Filthy Church

The American church is dying. The signs are everywhere: rampant hedonism, materialism, infidelity, superficiality, mediocrity, cowardice, compromise...the list goes on and on, but the one charge we must not level at the church is the one which seems most common.

Hypocrisy is the favorite explanation given by people who claim to follow Jesus and yet will not go to church. But it misses the whole point.

This lovely photo is what I used to think of church. A place. A thing. Now when I think "church" I think people. Not “people” in a general sense, but specific people. Names. Faces. People I belong to. I am theirs and they are mine. My place in the cosmos--my designed purpose--is to serve them, which is to say to do love to them or be love for them in a sacrificial way. My purpose and place does not change if they are prideful, hurtful, or hypocritical. As Jesus said, they are my family. Most families have their dysfunctional side. Even so, most families are deeply committed to each other. Most of us have at least one family member who drives us crazy sometimes, yet we would die for them. In exactly the same way, my role is to love the church--these particular people--just as they are, just as Jesus does.

Church is just that simple, just that wonderful, just that hard. Love in spite of everything. When it comes to ideas about organized religion, all else is a human construct and a lie.

Because “church” means people, it is possible to maintain a humble and hopeful spirit while obeying the command which is “Let us not give up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing.” And make no mistake; it is a command. Yet some who claim to follow Jesus treat it as a suggestion. Jesus said, "If you love me you will obey what I command." Could He be more clear? We follow Jesus by obeying his commands. And what is his greatest command? To love the Lord with all our hearts and souls and minds and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves. So who are the hypocrites? People at least trying to live together in relationship even with their flaws, or those who claim to follow Jesus Christ but will not even try?

I wrote my most recent novel, Lost Mission, out of a sense of revelation, an understanding I have gained. It expresses an old hope I had, a desire to find a church (a place, a thing) where I could experience God without distractions. It explores the depth of meaning in the fact that those distractions end up being the very places where the Lord awaits me. Human frailty is the stuff of God on earth. Whose image are we made in anyway, if not the image of a man upon a cross? God does His best work through the feebleness of human hands, the superficiality of our prayers, and the inadequacy of our offerings. When I am weak, then I am strong. The Lord creates His church whenever and wherever flawed believers come together intentionally to praise and worship Him. God doesn’t need perfection. He doesn’t expect it. He knows us better than that, yet He stoops down to us anyway. Should we not do the same to each other?

It is not good for man to be alone. We were created to worship God in community. It is part of why God came to earth in a manger, why He endured temptation, why Jesus partied with us and grieved with us and fought with us and chose the gruesome mess that was the cross. He showed us that the Way is pure and holy, but it is not clean and easy. We can praise the Lord in solitary moments, but anyone who prefers the false perfection of solitude to the mess (and filth, sometimes) of church deludes himself. God will not be worshipped in that way, because it is not possible to love the Lord with all my heart unless I love my hedonistic, materialistic, cheating, superficial, mediocre, cowardly and compromising neighbor, who is so often a reflection of the me myself whom I so love to love.

So yes, the signs are truly everywhere: the American church is dying, and to save it we must join it. There is no other way.

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:34 AM 9 comments  

Well Isn’t That Special?

Irony sometimes cracks me up. I belong to several email lists (loops, whatever) and on one of them recently I wrote a comment about Christians who claim to read fiction, but who actually seem to enjoy it mainly for the chance it offers to be offended. Most novelists working in the world of Christian fiction have received outraged letters from these people. In my email comment I referred to them as “dreaded blue haired church ladies.” Of the 1,000 or so other people on the list, most understood exactly what I meant (probably they were Dana Carvey fans), but a tiny and very vocal group took me to task for using that phrase. They responded to the entire loop, saying one should not reinforce negative stereotypes; one should be more sensitive to other people’s feelings. Oh, you would have thought I’d called Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton the “N” word!

