Creating with the Creator

I have been wrestling with what it means for God to be Creator. According to my reading of Genesis, this does not mean that God creates something out of nothing but that he creates order out of chaos, beauty out of ashes. Creativity, in this sense, is redemption.

So, what does it mean to be created in this God’s likeness? Perhaps, yes perhaps, it means we were born to create. And perhaps being creative is deeper than just being good at art. Maybe creation is about redemption, taking ashes and making something new.

There are two lies I hear often enough that I must consciously refuse them:

First, that we are not all creative. As a Christian, I cannot believe this. We are creative if we are human because we bear the image of the Creator. We are creative if we take pain and create joy, take material loss and create relational abundance. Of course, this is what art does. It takes a mess of paints, canvases, personal stories, and creates beautiful portraits. It takes strings, words, heartbreak or triumph, feelings and fingers, and creates music.

Second, being creative is a waste of time. Perhaps, yes, in a cultural narrative obsessed with efficiency, productivity, and the bottom line, being creative is a waste of time. But that is a narrative in which people are workers for profit and working for men, not co-creators. But if God is the Creator, then we are workers for redemption and working for the Creator. If we are working for money and out of fear, then yes. But if we are working for relationships and redemption, then there is nothing more fruitful to be done with our time than to be creative.

It is no accident that both the Exodus and the promise of return from exile are filled with creation language, reminiscent of Genesis’ account of chaos, power, order, and beauty. There is a deep connection between Creation & Redemption, Creator & Redeemer.

I do not want to live in a story where being creative is a waste of time and where we are not all creative. And if part of God’s task is, in every generation, to subvert dehumanizing narratives, those among us who own their creativity might have a few things to teach the rest of us who only reluctantly, and uneasily, admit the image we bear.

The Christian Workarounds

In my work as a communications adviser, one of my primary tasks is to help people let go of their workarounds. Sure, it takes 10 extra steps, 3 more documents, and 1 sacrificed squirrel to get it done – but it’s what they know, it’s comfortable, and change is scary. I totally get it. I hate change too.

What I recognized early on as a pastor is that Christians have these workarounds too. At a “book study” one night at my house going through whatever popular Christian Living book we were using at the time, a new Christian asked: “Is it really this hard to be a good Christian?” She was referring to all the “simple steps” articulated in the book. Why does being a “good Christian” take reading all these books?

I had had enough. I looked at my group and said, in my overly brash/arrogant early 20s way, “No. It’s not that difficult to understand. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor. Defend the poor. Give up all you own.” But that’s terrifying. It requires actual sacrifice. So Christians in America have spent the last 50 years developing dozens of workarounds, ways to be “good Christians” without actually having to do the hard things Jesus talks about.”

Was I arrogant? yes. Was I wrong? I don’t think so.

As Kierkegaard says, “Being alone with God’s Word is a dangerous matter. Of course, you can always find ways to defend yourself against it: Take the Bible, lock your door – but then get out ten dictionaries and twenty-five commentaries. Then you can read it just as calmly and coolly as you read newspaper advertising. Can’t we be honest for once! It is only all too easy to understand the requirements contained in God’s Word. The most ignorant, poor creature cannot honestly deny being able to understand God’s requirements. But it is tough on the flesh to will to understand it and to then act accordingly. Herein lies the problem. It is not a question of interpretation, but action.” – For Self-Examination & Judge For Yourself 26–35

Some of us evangelicals have more of an academic bent, so we tend to create workarounds that involve defending esoteric doctrines that no one has ever heard of. Others of us evangelicals have more of a contemplative or pragmatic bent, so we tend to create workarounds that involve those aspects of our lives.

Are these bad practices in themselves? Probably not. As always, it’s about the heart.

Why do we defend doctrine rather than the poor? Why do we grow in learning to be kinder and more patient but not growing into solidarity with people who make us uncomfortable? Because the former increases our comfort and control while the latter decreases our comfort and control.

