and safety from a cruel world and a place where we can be ourselves with each other.  Too often he experiences his Christian friends as less approachable than the non-Christian friends he meets.

            Finally, did you ever notice the people we put on the covers of most Christian magazines or publications?  These people symbolize who we want to be and what we value.  They are usually very attractive and smiling. Not that there is something wrong with being good looking and happy, but not everyone in the church could possibly be this way. 

            We have followed the world's standards in this regard.  The publishers also know that this is what sells, whether it is a Christian publication or a secular magazine such as VogueWe are all at fault because we cannot handle the ugliness in ourselves. When we lift up individuals or “models” that represent what we want to be we can deny our own ugliness, shortcomings, and imperfections

            What I would like to say is that only by admitting to God, ourselves, and others, and by accepting our weaknesses and ugliness (warts and all) can we become open, vulnerable, and honest with each other.  We must stop hiding our ugliness so it can be safe enough to come out of our shells.  If we do not, we will continue to put pressure on each other to live the “Super-Christian Lie.”  We will continue to force each other to wear masks in order to continue hiding from each other.  By doing this we can be safe behind the walls we have built.  We can stay there in our isolation and with the privacy of all of our warts.   By doing so we can continue to hide our weaknesses from each other, continue to wear our phony church masks and pretend that none of us is as lonely as we really are.  In the end, the church will continue to be an unsafe place to be and Christians will continue to be unsafe people to know.  If we don’t succeed at reversing this process, we will continue to be very poor and ineffective witnesses for Christ and most non-Christians will choose non-Christian venues to find acceptance, friendship, and authenticity. 

            I believe this is one reason why so many people go to counseling.  One reason my profession exists more today than any other is because it's one of the few places left where it is safe to be yourself!  If we commit ourselves to bringing this safety into the church, more sinners would be saved and more saints would be healed.

Chapter 2

 Jesus: A "Real" Guy

 

            Jesus was a real guy; no, this is an understatement, He was the most real person who ever lived.  Because He was fully God and fully man at the same time, it would only follow that He would have to be infinitely authentic, warm, genuine, honest, and real.  With Jesus, what you saw is what you got; there were no pretenses or hidden agendas, and, therefore, he could be fully trusted. People (remember Zacchaeus ?) knew this almost immediately upon meeting Him.  This is why, I believe, people were attracted to him and wanted to be with Him, and so much so that throngs of people followed Him around.  It was as if they could not spend enough time with Him.  It would be great if this could be said of the rest of us, His followers.

            Do you remember the story of the “Woman at the Well” in John chapter four?  What hits me about that story is the quickness with which Jesus was able to break down the barriers between Him and her.  I think He did this because He loved her.  He also knew what she needed and, that above all else, she wanted to be whole.  He knew that she was just another one of His lost creation who was looking for the right things in all of the wrong places.

            She responded to Jesus' tenderness and insight.  He was willing to put aside racial, religious and gender boundaries so that He could reach the core of who she was.  He was quick, but gentle.  He was convicting, but supportive.  He loved her in a way she had never known to that point. He was being real with her.  He was showing her and us how unimportant the outside masks were that keep us safely distant from each other.

            It is interesting that the disciples were typically unaware of the true “ministry” that was taking place back at the well (this also reminds me of how out of touch the disciples were when they thought they were helping Jesus by shooing away the little children only to have Jesus rebuke them and, to have Him admonish all of us to become like these children).  Similarly, I can see and hear them thinking to themselves that they were doing the “important” things for the continuation of their mission, while Jesus took a rest back at the well.  But at the well, the real mission was being lived out between Jesus and the woman.

            Isn't this woman, in a sense, all of us?  Were we not drawn to Jesus because He knew the answers and was perfect, yet not rejecting of our faults?  Did we not come to Him because He accepted us just the way we are?  Did He not communicate to us, against a backdrop of cynicism and worldly power struggles that real happiness was found in knowing Him and, that in Him we could rest?

            This idea of rest is reinforced in one of my favorite verses in the Bible when Jesus calls us to Him by saying, “Come to Me, all of you who are burdened and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

            I can usually tell how well someone knows Jesus by the degree to which they demonstrate they need Him.  These people communicate that without Him they would be lost and without a clue as to where the true meaning in life exists.  Their emotions, words and body language communicate humility.  They know that only the God of the universe would care so much for such a person as them and that only He has the answers to the questions regarding the meaning of their life. 

            This is what the Apostle Peter was saying when he answered Jesus with regard to whether or not he was going to stay with Him.  The crowd had just dispersed when they realized being with Jesus would be a life of difficulty.  These people knew they would have to give up all normalcy as they knew it to follow Jesus.  As the crowd left, Jesus asked Peter if he was going to leave too.  Peter's answer is truly remarkable and insightful.  His basic answer to Jesus was that the only place to be was with Jesus no matter the circumstances, because He knew that Jesus was God.  Being with God in a fox hole would be better than being without God in a mansion.  Also, he knew that the life the crowd was going back to was meaningless compared to what he had found in Jesus. 

            Likewise, people who have been with Jesus are not so much concerned with outward appearance, but more interested in loving others the way Jesus has loved them.  After all, the Bible says that God looks on the inside while man looks on the outside.  (Remember how the Nation of Israel wanted to choose Saul as their king because he was tall, dark, and handsome, rather than the smaller David who was “a man after God‘s own heart.”)  Jesus also said that others would know that we were with Him because of the love we show to one another.  The Apostle John went further by saying that if we say we love God and do not love others, we are lying about our love for God.

            Jesus was not concerned about power, money, or position.  Even though he was famous, He told people not to tell of the miracles He did. On the contrary, we are so easily persuaded and impressed by outward power that the temptation is always there for us to put Jesus on a pedestal so that we can use Him for our own selfish ego needs.  He, on the other hand, did miracles to let us know how much He loves us and that He is powerful enough to handle whatever we bring to Him.

            This is the "Good News" of the Gospel of Jesus Christ:  That while rarely a man would die for a good man, Jesus died for us when we didn't deserve it.  If you do not know Jesus personally, this would be a good time to realize that He is on your side and that He wants to know you in an authentic and real relationship.  Ask Him to be with you, personally, and He will.  Jesus said in Revelation 3:20 that all you have to do is ask and He will come into your heart and have a relationship with you forever.  Don’t hesitate because the Bible tells us that “today is a great day to be saved.”  What awaits you if you begin this relationship with God today is a genuine, authentic, and real relationship with the God of the universe.  He will then be able to help you become a more real person with yourself and others.

             Jesus is a “real guy” and a “real God” who wants you to share with Him all of who you are.  This means He wants to know all of you, including your strengths and your weaknesses.  He is not afraid of anything you may throw at Him.  Even your most vile thoughts would not surprise someone who knows everything, including what you think, even before your think it.

            On the contrary, I've had several clients who think Jesus could love everyone, but not them. They believe they are too bad and wicked to the core.  They believe they do not deserve the kind of love that comes from God. 

            One client, who had obsessive/compulsive disorder, could not go to church without cursing God involuntarily in his mind, believing that this constituted blaspheming the Holy Spirit, and therefore, the unpardonable sin.  He could then, unconsciously, prove that even God could not love him, and then, that it would be justified for even God to abandon him.  He felt this way because in various ways every significant person in his life had abandoned him.  In addition to this, sadly he blamed himself for having been abandoned by all these people.  It was an easy conclusion to believe that God would do the same.

     I had another client who could not think of God without thinking of sex at the same time.  This convinced her that she was wicked and, therefore, not deserving of God's love and forgiveness. 

            These are examples of masochistic thinking, started very early in a person's life, in which they believe they are not worthy of anything good, joyful, beautiful, or pure.  They feel so ugly inside that the thought of God really loving them is almost impossible to believe.

            Yet, this is in complete contrast to the fact that Jesus was a real guy and a loving guy, and that the same holds true for today.  He accepts these clients and us in spite of and because of our ugliness.  What we find completely disgusting and reprehensible about ourselves, He loves and accepts fully (of course, we couldn‘t hide it from Him if we wanted to because He is all-knowing).

     We know this is to be true because He suffered (according to the Book of Hebrews) in every way that we have.  He knows exactly what it’s like to be us.  He is not interested in condemning us, but in renewing the beautiful idea that we were created for a special reason.  Each of us has a place in His Kingdom and the “now” that He controls.  He is not as concerned with how much we sin, but with how much we love Him and are pursuing a relationship with Him. 

            The truth is that all of us have failed, are failing now and will continue to fail in the future.  This would be a hopeless truth if Jesus did not provide us with hope.  Sin is something which keeps us from each other, but it does not have to separate us from Him. It was because we were without hope that He died for us.  His death would not make sense otherwise because He could have chosen another, less painful way.  If His death was unnecessary, He was simply another martyr who died for the people he loved and the cause in which he believed.

            It's time for the church to be like its founder.  Just as Jesus accepts us just as we are and meets us where we are at, we need to express to each other that we are incredibly valuable and acceptable.  We need to remind each other that we all are in process, and that because we all still becoming that no one has arrived yet.  If we put our trust in Him our hope lies in the fact that we all are still becoming who He wants us to be.

            In this way the church must be different from the world.  It needs to be a safe place; a place where sinners (i.e. all of us) can feel at home.  When sinners step foot into a church, they should feel as if they finally came home and, it should stay that way until the end (this includes church discipline which has restoration as it‘s goal).  People should immediately give out a huge sigh as if they just took a cold glass of water on a hot and humid day.  It should be an oasis of protection from a hostile and rejecting world.  It needs to be a place where failure is expected, weaknesses are expressed, and differences are encouraged.

            I once thought that a neat name for a church would be “The First Church of Come As You Are.”  People would be encouraged to become what God intends them to be without worry of judgment from other Christians. The pastors would wear a variety of clothes, including jeans.  People would not be shamed for wearing baseball caps, and we would speak to God in normal language.  A full range of emotions would be allowed without fear of ridicule or gossip. We would be encouraged to grow, and failures would be interpreted as temporary bumps along the long road of the Christian life.  People would be encouraged to see their failures as opportunities for growth.  They would not see themselves as failures, but only their actions as failures.  After all, we should “love the sinner and hate the sin,” not “love the sin and hate the sinner."

            I think this kind of church wouldn’t turn off sinners.  In addition, our teenagers would be excited to be in church rather than moaning and groaning about God and His House.  People would receive real healing because they would see the realness of Jesus through the realness in us.

            Church also needs to be, among other things, fun.  I think this was the message of the movie “The Sister Act.”  Whoopi Goldberg's character brought life to a dead church.  She helped transform the neighborhood, and the Nuns, too.  Even though this is fiction, I believe the movie was so successful (leading to Sister Act II) because people are waiting  desperately for the church to become more real.

            I also have a book in my library which is entitled “It's a Sin to Bore a Kid with the Gospel.”  This book describes the journey and mission of the organization called Young Life; a youth organization created to bring our youth back to the church. 

            I believe in the title of this book and the process it describes.  We are in real danger of losing our children to things that seemingly help them be more of who they are without the pressure of being a Super-Christian.  My hope is that this book will be part of a process that helps them and the church become more real!

CHAPTER   3

 Sometimes It Hurts So Bad

 

            I Believe there is a relationship between the amount of hurt and suffering that we have gone through and the degree to which we need realness.  The hurt we have received in our past or present is the degree to which those significant people in our lives have not been real with us. 

            These significant people have hidden themselves from us; they do not want to show us their weaknesses because they are afraid.  This is true of most people in authority including pastors, teachers, and most importantly, parents and a lot of other people I challenge you to think of.

            There is a myth that if we are in a position of authority we must only show strength.  I believe we would be much more effective if as leaders we would show both our weaknesses and strength.

     As a parent, I am afraid to show my children that I am a real person.  I get so taken up with the job of “raising” them that I lose sight of the fact that it's me they want.  It is my real presence with them that will give them real security and the help they need to feel normal.  More importantly, it is this quality that makes me more approachable because it lessens the gap between us.  While there is a danger of going too far to their level, it is also true, and usually the case, that we go too far in the other direction of playing out the role of being “the parent.”  Without showing the real you to your kids, you cannot be friends as well as the parent you want to be.

            This lack of realness leaves a feeling of distrust and eventually a constant fear of abandonment.  It‘s like saying, “I cannot trust that you will need me if you do not show me where you hurt, what you are afraid of and where you have failed.  If you hide from me, down deep I'm afraid you don't trust me.  I then become afraid that if I fail you, you will leave me.  If you cannot trust yourself or anyone else, how do you expect me to be able to trust you?”

            This kind of past abandonment teaches you to not open up.  If you opened up and were hurt, you will be less inclined to do it again.  If it happens often enough and repeatedly, you soon close yourself to the possibility of being close with another individual.  The risks are too high, the hurt is too painful.

            The eventual outcome is for all of us to wear a mask………we put on the face that we believe others want………we become what will not bring us rejection.  We can tell from the reactions of others very early in life what is acceptable and what is not. 

            At a young age we learn to become “acceptable.”  We know that to not play the game means that we will be an outcast, that we will be alone, labeled, ridiculed, and rejected.

            Instead of becoming what God has created, we become what others want us to be.  This can be repeated so often that we can lose touch with the real us inside.  In the end we learn to play the game very well.  We may look popular and happy, but inside we are “living lives of quiet desperation.”

            When someone is real with us, in person or in a group, we secretly appreciate it, but we dare not do it ourselves.  It is reasoned that only people who are in real pain or really struggling open up about such things.  The truth is we all are in real pain.  None of us can go through this world without it being so. 

            Yet, we put people in categories and classifications.  We give them labels and somehow this makes us feel better.  It allows us to feel separated from such “strange” people.  The truth is we all are strange.  In this we are all more alike than we want or are willing to admit to ourselves, each other, and even God.  This only perpetuates the Super-Christian lie and the loneliness we all feel.

            The Super Christian lie is similar to the legalism and egocentric religion of the Pharisees.  It reminds me of the story of the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his house for a meal (Luke 7:36-50).  During the meal a worldly woman came to Jesus and washed His feet with her hair and tears.  When the Pharisee saw this he thought to himself, Jesus must not be a Prophet (not to mention, the Son of God) because he reasoned that a true Prophet would know that she was a woman of the streets and, therefore, not allow this display of sin filled emotion to happen.  He figured a true Prophet would not defile himself in this way.

            Jesus was aware of what he was thinking and asked him a very poignant question.  He asked the Pharisee:  if two people owed different amounts of money to the same person, one who owed a lot of money and one who owed a little, and the borrower cleared the accounts of both individuals, which one would be more thankful and indebted?  The Pharisee answered correctly by stating that the one who owed the larger sum would be more appreciative.

