Christians + Rules = WTF?

A few days ago, a reader asked, “where  [did] the church decided to adopt a code of ethics of its own, and for what?”

I was stumped a bit, because there should be a simple answer… but there’s not.

From the outside, Christianity can look like it’s dominated by rules, especially by a long list of don’ts. Shoot, from the inside, many people feel oppressed by all the restrictions. Some people rebel and do whatever they think is right without any deference to authority, while others remain tied to a long list of shoulds. How did it come to this?

Commandments have always been part of faith in the God of Abraham. In the beginning, God gave humans a very short list (one item!) of what not do to, knowing that, as long as they obeyed that one thing, they would be responsible in living in the best possible way in everything else. Well, they screwed up, so God took things up a notch.

God gave Abraham any number of commandments throughout his life, but all of them were preceded by God’s promises — and all of them were for Abraham’s ultimate good, even if they didn’t make sense at the time (sacrifice Isaac!). Those promises were in the context of a trusting relationship.  Commandments without faith are dead. Obedience to commandments is part of a healthy faith, but it is not the be all and end all.

Jesus came to set people free from themselves, from each other, and from the deceptions that can weigh each of us down. With this comes great freedom, but in this life, there are some things that God – and responsible religious leaders – will warn us against because they will harm us or others spiritually, physically, etc.

If people claim to be Christians, but demonstrate their faith through rules more than through love, other people have the right to question their faith. But, on the flip side, if people claim to be Christians but demonstrate no self-control or concern for living out their faith in purity and responsibility, ditto. If you don’t feel like you have a cross to bear…. Faith is joyful, liberating, healing, and many wonderful things, but no one ever said it was supposed to be easy.


pickle + mustard + tomato = sanity

I once ate plain sandwiches for the sake of speed and efficiency. But I can barely describe the great delight and peace I now feel because I eat my sandwiches on toasted bread, heating the chicken or other lunch meat, putting on mustard and a slice of tomato, with a pickle on the side. It might cost a few cents more, but it’s even better than I can get in a restaurant.

So often I feel we treat ourselves to second best when, with a little bit of extra effort, we could have the best. I want to eat the best sandwich I can possibly eat given my means (and need to spend/save for other things). I want my sandwich to glorify God, if only by the praises it elicits in me as I eat it.

“So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.” 1 Corinthians 10:31

Published in: on August 6, 2008 at 9:45 am  Comments (2)  
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Paradise Lost?

The Epic Shenanigans of Adulthood Part III: What We’re Missing

What is it that we have lost? Childhood is a time of emotion, imagination, fun-centered friendships, and awe.

Even though adulthood brings with it physical freedom, childhood has emotional freedom. Only those with a child’s heart have the freedom to feel without limit: laugh, giggle, cry, whine, shriek, etc. No feeling is out of bounds.

Likewise, childhood is a time of boundless intellectual freedom. My heart goes out, too, to those whose childhoods were characterized by restraint. My musings and generalizations here are a reflection of my own upbringing. “You had a magical childhood,” my fiancée concluded, after looking through the family photo album, full of picture of me with gloves on my feet, a pitch helmet on my head, and a sword in one hand. Or the video of me telling my third-grade class that I wanted to be a cryptozoologist. My mind as a child was free to go wherever it desired. How many adults can say that? And how many of our minds, given the choice to go to the heights of the ineffable, go to the gutter instead!

The nature of friendship, too, seems to change. Now I did not have any great friends as a child, other than my sister, with the exception of Nate in 5th grade (whom I still call and email from time to time, though he lives at the other end of the country) and some half-assed friendships in middle school and high school. But let’s be honest, most of us didn’t figure out how to be good friends until college (I’m especially speaking for the guys). Even with those qualifications and limitations, I would still see childhood friends as being drawn together by shared fun, while adult friends, as often as not, are drawn together by shared duty. My friends now tend to be my coworkers. But at the cookout on Friday, four-year old Halsey’s friends were determined simply by who else wanted to play in the dirt pile.

If you remember the joys of dirt, then you can agree with the importance of awe at the world around us. A cardboard box is a source of endless joy and possibility, all the more so if you can fit inside it, as it transforms into a car, submarine, and space ship. When we are born, the entire world is unknown, except for mother, and all of the unknown is a source of awe. As we increase in knowledge, the temptation is to decrease in awe. Perhaps the greatest loss in a human’s transition into adulthood is a loss of awe.