But to admit that we just don’t know how to love well would be devastating, our fragile egos often cannot handle it. So, we create a workaround. We create a new system where Jesus doesn’t really mean what he says and where defending doctrine is a wonderful substitute for defending the poor. All the reward without any of the sacrifice.

It’s like the Christian version of the diet pill, putting money in the manufacturers’ pockets & helping people find a solution for their dilemma of wanting to change without the pain that change causes. Sounds like a win-win. Is that bad? I am not interested in right or wrong, good or bad. I’m just saying that if we want to be like Jesus, increasing comfort and control doesn’t seem to be a good tactic. There is no Resurrection Sunday without the Death of Good Friday.

My Father

A Short & Personal Parable*

The One

There was a boy who loved his father. He loved him so much and wanted to be just like him. Not only was the father all powerful, all wise, and all good, at least in the eyes of the boy, but the father always told the son what to do and the best decisions to make. The boy had a wonderful childhood. Anytime he came to a tough decision he simply ran to his father, who hugged him tightly, and told him exactly which road to take. The boy was so comforted knowing that it was not his decision but his father’s. He was glad to give up the responsibility for his life, placing it in the hands of someone who knew so much better. When the boy was a man, his father became ill. And fear struck. I am lost without my father. I cannot make a single decision without his clear direction. And in that moment came the most devastating revelation: he was nothing like the father. He was neither wise, nor good, nor powerful. The father recovered, but the son never did.

The Other

There was another boy who loved his father. He loved him so much and wanted to be just like him. The father was all powerful, all wise, and all good, at least in the eyes of the boy, but it was often frustrating to be the son. It was difficult to understand why his father acted in the ways that he did. When the son would ask (I admit, sometimes he demanded) for the best path to take, the father would most often shrug his shoulders and simply say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age” while pointing to a particular book on the shelf that the father had written many years before. It was an autobiography of the tallest order.

Time and time again the boy would come to him with a decision to make, a crossroads in life and the father would simply say “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” How arrogant. How frustrating. This was such a different world than the world in the book. “I don’t want to know how my father acted, so long ago. I want to know right now what I should do,” the boy would often say.

After reading the letter over and over again, searching for the answer to the question that lay before him, the son would slam it shut in disgust and say, “I guess I will just have to make my own decision.” And so he did.

When the boy was a man, his father became ill. And he asked his father, “Before you die, I need to know one thing. Why did you never tell me what to do? Why did you never give me a clear answer to my questions? Why did you give me nothing when I most needed your direction?”

His father replied, “Any father who gives his son the answers robs him of the gift of the struggle. There is no one who becomes strong physically by having someone lift weights on his behalf. To desire to be like me without desiring to suffer is a contradiction. It cannot be done. Forcing you to take responsibility for your own life is the spiritual exercise required to be like me.”

The son thought, and said, “But why risk it? I could have made all the wrong decisions!”

The father chided the son, “Did you not read the book? Do you not remember who your father is? You have a father who will always be with you, even to the end of the age. The balance between Love and Power does not stop you from making mistakes, it redeems them.”

It was then that the son understood. And resentment melted away and was replaced by inestimable gratitude. And the father remained with the son, even to the end of the age.

We Should Be Against the Freedom of Religion

I have thought about this for a while, and this seems to be the conclusion we must come to if we are a Christian who is opposed to gay marriage: “We should be against the Freedom of Religion.”

When I ask Christians why they are against gay marriage, the reason most often cited is “because I believe it’s sinful. Why would I advocate for something I find wrong?”

This logic seems to be based on this principle:

“As a Christian, it is wrong to advocate for the government to allow for something I find sinful.”

Okay, so let’s take that principle and apply it to the freedom of religion.

Isn’t that advocating for the government to allow other people to worship other gods?

And isn’t that practice also sinful, what the Bible calls idolatry?

In fact, while homosexuality is a topic that comes up in the Bible a handful of times, idolatry is mentioned thousands of times, univocally pronouncing the worship of other gods a sin, a great wrongdoing to the one true God.