            Jesus then used this example to state that the Pharisee was like the one who owed little and was forgiven of his small debt.  Jesus then went on to state that from the beginning of the dinner, the Pharisee had treated Him like any other guest.  It became quite clear that he didn't know with whom he was dining.  What was blinding him was his own pride and misguided sense of pseudo self-worth.

            The amazing thing is that the Pharisee had no idea he was dining with God’s Son. He had no idea that the person he was having dinner with was not only God’s Son and, therefore the God who had created him, but that Jesus was also present at the creation of the earth with God the Father, Himself.

            The prostitute, on the other hand, was well aware of her position with regard to Jesus.  When she saw Him, she spontaneously became prostrate.  This, incidentally, is the correct position for all of us. She knew this because she was painfully aware of her brokenness, and because of this she felt in need of healing.  She knew she was in the presence of God and that the only rightful place was at His feet.  Jesus goes on to elaborate to the Pharisee,

"Do you see this woman?  I came into your house.  You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet.  You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet.  Therefore, I tell you, her many SINS have been FORGIVEN--for she LOVED much.  But he who has been FORGIVEN little LOVES little."

            This woman was in pain.  When she saw Jesus, she knew just how sinful she was and how much healing she needed.  I believe she was drawn to Jesus because, unlike the Pharisee, He would be real with her.  He would not mock or ridicule her, but accept her just where she was at. Jesus later tells her that her sins are forgiven and that it was her faith that had saved her.  He then tells her to go in peace.  In other words, He was saying to her that He was with her, that she was whole, and that He was on her side.  Jesus did not condemn her and He did not want her to condemn herself.

     What He did do was condemn the Pharisee for his arrogance and unbelief.

            This story shows the direct correlation between pain and the need for realness.  The more others hurt us and we hurt ourselves, the more we need realness.  It is imperative we get it, in order to be healed.

            Mental illness is often caused by the people around us not being real.  It is difficult to be real because it demands that you show and tell others you are weak.  This is true in spite of the fact that the Bible tells us it is through our weaknesses that He will make us strong.  In truth, the way we live our lives shows how little we trust each other and, in truth, God. 

            Our social institutions including our families, churches, and schools (arguably the most influential in our development) are places where we must put our best foot forward.  We are taught that social rewards come through being strong, not weak.  Generally, we reject and have little time for those that struggle.  These people remind us of our own fragility.  We prefer stories about John Wayne and “the American way.”  We are self-reliant, rugged individualists.  Even though this is admirable and somewhat Biblical, it is only half of the truth.  The other part is that we are so weak that we need God and each other, not in some trite way, but for our very survival. 

            We can only communicate this by allowing each other to know about our external and internal struggles.  Sometimes we refer to this as our “human" side.  Interesting wording, isn't it?  The problem is that inherent in our humanness is imperfection.  It is these imperfections that we are ashamed of and try desperately to hide from each other.  When we hide our imperfections from God, ourselves, and others we become unreal, fake, and distant from each other. 

            When we are not real and vulnerable with each other, we create families, churches, institutions and societies which are sick.  Not only that, but in addition, the result is we create winners and losers, and the losers are too often the weak.  If you do make it in this society, it will be because you will eventually realize that you will get little help from others, that you must build walls, and do it on your own.  This is why our country is filled with rugged individualists who paradoxically end up our heroes.   

            Either way, the truth is that other people will only respect you when you respect yourself enough to do it on your own.  Ironically, when you communicate this, others become more interested in helping you.  The result is the strong get stronger and the weak, weaker.

            A world (or a church for that matter) which does not intentionally plan programs to allow people to show weakness, feeds this lie.  Most of us believe this lie and, as I stated before, want to. 

            When those who have been repeatedly abused live in such a world, they blame God, themselves or someone else and, the rest of society does as well.  In the end they learn to be victims. 

            The result is that there are few places for these people to hide, and fewer places where true weakness is allowed to be expressed.  The places we call normal and healthy are simply those places where Christians have gathered who are "strong" enough to handle such competition and cruelty.  Even then, though, those who "survive and succeed" in this world we call "reality," are lonely and hurting.  The very people we call successful are only successful on the outside.  When we find out the truth about our heroes and leaders, we become surprised at the contradiction. 

            We demand our politicians to be superhuman, and we demand this of our church leaders as well.  The problem is, super-humans don't have weaknesses and if they do, they have successfully whipped any problem which comes their way which wipes away any sign of weakness.  We admire these people, but in reality, in their private lives they are filled with continual, and pervasive real struggles.

              Like parents, these leaders are afraid to show any crack in their armor for fear that the followers would not believe anymore.  Our pastors are afraid to show weakness because we communicate to them that we need them to be strong.  In turn, they take on this role, almost unconsciously, while many of them burn out as they compulsively try in their own power to be a “Christian Superstar.”

            Paradoxically, this is what draws them to the ministry in the first place: A misguided and often narcissistic view of themselves.  In turn, our pastors are afraid to show weakness because this would not reflect on God very well.  All of this insanity is happening while Jesus clearly stated that the “meek and humble will inherit the world.”  In addition, He also stated that His leadership style was one of weakness, realness, and one of being last, not first.

            Ironically, it only follows, that those who have been through more trials and tribulations in their life (including those called into the ministry) have a deeper capacity to understand their need for God and the healing He gives.  They are therefore, better able to receive love as well as give it, and are in a clearer understanding of Jesus’ deity.  They are humble enough to understand, because of the depth and degree of their suffering, His complete acceptance of them.

            Some people ask me why God has allowed them to suffer so much. To them it seems that they have indeed received far more pain, loss, misfortune, and even abuse than others.  Hopefully, because of the truth above, the gain of a greater appreciation for one’s need for God and the humility this brings is worth the pain of the rejection they have experienced.     

            I guess pain is the best way to make us realize how much we need God. 

            In contrast, it is easy to believe in almost anything if you have not been tested. 

            Our pain brings us back to God and reminds us that the woman at the well is just like all of us!  It is our pain which makes us have a contrite and humble heart.  For this reason, our pain, past, present and future, has meaning.  It allows us to know God in a deep way, in a way that no other road has to offer. 

            There is no teacher as good as suffering and pain.  It is the deep way in which we know God through our suffering that makes the hurt and pain worth it.  It is from this attitude and position that we can be humble enough to be used by God for His purpose and glory. 

            When God decides to let us know more about Him, ourselves and others through suffering, it is among the greatest privileges afforded to us on this earth.  It is from this position, attitude, and full bodied awareness that we can give to others what has been given to us.  It is from the love we have received through pain, and suffering, whether this be because of sins committed against us in our family of origins or because of the sins we have committed against ourselves or against others, that we are, paradoxically, in the best position to learn.

Chapter 4

The Church and Me

 

            My statements about the church are not mere intellectualizations about an institution of which I know little.  Since I was nine years old, I have grown up in the church and even though it may not sound like it from what I have said, ironically I have the church to thank for much of what I am today.  This influence and impact would begin, of course, with my salvation.  But even in addition to the incredible gift of salvation, I have had solid teaching and leadership training from people from whom I am forever indebted.  I believe I will always be a part of a church and a member of a local body of believers.

            It is from this vantage point that I wish to be part of a process whereby we talk openly about where we might be failing.  My attitude is that I do not see this failure as an end point.  I don't even see failure in general as failure; I see it as an opportunity for all of us to improve the most important institution on earth: the church. 

            We need not be afraid to look at ourselves in the mirror and criticize that which needs improvement.  We tend to handle the church as if it were too fragile or too sacred of an institution to be self-examined.  I think God can handle any mistakes we make along the way and the Holy Spirit can guide us in our self-examination.  In contrast, by not critiquing ourselves as to how we are doing or not doing, we don’t give God enough credit.  I think we can trust Him more than we do.

            Even with the indebtedness to the church, not all of my experiences have been positive ones.  Some of these experiences have been very damaging and, in some sense, abusive.  It's hard to think that one would receive abuse in God's house, but I think we must remind each other that God has, for now, with the direction of the Comforter, left us in charge of the church.  But since none of us is perfect, but instead tainted completely with the disease of Sin, it is logical to think that the church would be another institution in which sinful humans would hurt each other.

            It might surprise some, and to be honest it did surprise me, that truly anything which happens in the world does, in fact, happen in the church.  Anything from gossip and overeating, to political power plays and sexual abuse is present in the church.  Sometimes these acts are done in God's name.  I suppose this might be the ultimate form of using God's name in vain.

            Through the privacy of the counseling room I hear things that usually fall through the cracks of other social circles.  One of the dangers of the job is that through these disclosures I can become jaded and cynical.  It is a constant challenge I have to face.  I am sure, even now, I am failing. Still, I would rather know the truth than be blissfully ignorant.  I suppose this book, to some extent, is a response to the painful insight into the sickness of the church which has come as a result of my doing counseling. 

            The things that come to my attention as a Christian counselor range from the mundane to the tragic.  Just when I think I have heard it all, I will get involved in another case which will remind me that “truth is always stranger than fiction.” I hear about pastors who are sexually addicted, who secretly are looking at porn at their computer in the pastor’s study, and the pastor who is struggling with his homosexual second life.   I see pastor’s children suffering from anorexia or the P.K. who is abandoned while his father is ministering to the church family instead.  I talk to women and men whose spouses have neglected them so they can “minister" obsessively at church.  These people are married to the church instead of their spouses.  I talk to too many men who are abandoned by “super-spiritual" wives.  I talk to college students who appear to come from the “fine Christian homes" only to hear stories of sexual, physical and mental abuse.   

            The church, in my opinion, doesn't know how to handle such circumstances very well.  Certainly, pastors are professionals and, in addition to this are expected by us to know how to handle these situations.  They are usually the first person a family or individual will turn to.  The problem is that their education is so heavily weighted in theology that when they confront these problems they are not prepared.  Our seminaries would serve us better by requiring future pastors to take more practical counseling courses as a part of their training.

            Another problem is the theology which is taught by most churches with regard to suffering and how one should confront his problems.  The church in which I was raised, which could be termed a fundamentalist, independent Bible church, taught me what I call “Spiritual Repression.”  In this teaching I was told to give my pain and suffering to God, to lay them at the feet of the cross, and, in this way, give my problems to God.  The only problem was that when I did this, nothing usually happened.  What I expected was to have my pain relieved.  When it did not go away, I was confused.  When I asked my Christian leaders about this, they told me to have faith and to believe in God’s timing.  I was to continually give my problems to Jesus and wait on Him (whatever that meant, for I was never sure).  I was quoted scripture about “waiting on the Lord” and “being like eagles.”  I was being told that no matter what happened to me, I was to wait and have faith.

            The problem with this theology is that it suffers from circular reasoning.  It goes like this:  If I hurt, give it to God; if it still hurts, look at your lack of faith (it can’t be God’s fault!), then give it back to God; if it still hurts, look at your lack of faith, etc., etc., etc., ......

            While God does want us to continually go to Him in our time of need, He also expects us to use the power and resources He has given to us to solve the problems within our control.  The problem with spiritual repression is that it stripped me of my God-given ability to fight back.  This led to what I call “Spiritual Pacifism.”  Spiritual pacifism took away my right to my anger.  What I have learned since then is that without my anger, I am a prime target for abuse from many angles.  In other words, as I was giving my pain to God, others were giving me more pain.  In this endless circle, I was unable to fight back.  Of course, according to the theology of spiritual repression, I was not to fight back anyway, because if I did fight back, it was an example of my lack of faith.  This caused a great deal of guilt within me and just made me suffer more.  I found following God an impossible assignment; no matter what I did, I failed.  Without my anger, I was doomed to further abuse, by others and myself.

            It wasn't until I started studying psychology (in a seminary setting, I might add) that I learned that my anger wasn't all bad, and, therefore, to me, I wasn't all bad either.  This truth changed my life and put me on a road to understanding what God really expected from me. A tremendous burden had been lifted from me; it was as if I lost 100 pounds of rocks out of the imaginary backpack that I carry.

            The ominous truth about spiritual repression and spiritual pacifism was that I was living a theology of law, not grace.  I was, paradoxically, doing all the work even though I thought I was giving it all to God for Him to handle.  I tried harder and harder to be the Christian God wanted me to be.  The more I tried to be the Super-Christian, the more I failed and felt like a failure.  Still, I continued to believe that there was more to God than what I was being told and what I was living.  I was so miserable; I finally decided to search by myself to find the friendly God everyone was talking about.

            I found parachurch organizations, such as Young Life that let me know being a Christian could be fun.  I learned I didn't have to be unreal to follow Jesus.  The people in Young Life appeared normal and had more going for them than any Christian I had ever met.  The camps I went to renewed my belief that God was for everyone, including energetic and rebellious teenagers.  I met and saw people I could admire.  I could see they were following Jesus, not because they didn't belong anywhere else, but because they had experienced the touch of God.  They were real with me and with God.  Their prayers and devotionals were relevant to my life. I knew I was with people who had experienced real struggles, who were being honest with themselves, and had found the “peace of God that passes all understanding.”

            I remember a devotional by one man.  I don't even know his name, but he had a profound impact on my life.  He was sharing with us about God and he told us that in many previous talks or sermons he had been dishonest with the audience, trying to tell them what he thought they needed to hear.  He felt uncomfortable about his dishonesty, even though he was believed by most of his audience.  Because of the pain of his dishonesty and resultant guilt, he made a commitment to God and himself to never again speak publicly of anything that did not affect him deeply and personally. 

            The talk I heard was one such talk.  I knew when he finished that he had been honest with us.  He had let us inside.  Because of this I felt closer to him and the God who was directing him.  He was someone I could trust.  This was new to me in the Christian world. 

            After this sermon, I made a similar commitment to be real and honest.  This seemed, to me, to be the best way to communicate the realness of the Gospel.  My experience in speaking, teaching and counseling has led me to believe this to be true.  I find people much more responsive because, as much as possible, I don't put on a Christian facade.

            I tell students of my struggles as a Christian, as a husband, and as a parent.  I help them believe that to struggle is normal, necessary, and needed for true spiritual maturity to occur.  I give them hope of the potential which is in them and the God who has put it there.  Through this method I know I am having an impact and a real ministry - and a lasting ministry, I might add - to hurting students. 

            Students come up to me after class and tell me things they are afraid to tell anyone else. They feel they can be honest with me because I have been real with them. When they finish class, they believe, in spite of these necessary struggles and the pain involved in spiritual growth, that with God anything is possible, that God is real, and that He understands everything we go through.