The greatest tragedies of childhood – abuse, neglect, loss of love ones, physical hardship – are those that deprive a child of emotional freedom, imagination, friends, and awe.

Do you remember the joys of simply playing in dirt? If not, the next post is especially for you. Meanwhile, I covet your comments.

King’s Pawn

Lyov Myshkin.  The Idiot.  The master.  It was a clever alias, perhaps, or a twist of fate which named my chess mentor after Dostoyevsky’s “fool.”  Homeless by choice, he rode his bike up and down the parkway, spending nights in parks and under bridges, wherever he could find freedom and his next fix.  No bills to pay, no women to interfere, he passed his days in strategy.  The game was his only source of joy, other than sauerkraut and the occasional gyro.  He passed out of sight after the last big snow.  Perhaps he is already gone.  Or maybe he’s in Vegas, reveling in his latest tournament victory.  I will keep playing, either way, compelled if not yet addicted by moments of pure mind, of my best move against yours, uninterrupted by luck or chance or fate.  Did he know what moved him?  And how will he be transformed when he reaches the other side?

Random Dude on the Street Gave Me $$$!?!

Ten minutes late, I parked my car on the edge of Forest Park and dashed across Skinker, dogding traffic as cannily as any SLU student (we all have minor’s in Jay-walking).

Before I could turn up the steps to my church, a random guy approached me on the sidewalk.  He was wearing a ‘wife-beater’ and had a bright orange Hawaiian shirt draped over one shoulder.  Good thing my wallet is empty, I thought.

“Are you going to church?” he asked.


He reached into pocket and pulled out a clear plastic bag containing a folded-up one dollar bill and about $2.78 in change (my best guess based on years in customer service and counting my piggy bank).  He pulled out the dollar bill and handed it to me.

“This is how I want to be a blessing.  My name is ____.”

“Thank you,” I said, baffled, as he turned and quickly continued on his way.

That just blew my paradigm for half-a-dozen things and it wasn’t even 11:00 yet.  What a way to start the day!

Be a Blessing!

God’s original promise to Abraham was to make him the father of all nations, “so that through you all nations might be blessed” (Genesis 12:1-3).

Orthodox Jews want to fulfill that promise, but the believe that they must bring all Jews back to God first.

Why wait?

“Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” Luke 6:27-28

I hear a lot about Christians going around and cursing people: not “cussing them out” cursing, but “calling down fire and brimstone” cursing.  I don’t think that Jesus leaves us any room for that.

Why pray for riches for yourself, which do not satisfy, when you can pray: “God, make me a blessing to others!”?  Your co-workers.  Your spouse.  Your children.  Your parents.  Random dude on the street.  Use your imagination.

The world is changed by such simple, small prayers as these.  You might not make any headlines, but you will make someone’s day, if not someone’s eternity.  What could be more satisfying than that?

The Midwest as the Promised Land

Marilynne Robinson, Garrison Keillor, and Sufjan Stevens on the Blessings of Middle America

What was monotony in my teen eyes has metamorphosized: green vistas and golden fields spread flat as far as the eye can see, undulating slowly with the passing miles.  Anyone who has traveled across the American midwest can attest: boring can be beautiful.

From the outside this might appear to be a land of flatness and cold.  But those who have rested within its embrace know the truth.  Miracles happen here.  Epic betrayals, too, but hope springs eternal and the fields are ripe with redemption.

In Gilead, Marilynne Robinson provides the text of a dying father’s letter to his 7-year-old son.  “I was thinking about the things that had happened here just in my lifetime– the droughts and the influenza and the Depression and three terrible wars.  It seems to me now we never looked up from the trouble we had just getting by to put the obvious question, that is, to ask what it was the Lord was trying to make us understand….  And what is the purpose of a prophet except to find meaning in trouble?” (233)  Every life is a miracle, every act of forgiveness is an act of God.  The more prodigal the son or prodigal the land, the more bold a “wild gesture” it is to stay on and love anyway (247).  Even a dead father can reach from the grave with the promise of unconditional love.  Such wonders can happen in the city, too, but in a simple land, stripped of all worldly sophistication, such blessings taste all the sweeter.  Only in the darkness can a light shine the brightest.