One of the funny things about irony is the way it’s usually lost on those who need it most. How I laughed when I realized these people had been so easily offended by words I used to describe people who are easily offended! But then I started getting private emails. People I had never heard of wrote to say they had stopped speaking their minds on the list out of fear that they too would be slapped down. Soon I realized there was a deeper problem than simply a few folks who wear their feelings on their sleeves. The situation wasn’t funny anymore. To understand why, I think we have to start with this:

The Bible is not a rulebook for life; it’s a book of higher principles, which are illustrated by examples we too often mistake for rules.

Consider the Internet and especially email, for example. They can be wonderful things. I don’t know how I got along without them before. (Just think of how much money it would take to buy a stamp for every note you email today!) What a blessing to be able to fire off notes so quickly...and what a curse. Sometimes emails can be as difficult to control as our tongues.

Take a moment to read what the Bible has to say about this problem, and notice that it offers no rules about emails. Instead it gives a principle which applies perfectly to a technology the author never dreamed possible.

This can cut both ways. I believed my words were innocent, of course. I believed the offended people were just oversensitive. But what if they were right? Should I have been more sensitive with my words, in case they reached some actual old lady with blue hair and very strong church affiliations, who might have had her feelings hurt because she thought I was referring to her? Well, maybe. Humility is not thinking less about yourself; it’s thinking more of others. So maybe I wasn’t thinking enough about the real “blue haired church ladies” out there.

If so, it leads to another principle that applies.

"If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that 'every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.' If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17) NIV

If we are offended by someone’s words in an email, taking them to task for it and copying an entire list of others is like stepping up behind the podium in a church sanctuary and accusing someone by name of a sin before the entire congregation. How strange that people who would never dream of doing that except as an absolute last resort can be so quick to do it via email. What a shame we don’t apply Jesus’ principle instead.

Similarly, in any public exchange of ideas such as an email list (or a blog comment), we Christians ought to guard our words as closely as we ought to guard our tongues. While the Bible says a lot about controlling speech and nothing about how to write an email, the principle applies equally to both. “In your anger, do not sin” as Paul commanded the Ephesians. He might just as well have written, “In your offense, do not email.”

The tongue has the power of life and death, and those who love it will eat its fruit. (Proverbs 18:21) NIV

Posted byAthol Dickson at 10:48 AM 14 comments  

It's Torah Time!

Where do you live? If you're anywhere near Laguna Beach, CA, I'd love to meet you. I'll be teaching a 13 week series on my book, The Gospel according to Moses, every Thursday night at 7:00. We're meeting at The Little Church by the Sea. You can get directions here. Once you arrive, go around behind the sanctuary and through the gates into the courtyard. Look for us in the large meeting room (it will be the one with the lights on). Be sure to introduce yourself!

The Gospel according to Moses is a bestselling memoir about my five years studying the Torah with the rabbis at the nation's second largest Reform Jewish congregation. I was the only Christian in regular attendance among about 100 Jews. During the first six months of so, only the senior rabbi and the man who asked me to attend knew I was a Christian, so I got a brutally honest peek at what Jews really think of Christians. After I "came out," I was warmly welcomed, and the next few years revolutionized my faith.

The subtitle is What My Jewish Friends Taught Me About Jesus, and that pretty much sums up the content of the book. I learned more about Christianity from Jews during those five years than I've learned from Christians in my entire life, not because the Jews taught me intentionally, of course, but because they challenged me to dig so deeply into the doctrine that were discussed every Shabbat. Here's an excerpt from the introduction:

"Being a conservative Christian at a liberal Jewish temple has never been easy or painless, but I have accepted the cost because my religion teaches that constructive growth is worth a little pain. (James 1:2) Key positions of Christianity have been strongly disputed almost every week at Chever Torah by highly intelligent people who know the Scriptures well and find very different truths there. At first I responded to the challenges with dogmatic inflexibility, experiencing a range of unpleasant emotions from anger to anxiety. Only God’s subtle prodding can explain why I kept returning. Then somehow—again, I believe this can only be explained as an act of God—I found the ability to set aside my preconceived notions and truly hear the new ideas these Jews tossed back and forth. From that moment on, the people of Chever Torah began to coach me in that decidedly Jewish pastime: wrestling with God. Now, after years of Bible study among them, I have learned to think about important things like faith and obedience, justice and mercy, and rebellion and redemption in Jewish ways, and in so doing I have found deeper meanings within every word uttered by Jesus and his apostles."