            The students and clients I counsel have heard too many messages to do better, that what they are doing isn't good enough, and they are failing by not giving their all to God.  They are told through sermons, books, tapes, radio and television that they should be doing more for God.  We are told of remote areas of the world where most of us “refuse” to go to evangelize the lost.  We are told of the evil of affluence and how, materially, we have so much more than others. 

            The list of shoulds and oughts includes everything from how much money we give (or don't give) to the church, to the countless numbers of lost souls that are everywhere around us.  While I believe these issues are important and are areas we need to be committed to, I also believe we are inundated with guilt and with little balance in the messages we hear.  I, for one, occasionally need to hear how well I am doing.  When we rarely hear this message, we feel unworthy in front of a God whom, we believe, is never pleased.  There is no time to relax, no time to enjoy life.  Most of us look very unhappy to non-Christians.  I once heard Mike Warnke, the ex-Satanist turned Christian comedian, say that, to him, the faces of most Christians look like they have just finished sucking on an onion.  This is a pretty poor testimony to what is supposed to be the “abundant life.”

            Consequently, we have become locked into a controlling and legalistic theological system of works.  Most Christians, and most people, for that matter, are vulnerable to this “shaming” message.  We end up as Christian workaholics.  Our faces show a facade of happiness while we work as if we are in a cult of unending demandedness.  Most non-Christians are offended by the solicitation to join such madness.  Those who do are set upon a treadmill of works and a life long quest of trying to be a good enough Christian.  One would wonder if they are not trying to live the Christian faith in the same, emotionally sick way they had entered it.

            I know that all churches are not this way.  Some churches have taken significant steps toward encouraging realness.  I have heard of and witnessed pastors admit their struggles in an appropriate way.  These churches and pastors have done a great work in helping people feel that their pain is normal.  Still, too many of our churches are professing to be places of healing, only to be a place of slick competition in the name of Christ.  If you examine closely the interactions of the individuals in these churches, you will find what I have described above. 

            Most of the Christians I have met are intolerant and judgmental of differences.  Most wear a highly concealed mask.  Most are scared to death of letting anyone come close.  Because of this, I find us to be in subtle competition with one another. 

            I think Jesus would feel uncomfortable in most of our places of worship.  If he were to come back without revealing His identity, I believe most Christians would not only have a hard time identifying Him, but, also be put off with His appearance and manner.  Ironically, He would feel out of place in the place He has founded.  I believe He would spend most of His time outside of the church relating, understanding, and getting acquainted with the unsaved.  Non-Christians would find Him as a breath of fresh air, especially compared to the church. 

            I doubt Jesus would spend much time inside the church.  I believe His message for today to the church would offend many of the people who call themselves believers and followers.  In this way, we are guilty of being modern day Pharisees.

            I have tried most of my life to make the Christians around me feel more comfortable with whom it is that I am.  I know this is a waste of time, but it is very difficult to not receive the acceptance of fellow Christians.  I live in a constant struggle between fitting in and being myself.  It's not that I am strange or have something unfit about me.  It's the desire in me to know the truth for truth's sake that often gets me in trouble.  In this way, and many others, I find myself living on some edge looking in or looking the other way. 

            I guess I don't like to accept something as true just because someone has told me to believe it.  I resist easy believe-ism; I prefer to learn things the hard way.  But, this style of life has its costs.  I find myself left with the decision of either accepting a partial truth with a lot of politics or speaking the truth and becoming rejected.  More than likely, I just keep my mouth shut in order to avoid the conflict I know will come or I avoid situations where the gulf between what is actually happening and what people are willing to talk about is too wide.

            Strangely, I think Jesus went through the same process, but succeeded in confronting the situation with much more bravery. Like Jesus, I'm not particularly fond of playing politics, even though, quite honestly, I can be good at it.  I recognize that if I don't play politics, to some extent, my social economic well-being will be put in jeopardy.  Since there is just more than myself I can effect, I have learned the “suspect" art of playing the game and doing it in a way that makes me come out a winner. It's definitely easier to be a prophet when you are not a family man.

            Perhaps this is the reason Jesus never got married and why the Apostle Paul recommends singleness (I Cor. 7).  The church (and the world to some extent) presents before me the difficult choice of surrendering my soul, my God-given uniqueness, in order to conform to its image.  I find the image of Christ and the image of the church to be at times similar, but too often, dissimilar.  My resulting struggle and challenge is to figure out how to be myself, or to put it another way, to be real, in the face of this un-Christlike pressure to conform.

            Somehow I know I am not alone in this struggle.  I meet Christians all the time who are fed up and dissatisfied with the church and it‘s unreal political realities.  I have to convince myself and them that the struggle is worth it and that this is exactly where God wants us to be.  He wants us to be part of the answer, and part of the process that helps the church change for the better.  It would be too easy to give up and blame our unhappiness on any institution or person.  This would also not be Christ-like.

Chapter 5

The Theology of Law and Grace

 

            What has helped me survive this madness is the understanding of “The Theology of Grace.”  Of course, this is by no means new nor did it originate with me, it is my understanding of true Grace that has made all the difference. I heard it most of my life and was definitely taught it in the church as well as seminary.  The problem is I rarely saw it lived out successfully and fully.  When I did, it confused me how this Christian could be so free, especially of guilt.  I have been filled so much with guilt as the result of learning about a stilted God that I often say I feel guilty for something as normal as breathing.  I have been a person who has naturally and constantly surveyed and analyzed everything I have done, which has only made the situation worse.  I have spent most of my life in this prison of guilt. 

            Few people knew (including me) the constricted way in which I lived my life.  The irony of this is that most people believed I was living the model of the Christian life.  I remembered a friend of mine remarking to my mother that I was the only true Christian he had ever met.  On the outside, I lived all of the superficial Christian ways.  This act convinced even the best of cynics.  If he could see me on the inside - or from God's perspective - he would have seen how untrue his observation was.  The problem was that I was so out of touch with myself and my feelings that it was impossible to expect anyone else to see the truth about me. My life was a big lie.  The scary thing is I did not know it.

            In order to better understand the theology of grace, I believe it is helpful to understand the theology of law.  Technically, the theology of law is what the Apostle Paul argues against in the books of Romans and Galatians and else where.  It refers to the old way in which men believed they had to attain salvation and God's favor.  It meant following a system of strict rules in order to become holy.  Paul argues eloquently that to attempt salvation and holiness in this way is a waste of time.  He states that if you have broken one of the commandments, then you have broken them all.

            It is only because of Jesus’ death and sacrifice for us on the cross that we can be holy.  In other words, Jesus did it for us, because we were and are hopeless in being able to do this for ourselves.  To try and be holy by working harder and harder to be holy is a waste of time.  Still the pride in all of us begs us to try and please a God that has already provided a way.

            But this is not the only way to teach the Theology of Law.  I was taught law under the guise of grace.  In other words, I was told I and every other Christian was free, but in reality what was taught and modeled to me was a misguided and harmful form of law.

            There is one specific way in which I was taught this.  I was taught, as a Christian, I did not own anything.  I remember being at a famous Christian seminar and being taught this theology.  The question was asked about how to handle the conflict of a sibling who uses your clothes without asking.  The answer was easy for this speaker:  simply, you do not own these clothes, God does.  We were admonished to live this way in order to please God and to be happy.  We were encouraged to look at all of life this way.  In other words, I believed and tried to live as if nothing was mine.  This included my material belongings, as well as my time, energy and body. 

            Without being aware of it, I was being taught Spiritual Pacifism.  If I didn’t own anything, then there would never be a reason to become angry.  If someone took something of mine, vandalized my property, hurt me physically, or spiritually, I was to count it all joy.  This suffering, I was told, was a privilege because it helped me understand and identify with the sufferings of Jesus.  Of course, none of my sufferings could come close to His, but in these comparatively small sufferings, I could do God's will and better understand what Jesus went through.  I was taught that this would help me be more like Him.

            What was Spiritual Pacifism actually turned out to be “Spiritual Masochism.”  By giving all of my belongings to God, I was left without boundaries to protect myself.  If someone abused me, I was to remember how much worse Jesus suffered for me.  Anything that happened to me could never come close to the humiliation and suffering He experienced by becoming man and dying on a cross.  This happened to Him even though He did nothing wrong.  It is, therefore, logical (because I am a sinner) to assume that much of what I received in the form of suffering was probably to some extent my fault.  There is no room for self-pity or complaining in this theology.  You get locked into acting out happiness regardless of what might happen to you.  For me, in everything I was to count it joy.  My joy turned out to be misery. 

            While I lived perfectly this facade on the outside and was fooling everyone, including myself, on the inside I was enraged, angry, hurt, and unhappy.  The Theology of Law also had an answer for these difficult feelings.  Put simply, feelings were not to be trusted or acted upon.  I was being taught that my feelings were where most of my sin nature resided.  I could trust my thoughts and behaviors, but my feelings were another story.  I now believe this was taught to me because the nature of feelings is to be inherently mysterious.  Law cannot tolerate such mystery and, therefore, feelings were rarely talked about and not to be trusted. 

            This is what I meant by Spiritual Repression.  Repression is the process whereby we push unwanted feelings, thoughts and memories into our unconscious mind.  With the Theology of Law, I had spiritual ammunition to ward off my unwanted feelings.  What was on the outside could be trusted; what was on the inside had to be forced into submission.   

            The tragedy of this process is that it left me without me. I was a nonintegrated person.  I had parts of me that I was to accept, and other parts of me that I was to discard.  I now know that without understanding and accepting these ugly and unwanted parts of me, I can never be a whole person.  Still, I was depressed, guilt-ridden, anal-retentive, perfectionistic, out of touch with my feelings, and a fake. 

            This repression left me as two people.  There was the outside me and the inside me with which I was not in touch.  (I suppose one could call this a form of “Spiritual Schizophrenia.)  As long as I was out of touch with all of me, I could easily be manipulated to be (on the outside) whatever anyone wanted me to be.   

            By now you should realize how similar this is to the power that every cult has over its members.  By taking away who you are, a cult takes away you.  You become a zombie, following authoritarian dictates and doing this with zeal.  No one from the outside can tell you what you are doing is wrong.  The outward structure of the cult takes over for what you lack on the inside of your soul and personality.   

            In my life, as long as I was “obeying” God, no one seemed to care what was happening on the inside.  In fact, if anything, I was told not to focus on the inside.  Obedience is what mattered.  Happiness, in the form of feelings, was something I was to leave to God.  If He wanted me to be happy, it would be so.  My part was to do or die, not to ask why!  Happiness would, therefore, be a reward from an unselfish God to a selfish, but obedient follower.   

            Through this process I have described, many churches share similar and scary aspects with cults.  In fact, I believe many churches to be cultish congregations who happen to have the Gospel as the truth (or their weapon or both).  I now happen to believe that God is a lot friendlier than this!  He is not interested in controlling me, but in developing me, over time, effort, and prayer, along with His mercy and grace, into His beautiful creation. 

            What symbolized this process of repression to me was in the booklet from Campus Crusade for Christ called “The Four Spiritual Laws.”  Just so you know and so you can be reassured, I don't disagree with the overall message of this famous pamphlet.  I believe it has been used, perhaps more than any other, to bring countless to Jesus.   

            What I had trouble with was the answer to the question toward the back:  What happens if I don't feel anything special after asking Christ into my heart?  The answer is given in the form of an analogy of a train.  The first car is the engine which drives the train.  This engine is called fact. The second car is the coal car which supplies the train with energy.  This is called faith.  The caboose, which is the most unnecessary part of the train, is called feelings.   

            The analogy was given to encourage those who did not feel something intense and supernatural when they came to Christ.  The overt message is that you should put your faith in the facts and not listen to your feelings.  I suppose that one could argue that at least they put a feeling car as part of the train.  The problem is that by putting it at the end, in the form of an unnecessary caboose, the writer relegates feelings to be less important than facts and faith, and, possibly in an unnecessary position altogether.  

            I now believe the process to be more circular.  By viewing it this way, all three - fact, faith and feelings - are all equally an important part of the Christian experience.  Put it another way, if one never experiences the feelings of Christianity, one better take another look at one's faith in the facts. 

            I was reminded of this at a recent church service.  The pastor was teaching on how to handle suffering.  His answer was that suffering had to be handled logically, especially in light of God's Word and the future glory (happiness and bliss) that we will experience in heaven.  When he broached the topic of feelings, he stated that they could not be trusted and he likened them to eating some bad food.  In other words, if for example you eat the wrong food you may not “feel” well, and, therefore, these feelings and all feelings are fleeting and as reliable as the wind.  

            My experience is that feelings are one of the main tools God uses to communicate to me.  I am not trying to say that I always trust my feelings, because I don’t.  What I am saying is that I have learned to trust them as one of the ways to know myself and to know what God is trying to say to me, especially when everything is seen though the lens of what He has said in the scriptures. 

            I believe now that without knowing my feelings, I cannot know myself and the God who made me.  In other words, understanding my feelings is crucial to my personal and spiritual growth.  I believe spiritual growth is forever arrested without the understanding of one's feelings.  The sad truth is that our churches rarely dare to speak this truth.  I've also realized by reading God's Word that God is a feeling God and that because we are created in His image, we also have feelings.  I also have realized that He is not afraid of my feelings (even if I am) and that He knows them before I do anyway. 

            It is for this reason that I have gained an appreciation for the Old Testament saints.  Many of these characters gave God hell.  (Excuse the vernacular; it just makes me feel more real to say it!)  Jeremiah complained, almost to a nauseating degree, about the situation in which God had put him.  Jeremiah was not allowed to enjoy any ceremonies, such as weddings or gatherings of any kind because of the seriousness of the message that he was to give to his countrymen.  Therefore, Jeremiah spent a good part of his book lamenting (complaining) about his earthly situation.   

            I believe we all need a course on how to complain in a holy way.  By having heard the message, overtly and covertly, that I am not to complain and by being told of the virtues of those who do not (as a sign of spirituality and maturity), I have learned to bury my most powerful feelings and thoughts and to put a smile on my face, even if I am crying on the inside.  When we succumb and conform to this pressure, we inevitably end up wearing a mask.   

            Job and Jacob are other good Old Testament examples of individuals who were real with God, even to the point of Jacob wrestling with Him.  It is true that none of us could win such a battle, but Jacob must be admired for trying.  At least we know where he was coming from!  I wish this could be said for the rest of us. 

            The Theology of Grace is far different from the law.  The blessed truth about grace is that God is as pleased as He ever will be with me!  The good news is that I do not have to do the pleasing, Jesus did it for me.  It is because of the total and complete work which He accomplished on the cross that the pressure of pleasing God is taken care of. 