Somewhere in Minnesota, Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon eckes out its existence.  The mix of nostalgia and parody helps sweeten the sometimes bitter truth: life is difficult.  The title of last week’s headline: “In Lake Wobegon, all of the beautiful weather makes ones thoughts turn to death, of course.”  Yet this is “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.”  Even ordinary places can know greatness, however contrived, and in the dead of winter, thoughts of God and his provision are never far from the locals’ minds.

The strangest proponent of the blessings of the Midwest is Sufjan Stevens.  They say that he will write one album for each of the fifty states.  Maybe so, but he is taking his sweet time with the land he knows best.  Michigan wavers between the hopes and questions of faith.  “For The Widows In Paradise; For The Fatherless In Ypsilanti” reads like the promises of  Jesus to the widows and ophans of southeast Michigan.  Yet we hear also the longing of “Oh God, Where are You Now?”  The land is “paradise,” but it is greatly in need of God.  llinois is the haunt of aliens and of serial killers.  This is a land of repentance.  The most memorable refrain is “I’ve made a lot of mistakes,” from “Chicago.”  This is also a land of love, but of a love that loses, whether to the complications of pre-adolescent same-sex attraction, or to the complications of cancer.  Yet thoughout all this, the glory of God can be seen.

This flat land speaks of wonders, if this land can speak, any land can.  It’s enough to “make me homesick for a place I never left” (Gilead, 235).  Love where you are!

I, Eco-Hypocrite

I might look back on today as the day I became a Democrat.  Or a member of the Green Party.  It’s too close to call just yet.  It is already the Day I Became Less Stupid. 

I do not mean to imply that Republicans are stupid.  Far from it.  But they collectively have a strong track record for being stupid about the environment, just like me.

I have paid lip service to protecting Earth.  I’m the first one to stick up for the environment in conversation with my arch-conservative friends.  I love walking in the sun, under the leaves, feeling the life in trees.  I recycle.  My garden is lush.  But why do I have a garden?

Because I moved out to the country, traded my Starbucks for a Waffle House, and became co-owner of a house.  “A wise investment,” Dad said. 

But my professional life remains in the city and, now that I’m commuting 40 minutes each way three to four days a week, I wonder if it’s worth it.  Translation: I burn 60 gallons of unleaded every month.  I don’t carpool.  I don’t drive a hybrid.  I didn’t think that I could afford to.

Now I don’t know if I can afford not to.  I just finished watching An Inconvenient Truth.  Global warming is happening, and it is my fault.  What am I going to do about it?

I’m going to pray: for myself, for you reading this, especially if you’ve been like me, and for Al Gore, that people would listen.  This is bigger that politics.  This is about moral responsibility and justice for future generations.

I’m going to start car shopping, which will involve some creative financial manuoevering.  The big purchase might be years out, but I can hasten the day.

I’m going to educate myself about the candidates in the next election.  I’m going to pray for the candidates.

And I’m going to ask God for forgiveness.  This is our planet, but He gave it to us to take care of.  We can squander it, like I’ve been doing, or we can be good stewards.  What could be a better investment than that?

Mmm Mmm God!

Taste the Glory

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  He said, “Let there be food!”  And there was much food.  And he said, “Let men eat!”  And men ate.  And it was delicious.  It still is.

Few things in life are more amazing than food.  Yet some of us take it for granted, ignoring it, resenting the inconvenience, and avoiding it, even.  Others of us make it an addiction and an obsession.  Still, none of this abrogates the fact that food is good and is one of God’s chief means of expressing His love for us.

When God led His people out of Egypt, He made sure that they first ate  a symbolic but hearty meal, both so that they could prepare for their journey and so that they could repeat it every year to remember their deliverance.  When Jesus was preparing to die, He performed a new version of that same meal, that His disciples might remember their deliverance and their dependence on Him.  When He rose from the dead and the disciples were freaking out and thought He was a ghost, He ate some of their fish.  Later, He appeared to them on the lake shore and, when they were freaking out with excitement, He made them breakfast.  Then He lovingly chastised Peter: “Feed my sheep.”

In Judaism and in Christianity, food is the prime metaphor for our understaning our relationships with God and with each other.  But it is more than that.  It is worship for the senses, the smell and taste of redemption.

God didn’t have to make us to eat.  We could have photosynthesized like plants.  And food didn’t have to taste good.  But it does.  God be praised!

Let us neither forget those who are without food, nor be slow in delivering it to them, for food is our primary means of expressing love to those in need.  God, help us!

The Search for the Perfect Spy Movie

Why Do Spy Movies Matter More Now Than Ever?