Copies will be available for you at my cost, and of course I'd be delighted to autograph yours.

The study I experienced among the Jews was unlike anything I've ever known in a church. It was passionate, intellectually challenging, sometimes irreverent, and above all, inspiring. In the series I'll be teaching, I'll do my best to recreate that powerful experience. I hope you can come!

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:21 AM 8 comments  

God Laughs

It’s so easy to forget the way of things. Months ago I began to ask God to “enlarge my territory.” It’s the prayer of Jabez, which many will recognize as the title of a best selling book. I haven’t read the book, but of course I read the Bible quite a bit and there it says...

Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, "Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me, and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain." And God granted his request. (1 Chronicles 4:10) NIV

This, it seems to me, is an excellent prayer, and the fact that God answered with a "Yes" seems to indicate he thinks so, too. As Jesus said just before giving us his famous Golden Rule, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone?”

So “Lord, enlarge my territory” has been on my lips for months, and I have been confident that God would answer. But forgetting the way of things, I made a big mistake.

I’ve mentioned here before that there was a terrible error made in the launch of my latest novel. In the publishing business, the usual path to success lies in building anticipation for a book before it hits the stores, but in this case no advance copies were sent to critics or to bloggers, so for the first time in my career a novel received no print reviews whatsoever. Most of my fellow bloggers didn’t even have a chance to read the novel and review it until it had already been published. When added to the fact that 2009 was perhaps the worst sales year on record for the entire publishing industry, this meant the novel was pretty much dead on arrival. Not the direction you hope your career will take after seven books in print.

It seemed prayer was the only marketing plan that could possibly yield results. Remembering Jabez, I began to ask God for more territory. And here is where I made my big mistake: what I really meant was, “Let me sell more books.”

Over the months as I prayed, I began to ask myself if I was ready. A sad story hit the headlines of a man with the wonderful name of Abraham Shakespeare, whose life was ruined and then lost when he won $31 million dollars. It’s common for lottery winners say the money ruined their life. I began to wonder what would happen to me if God worked a miracle and this latest novel sold a million copies. Could I handle it? Could I withstand the temptation to take the credit? Or would my territory become too large? Would my pride get me lost in all that extra space?

In asking these questions, I remembered why I started writing in the first place. “Write what you know,” as the common wisdom goes, and when you get down to the heart of life, I know nothing that really matters except “Christ, and him crucified.” So I write about the Lord, for the Lord, in the hope that people who don’t know how beautiful he is might be moved a step closer to falling in love with him as I have, and people who do know him as I do might be moved to love him even more. And suddenly one day I realized I had been praying for the wrong “territory”.

I could have asked God to let me spread his love far and wide. I could have asked him to let me share eternal life with people who are lost and dying. I could have asked for those wonderful, amazing things and left the details up to him, but there I was, praying to sell books. Such a petty little prayer!

“Man plans; God laughs” as the old Yiddish saying goes. It’s so easy to forget the way of things, so easy to ask God to bless my plan, instead of asking him to reveal the blessings he has planned.

When I quit praying with book sales in mind and started simply asking the Lord to enlarge my territory any way he wished, some interesting “coincidences” began to happen. A pastor at my church told me the elders want me to start preaching there soon. I was asked to teach a series based on The Gospel according to Moses, thinking maybe ten or fifteen people would come, but when the series was announced, twenty percent of the entire congregation signed up. My latest novel may be D.O.A. (or maybe not...who knows?) but now that I’ve remembered the true way of things, my territory seems to grow a little every day.

How about you? Are you asking God to bless your puny plans, or are you asking for the kind of miracle only God could plan?

Posted byAthol Dickson at 7:41 AM 13 comments