            Through law I was taught about a God who was rarely pleased.  Through grace I have been taught that God, like a good parent, loved me so much that He provided a way for me to please Him, once and for all. Sure, I will make mistakes and this will not please Him.  What disturbs Him most is that I am hurting myself, not Him.  Grace tells me that God is indestructible.  It is not God I have to worry about; He can take care of Himself.  God is worried about me, not Him.  He has my interests at heart.  He is on my side, as it says in Romans, “If God is for me, who can be against me.”   

            This truth has been made more real to me since having children of my own.  When I think about them, I realize they do not have to earn my love because it is unconditional.  My love for them became unconditional the second I became a father and laid my eyes upon them.  It is something that is impossible to describe unless you have become a parent.  The good news, if you are a Christian, is that God has become your father and so intimately that He wants you to call Him “daddy.”   

            Because my love for my children is unconditional, there is nothing so bad or shameful to our family that they could do that would make me disown them.  This is not to say they will not and do not disobey me.  They do and they do it often.  With their sinful natures and natural curiosity, they get into all kinds of trouble.  Sometimes they do this just to test my patience.  There are times I would like to separate their heads from their shoulders – I’m kidding of course, but if you are a parent, I'm sure you know what I mean.  They often push me beyond what I think I can bear.  Still, in spite of the worst things they may do, I will not reject them.  This reminds me of the verse that says God will never leave us, nor forsake us.  With God on our side, who should we fear? 

            This truth brings security to children.  It also brings security to me, God's child.  Even though He is Holy and demands perfection, He provided the way by becoming man and living a holy and perfect life. By accepting the sacrifice He made for me, I became His son.  By doing so, I never have to fear Him leaving me or rejecting me.  There is nothing so bad I can do that would make Him turn His back on me, even for a second.  Because of what He has done, I can rest in the security of knowing I am His forever. 

            This is a very difficult truth to believe when you have been shamed by significant others in your life.  A few examples of shaming messages may include, “What’s wrong with you!”, “You idiot, why would you do something like that?!!  A shaming message, intentionally or unintentionally, tells you there is something wrong with you!  It's not what you do that becomes the focus; rather toxic shame says you are the problem.  We feel guilt when we have done something wrong, but we feel toxic shame when we are the something that is wrong. 

            It is very easy at this point to confuse the theology of depravity of man with that of toxic shame.  Depravity says that you can do nothing to please God and that without Christ, you are going to Hell.  When a person who has been shamed as a child hears this message, it makes sense for the wrong reason.  Because a shamed person already feels they are worthless as human beings, it is not hard for them to hear the message that they cannot please God.  They readily accept this message because it is Biblical proof of what they already have been told about themselves: they are a failure! 

            While it is true that none of us can impress God with our goodness and worth, it is another thing to say that we are worthless.  I doubt Jesus would have died for something that was worthless.  It is because we were created in His image that He died for us.  In John 3:16 Jesus states that, “God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in shall not perish but have eternal life.” (NIV) (Emphasis mine) 

            Yet, when a person feels that they are worthless and that there very being is flawed, the verses of the Bible which could be interpreted as validation for this worthlessness is the kind of Biblical proof that a shamed person has to hear.  They identify with verses that talk about our sinfulness, how we all have sinned, how we all fall short, how all of our righteousness’ are as filthy rags, and that there is “none that is good, no not one.”  While these verses are true, they don't speak of our worth.  While we did not deserve salvation (sin), God saw us as so worthwhile (worth) to become man and die for us. 

            Because of these Biblical truths, I do not have to try to please a God who is already pleased.  He has provided the way; my part is to “rest” in His power and plan.  Because of this I can relax, knowing that He is in charge.  In fact, I can even enjoy life! 

            I used to believe that God's plan depended on my obedience.  I remember sermons in which the preacher proclaimed to me that all God wanted was one man.  In these sermons I was told that in the scriptures one obedient man was all it took to accomplish God's will.  The faith portions of the Book of Hebrews were often used as an example of this. 

            I no longer believe all of this.  I believe God will enact His plan with or without me---certainly He will, in spite of me.  Of course He wants me to go along with Him and this is what obedience is all about. Still, if I sin or disobey Him, this does not mean that His Will will not be accomplished.  God is bigger than me; His Plan is bigger than me, even though it includes me. 

            I want to please Him now because I no longer have to.  I used to please Him compulsively because I thought I had to.  The truth is I will certainly fail now as I did before.  When I fail now, I no longer feel the oppressive guilt of letting God down.  I know He is not pleased when I disobey, but I also know it does not destroy His day.  God sees me in process.  I go through periods of great growth and, at other times, through periods of failure and stagnation.  Through all of this, I know that He is with me.  Even though in the short run He may be disappointed with my failures, in the long run “He will never leave me or forsake me.”  I now have the blessed truth that it doesn't matter what I do or don't do, it is what Jesus did that ultimately counts. 

            It is for this reason that I feel free.  This is what grace is all about:  Freedom.  This is also what the Book of Galatians argues poignantly and with conviction. Paul goes on to say: 

            Galatians 3:1-5, 11-13 

                        You foolish Galatians!  Who has bewitched you?  Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.  I would like to learn just one thing from you:  Did you receive the spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you had heard.  Are you so foolish?  After beginning with the spirit, are you trying to attain your goal by human effort?  Have you suffered so much for nothing-if it really was for nothing?  Does God give you His spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, of because you believe what you heard?..........Clearly, no one is justified before God by the law, because, “The righteous will live by faith.”  The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, “The man who does these things will live by them.”  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.”   (Emphasis mine) 

            The sad truth about my life is that I went into ministry to please a God who was already pleased.  The freedom that these verses talk about was not true in my life.  I, like the Galatians, believed and lived a gospel from men, not from God.  I forgot about the way Christ had suffered so that I do not have to. 

            As soon as I graduated from high school, I was involved in youth ministry.  I was there because of how much it helped me.  While I attended a Christian college, I became a youth minister of a local Young Life club.  The kids responded to me and my leadership team.  Without the benefit of a church, its budgets and buildings, we had 75 mostly non-Christian kids, coming to a Christian club.  What was happening in our club was more significant and real than anything else in the churches or other community activities.  The kids were excited and lives were being reached for Christ.  Real ministry was happening.  One could feel the movement of the Holy Spirit during our meetings. 

            Later, I went to seminary.  While I was there, I tried a number of different jobs to help pay my bills.  I vacuumed condominium projects and such while trying to stay out of youth ministry.  I was trying to live a peaceful life with my new wife.  The problem was that this new work seemed very insignificant, so soon I went back to youth work.  This was my job while I went to graduate school. Lori, my wife, also supported us by working as a kindergarten teacher in a Christian grammar school. 

            During this time, I dragged Lori to every youth meeting and gathering.  We had kids calling on the phone and visiting us at our humble mobile home.  We had hurting and intoxicated kids sleep on our family room floor.  One girl, in particular, stayed over after walking two miles in a driving rain.  She was drunk and told us she had laid down in the middle of a busy street on her way over to our house.  She had tried to kill herself by having a car run her over.  When no cars came, she walked the rest of the way to our house and knocked on our door, asking if she could stay the night. 

            What was uncomfortable and in its own way funny, was that we already had Lori's uncle sleeping on the family room floor.  He was embarrassed being awakened in his underwear by an intoxicated teenager.  We let her in and let her sleep on the floor of our bedroom.  My uncle-in-law was impressed with the intimacy of the relationships we had with these kids. 

            What he did not know was that I was burning out, in my own way, for the Lord.  Lori had the wisdom to see the insanity of our life style far before me.  I kept on pushing.  I wanted the best and most significant youth work to be happening under my leadership.  I tried everything that had made me successful before, but I was met with mostly frustration and minimal success. 

            At the same time, I was trying to do well in school.  I had never taken school seriously before, had poor studying habits, and made it by through on a wing and a prayer.  So, now that I was older, married and in seminary, I had committed to myself that I would do no worse that a “B" in any of my classes.  This goal I accomplished.  Even though I had never been known for my studying discipline and scholastic aptitude, I graduated from Graduate School with a 3.33 average.  This was a major accomplishment for me.  I am sure none of my high-school teachers dreamed I would stick with and be successful at school for so long.   

            I struggled from the beginning of the first semester.  Even though I committed myself to getting a good start by getting all “A's", I received all “B's" that semester.  I was in such terrible physical condition by the end of the semester that I went to see a doctor.  He took my blood pressure (it was 160 over 100) and advised me to ease up in my life.  He did not put me on medication because of my age - 25.  I tried to slow down, but there seemed to be so much to do and so little time to do it. 

            Somehow, my blood pressure went down and my grades went up.  I realized what it took to get good grades on papers, even though no one had taught me how to at this point.  Later, when I went on for another degree from Seton Hall University, I graduated with high honors, had my thesis stored in the library for future students to reference, was inducted into the International Honor Society, and passed the state licensure exam to become a Marriage and Family Therapist.  I received the second highest score in the state!!!  All of this I accomplished being a person who would be embarrassed to tell you what score I received on the SAT.  

            I struggled juggling these responsibilities (being a new husband, a graduate student, and a youth minister) for three years.  Lori did a wonderful job of putting up with this while trying to adjust to a new job and place to live, let alone being newly married.   

            In my third year of seminary, Lori became pregnant with our son.  She continued to work until the end of the pregnancy.  We continued to do youth work with the same intensity, believing the best was yet to come.  I continued with my school work, doing better than I ever had before.  Also, to add to the already mounting stress, the last year was also the most difficult in the counseling program.  I had to write a Master's Thesis on my theory of the integration of Theology and Psychology.   

            With 11 days before the paper was due, I hadn’t started yet.  It got to the point where I had no choice but to begin.  I had painted myself into such a corner that I had to drop everything in order to have a chance at handing in my final major paper.  I studied, researched, and wrote night and day for the next 11 days.  While I wrote, Lori typed, heavy with child.  When it was over, I managed to finish and hand the paper in on time and Lori stayed healthy while pregnant.  I amazingly received an “A" on my thesis project. 

            Also, during this time, I was required to do an internship in counseling in order to graduate.  This meant I spent fifteen hours a week at a counseling center for no pay.  I had to add this to my already frenetic schedule.  One of the hardest moments came when my supervisor asked me to present a case in front of the regional office.  This group gathered once a month and she thought it would be a good experience for me to present one of the cases I was working with.  I did this, but I was very nervous for weeks ahead of time and during the presentation. 

            Essentially, what I am saying is that I was juggling going to school, adjusting to married life, having a child, writing a Master's Thesis, doing an internship, and all the while attempting to do a demanding and endlessly exhausting youth ministry.  The pressure I had put on myself was slowly, but steadily zapping my strength. 

            Somehow, it never occurred to me that I was doing too much.  I started to develop physical symptoms which should have tipped me off. While lying in bed at night, just about the time I was supposed to be falling asleep, my heart would begin to race and my head would spin as if I was falling off a building.  I would shake my head, talk myself out of it and eventually get to sleep. 

            On top of these stresses, Lori and I found out that she had become a diabetic.  This happened in the first year of our marriage while she was teaching around many sick five year olds.  Because of our busy schedule, neither one of us realized she had a strep-infection.  It was her principal who convinced her to go to a doctor.  We didn't even have the sense to know that we were pushing too hard.  We found out she was a type 1 diabetic, which meant she had to inject herself with insulin twice a day. 

            While we survived this shock, we did not realize the complications it would bring with pregnancy.  Three years later when she was pregnant, especially in the last trimester, she experienced severe low blood sugar reactions during the middle of the night.  During these times, I would chew up cookies or whatever sweets we had in the house and force feed her.  Eventually, she would come around.  These experiences were very stressful because I was always hanging in the balance between calling the ambulance (knowing we could not afford the doctor bills) and trying not to overreact.  She always came through, and our doctor assured me that this was a normal occurrence in a diabetic.  Still, the trauma was incredible and trying for both of us. 

            The scariest experience for me came when I was driving her to the hospital for a pregnancy checkup.  On the way, the road turned upside down.  The road was suddenly in the top of my visual field and the sky was where the ground was supposed to be.  This lasted only for several seconds, but it felt like an eternity.  I started to pull the car off the road, slowing down because of my fear of an accident.  Lori asked me what I was doing and I tried to explain it to her.  It is a difficult thing to explain without sounding totally crazy.  I now understand this to be called field reversal brought on because of severe anxiety and stress.  At the time, I did not know what it was, but I was convinced I was losing my mind. 

            Finally, David was born.  I thought this would bring us some solace, but I was totally unaware of what it meant to be the father of a small child.  For some naïve’ and ignorant reason, I thought that he would mostly take care of himself.  I thought his birth would bring a reduction in stress.  For those of you who have children and know what I'm talking about, you know how silly this is.  Hopefully, you knew a little more of what to expect than I did. 

            After the birth of our first-born son who was the first grandchild on Lori's side of the family, many family visitors came wanting to be supportive.  I always enjoyed seeing our relatives, but I did not realize this meant that David (our son) would be sleeping in our bedroom. Needless to say, in spite of the stellar job Lori did to protect me, I didn't get much sleep.  It certainly didn't make sense to give our child to our guests, so when he woke, I found myself held captive in my own bedroom.  This was happening during April and May of my final semester at school.  How Lori made it, how David made it, and how I made it, only God knows. 

            The reason for telling you this long story is that there is a lesson in it:  I believed I was living God’s Will for me, when in reality, I was living according to my own selfish timing.  I wanted all of my goals to be reached and realized yesterday; I was impatient!  I was addicted to my own adrenaline and didn't know it.  I was working hard thinking I was making God happy when He was already happy with me.  He never expected me to work that hard.  It was my naiveté and ignorance of what God really expected of me, and my greed that pushed me to the limits of my sanity.  I didn't want to wait for God to give me good things in His time.  I wanted everything to happen in my time.  Even though I appeared giving and humble on the outside, I wanted the youth ministry to set me apart from other ordinary ministries.  I was trying to build my own empire in order that I would get the glory. 

            In essence, I was trying to save the world when the reality was that I could not handle my own life.  When a teenager would not come to an outing, I would become angry and take it personally.  When a volunteer leader could not show up for a planned event, I would resentfully give my approval, while secretly being angry at their “lack of commitment.”   

            I was paranoid, in that I believed God had given me a special place and a special mission that only I could accomplish.  The truth was and is that it is His work which will be accomplished, and only if He wants it to.  He was teaching me that I was not to get the glory or to accomplish things on my own ability (which He gave me anyway).  I had forgotten that the ministry was God's work, not mine.  I learned that “saving the world” on my own and under my own power would lead to the destruction of me and my family.  Funny that this would all have been done in the name of God!