So, if your reason for being against gay marriage is that you do not want to government to allow others to practice something you find sinful, then it stands to reason that you should also be against the freedom of religion in our country.

If you are unwilling to follow your own logic then we might rightly call that mental inconsistency at best, hypocrisy at worst, but in any case, do not expect me to be convinced by it.


On Brainwashing Our Kids with Religion*

How do you teach your kids about Jesus but also teach them to think for themselves?

Christians are often accused of brainwashing their kids by atheists. Yet atheists seem to think they have escaped this indictment. But that’s an illusion.

I read an article a few years ago about a summer camp for atheists, an alternative to the religious camps that Christians go to every summer. They interviewed the woman who lectures the campers daily on religious history and she said, “I feel really strongly these kids shouldn’t be indoctrinated.” Many of the campers, who range in age from 8 to 17, “don’t know what they are” yet when it comes to beliefs.”

So what exactly is she doing in her lectures every day? Isn’t teaching the doctrine of “think for yourself,” with its often anti-religious tone, indoctrinating the campers? I am not here to judge. Just say that se can’t help it. “Brainwashing” is inherent in every act of communication from every system of authority.

We will all “brainwash” our kids in some sense. As humans, we are mimetic; we imitate. There is no way around it.

And lately, I have a growing number of friends who feel tricked by Christianity, feeling they were duped into believing that things are black and white when they are often various shades of gray. They still love Jesus but they don’t want to do that to their children. They don’t want to brainwash. A very noble goal.

But in their attempt to protect their children from the deceit of the religious system, they often swing the pendulum the other way by “not indoctrinating” their children. They want their kids to “think for themselves,” and so do not teach them about their own values.

But that’s the nature of kids. They do not have their own values, so they imitate. So “not indocrinating your kids” really means either allowing someone or something else to indoctrinate them (peers, family, or culture in the form of television and advertising) or indoctrinating them with a doctrine of “no doctrine.”

Recognizing this, we have decided to indocrinate our kids with a religion that involves critical thinking and a love of diversity.

Maybe we are making a mistake, but for our family, we have decided that we are Christians and that we will raise our children as Christians. But along with our personal beliefs and the Christian tradition, we will indoctrinate them with a Christian faith that (1) respects religious diversity, (2) respects Christian diversity, and (3) humbly accepts they might be wrong.

First, we teach our children that not all people are Christians. I am not sure why Christians parents don’t often teach their children about other religions. Perhaps it’s out of fear that Christianity won’t be as attractive or perhaps it’s just out of ignorance of other religions. But we want to make it clear to our children that there are religions out there besides Christianity. And we should respect and learn from every belief system. We are Christians because we choose to be and because we believe it’s the truest story, not because everyone who is not a Christian is evil. That is, we want to teach our kids a Christianity that has respect for religious diversity built into it.

Secondly, we teach our children that not all Christians believe the same thing. We want to expose our kids to the beauty of Methodism, Presbyterianism, Evangelicalism and Catholicism. We want to them to learn to appreciate the tradition of the Eastern Orthodox and the innovation of the non-denominational. Most importantly, we want them to love all of their family members in Christ, no matter how different their practices or beliefs may look.  We all worship the same Christ.

Thirdly, we teach our children that our beliefs are always changing. We don’t have all the answers, which is why we need wise people, the Scriptures, and our own relationship with the Spirit of God in our lives to constantly be challenging us, changing us, humbling us. We want to teach them the beauty of reading the Bible carefully, not being afraid either of questions or of the “I don’t know.”

How else do you try to raise critically thinking and respectful Christians who are both firmly rooted in the Christian tradition and yet freely challenge that tradition?