As long as there have been wars, there have been spies.  And almost as long as there have been movies, there have been spy movies.  “Talkies” began just in time for the end of World War I and the lead-in to World War II.  Material abounded.  Who wouldn’t like out-sneaking the sneakiest S.O.B.s of all time?  While technically a story of resistance, Casablanca incorporates many elements of espionage and is arguably the greatest fun film of all time.  (Citizen Kane is arguably the greatest dull film of all time.)

Then the Cold War happened just in time for the sexual revolution and things couldn’t get better in the world of spy cinema.  The enemy was big, bad, and consistent.  Outright war was an impossibility, due to “mutually assured destruction,” so espionage was a necessity.  Enter Bond, James Bond.  He brought with him sex, guns, gadgets, cars, British suaveness, and a knack for getting the job done.  Plot-heavy, character-light, Bond set a new standard for the spy film.

In Hollywood, Bond spawned an endless stream of knock-offs and spoofs.  (In real life he would have fathered countless children and died of a dozen STDs.)  Spies Like Us, Top Secret, Spy Hard, Austin Powers, and their ilk are among the greatest shtick comedy films of all time.  Spy spoofs, it seems, will continue as long as serious spy films are made.

But our world has changed.  The Soviet Union ceased to exist, we fell off our moral high horse, and entered the thralls of post-modernism.  It’s not just that we wanted more action, which Mission Impossible I-III have readily supplied.  It’s that we wanted protagonists who were more human.

Casino Royale radically reinterpreted the Bond legend.  He’s an orphan, a workaholic, and can (and does) get very hurt physically and emotionally.  We come to understand the losses that have shaped him as a man.  He doesn’t always get the girl in the end.  He gets the girl in the middle and loses her in the end.  The action is still fast-paced and tense, but there is no doubt: not even Bond is Bond anymore.

The Good Shepherd promised to be “The Godfather of Spy Movies.”  It delivered, in that it is the story of a spy who loses everyone he ever loved because of the very profession he hoped would protect them.  Roth and DeNiro (writer and director, respectively) help us understand with great clarity how and why.  Edward Wilson (Damon) sought simply to serve his country, but his agency ended up becoming his Lord.  I’m not just a theologian reading that into the story, as readily apparent from the title and from his boss’s quip:  “Someone asked me why when we talk about CIA, we dont say ‘the CIA,’ and I told him, ‘You don’t say the when talking about God.'”  The pace is slow, but the characters and story are gripping, if you can follow whats happening; this might be difficult for some, since DeNiro does not go out of his way to help the uninitiate.

Breach is a rare tale of counter-intellegence.  It is even slower-paced than Shepherd, plus much of the dialog is realistically, awesomely awkward.  But the importance of its question far outweighs its lack of action: What drives a man to betray his family, his faith, and his country?  Part of the movie’s answer: he wanted “to matter.”  When his own country failed to acknowledge his worth within the agency, he turned outside.  Dateline’s answer (footage included in the special features): he didn’t do it for the money, he did it for the sake of “the game.”  Scary!

Perhaps the best integration of drama and action in spy movies has been in The Bourne Identity and The Bourne Supremacy.  Even if The Bourne Ultimatum does not deliver — which it may, but I hesitate, not because of any short-coming in Bourne, but rather because of the extreme difficulty of making three solid movies together — the franchise has already proven its merits.  What are the psychological effects of job stress on an assassin?  How does it affect his relationships?  What choices does he make when up against a wall?  Does he run?  Lash out blindly?  Seek cold revenge?  Forgive?  Seek forgiveness?  And when he finally achieves freedom, what then?

Why do these movies matter?  We are raised to want lives like movies: all action and excitement all the time.  When I don’t find that action, I seek some flaw in myself, because life is more boring than The Matrix.  That is the lie that most teenagers believe.  I know I did.  I want to be someone else.  Who can do that?  I want a life of action.  Who has that?  I want to make a difference.  Who can do that?  A spy, a spy, a spy.

Anyone who has ever kept a secret, knows of secrecy’s power.  Anyone with imagination understands the allure of the trade of secrets.  The most powerful man in the world isn’t the man with the most guns, it’s the man who knows the most secrets.  Yet power corrupts and action always comes with a price.  The latest batch of spy movies enthrall us with their action even as they warn us that our actions sow the seeds of our own undoing.  Never before has the spy business been so personal.