Chapter 6

What Is It To Be “Real” Anyway?

 

            At this point, someone is probably saying this is all great, but what does it mean to be real?  Realness is hard to define.  It is elusive.  It is like hammering Jell-O; just when you think you have it, it morphs into another shape.  There is also a danger in defining realness.  By defining something which moves, you are in danger of putting it in a box.  Whenever we put something that is alive in a box, it always seems to find a way out.  Either that or it ceases to exist, because it refuses to live in prison. 

            Defining realness is like defining God.  The more we describe what He is, the more we confine Him.  While it is worthy to discuss what He is like it is another to try and restrict Him by our definitions.  

            Realness is equally elusive.  The more we define what is real, the more we define what is not real.  By defining it, we make it unreal.  When we can grasp what it is like to be real on paper, we have lost its true meaning.  This is what makes realness mysterious and, perhaps, too mysterious for most Christians. 

            My experience is that most Christians like the world black and white.  This is perhaps, the reason some people come to Christ in the first place - to find black and white answers to life’s most difficult questions.  This is what most non-Christians mean by using Christianity as a crutch.  Too often when we look for black and white answers, we generalize this to all areas of life.  In the end, most Christians end up being black and white in their view of the world.  This should be no surprise, since most of the sermons they hear are black and white also.  This is sad because much of the mystery of life is found in its ambiguity, in the misty and vague gray area. 

            Many Christians make the mistake of judging all of life as black and white.  While some of it is black and white (our various doctrinal statements), much of life is rather ambiguous.  It is my opinion that accepting the ambiguousness of life is part of growing up.  Needing everything to be simple (i.e., black and white), may satisfy our childishness, but, nevertheless, it leaves us empty in describing the confusing world in which we live.

            When we refuse to accept the ambiguity of life, we put life, God, and realness into a box.  Everything must be perfectly clear.  If I am to take seriously most of the sermons I have heard, we should expect the Christian life, to be black and white and, therefore, fairly easy to follow. 

            My experience is that life is not wholly clear.  Some things I choose to believe; many things I don’t have a clue about.  Too much of Christianity is about the business of giving answers for things it has no business giving answers to.  Instead, we should be telling people how difficult it is to understand life, let alone, live it.  Still, most people go to church to hear a simply message that will relieve their anxiety about the difficulty and ambiguity of live. 

            I like to say that when I graduated from Christian college I knew all of the answers and when I graduated from seminary, I finally realized I didn’t even know the questions. 

            At the various colleges where I have taught, I try to help students understand the difficulty of putting the truths of life into a box.  I try to help them see that their view of the world is insufficient.  It may be fine that they are saved, but that is not all there is.  In order to understand the human condition, they are going to have to be confronted with a part of life they cannot grasp (just like Jell-O).  For most of them they have to understand that heretofore, the answers to life’s most difficult questions have been answered and explained rather simply.

             The problem with our simple Christian answers is that this too often puts secular people in a box.  When we do this, we judge them.  Non-Christians experience this as being judged by self-righteous Christians who are in denial of their arrogance. 

               In contrast to this simplistic way of viewing life, one of the best explanations I have heard about realness is that written by Margery Williams in “The Velveteen Rabbit.”  What she writes about realness may never be out-described.  Listen and take in what she has to say about being real:

 

            “What is real?,”  asked the Rabbit one day.  “Does it mean things that buzz inside you and a stick-out handle?”

            “Real it isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse.  “It’s a thing that happens to you.  When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but really loves you, then you become real.”

            “Does it hurt?”

“Sometimes,” for he was always truthful.  (Sounds  like Jesus, huh?)  “When you are real, you don’t mind being hurt.”

            “Does it happen all at once, like being wound up, or bit by bit?”

            “It doesn’t happen all at once.  You become.  It takes a long time.  That’s why it doesn’t happen to people who break easily, or who have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept.  Generally, by the time you are real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby.”

            “But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real, you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

            “I suppose YOU are real?”  And then he wished he had not said it, for he thought the Skin Horse might be sensitive.  But the Skin Horse only smiled.

            “The boy’s Uncle made me real.  That was a great many years ago, but once you are real, you can’t become unreal again.  It lasts for always.”

            The Rabbit sighed.  He thought it would be a long time before this magic called real happened to him.  He longed to become Real, to know what it felt like; and, yet, the idea of growing shabby and losing his eyes and whiskers was rather sad.  He wished he could become it without the uncomfortable things happening to him...

            One time the Boy was called away suddenly, and the little Rabbit was left out on the lawn until long after dusk.  Nana had to come and look for him with the candle because the Boy was so worried about the Rabbit he couldn’t go to sleep unless Rabbit was safely home.  He was wet through the dew and quite earthy from diving into the burrows the Boy had made for him in the      flower bed.

            Nana grumbled, “You must have your old Bunny!  Fancy all that fuss for a toy!”

            “Give me Bunny!  You mustn’t say that.  He isn’t a toy. He’s REAL!”

            When the little Rabbit heard that, he was happy, for he knew what the Skin Horse had said was true at last.  The nursery magic had happened to him, and he was a toy no longer....

 

            The genius of the Velveteen Rabbit is in its truth about the difficulty, pain and process of becoming real.  The Rabbit wanted to become real, but was afraid it might hurt.  As the Skin Horse explained, the process would take time and include a personal cost to the Rabbit.  The Rabbit was going to look worse for the wear and tear of love.  Only until the Rabbit looked worn out on the outside would he become real on the inside.  He would lose his eyes and new, outward shimmer, but the reward to be gained (realness) was worth all of this.  In other words, one cannot stay on the shelf, not experience the pain of life, and expect to become real. 

            This is a great analogy to spiritual growth.  I believe one of the most critically important characteristics of Christ-likeness and, hence, spiritual maturity is that of being real.  One simply cannot spend significant amounts of time with Jesus and not become real.  Therefore, I believe it is impossible to be called spiritually mature and not be real.  To grow in Christ is to become like Him.  To become like Him is to become more real.  He was the most real man who ever lived.  The realness of Jesus I read about in the Gospels is one of the best apologetics I know for His deity.  It was through His realness that He showed in the way He loved that proved His relationship with God the Father. 

            Being genuine is obviously an important characteristic of realness.  It might be its best synonym; in fact, often they mean the same thing.  I believe genuineness and authenticity are nearly the same as being real.             

            To me, being genuine means not having hidden agendas.  When you spend time with someone who is genuine, you learn to trust them.  There are a few surprises because they have been open with you, and what they live is congruent with what they have said; the person you see is the person you get.  When you hear others talk about a genuine person, you hear of the same person you know.  They are the same person in many different social situations.  They don’t become a chameleon or simply what others want or need them to be.  Their genuineness is honest, because when you are not around them, they are still being the same person. 

            Having said this, I also believe us all to have what I like to call a “gig” or a “con.”  Our gig is the game we play to be accepted by other people we consider to be important.  I also call it a con because our gig is inherently dishonest in that we deny we are doing it and go to all sorts of lengths to make sure no one knows the real us.   

            It is important for me to be honest with myself enough to admit that I have a gig and that to some extent I am a con.  For example, by writing a book about realness I can fool you into believing that I am thoroughly honest and that I have finished most of the work that faces me concerning my own realness.  The most honest thing I can say is that I have worked hard to become real, but much work remains.   

            Still, regardless of the different roles I am playing in my life, I try to be the same person.  Whether I am a father, husband, friend, teacher, counselor or casual acquaintance, I try to be the same me.  This does not mean I share the same things with all of these people.  There are things I can tell my wife which I do not and should not tell my children.  To let everyone know everything about you is harmful to others and to you.  This is verbal and emotional exhibitionism.  Just as a physical exhibitionist inappropriately bears all to the general public, some people do this with personal information.   

            I have often made the mistake of believing honesty meant needing to be totally open with everyone.  When I did this, I was being covertly, and unconsciously seductive.  By telling all too quickly, I was trying to make sure others would do the same.   

            I was also uncomfortable with and rejecting of myself.  By telling people all the bad about me, I would give them the opportunity to leave before I invested too much in the relationship.  Since I rejected me, I always figured it would just be a matter of time before someone else would as well.  By sharing too much, I could reduce the pain of potentially being abandoned in the future. 

            On the other hand, I believe it is possible to be real while being appropriate with your self-disclosures.  In general, I think people do not share enough about their struggles and failures and don’t have a safe place to, especially people in leadership positions.  Even though it’s not true of everyone, too many church leaders put on the air of completeness and togetherness.  Everything from the way they dress, wear their hair, and speak communicates that they are super-Christians.  The rest of us in the pews feel less adequate and incomplete.  We believe if we have enough faith and try hard enough that, if it’s “God’s Will,” then maybe we can be a good Christian.  

            I also tend to think this is the reason we make them our leaders; they can play the role of super-Christian so the rest of us don’t have to.  While it would be unhealthy and not helpful to disclose their dirty laundry in front of others, the pastors of our churches should be real enough to share more liberally how they fail.  This would bring down the barriers between us and the pastor as well as the barriers between all of us.                       

            The other day when I was at church for a men’s fellowship, the issue of realness became alive in front of my eyes.  The purpose of the men’s fellowship was to give the leadership of the church an opportunity to reach out to the younger men.  The program included an informal coffee hour, followed by a casual time of testimonies, both by the elders and some selected younger men. 

            One of my favorite pastors (he is the most humble, unpretentious, and gentle of the pastoral staff) gave his testimony.  It was filled with stories of how God had taken him from Pakistan to the pastorate.  He also shared intimate details of failures and discouragements in his life.  He shared how his wife had become manic-depressive while they were in Pakistan.  He shared of his struggle to leave the mission field, his desire to rebel against God, and about the difficult adjustment of taking a desk job back in the U.S.  He did this so his wife could receive the necessary medical treatment she needed. 

            But, surprisingly the testimony with the most impact came from a younger man.  As he spoke, he not only told of his struggles over losing a job, but, more importantly, he showed some of his anger as he spoke.  I could see from his tone of voice and the redness in his face that he was still angry about how the new owner of the commercial airline he worked for drove the company into obscurity and destruction while raping it of it‘s assets.  Of course, while the corporate raider made out like a bandit, this guy’s job and thousands others went with it.   

            He spoke of the help and non-help he received from the church during this difficult time.  He stated that the most helpful comment he received was a short, relatively obscure, empathic response from a friend.  Upon hearing of the difficulty in his friend’s life, the friend simply said “that sucks!”   

            This comment helped more than many of the other people in the church who told him to pray about it and to have faith.  He shared that even though he knew these things to be true, he didn’t want or need to hear how God was using this struggle to make him more useful.  His pain, hurt, and anger was real and not easy for him to handle.  His friend’s comment, “that sucks!” said volumes of understanding, compassion and realness.  This was what he needed at the time, not a bunch of prescribed Christian clichés.  These clichés only made him feel worse about his struggles, like there was something more he should be doing. 

            Interestingly, when he finished speaking and sharing his loss to the men‘s group, people wanted to discuss his experience, thoughts, and feelings.  The questions kept coming for nearly an hour.  This was in contrast to the lack of questions that did not come after the other men spoke.   

            I believe the critical difference was his willingness to admit that he was still struggling, that he didn’t know all the answers, and that this is who he was (good and bad) at this point.  We continued to ask questions because we could identify with him and, because of this, the barriers and walls came down.  By doing this, he was loving the audience.  We showed our appreciation by wanting more of him. 

            While he was still speaking, a friend and I slipped out to go play basketball in the church gym.  While playing, I had the opportunity to meditate on how the same barriers that fell in the earlier meeting were also being broken down as I played a game with 7 other guys.  We did not speak about our lives, but we had a chance to live out our lives while playing the game.  An intimacy and respect was in the gym that overshadowed even what was happening in the fellowship hall.   

            While getting a drink of water between games, I had another unusual experience.  The drinking fountain happens to be in the narthex and in this room is a large frame with the pictures of the pastoral staff and the current elder board.  What struck me was the uniformity of the appearance of these men.  Each had basically the same haircut, dark suit with a conservative tie, and look on their faces.  This look, I gather, was to convey strength of leadership and, henceforth, security for the body of believers.   

            It reminded me of the presidential debates where future presidents are coached to wear the same conservative outfit.  I have heard commentators on TV reveal how candidates are advised on what to wear and what message this would give to the American public.  By following these fashion recommendations, they end up being virtual clones of each other.  I often think what would happen if one of them dressed in a more casual outfit.  Paradoxically, even though a gamble, I believe one of these politicians would be more believable in casual clothes, if for no other reason than to be a little different. 

            This is precisely the problem with politics, whether in government or in the church:  it is all about image.  The right image gets more votes (after all, “Image is everything,” according to at least Andre Agassi and Canon).  The challenge for us as Christians and as people is to be ourselves, whether this means refusing to conform to a social norm or by being different.  The important thing is to be the you God made you to be.  As I like to say, “the real you is better than the role you.” 

            What I have been saying is that I believe the pressure to conform is stronger in the church than perhaps any other social institution.  This is a strange contradiction to the life and message of Jesus, the church’s founder. 

            Getting back to the pictures of the pastors and elders of my church, I stood there wondering how many people this conservative look had left feeling uncomfortable.  It made me feel uncomfortable and I have been in the church and worked for many Christian organizations most of my life.  Without sounding like I’m bragging, I’ve been in about every kind of Christian organization you can imagine, including church, church camps, revival meetings, Christian colleges, youth organizations, Christian counseling centers, parachurch organizations, and so on.  My church experience is so vast that I once had an atheist psychiatrist who was interviewing me for an internship say to me, “You’ve been in more churches than the Pope!”           

            Without some variety on the elder board, we as a church, knowingly or not, are communicating what we believe to be success.  We have defined what our leaders are to look like.  This has several ramifications including such things as what the young men of the congregation need to look like to aspire as a leader, to what kind of people we want attracted to our church.   

            I have wondered what a gang on Harleys who happened to wander curiously in the church narthex might think after looking at the clones of our church leadership.  I think they would have quickly gotten the message that this church was for “perfect” people; young, upstanding, upwardly mobile, “nice” upper middle class people.  In their inadequacy, they would probably leave and never come back again, being reminded once again that the church is for people who look right on the outside.  If they were real angry, they might come back and spray-paint HYPOCRITES on the front of the church.  Then, most of us would be more concerned about our building than asking ourselves why such a thing would happen.  Our piety would be in full bloom!  All of this would happen against the backdrop of following a savior who was ridiculed for hanging out with prostitutes, tax collectors, fisherman, and other social undesirables.