5Love God, your God, with your whole heart: love him with all that’s in you, love him with all you’ve got!  6-9 Write these commandments that I’ve given you today on your hearts. Get them inside of you and then get them inside your children. Talk about them wherever you are, sitting at home or walking in the street; talk about them from the time you get up in the morning to when you fall into bed at night. Tie them on your hands and foreheads as a reminder; inscribe them on the doorposts of your homes and on your city gates.
-Deut 6:5–9, Msg

Christians & Alcohol: Why the Bible is Simple Except When It’s Not

There is no doubt that “What the Bible says about alcohol” was my first foray into Evangelical “heresy” (at least in the South). I simply could not reconcile my parents and pastors telling me that all alcohol consumption was sinful with passages that say things like Paul says to Timothy, “23 Stop drinking only water, and use a little wine because of your stomach and your frequent illnesses” (1 Tim 5:23) and passages that show Jesus turning water into wine. In fact, this was “the first of the signs through which he revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him” (John 2:11). Jesus first revealed his glory by providing more alcoholic beverages for the party? Amen and amen.

And that’s when I had my second “screaming match for Jesus” with my mom (I will regret those the rest of my life no doubt). And at 16, I left my parent’s church and began attending a Presbyterian church. By myself.*

But more than just another example of how my tradition prefers rules to wisdom and moderation, this story reveals yet another reality about Evangelicalism: the Bible is simple except when it’s not.

For instance, when I say that perhaps Jonah shouldn’t be read historically, I get hate mail saying that I am corrupting the Bible because it “plainly” reads as a historical account. It’s just so “obvious,” the only reason you would read it otherwise is because you don’t believe in the Bible.

And yet, when I say that the Bible approves of drinking wine because the Bible “plainly” says Timothy should drink some and Jesus “obviously” turned water into it to help out with the party, I am maligned again. I wish someone would just tell me the rules of the game here. What did I do wrong? Doesn’t the Bible plainly say it?

Ah, not so fast. You missed a step. Because in Evangelicalism “plainly” or “obviously” too often simply means “according to the way I was taught to read the Bible and my assumptions about what Christianity is supposed to look like.”

So, basically, the Bible is simple except when it’s not. When it condemns things I have been taught to condemn, it is simple. But when it condones things I was taught to condemn, it’s not so simple . . . even though there is a perfectly “simple” 12–step theory for how to get around the simple reading. In this instance, there is the “The Bible uses the same word ‘wine’ to talk about fermented (wine) and unfermented (grape juice) drinks” theory, which depends upon an either circular or complicated argument for when you go with wine or when you go with grape juice.** Or there is the “wine is much stronger now than in Jesus’ day” argument. Maybe these are good arguments, maybe they are bad arguments. But neither of them seem like simple arguments. Nor do they do justice to the “plain” reading of the Bible.

They seem more to be justifying theories to support our already concluded assumptions. Basically, the Bible can’t say that so let’s find a reason why not. And, of course, alcohol is not the only area we use this strategy. We use it anytime the “plain” reading goes against our “plain” social mores or “common sense” views about what the Bible is and what’s in it. And you might be shocked to find out how often we employ this double-standard.

But the reality is that the Bible is not simple. It’s not common sense. But you already knew that. As I said in my previous post, that’s why we hire pastors to teach us what the Bible “really means” and professors to teach at our Bible colleges to tell our teenage children what the Bible “really means.” If it were that simple, we would simply stop paying them for their redundancy. But because we don’t, I have a sneaking suspicion that we already know that the Bible takes more than common sense to understand.

And if so, we should recognize that anytime we want to dismiss another’s opinion about the Bible simply because it goes against what we have been taught, we should make sure we are basing such a judgment on more than just whether or not it passes the “plain” reading criteria. Because remember, when it comes to reading the Bible, words like “plain,” “simple,” and “common sense” might just be keeping you from understanding the very book you rightly love.

*That is certainly not the only, or perhaps even primary, reason I ended up worshiping with the Presbyterians. My first screaming match with mom was over predestination. But it was more dramatic and made my point better to say it the way I did. But it didn’t really stick. I ended up going to Liberty University, the Southern Baptist capital of the world (which I loved by the way). But then I went to a Presbyterian-ish seminary. I have a complicated past . . .

**Why would you have grape juice to celebrate a wedding? Lame.