            This is why I believe it would be beneficial for our pastors and elder board to show variety in their outward appearance.  I believe the pastor should not be bound by the social norms of the churches subculture.  The pastor must lead the way in being different.  At least occasionally, the pastor should wear anything from his most formal outfit to his most informal.  I believe the elders should do the same.  Hair styles should be different, at least a little bit.  By making this shift, we would communicate that all types of people are accepted.  We would also be making the statement that it is not the clothes that makes the man; it’s what inside that counts. 

            A pastor should also model realness by appropriately sharing his personal struggles and failures.  By doing this, the rest of us would know we are in an environment that is safe.  This is an example of “what happens at the top” dictates the overall personality and atmosphere of a church or organization.”  One of the main reasons people choose one church over another is they feel they can identify with the pastor.  Real pastors attract real people and guarded pastors attract guarded people.  Once the level of intimacy is established in a church (again, through what is happening at the top), people then fight for this level to remain the same.  From a sociological perspective, we then label this level of intimacy as “normal.”  Once we define what is normal, then we judge people against this grid. 

            It becomes very difficult for a church to change once reality is defined.  The church could lose its pastor (the man at the top, theoretically, anyway) and then is likely to find another one who mirrors what it wants.  If the pastor and church do not match, pressure builds for one or both to change.  If change doesn’t take place, the pastor either leaves or is fired.  (I suppose one could say "made to be a scapegoat" for not fitting in.)  Sometimes it’s just easier to start a new church.  The problem still remains though if the new church is not flexible enough to change to meet the demands of an every increasingly changing world.  Sooner or later, this “new” church will become an “old” church without such flexibility.  Because of this, successful churches challenge their traditional roots and change without losing what is most important:  their doctrinal statement. 

            Specifically, being real means letting people know that you struggle the same way they do and that you have the same weirdness about you that they have.  This struggle and weirdness, in my opinion, is one of the most important things to define what is human.  Because we hide our weirdness from each other, few of us take the risk of being real, especially in the church where the cost for being real can be the highest.  When my pastor talks about surfing, the rest of us feel more connected to him.  Somehow our mold of what a pastor is doesn’t include the joy of surfing.   

            I believe we have wrongfully separated spiritual growth and being real.  Usually, one must decide to be one or the other.  Too many times the people who dare to be real are seen by the total population of the church as unspiritual or as weak.  By not playing the pseudo-spiritual and highly political game, the church withholds its social rewards.  Chances at leadership are squelched.  Those who look right, talk right, have the right jobs and friends and play the “church game” well, are rewarded with leadership opportunities. 

            I was reminded of this at the last annual meeting at our church.  We were to vote for four of six choices for the position of being a new elder.  Two of these choices were individuals who had been Christians for a relatively short period of time.  In my opinion, it is not possible to have suffered enough successfully in the Christian life within five years.  This lack of experience puts a young Christian in a dangerous position.    I usually like to vote for elders who have been Christians a long time and have a head of at least some gray, or no hair at all.  These individuals who were up for election to the board of elders were candidates, in my opinion, because they represent, especially on the outside, what the church wants to promote:  “clean-cut men.”   

            On the other hand, realness realizes we all are so much the same.  When you strip away the outer shell, we are a lot more alike than we wish to admit.  For example, when I went on retreats as a teenager and later as a youth leader, what amazed me most - and it happened on every trip - was that as the trip went on longer and longer, each of us was unable to keep our good faces.  People got greasy hair and the make-up wore off.  The longer we sat on the bus sweating and revealing our ubiquitous ugliness, we became closer and more intimate.  After the mutual embarrassment wore off and we forgot how dreadful we all looked and smelled, we started to trust each other more.  We disclosed our real selves, found out we were very much alike, and learned to love each other. 

            When the trip was over, we felt like family, and none of us wanted the trip to end.  Each of our loneliness’ and isolations had been suspended for a few days.  Through these trips I was able to get to know someone better in a few days than I was otherwise able to in a whole year.   

            I wonder if this isn’t what it is like to live in a “developing” country.  People who are poor find that they do not have time or energy to hide from one another (let alone put make-up on!).  The mutual need for survival binds them together and breaks down the walls that lead to our affluent isolation.  As they say, it is much more difficult for missionaries to acclimate coming back to the U.S. than the initial adjustment to living overseas, maybe this explains why. 

            When I was on these trips, I was able to discover that being myself resulted in spiritual growth.  Realness and spirituality were no longer separated.  This brought great relief because I could be myself, not play politics and still be considered spiritual.  In our churches, too often, those we define as spiritually mature are those who are better at hiding their weaknesses.  Looking right on the outside is a very successful way of fooling yourself and others that you are spiritually mature.  Looking and speaking like a Christian usually fools most people.  Being sincere, and gifted or talented doesn’t make us mature either.  Yet, too often, the people who lead the church are just our greatest politicians and modern day Pharisees.  These people are afraid of the truth and are good at redefining it so that they come out on top. 

             Part of being real is being committed to the truth even if it makes you unpopular.  My experience is that the truth usually does make you unpopular.  Prophets usually become martyrs because they speak the truth.  Prophets become popular after they are dead and the truth they have spoken comes true.  Posterity vindicates their death.   

            When I was a pastor, I found people wanted and expected me to tell them what they wanted to hear.  Some people appreciated the truth, but most preferred that I not ruffle their feathers.  I have found the positions of teaching and counseling more conducive to speaking the truth.  It is difficult to do this as a pastor because the people who you need to confront with the truth are your bosses.  Most pastors find it easier and more pragmatic to calmly avoid the truth or to couch it in ways to make successful people feel good about themselves.  This only keeps the church sick and, ironically, a place where needy people feel uncomfortable. 

            As a counselor, it is not only my job to fully understand someone, but also, once this understanding has been accomplished, to confront them with things they do not or cannot see about themselves.  Most clients want this from me.  Most feel their money and time is well spent if I help them discover what has been tripping them up and continually making their life counterproductive.  If I can help them discover this in a loving, accepting environment, they have the opportunity to make changes and feel more empowered to do so.   

            I have had more than one pastor tell me not to go into the pastorate because of the politics they have to suffer through.  Doing parachurch youth work, being a professor, and a counselor affords me the luxury of being in the ministry without having to deal with the political headaches of the church.  I believe the political nature of the church, dissuades many qualified and gifted potential ministers from being pastors.  I also think it is a meat grinder that chews up and spits out many of its finest servants, leaving them bewildered, burnt out, and betrayed.  The church needs to take better care of those who have been called into full-time service, so they in turn can minister from a full cup. 

            In summary, I believe the most fundamental thing about being real is being honest.  In order for you to be real you have to be honest with yourself.  This honesty produces people who are genuine and congruent.  Of course, this honesty always has a price with it (as in the Velveteen Rabbit).   

            Sometimes when I think of the cost of honesty, I think about when Jesus said, that “you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.”  I sometimes wish that He would have said something more like, “you will know the truth, the truth will cost everything you have, it will turn you upside down and make everything that isn’t nailed down fall out of your pockets, it will make feel as if your head is going to fall off, it will make you perspire like you have never perspired before and, when its had its way with you it will turn you right-side up and, then and only then will it set you free.   

            Therefore, Jesus was saying, the reward of honesty (freedom) makes the cost of honesty (being shook up like nothing else in this world can do) a no-brainer.  The truth about you and me makes it possible for us to be free to be ourselves with ourselves and with other people.  The cost is worth it because God transforms us into real people.  

Chapter 7

Evangelism and Realness

 

            I believe that the more real you are, the more effective you will be as a witness for Christ.  I think the thing that turns off unbelievers about Christians more than anything else is the sense of unrealness about us.  In the subculture of Fundamental and Evangelical Christianity, we have our own code of ethics, language, dress code, facial expressions, and nauseating tone of voice.  We walk around believing we are mimicking Jesus when in reality I think we don’t get close to the realness with which He interacted.  People wanted to be around Jesus, yet on the contrary when I see a fellow Christian coming I often want to run.  Instantly, I feel my body tighten up as I prepare to put on my Christian mask and play the Christian game.  By submitting to the game of playing mini-Jesus’, and by making a big deal about things that matter little, without much awareness, we embarrass ourselves and Him.  We have to come clean about the fact that it is hard, especially for sophisticated nonbelievers, to take us seriously.  Too often we just look and sound silly, and so out of touch that we come across like we are aliens or something. 

             I believe, by making a big deal about outward behaviors, we lose many potential converts.  While I know that the issues of smoking, drinking, dancing, swearing, length of hair, ear rings, and movies, etc., etc., etc., ad nauseam, are relatively important, if we focus on these too much, we give them too much importance and, thereby push many nonbelievers away.  We only have ourselves to blame for not being more attractive. 

             I also believe that most Christians do many, if not all, of these taboo behaviors anyway.  This makes us prime grade hypocrites.  We do a lot of these things, but we just do them in private, behind close doors, and with people we trust not to give us up.  Then when it’s time to go to church we put on a whole different persona and mask.  Additionally, the problem with Christian institutions lifting these outward behaviors up as a litmus test of mature Spirituality is that we lose focus of the individual we are trying to convert as a “disciple.”  This is because the rules and norms are truthfully set forth to benefit those who are already saved. 

             The rules at most Christian colleges are there, mostly, to secure alumni giving and to ensure enrollment.  This is hypocritical and we all know it.  The administration, board, teachers, students, and to some extent, alumni, all know about this hypocrisy, but the reality is that the school would not exist if it did not uphold these “standards.” 

             Many students have voiced to me, over the years, the ridiculousness of being treated as a child for the benefit of the institution.  But, these are not the students that worry me the most.  The students who believe these standards are primarily meant for the benefit of the student body scare me.  To me, it seems they are so out of touch with the unsaved world that they become an embarrassment.  It also makes me wonder how they will be of any benefit to a lost world when they graduate.  Sadly, many of them who are afraid of the outside world, not knowing how to relate and fearing rejection, stay in their own safe Christian bubble.  Some seek employment from the Christian college so they can hide from the world, while saying to the rest of us that they are “ministering” in Jesus name.  I say to them “get real.”

              Also, I believe our list of dos and don’ts are culturally defined as important.  Whether a person smokes a cigarette has become, for us, a watershed. We use this test to see who is worthy and who is not.  I am sorry, but a person’s worth or spiritual maturity is not totally dependent upon whether or not he smokes.  While it may not be healthy to smoke, and while it may offend the rights of those not smoking, it is hardly the test we should use to determine a person’s worth.  It is my experience that those who smoke at church usually do so in some remote area away from the main flow of traffic.  I think they do this because they know they will be judged by many fellow believers.  Smoking will put them into a whole different classification.  I wonder where Jesus would hang out.

             Sometimes I smoke because I like to.  I don’t smoke a lot because I want to minimize the potential health risks, but the fact remains that I enjoy smoking.  Usually I will smoke a cigarette, but I also enjoy pipe smoke and a fine cigar.  This is especially true if I am playing golf or going fishing.  For me, there is something very relaxing about doing this.  And please, save the lecture about how I’m ruining the Temple of the Holy Spirit.  Turn the finger and look at yourself and what you might be doing to the body God gave you, then maybe, we can have a healthy discussion.

             Because I smoke I know about the quality of the communication that goes on with the smokers compared to the others who are congregating in the front of the church.  My experience is that a truer form of sharing happens between the smokers.  In our church, the front is where you go to socialize, fellowship and also compete for popularity.  In contrast, the smokers know the cigarette leaves them out of contention for social acceptance. 

             It is amazing to me how something so insignificant can render a person to another part of the building.  Of course someone could say, “Why don’t the smokers join us in the front of the building, I wouldn’t treat them any differently.”  While this may be true for some, most smokers know, from the looks they have received, that what they are doing is unacceptable.  Most parents are uncomfortable with this kind of influence on their children. 

             The hypocrisy in this is in the fact that you are not any better.  You are, perhaps, better able to go underground and hide your inconsistencies or choose vices and sins that are more socially acceptable, but again, the problem with this is that it is so unreal because it has little to do with what is really happening.  Still, many people, especially those defining what is spiritual and, therefore, supposedly real, put others in their relativistic and cultural boxes and end up being judgmental mini-gods.  If you took an honest look at yourself, you would not be any better than the person relegated to the smoking section.

             In contrast, one of the Bible studies that had the most impact on me had to do with the purity of God and how this compares to us, His creation.  What I did was examine the places where humans were confronted with God’s Glory.  This was a takeoff from something I had learned in seminary:  God is so pure and holy that when He manifests Himself in the material world, He glows.  Many examples in scripture point this out including Moses on Mount Sinai, Ezekiel’s vision, Isaiah’s vision of God, Jesus on the Mount of Transfiguration, Paul’s (Saul’s) confrontation with Jesus which left him temporarily blind, and John’s vision of Jesus in the first chapter of Revelation.  When men (us) are confronted with God’s Glory, they (us) inevitably end up on the ground, face down.  There isn’t an example of one person being able to stand in the presence of God’s Glory.  The ubiquitous response is one of fearing for your life.  As Isaiah said (my translation), “I’m a man at the wrong place at the wrong time.”  It wasn’t until the angel cleansed his mouth with hot coals (symbolizing purity), that Isaiah could be in the presence of God without being consumed by God‘s holy fire.                  

            The truth is that no matter how much spiritual growth we think we have accomplished, compared to God’s holiness and purity, we are nothing.  As Hebrews states, “Our God is a consuming fire.”  None of us can be in His presence without the sacrifice of Jesus’ blood for us. 

            If we think for a moment about what would happen if Jesus came in all His glory outside of our church building, or inside it, for that matter, all of us would be prostrate, and face down on the ground.  The scriptures bear out that we would have an instant awareness of His purity and our sinfulness. 

            I believe that with this new and instant spiritual perspective, the differences between us would disappear.  I don’t think we would be comparing ourselves to each other, and classifying one another.  It would be silliness compared to the sudden awareness of our individual sinfulness.  Each of us would be focused on ourselves and the inappropriateness of being in Jesus’ or God’s presence.  The good news is that He has provided us a way to be with Him without being consumed by this holiness. 

            I wish this perspective could be kept in mind when we evaluate one another.  I think there would be a lot more humility in the church if we understood who we are in comparison to Him.  It is our spiritual pride which allows us to judge someone else. 

            When I counsel someone, this is the kind of thinking which helps me identify with even the worst of sinners.  I have to ask myself, “If I were in their shoes and lived everything they had lived, would I be any different or perhaps even worse?”  When I remember this, I remember that I am no different than anyone else, and on the contrary am much more like them than I might want to admit.  It is only when I look at myself and others with this perspective that I can be humble enough to be of any help to another human being.  

            When we lose sight of our sinfulness, we are in danger of being unable to identify with those who are still lost.  It is this identification which is communicated as humility that allows a nonbeliever to trust that the message we communicate is real in our own life.  If we were around convicts, we would relate to them and realize that we are on the same plane in God‘s eyes.  We would understand their predicament and we would know that if things were different in our own life we might be in their shoes.  This is true humility. 

            My experience with evangelism and discipleship has taught me to be real and not to make a big deal of small issues.  An earring in someone’s ear doesn’t mean that they are necessarily rebelling, or worse, spiritually weak.  And even if it is a form of rebellion, maybe it’s the hypocrisy I’m talking about that they are reacting to.  If I happen to swear in front of a non-Christian, it is usually my own paranoia which leads me to believe that I have hurt my witness.  Sometimes, paradoxically, my weakness is the most powerful evangelistic tool I have. 

            I want to communicate to non-Christians that becoming a Christian is not a life of rules, of do’s and don’ts, and narrow constricted living.  I want to communicate that true freedom comes through knowing Christ and that this freedom means being with other Christians who care little about trivial matters.  The freedom comes in knowing I should be able to be myself around Christians more than any other group of people.  Strangely and sadly, I find the opposite to be true. 

            I wonder what Jesus would wear today?  I wonder if Jesus might not wear an earring.  I wonder if he would not have a beer with the guys and occasionally light up a cigarette. (I am reminded of the C.S. Lewis and his intimate chats with his friends such as J.R.R. Tolkein which included a cigarette, pipe smoke and some ale.  It seems to be that many Europeans have a more mature attitude toward such trivial matters.  Perhaps they understand how these things bring people together.  (Certainly they do not understand the anxiety which accompanies our moralistic thinking.)   

            Because of this, I wonder if Jesus wouldn’t be judged by us, the very people who bear His name.  I wonder if we wouldn’t like His friends and the motley crew with which He would hang around.  I wonder if the disciples He would choose today would be much different than the kind He chose before.  I wonder if prostitutes would be among His friends.  I wonder if they shouldn’t be among ours.  I wonder if our brand of 20th century Christianity might not nauseate Him the way the Pharisees did 2000 years ago.  I wonder how much time He would spend in our churches.  I wonder if He wouldn’t feel at home in His own house.  This is a sad thought! 

            Jesus was the best evangelist who ever lived.  His style was real because He was real.  People trusted Him, especially against the backdrop of the Pharisees and their self-serving, legalistic religious systems which made few people winners and most people losers.  Except for those who rejected Him and His message, Jesus made all people feel like winners.  It’s time for us to do the same! 

            It’s time for us to grow up.  It’s time for us to realize that many of the things we consider to be important are of little consequence when compared to God’s glory, eternity and the value of human life.  It’s time to accept people, all people, just the way they are.  It embarrasses me to know we have an easier time accepting someone who is disabled than someone who does one of the things on our lists of do’s or don’ts.  We must realize when we do this we are hurting and judging people we have no right to judge.  Let us judge ourselves instead! 

            What follows is a list of students who volunteered to disclose to me in writing some of the hurt and abuses they suffered in church.  I told them I was writing this book and asked them, if they could relate to the message, if they had any experiences which they would write down and share with you.  The names have been changed to protect their identities. 

 

The Case of James 

            I was born in the state of Nevada, and lived there until I was three years old.  My father was a pastor and soon it came time to move, so off we went, to Baltimore, Maryland.  While there, my sibling was born.  His name is John and he was born in 1980.  I was raised under the intense hypocritical pressure of the church.  However, I feel I came out of it a lot better than others, because my parents allowed me to keep my own identity.  For the simple reason that I did not know any better, I did bend to a lot of the pressure inflicted on me by the masses.  I believe my greatest injury came from the unspoken rules of behavior which I believe exist in the predominately white churches we were a part of. 

            The general rules were as follows:  1) The Pastor and his wonderful son will catch all the slack from those on various boards who don’t feel like doing the jobs which these positions of leadership asked of them.  2) The pastor’s son will do what he is told, when he is told, to help men of the church with their responsibilities because he obviously doesn’t have anything better to do.  What is better than a “let’s be lazy and shaft the pastor’s son work day”!  The last two are rules which hurt me the most:  3) the pastor’s son will not show emotions in any extreme.  If he is too affectionate, he is obviously in some sort of immorality, and if he should ever display his anger, he is obviously committing some sort of sin, because Jesus would never be angry.  (I’m still not sure what Bible they were reading.)  Because of this rule, I have had to learn that it is okay for me to touch friends, including my girlfriend, with affection and not be guilty of evil.  On the other hand, it is also possible for me to be angry and make it known without it being evil.  However, do to all of this suppression, I do have a violent temper.  For so long I learned to cover every emotion, until I hit my breaking point.  Therefore, I may voice my anger without any sign of anger on my face or in my voice, and then all of a sudden go ballistic on somebody because they pushed me too far.  As you can probably imagine, this made it possible for me to have the joy of making countless apologies for punching someone without a valid reason and without any real warning.  The final rule is a killer:  4) The pastor’s son will love us all, because we are all a part of the family of God, but we are also allowed to stab his family in the back with lies, distorted truth, and hypocrisy because we are leaders in the church.  Since accepting my role, that role dictates what feelings I am allowed and not allowed to have...Until of course, all this shattered and I saw that I was left destroyed by a dysfunctional church family, which I honestly believe has strayed from Christ’s intent for his children.  Consider my tirade over.... 

 

The Case of Tom 

            Another reason that I have this abandonment problem is because, about seven years ago, my family was kicked out of the Baptist church we were attending.  My family knew that the pastor had been embezzling money from the church and that he had been forcing one of the deacon’s wives to do what he wanted.  In other words, I guess you could say that he was raping her.  He was also doing other things in the church as well. 

            The pastor found out that my family knew, and because he felt threatened, kicked us out of the church.  He told everyone in the church the reason was because we hadn’t supported the church, that we weren’t tithing and a lot of other stuff which was not true. 

            The church also owned a Christian school which my sister and I went to.  When we were kicked out of the church, we were kicked out of the school also.  The pastor then proceeded to tell everyone that they were not allowed to talk to us or associate with us.  So this meant that everyone who had been our friends one day, ceased to be so the next day.  I can remember working one day and having this girl who I used to be friends with in the Christian school, walk into the place I was working and look at me in the eye and keep on walking without saying hello.  This really hurt, and it still does.  For the longest time I can remember wondering how someone who was supposed to be my friend could all of a sudden not talk to me anymore because of what someone (the pastor) said.  Because of losing all of my friends this way, I really have a problem with abandonment, as well as other things. 

 

The Case of Leanne 

            I realize that my family system is dysfunctional in a number of ways, something I would not so much as dare to whisper as little as four years ago.  You could say I was under some kind of a spell to hide the truth.  Shortly after coming to college and watching my mother have a nervous breakdown and contemplate suicide, I started to admit that my family had some major problems.  This is something I should have realized since I was 11 years old, because my father started sexually abusing me from then until I was 17.  I think he stopped because I was leaving for college. 

            The reason I never told anyone about my abuse was because my father was the pastor of the church we attended and my mother was the head of the youth and music ministries.  I didn’t want to be the cause of controversy, or give God a bad name...My mother looked to me to be her closest friend and confidant, someone who could respond and listen and truly care.  My father once told me that he only acted abusively (my word, not his) when it was “that time of the month” for my mother.  He said this made him sexually frustrated. 

            One of the outlets that soothed me during this time was a journal that I kept.  My journal was the only thing I could trust to keep my secrets.  One excerpt from the journal reads, 

            “When I did drugs, I would come home from school high, I would lie on my bed, hanging my head over the side.  I would put on my headphones, close my eyes and hum...I didn’t want to think...I didn’t want to hear...I didn’t want to see.  DO YOU KNOW HOW HARD IT IS FOR A CHILD WHO THINKS SHE IS THE SAVIOR IN THE FAMILY TO LIVE IN HELL?

                          ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

            I know these stories do not represent the whole of the church.  Still, it is impossible to miss the tragedy of children being abused by the people they are trusting to tell them who God is.  The dichotomy of being in the presence of other Christians, expecting to be loved and accepted only to have your trust shattered devastates and twists a person’s sense of reality forever.  It is a very difficult thing to ever fully recover from.  These kids are true victims.

            It is also worthy to note that in contrast to these abuses that there are many wonderful, trustworthy people in the church whose intentions and actions bring honest glory to the God they serve.  Not everyone in the church and not every minister is a predator.  Most people are loving, law-abiding citizens who find the church a place where they can honestly and humbly serve God and mankind, even if it is with a mask on. 

            Still, these examples need to be humbling wake-up call that we need to be more real and honest with God, ourselves and others.  The church would then be more of a hospital where injured and imperfect people can find the safety they need in order to receive the healing they are so desperately searching for.

Chapter 8

How to Make the Church User Friendly

 

            It is an understatement to say that most churches are not user friendly to those it claims to be reaching.  Most non-Christians feel out of place in the church.  As I said before, we have our own language, dress, norms, beliefs, morals, rituals, and customs.  For those of us who have been in the church for a long time, it may seem that there is not another way to do things.  We thus lose connection with the outside world.  Their customs are as strange to us as ours are to them.  Yet, it is not their responsibility to reach out to us; in fact, they should have little reason to, they do not know they are without salvation, we do.  They may have some sense of being unfulfilled in their lives, but we can’t expect them to walk into church seeking the answers.  Usually, the world offers too many distractions and lures.   

            In the best of circumstances, people do not have the sophistication to know they are missing Jesus in their lives.  We on the other hand, know the answer they are looking for.  Still, too often we ask the unbeliever to fit into our subculture, with all of its peculiar vicissitudes and idiosyncrasies.  It is true, we are a strange people, not so much for our saintliness, but because we are so out of touch with the rest of the world.  Too many of us are using our Christianity to hide from the world.  We get too comfortable with our church friends and life.  Too often we reject non-Christians preferring, rather, to hide in the safety of the church. 

            True evangelism must start with a better and deeper understanding of the people we are trying to reach.  The only way to know this is to get out in the world and rub shoulders with non-Christians.  This may make us uncomfortable, and we may say we are doing this, but we need more of it.  Each of us needs to befriend more non-Christians.  By doing this, we will have a better understanding of their language, dress, norms, beliefs, morals, rituals, and customs. 

            Instead of understanding them, we put them down for being so “worldly.”  By the way, what else should we expect them to be, saintly?  We also use them as examples of what is wrong with our world in our teaching and sermons.  We use them as scapegoats for the reason our world is going downhill morally, institutionally, and culturally.  It is no wonder they feel offended by our message.   

            I also think it is a put down to think so little of them.  I think we should speak less and listen more; we may even learn something from these “heathens.”  This attitude of humility would be more useful in our evangelism.  We wouldn’t see non-Christians as objects to save or conquer, but as humans made and loved by God.  We would communicate the love of Christ without being offensive.  If the average church could eliminate its own agenda long enough, we might see more sinners (all of us) feeling welcome in God’s house.  The church would then become a retreat from a hostile world. 

            I once spoke at a Christian high school chapel on the subject of needing to get out in the world and getting to know a lot more nonChristians.  I also spoke about the special problem and challenge they faced because they were being educated in a protected Christian environment, going to school with only other Christians, and spending their summers with each other at Christian camps.  I spoke of the willful intention of their parents to sacrifice financially to protect them from the evils, temptations, dangers and influence of the public school.  Because of this I told them they had to do more than their public school Christian counterparts and peers to reach out and understand the world, and the thinking, and customs of the unsaved.   

            The truth is most of these kids didn’t know any unbelievers and didn’t have any as friends.  Yet in spite of this, they were constantly being told in class, at home, in chapel and in church that they needed to witness to the lost, that this was their Christian duty and obligation.  

             I had a question for them, “How were they going to witness if they spent most of their time with other Christians and even if they did how were they going to be successful if they didn’t understand the mind of the unsaved?”  I told them that it was for this reason that I listened to Howard Stern on the radio and that I did so because I wanted to understand why his radio show was the number one program for males between the ages of 18 and 45.  I told them that as I listened I was offended, especially at first, but that after a while I began to understand and appreciate his talent and giftedness as a communicator and, therefore, the reason for the shows success.  I went on to tell them that I would listen before arriving a the Christian college campus on my daily commute and that I would turn it off once I had to go teach class.  (To be honest with you, I found the contrast of these two worlds to be stimulating.)

            I also told them that I intentionally had decided to play for years with our church’s most competitive softball team partly because one half of the players were not Christians.  These guys came to church (the rule was you had to go to church twice per month in order to be eligible to play) simply so they could play on the team and because they had friends on the team.  I told them that most of them chewed tobacco and drank beer and that I did this with them.  I said proudly that after a game our dugout would more resemble a toxic waste dump than the pristine looking sand in the dugout of the Christian team we were playing from another church (since I was playing for my church, all of this shenanigans was happing in a Christian church league, in which we would pray with each other before and after the games, and be rated by the other softball team as to our Christian conduct.  We would inevitably receive the lowest Christian conduct score for the year compared to any other team and we were quite proud of it.  Paradoxically, what makes having so many rules fun is the simple joy found in breaking as many of them as you can and as frequently as you can.)  I heard the girls in the chapel service wince with disapproval and disgust. 

            After the service was over some students came up to me to say that they understood what I was talking about, that it challenged them, and reminded them to get out into the world more.  On the other hand when I spoke with the principal later on the phone he didn’t hide his disappointment with me and his rejection of what I had to say.  He said if he knew ahead of time what I was going to say he wouldn’t have had me come and that he had been fooled by my resume’ of teaching at a local Christian college, my association with Youth For Christ, and the fact that I was the director and founder of a Christian counseling center.  I must admit I find some sick joy out of picking at the scabs that most Christians don’t even know exist.  I also know this is a sin so keep your judgmental attitude to yourself, and besides this is one of the ways I find I can survive in this duplicitous world we call Christendom. 

            The principal was quick to point out that I would not be asked to speak at chapel again and that all the kids heard from me anyway was that I listened to Howard Stern.  I knew what he was saying to me was not totally true because of the feedback I had received from the students who came up afterwards.  I also believe many of the students probably felt defensive of their lifestyle and couldn’t handle the confrontation.  They didn’t like the obvious truth being thrown in their faces.  To them and anyone who wishes to defend them I say, “Get Real!!!”    

            The point I am making is that, in these ways, the church makes the mistake of serving itself rather than the people it is seeking to reach.  We need to change this if we hope to reach secular people.  These people are not stupid; they can see fraud and self-serving religion a mile away.  I believe it doesn’t take but a few seconds to realize that the sanctuary is there for someone other than their searching heart.   

            The church is so self-serving and hypocritical that it is easy to see, perceive and understand this by most men in particular.  Most secular men want nothing to do with the church because of its hypocrisy.  Although this can be an excuse for not letting God in one’s life, we too, as the keepers of the church need to examine our own hearts and reach out to these men. 

            Too many men find more realness on a golf course on Sunday morning than in church.  When they hit a golf ball, it doesn’t lie, it goes where it is supposed to every time depending on how you hit it.  There are no exceptions.  If they are honest with their score, they know the golf course has not shown them any hidden agendas.  What they see is what they get.  And even though golf may pale in comparison to a relationship with God, at least the golf ball is not as hypocritical as many of God’s followers. 

            How can we expect a non-believer to be attracted to a church that is set up for those already there when the smell of the outdoors is awaiting them?  These non-believers go to the golf course to get away from hassles and politics.  The average man and woman are confronted with this all week.  Why should they waste their time in a church service to impress people who are serving their hypocritical selves.  I may be over generalizing or overstating the case, but what I am saying is too often true and something I have observed for years as a believer and churchgoer.  We must do better with God’s house; we need to make it more user or sinner friendly. 

            Some churches have made great strides in this direction.  These churches, such as Willow Creek Community church in Illinois, are a fast growing church because its Sunday morning service (the time when most sinners would think of going to church) is a seeker service.  It is intentionally designed to speak to the unbeliever in his language and setting.  Everything about the service, from the seating (it looks like a movie theater), to it’s music and drama, is represented in a non-offensive way -- we wouldn’t want to offend someone with the Gospel, would we?  The messages are designed to counter the misconceptions of a self-serving and outdated Christianity, and more than that, to speak in the language and religious level of the person seeking for more meaning in their lives (Jesus). 

            Still, in spite of it’s success and the success of several churches modeled after it, I believe Willow Creek still fails to communicate that the Gospel is for everyone.  I used to attend Willow Creek and have had several friends and family attend there.  Through this experience, it is my judgment that the church is too much after the modern day yuppie.  Everything is done so perfectly that one wonders if he or she can fit in.  If one tries, they are met with the same kind of competition which exists in other churches.   

            This church is successful, in part, because the Baby Boomer generation and its corresponding multitudes, desires to worship in this casual style.  In some way, this is a left over of the revolution of the sixties, the time when most of these people were in junior high, high school or college.   

            In spite of their casualness, I believe they still convey a subtle message of competition.  I believe a lot of people go there to identify, not only with Christ, but also a slick modern day message of success.  The pastors and staff are too perfect in appearance to convey anything else.  In other words, the message is come to our church and become successful, like us.  Again, I think we would be more effective evangelists if we allowed people to be the failures they know down deep they are.  This kind of program would reduce anxiety and competition and make church much more friendly.  This would also minimize our need for human icons, models, and super-Christians and help us focus on Jesus, the founder of our faith. 

            I believe the institution that is doing a better job of this more than any other is, the quasi-church, Alcohol Anonymous.  IF YOU WANT TO FIND REAL, GO TO AN AA MEETING OR ANY OF THE OTHER MYRIAD ANONYMOUS SUPPORT GROUPS.  The movement has been so successful that it has branched into such things as support groups for relatives of alcoholics (al Anon), drug addicts (NA), sex addicts (SA), adult children of alcoholics (those who have grown up with an alcoholic parent and are now adults, or ACOA’S), emotional problems (EA), food addicts (OA), and survivors of sexual abuse.  There is even a group for those recovering from a cultic, fundamentalist church (FA, or Fundamentalist Anonymous).   

            In my opinion these are the fastest growing quasi-churches in America.  You will find this quasi-church wherever you go, usually meeting in church buildings.  All you have to do is look in the Yellow Pages and you will find an incredible network of help.  This movement has boomed in spite of no advertisement or central organizing committee.  They have no buildings (they rent if they have to); but what they do have is just broken people looking for help.   

            This reminds me a lot of Jesus words about His kingdom not being made of stone but out of people’s hearts.   No building could constrain the message of Jesus.  It is too bad that we His followers have not followed His example.  By the way, its not that I’m against buildings, it is just that no building could move as fast as Jesus’ love spreads.  One reason Jesus was an itinerant preacher was because He didn’t want to be constrained by a building and the people who operate them. 

            I certainly don’t want to infer that AA is without fault or that the church should model itself completely after it.  AA has changed to include any kind of God with which a person feels comfortable.  One’s higher power can be anything.  In this way AA has strayed from its roots with Christianity.  I believe this is a mistake.  Still, most of the biblical principles which gave AA it’s 12 steps still exist.  These are principles we need to examine and try to implement for everyone in the church. What I am trying to say about AA is that there is something going on that the church should take a look at.  There is a simple power in these groups that the average church lacks.  These groups are user-friendly and real! 

            There are few things as authentic as a group of people saying that they are screw-ups and that they have lost control over their lives.  Going around the room and stating your first name and telling others that you need help has tremendous power.  The power comes in the giving up of power.  The first step is to admit you are powerless to make anything of your life and that you need God to help you (this, by the way, sounds like most of us when we asked Christ into our lives.).  I find that most Christians, in spite of their repentance and admittance of sin, have never come to the humbling level that most addicts have.  Our pride is in the way.  Ironically, on the contrary, we are still trying to prove to God and others that we are o.k.  The people in AA know this is a waste of time.  If you don’t get past the first step (admitting you need God’s help and the help of others and that you are powerless without it), you have little hope of receiving any kind of help from God or man. 

            The other secret of AA is its anonymity.  In the church, we must hide our weaknesses because our reputations will get ruined if we are honest.  In AA you don’t care about your reputation because you know you have already destroyed it.  What you have in AA then is a group of people who know experientially they are failures.  They have a contrite heart -- one with which God can work.  They have a contrite heart because they have done everything their own way and failed miserably.  They have tried attempt after attempt to make something of themselves only to fail and make a disaster of their lives.  When you hit bottom -- the slimy bottom -- you will never judge another for being there.  You know all too well that one false move could put you right back at the bottom.   

            By the way, if you are still toying with the slimy bottom, you will eventually be humbled.  This is the experience that brings a truer humility.  Humility comes because the bottom means death.  If you are not afraid of death, it’s probably because you have never stared it in the face.  The problem with most Christians is that they have not experienced the depth of this bottom.  In spite of their talk of God’s will, they are still trying to do things under their own power.  It is not until God brings you to your knees that you can look up and appreciate who He is.  It’s in this awful place that you have a real awareness of who you are compared to Him, and that you need Him.  What is amazing is that even, or especially when you are in this awful spot, God is still interested in helping and loving you, just the way you are.  Only God could do such a thing.  When everyone else has given up hope for you, all you find left is God and His outstretched, forgiving, non-judgmental arms.  These arms have always been there, but most of us haven’t failed enough or been humbled enough to notice and ask for help.   

            The anonymity of AA offers a safe place to speak and experience your brokenness amongst others who have been in the same hellhole you have been in.  You can cry, struggle, and even swear (oh, no they have gone too far), smoke (that’s it, I can’t take it any more), and know that you are not alone, that God is with you, and that no one is going to make fun of you, put you down, or talk about you in the community.   

            This anonymity helps people feel safe to talk about the areas in their lives where they are messing up.  In a way, these are similar to the cell groups that John Wesley formed early in the Methodist Church.  What were most important in these groups were their confidentiality and the necessity of confession of sin.  By having this accountability and support, people are able to grow spiritually without the fear of condemnation.  While most modern churches have small groups, they are an immense failure compared to Wesley’s cell groups and those of AA. 

            Some might say, “Well, this is because these people have more problems than we do, so it’s not fair to compare us to them.”  This may be true, but this doesn’t make us any better compared to Him who really counts -- God!  Others may say, “If it works for those people (alcoholics, because they are so messed up) the more power to them, but I see no reason for normal people (like myself) to air my dirty laundry out for others to see.  What good would that do, besides harm my reputation?”  Still others may say, “The church is a place of worship; it’s God we should be focusing on, not ourselves and when we do this, we only take the focus off of God and put it onto ourselves.  If they want to do that at an AA meeting, let them.  Just leave the church for worshipping God!” 

            At best, these are misguided attempts at spiritual denial and spiritual rationalization.  This is true because the truth still remains, that compared to God we are all in the same sinful boat (or another way I like to say it is, “we are all in the same boat, the sin boat).  These rationalizations do not change the fact that we are nothing compared to Him.  We may want to compare ourselves with each other, but compared to God, we are all strikingly similar.  These rationalizations are also haughty and arrogant.   

            These attitudes are similar to the Pharisee, who I mentioned earlier, who thought Jesus should not let the prostitute (by the way, are we all not prostitutes?) wash His feet with her hair.  As Jesus said, she was the one who loved Jesus more and had a more rightful understanding of her position before Him.  Likewise, the alcoholic, drug addict, food addict, and so on, are not any worse than us, but one in the same:  sinners saved by grace! 

            So what does the church have to do?  First, we need to take a lesson from AA and offer groups that are anonymous.  We need to structure small group meetings for “normal” people to talk about what is not so “normal” about them.  These groups need to be confidential.  The church must assure people that it will discipline the gossiper with the same vengeance as the adulterer.  This should not be mere words, but something the church is willing to enforce.  I believe this is well worth the try.  I believe most churchgoers would welcome such a safe place and, that given the chance, most would follow the rules.  The church leadership (including the pastors and elders) should stress the importance of this from the pulpit.  If done so, I believe gossip would be the exception. 

            The alternative is to let gossip go unchecked.  The result is that people become more and more paranoid about opening up, and eventually relearn to wear a mask.  This must not be the norm for which we settle; we must believe, as the Body and the Bride of Christ that we can do better. 

            I know many of you have a hard time believing this to be possible, but at the college at which I teach, we have created such a program and we have not had one problem yet.  I teach a course on the “Methods of Counseling” and I structure it in such a way that the members are to disclose their failures and hurts.  Crying is not a strange phenomenon in this room of students.  No one stares or tries to overhear because they are too busy disclosing themselves or trying to help another person with a problem (mostly by listening).

            I tell the class of the expectations in the beginning of the semester and the consequences if I hear of someone gossiping about another student.  I tell them to tell on a student who is talking and gossiping out of class.  I find the students motivated, excited, and compliant to the expectations.  I also give them a chance, at the beginning, to leave if they are not interested or ready for such an experience. 

            While you may say such a thing is possible in a college classroom, let me remind you that the college campus of a Christian college is filled with just as many tangled grapevines as any church.  Don’t forget that these students are not only in class together, but also live together in their respective dormitories. 

            We also need to learn to accept people just the way they are.  It shouldn’t matter what they have about them that we don’t like or we find unusual. It might be the color of their skin, the way they dress, or their struggle with a particular sin that makes us want to separate ourselves from them.  We must face our prejudices by becoming involved with those whom we are most uncomfortable.  If you don’t like people of another race, then you should be in a small group with a person of that color.  You would find yourself appreciating this person and identifying with him as another one of God’s creation.  If you have trouble relating to a handicapped person, then force yourself to be in a group with such a person.   

            If you don’t like teenagers and their apparent irreverence, then be in a small group with one.  I believe you will learn to love him or her and vice versa.  I suspect you will find yourself having a renewed confidence in young people and, therefore, the future of the world in general.  Too many older people believe their generation is the last to be civilized and of any help toward the progress of the world.  The teenager would also learn that older people are still relevant.  We would find behind the differences of our age related subcultures, behind our different clothes, haircuts, and language, that we are the same.  We would find that those who are older have gone through the same struggles we have. 

            Too many older people feel they have nothing else to offer such a rapidly changing world.  We communicate this hurtful and harmful message to them by ignoring their tremendous potential.  By being forced to spend time in an intimate small group with an older person, we would find they still have much to give and how similar we all are, minus a few years.  Their loneliness (they commit suicide at a greater rate than any other age group, including teenagers) would be alleviated and their sense of purpose would be renewed.  The generation gaps which are a part of the church and the world would be diminished, and, therefore, people would find the church to be a much safer and more dynamic than the world. 

            Homosexuals also need a place where they can admit their struggle without the fear of being laughed at, put down, made to feel wicked or untouchable, talked about, pointed a finger at, or worse, threatened to be beaten.  A person who struggles with this sin needs a safe place to come out of the closet, not so they can practice their sin, but so they can be accepted while working toward Christ-likeness.  The way we treat homosexuals in the church is an abomination.  It is obvious that we would rather not hear about such a problem and that we would prefer people to keep it to themselves.  Further, we would prefer to ignore and deny what is really going on in the world.  This tells the homosexuals not to talk about their problem.   

            I find church people to be either disgusted or extremely angered by homosexuality.  This is an ultimate form of hypocrisy.  First, I don’t believe this is the attitude Jesus would have toward those people who suffer with this affliction.  Some of His friends and companions would probably be homosexuals, just like the prostitutes He befriended before.  Secondly, when we have this kind of reaction, it usually means we are protecting ourselves against such impulses.  This is an ego defense mechanism called reaction formation.  This means we are most motivated to change things in others that we usually want to deny in ourselves.  In other words, when I am confronted by a person who hates homosexuals and is disgusted by them, it makes me wonder if this is what they might be struggling with down deep in their own soul.  Thirdly, these attitudes show how out of touch we are with regard to the pervasiveness of this problem.  Homosexuality, to some degree, is a part of most people’s past.  At least half of the people I have seen in counseling have struggled with this problem at some time.  Even though this should not have surprised me, it did when one of my colleagues pointed it out. 

            By no means does this make homosexuality okay or not a sin, it simply puts it in a proper perspective.  Homosexuality is no worse a sin than many of the so called “normal” sinful things all of us do.  Again, we like to separate ourselves from these people to ease our own sinful conscience.  By separating ourselves from them, we send the message that we are better than them.  We end up saying, through our actions, that we may be a lot of things, but not something as disgusting as that.  We need to look in the looking glass and be a little more honest with our own sinfulness.  From this spiritual vantage point we would be able to relate to all people, because “there is none that is righteous, no not one!” 

            Through confidential support groups in the church for all people, each of us would find the safety to slowly drop the walls that separate us from each other.  Our masks would become unnecessary as we would begin to trust each other with our imperfections.  We would learn to accept ourselves and each other more, and church would become a magnet for the disconnected masses looking for intimacy.  Most importantly, God would reveal Himself in these small groups and we would gain a new sense of His desire for connection and intimacy with us.  It is then that the church would become user-friendly!!!